Baker graduate, Oscar nominee on how visual effects become special

For Patrick Tubach, who graduated from Baker University in 1996, this Sunday won’t be his first trip down the red carpet for the Academy Awards ceremony, but it will be his first time as a nominee.

“I think everyone gets excited about seeing the celebrities, and that’s absolutely a fun part of it, but having been before, I can tell you that one of the best things about it is just that it’s an amazing show,” he says. “It’s like you’re seeing a fantastic Broadway show right before your eyes with all the biggest and best stars in the world sitting out in the audience right in front of you. It’s just a thrilling experience.”

Tubach is nominated as co-visual effects supervisor for his work on “Star Trek Into Darkness.” As part of a team of around 150 artists who work at Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco, he helped to create all the visual effects in director J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi adventure blockbuster, and also helped identify and design shots that would make exciting 3-D moments.

The Oscars may seem like a long way from Baldwin City, where Tubach lived during his four years at Baker — earning a bachelor’s degree in mass communications — but he’s been steadily advancing in the digital VFX industry since it was in its infancy.

“I studied television and film along with radio and journalism as well, and I actually thought I was going to end up in journalism at the end of the day,” he says. “I mean, film is such a foreign industry to someone who isn’t from L.A. and hasn’t really participated in that — and visual effects even more foreign, because you didn’t even know those jobs existed at the time when I was going to school.”

But Tubach’s brother already worked at visual effects company Cinesite in Los Angeles, and he told him about a summer job opportunity working on “Space Jam,” the live-action/hand-drawn animation hybrid movie where Michael Jordan is abducted by Looney Tunes cartoon characters and forced to play interstellar basketball against a bunch of aliens. Tubach was one of many interns who did “paint and roto work” — painting and creating green-screen mattes frame by frame. Once his foot was in the door, he just kept going from there.

As computer-generated visual effects became more advanced, Tubach made his name as a digital compositor. Compositing is the process of putting together all the live-action elements and computer-generated images into one scene and creating the final frames that end up on film. Besides working on effects-driven films like “Armageddon” and “The Mummy,” he also composited key scenes on less likely digital candidates like the Kevin Costner dramas “For Love of the Game” and “Message in a Bottle.”

“There’s so many scenes in films that [audiences] don’t even realize are visual effects. In ‘Message in a Bottle,’ there was all these scenes that were extremely dangerous to film, where [characters are] out on these really high seas, so you can’t really create these stories where you put these people in jeopardy without using visual effects,” he says. “People associate visual effects with flashy computer-generated things, which are great but there are so many movies that are trying to tell a story that you just couldn’t show in the same way without some effects help. It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to create something completely fake — you could be trying to recreate something in the real world that you just can’t go out and film.”

Tubach composited more high-seas shots in “The Perfect Storm,” which was his first job for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company that George Lucas founded way back in 1975. Needless to say, going to work at the place where “Star Wars” was created was a dream come true. Not long after he started at the company, he began work on “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” which led into “Episode III” and “Transformers.” It was being part of that Oscar-nominated team that he attended his first Oscar ceremony in 2008.

For “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Tubach’s is one of four names listed in the nomination. And if the movie wins the Oscar for best achievement in visual effects, he’ll be one of the four people onstage to accept. He’s quick to point out, however, that visual effects are a team effort.

“There are so many other people who could easily be there as well. Especially when you work at a company like ILM where everyone is so good at their job — and I wouldn’t be here without all the other artists that contributed to the movie,” he says. “I really feel like what I’m doing is representing a much larger group of people — and I always keep that in mind.”

The process for “Star Trek Into Darkness” started with creating concepts and shots that work from the standpoint of storytelling. At the beginning of the design process, Tubach worked with director Abrams to help out with shooting on set and carry those concepts through into postproduction, rendering the computer graphics into believable-looking images.

When it comes to 3-D, which adds another layer of challenge to any visual-effects project, that means identifying and creating shots early in the process that might be good candidates for a great 3-D moment.

“When the Enterprise escapes from the black ship and they take off — and the Enterprise comes right out at the audience — that’s a moment that we specifically geared the animation to do that. It was thought out ahead of time and we tried to make a cool ‘in-your-face’ moment,” Tubach says.

Buzz about how intertwined the art of traditional cinematography and visual effects are reached a head last year at the Academy Awards when “Life of Pi” director of photography Claudio Miranda and director Ang Lee both failed to mention the visual effects artists who helped realize their film in their acceptance speeches.

Tubach agrees that you can’t talk about one without the other because people on both sides of the production contribute to aspects of both the cinematography and the visual effects.

“One thing you know about making films: it’s not a singular ‘one person does everything’ process — there’s a lot of people involved to make that work,” he says. “In every film that we work on, the DP (director of photography) has a huge influence over the look and feel and the lighting of the entire film, and in fact, we frequently consult with DPs on films and keep them involved in the process long after the physical production of the film. Those two things are not easily separated, and shouldn’t be separated.”

‘Jayhawkers’ opens at Liberty Hall

After a successful weekend run at the Lied Center, Kevin Willmott’s “Jayhawkers” opens this weekend at Liberty Hall. Lawrence residents especially should take note of the movie. Besides being produced and filmed using almost entirely local talent and locations, this impressive ensemble movie tells the story of an important — possibly defining — chapter in the city’s history.

Intertwining the stories of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and famed coach “Phog” Allen, Willmott puts this specific moment in the 1950s in perspective with the bigger picture of the civil rights movement, as well as connecting it to the tales of “Bleeding Kansas” and the birth of the what is now considered the modern sports superstar. It’s a must-see for anyone with a remote interest in any of these subjects, and the film features some stunning black-and-white cinematography from local directors of photography Matt Jacobson and Jeremy Osbern as well.