Jabbar Raisani – Alien Outpost

February 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

At the age of 17, Jabbar Raisani had already made up his mind about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. There was no doubt about it. He wanted to work on the visual effects in big Hollywood movies. It was an ambitious idea, but what 9-year-old kid watched “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in 1991 and didn’t want to know how the T-1000 shape shifted into liquid metal? Raisani did, but he didn’t just want to know. He wanted to make that same movie magic himself.

During his last two years of high school at Sandra Day O’Connor (his first two were at Marshall High School), Raisani was part of an independent study mentorship program where he was given the opportunity to be a mentee at the San Antonio-based visual effects company GeoMedia. After graduating from O’Connor in 2000, Raisani attended Trinity University and majored in computer science. As an undergraduate, he was hired by San Antonio-based Atomic Pictures, a visual effects and 3D animation company, where he worked until graduating from college in 2004 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue bigger goals in the industry.

Over the last decade, Raisani has made a name for himself at a number of production companies, including the Stan Winston Studio where he worked as the CG supervisor on films such as “Iron Man” and “Fantastic Four.” He later moved back to Texas and teamed up with Robert Rodriguez at his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios where he was the on-set VFX supervisor for two action movies, “Machete” and “Predators.” Three years later, Raisani returned to L.A. where he found himself supervising the digital modeling of Superman’s live-action suit in the 2013 superhero movie “Man of Steel.” That same year, Raisani won an Emmy for his VFX supervision on the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

In his latest venture, Raisani makes his directorial debut with “Alien Outpost,” a sci-fi action film that follows a documentary crew embedded in a military unit during the wake of an alien invasion. Along with his role as director, Raisani also co-wrote the screenplay.

During an interview with me, Raisani discussed the moment he knew he wanted to direct a film, the intimidating interview he had at Stan Winston Studios, and the highlight of his career so far, which involves the wearing of a superhero costume.

“Alien Outpost” makes its San Antonio premiere Friday, February  13 at 8 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes. Raisani will be in attendance for a Q&A session after the screening.

After working for GeoMedia in high school and Atomic Pictures during college, you moved to Los Angeles right after you graduated from Trinity University in 2004. Was that just the natural next step for someone like you who wanted a career in visual effects?

Yeah, unfortunately there’s not that much film work in Texas, particularly in San Antonio. I was lucky enough to work on “Spy Kids 3” while I was still there in Texas. I really wanted to work on more films, so the best way to do that was to move.

The first job you landed in L.A. was with Stan Winston Studio. How difficult was it to get into a company founded by one of the most iconic special effects and make-up effects people in the business?

It’s really tough. I had a portfolio/demo reel that I got out to companies and was lucky enough to get an interview there. They had the most intimidating conference room I had ever been in. I went in and at the conference room table I was surrounded by all the creatures from every movie they did. They had the queen alien from “Alien,” the dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park,” Edward Scissorhands, the Terminator. All those things were just staring at me during my interview. Luckily, it went well and they brought me on.

I’m assuming Stan Winston was an inspiration for you growing up. Had you seen all the films he had worked on during his 25-year career?

Yeah, I loved everything he did. He made all the movies I loved watching as a kid. It was a dream job for me.

Talk about the work you did at the Stan Winston Studio. What did you do on “Fantastic Four?

I was in charge of the visual effects for Jessica Alba’s character, Sue Storm.

And for “Iron Man?

For “Iron Man,” I supervised the visual sculpt of the suit. I worked on the digital prototypes and printed out visual models. At the time, I don’t think that had been done on any movie before. I even got to put on the Iron Man suit at one point, which was awesome. (Laughs) It’ll probably be the highlight of my career. It’s pretty hard not to look badass in that suit.

Was it exciting to work at a non-Hollywood studio like Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios?

Yeah, I mean, I remember seeing the movie “El Mariachi” and thinking, “Holy shit, there is a guy from San Antonio who is making movies!” I remember watching “From Dusk Till Dawn” about a hundred times as a kid. I watched all Robert’s stuff. Austin is a great independent film town. It was fun to work there. If you’re working with Robert at Troublemaker Studios, it’s a big deal.

Is Danny Trejo as big of a teddy bear as everyone says he is?

He’s awesome! I remember the summer we shot “Machete,” there were days that hit over 100 degrees in Austin. Danny would finish up his scene and would walk around passing out water and Gatorade to the crew. (Laughs) I thought, “Who is this guy? He’s the star of the movie and he’s passing out Gatorade!” He was fantastic to work with.

You seem to be on this consistent trajectory in your career. Was directing a film a goal of yours from the very beginning?

Yeah, you know, when I worked on “Iron Man,” I saw how [director] Jon Favreau worked and made a decision then and there that that’s what I wanted to eventually do. I’m just really trying to get onto bigger and better stuff. I’m really looking for bigger budget movies.

What sort of things did you take from the directors you worked with prior to “Alien Outpost” like Favreau, Rodriguez and Zack Snyder? What did you learn from them that you brought into your own film?

You know, one of the things I definitely started appreciating over the years working with these directors is the quality of their work. Being around it for so long, your eye starts to develop and you intrinsically understand what’s good. It all comes down to being smart and learning as much as you can. You have to know what you want when you get on set. You can’t just start shooting something and figure it out as you go along. It’s good to be flexible and not rigid, but you also have to have a sense of what your vision is.

So, tell me what amazing visual effects work you did on “Game of Thrones.” Please tell me you worked on the Red Wedding episode.

(Laughs) You know, I was actually in Morocco during the Red Wedding shooting something else. But there will definitely be some epic sequences coming up in Season 5 that I visual effects supervised and second unit directed on. I can’t say too much about it, but it comes late in the season. I encourage people to watch. They’ll know what the scene is when they see it.

Where did a script like “Alien Outpost” originate from?

My co-writer Blake Clifton and I were working with Robert [Rodriguez] on his films and we sort of figured out how we could break off and do our own thing. Both Blake and I come from a military family. My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years (14 years at Wilford Hall Medical Center) and a lot of Blake’s family was in the Army. While neither of us has served, we both liked the idea of creating a film in the military world. Being the huge sci-fi geeks that we are, we thought, “Well, why don’t we take something military and bring sci-fi elements into it?” That was the initial conversation that sparked “Outpost.” We wrote the script and started shopping it around and now the movie is out in the world.

Besides your father’s background in the military, did you have any other references you turned to for the making of “Alien Outpost?

I spent a lot of time on military bases in Japan and German and Florida and Texas. It was like second nature to me. I also did a lot of research for the film by watching a lot of documentaries and reading a lot of books. I wanted to get my head into what it was like to be a solider; as close as I could without actually experiencing it.

Since you’re coming from a visual effects background, how much does story matter to you? Some people might assume a director like you would put less emphasis on the script and more on what they know best.

First and foremost, Blake and I told each other than sci-fi is cool and fun, but it’s secondary to the story. To me story and character are paramount. The visual effects should serve that story. The movie doesn’t mean anything if you don’t care about the characters and the soldiers. The first thing Blake and I set out to do was to get to know and love the characters. Hopefully by the time all the aliens and the mayhem break loose, you know who the guys are and you care about them as they try to vanquish their enemies.

I’m sure you know who director Gareth Edwards is. He made this very intimate independent sci-fi film called “Monsters” in 2010 that received great reviews, and then all of a sudden he’s directing a big-budget film like “Godzilla” last year and is scheduled to direct one of the new “Star Wars” films. Is that the kind of phone call you want to receive after “Alien Outpost” premieres – a phone call from a studio that just saw your movie and wants to give you a $100 million budget for your next one?

Yeah! I’d love to do something big like that. That’s generally where I’m pushing all my efforts. I think “Outpost” does a great job of saying, “Hey, here’s a guy without a lot of money who can set up a story in an interesting world with characters people care about.”

Which other sci-fi directors do you look up to right now?

There are a lot of guys I look up to and respect. I look up to Christopher Nolan and the work he’s doing with digital effects. There’s Gareth Edwards, obviously. One of the guys I definitely love is Duncan Jones, who is doing the “Warcraft” movie. He’s probably my favorite of those sci-fi guys. I think he’s doing a brilliant job telling stories in a science fiction world and really having them be about people. I’m really excited what he’s going to do with “Warcraft.”

The Oscars are about a week away. Any predictions for Best Visual Effects? I mean, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has to take it, right?

Yeah, I think so. They are doing stuff that is amazing. Even when I saw the first film (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), I just kept thinking, “I can’t believe that is not a real creature.” I think they have a good shot to win it.

Elizabeth Avellan – Spy Kids 4

August 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

It was a fairly simple idea back in 2001 when producer Elizabeth Avellan and then-husband, director Robert Rodriguez, decided to make a movie they had not made before – one their young children could actually see.

Rodriguez had already made “Deseperdo,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and “The Faculty,” but shootouts with drug lords, vampire bloodshed, and alien teachers killing students weren’t something Avellan or Rodriguez thought appropriate for their little ones.

“We didn’t have one movie we had made that they could watch,” Avellan told me during an exclusive interview. “We wanted them to know what we did for a living.”

“Spy Kids,” a family adventure about a pair of young sibling secret agents who must rescue their parents from an evil wizard, became Avellan and Rodriguez’s first film under the Troublemaker Studios umbrella. Eight years later, the “Spy Kids” franchise is going strong with the release of the fourth film of the series, “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D.”

During our interview, Avellan talked about the major changes in the new film in comparison to the first three movies, and what it has been like working on her own film projects aside from the ones she makes with Rodriguez at their studio in Austin.

How is the family enjoying the summer?

It’s been wonderful. We’re spending some time in L.A. by the beach. We had the premiere of the film last week and now we’re all just hanging out. Well, I’m working but the kids are hanging out.

How does going to the movies work for the family during the summer? Do the little ones want to watch “The Smurfs” and “Kung Fu Panda 2” and things like that?

Yeah, of course! It’s been a lot of fun. I get to see a lot of kids’ movies. That helps when I make movies for kids. You get to see what works for them. I’ve always believed movies rated G and PG should be made for the whole family. If my children don’t laugh during a movie or don’t enjoy it, obviously it didn’t work for them. But we do enjoy going to the movies a lot.

When you started “Spy Kids” back in 2001, did you have any idea a franchise like this would develop and would have this kind of staying power?

I wasn’t sure it would happen at that time to tell you the truth. It was such a neat idea to the point that Robert never mentioned the name of the movie until the movie was going to be publicized. Until then, it was the “Untitled Robert Rodriguez Project.” It was such a big, fun concept, we didn’t want anyone beating us to the punch. We knew we could make some good family movies. Robert had made some with his brothers and sisters early on.

Is part of the reason Troublemaker Studios makes family-friendly movies because you want your kids to be able to see the movies you produce?

Yeah, before the first “Spy Kids,” we started to have kids and we wanted them to be able to see our movies. Jeremy Piven’s little nieces don’t know what he does because they’re not allowed to watch what he does like “Entourage” or some of his movies. He did “Spy Kids 4” because he wanted them to see what Uncle Jeremy does for a living. I thought that was very cute.

Does your 5-year-old know what you do now?

Oh yeah, totally. She’s in the movie, too, with our 7-year-old. They play a couple of the spy kids at the end that are getting recruited. Robert thought it would be really cute because they hadn’t been in any of our movies yet. They enjoy it. They come into the studio and work with dad acting, making videos, and writing and singing songs. It’s a lot of fun.

How did it feel to bring a new pair of kids on for this film after working with Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara for so long? Was it as exciting as the first movie?

It was fun because we still got to include them in the new “Spy Kids.” The story just continues. Alexa and Daryl are now big spies. It was all about finding the right story so they could be included. When Robert told me what he was thinking about for the story I thought it was a great way to include them, but also a great way they could pass the torch.

What do you think about Alexa and Daryl’s careers post “Spy Kids?”

Oh, I am so proud of them. You have no idea. Those kids have continued to work so hard and have become great actors. They are wonderful, young people that have grown to be great examples that in Hollywood you don’t have go all crazy and be arrested and be in US Weekly to get noticed. Part of that is because they have great parents and part of it is because they really received some good lessons in Austin when we were filming the “Spy Kids” movies. Moviemaking is a way to live, but it can also build character. You can be a good person and be successful and grow up and be an adult. We try to keep up with all the kids we’ve worked with whether it’s the kids from “Spy Kids” or the kids from “Shorts” or the kids from “Sharkboy and Lavagirl.” I really enjoy working on those movies.

As a producer, what has it been like working on your own projects not associated with Robert?

It’s been kind of fun. Every once in a while I’ll strike out on my own to do something especially if I see a filmmaker that I feel is worthwhile to back. I did “Secuestro Express” back in 2003 and “When Angels Sing,” which is a Christmas movie.  I get to do a lot more on the creative side. Robert usually does that. Sometimes he doesn’t need my opinion because he knows exactly what he wants to do. On my own, I get to bring more creativity to the table.

You were quoted in a CNN article last month about the state of Latino-themed films. You stated directors and producers haven’t found a way to “crack the code” and make these movies as profitable as they would like. What is it going to take for that to happen?

I think it’s going to take patience. I think they have to go about it in a scientific way. Why did this work? Why didn’t this work? I think that’s how you can start making a change and figuring it out. I think it’s going to take a little research and trying things outside the box and putting a little more money in certain areas. Movies are different. They’re not going to work all the same way. Not every Latino is going to respond the same way to every movie. It’s a science like anything else.