A green furry dragon named Elliot living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. A twisted and pathetic creature yearning for a ring in Middle Earth. A monstrous ape, an alien jungle, a future dystopian city.
If any of these cinematic creations will capture the imaginations of moviegoers, they need the magic of visual effects created by wizards like Eric Saindon ’96. Saindon’s own imagination was stirred by animated films as a kid, which led to over two decades designing effects and leading teams of visual effects artists on some of the largest blockbusters on screen.
Much of Saindon’s career has been with Weta Digital in New Zealand, known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and other masterworks of special effects. The road to Wellington from Pullman began in architecture, though.
“I always wanted to get into architecture, but I was a little bit of a film buff,” says Saindon. Since he wanted to go into the movie industry, he thought “maybe the way for me is to get into set design.”
He took an animation class from Washington State University professor Kim Singers in his third year and decided that was his doorway to moviemaking. Saindon joined a little visual effects company in Santa Barbara and after a year and a half, “I got this random phone call from a guy from New Zealand. They were going to shoot a film, couldn’t tell me what the film was, and they were interested in getting some people to come out for six months.”
The director was Peter Jackson, and the film was Lord of the Rings. Saindon took the job, “and nineteen years later, I’m still in New Zealand.”
Some of Saindon’s early work was on the creature Gollum, a motion capture project that pushed the boundaries of the form. A key character, Gollum needed to appear as real and expressive as possible, which meant extensive innovation with actor Andy Serkis, Saindon, and the visual effects team.
Saindon says they kept testing the technology, asking themselves, “How are we going to get this skin to look even more real than we’ve ever seen in the past? The muscle system and the movement were not to the extreme we wanted, so we pushed harder on the motion capture cameras and the tracking ability. All those little things added up to get Gollum.”
With creature supervisor experience, Saindon then tackled a much, much larger beast, King Kong in Jackson’s 2005 remake. After a few other films, he joined director James Cameron on Avatar for five years, which Saindon says was unbelievably challenging. In addition to blue-skinned aliens, the planet itself took some creative thinking.
“To end up with a jungle that looks very realistic,” he says, the visual effects team ran a simulation that actually “grew” the extraterrestrial plants. It’s the type of problem that keeps Saindon excited about the work.
As screen resolutions improve, “audiences have gotten so much better at spotting things that we have to get better every year hiding things in plain sight,” he says. It helps to have teams at Weta Digital with diverse skills, like his architecture training, says Saindon. His current project, sci-fi film Alita: Battle Angel, really taps that skill.
“I’m actually designing a city, so it’s a little more architecture. But the three dimensional way of thinking from architecture really has helped me tremendously throughout my career. It can make a big difference in making something that you believe or don’t believe.”
Following his visual effects work on the three films of The Hobbit, including the hideous dragon Smaug, Saindon took on the 2016 Disney film Pete’s Dragon, featuring Elliot, a friendlier dragon in the Northwest woods. It turned into a favorite project, with interesting approaches like macrophotography of his dog’s nose for Elliot’s feet.
Saindon also had fun with his daughter as an extra for the movie as they shot in New Zealand. It’s a great life there, he says, with his two sons, two daughters, and his wife, a USC architecture graduate who went into visual effects and worked on Gollum animation.