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April 12
2021

ISSUE

Spring 2021

JENNIFER BELL: LEADING A DOMINANT ERA OF VISUAL EFFECTS AT UNIVERSAL

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Universal Studios, except where noted.

Jennifer Bell, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects, Universal Pictures.

 One cannot help to be impressed by the résumé of Jennifer Bell, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects for Universal Pictures, which includes collaborations with Sam Mendes (Jarhead), Michael Mann (Miami Vice), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy II: The Golden Army), Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns), Ridley Scott (Robin Hood), Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum). 

Born in Fresno, California, Bell was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where her father worked as a radio disc jockey and program director and her mother as a teacher. “It was great place to grow up. We were a liberal family in conservative surroundings. Charlotte was a beautiful town where you could ride your bike everywhere and explore the woods. There was a lot of freedom. I was a year-round swimmer as a kid, so I spent most of my time in the pool.” The radio was on constantly in the Bell household. “I still to this day play the radio all day! My dad played the piano and trumpet. There was a lot of music and entertainment in our house. We grew up around the piano singing songs before dinner.” 

 The patriarch of the family had ambitions of becoming an actor. “I have to give a lot of credit to my father for my love for filmmaking,” notes Bell.

“He talked about films constantly, recreated scenes, acted in the community theater, and loved acting and going to see movies.” However, the younger of his two daughters did not share the same enthusiasm for cinema. “I was the exact opposite. I could not sit still as a kid. I was quite energetic, so to get me to sit through a movie was difficult.

When I was a young teenager my father insisted that we go see Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t want to go as it didn’t appeal to me. I was a bit precocious and said, ‘I’m going to sit by myself and watch this.’ After the first scene, I had literally moved right next to my dad and held him for the rest of the film. It blew me away. That was the first time a film had a real impact on me.”

At 19 years old, Bell decided not to pursue a post-secondary education and instead took a job on a major Hollywood production. “I remember watching Space Balls and that opening scene where the spacecraft keeps going through frame, cracking up and thinking, ‘Oh, my god! How did they do that?’ At the time, I was fresh out of high school and not sure what to do. I heard from a friend that The Abyss was being shot locally, so I called about a position and got an interview. The job was to get up early in the morning, pick up dailies from the Charlotte airport, drive them to Gaffney, South Carolina, and spend all day helping on set wherever I was needed. At wrap, I would take footage back to the airport and send it back to L.A. It was a very long day. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a big deal The Abyss was.” 

 With long-time collaborator Chris Cram on the set of Jarhead in El Centro, California in 2002. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bell) 

“At that time [in the ’90s], digital technology was really heating up. No one truly knew what its impact would be. We were learning to evolve our traditional processes and incorporate this new digital technology. I thought, ‘If nobody else knows either, then we’ll all learn together.’ Over the next few years, I hopped around a lot of different visual effects vendors, taking the best of what they had to offer and crafting my own style.”

—Jennifer Bell, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects, Universal Pictures 

The Abyss resulted in a career epiphany for Bell. “A friend of mine in the art department suggested that I should be a set painter, so I applied and started working. We painted the set of Deep Core on rafter boats inside an abandoned nuclear reactor as they were filling it with water. I thought that this was the craziest job ever! Eventually, I ended up being fired as a painter because I wasn’t very good at it. The same friend tipped me off that visual effects was looking for help. I went to the visual effects office and said, ‘I hear you’re looking for a PA and I know everyone on the crew, would you consider hiring me?’ They hired me on the spot. I didn’t know anything about visual effects, but the team on that film was brilliant. They took me under their wing and patiently explained everything. We had our own model shop and all the different vendors, ILM and Dream Quest Images, were coming out to shoot plates. Every day, I was learning things that I’d never been exposed to before. At that moment, I realized I couldn’t just let it go. After production finished on location, the visual effects team told me that if I got to L.A., I would have a job.”

 Filming VFX plates of pristine dunes for The Mummy in the Merzouga Desert, Morocco in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bell) 

Throwing her meager possessions on a production truck, Bell headed to L.A. and served as a visual effects coordinator on Ghost. “I enjoyed the production side of things because I loved being on set, dealing with editorial and being part of the long process that visual effects is. However, I realized I didn’t have a lot of experience in the field; I had only done two movies. I needed to learn more about the craft, so I began working at visual effects companies. I started off at a miniature company working with the Skotak brothers. At night, I would go on set and do any odd job. I got to be up close and personal with the creative process. At that time, digital technology was really heating up. No one truly knew what its impact would be. We were learning to evolve our traditional processes and incorporate this new digital technology. I thought, ‘If nobody else knows either, then we’ll all learn together.’ Over the next few years, I hopped around a lot of different visual effects vendors, taking the best of what they had to offer and crafting my own style.” 

On the set of Deep Core for The Abyss in Gaffney, South Carolina in 1988. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bell)

It was by doing various production jobs on The Abyss that Bell decided to pursue a career in the film industry. (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox) 

 

The first movie that Bell worked on after moving to California was Ghost as a visual effects coordinator. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures) 

After working as a visual effects producer for Pacific Data Images and Sony Pictures Imageworks, as well as for The Mummy and Van Helsing, Bell became a visual effects executive at Universal Pictures. “Personally, I was more satisfied managing the whole process as opposed to just a portion. I enjoyed the interaction with directors, producers, production teams and editorial, trying to figure out how to best shape the plan in order to help realize the director’s vision. I thrive having a lot of plates in the air, juggling all of the different tasks going on, with all of the various vendors and working towards a common goal.” 

One of the early challenges is being able to match a filmmaker with a visual effects producer and supervisor. “I often say that those of us in visual effects are the marathon runners of the production. We’re typically on right after the line producer has been hired, we’re present throughout the shoot, and then we’re integral in delivery of the film. That is a long relationship with a filmmaker, and it is important that there is trust in that relationship. If that trust starts to erode, when the work comes through they’re not going to believe that you have their best interests at heart.” 

A director’s needs can vary as to what they want in a VFX team. “Upon meeting a director on a new project, I sit with them and talk about what their creative intentions and necessities are so I can pair them with someone who can support them,” remarks Bell. “Then I introduce them to the folks who I think fit the bill. I am part of the process to observe and determine who the best creative mark is. As far as producers and supervisors, it is a similar process. You want to make sure that those two parties are going to be able to work together as a team. I am someone who gets invested in projects, and I want to make sure that all the relationships are working well.” 

Filmmaker Colin Trevorrow returns to direct Jurassic World: Dominion with stars Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt.

Upon getting the script, the visual effects work is broken down. “First, establish the production plan,” explains Bell. “Geographic location is important. Where are we filming? Atlanta? The U.K.? That’s when I start gearing up towards finding the crew and trying to take advantage of tax credit opportunities. Once we establish the list of vendors that fit within that profile, we look at what teams are available and have a proven track record with a positive outcome. I want to put someone in front of a director who I can say, ‘They’ve done this before. Be confident that this will go well.” 

“These days, all movies have visual effects,” notes Bell. “When I started at Universal Pictures there were always a handful that didn’t require the department, and now they all do. Visual effects is constantly evolving and the tools are improving. The latest hot topic is virtual production. Any tool that can help a filmmaker better tell their story is worth exploring. If virtual production can do that, then we are all in. It allows for huge creative flexibility, but definitely requires a different way of thinking and setting up for. What virtual production does do is force everyone in the development and production period to commit earlier to certain creative decisions. I don’t think that virtual production takes away from visual effects, it’s just another tool in the toolbox.” 

“I work with a tight group of talented, creative and smart people. For me, that is the best part of my job. I’ve worked on seven Fast & Furious films and make dinosaurs for a living – what can be better than that?”

—Jennifer Bell, Executive Vice President, Visual Effects, Universal Pictures

The visual effects department at Universal still quote from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World even a decade after its release. 

 

Bell is proud of her collaboration with filmmaker Justin Lin on the Fast & Furious franchise.

Pushing the boundaries of visual effects spectacle is the Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw. 

A massive undertaking was creating mobile cities for Mortal Engines, directed by Peter Jackson.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Universal’s team worked remotely without any major visual effects production delays. “We were able to quickly pivot to a work-at-home setup with our vendors and teams,” remarks Bell. “Six visual effects films were delivered during the pandemic, most of which, did not have a huge disruption in our delivery schedules. There was one case where we opted for a thinner, longer pipeline but that actually benefitted the film.

“With Jurassic World: Dominion, we were the first major motion picture to resume filming during the pandemic with very few hitches. Even while the production was trying to figure out the best practices, our filmmaker, Colin Trevorrow, jumped into post and said, ‘We shot for 10 days and got some plates. Let’s get these turned over and get going.’

Overall, we have had to be nimble and keep up the momentum to stay ahead of everything. There are a lot of projects in development right now. The silver lining of the pandemic for me is that I’ve been able to work more closely with a variety of filmmakers. My team and I are introducing them to different vendors, helping problem-solve budget issues, and getting artwork and/or previs done while we determine which films are going to be out of the gate next.”

Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in News of the World, co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass.

Bell recalls some memorable films such as Children of Men. “The long shot filmed from the interior car’s point of view took months to figure out, but we had a great team at DNEG that executed it flawlessly. We also had Framestore create the CG birth of a baby, which had never been done to date. There were a lot of new advancements in that film that were exciting to be a part of.” Another film is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which has gained cult status since it was released in 2010. “That was one of my favorite films to work on. I had such fun with [director/ writer] Edgar Wright. He was so prepared and knew exactly what he wanted. To this day, in the office we still quote lines from that film.” 

“I’ve worked at Universal Pictures for 23 years and have had so many amazing opportunities and memories,” reflects Bell. “I work with a tight group of talented, creative and smart people. For me, that is the best part of my job. I’ve worked on seven Fast & Furious films and make dinosaurs for a living – what can be better than that? When I talk to young people, I tell them, ‘If you don’t know what to do and you’re looking for work, you should explore visual effects. It continues to be a growing industry with opportunities that could change your life.’” 

A standout moment in Children of Men for Bell is the long tracking shot.

 

Bell served as Visual Effects Producer on The Mummy and sequel The Mummy Returns.

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