Next week, as Bowdoin students wrap up the semester's work, the film "Avatar" will hit the big screen and bring special effects artist and class of 1990 alum Dave Fogler's newest creations to life.
In this fantasy film in which humans encounter an alien humanoid race, Fogler and his team created everything from the flying, futuristic helicopters to the moss trampled beneath the protagonist's feet.
"It's an interesting project. It makes you realize the extent that things are being enhanced by special effects in the movies that are coming out now," said Fogler. "When you think of the special effects needed for this movie, obviously it's the spaceships and aliens that come to mind. And we did work on those, of course, but it's really become much more than that. It's everything you add to a movie. Those things you actually need just to compose a shot are all stuff that we're making."
Upon coming to Bowdoin in the late 1980s, Fogler said that his artistic passion had not yet been wholly solidified.
"Like most liberal arts students, I didn't know what I would be doing here," Fogler said.
After exploring both artistic and musical interests, it was Professor of Art Mark Wethli that became his "main man," pulling him into the world of studio art.
Following graduation and a stint in gallery work in New York City, Fogler traveled to Berkeley to pursue an MFA at the University of California.
"Berkeley as a program really allows you to wander in any direction you want to go," Fogler said. "After New York I began to lose interest in producing work sold in galleries and being hung in people's home. That process never quite clicked with me. It seemed very solitary, that idea of being alone in a studio."
For that reason, Fogler turned from painting and took his first steps into the world of filmmaking.
"Filmmaking really had that suggestion of something social, something more connected," he said. "Eventually, my experience at Berkeley really became a study in the creative process. This idea that if you want to make something, what's the wisest way to get it done? That is something that's served me really well and that I've brought to all of my work since then."
After attending Berkeley, Fogler began looking for jobs in the film industry. Initially, he returned to Portland and began to work in film production at Groff Film and Video.
"The first project I worked on was a frontloaded animation project that I worked on for a year, a project that essentially became my introduction to the world of animation," he said. "It was a really wonderful job and made me realize that [what] I loved about being an artist was that ability to make your own things. And I'd found that again with films, that an artist could make an entire film all by himself."
Following his work at Groff and several independent projects in which he pursued the art of stop-motion, Fogler moved back to California in the hopes of finding work in animation. Upon moving, however, he was offered a job at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) as a model maker and sculptor and capitalized on this chance.
"It felt like such a great opportunity to make these models and get paid for it," Fogler said of the job he took 13 years ago.
Originally, and for the first eight years that Fogler worked with ILM, his work was in industrial design technique, making small-scale models of anything that couldn't be filmed on set or location.
Five years ago, however, his work shifted to the computer side of things.
"What's interesting is that it's really the same craft. You're still making the object—now it's just virtually instead of practically," Fogler said.
"One of the most fascinating things about my job is just how much it continues to change with the evolving technology. The work I do is something that is still being invented, which makes it a lot of fun," Fogler added. "As much as I loved working as a practical technical artist, that early, old school technology didn't have far to take it. It just couldn't push as many boundaries. Now, with each movie it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And it still has a long way to go."
While with ILM, Fogler has worked on such projects as "Starship Troopers," "Star Wars" Episodes I, II, and III, "Pearl Harbor," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Transformers."
On projects that have been especially influential and exciting, Fogler explained that there is a difficulty in picking one especially formative experience.
"In all the projects I take on, what I look for more than anything is that element of challenge, of really pushing the limits. I want a film to ask for and require some sort of leap on my part," Fogler said. "For that reason, all the work I do tends to be really hard because it's always been my core belief that there's no sense working on something if it's not really stretching what you can do."
"A lot of the work I did with the 'Star Wars' movies was especially hard and also making some of those creatures on the ship in Pirates," he added. "But I think I'll always remember that moment I had the first time I watched the completed Transformers film. I saw the Bumblebee—a creature that was incredibly hard to make—and I was just blown away by how believable it was."
"It's that level of believability that I've always held, and I'll continue to hold, as the marker of great special effects. They should propel the story in an interesting way while not distracting from the plot. They should be invisible in a sense," said Fogler. "The goal is for people not to stare and wonder how they did this or that, but for the special effects to disappear into a movie that makes the unbelievable truly believable."
That has always been his aspiration, even going back to his first special effects "experience" watching George Lucas's first "Star Wars" film when he was 11 years old.
"I know it's the same tired answer everyone gives, but you know, I was that perfect age. That summer I watched it 14 times and it was just such a transporting experience," Fogler said. "Since then, its always been my goal to add that experience to the films I work on. More than anything, I want to transport people that way."