Local Arts

Charlotte native makes movie magic (and that ‘Revenant’ bear’s part of it)

Cary Phillips at work for ILM.
Cary Phillips at work for ILM.

Cary Phillips has to be furtive at the office. He and his compatriots are given code names for every project they work on, and that’s the name they use, at their desks and around the water cooler, to refer to their work. But he’s not with the CIA or FBI.

He’s a software engineer in the movie industry.

His work must be so closely guarded that he generally can’t even talk about it after a movie is in theaters. It goes with the territory at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Phillips co-manages the team of engineers that made it possible for artists to design the computer-generated grizzly bear in “The Revenant.” He’s not permitted to say much about the process, he says. And he’s too modest to brag about the role he played in creating the ursine creature that mauls Leonardo DiCaprio in this year’s best picture frontrunner.

“The director wants there to be some mystery,” said the R&D supervisor. “He wants the images to speak for themselves.” But Phillips will say the work that led to that bear is some of the best he’s done in his career.

And he’s already won three “technical Academy Awards” (they’re not referred to as Oscars and are not handed out on Oscar night). Of the 10 films considered for “Best Visual Effects” Oscars this year, ILM contributed visual effects to seven. (A bit of arcane trivia: Each year, the executive committee of the Visual Effects branch of the Academy chooses 10 films worthy of consideration for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. From those 10, the Academy selects five for nomination.)

This year, ILM artists are nominated for Visual Effects Oscars for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Revenant.”

Phillips also holds seven patents – all from his work at ILM on animating digital characters.

He describes the process of developing software that brings to life something that isn’t real as both “revolutionary and evolutionary.”

“You take what’s been done before, and you figure out how to push it forward. It’s a process of continued refinement.”

“When we do our jobs well, you can’t tell what we’ve done,” he said. “The audience appreciates the film without recognizing the visual effects as visual effects.”

The Force is with him

Although Phillips was “really into movies” as a high school student, he didn’t set out to be in the film business. He does have a vivid memory of seeing “Star Wars” in 1977 at the old Capri Theater on Independence Boulevard. “I had no idea that, years later, I would work on ‘Star Wars’ prequels and the new movies,” he said.

“A lot of people at ILM saw ‘Star Wars’ and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life,’” he said. “But I had no real concept that movies were made by actual people – that you could make a career of that.”

After graduating from West Charlotte, he went on to earn his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Johns Hopkins. (This was in the early ’80s – long before computers were ubiquitous.)

He pursued graduate studies because, he said, he “didn’t want a real job.” Instead, he earned his Ph.D. in computer graphics from the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.

Of the 35 engineers in ILM’s R&D department, eight have Ph.D.s. These are not just film geeks; they’re actual geeks.

Eventually, Phillips got a real job at Pacific Data Images, a company that would eventually be bought by DreamWorks Pictures, the powerhouse studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. There, he helped bring to life such well-known figures as the Dow scrubbing bubbles and the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Since joining ILM in 1994, he and his team of engineers have worked beside a team of artists to create 3-D animation, motion tracking, performance capture and more. “It’s not a linear process,” he said. “There’s a lot of back and forth.”

While the results of his work are artistic, he doesn’t think of himself as an artist: “I don’t have those aesthetic skills of sculpting, painting and photography, but I work with people who have those skills.”

Does he feel human feelings toward the animated creatures he helps build? No. He’s a scientist, after all. “There’s a level of abstraction and detachment to what we do,” he said.

And he and his team are given information only on a need-to-know basis: “We have very little visibility into films we work on. We don’t know the plot, although some artists in our department do.”

He’ll admit he doesn’t have an innate sense for what’s going to be a hit and what will bomb. When he was told his team would be working on a movie based on a Disney ride, he thought, “This is going to be the stupidest thing ever.”

But “Pirates of the Caribbean” turned out to be “very inspired,” he said.

There are perks that go along with working at ILM. For one, the ILM team gets to see select scenes – sort of a highlight reel – in their on-site studio after completing work on a film.

Surprisingly, “The Force Awakens” was one of the worst-attended preview screenings. The ILM team didn’t want to spoil the wonder of seeing the finished film as it was meant to be seen. “We want to be captivated, too,” he said.

Even scientists, it seems, want to believe in magic.

The Phillips file

For a scientist, Cary Phillips has a lot of film credits to his name. He was R&D supervisor on 2015’s “Strange Magic” and worked on R&D in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006), “Van Helsing” (2004) and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), among others. He helped develop software used in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999), “The Mummy” (1999), “Men in Black” (1997) and more.

The West Charlotte High alum lives in the San Francisco area with his wife and 17-year-old twins.