To create his stunning visual palate for the Academy Award-nominated film The Revenant, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and his cinematographer turned to a talented team of effects artists.
One of the leaders of that team was Illinois State University grad Doug Spilatro ’79. The TV-10 alum is vice president for visual effects at Technicolor VFX Hollywood, where his team of artists and producers worked around the clock to enhance the film’s distinct and naturally lit feel.
It’s only the latest project that’s allowed Spilatro to do what he loves—take a screenwriter or director’s vision and figure out how to make it real, on set and in post-production.
“I’ve always loved that idea, of being able to visualize what it was going to take, what type of elements we would need, to put together a shot,” Spilatro told STATEside. “And if we do our job right (in visual effects), nobody ever knows we did anything. That’s the fun of it all.”
Spilatro has worked on dozens and dozens of feature films and TV shows, in addition to commercials. He worked on many of the Marvel films and Inarritu’s 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman, among others.
Spilatro’s post-production career began with the skills he learned at Illinois State. Like today’s students do, the New Jersey native tried his hand at many different behind-the-scene jobs at TV-10, such as cameraman and technical director. He was able to pursue personal projects with Student Television Workshop.
“It was nice to be able to experiment,” he said.
After graduation he worked for Illinois State’s video team, then moved to Chicago and became an early video effects artist using Paintbox, a cutting-edge TV graphics system in the 1980s. Initially adding logos and removing dirt from film-to-video transfers, Spilatro eventually found his niche as what’s called a “composite” artist.
Compositing—putting together many visual elements to make one photo-realistic image—is what makes it possible for, say, Superman to fly through the air without the audience seeing the cables.
Do you remember Taco Bell’s talking spokes-dog from the 1990s? That was Spilatro’s handiwork.
Making it to Hollywood
Spilatro chased TV commercial work to Los Angeles in 1997 but eventually fell in love with feature films. He’s been at Technicolor since 2013, managing his team as well as doing effects work himself.
They’ve done all sorts of work, big and small. They can seamlessly add blood splatter, muzzle flashes, or gunfire to an action movie. They can do digital cosmetics, or remove wires from stunt scenes. Right now, they’re working on two very different movies: Captain America: Civil War and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.
The Revenant is nominated for an Academy Award for its visual effects work, but that wasn’t for Spilatro’s team specifically. Their job was more to enhance the film’s lighting as envisioned by cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. (The infamous bear attack scene was created elsewhere.)
“It’s amazing all the different types of work we do,” Spilatro said.
The School of Communication alum loves going to the movies himself, using his analytical personality to figure out how visual effects were done or how they could’ve been done better.
“I’m a really lucky guy. I’m in a fun business. I love coming to work every day,” said Spilatro. “At any moment, I can turn on the TV or go to the movies and know I contributed to that. That’s very fulfilling.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.