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An 'Oscar' comes home to the SCV

Stevenson Ranch resident Bill Westenhofer takes the Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects.

Posted: March 23, 2008 1:24 a.m.
Updated: May 24, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
Bill Westenhofer's talent can be seen in many popular family favorites including, "The Golden Compass," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and both of the "Stuart Little" movies.

But you would have never recognized his work until you read the movie credits.

That's because for each of the three movies (and many more) Westenhofer has been the visual effects supervisor, giving him control of the overall creativity and realness of the film and its characters.

Westenhofer's skills in "The Golden Compass," a 2007 children's fantasy film, recently earned him an Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects, and a Film Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts  for Special Visual Effects.

But for the Stevenson Ranch resident, being involved in animation and design is something that has been part of him since he was a kid.

Beginnings
Westenhofer's interest in the arts began at an early age.

"I started as a kid," he said. "Always drawing and painting."

As a youngster, Westenhofer received bits of formal training through various art classes. He would also play around on the computer, writing little programs.

On the advice of a high school art teacher, Westenhofer decided to combine his drawing and computer skills into graphic design.

"It got the bug in my head," he said.

During his undergraduate years at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., Westenhofer studied computer engineering while earning what he called an "unofficial minor in art" through his various art classes.

Because he was studying across the country, Westenhofer was unable to connect with Hollywood until he visited the animators at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

"What struck me is that they were all my age," he said.

From there, he realized that becoming an animator was something that he could realistically pursue.

Although he briefly worked as a defense contractor to pay the bills, Westenhofer ultimately received his formal training for his future career at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master's degree in computer science.

With a solid background, Westenhofer set out to find a job.

A visit to a major conference for film industry professionals gave him the chance to meet with professionals and soon "talk my way into a job."

That job was as a technical director for Rhythm and Hues, which led him on a cross-country drive to start his career.

"Next thing you know I was in the car, driving from D.C. to Los Angeles," he said.

Starting out
Westenhofer's first role as technical director for Rhythm and Hues was creating the bubbles for a Rice Krispies cereal commercial.

He soon took on more responsibilities and became supervisor for the visual effects in commercials.

He made the jump into movies during a set visit where he saw how visual effects scenes were shot, as well as how the animation was directed at the studio.

Westenhofer then became the digital effects supervisor for "Speed 2: Cruise Control," the 1997 sequel to "Speed."

He shifted to visual effects supervisor the next year with "Babe 2: Pig in the City," the second installment to the family farmyard flick "Babe."

Because all the other visual effects supervisors were busy with other projects, Westenhofer was given the responsibility - and a plane ticket to Australia to spend eight months working on the film.

"At the time it was the biggest film we had ever done," he said.

It was also the film that gave Westenhofer his first nomination for a Film Award from BAFTA.

19 films and counting
Westenhofer has worked on 19 films since "Babe 2," giving him the ability to explore different ways to apply visual effects.

In 2001's "Cats and Dogs," for example, the Santa Clarita resident of 10 years and his company explored the use of the "furry animal" to render realistic looking characters.

But working as the visual effects supervisor for "The Chronicles in Narnia" is what Westenhofer views as a standout.

"It was a large undertaking," he said about the amount of detail and work needed for the large crowd animation and finale's battle sequence.

"I'm really happy at how that turned out," he said.

His work in the movie also earned him his first Oscar nomination.

So far, the majority of Westenhofer's films have been intended for a family audience or based on children's books.

It's something he enjoys.

"The past three films I've worked on have been related to something that I'm already interested in," he said, noting he  read "The Golden Compass" and the books from the "Narnia" series.

His next project is "Land of the Lost," a movie starring Will Ferrell that is based on the classic television show.

Westenhofer has been on the film's set for the last few weeks, gathering information about the necessary visual effects that will be added in pre-production.

Being part of the movie is a blast from the past for Westenhofer, as it was part of his Saturday afternoons growing up.

"It's great to be able to work on part of your past," he said.

The process and perks
With most projects, Westenhofer will spend an average of two years working with his team.

For instance, he said "The Golden Compass" required a staff of somewhere between 400 and 500.

Members were broken down into teams to work with specific aspects of the film.

"A typical day involves spending time with the animation director and then looking at the final renders up on the large screen," he said.

A typical day also involves living in a foreign country in some cases.

Westenhofer said he spent eight months in Australia and seven months in New Zealand working on "The Chronicles of Narnia" and, most recently, half a year in London for "The Golden Compass."

"It's a really rewarding experience," he said.

His two children, Thomas, 7, and Christopher, 9, also get to join their father on his long-term stays around the world.

Westenhofer said his sons lived with him in London and even spent a semester of school abroad.

"My little one developed a little bit of an accent," he said.

Plus, the two joined their dad at work to witness the movie-making process.

It also served as a source of inspiration for the boys.

"It sparked a bug in both of them," he said, adding that Thomas has talked about wanting to create a script.

But living in the Santa Clarita Valley isn't too bad either.

Westenhofer calls the local area a wonderful place to raise a family.

As for commuting to work, he said that he has an office at home, giving him the chance to work on post production needs until morning traffic clears.

"It's a great place to come home to," he said.

Future plans
Along with working on "The Land of the Lost," Westenhofer is working on a screenplay with a friend.

"I really enjoy the process of developing the story," he said, adding that he had always been writing as a kid.

He ultimately would like to finish the screenplay and direct the film as a way to have complete control of the process.

"I've worked closely with enough directors to know that I could."

He also hopes to one day have the chance to work with Steven Spielberg. But for the time being, Westenhofer is happy with his career.

"I really enjoy what I'm doing," he said.

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