Dave Fogler ’90 on ‘Visual Effects in Film – Art, Craft, and (Sometimes) Bad Movies’

Dave Fogler ’90. Photo: Mark Wethli

Dave Fogler ’90 joined Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in 1997 as a miniature model maker on Starship Troopers. During his eight years in ILM’s traditional model shop, Fogler contributed to eight movies, including Star Wars: Episodes I and IIGalaxy QuestArtificial Intelligence: AI, and Pearl Harbor. In 2005, he transitioned to digital modeling and texturing for Star Wars: Episode III and has gone on to supervise the work on all five Transformers films, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullAvatarPacific Rim, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Currently, Fogler is the Associate Visual Effects Supervisor on Transformers: The Last Knight.

A Maine native, Fogler majored in art history and visual arts, going on to gain a Master of Fine Arts at The University of California, Berkeley. He recently visited campus to talk with, and answer questions from, the Bowdoin community. (Click here to watch a video of Fogler’s talk.) On February 16, 2017, he spoke with College Writer Tom Porter on WBOR radio about his education, his career, and why it’s OK to work on bad movies.

Listen to the interview (audio may take a few seconds to load)

Edited excerpts of the interview

On education: In the traditional mould of a liberal arts education, which I am still a big fan of, Bowdoin provided me with a breadth of experience in many things. But by the end of my MFA I didn’t connect with world of galleries, studios and museums.

On getting into the film industryYou ask anyone the story about their career, and they always have ridiculous twists and turns. I fell into film-making as something I had always been interested in. I worked various jobs: grip, gaffer, camera operator. I ended up working on a stop-motion animated TV show, and fell in love with it.

On stop-motion animation: It’s a blast—a bit like making a painting, but you’re doing moving images. It’s a form of film-making you can do all by yourself and for me was an interesting bridge between the world of art and filmmaking. It gave me just enough experience to be hired for a weekend’s work helping out at ILM and I never left!

On designing something that doesn’t exist (like a spaceship): The most fun thing about what I do is that when projects are beginning, there’s a moment when there are so many questions to answer, and quite often you’re asked to do things that you don’t know how to do. We have a big company with many different kinds of very talented artists, so if you’ve been asked to design a spaceship, you go to someone who can help you model a spaceship. This involves looking at real things. We’ll go to airplane graveyards to photograph planes, rivets, paneling etc., because to make something that doesn’t exist, it needs to be fabricated from the visual language of what’s around us, so that our brains look at it and don’t question it. For example in the first Star Wars movie (episode four), the cockpit of a the Millennium Falcon is essentially that of a B-17. George Lucas is a big fan of World War Two movies.

Fogler spent 8 years in the ILM model shop building objects like these, before moving to digital modeling. Photo: Industrial Light & Magic

On moving to digital modeling in 2005: It was THE hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had never worked with the tool that is the computer, and it was a year before I felt competent. It was like learning three different languages all at once. Mercifully by the end of it, I learned that it was rewarding, that the craft felt the same. My skill set still applied, it’s just a different tool. It’s really important that people remember that a computer is a tool to an end, no different than a tablesaw, no different than a knife.

On why his talk was titled “Visual Effects in Film – Art, Craft, and (Sometimes) Bad Movies:”  What I love about what I’m doing is that I’m involved with this very complex and multi-layered system creating movies, from simple ones to the really big budget films, working with hundreds of different people with different skill sets. If done well, the right people are doing the right things at the right times over the course of three years and you end up with this thing that’s a movie. When you’re part of that machine, producing this thing, you’re actually pretty blind to how it’s going to look as a piece of cinema. When we took on the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, those of us who were working on it made fun of that movie the whole time. We thought “what a ridiculous idea that they’re going to make a movie out of an amusement park ride” and “this is the silliest thing we’ve ever done.” And then it became this incredibly fun, wonderful, movie. So personally it’s actually necessary to divorce myself from any sort of concern over what piece of cinema is being produced because my gig is to put the pieces together and I love it. Then I go and see the movie and I cross my fingers.

Career advice: The stories I bring I don’t think are much different than any other professional. When you look back and think about how you ended up where you are, more often than not you realize you ended up doing things you didn’t expect to do, and taking twists and turns in the road. At the beginning of that road it’s important to keep that in mind and be open to things that you may have never considered, and dive into them. Take those opportunities, work hard, be a nice person, contribute any way you can, and I swear to you it tends to work out.

Image from ‘Stars Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens’ (2015). Courtesy: Industrial Light & Magic

 

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