Lee Stranahan – In The SpotLight


Lee, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
This is pretty scary to me, but I’m in my 30th year of working in broadcast. I started when was 14 years old, as an intern on a TV show in San Francisco. That was in 1979 and I also owned a TRS-80. Those two things — video production and personal computers — have turned out to be real sustaining interests of mine, even at age 44.

Today, I write, teach and make films. I spent about five years working at NBC on the television show Access Hollywood as part of the animation and graphics team there. Prior to that I had worked in visual effects and production, where I did everything from 3-D animation, compositing, visual effects supervision to producing and directing. I was also the editor-in-chief of a couple of magazines, and worked in marketing and product evangelism for a few different companies.

I became familiar with you when you were with Newtek and doing training for Lightwave 3D. Do you still use the software? What do you think of its new incarnation, CORE?
I really haven’t done  much 3-D graphics in the past year or so, but I still have a copy of the latest version of LightWave on my computer and if the need to do 3-D comes up it is my go to program. I haven’t worked with CORE but I think that Jay Roth and his programming team are bunch of really smart dudes who’ve taken on the task of creating an entirely new framework. That’s tricky, because there are all kinds of market pressures and legacy issues that make development even harder than it normally is. So it’s a very tough road to hoe, but if anyone can do it those guys can.

Can you tell us about your new venture, VFX Boot Camps?
I have a company called Film School Boot Camp that is creating these unique, intense life training events for people interested in filmmaking and effects. I’m trying to fill in the gap between sitting at home watching a tutorial video and taking a couple of years to go to film school. It’s for people who are starting to hit a roadblock in what they can learn on their own and who want to make the big step to getting better jobs or creating their own projects.

We did a visual effects Boot Camp back in December and it was incredible. We had Emmy award-winning VFX pioneer Ron Thornton and a bunch of other really talented people, teaching, on set supervision. One of the things we did on that was that everyone was able to take home a hard drive with all the Red Camera footage that was shot, so a small group of people were able to get on set experience, and then develop a custom real resume.

We have three events coming up; a horror film boot camp, that is going to feature among other instructors one of the absolute top directors in horror today – Darren Bousman, who directed Saw II, III and IV. Horror films have traditionally been a great way for filmmakers to break into the industry and this class will cover everything from no budget productions to studio franchise films.

Film School Boot Camp

We also have a 3-D stereoscopic boot camp coming up. That’s going to be outstanding — people are going to have a chance to work with a dual Red Camera stereoscopic rig that is absolutely motion picture quality. For anyone interested in visual effects, I’ve got to say that stereo is really where the jobs are going to be in the next couple of years. And this is a chance to get in early on this. The guys we have teaching the class — Jason Goodman and Daniel Smith — are both absolutely booked solid right now in a time where many people are worried about work.

The other camps we’re going to be announcing is an action/sci-fi film boot camp in August. That’s going to be taught by (among others) a really multitalented guy named Bruce Branit. If people haven’t seen Bruce’s film World Builder, they should look for it on Vimeo and they will instantly see why Bruce is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the next few years. As far as I’m concerned, this is like getting a chance to learn with Jim Cameron before he was famous.

It seems more & more artists are getting into training videos, podcasts, writing books, etc. Do you see that as being the norm?
I’ve been teaching about 20 years now and I’ve always said that teaching is one of the absolute best ways to learn anything. The Internet is just made everything explode, and I think it’s great that so many people are sharing their knowledge. In addition to the big losses are due to make a living, I’ve also tried to put out free tutorial videos on a bunch of subjects.

You have re-enforced the importance of social networking & marketing, tell us your thoughts on where you see sites like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin & more going?
I love social media, and I think the thing that people who are skeptical need to realize is that sites like Facebook and Twitter are not just the future, they are where people are right now. Facebook has over 100 million active users. In my mind, learning to use these tools effectively is as vital for artists today as learning to use desktop publishing was 25 years ago.

You’ve worked in Hollywood at a few studios what was your main reason for leaving that environment?
I left Access Hollywood a year ago and moved my family to New Mexico, which is an incredible place for filmmakers right now.  I really loved working with the great people at Access and working on the NBC lot every day was very exciting. But I want to start doing my own projects full-time.

There’s never going to be a “right time” to quit a job like that so I talked it over with my wife. And we just kind of went for it — I only had about three weeks of savings when I left the show. And we lived in a hotel for about six months – me, my wife, our two young kids and two cats. It was cramped, but I was doing stuff that I love doing every single day, and it all worked out in the end. We ended up in a great house, that we never could have possibly afforded in Los Angeles.

What discipline do you enjoy more; writing, VFX, editing, animation, interviewing, blogging?
It’s all kind of a blur to me at this point. I like doing cool stuff and getting projects completed successfully, and usually that involves doing a bunch of those things.

You recently wrote an Open Letter to James Cameron, I found it very interesting, about a VFX artist union or guild. Have you gotten a response from him yet?
No, but I didn’t really expect to. The response I did get close from the visual effects industry as a whole and has been incredible.

What do you see as a benefit of having such a union? What has the response been from other VFX artists on the subject?
The most common response was “thank God someone is finally talking about this” and I’ve been trying to do things like the VFX Town Hall events that are keeping the conversation going.

I should point out that I’m not in favor of or opposed to a union, really. I think some sort of union or guild is inevitable, because every other craft in filmmaking has one. But to me, later, it was about saving the industry as a whole. And that’s a much wider issue than just unions.

How do you see producers and directors feeling about dealing with a VFX union?
Producers and directors are really the ones who care much about it. And I don’t think it’s even really the studios or facilities that have stopped it from happening. I think there has been a visual effects unit in because at the end of the day the artists themselves haven’t wanted one.

I agree with you that the recent movie trend is going towards VFX ladened or animated films. How do you feel about the opportunities out there for a career?
I still think they’re great opportunities for careers in visual effects but like any field, you can’t really rest on your laurels. As I mentioned before, the guys I know working in stereoscopic 3-D are booked constantly right now. But a lot of times people become comfortable and complacent, and this isn’t really a good industry for that sort of mindset. I’d argue that’s a wider issue, too – but the whole economy is changed, and nobody can be complacent.

Speaking on movies, what did you think about Avatar and the VFX? As a VFX person yourself.
I think the biggest innovation about Avatar is the way that Cameron made the visual effects process part of production. Not just previsualization not postproduction — actual on set production. As part of why say the visual effects are the future of filmmaking, quite literally.

You also have very strong political views. How do you think that helps or hinders your VFX or artistic side?
Well, it certainly doesn’t hinder it. For me, it’s a matter of being honest. I’m not really good at the “blind loyalty” thing. I was a big Obama supporter during the last election, because I thought he really represented something new that would take on the special interests and the influence of corporate money. But he’s been a tremendous disappointment to me. I’m sort of a liberal/libertarian; I believe there needs to be a social safety net and I think there is some services that are better provided by the government, but think the government has proven itself to be a very dangerous thing. And it’s especially dangerous when giant multinational corporations get involved with the government and they work in tandem to make a small elite rich and powerful.

So, I have a few ways I can express those ideas; one is through writing editorial pieces, as I do for the Huffington Post. The other is through art — I can write satire, or I could make short films or I could even write fiction. They’re all just different ways to try to express something.

What would a dream project for you consist of?
Well, I’m really happy with my life. So in that sense every day is kind of like a dream project. But if you want a specific one that would be like winning the lottery — it would probably be developing a new move version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead with Iron Man director Jon Favreau. I know that Favreau was inspired by the book and he is a very good filmmaker. For my part, I think I know exactly what to do with that novel in terms of the script and production to make it a great movie.

You recently had a new baby, congrats!, I also found your blog on your wife’s natural child birth interesting. How have you found balancing a family with your work & personal interests?
My oldest son Shane turns 18 this year and our baby, Van, just turned three months old. Plus I have a daughter Olivia who’s almost 11, my son Blackjack is almost 9 and my wife has a son, Steven, who is 24 and just had a baby himself. (Well not himself, but you get the idea). So we have this amazing spectrum of human beings at all ages of development — and we home school.

When I was touring doing seminars, my kids would often go on the road with me and help out with things like setup. Even at NBC, the kids would often come in and hang out in my office and have Jay Leno tease them.

I guess what I try to do is not so much balance work and my family, but to blend them.

Do you feel that the rise of social networking sites has leveled the playing field as far as getting artists work seen by the masses?
The Internet in general and social media sites specifically have created a real world of opportunity for any artist who wants to get their work out there. But I think you have to start really enjoying the promotional aspects as much as you enjoy the production aspects.

What is the best thing you love about your profession? What is the least?
I’ve really been able to meet and work with some amazing, interesting people. That’s the best part. I guess the worst part is probably people, too. I do not like people without curiosity or who play back room anonymous power games to hold onto their little kingdom.

If you weren’t doing this for a living what else do you see yourself doing?
Most of the “jobs” that I’ve had have been things I’ve made up, so I don’t really know how to answer that question.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in the VFX/Animation industry?
Find something you love doing and become the best in the world at it. Don’t be a generalist. Don’t wait for someone to find you — just go out and do cool stuff that you love doing, share with the world, try to keep an open heart and an open mind and watch what happens.

Lee, I’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule and chatting with us, look forward to seeing what’s coming down the pipe with you. If you would like to learn more about Lee visit his sites at leestranahan.com or Film School Boot Camp.

Thanks Lee!!

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