Interview with Jeffrey Okun, “Sleepwalkers”

Jeffrey Okun has contributed visual effects and 2nd unit direction to a wide-range of films such as the award winning sci-fi hit Stargate (1994), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Last Starfighter (1984), Lolita (1997), Cutthroat Island (1995), Sphere (1998) and Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989).

His credits also include music videos from such varied artists as Sting, The Beatles (for A Hard Days Night re-release), Jimi Hendrix, Janet Jackson, Wayne Newton, Bryan Adams, Amy Grant, Dolly Parton, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Neville Brothers and Rod Stewart, in which he created many amazing camera and optical effects.

Okun is known for creating ‘organic’ and invisible effects, as well as spectacular effects which seamlessly expand both the look and scope of a film, but also enhances the storytelling aspect of the movie. Additionally, Jeff is the creator of the revolutionary visual effects techniques dubbed the “PeriWinkle Effect” & the “Pencil Effect”, which have been used in many projects to help achieve more a sense of the fantastic, wonder and more accurate budgets. Okun is the author of breakdown, budgeting and tracking software currently being used by professionals throughout the industry.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Jeff in July 2011 about Stephen King’s “Sleepwalkers” and a couple other films…

GS: Just to start this ball rolling, what is a “special effects supervisor”, besides what it sounds like?

JO: Well, special effects is different from visual effects. Special effects is for graphical things, things happening in front of the camera. Whereas visual effects are things that are unshootable for whatever reason. Let’s call it in-camera trickery versus post-production work.

GS: Let’s talk about some projects. What did you do for Wes Craven’s “Shocker”?

JO: I came in as a finishing guy… I helped Bruno George, the Visual Effects Supervisor, finish that project up. It was a project that was, believe it or not, was cutting edge in its day. Bruno had come up with a way to composite people into old footage in a new way. The idea from Wes Craven was to have a much larger production than the budget allowed. I co-supervised with him but only in post production and re-shoots. He is the one who sold Wes on the concept of the “new” type of visual effects that did not need a blue screen or green screen. I was brought in because Bruno was a little bit less than organized in those days. I helped put the bits and pieces together. It was a fun project, by the way. Wes Craven, awesome guy.

The guy who helped us both out, totally uncredited, owned a company called Available Light, John Van Vliet.

GS: And more recently, you did “Red Riding Hood”…

JO: Yeah. I don’t know what to say about that film. Catherine Hardwicke (best known as the director of “Twilight”) was the director on that one, and it was her take on an old fable. It was directed with a very specific point of view. It was a very small budget and had a very short schedule for what we were trying to accomplish on it. The entire movie was shot indoors on a sound stage, over the course of 41 days. That means a ridiculous amount of work each day. So it was very rough and tumble.

GS: I’m a huge fan of “Sleepwalkers”, so let’s talk about that. What effect in the movie stands out for you?

JO: That was the first film that did a moving morph. We had the car changing, faces changing, and all that. That was the first time we did that while letting the camera move around, so it’s really a big deal. And we had Carl Rosendahl, owner of PDI (Pacific Data Images) — which is not in business anymore — we had his company do it. They had worked on Michael Jackson videos. The other thing is that Mick Garris was the director of that film, and Mick is just an awesome guy to work with. He clearly knows what he wants, easy to work with, very creative. We did the title sequence in that film, as well. We tried to use the title to get the audience into the lore we were presenting.

GS: Mick does get a lot of praise from his co-workers. Was he involved in your work, or did he more or less let you run loose?

JO: Well, the thing about Mick that’s different from most people is that Mick really knew what he wanted. As soon as we met in pre-production and made it clear what he wanted, he left you alone to do your work. Of all the years I’ve been in film, this was the only film where we planned ahead and actually did exactly what we said we were going to do and when we said we were going to do it. So there wasn’t a lot of sitting around on the set.

GS: For me, the most memorable effect is when Charles is looking at Andy, and then he sees the cat and his face morphs into ten different things.

JO: And one of them was my newborn son. (laughs) We did this whole sequence of going through his life and his different identities.

GS: How was the effect accomplished?

JO: We had a series of actors stand in front of a green screen, some of them in masks, and basically shot them one at a time. Then we went over to PDI and worked with them. We lined the shots up and did our morphs. Because nobody was really doing that stuff back then, we had a lot of freedom to invent. It was really fun. You know the end scene where Alice Krige bursts into flame?

GS: Yeah.

JO: There’s an interesting story about that. It was the last shot of the movie. The line producer’s name was Dick Stenta, and Mick was desperately trying to shoot the scene and get the actors in the right emotional state. We were in the same warehouse where they shot the Terminator sequence where the Terminator’s just a metal skeleton dragging along the ground. It was a very cold, windy night and Dick let Mick run into overtime by an hour or two. Then we were going to shoot this thing where Alice was on fire, we shot Alice doing her acting bit, and then Dick decided “enough of this”. He actually, physically pulled the plug off the generators and said, “That’s it. Whatever you didn’t shoot, you don’t have.” We tried to reason with him, telling him it was the end of the movie, the big shot. And Dick said, “Tough.” So we’re standing around in the dark, and we decided to light our rig on fire anyway. And since the cameras run on batteries we were able to see. So there we were, ready to shoot completely in the dark. We had someone run interference with Dick Stenta. Very fun. That’s the only time that ever happened!

GS: What a great story. Thanks so much for talking “Sleepwalkers” with me, Jeff.

JO: Not a problem. Talk to you later!

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