Montana State University

Oscar winner says hard work and ingenuity are the magic behind special effects

December 1, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Brian Van't Hul may be a master at putting the magic in films, but the MSU grad who has won an Oscar for special effects, says the key to success in his business is simple hard work. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Brian Van't Hul is an Oscar-winning master at crafting some of the movie's most fantastical illusions, but he says the formula for success in filmmaking involves little magic.

"It's really just an ability to network, think creatively to solve problems and have an exceptional work ethic," said Van't Hul while in Bozeman to visit family and speak to students in the Montana State University School of Film and Photography. He talked about his work as the visual effects supervisor on the recent film "Coraline," which is on the long list for 2009 Academy Award nominations for animation.

"Between walking out of the door here (at MSU) and the 'glam,' there is a lot of hard work, long hours and not that much recognition," said the 1987 graduate of MSU who won an Oscar in 2005 for his work on the visual effects of Peter Jackson's "King Kong."

During his 20-year career, Van't Hul has helped put magic in some of the silver screen's most inventive films. He was the visual effects supervisor for "Coraline," the first major stop-motion animated feature to be shot in stereoscopic 3-D. In addition, Van't Hul was part of the WETA Digital team responsible for the classic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He has also worked on "Nightmare Before Christmas," "Forrest Gump," "Master and Commander," "I, Robot," among others.

Van't Hul's journey began on the streets of Bozeman. Even as a kid he had a passion for movies, which he watched in Bozeman's Ellen Theater. He was particularly fond of those with monsters and mythical creatures that were the work of the pioneering film special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.

"I loved movies and television and I think I was 8 years old when I realized that there were people behind those creatures," said Van't Hul during a recent visit to his hometown of Bozeman. "I knew then that was what I wanted to do with my life."

Van't Hul said he'd try to create the scenes in the basement of his Bozeman home with small plastic figures and a Super 8 camera. The basic stop-motion techniques he used to create those childhood films were, ironically, at the root of the dazzling "Coraline." Except, on that film Van't Hul supervised a crew of 20 that combined sophisticated stop-motion film work with computerized special effects for eye-popping effect.

Van't Hul said he considered himself lucky to grow up in a town where there was a film school, which he began tapping while he was still in junior high. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle ran a movie trivia contest and in order to win free movie tickets (Van't Hul was one of several winners), he called up the MSU film program and talked to a helpful Bill Neff, who is still an MSU film professor. Neff invited Van't Hul to see the MSU film program.

"That was before the (VCB) building so the program was scattered all over campus," Van't Hul recalled. When it was time to go to college, Van't Hul said he stayed home to go to MSU rather than go to the famed film school at the University of Southern California.

"It was a very hands-on program," Van't Hul said. "And that was important."

In five years, Van't Hul was trained and received degrees in both film and television ("You could do that then," he said.) He was working at KUSM when a friend of his from MSU phoned him and told him to get down to Los Angeles because he knew of a job that was opening. The job was driving a truck for a film equipment rental company. Despite the humble beginning, Van't Hul said it was a huge break for him. "I spent my first years learning the nuts and bolts of cameras and in the process met people who knew people who knew about visual effects."

"One thing that experience really did was to give me training how to solve problems," Van't Hul said. "You can't believe how important that is on a set that's stalled. It's important to know just how to get stuff done. That can give you an opportunity to step forward and say, 'Ok. This is how we'll do it.'" Van't Hul said he believes a film school such as MSU's fosters that sort of ingenuity. "Often, making a film is like a puzzle and you have to figure it out."

Van't Hul said networking is essential in Hollywood. "It really comes down to walking around to people on the set and asking them if they know anyone who can take that spot," Van't Hul.

Van't Hul's networking ability led to work on Peter Jackson's horror flick "The Frighteners." Van't Hul hooked up with Jackson again when work began on "The Lord of the Rings." It was considered something of a risk at that point to follow Jackson to New Zealand. It turned out well for Van't Hul. While in New Zealand with the trilogy he met his wife, who is a special effects compositor. The two were married in the Ellen Theater, still one of Van't Hul's favorite places. The two now live in Portland, Ore. where Van't Hul moved to work with LAIKA, an animation studio owned by Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike. LAIKA was the maker of "Coraline."

Van't Hul said he and his wife fell in love with the lifestyle in Portland, and he enjoys its proximity to his parents in Bozeman, but his career may require another move soon. He's weighing offers for both stop-motion and computer-generated features.

In the meantime, he's lecturing about "Coraline." His stop in Bozeman came after a talk at the Bradford Animation Festival in England's National Museum about visual effects. "We've been so happy that it's been so well received," Van't Hul said.

Van't Hul said he enjoyed the stop at MSU, where the film students "ask many of the questions that I had when I was here," he said. Bob Arnold, director of MSU's School of Film and Photography, said Van't Hul's appearance had a special effect on the students.

"For Brian, visual effects represent the integration of technology and art," Arnold said. "It is a great opportunity for our students to meet and learn from someone who has reached the level that Brian has reached and understand that the most important thing is his passion for and dedication to the craft. It isn't about fame or money; it is about doing what you love to do, and how that passion can take you far."

Bob Arnold (406) 994- 7588, rfarnold@montana.edu