Brian Connor ’93 never imagined he would go from working behind the scenes at Illinois State’s TV-10 to standing on the 2022 Academy Award stage to accept the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. With encouragement, the want to learn, and the determination to find a place in a competitive industry, he would soon be holding the coveted gold statuette.

When Connor first came to ISU, he started down a similar path as his father, pursuing a degree in finance. However, once Connor arrived on campus, he began to pursue some light video and photo editing in his free time, and he soon discovered a love for video production. From shooting and editing videos to writing and reading, Connor knew his future was in storytelling.

Man standing and smiling in front of a green screen
Connor standing in front of a green screen used for visual effects.

After changing his major to mass communication with a minor in public relations, Connor found his home away from home at ISU’s student television station, TV-10. It was there that he further explored his new interests and gained experience working behind the camera.

“Once I got behind the camera, I loved it, and I had a knack for getting b-roll, trying to be artistic with it, and making it look as good as I can. My talent has always been behind the lens,” said Connor.

TV-10 also opened the door to other opportunities outside of the University that would help Connor further his career behind the camera. With encouragement from the then-director of TV-10, John Fisk, Connor took an internship with Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria. At the time, Caterpillar had the largest business television network in the world, which meant the company had more technology, experiences, and educational opportunities for interns like Connor. It was here, after all, that Connor was able to learn to use a new 3D animation software that Caterpillar had acquired, Lightwave 3D.

“I was hooked from there! Once I got a taste of computer graphics and saw the film Jurassic Park, I knew what I wanted to do,” said Connor. “So, I packed up all my stuff and brought it with me to Los Angeles.”

Following commencement, Connor found himself unable to land a job with any of the visual effects companies in LA, as there were so few at the time. As he took a job as a mover to pay the bills, Connor worked at a film company for free to gain more experience in the field. While this job was without pay, Connor understood the importance of staying connected to his passion and building connections to help his career in the future. This soon came to fruition when Paramount Pictures opened its own visual effects department, and Connor’s door to Hollywood opened as well.

Man lecturing in front of a large screen
Connor lecturing on visual effects software.

Because he was willing to put in the work to get where he wanted to be, Connor found a job at Paramount, even if it was not quite in his visual effects wheelhouse. When he started, Connor answered Paramount’s phone calls, grabbed coffees, and transcribed every movie Paramount had made into a database. When not working, he spent his own time reading the manual for Paramount’s digital effects software to teach himself how to use it. The self-motivation to learn and the many extra hours spent practicing gave him the upper hand when the company saw his skills and promoted him to 3D animation supervisor. In four short years, all self-teaching was recognized when Paramount named him employee of the year.

Following the teachings and time at Paramount, Connor received an offer at the visual effects company DreamQuest Images, where he worked on his first feature credit, Mission to Mars. During filming, Connor found himself the last man standing on set on many occasions with one, in particular, sticking in his memory where he worked 56 hours straight.

“They eventually set me home because the color in my vision was shifting from being awake for so long, but I was young and I could do it,” said Connor. “I’m kind of lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do, and I was willing to do whatever it took and made sacrifices to do it.”

As word spread through the industry about Connor, his dedication to the craft, and his work ethic, bigger opportunities started to follow. First came a position with Industrial Light Magic (ILM), a visual effects company started by George Lucas when he began production on Star Wars. Connor moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay area and worked at ILM for 10 years, working on many major motion films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Iron Man, and Jurassic Park III.

“I had seen the first Jurassic Park movie, went through all the trials and tribulations, learned the software, I got to work at ILM, and then, the second film I worked on was Jurassic Park III,” said Connor. “So, I was so happy and floating above my seat to be compositing these amazing 3D visuals of T. rexes in the jungle. It was a very happy and full-circle moment in my life.”

Man standing with a mask on and holding a tripod with a camera on it
Connor on the set for a film he was working on.

He also helped open the company’s first international studio in Singapore with the help of only one other ILM employee. ILM’s Singapore office now offers full-service effects and animation for some of Hollywood’s top films, which would not have been possible without Connor.

Eventually, Connor left ILM to pursue opportunities with other visual effects companies. He worked at DNEG, a world leader in visual effects and animation for over seven years. DNEG has won seven Academy Awards and seven British Academy of Film Awards (BAFTA) for its work over the past 20 years.

Because Connor had experience launching international offices, he was asked to work with visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert to open up DNEG’s Vancouver office. When the Vancouver location became fully functional, Connor and Lambert worked on the 2015 film The Huntsman: The Winter’s War, a difficult process with over 837 difficult shots. Several years later, Lambert reached out to Connor to ask if he would want to work with him on Dune, an epic science fiction film set far in the future starring Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and Zendaya. Even though it came with a move to Montreal, Connor agreed.

“They had pushed the release of Dune for over a year because of COVID-19. So, when I actually saw it at the cast and crew screening in IMAX, I was blown away. With the sound and score put together with the imagery, it was amazing,” said Connor.

Once Dune was finally released in 2021, it experienced immense success at both the box office and streaming platforms with a simultaneous release on HBO MAX. The film did not go unrecognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as Dune received 10 Academy Award nominations. The film won six, including one for Best Visual Effects, marking Connor’s first Oscar.

Connor and other members of the Dune VFX team share insight about visual effects in the film.

“I have to say it was never my dream to win an Academy Award because I never thought I could,” said Connor. “What I’ve learned about winning the bigger awards is it’s not just about how good your work is, but how good the work is of the people you’re competing against.”

Dune went on to win ‘Best Visual Effects’ awards from the VES (Visual Effects Society) and BAFTAs (British Academy of Film Television and the Arts), amongst many others.

Today, following the success of Dune, Connor is focusing on Dune: The Sisterhood, an 8-episode series on HBO MAX, where he is the overall visual effects supervisor. In this role, he will spend the next year on set in Budapest as he manages other visual effects supervisors and works with the showrunners to plan visual effects for the entire show.

Four men standing and smiling holding Oscar awards
From left to right, Brian Connor, Paul Lambert, Gerard Nefzerin, and Tristan Myles with their Oscars for Best Visual Effects.

Connor has always appreciated those that have helped him in his career and has tried to always give back and spread the love of visual effects and computer graphics. He co-wrote The Encyclopedia of Visual Effects and taught at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco for four years. He has also produced many podcasts to discuss the visual effects of Dune and to help inform and guide students that would like to get into and start their career in visual effects.

He notes that if it were not for those people that helped him in his career, like Fisk at Illinois State, who encouraged and pushed him as an undergraduate student, or the time he had working hands-on at TV-10 finding his passion, he would not be where he is today. This, along with the dedication to his work, the time taken to hone his skills, and the effort to work his way through the visual effects field has allowed Connor to move forward and succeed behind the lens.