Sanford native is part of "An Unexpected Journey"

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 05:01 AM

The Herald chatted with Sanford native Jason Campbell who served as the creature assistant technical director for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Campbell now lives in New Zealand with his wife, Robyn, and three children Linnea, Xander and Ian. The Hobbit is scheduled to open nationwide this week.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, including growing up in Sanford and why you're in New Zealand now?

I was born in the old Sanford hospital what shouldn't seem so very long ago but is, and though I have lived elsewhere longer, I suppose Sanford will always be home as Mom, Dad, Sis, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephew all still call it home. I came up through school there, both Greenwood and Deep River for elementary to West Lee and then Lee Senior where I had some great teachers who actually believed me when I said I'd be working in movies one day like Mrs. Berliner, Mrs. Babb, Mrs. Brown and Mr. Creighton, the list goes on. My life is, funny enough, a bit of a cliche in the visual effects industry these days, a 30-something guy who grew up much too fascinated with a galaxy far far away and wanting to be a part of that magic, so to speak, and luckily my parents were always supportive of me and my interest in art. I still remember quite vividly my dad taking me to see "The Empire Strikes Back" at The Wilrik. I wouldn't be where I am today, living in this amazing place working on these films in New Zealand if it weren't for their continued support.

You were the creature assistant technical director for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," tell us a little bit about your work?

I was a Creature ATD on the Hobbit and to a lesser degree on the new Superman film that is currently in production, for a company called WETA Digital based in Wellington. WETA was responsible for the all of the effects on the Hobbit both practical and digital and it is on the digital side where I was working. The digital creatures department is responsible for creating those characters that a production would be very unlikely to find with a typical Hollywood casting call. Think, in the case of The Hobbit, goblins, orcs, giant eagles, a pitiful creature called Gollum and a dragon perhaps, but we also created some amazing stand-ins for our real life cast so that Sir Peter Jackson could put them into situations most dangerous and quite impossible to film on set.

These creatures are sculpted digitally by some extraordinary artists and then equipped with digital skeletons so that WETA's talented animators can bring them to life and to those the Technical Directors add cloth and hair to go on top of skin and muscle simulations solved on the dizzying number of computers they have at the facility. My job, on the hundred or so shots that I was responsible for, was to manage these simulations on these characters, the shots would come to us from animation and we would run the sims, check that the geometry that makes them up in the computer was interacting properly so that things like Gandalf's robe flowed the same as the material its real life counterpart was made of and that a dwarf's beard didn't disappear into his armour or that the reigns on Radagast's rabbits pulling his sled weren't tripping them up.

What was the most interesting aspect of working on the Hobbit?

There is so much to be amazed by within the whole process but a highlight for me was once again working with my wife Robyn. She and I met on the film "Dinosaur" at Disney Feature Animation back in 1997 and we had not had the chance since then to be a part of the same project. She is a compositor and her job is to take all of the pieces that we make and integrate it with any live action footage to create the final image you see on screen, from replacing green screens (a process of filmmaking where an actor or actors are filmed in front of a large green background) with sweeping vistas to lighting and color correcting and integrating effects like smoke and fire and so much more. She is incredibly talented and it was a treat to see shots track through from me to her giving us a real sense of collaboration on the film.

What drew you to the film industry?

When I was a kid back in Sanford there was nothing I wanted more than to be an animator at Disney. It seemed like an impossible thing as though I might as well be on the moon being in this small town on the other side of the States. But I remember it was sometime around 1983 or so I was in a book store at Riverbirch with my mom, there actually was a book store there once. I saw a book by a couple of Disney Animators called "The Illusion of Life" it was a huge book, weighed a ton to me at the time being only 9 or 10, but I was just lost in it. I had to have it but the thing was 85 bucks and that was outrageous, I begged my mom for it knowing there was no way I was going to get it, but she bought it for me and I studied that thing like the Bible. I still have it with the little inscription she wrote to me in it hoping my dreams would come true.

Having that book helped me understand that as magical as it is, filmmaking, is the result of a team of real people just like me and you and if they could do it why couldn't I. I suppose it is different now with the Internet, the world is a much smaller place, but my mom who works from time to time as a substitute teacher, now having retired from teaching for many years, told me how she mentioned to her students there that I was out here working on the Hobbit and how they were surprised that I was doing that having grown up in Sanford and I can't help but hope that hearing that helps them believe that if you want something and are willing to go get it anything is possible no matter where it is Sanford, Hollywood or New Zealand.

What has been your favorite project, film related or not?

This is where I get to be cheeky and say how my favorite project has been my three kids, Linnea, Xander and Ian, but they are the best thing I'll ever make and the best collaboration with my wife regardless of how well The Hobbit does at the box office. If I were to speak more to my work though I would have to say I look back on that first job at Disney with the most fondness having grown up on that dream and to finally be walking those halls and to be helping bring that film to the screen, that will always be special to me.

Anything else?

I'll harp on it a bit here just because I think it would have been nice for me back then. I grew up playing little league in Northview, getting burgers and ice cream at Yarborough's, riding my bike with my pack of friends in Owl's Nest. I saw the movies that inspired me at The Wilrik and in Kendale, I had my first crush on a red head girl with freckles at Deep River who reciprocated with a kick in the pants. I got picked on in the halls of Greenwood and West and Lee Senior. I laughed, cried, loved, dreamed and lived in a great small town. The world may seem like it is a million miles away but you can do amazing things regardless of where you come from if you believe enough in yourself to reach the places you want to go.