9 Pro Tips For Breaking Into Visual Effects From Jurassic Park's VFX Pioneers

If there's anyone who knows about breaking barriers in the visual effects industry, it's Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and John Rosengrant, whose computer-generated dinosaur effects on Jurassic Park forever changed the FX landscape, earned them Academy Awards and famously caused George Lucas to tear up with joy. But their work pioneering new technologies did not begin or end with Steven Spielberg's 1993 classic. The artists have worked on some of Hollywood's most technologically innovative titles including Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Predator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Avatar.

While together last month to promote the Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy (available today), Movieline picked the brains of the VFX legends to get nine pro tips for breaking into the visual effects biz.

1. Learn about the filmmaking process from a director's perspective. This means make your own movies!

Muren: "Study art, photography, nature because you want to have ideas for full shots in your head. Not parts of shots but the whole finished thing, even though you may not be [responsible] for all of that. You want to understand to the filmmaking process from the point of view of the director -- even if you want to do special effects."

Tippett: "I would encourage that -- an art and film history background. And there's no excuse for not making your own movie. You'll learn so much if you just come up with a little story that has a beginning, middle and an end. If you commit to doing it, you'll learn so much more by doing that than most people going to school."

2. Listen to the voices in your head.

Tippett: "If you make your own film, it really helps that you know what a cut means. A cut is very important to know because it helps structure things. The sounds, too. When we started on Jurassic Park, I spent a week or so with [sound designer] Gary Rydstrom because it was very important for Steven to have the voices for the characters. That was very helpful to inform our performances. Once you have the voices in your head, then you can work to the voices. That knowledge is essential."

3. Understand how VFX fit into the storytelling process.

Rosengrant: "Recognize that we help tell a story and that's what's most important first. Understand that our role is to maybe embellish that story and make it more interesting. But know how you fit into telling that story because it's very collaborative."

4. Don't just imitate your visual effects heroes. Dare to be original.

Rosengrant: "I see people trying to get into effects who are trying to copy something instead of understanding the real anatomy of the art. All of this comes into play. I think that's what makes Jurassic Park work."

5. Think of your best friend as your worst enemy .

Muren: "Your best friend is your enemy when it comes to breaking into the industry. I think it's a very competitive time now, with film schools churning out so many effects people, that you've got to be better than your best friend."

Tippett: "They could be thinking the same thing about you -- that 'I have to be better than you are.' Just strive for the best. Tenacity. Don't give up. Keep plugging away at it. Find out if you're good at it. You may not be good at it."

6. Rest assured that visual effects is now a viable career option.

Muren: "When we were starting out, there was no visual effects career. There were maybe 20 people in all of L.A. and maybe the world who did visual effects. They would hire people from different unions to sort of flesh out something.These guys were old-time expert guys that really didn't know anything like we do because they did it so seldom. It's amazing now that it's actually a business and you can look at it as a job."

7. Don't listen to the job entry horror stories -- there are visual effects pros out there who want to nurture (and not just torture) up-and-comers.

Tippett: "It depends on where you start out. Most of us try to be good to the people just starting out. You don't want to burn out artists. You want to encourage them."

Muren: "I hear a lot about that, too. That it's really going on and [companies] are really taking advantage of it because there are so many people that want to do it. That's unfortunate and I hope it doesn't happen often."

8. Don't be surprised when the visual effects industry is not as glamorous as you imagined.

Tippett: "I think one of the more bitter pills to swallow is the intensity [of VFX]. Because you think it's one thing and it's cool and sexy and it's fun. Then you sit down and look at the dailies and someone says, 'That's wrong, that's wrong and that's wrong. Fix that, fix that.' It's just like [mimes choking someone.] Someone tells you, 'Just fix it. I'll see you tomorrow.' It's not like what people imagine."

9. Get ready to continually adapt.

Rosengrant: "[The new visual effects guys] are jumping onboard now after so many years of things evolving. We think back 18 years ago with Jurassic Park; during that 18 year period, things have been moving like a freight train. So when you get on that freight train now, you've got to have all of this other knowledge behind you. Study what went on in the past but get ready for a train ride."

Bonus: Exercise tenacity and passion.

Tippett: "If someone tells you not to do it and you do it anyway, that's a good sign. Because it's going to take that tenacity. [...] We were all obsessed [when we started out] too. It wasn't a career 'choice.' It was like, you can shoot me or I can do special effects."

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