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.