Greetings from New Hampshire, gang. Where it's snowing ... again.
Yep, Old Man Winter just refuses to give up the ghost out here in NewEngland. Which is why -- after what seems like six straight months of shoveling snow -- I finally threw in the towel today.
After digging out the driveway for the umpteen millionth time, I walked into the house, threw down the snow shovel and told Nancy "Call the airlines. I wanna go warm. Phoenix. Orlando. Las Vegas. Hell, I don't care where. Just so long as the temperature's above 30."
Nancy said "No. I've decided we're going to go someplace cool instead." And that's when she handed me the e-mail which confirmed the dates (June 27 - 29) for the VES's upcoming "Festival of Visual Effects."
And what -- pray tell -- is the VES? The Visual Effects Society. And what's the "Festival of Visual Effects?" To put it bluntly, gang, it is a film geek's nirvana. A place where representatives from every major FX house in the business gather for a three day event -- where they informally share war stories on their latest projects and/or reminisce about some of the great movies that they worked on in the past.
And I'm talking some really heavy hitters here, folks. People like Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Ken Ralston, Harrison Ellenshaw, John Dykstra et al. All the guys who played a huge part in bringing movies like the original "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Back to the Future," etc. to life. All of those motion pictures that made film geeks like you and I fall in love with this medium.
I know, I know. You're wondering how it could be that someone like yourself -- a very savvy web veteran who already knows lots of cool place to go on the Web to learn behind-the-scenes stuff about major motion pictures -- haven't yet heard about the VES or its amazing annual festival. That's because the Visual Effects Society has deliberately kept a low profile. And -- to be honest -- this 500-member-strong organization hasn't been around for all that long. Six, seven years, tops.
Besides, VES isn't really about selling itself or crowing about what an important industry event its annual "Festival of Visual Effects" is. (You want hype and promotion? Go to Siggraph. That's where you'll find the big effects houses with their professional looking booths and their slick sales pitches. All in an effort to recruit new talent and/or to get some work.) According to Visual Effects Society head honcho Tom Atkin, "VES is not about selling. It's a place where industry vets and film fans can share information about the art of storytelling as done through the rapidly changing medium of special effects."
Simply put, this is an organization for people who love special effects. Both today's state-of-the-art stuff as well as all the wonderful work that's been done in the past. That's why -- each year -- visual effects professionals gather at VES's festival. To schmooze and to celebrate. To tell war stories about the various projects that they'd worked on. But -- most importantly -- to share secrets about how they ply their most mysterious craft.
And here's the best part. This isn't some enormous fan-based convention thingy like the San Diego Comic Con. VES's annual festival is the antithesis of that. It's small. Intimate. Low-key. But -- Ye Gods! -- is this event info-intensive. Every year, I come home from VES with my head throbbing from all the great stories that I've heard ... not to mention my wrist aching from the pages and pages of notes that I've taken. The best way to describe the Visual Effects Society's annual event is that it's this three-day-long Masters Class in the current state-of-the-art for visual effects.
That said, VES does make a point of recognizing the industry's veterans. Over the past three years, I've attended lectures and/or events that honored special effects giants like stop motion artist extraordinaire Ray Harryhausen and the last master of the matte painting, L.B. Abbott.
Not to mention all the other great moments that I've gotten to witness at these shows. For example, last year, VES staged a 25th anniversary re-union for the effects artists that worked on "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" and "Close Encounters of a Third Kind." That was a wild night filled with wonderful stories about how tough it was to make these big effects pictures back then. Tales like:
How 20th Century Fox had poured millions in the production of all these cutting edge effects for Lucas's movie. But -- since the FX shots for this space going epic were taking so long to produce -- after 14 months of effort, all Richard Edlund, John Dykstra and the rest of the team had to show for all their efforts was seven seconds of finished footage. (For you trivia buffs out there: This was the shot where C3PO and R2D2's escape pod gets blasted into space.)
No wonder that Fox executives became concerned that they were pouring all of the studio's money down a rat hole and actively talking of pulling the plug on the picture. Mind you, unannounced trips to the warehouse in Van Nuys where the effects work was being done didn't help matters. The execs arrived via limo one afternoon, expecting to find Dykstra and his crew hard at work. Instead, they found John amusing the troops by using a forklift to repeatedly pick up a refrigerator and smash it into the ground.
Obviously, these were the rough-n-tumble pioneer days of modern visual effects. Back before computer animation and digital manipulation of imagery. But there this feeling of real camaraderie that came off of these guys. The sense that they knew that they'd worked on movies that had made history, changed the industry forever. Not to mention changing the lives of film geeks -- like you and I -- forever too.
You want to have some real fun? Then come with me to "VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects" where you may get to witness great moments like:
Ray Harryhausen talking with the guys from Aardman Animation who made "Chicken Run." As he stood there, holding the Mrs. Tweedy figure in his hands and admiring its craftsmanship, Ray asked: "Where did you get the eyes? I always had trouble finding the right eyes for my figures."
Or you get to hear about such wonderful, weird little moments in movie-making history like when:
George Lucas wanders into the room where Phil Tippett is painstakingly moving each of the stop motion figures that were used in that holographic chess match aboard the Millennium Falcon. As he looks over Phil's beautifully detailed little aliens, George casually remarks: "You know, these would make great toys. I bet kids would love these."
And that's how the billion dollar "Star Wars" action figure industry was born.
You see what I'm saying here? VES's annual festival is a film geek's paradise. Not to mention a wonderful resource for the serious film scholar who's looking to get some real insight into the industry's history. Or -- at the very least -- a great place to score a few stories to tell at parties. (Here's my all-time favorite line from industry vet Phil Tippett. He said that working in the visual effects industry today is a lot like working at Los Alamos during WWII. You're given a lot of money to work under extreme conditions on these super secret projects. And -- every so often -- you find out that you're working on a bomb.)
Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Well, the good news is that tickets for "VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects" have just this week gone on sale. And here's a quick run-down of some of the subjects to be covered at this year's VES event:
The Making of "Finding Nemo" (Presented by Pixar Animation Studio)
A retrospective on the making of "Tron" (Which will feature a first-time-ever on-stage reunion of many of the FX vets who worked on this landmark Disney Studios picture)
The Making of "The Hulk" (Presented by ILM)
As well as two hour long presentations explaining how the effects in "The Core" and "X-Men 2."
Still not convinced that you HAVE TO go to LA this June to attend "VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects?" Okay. Come back to JHM every Wednesday now through the end of June. That's when I'll be posting some of the truly cool stories that I've acquired from attending the last three VES events. We'll start things off next Wednesday with a behind-the-scenes story about the creation of "Monsters, Inc." (And -- no -- just because you've listened the director's commentary and/or uncovered all the Easter Eggs on the 2-disc DVD doesn't mean that you've actually know everything that there is to know about this Pixar Animation Studios release.)
Highly detailed stories about all sorts of great special effects films. Right here in the coming weeks. So be sure to come by JimHillMedia.com every Wednesday now through the end of June.
Or -- if you'd prefer to hear stories like these in person -- mark your calendar now for June 27 - 29th. And make sure that you're out in Hollywood to join Nancy and I at "VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects."
I promise. You won't be sorry.
For further information on the Visual Effects Society and their annual "Festival of Visual Effects," drop by the VES website.