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Movie Magic: Oscar Nominee Seeks to Pay it Forward


He is a Transformer with Hulk-size success.

Oscar nominee Jason Smith says his BYU education set the course that has led to his achievements in the movie industry.

Smith is a visual effects supervisor at ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), a motion picture special effects company. At ILM, he has worked on many blockbuster films, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Rango, and Transformers. He joined ILM in 2001 as a technical assistant and became Creature Technical Director in 2003. There, he invented the dynamic rigging process that ILM uses for the robot transformation in the Transformers films. His character work on the Hulk in the blockbuster hit The Avengers earned him a Visual Effects Award nomination. 

Last year, the Oscar committee nominated Smith for Best Visual Effects for his work on the bear in the Best Picture nominated film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. 

“I was totally blown away because that was not something that I really had on my list of possible life events,” Smith said. “I was proud of the work that the team here did on the bear, but to actually get recognized by the peers in the industry and by the academy was really, really exciting.”

Smith’s focus and love for creature and character work in film visual effects began at BYU as a computer science major and a visual arts minor. He designed makeup for BYU’s production of Into the Woods and took figure-drawing classes from Robert Barrett, who Smith said was a profound influence. Mentor Janet Swenson, a makeup and costume design professor in the theatre department, was another influencial figure in Smith’s life.

“I remember Janet taking us to California and taking us on set of a TV show that was filming at the time. It was called Dr. QuinnMedicine Woman,” Smith said. “It was a nice way of getting, as a student, a little view into the industry.”

That kind of generosity from faculty and alumni motivated Smith to do his part to help BYU students who want to break into the movie industry. He told computer science faculty members Brent Adams and Parris Egbert that he was willing to come speak to the students. After The Avengers released, they contacted Smith and asked him to give a colloquium presentation. Smith said he was happy and excited to do it.

“I know from my time as a student at BYU how thirsty I was for that type of information, information from people who are out in the workforce and applying the things that we’re learning every day, somebody that can come back and tell me how linear algebra really does apply to the movement of a shoulder blade,” Smith said.

Smith delved into the visual-effects side of the movie industry and explained the work he supervised on the creation of the Hulk character, played by Mark Ruffalo.

He also gave a group of illustration students a tour of ILM in March 2016. He told them what it was like to work in the industry and what types of jobs there are. He also stays in contact with BYU students and advises the students on how to improve their demo reels (film portfolios). 

“I think whenever those opportunities come up to work with students, that’s what I really enjoy. I love . . . to talk to students about the type of work that’s going on right now and how they can prepare,” he said.

BYU students are already blessed with world-class faculty and state-of-the-art equipment, according to Smith. BYU also recently added the animation emphasis for computer science students who want to combine their STEM major with art.

“The faculty at BYU really, really do care about the students and about the kind of lives we’re going to go into after we graduate,” Smith said. “I’m definitely grateful for the time I had [at BYU] and the education, and I really think it did set the trajectory for my career.”

Note: This article was originally written in our published science magazine Frontiers. Read the magazine here.