Big-Budget Film & Award-Winning Director / Producer ,"Zach Thomson" Shares His Secrets for Success!




Where you are originally from? Tell me about your childhood?


I’m originally from the small town of Rexburg, Idaho. My early adolescent years were spent in Spanish Fork, UT. I have three brothers—two of which are doctors and the oldest is also in the film industry. Unbeknownst to me, my filmmaker journey started in Utah during middle school. You know, most people might not know this, but Utah is a magnet for filmmakers. They film a lot of projects out there!


What steps did you take back then that led you to where you are today?


When I was somewhere around age 14, one of my scoutmasters, who also happened to be a “search and rescuer”, worked on movie sets. We called him “Mike Medic”. Well, he told me one day, “Zach, you've got a lot of energy! Let's put some of that to good use.” So, he took me with him on the film sets.



So, I was able to be a PA (production assistant) and do extra work on a few early projects. Even though my father was a school teacher at the next school over (which was our rival town), my mother allowed me to skip school to work on sets, as long as I brought home A's. So, that was cool!





Tell me about one of your first film projects?

One of the films that stick out to me was a small budget film called “The Runner “starring Ron Eldard, John Goodman, Joe Mantegna, & Courtney Cox. The movie is about a young man with an addiction to gambling who has managed to get himself into serious debt. I remember it being a lot of fun! I took photos with the cast and even did background work. Although it was not a box office hit, it was a lot of fun! I really, really enjoyed getting up super early in the morning and getting started. But, even better than that, I enjoyed observing how movies were made.


From my childhood, movies have always been my escape. Whenever I would watch movies, I would get engulfed in them! I was fascinated by how movies were put together. From camera to lighting, every aspect of making a film captured my imagination. From that point on, I knew I wanted to tell stories in that medium.



What inspired you to become a producer and director?


What's funny is that although I consider myself a reclusive extrovert, I enjoy entertaining and telling stories. Also, I enjoy seeing people learn. I think it's a good thing when you're able to step away from reality for a few minutes and just enjoy a good story. I've learned that throughout the history of mankind, we learn and grow through stories and these stories can stick with us throughout our entire lives.


I believe that when good principles and good concepts are applied to good stories, we remember them better. What better medium than film? While capturing a story, you can pull tight in on the facial expressions of someone or use lighting and music to further tell your story. You can just draw from every emotion.


I realized that if I was going to have a positive impact on the world (and be able to get paid to do it), I knew that working in movies would be the direction that I would take. So, I spent my youthful years learning as much as I possibly could about the film industry.


I committed myself to learn the best way to approach storytelling and learned how to avoid the pitfalls. I even experimented with learning and trying new things independently, but the best lesson was my firsthand experience working with James Camron on the movie “Avatar”. (James Francis Cameron (born August 16, 1954) is a Canadian film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, artist, and environmentalist who currently lives in New Zealand)





Avatar was an amazing movie! How was it working with James Camron on “Avatar”?


I had an incredible experience working with James Cameron on “Avatar” because I grew up watching his movies such as “Terminator 1 & 2”, “Aliens,” and many more. In my opinion, some movies are not as effective in drawing viewers in, but his movies captivated me.


I think that the downside of being in film is that I know how things work behind the scenes. Because I have the inside knowledge of how movies are put together, the makeup they use, and even down to spraying on fake blood, I look at movies differently now. I can tell whether they did a sufficient job with the actor’s dialogue, the script, and even the lighting. Get those aspects of a film wrong and I disengage from the movie and start looking at my watch. This makes it very difficult for me to appreciate some movies, but Jim (James Cameron) has a gift for storytelling.


I considered it a privilege to carry his virtual camera and be a virtual camera operator on Avatar! It was just an incredible experience to work with and learn from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time! It inspired me in a lot of ways. Another cool thing is that I got to work with my brother! He was part of the visual art department and one of the animators.



So where did your journey take you after Avatar?


Ever since I was nine years old, I had a movie idea and a story that I wanted to tell. Soon after finishing Avatar, I decided that I was going to develop that project out, so I reached out to Weta Workshops in Wellington, NZ to build out the world of End of an Empire. I then gave the development book to my good friend, Nolan Murtha, who was for many years James Cameron's right-hand who showed Jim the development book. I was told Jim commented on the book and said, “It’s cool. It looks like Avatar on Earth.”



Tell me about it?


End of an Empire is about ancient civilizations, native cultures, and things like that. See, when I was young, back when my father was working on his master’s degree, we moved to Arizona for a year. My dad worked as a counselor for a survival program that worked with troubled youth. This resulted in me making good connections and great friendships with some of the families down there.


In fact, I even earned an Indian name (white raccoon) when My Navajo friends and “Lehi Thundervoice Eagle” (who was my age) taught me how to make flint nap arrowheads, dream catchers, arrows, and bows. They also taught me survival skills and of course how to like to make fire with a bow drill and hand drill.



It was both a fascinating and incredible experience! This is how I became fascinated with the indigenous cultures. I learned that there are many amazing stories amongst the indigenous people. Because of what I learned; it sparked my curiosity to do more research. In my findings, I also became more knowledgeable about the “First Nations” people. For years I traveled the world learning about various cultures, because I find diversity to be so beautiful!



I believe you can learn a lot from other perspectives and experiences, so I wanted to showcase that in one of the movies that we'll be working on soon. It’s called, “End of an Empire”. It’s about the ancient civilizations and cultures of Mesoamerica and how these tribes came together, the tragedy of them not understanding each other, and their wars. It has been fun to develop out the world of “End of an Empire” with the Weta Workshops down in New Zealand.


Weta workshops is the group that is responsible for all the visuals, environments, and designs for “Avatar”, “Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, “District 9”, “Elysium”, and more recently, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Mad Max Fury Road”, and some of the newer films such as “The Avengers” movies. In my opinion, they're one of the best practical effects companies in the world!


So, together, we started developing the world that I had initially envisioned—the world of these ancient civilizations. So, the dream that I had when I was younger became my adult reality, thanks to Richard Taylor and the Weta Team.


A combination of living in Arizona and learning from my Navajo friends inspired me to write these incredible stories pulling from many sources. Fascinating!



You’ve worked on big-budget films, tell me about some of the movies you’ve been a part of, and what was your role in these productions?


Early on during the filming of the movie “Independence Day” I was just an extra out on the salt flats that I guess it looked like Area 51. Some days I would do extra work, and some days I would serve as a production assistant. It was great being a production assistant because I would get to know people. It was a good thing because it provided me the opportunity to learn from the grassroots. I literally started from the bottom of the totem pole. The lessons that I learned were invaluable.


Being a PA taught me how to work with people, what people needed to accomplish, and how to anticipate their movements. Once I learned what their job was, I wanted to facilitate that so that I could be a benefit on set.


I can recall the first day on the set of Avatar, Nolan threw a script in my hands, and he said, “Zach, make yourself invaluable”. And I thought to myself, “that's a tall order!” But that's exactly what I did, I made myself invaluable.


Fortunately, because I had so much experience in many different areas, I was impelled to know how things worked. But, working on the set of Avatar challenged me at a whole new level. I’m not necessarily the best lighting person or the best animator, but I know how they work. I knew enough to be dangerous. Now, watching my older brother Tyler (who happens to be one of the best animators in Hollywood), I also learned how to appreciate his perspective of storytelling.

Another way I learned, was by working on numerous TV sets throughout the years. “Touched by an Angel”, “Firestarter 2” and “Everwood” to name a few.

Because so many movies with great incentives came through Utah, I was able to work. Even early on, when I was a PA, I was able to figure out how things worked by just jumping around from one department to the next. I would assist anyone that needed my help because I knew that learning was priceless.


Instead of requesting payment from people who virtually didn't know me from Adam, I would sometimes donate my time. I would let them know that I was available to help in any area that they needed. I learned loads because there was no risk on their part. They were like, “at least it’s not costing me anything!” So, they gave me little task and responsibilities and then thanked me for my servitude. Once I learned and figured things out, I became a valuable asset. Again, later in 2003 when I worked at 20th Century Fox Studios and Century City, I would make friends with all different departments and learn as much as I could by asking questions and being helpful.


So, in 2007, or 2008, when Nolan put the script in my hand and said to me, “Zach, make yourself invaluable”, I already understood the concept. I got to do almost everything! On occasion I was even a virtual camera operator on set. Basically, about 6 of us would record the actors in the motion capture suits. The artists would then be able to use our reference footage to go in and isolate somebody's STL rig and make modifications where needed.

Also, with our footage they could tweak it or make adjustments because sometimes the overhead infrared lights, the cameras, would be blocked and wouldn't get the full motion. In this instance, they would use our footage as a reference. But then other days, after filming all the actors, we'd go back on the volume stage. So, this is one of the things I'm proud of! Now, Jim is so on the ball. Frankly, this guy… he is a genius!


Tell me a bit more about him and your experience working with Jim?


I think most people don't understand him and don’t get why his barks are so intense, but I do. See, he processes things so quickly, and I’m similar in nature. I'm not saying I'm a genius like him, but I understood why he would get short-tempered when people weren’t moving fast enough. When he has a vision, he wants to execute it.


So, when people aren't on top of their game, he would get agitated. He's a bit calmer now.

For me, I never took offense at whatever he would snap at me for, and I certainly was not going to correct him. Not even for the things that I wasn't responsible for. My approach was to just roll with the punches. So, that's what I did.



I got so much face time with Jim carrying his camera (the virtual camera) and marking his spots. He and I alone would run up and down this big empty grey volume stage inside the Howard Hughes hangars. (That’s where we filmed most of “Avatar” in Marina Del Rey before they tore it down a couple of years later.)


Because of the prior experience that I had; I learned how to anticipate his movements like, which direction he was going to move in and what he was going to do next.


So, it's like this, typically in a movie, you set up your start and stop points. Next, the crew comes in, lays out the tracks, gets the camera, sets the shot up, the director comes back one or two hours later, sits in the chair and that's the angle and direction that you are moving in.

With the virtual camera, he didn't have to wait for anybody. He could test it out a few different times, take a step forward, move over here a little bit, take a step forward, and back then try over here until he got the perfect shot. What was sometimes challenging for me was that he would move so fast that sometimes he forgot to tell me where my starting and stopping points were.



I would have these little black sandbags in the shape of “T’s” and would throw them down by his stopping and starting foot so that he could quickly see them out of his peripheral vision. This made it easy for him to feel and see where he wanted to start and stop. There were times when I’d have to read his facial expression, because I didn't want to bug him. I didn't want to say, “Hey Jim, out of those three, starting and stopping points, which one did you want?” So, when he stopped telling me, I literally had to guess by looking at his facial expressions. I would say to myself “ok, now that looks like satisfaction to me. I'm going to put it right there!”


The funny thing is that every now and then he would say to me, “no Zach, that's wrong!” and swear at me. But then at other times, he would be so much fun! But it didn't matter, because I was so impressed by him. I was just grateful that I was able to keep up and be a valuable asset to the team. I learned an abundance of things from working with him. I am just super grateful to have had the opportunity to be on set and learn from one of the greatest filmmakers in the movie industry!


That’s amazing to know how grateful you are. Sometimes expressing gratitude can be so difficult for some. Nobody becomes great on their own. Someone had to come into their life to influence them and it's always wonderful when you reach back to say thank you for those who gave you an opportunity. All of this is great. Can you share with me some more experiences?


As you may know, when you're filming, you stand on your feet hours upon hours. Then after lunch we go back on the film set and continue filming for several more hours back on our feet; it was exhausting.


One time, while standing back looking at the monitors, I was just impressed! I saw what he was going for in that particular shot. After numerous times shooting, he finally got the shot that he wanted. I was genuinely excited, because I thought to myself, “that's incredible!” Because I finally understood how his perfectionism yielded him the desirable shots he sought after. He's definitely a man who knows exactly what he wants!


I've also been on the set of Spider-Man. In fact, my brother did previs and storyboarding for Sam Raimi. One day Ty introduced me to Sam. He was the nicest guy in Hollywood. He invited us to sit with him. So, one time, while sitting next to Sam while he was directing, Toby Maguire (Spiderman) his directing style was a little different from Jim's. He would see three different versions of previs or storyboards, then he will pick the one that he liked the most. It’s just Jim knew exactly what he wanted. Every shot is a work of art!


I remember while watching the playback on the monitors, Jim leaned over to me and said, “never meet your hero's kid”. So funny! I think it was kind of his way of apologizing for barking at me on occasion.


I think Jim invited almost everybody in Hollywood to come over and view and experience, Avatar. Not only the movie, but the set, the virtual camera, and all the new technology that he built. Some of the people who came through were Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino, and so many others. You know who was coming down the hallway because of the way they spoke. You would hear his distinct voice “oh Tom Hanks is coming on set today.” In fact, the late Bill Paxton, what an incredible guy! He came on set one day and literally spent most of his day just hanging out with us on set. Just the three of us. It was incredible!


I noticed you were on the Dumb and Dumber set. Tell me about that experience?


I worked on a dumb and Dumber set when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I didn't get a lot of interaction with Jim Carey. I got to see him only on a few occasions, but he seemed like just a nice guy!


We shot so many shots. The airport scene was shot in Salt Lake at the Salt Lake International Airport. You wouldn't recognize it now because they've renovated it since then. But, down University Avenue in Provo, right down the street, the limo scene was shot there. We even shot a bunch of stuff up in Park City. It was supposed to be Aspen. It kind of doubled as Aspen, Colorado. But overall, it was fun to be on these sets.


The interesting thing is, while I was on a lot of these projects, I had no idea how big a deal they were going to be. “Dumb and Dumber” turned out to be a cult classic!

Also, every year when possible, my three brothers and I made a tradition of getting together and watching Independence Day. I think “Independence Day” is still one of the greatest 4th of July movies!


It's really inspiring to see how everybody came together to fight off the alien bad guys.

I recall reading the script of Avatar, I thought it was cool. Although I thought that it was cool and that it had a solid script, it wasn't until I was working and seeing the dailies and then the fully rendered images coming back from Weta Digital down in New Zealand, that I started to realize that Avatar would be a game-changer.


So, right after we finished filming Avatar, I moved to Hawaii. I remember inviting a bunch of my friends to see Avatar. They were like, “what! Are you talking about a little Chinese kid with a blue arrow on his head?” I told them, “No, it’s a different Avatar. So, I purchased about half the theater, and I took them to see the movie. They were all blown away! We all had a great time! Then I regaled them with fun stories about each of the different shots of which I got to be a part. It was an incredible experience.



What are the specific job responsibilities that you had on set?


Each movie I worked on had different responsibilities. For Avatar, there were many different jobs assigned to me. One of my tasks was to function as an information coordinator. I coordinated the information tracker between the visual art department from the set to editorial.


I also assisted in making sure that the STL rigs Jim picked made it to the right departments. From the V.A.D , (Visual Arts Department) to the editorial, etc. I dealt with the STL files, the skins of the models, and making sure that all the shots that Jim wanted, not only the facial cams. Sometimes he would pick a shot or the body movement from one of the takes but then use a face camera take from another and put that on that body instead.


Tracking the information was complicated. But when I wasn't doing that, I was able to carry a camera with a couple of other guys as well, and actually do reference footage of the actors in mocap. Then the coolest thing was just being out there with him and I, on the volume stage, carrying the camera, just holding the virtual camera and marking his spots. What a pleasure.

I would then hand it to him when he was ready to shoot. By me carrying the camera and cables for him so that it would take some of the tension off him and make it lighter to carry. So, wherever he moved, I would do the same. I felt like I was on top of my game.



On other projects, I did some extra work. As time went on, I felt it was time to make my own projects. So, I started producing and running the camera. Mind you, I never went to school to be a cinematographer. In fact, it took me 10 years in the film industry to figure out what I didn't want to do, you know? So, I learned enough to be dangerous and know what questions to ask when the time came to make my projects.


How was your experience as a filmmaker different than what you Actually experienced on the set?


First and foremost, it was kind of a double-edged sword, because some of the movie magic kind of disappeared for me a bit.


I hate to say that but, some of the movies that I had been watching, would draw me into that world. But then when I got on set, and I would see that it was just a façade it was disappointing. They would only build a wall this big and 10 feet high and the rest was either VFX extensions or they didn't build anything. It was just a bunch of wood holding up that wall. But the truth was that was all they really needed.



Of course, I learned later, for a producer to save money, you don't need to build out a ton of things you're not going to use. If you’re not going to use a bunch of different angles, you're wasting money. So, whatever is not on the actual camera within the lens, it's kind of a waste. When you pre-plan your shots and angles, and you stick to those, your money goes further. When I started to see how things were made behind the scenes, I was impressed by the movie magic. It’s literally magic when you're there! What's crazy is that when you go to the movies, and you see these films on the big screen, they look almost completely different.


Because I wasn't looking through the lens, I wasn't able to see with the cinematographer into what the director saw. Even when you look at dailies, you’re confused, because it’s not finished. But, once the footage is color corrected, VFX is added, along with audio and music, and it's fully edited, it looks really nice! That's the movie magic, and I love it!


After working on scary movies, scary movies aren't scary to me any longer. Because I know how it works. I know the techniques. I know how to make people feel claustrophobic by pulling in tight on a specific person so that you feel like you can’t see where the bad guy is coming from. I learned how to do all those types of tricks. Basically, it’s all about perception. Now, there's nothing that's impossible! With today's technology, there's nothing you can't do with film anymore. It's incredible! I think that every generation builds upon the previous generations.


Throughout the years, in some ways, things have gotten better for filmmakers. Materials are cheaper and more cost-effective. For example, technology has made it possible that anyone with an iPhone can make a movie. I think that's incredible!


What is your favorite type of film to make?


That's a tough question because I have several different types of movies that are in the early stages of pre-production. They’re in different areas. But, I really do like, “Sci-Fi” movies. They’re super fun to me!


What do you enjoy the most about making “Sci-Fi” movies?


I love thinking big. The future and space just fascinate me. You can have a little bit more flexibility with creativity. For example, with movies like Star Trek and Star Wars, and one of my favorites, “Interstellar”, you can come up with new and fun civilizations. You’re able to model new things. I like the flexibility and freedom of that.


This is why we had so much fun developing everything out with Weta, because they're able to develop out incredible things. But, I also love this project we did, “End Of An Empire”. Because nobody knew exactly what it looked like around the 400 AD pre-classic Mayan period, we pulled from all different styles around the ancient world. We had a little bit of flexibility with it. We're not trying to make “The Last of The Mohicans”, or “Apocalypto”, we're trying to do something a little bit different. So, it allows us to be a little creative.


I like to be able to have a little bit of creative input on the things I do. Having said that, I also did enjoy making, “Finite Water”, (The "Finite Water" documentary discusses global water concerns as seen through the eyes of an average person.) which comprised real-life situations. Through this documentary, it gave me the ability to add my voice and bring awareness to the importance of taking care of our planet. So, I made this documentary on water conservation called “Finite Water” to hopefully get people to be a little more aware of that aspect. Additionally, I wanted to hopefully inspire everyone to do their part in water conservation. There are many ways that you can do it. One of the ways to conserve water is by simply turning off the water instead of letting it run while you're brushing your teeth. This is another way in which Jim Cameron inspired me. He is an outspoken protector of the environment.



So, I’m quite eclectic in the selection of productions. I like a range of many things. I’m the same way with cultures and traveling the world. I enjoy a range of different foods. I like diversity and switching things up. So, as aforementioned, it’s a tough question to pinpoint genre because I enjoy so many movies.


As a producer, what advice would you give regarding working with talent?


First and foremost, don't burn bridges, and be kind to everyone. Show kindness and respect to everyone from the PA to the extra and even the actor or actress that’s acting like a diva. Just be kind to everyone because the reality is that in Hollywood, it is a very small world. Word gets around very quickly for better or worse.


I know this sounds crazy, but, in this industry, people only want to work with people that they want to work with. I know this sounds obvious, but you want to be a hard-working person of integrity and a person who is kind to everyone. Burning bridges is not a good practice in life. You got to keep in mind, sometimes you might be working with someone who is having a bad day, and as a result, they’ll be in a bad mood. There's no reason to let your pride take offense. So, to the best of your ability, don't take offense at people. You gotta let some stuff just roll off you. No matter what, just keep working hard. You're working with creative people, just strive to have a good work ethic.


With the advent of the technology that is now in everybody's pocket, anybody can tell stories. 10 years ago, I might have said something different, but now I believe that everybody can and should tell stories. Whether their aim is capturing their own history to tell their descendants, or just to entertain their family and friends, everybody should tell stories.


Aspiring filmmakers should learn how to capture and effectively tell better stories via film. But I would also say, write your own ticket. For example, you can attend major film schools and learn a lot of the techniques. You'll learn everything from operating the camera lenses to everything you need to know to theoretically make the best movies.



Producers like myself, want to bring on people that have something to contribute. But the problem is, there are so many people to pull from, that you kind of have to stand out. And you stand out by writing your own ticket. Create something so people can see what you can do. Then they’ll say, okay, great! Now, I think there's a place for you, or now I know that you can get something done from start to finish. So, write your own ticket. In fact, now, if you've got an audience, then your audience is valuable to somebody. Find what your passion is and pursue it.


For example, I'm writing a book right now, so I decided to write stuff down so I can share it with more people. The purpose of this book is to help people to understand things from my perspective. To give them insight into the paths that I've taken, in hopes that some of my words of wisdom can help them in their future endeavors.


I feel it's my duty to share my experiences and things I've learned to help them avoid unnecessary pitfalls. See, I have this belief that if everybody was pursuing their passion, the world would be a better place. Even though there are inevitable obstacles to overcome, if you're doing what you love, you will be willing to put in the necessary work to overcome them. But that's only if that's something that you're passionate about.



I could write books just about the obstacles I've learned from the school of Hard Knocks. So, because I've experienced so many things throughout my career, I want to inspire people to follow their passions and dreams. I have asked some people this question, “If you possessed everything that you've ever wanted in the world, including monetarily, what would you be doing with your time?” What’s interesting is that half of the people I ask that are presented with that question pause because they hadn’t put any serious thought into that matter. Some have responded by saying, “I think I'm just working to pay the bills”. Then I tell them, “You’re thinking wrong. You need to start thinking about what it is that really drives you.” At the same time, I do understand that you have to pay your dues. Sometimes you just have to do stuff that you don't necessarily love to do to get to where you want to be. That's what everybody has to do. But, at some point, you have to make that jump, and only you can determine the what and the when. Don’t be irresponsible about it. Just strive to pursue that passion. And if you don't have a passion, start figuring it out. Always remember, existing is not living.


What events that happened in your life caused you to because such a compassionate person that’s willing to encourage and inspire others especially in a business that can come off at times being somewhat fast-paced and insensitive? Why are you different?


Early on, in middle school, I dealt with depression. I remember feeling very isolated, because I didn't have any friends. I hated that feeling so much that something had to happen. I remember at the end of the school year our whole school went to “Lagoon”. Lagoon is a theme park like Six Flags or Magic Mountain and is located north of Salt Lake. Well, the crazy thing about it is that I literally had no friends to hang out with. I just talked to the teachers and hung out with them. I didn't want to tell my mom, because I didn't want her to worry about me. I didn't have friends, because I wasn't friendly. I just think I had to go through that so that I can learn how to be there for other people.



So, one day, part of me just kind of snapped trying to impress everyone. So, I said to myself, “I’m just going to do what I do, and be nice to everyone.” I’m going to do the things that make me happy because, at that point, I didn’t have any friends to impress. So, I started exploring my own path. But it wasn't in a resentful way. For example, every time I would see someone leave out of their class looking down to the ground it would tear my heart up. I thought to myself they probably didn't have any friends. They're probably dodging and hiding from everyone. I further thought to myself, “I’m going to be their friend!”


So, I would wait outside my classroom to catch this one schoolmate and constantly wave and smile at him until he realized that I was being genuine. At which point he started coming out of his classroom, with his head up looking for me.


I found that opening up and reaching out just to say hi was the answer to dissipation of my fears. So, I learned not to have any fear or fear of rejection. And to be frank, not even shame. Don't get me wrong. I cared about people I just didn't care that much about what they thought about me. So that became my driving factor.


I lost a friend to suicide, and something shifted in me early on. That shift gave me the drive to focus on human value. I really love to see people smile! Sometimes I'll even go as far as to telling jokes or entertaining someone just to lighten their mood when they're having a difficult time. Of course, sometimes I went too far past the acceptable boundaries, but make those mistakes while you're young while people are more forgiving.


We all just need that escape. We all need to be wanted. We all need to know that things are going to get better. Whether it's a story, a joke, or just befriending someone. Whatever their circumstances might be, I want to encourage people in hopes that something that I say will lift their spirits and make them feel better.