Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Michael Owens…
“I grew up in the Bay Area,” states Michael Owens. “There was no moviemaking there. I fell into filmmaking when I was in high school.” Not wanting to move to Los Angeles, the teenager floundered. “When ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] came to Marine County, it was like, ‘There’s an opportunity for fun.’ I never thought I was making myself a career out of visual effects.” He thrived. “At that time, they were the forefront and you learned a lot visually. We’re working on multiple projects. It was quite a talent pool.” One of the movies Owens helped out with was the third installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. “Jedi  was really fun to work on. I did a lot of spaceships. I also did the speeder bikes chase.” The latter sequence required some ingenuity. “Dennis Muren let me figure out how to do it and I invented this moving camera. It was good camaraderie. I wish the movie had done a little bit better.” The American was recruited for another space franchise sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). “I would probably say that there was less artistic freedom in the Star Wars because George [Lucas] had it storyboarded out. We even did animatics at the time; they were very crude. Once it got figured out it was do this because it’s what we want. Star Trek was like, ‘That looks cool. Why don’t we show this to the guys?’ You were still working towards a concept.” While at ILM the native of California was part of the production crew for the infamous comic book adaptation Howard the Duck (1986). “I was just a bit player on that one for a short period of time. They needed some help as a cameraman. That was a screwy movie.”
With his creative interests diverging from those of ILM, Michael Owens decided to become a freelance visual effects supervisor. “There was a point where I was looking for more pure drama. I was the only guy who liked doing that stuff and so I got to work with Oliver Stone [The Doors] and Scorsese.” The time spent with Martin Scorsese on Bringing Out the Dead (1999) was memorable. “He had done like zero visual effects and was very uncomfortable with them. We ordered ourselves a blue screen tube. He knew it had to happen but he wasn’t very comfortable so I said, ‘Why don’t you come out to ILM and we’ll do it there. George can come out and sit with you.’ They’re buddies. Marty said, ‘Okay.’ He brought everybody out and wanted me to run it. I never had a director go, ‘No. You go tell the actor what to do.’ I don’t have a problem doing that. I’ve directed commercials and second unit. With Nic Cage [Leaving Las Vegas], it was like, ‘Okay, Nic this is what we’re doing. Imagine this.’ I did that and Marty would be watching me over my shoulder. We’d do takes and move onto the next setup. It was a week of shooting as I recall and by the end of the week, Marty had completely taken over; he was doing all of that because now he was comfortable and knew what it was. Today, he’s all over it. It was an interesting and nice experience to be able to see somebody go through that, and come out and go, ‘Wow.’”
“All the movies I ever worked on you always come down to the wire,” remarks Michael Owens who frequently collaborates with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood (Hereafter). “The DI [Digital Intermediate] is the deadline. They’re going to film recorders tomorrow. That’s it. You’re done.” He adds, “Everybody is trying to get it done quicker, faster, and cheaper.” Owens admits, “Every once and awhile something sneaks by and you go, ‘Oh, man, I wish could have spent a little longer on that one.’ It usually comes down to time and resources.” Dealing with directors can be tricky as some “feel destined to repeat the style and method because that was their success” while others are “not sure what is needed or are so insecure that if it isn’t exactly what they want it won’t be right.” It is important to remain focused on the main goal. “For visual effects, I look at what needs to happen to help out the story. Even today, I’m one of the guys who do not like to do flamboyant visual effects. I grew up with guys who loved Ray Harryhausen [Jason and the Argonauts] whereas my favourite movie is Casablanca .”
“In fantasy or stylization you can do what you want,” observes Michael Owens who enjoyed 300 (2006). “I used to shoot music videos a long time ago. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s cool.” The Oscar-nominee says, “Often time, visual and physical effects were always competing with one another.” Owens was impressed by Christopher Nolan and Inception (2010). “He did a brilliant job of capitalizing of what works best physically and what works best visual effects wise.” Peter Jackson and his adaptation of a literary classic by J.R.R. Tolkien are also noteworthy. “Lord of the Rings did a lot of miniatures and physical effects; they also did a ton of visual effects. When you have the right blend it is great to do.” Forrest Gump (1994) is a personal favourite. “It served the movie perfectly from the creator, writer, the director, and the visual effects supervisor. It felt like the perfect blend. If you’re going to do all in your face visual effects then Empire Strikes Back  and 2001  are brilliant.”
“Today you can almost do anything and the quality is way better,” reflects Michael Owens. “I remember early on in my career we were like a red headed stepson. Nobody wanted us on the set. They thought we were doing voodoo. They were like, ‘I don’t get this.’ Now, today you’re partnering with all of these people whether you needing a tear to fall or 10,000 spaceships to fly through.” The movie industry acceptance has come with a price. “Quite frankly, the tentpole films coming out are never considered to be good movies which is unfortunate; they’re big visual effects movies that make billions of dollars and are in 3D.” The latest trend in Hollywood has not completely convinced Owens. “The project I’m currently helping out with right now at Method is a post-conversion 3D. I’m not a big fan of 3D myself or stereo. It is a massive headache and complication to what you’re already trying to do. What we do naturally is put square pegs in round holes. This is 10 times worse now. I don’t know anybody you enjoys the process of it.” The technological transition resembles a previous one. “It’s like when you went from the silent era to the sound era. The camera just got nailed to the ground. It’s that same thing. It’s so cumbersome to deal with.”
“At the moment I’m helping out on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter . Method needed some help and I said ‘Okay,’” states Michael Owens. “One of the ones I really wanted to work on and was late getting to was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close . The script is brilliant and has all this cool kid imagination stuff in it. I look forward to seeing that movie.” When asked what is required to be a successful visual effects supervisor, Owen advises. “You need to understand your technique and your tools. Preferably, you need to understand them on the set as well. The other half of it is cinematic artistry.” He adds, “You develop an eye and it doesn’t happen over night. I’ve always loved cinema and I hope I do it well.”
To read about Michael Owens’ collaborations with Clint Eastwood, check out the second part of this interview – Working with Clint: Michael Owens talks about Clint Eastwood.
Many thanks to Michael Owens for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.