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2017-11-29 / Featured / Front Page

From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Jurassic Park,’ meet visual effects wizard TyRuben Ellingson

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


As a film art director, TyRuben Ellingson, pictured at Virginia Commonwealth University's campus, has collaborated with some of Hollywood's top directors. He now lives in Woodlake and chairs the communication arts department at VCU. ASH DANIEL As a film art director, TyRuben Ellingson, pictured at Virginia Commonwealth University's campus, has collaborated with some of Hollywood's top directors. He now lives in Woodlake and chairs the communication arts department at VCU. ASH DANIEL Sitting up in bed, explaining a series of storyboards, TyRuben Ellingson found himself in an odd situation: lying next to him was Michael Jackson.

In 2001, Ellingson was consulting for the famous movie special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, and his current project had him collaborating with the late pop music icon. Jackson had contacted ILM in the interest of creating a half-hour musical film similar to the “Thriller” music video. For Ellingson, that meant giving a presentation for Jackson in his Los Angeles hotel room.

Long known for his eccentricities, Jackson didn’t disappoint.

“He literally came into the meeting with black sunglasses and red flannel pajamas,” recalls Ellingson, 58, sitting in his office on Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus.

A still from the 1997 reissue of “Star Wars: A New Hope” showing the spaceport town of Mos Eisley. Ellingson did the preliminary redesign work of the town.  IMAGE COURTESY OF LUCASFILM LTD.A still from the 1997 reissue of “Star Wars: A New Hope” showing the spaceport town of Mos Eisley. Ellingson did the preliminary redesign work of the town. IMAGE COURTESY OF LUCASFILM LTD.Mid-presentation, Jackson left the table they were sitting at and climbed into bed. As Ellingson – whom Jackson nicknamed “Tall Ty” due to his tall, lanky frame – and his colleague needed the singer’s approval of their work, they got into bed too, continuing the presentation on either side of him. Though the project never came to fruition, Jackson approved of their presentation.

Ellingson’s brush with the King of Pop is one of many anecdotes gleaned from a Hollywood career spent envisioning and giving form to intergalactic monsters and alien spacecraft. For Ellingson, blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Avatar” and “Star Wars: A New Hope” have personal stories behind them. Directors like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are referred to with familiarity as Jim and Steven.


A storyboard Ellingson created for “Jurassic Park” very early in the production. 
IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON A storyboard Ellingson created for “Jurassic Park” very early in the production. IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON For now, the Woodlake resident’s focus is on the real-world considerations of Virginia Commonwealth University’s communication arts department, where he serves as chair.

How Ellingson, a Hollywood art director and designer with dozens of blockbusters to his name, landed in Chesterfield is just another twist in a life full of them.


Born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Ellingson was introduced to the arts early; his father was an artist and a fine art printmaking teacher at St. Cloud State University. When he wasn’t making art in his father’s large basement studio, Ellingson could often be found at the movie theater, consuming cinema at a rapid pace. Particularly influential was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which Ellingson saw in elementary school and which inspired him to pursue a career in film.

An image from a Lucasfilm Christmas party in the 1990s. From left: Mark A.Z. Dippé, who would go on to direct “Spawn,” Wes Takahashi, who ran the ILM visual effects animation department, George Lucas and Ellingson. PHOTO COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON An image from a Lucasfilm Christmas party in the 1990s. From left: Mark A.Z. Dippé, who would go on to direct “Spawn,” Wes Takahashi, who ran the ILM visual effects animation department, George Lucas and Ellingson. PHOTO COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON Ellingson obtained his undergrad and graduate degrees from St. Cloud, taking every film class he could and making his own experimental films. Even when Ellingson jokes about the similarities between his upbringing and the Midwest based dark comedy “Fargo,” there’s a personal connection; his art history instructor at St. Cloud State was Rena Coen, mother of the movie’s directors, the Coen brothers.

A close-up of Abe Sapien’s breathing apparatus from “Hellboy.” IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON A close-up of Abe Sapien’s breathing apparatus from “Hellboy.” IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON Upon obtaining his master’s, Ellingson moved to Dallas with his first wife, taking every opportunity he could to break into the entertainment industry. Ellingson’s early projects had a bend toward the absurd, including a public service announcement that had him rig a stuffed fish to appear like it was smoking a cigarette.

He eventually landed a gig working with Lucasfilm, a film and TV production company known for producing both the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises. Within a year, Ellingson transferred to Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects company also founded by George Lucas.

At the time he arrived at ILM, many of the special effects artists had been there since the “Star Wars” days, and were still using many of the same techniques, such as using models and motion control cameras. For someone who read books about special effects for fun, landing at ILM was an incredible turn of luck.

An early design image from “Mimic” showing scientists in a tunnel. The scene did not make it into the film. IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON An early design image from “Mimic” showing scientists in a tunnel. The scene did not make it into the film. IMAGE COURTESY OF TYRUBEN ELLINGSON As an art director at ILM, Ellingson befriended members of the computer graphics department, and when ninetime Oscar-winner Dennis Muren put together a small team to work on “Jurassic Park,” Ellingson was invited. Working on the film was a game changer for Ellingson, who helped digitally create the dinosaurs’ skin, among other tasks. Using technology that would seem primitive by today’s standards, the work was time-consuming.

“You wouldn’t want to work too long without saving because [the computer] would crash and you’d lose everything,” Ellingson recalls. “It wasn’t like today, where you can just dial it in. It was heartbreaking, the bleeding edge [of technology].”

His next big project was the 1995 family comedy “Casper,” based on the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost. Starring Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman, the film was co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment. The project was difficult for Ellingson, both personally and professionally.

“Casper is weird, because Casper’s luminous, but he casts a shadow, and he’s transparent, so he warps and distorts things that are behind him,” says Ellingson of designing the ghost using digital tools.

While working on the film, Ellingson’s father died unexpectedly. As the film’s plot entails the loss of a parent, Ellingson suddenly found it upsetting to work on.

“I had to go to the dailies and watch the lamenting of the kid over and over,” he says, referencing the daily filmmaking practice of reviewing footage to make sure it’s acceptable. “Not one single person ever said, ‘Maybe Ty should be replaced.’”

Ellingson would soon commemorate his father’s passing in the 1994 erotic thriller “Disclosure.” In a scene where Michael Douglas’ character enters a virtual world, Ellingson’s father’s artwork lines the walls.

“More people saw my dad’s artwork in [the first week the film was out] than his whole life,” Ellingson says.


For Hollywood’s special effects magicians, its probable that more careers were started because of the original “Star Wars” trilogy than any other films.

When Lucas re-released the original trilogy in 1997, it was Ellingson who received the coveted job of art director for the first film, “Star Wars: A New Hope.” In the reissue, the foundational tale of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was updated to include new scenes and additional characters. Ellingson’s role included overseeing the design of new droids, characters, vehicles and scenes. It was a dream come true.

“I kind of did the ultimate thing,” he says. “It’s like I went back in time and did the thing I wanted to do.”

Around this time Ellingson began his most enduring collaborative relationship, working with Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Introduced by director and screenwriter Matthew Robbins, Ellingson and del Toro would work together on four feature films, including “Hellboy,” “Blade II” and “Pacific Rim.”

Their first collaboration would be 1997’s “Mimic,” a science fiction horror film based on a short story by Donald A. Wollheim. Ellingson designed the film’s monster.

“What was great about those early days, was it was just he and I,” says Ellingson of del Toro. “We just hung out in his room. We’d watch movies all the time. At one point, he said we should get an apartment with a swimming pool.” For his part, del Toro is a big fan of Ellingson.

“Ty and I met decades ago at ILM and, from the very start, I had a sense of his [artistic] reach – his ambition, if you will – and had a kinship for his demanding standards and the breadth of his knowledge and fine art roots,” says del Toro via email. “He was raised on a steady diet of fine art and pop culture – and industrial design – so the tools, the visual ‘adjectives’ in his vocabulary of images, were fascinating and reassuring. A collaboration made in heaven.”

Another notable collaboration saw Ellingson work with James Cameron on “Avatar,” the worldwide highest-grossing film of all time.

“The entire Avatar team in the beginning was six people, and we worked for a year with six people,” Ellingson recalls.

Throughout the process, Ellingson was impressed by Cameron.

“He is a super bright guy. He’s a super-genius,” Ellingson says, adding that Cameron likes to build a team of people, give them orders and have them run with his vision. “It makes him more powerful. It’s like he’s a big octopus.” All but two of the vehicles in Avatar were designed by Ellingson; he had to leave the project early when his (then) wife blew a disk in her back.

While he’s taken on other projects since, Ellingson says nothing will match working with Cameron.

“He’s just such a powerful force of nature,” Ellingson says. “After that, nothing’s the same.”


In a career full of surprises, perhaps the most unexpected is Ellingson’s current position as chair of VCU’s communication arts department.

His road to academia started when an old friend sent him a job description for a position at VCU. Matt Wallin, a communication arts instructor with his own Hollywood background, asked Ellingson if he knew anyone who would be a good fit. Ellingson did: himself. He later found out that had been Wallin’s plan all along.

Shawn Brixey, dean of VCU’s School of the Arts, lauds Ellingson for his vision and drive.

“He’s incredibly well-liked, affable, but always has the nuts and bolts, as well as the 50,000- foot view,” Brixey says. “He brings the same enthusiasm to the [university’s] team of leaders as he would to the classroom.”

Chesterfield may seem like a far cry from Hollywood, but for Ellingson and his wife, Karen, it’s a return to home of sorts. The couple married in 2009 but have known each other since childhood, and say Woodlake reminds them of Minnesota, minus the heavy snows.

Asked why he thinks big name directors have sought him out, Ellingson says it’s a combination of hard work and the strength of his designs.

“The audience believes that these things exist and the way that they work on screen,” he says. “There’s a believability to my designs.”

Though Ellingson received a call to work on the new Avatar movies, now that he’s involved in the leadership at VCU, he says he’ll probably pass. Instead, he seems happy to help the next generation of students begin their careers.

“I would like everyone to have the kind of successes that I’ve had,” he says. “I’m really here to assist in preparing students to arrive at their dreams.” ¦


In this clip, TyRuben Ellingson explains the AMP suit from "Avatar."

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