Spotlight – Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

by Graham Edwards

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Currently Chair of the Visual Effects Society, Jeffrey A. Okun is a visual effects supervisor with a wealth of screen credits including Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Last Starfighter, Stargate, Lolita (1997), Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island.

Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

JEFFREY A. OKUN: I wanted to be a comedian astronaut and somehow ended up as a photographer, then a musician. When I actually needed to earn a living, I went to work for graphic designer Saul Bass as a personal assistant. He was designing and producing a bunch of packages for the NBC 50th anniversary show – a five-night spectacular. I asked if someone would teach me to edit. The producer threw me a few rolls of 16mm film and said, “Knock yourself out, kid.” I spent the next six weeks teaching myself to edit after work, sleeping on the floor under the editing table.

One day, the producer ran in and asked me for those rolls of 16mm film. I told him I edited them. He ordered me to put them back in proper order because they now needed that segment. I begged him to look at it first. He did and brought in the show director, who brought in Saul, who brought in the NBC producer, who said, “That’s great. It goes on the air as is.” After that, Saul told me I was his editor. I said I didn’t know how to edit and he said, “That’s okay, I’m patient.”

The way that Saul put together his shorts, montages and title sequences was what forced me to learn visual effects, via the great artists at Pacific Studios, CRC and many other optical houses. At one point, the guys at Pacific Title asked me if I wanted to consult on a film that was having some difficulty – that led to New Line Cinema offering me a show to mess up from the beginning.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: When I show a shot and no one can tell what we’ve done. To alter reality or create it in that kind of a seamless manner is very rewarding and exciting to me. I always say, “If you see my work, then I need to go back to the drawing board!”

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Unrealized opportunities that could have been realized but for the limitations imposed by time, budget or taste.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: On the movie Stargate, we needed a huge shot with 500 extras. It was arranged that we would have 10 minutes just before the set fell into darkness – this was the last day of having the extras. The set was out in the desert of Buttercup Valley, so we needed a kind of dune buggy just to get to the set. We had to shoot VistaVision because it was a plate shot, and just getting that giant camera out to the set was crazy-difficult.

Anyway, the dune buggy got stuck in the sand and, as his wheels spun, a plume of sand kicked up and completely buried the director of photography and the camera he was holding. Then we accidentally flew off a dune that had a 30-foot drop on the blind side. By the time we reached the set and reminded the assistant director about our plate shot, the director was deep into working the crowd to get what he wanted. We watched the sun set behind the dune as we begged the AD to let us get our plate, and all the while the director was furiously trying to get the crowd to do what he needed. When he finally got a take he liked, it was almost dark and the AD called wrap immediately.

My assistant went to unwrap the extras while my producer and I ran across the dune with the giant VistaVision camera, set up and, in spite of all the extras running all over the place and shaking the structure and platform, rolled the camera. The film immediately snapped. Our DP had left for the day to catch a plane for a conference or something, so I had to learn to reload the camera under those conditions. We did get the shot but it really looked terrible – the film was scratched from sand getting into the camera. We fixed it and used it and it’s in the movie. You may notice the shot – it’s sunny and 500 extras are running and fighting and suddenly there is a shot in deep shadow. Oh well …

Jeffrey A. Okun was visual effects supervisor on “Stargate.” Shots of Ra’s spaceship landing on the pyramid were achieved using large-scale miniatures, with effects supervisor Kit West directing model work and miniature photography. Photograph copyright © 1994 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Le Studio Canal +.

Jeffrey A. Okun was visual effects supervisor on “Stargate.” Shots of Ra’s spaceship landing on the pyramid were achieved using large-scale miniatures, with effects supervisor Kit West directing model work and miniature photography. Photograph copyright © 1994 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Le Studio Canal +.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Sphere – the end sequence where everything blows up and the Sphere rises up out of the ocean. The director described it to me like: “Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” From that, we put together several sets of storyboards, which we attempted to show him many times. When we finally got the meeting with him, he told us that none of them were correct and repeated his description: “Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” We drew up several more storyboards and attempted more meetings until I cornered him on the set at video village and showed him the new boards. Nope. Still the wrong idea. “What I want is: Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.”

We did more sets of boards, including one set that I just glued greenscreen material into. We chased the director around base camp and finally trapped him in the doorway to his trailer. We showed him the boards: “Nope.” I pulled out the greenscreen boards. He looked at them carefully. Pondered. I said, “So it’s: Whoa! A beat. Holy Mother of God! And we’re outta there.” He said, “Yeah!” And that was that. We shot the sequence with the actors and moved into post where we did finally manage to give him what he wanted – plus more.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: There is literally nothing that visual effects cannot do, given enough time and/or money. So, saying ‘no’ is no longer an option. Instead, we guesstimate how much something will cost and let the powers-that-be decide. Another change that is not good is how much reliance shooting crews now have on visual effects – sometimes for the dumbest stuff, sometimes for really cool stuff. The most often-heard phrase on a set is not ‘action’ or ‘cut’ but, ‘VFX can fix that.’ It feels like visual effects have somehow de-powered crews, directors, line producers and producers to properly plan and execute that plan. There is never enough time, never enough money and never enough resources to get the job done practically so everyone just defers the work to the digital janitors – so-called because we are always cleaning up. But … it is a real honour and joy to me to do all the work – the janitorial stuff as well as the creative, never-been-seen-before stuff.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: I would love to see visual effects artists get the recognition they deserve, and the commensurate increase in salaries they deserve. After all, we are driving a multi-billion-dollar box office – not to mention what we make possible in broadcast, commercial, virtual and augmented reality, special venue and animation, as well as print and billboard.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: To work in the business of visual affects you need to learn business. It’s a different animal from the art of visual effects and basic business practices will serve one well. Now, if you want to be a visual effects artist, you need to study light, perspective, composition. You need to be one who studies life around you. Observe, reflect. And then, if you can, draw what you saw. Or take photos and then Photoshop them until they are what you want to see. Art is so much more fun than business, but without the business end of it, you can never really be well-rounded, informed and protected. Just my opinion.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – chosen for the way it fired up my imagination at a young age. I saw a dreamworld created, and then the politics that invaded it – provocative. My favourite shot is a miniature in the opening sequence where the Nautilus submarine is charging towards a frigate ship, just under the surface, and the yellow glow from the observation window lights up the water. Cool shot!

Jason and the Argonauts – a whole new world of wonder and imagination was shown to me and it charged up my imagination. The work that Ray Harryhausen did was so creative and inspiring. The shots that remain with me are Jason trying to unscrew the heel plug on the giant statue of Talos, the Harpies scene, and so much more . Tip of the hat to Ray and his lovely skeleton battle – not in this film but still …

Star Wars – I know, I know … but it was transformative. It broke the mold of that time period and opened up a whole new horizon. The opening shot of the cruiser entering frame and getting bigger, and bigger and bigger … it was amazing.

I would also love to tip my hat to Fantastic Voyage, Lawrence of Arabia and Jerry Lewis’ Visit to a Small Planet where he plays an alien!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JEFFREY A. OKUN: Definitely popcorn – no butter.

CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Jeff!