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Behind Avatar is an Ole Miss graduate

January 15, 2010

(Story ran in the Oxford Town earlier, just now posting on blog)

Oxford Film Freak sat down with Ole Miss graduate Greg Philyaw, the visual effects superstar with Giant Studios for “Avatar”. The Huntsville, Al. native and former Biology major at Ole Miss Philyaw and his company have been behind some of the most intense visual effects to hit the big screen over the past few years.

When did you graduate from Ole Miss?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1994

Are you from Mississippi or where are you from?

I’m from Huntsville, AL

What brought you into the film industry?

I started with Giant Studios in the fall of 2001, consulting on growing the business into television, motion graphics for commercials, sports, and things of that nature. Previously I had been a producer at CNN so that’s where my background was centered.

At the time, Giant was a finalist to provide motion capture for a movie called The Polar Express. Ultimately we were awarded the project and they moved me from Atlanta to LA to work on the film. I’ve been here with the company ever since.

What was your background before doing visual effects?

Prior to Giant I worked at CNN, starting as a production assistant in the sports department and eventually becoming an associate producer. I took a hiatus in 2006 to work on the world broadcast for the 1996 Olympics and returned to CNN to help launch the new venture between CNN and Sports Illustrated. Eventually I left to join an independent broadcast consulting firm in Atlanta and just prior to joining Giant I worked as an independent consultant with a UK based sports marketing and broadcast company.

You have worked on some of the most visually spectacular films of recent, from Polar Express to I Am Legend and now Avatar, tell me more about your company Giant Studios and their technology you all use?

Yes we’ve been fortunate to work on many fantastic projects with some of the most innovative people in filmmaking. To your question, I would attribute that to the unique capabilities of our proprietary software and the experience of our production crew. The team that developed the software is still intact which allows us to adapt to the specific needs of a production quickly and effectively. Even during shooting which has served us well. Developing our technology to meet the needs of directors like Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron has absolutely given Giant a significant competitive edge in the industry.

Explain what motion capture technology means?

Essentially, motion capture is tracking and digitizing a live performance then translating that data onto a 3D, computer-generated model. From there we can manipulate and enhance the data much in the same way as digitized music or video. That performance can then be used to animate everything from CG humans like in The Polar Express, humanoid creatures like Gollum, King Kong and the dark seekers in I Am Legend or more complex creatures like the Centaur in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And of course, the Na’vi in Avatar.

Explain to some of us who know little of the visual effects side exactly what your role is and when you come into the movie making process?

Specifically, my role at Giant Studios is Director of Business Development. As a company, we can become involved at almost any stage of a production. Our technology is being used more often now in character development and previsualization so we’re now getting more work in pre-production. The Incredible Hulk is a good example of this; we were working on character development months before the shoot and were on location during filming.

Conversely, we also capture digital characters against film plates that have already been shot so in that situation we’re coming in during post-production. It just depends on the project.

How have new technologies enhanced what you do?

Well, in this industry, technology is changing so rapidly we just move forward accepting that every new project will involve a gag that hasn’t been done before.

Giant Studios is not just doing effects but producing Avatar? What can you tell us about what to expect with Avatar?

Well, the film is out now so I’m sure everyone has his or her own opinion. For me, I liken it to the first time I saw the original Star Wars, it ended and I couldn’t wait to see it again.

What is the best part about your job?

First I would say the people, both my colleagues at Giant and our client base but I also enjoy the daily challenges of the job. With technology, production models and budgets changing so quickly, we’re constantly forced to adapt to stay ahead of the game.

Worst part?

See the last sentence of the best part of my job ;  )

Does your degree from Ole Miss come into play ever with what you do now?

You know, I’ve been asked this before and I suppose the degree itself doesn’t have a direct affect however I would say without hesitation that my time in Oxford provided me with the attitude and social adeptness that has allowed me to navigate the industry out here in Los Angeles.

Favorite special effects you have seen that you were not involved with?

I was really impressed by the subtle effects in Children of Men, just a terrific looking film and I was blown away by what they were able to accomplish on District 9 with the budget they had.  On the grand scale, the first Transformers movie was just incredible and I would include Terminator Salvation in there as well.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 8:36 pm

    I was lucky to speak to this great producer.I had no idea who the voice was on the phone a very nice guy.Ater my web search I though no wonder this guy new everything he is a monster in the movie business .I am greatful for the contact i had with him.He gave me his time
    thank you master producer
    best regards
    terry brooks

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