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CGI Fridays

CGI Wizard Ed Kramer: Why I'm Joining The Companion

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In May of 1977, I was graduating with a degree in Psychology from Duke University, wondering what to do with my life, when I happened to see a movie with my roommate. 

You need to understand, I had grown up a fanatic about classic Universal monster movies. Even now, in the basement, those old boxes of Monster World and Famous Monsters magazines from my youth are stacked next to boxes of Marvel and DC superhero comics from the 1960s and 70s. My parents had been livid earlier that year when they found out I spent their tuition money on a useless literature class on, of all things, science fiction! Why would a future Clinical Psychologist waste his time reading books like Childhood’s End, I, Robot, or Stranger in a Strange Land?  Anyway, when we heard there was some kind of futuristic space adventure film coming to the local movie theater, we hurried to the theater opening week.

After the credits rolled on the original Star Wars – when my roommate and I finally lifted our jaws off the floor – I turned to him and distinctly remember saying “THAT’s what I want to do!”

Exactly 25 years later, in May of 2002, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones opened in theaters across the galaxy. Incredibly, my name rolled across the screen as Sequence Supervisor and Development Lead at Industrial Light and Magic!  My parents had long since apologized about the science fiction class comments, and my Dad, who lived to be 95, never grew tired of telling anybody who would listen that his son worked with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg!

What an honor it was to have spent twelve years as a Technical Director at ILM, and to have been responsible for my own small bits forever enshrined in 24 feature films – most of them science fiction, and many of them classics.  Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mummy, Jumanji, Twister, Galaxy Quest, Van Helsing, The Perfect Storm, these were some of the pioneering films that really defined what was possible to simulate realistically using computer graphics, and it was amazing to be a part of those early groundbreaking teams!

Part of it was the thrill of watching – up there huge on the screen – the shots you devoted so many hours of your life to perfecting. (Often with other theatergoers who have no idea that someone who worked on the film is sitting amongst them!)  But the part that I treasure most, in retrospect, was working with truly extraordinary teams of other artists – every one of them pretty much the most accomplished in their specific craft on planet Earth! And believe me, doing CGI at this level requires a LOT of different crafts!

That brings me to the present, to my personal mission, and to The Companion

The author’s Jumanji Crew Gift Photo, ILM, 1996.

You always hear that to start a business, you have to identify a problem, and show how your product fixes that problem. So here’s my beef: Nobody knows us. Nobody knows what CGI artists actually do. Everyone knows the actors by name, we know the big directors by name, and every once in a while, maybe we hear the name of a Visual Effects Supervisor, if they rise to the lofty level of a Muren or a Trumbull. (I am humbled to have worked with both of them!) But everybody else is just “the CGI artists at ILM” or, of course, the CGI artists at Weta Digital, or Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Sony Imageworks, Framestore, MPC, Double Negative, Animal Logic, Pixomondo, or any of the other vast number of CGI production companies across the world.

Nobody knows the names of the Animators. Or the Modelers. Or the rigging artists, texture painters, shader writers, software developers, compositors, integration artists, cloth simulators, matte painters, rotoscope artists, lighting artists, hair and fur groomers, producers, art directors, storyboard artists, and supervisors that it takes to make a Star Wars or a Toy Story movie. (I probably left out a bunch of other crafts too, but you get the idea…)

These days I’m a teacher of CGI at the university level. My students assume that CGI has always been done the way it is today in 2021, and I spend a lot of time explaining that CGI has been constantly evolving, that in 1995 we had to actually figure out how to put fur on animated monkeys for Jumanji, or in 1999 how to do 200-foot ocean waves for The Perfect Storm. It hasn’t always been as easy as modeling with ZBrush or creating surfaces with Substance Painter (two of the many pieces of current software that are a quantum leap above the CGI tools of the early 2000s.)

Now triumphantly enter The Companion and my chance to right some of these CGI wrongs!

Ed Kramer at his desk at ILM, working on the Rock Monster sequence for Galaxy Quest, 1999

Subscribers of this amazing platform are hard-core sci-fi fanatics, with a real appreciation for the history of the genre. We’re not afraid to love science fiction from the early years, unabashedly reveling in shows with early, and even lovably cheesy, visual effects. Yes, of course, we are all huge fans of the present too, craving the behind-the-scenes geeked-out info about current movies and shows only found on this platform. It’s like attending a con with all of your closest costumed friends, but it’s open 24/7/365!

Here’s the plan. I’m going to blog with The Companion for the CGI Fridays segment each week. Some blogs may be written, and some may be interviews with fascinating people in the world of Computer Graphics offered as vlog segments. Nick, James, Lawrence, and Tommy have some incredible ideas about films, shows, artists, and effects we can feature as subjects for the blog/vlog segments. (I can’t tell you our top-ten blog idea list, but I guarantee you’re going to love these topics as much as I do!) Can’t wait to hook up with some of the amazing folks I’ll be able to talk with about their careers and CGI techniques and get their behind-the-scenes stories about the visual effects work. I also have access to many of the top CGI artists in the universe, since so many of them are old friends, and would be ecstatic to share their stories with people who are actually fans of the CGI craft.

I’m incredibly excited to start sharing my insights as an old CGI guy and introducing you to many of the unsung artists behind your favorite shows – past, present, and future – on The Companion!

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As a Senior Technical Director and Sequence Supervisor for George Lucas’ company, Industrial Light + Magic, Ed’s CGI effects appeared in Star Wars Episodes I, II and III, (1999, 2002, 2005) and Oscar-winner Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), as well as many others. He’s currently working on a documentary, Wizards of Hollywood: Movie Magic Secrets from the Artists who Invented CGI.

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