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Animation Alumnus Greg Towner Reflects on His Work on King Kong

King Kong atop the Empire State
A scene from Peter Jackson’s film, King Kong.
When Greg Towner graduated from the Academy of Art University, he knew that the skills he acquired in the School of Animation and Visual Effects would afford him opportunities in the film and animation industries. However, there was no way to know that not only would he be working in the industry, but he would be working on arguably the biggest, most-anticipated visual spectacle of the year: Peter Jackson's film, King Kong.

Transitioning from school to the industry is one thing, but working for Peter Jackson means working at Weta Digital in New Zealand, which is a long way away from San Francisco! It also meant working on a team that won one of King Kong's several Academy Awards, which always looks nice on a resume. Now that he's back on American soil, it seemed like the right time to talk to Greg about his experiences on the film, his time at the Academy, and his plans for the future:

It's a long way from San Francisco to New Zealand. Can you describe your path from the Academy to working on King Kong?

After I graduated from the Academy, I took a couple of months to work out my final animation reel and interviewed with a few companies. I was close to working with Blizzard North (back when there was a Blizzard North), but by the time Siggraph rolled around, I still didn’t have a job. So with a free pass from the Academy I packed up twenty reels and flew down to Los Angeles for the convention. I did the whole tour of duty, dropping off reels to every company that I could, shaking hands and saying an awkward hello.

My girlfriend’s sister went with me (she is now attending school at the Academy) and had convinced me to drop a reel off at Weta. I didn’t actually think it was the Weta, but did so all the same. About a month later I got an email from Weta's Human Resources person asking if I’d be interested in working on King Kong. I didn’t know if I was even qualified to get a work visa for New Zealand, but after a month and a half of emailing, putting together a bunch of paperwork, and renewing my passport, I was off.

In the end, I guess that they were really entertained by my reel and liked that it felt different from a typical "student reel." I’m still not sure what that means, but never argued the point.

How would you describe your personal style as an animator? How do you adapt your style for professional work?

I’m extremely casual in my work and certainly believe that if you enjoy what you’re doing, then it will be reflected in your work. I don’t stick to any strict schedules when I’m working but always have a list running in my head of what I need to do and then try to figure out the best way to go about doing it. I tend to go with my first instincts and try not get caught up in the details too quickly.

When I started animating, I loved the whole idea of bringing a character to life, and in doing so I tried to never limit what that could mean. Even when working on the mighty King Kong himself, I would often stick to my first ideas and then flesh them out to a point where I could see if it was working or not. Sometimes this meant doing a bucketload of thumbnails (yes, I do thumbnails), and other times it would involve some pretty intricate conversations with the animation director to see just where we were going with a shot. But yeah, it’s a lot of fun to nerd out on a shot and really get excited about something that will drive you through the shot.

Greg Towner was part of the animation team that brought Kong to life
Greg Towner was part of the animation team that brought Kong to life.

Have you had a chance to see the film? If so, can you talk about what it’s like to see your work presented on the big screen?

I saw the film for the first time back home in Colorado on a rather chilly night. It was great to see reactions to it, which were mostly positive. It's always nervewracking when your shots come up, and I think each and every time I held my breath to see if anyone would flinch at my work. By my fifth viewing I was nudging my dad in order to let him know what shots I had worked on, and then of course it was great to see my family stick around for the credits. It was very exciting to say the least, and while some have complained about the length of the movie, I’m really proud to have been a part of it, and was super thrilled about the whole winning an Oscar thing.

Greg Towner worked on the Academy Award-winning visual effects team for King Kong. The team included Joe Letteri, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor, and Brian Van't Hul (all pictured above).
Greg Towner worked on the Academy Award-winning visual effects team for King Kong. The team included Joe Letteri, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor, and Brian Van't Hul (all pictured above).
Who received the Oscar?

King Kong won Oscars for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. For the Best Visual Effects Oscar, Joe Letteri (Special Effects Supervisor), Christian Rivers (Animation Director), Richard Taylor (Head of Weta Workshop), and Brian Van't Hul all received statues.

For me, I get to say that I worked as part of the Oscar-winning team that brought Kong to the big screen. It was great to see those guys up there getting the award for their hard work. It was especially great to see Christian in his tux with an Oscar, since I worked with him every single day and saw how much he put into the film. Other than that, it’s a terrific accomplishment and comes with an immense sense of satisfaction.

How do reflect on your time at the Academy?

When I think back to my time at the Academy, I think about the many people that I met (some of whom I now work with) and all of the connections that I was able to make going through the animation classes. The Pixar classes that I had with Andrew Gordon, Mike Venturini, Scott Clark, and Angus MacLane were excellent, as was a class that I had with Shawn Kelly. I learned so much from those guys and use it all on a daily basis. I think that the Academy helped in giving me a solid foundation for the work that I now do every day.

What else are you working on?

Currently I'm working at Industrial Light and Magic on Pirates of the Carribean 2. Davy Jones is a different beast than Kong but still an amazing challenge.

It has been incredible to be able to work on a movie like Kong and then come back to San Francisco and work at a company that I've dreamed about since I was twelve years old. I don't think that my brain has entirely caught up to me yet since heading to New Zealand, but it is good to be back in the land of Taco Bell.

I'm always working on stuff at home and perhaps someday will do a short (as all of us animators claim), but I guess we'll see what happens!

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