By Glenda McCarthy
The day Len Green watched Star Wars at the movie theatre in 1977 he knew his calling; he had to work at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) building models for the movie industry. That two hour long, life-altering experience would shape his future and eventually lead him from Grand Falls-Windsor all the way to Hollywood, California.
As a child Len could most times be found building model kits, but as he got older he started to branch out into drawing, expressing his passion for everything visual. He and a few of his friends would often trace the characters from comic books they purchased and each week you could find them immersed in the worlds of Spiderman or Superman.
And while Len is the first to admit that Hollywood is a long trek away from his hometown, for anyone interested in the film industry it’s where you must be. However, it wasn’t a simple task of majoring in movie making for Len to get there. While looking at his options for training after high school the only post-secondary institution the counsellors could suggest was York University.
“I didn’t want to go to university to do art because it’s all academic. College is where I was going because you spend the most of your time doing the actual craft. In the back of my mind, ever since 1977 after seeing Star Wars it was my dream to go to San Francisco to work for ILM building models – since I spent my childhood building plastic models and I thought I would love to do that for the movies. Hollywood was the goal but I didn’t know how to get there, and by the time I got to Stephenville it was almost gone out of my head.”
He first enrolled in the Commercial Arts program, at what is now CNA’s Prince Philip Drive campus, where he learned about photography, print making and drawing. During the program Len heard about the two-year Visual Arts program at Bay St. George campus in Stephenville, so he packed his bags and head west. The Visual Arts program focused on fine arts – including painting, drawing, photography and video.
“It was learning skills with your hands and trying to get the creative concepts into your head. The one thing about art is a lot of people say they can’t draw, but it’s all up to practice. I’ve been doing it since I was 10 or 11 so I was getting better and better. The more education I got on it, of course, the better I got it. In school you’re doing it every single day and getting practice in every single day to find the skill you like. I liked using pencil for drawing. I wasn’t heavily into painting, but I liked photography and film. By doing that every day for two years, it brought my skill up to a level where I could get jobs.”
He graduated from CNA’s Visual Arts program in 1984 and worked for a brief time as a photographer and lab technician for a community newspaper.
“But still, the whole time I’m thinking, ‘how do I get to Hollywood?’” Len says.
His time at CNA was just the stepping stone he need to sharpen his focus on Hollywood, so that’s when Len headed to Halifax to train at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) where he majored in 2D and 3D animation, film making, photography and jewellery.
That led him to the three-year Technical Effects Animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. CNA had not introduced its animation or film and video programs yet.
“My idea was if I learned animation, I could go to ILM doing animation and then get myself into the model department. But by the time I finished, (modeling) had all gone to computer which I had no interest in.”
After a decade of post-secondary education under his belt, Len was scooped up by Sullivan Bluth Studios in Dublin, Ireland.
“I got a phone call before I graduated and got the job offer for animation. My idea was go to San Francisco and ILM, but I started hearing computers were taking over and there was no model building. When got the call and they asked if I wanted to come to Ireland and work on a movie, of course I jumped at that.”
After a year-and-a-half with that company Len got a call from a friend working at Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblimation.
“Within a week I was in London, England. That was pretty cool. It was straight out of school into doing studio work. The guy who hired me there knew my skills and that I worked hard. I guess he considered me good at drawing. It just seemed like I had a more skill than a lot of people because I spent so much time drawing. I had spent three years at Sheridan drawing but it was through the Newfoundland schools, doing it there at CNA, that it started.”
Len remained at Amblimation until 1995.
“Because Steven was working on so many films, he only dropped in every now and then and it was getting less and less. He was starting to think of closing the place down because he couldn’t get there to oversee anything.”
Spielberg made the decision to move his employees to the United States. Len was to report to the Universal lot for Spielberg’s new company called DreamWorks.
“I was one of the first DreamWorkers. We knew how big it was. We were on the Universal lot and every lunch we’d take go carts, run around the lot and explore places like the Psycho house,” Len recalls.
“We did that for a couple of years until we moved into our own compound. It was pretty cool because there were probably 150 of us, but there were only maybe six to 10 people in our department. Other than designing the film itself we were actually designing animation tables and deciding who gets hired. We felt like senior staff, you know? We were designing DreamWorks and making decisions on how we were going to do stuff. That was kind of cool, where you’re not just working on the film, but how the company itself will work.”
For their first project Spielberg wanted to do something epic, something similar to the The Ten Commandments, that’s when production began on the Prince of Egypt.
“Steven said, ‘that’s it, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do a religious film’. That is risky in itself, but Steven told us that he was not looking for a film that will make money. He was looking for one that will be impressive and show our skills.”
The film certainly did that! Since the early ‘90s Len has an impressive list of credentials under his belt, working on hits such as Balto, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, The Simpsons Ride, and most recently, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Vin Diesel’s The Last Witch Hunter.
“To me the animation is when you have the skill of using your hands to draw. Those are my favourite, most relaxing jobs. There is more fun in that because it’s more hands on. By end of my time with Dreamworks I was trained on computers. That’s what everything changed to and that’s all I do now is computer,” Len says.
“It’s not as enjoyable because you’re fighting the computer and the programs. The computer is not fast enough or software breaks down. You spend half your time using those skills, the creative side of it – and a lot of people use the computer now to do the job so it’s not as fun working on the films.”
He says animation work can be difficult to get now with CGI so prevalent in the industry, so Len has branched out and developed skills such as compositing, editing, lighting and character work.
“I’ve kind of touched every part of film so I have this multi-skill set. Now, instead of having a story board drawn, the film is pretty well built before it is shot. They do the entire film in CGI. All the acting is done by animated characters. It’s built from scratch – camera angles, lighting and then it gets filmed to what you’ve designed – right down to the camera and lights. Once they decide exactly what they want, they s
et it up that way. When you animate those scenes you are actually animating how the actors will act.”
But his absolute favourite thing about the industry is being on set.
“I like working on any part of a film; I could be sitting around in a chair and waiting to push a button! People say how boring it is to work on a live action film because you might be sitting around all day and then do one thing for a few seconds, but I get a kick out of that. It feels like you’re accomplishing something people are going to see and enjoy.”
And while Len has lived full time in Hollywood for 20 years, when you ask him about home, he says it will always be Newfoundland.
“I am in Hollywood and I live here, but I come back to Newfoundland every year. I have a boat and cabin there and some family. I married a Newfie girl – my high school crush. We come back home every year and that’s still our most favourite place on earth. We never forget about Newfoundland. We don’t call here home. When we say home, we’re talking about Newfoundland.”
Learn more about Len’s journey at cnastories.ca/len.