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DF interview: Fon Davis puts the ‘Special’ into SFX
By Byron Brewer
In his over two-decade career, Fon Davis has worked on over 30 feature films. As an alumnus of the Industrial Light and Magic Model Shop, Fon has worked on features such as Star Wars, Pearl Harbor, Starship Troopers, Galaxy Quest, Mission: Impossible III and the Matrix series.
In addition to his work in visual effects, Fon has also worked in Disney’s art departments as a concept designer/model maker, and on several stop motion projects including The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.
More recently, Fon was the Miniatures Supervisor on Neill Blomkamp’s, Elysium and worked on Interstellar with New Deal Studios. Fon expanded Fonco Creative Services and moved to Los Angeles in 2015. He also writes and develops his own projects, frequently combining his knowledge of traditional special effects and computer technology.
So what – and who – makes the dazzling special effects that puts the pizzazz into your movies? DF caught up with Fon Davis, and we’re about to find out.
Dynamic Forces: Fon, you are one of the most sought-after special effects artists in Hollywood. Tell us how you first got into this field.
Fon Davis: I started as a carpenter in San Francisco, but I had my sights on the film industry. More specifically, I wanted to be a model maker, and even more specifically I wanted to work at Industrial Light and Magic. I had dreamed of working at ILM ever since I was a kid and saw the first Star Wars movie. I knew I had to get into the industry somewhere, so I applied at a bunch of scenery companies to be a set builder on movie and TV shows. I didn’t have a portfolio at the time, and everybody wanted one, so I built a bunch of stuff and took pictures of it. From scenery construction I was able to get into prop making and model making at Colossal Pictures, where I did MTV station IDs, music videos and Pillsbury Doughboy commercials. I met a bunch of people while working in stop-motion at Colossal Pictures. Henry Sellick, a director at Colossal, had gone to school with Tim Burton, who hired him to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. Sellick took a bunch of us from Colossal with him to Skellington Productions to do Nightmare. That was my transition from life-size sets into doing miniatures. At the Disney organization, I learned how to do mold-making, machining, foam carving and so much more -- my skill set exploded. Then I went from Disney to ILM. Things just kind of took off from there. When you work with people in the industry, you form a bond like with family, and it’s a freelance industry, so you hear about jobs, jump from movie to movie, and now fast-forward 20 years and I have worked on 30 feature films.
DF: What was your first “break” in the movies, the step that let you say “Here I am”?
Fon Davis: The first time I felt like I really made it was The Nightmare Before Christmas, my first feature film. I had a similar feeling when I got to ILM, and I had it again on the Star Wars movies. The original thing that inspired my career was seeing the SW movies. It’s like my life had come full circle.
DF: You worked on the special anniversary version of the original Star Wars in 1997, I believe. Tell us what you did and how it felt working on the first of such an iconic franchise.
Fon Davis: I was a model maker -- we did miniatures of cities, did a lot of prop restoration and repair (Boba Fett’s backpack, stormtrooper blasters), a lot of little restoration on re-used props. I got to be an extra in a few crowd scenes. For example, I’m in the Coruscant celebration scene from Return of the Jedi -- they didn’t have enough people, so they got us all and shot three shots of the same group of people to fill up the crowd, so I and everyone else are in the crowd three times.
DF: What has been your favorite project to date? Tell us about some of your works.
Fon Davis: It’s really hard to pick a favorite, depends on my mood. Matrix was a lot of fun. Galaxy Quest was a lot of fun. One of the more recent ones I really enjoyed working on was a Machete Brisk commercial. We designed and built a majority of three stop motion Brisk commercials. I was proud of the Machete set because it flipped and rotated, opened and closed. The director wanted something that felt alive. It was some of my best work as a production designer.
DF: Who are some of your mentors, or some of the effects greats in the industry whose work you admire?
Fon Davis: It was pretty mind-blowing for me because I got to work with a lot of the mentors I had first seen on trading cards when I was a kid, I had seen them in Cinefex and magazines like that. They worked at ILM when I was a kid, and when I got there as an adult, they were still there. Lorne Peterson and Steve Gawley worked on the original Star Wars movies. Ultimately Brian Gernand taught me more than anyone else at ILM about the production side of running projects, budgets, and heading up crews. I was able to learn from those three and many more when I was there. There were so many amazing people at ILM, everyone was so open about sharing ideas and helping others improve.
Interesting story: When I was growing up, things were a lot more conservative than now, and people often pointed out that I was Asian. Ease Owyeung, Greg Jein and Larry Tan were all Asian model makers featured in magazines of the day and worked in feature films. When I started at ILM, Larry Tan still worked there. Larry Tan opened the door for me as a role model both before I met him and as I worked with him. They were Asians doing model making so I looked up to them when I was young. I ended up meeting Ease Owyeung on BattleBots and later met Greg Jein at a dinner in Los Angeles.
DF: Old school effects (largely done in real time) vs. modern effects (largely post-production done on computers): the pros and cons of each, as you see them?
Fon Davis: I never call anything “old school.” Almost every department in motion pictures has been around since the days of theater and none of them are called “old school,” so I don’t know why special effects are singled out. None of the other departments are, so I’m careful about how I say that. Nothing’s old school because we are still doing it. I feel it’s best to work with a full toolbox of resources, combining traditional techniques with computer technology. My favorite example of this approach is Chris Nolen’s. He shoots everything he can full-scale in-camera until time and budget doesn’t allow, then he shoots miniatures until time and budget doesn’t allow, then he goes to CGI to get the rest of it done. That’s a good example of a balanced pipeline. All the tools are amazing, as long as you keep the story on top.
DF: What existing movie (or even TV show, comic book or other media property) would you like to grab/re-do and make it a Fon Davis FX production, just because you love it?
Fon Davis: I want to work on a Tron or Godzilla project someday. They’ll keep doing them, and I want to work on one.
DF: Tell us about some of the extraordinary work you have done with the “Ace of Cakes,” Duff Goldman. (I LOVED the Transformers cake!)
Fon Davis: That was pretty darned amazing! We did Cake Masters [on Food Network]. Whenever Duff comes to us with something, it’s always amazing and fun and has never been done before. We don’t often get an option in special effects to work with something edible and as yummy as cakes. We do all these crazy things for him, always on a short time line. We did a Transformers cake which was an Optimus Prime that turned into a truck. We did another cake character that threw up butterscotch pudding. All the drama we had on that show that wasn’t scripted, it was actually that terrifying. Once, we got to the location and a transmitter that I had had for decades from the ILM model shop blew a fuse while I was using it for the show. Duff is much more technical than you’d imagine a chef to be. We handed off the technology for the Skylanders Cake with servos, transmitters, receiver, batteries, chargers and stuff, I ran through how it all worked once and he just said, “Cool, see you later.” He really understands how things work. You can tell he’s a maker of all things, not just cakes. I love working with Duff!
DF: Fon, where might we next see your stunning artistry?
Fon Davis: I’m on BattleBots and also a show called Superfan Builds available on Verizon G0-90 and youtube. We do a number of builds on that show, crazy builds for fans. There’s a bunch of stuff coming out on a number of those shows. Also I just directed a music video for a song, “Wait,” for the artist Emii, a kind of fun time-travel piece.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Fon Davis for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer our questions. Special thanks to James Trammel who assisted with this interview.
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