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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 qu