Reel world fantasy

Friday, June 25, 2010


Fantastic designs from the imagination of artist TyRuben Ellingson ’81 ’82 have gone into a string of popular Hollywood movies – most recently “Avatar.” As lead vehicle designer, he was a major player in carrying out the vision for the film that shattered box office records.

Ellingson designed all but two of the vehicles as well as the Armored Mobility Platform suit used in the interstellar 3-D adventure; and, as he correctly pointed out, “The vehicle stuff takes up a lot of real estate in this movie.”

“Avatar” has been widely hailed for setting a new standard for computer-generated storytelling and has garnered several top honors, including a Golden Globe for best movie and three Academy Awards in categories of special effects and art direction. Ellingson was with “Avatar” creator/director James Cameron when the Art Directors Guild Awards honored “Avatar” with its Excellence in Production Design Award.

Ellingson’s first major contribution to a blockbuster movie was visual effects art director on Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking “Jurassic Park” in 1993. Since 1989 he’d been working for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, “an extraordinary opportunity” that he landed the way most entertainment industry jobs are secured – through aggressive networking. In 1995 he went on his own and has been landing opportunities to do creative work in movies, video games, music videos and commercials ever since.

The list of film directors he’s worked with – Cameron, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Kubrick – is an impressive “who’s who” of movie moguls. His upcoming movies include “Priest” and “Battle: Los Angeles,” both due out in 2011.

“The way you survive Hollywood is always do the best job you can with a smile,” he said. “It’s an aggressive, supersuper competitive place – a high-octane existence.”

He was advised early in his career to live somewhere other than Los Angeles because “they take you more seriously when they have to fly you in.” He and wife Karen live in Arizona, near his mother, Sharon Ellingson Bayne, and her husband, former St. Cloud State Vice President Bob Bayne. Karen’s parents live across the street.

His father, the late Bill Ellingson, was a prolific and well-known artist, printmaker and longtime professor of art at St. Cloud State. “Family activities were around the University,” said Ellingson, who attended the campus laboratory school and palled around with other faculty and staff members’ children.

Growing up with a father who was both a working artist and a teaching artist gave Ellingson a creative perspective and foundation of knowledge far beyond the average young person. “I was always around art work,” he said. “My dad always had a studio, and that’s where I was. I was treated as a colleague by him very early. We had a lot of dialog about art.”

Ellingson has good memories of growing up in St. Cloud – doing many of the same things other kids did as well as special activities like entering adult juried art exhibitions at age 13. Another particularly special experience was his summers at the Lake Irene family cabin.For three of his preteen-age summers his father taught at Studio L’Homme Dieu, where St. Cloud State had a sort of student artists’ colony. It was at Lake Irene where he first met his wife Karen when she and her mother came to visit.

At St. Cloud State, Ellingson found new teachers and mentors – among them Rena Coen, Myrle Sykora, Jerry Ott – who helped him tap into his considerable potential. “I was a truck full of lumber when I hit St. Cloud State,” he said. “Now I appreciate my influential years at St. Cloud more than I did at any time in my life.”

“The ’70s was a time of personal and cultural invention,” Ellingson said. “Personal relevance seemed to be more front and center. The university was about change. It gave people the idea their lives could be extraordinary.”

“Ty was the most inquisitive student, and always energetic,” said Ott, whom Ellingson refers to as “an extraordinary artist and personality.”

“He would always bounce from one destination to another, as if there weren’t enough hours in day to do what he wanted to get done,” Ott said. “On one hand he was a boyish jokingly lighthearted sort, and on the other an extremely serious and dedicated person with a massive drive to succeed and display his talents.”

The student found his balance early. “I had such a focused capacity to hallucinate success,” Ellingson said. “Something in me allowed me to dream with such a kind of clarity of mission that once I saw it I didn’t let go of it.”

“At 50 do I feel fortunate?” Ellingson asked. “Yeah. The last 15 years especially have been extraordinary.”

TyRuben Ellingson Trivia:

  • Entered work in first adult juried art exhibition at age 13 – awarded prize in Zapp Bank Art Show
  • Father-in-law, Charles Crane, was art history professor at St. Cloud State from 1957- 1969. The Cranes built a cabin near the Ellingson family’s Lake Irene home and introduced them to sailing
  • Worked as a cook in a Mexican restaurant while a student at St. Cloud State
  • His art during university years reflected an early interest in science fiction-related themes
  • Film instructor Darrel Swanson’s film appreciation classes had an extraordinary influence on Ellingson
  • Received master of fine arts degree in 1987 from Southern Methodist University in Texas
  • 1989 joined Industrial, Light, and Magic as Visual Effects Art Director, Marin County, Calif. While at Industrial, Light, and Magic he was the only one of five art directors to have a fine art background
  • 1993 Grand Marshall of St. Cloud State Homecoming celebration
  • 1995 began career as independent conceptual designer, Marin County, Calif.
  • While being photographed with other Industrial light and Magic workers for the computer simulation of a scene in “Jurassic Park,” Ellingson tripped, fell and broke a shoulder bone. The fall is recorded in the scene where the scientist and two young children are cowering under a fallen tree while stampeding animals jump over the log – and one of them trips and falls, recording Ellingson’s accident for film posterity.
  • After “Jurassic Park” the visual effects field quickly expanded and Ellingson found himself among a small group of professionals who had a working knowledge of the new technologies
  • Credits the unwavering support of his first wife, Donell (Rouch) Ellingson ’82, as being foundational to his successful journey to Hollywood
  • 2008 relocated to Maricopa County, Ariz.
  • Has returned to St. Cloud State several times to speak to students
  • TyRuben Ellingson Web site: www.AlienInsect.com

- Marsha Shoemaker

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