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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

JOYCE COX, VES: CELEBRATING A PRODUCTION PUZZLE MASTER

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

Lifetime Achievement Awards recipient Joyce Cox, VES with her award.

Lifetime Achievement Awards recipient Joyce Cox, VES with her award.

Acclaimed Producer and VFX Producer Joyce Cox, VES describes her job as a ‘wire walker’ between creative goals and financial restrictions, one who helps realize a filmmaker’s vision to create the best project possible – on time and on budget. A self-described lover of puzzles, Cox built a brilliant career out of her innate talent for organizing people and moving parts, a skillset that has branded her a luminary in the world of visual effects producing and one of the most respected producers in our industry.

With credits that include Titanic, The Dark Knight, The Great Gatsby, Men in Black 3, Avatar and The Jungle Book, Cox has been instrumental in shaping popular culture for decades, and her work has put VFX squarely at the center of big box office filmed entertainment. She has produced 13,000 visual effects shots with budgets totaling in excess of $750 million and won three VES Awards for her work on Avatar and The Dark Knight. In 2018, Cox was honored with the title of VES Fellow.

In recognition of her exceptional career as an educator, changemaker and exceptional contributor to the visual effects craft and global industry, the Society honored Cox with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award at the 22nd Annual VES Awards.

After receiving a standing ovation from her peers, Cox shared her appreciation: “I’m truly honored to be given this prestigious award from the VES celebrating my career, one of the opportunities to facilitate the work of the thousands of artists, technicians and visionaries it took to create these movies. It’s been a privilege to work with and learn from so many brilliant, dedicated people who gave life to words on a page, transforming pixels and dreams into worlds that captivate and inspire, and that is nothing short of magic. This award celebrates not just my achievements, but the collective triumphs of a creative community, and shines a light on the value of Visual Effects Producers.”

Cox continued, “Because being a VFX Producer is still a fairly new position in the film industry, we tend to disappear, with most of the emphasis on how VFX is made falling to the VFX Supervisor. But to produce and succeed in this job, you have to understand every department’s role and absorb their demands and restrictions and precisely how VFX can support and achieve the end goal of producing the best movie. So having this role recognized by the VES, and me as a woman in this role, means so much.”

Harkening back to her early life, Cox recounted, “Unlike many of in this industry who set their sights early in life for a career in film, I arrived along a circuitous path of happy accidents. I grew up in a small Kansas community in the ’50s and ’60s. A time and place where most girls, including me, were not mentored toward careers. Certainly not a career in film.” Cox highlighted her parents as her first role models. “My mother had a brilliant math mind, and my friends referred to my dad as a metaphysical cowboy… a poet trapped in a laborer’s body. They married young and neither had a high school degree. Looking at my mom’s trajectory, she riveted nose cones on fighters, taught herself how to do the books in the aircraft industry and went on to become one of the first women executives at Boeing Military. That focus and drive to grow and achieve was a great source of inspiration.”

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES backstage with VES Chair Kim Davidson, VFX Producer Richard Hollander and VES Executive Director Nancy Ward.

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES backstage with VES Chair Kim Davidson, VFX Producer Richard Hollander and VES Executive Director Nancy Ward.

“I get to explore the diversity of highly creative and exceptionally smart people and be a part of how those minds take words off the page and realize them through an intense process into a beautiful film experience.”

—Joyce Cox, Producer and VFX Producer

Cox pursued her education in Kansas, taking classes at Wichita Business School and Kansas City Community College, and got an early exposure to business working in a series of office positions in everything from manufacturing aircraft parts to real estate. Then she was enticed to start her creative career. “My brother worked in advertising as an art director in Chicago at hot boutique agencies and his life was really appealing, so I moved to Chicago and started representing artists. It was the mid-’70s when I started my first company, Joyce Cox Has Talent, which was really the window into the creative process and the gateway to my future. I was smitten with the way concepts were realized into images and stories for the funniest person I have ever met. In addition to the value of humor, Jim taught me the value of the film professionals and what it takes to execute a production.”

“VFX producing is difficult on both the vendor and client side. It is just amazing how Joyce was able to carve out the ‘Joyce side’ by asking both the client and the vendor equally hard questions, sometimes in front of each other. I called it the Joyce quasi-state, a place between the two sides. She was able to walk that thin razor’s edge revealing, with her characteristic humor and wit, the underlying issues and keep the production on track.”

—Richard Hollander, VES

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES shows off her VES Lifetime Achievement Awards.

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES shows off her VES Lifetime Achievement Awards.

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES hits the VES Awards red carpet with friends and family.

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES hits the VES Awards red carpet with friends and family.

VES Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Joyce Cox, VES shares a warm moment withVFX Producer Richard Hollander before the gala.

VES Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Joyce Cox, VES shares a warm moment with VFX Producer Richard Hollander before the gala.

Cox moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and over the next 15 years produced hundreds of commercials, eventually taking a position as the executive producer for Bruce Dorn Films where she had her first opportunity to work with digital visual effects. In the mid ’90s, a time when digital technology was rapidly evolving into its present role as a creative and technical cornerstone for filmmaking, Cox transitioned from the role of commercial producer to producing visual effects for feature films.

“Several years producing commercials, many involving visual effects, from storyboard concepts to final delivery, proved to be the perfect primer for producing visual effects for movies. One day, a dear friend, Lee Berger, asked me to fill in for him on a project at VIFX, a digital facility that had recently been purchased by 20th Century Fox. Always looking for a new challenge, I said ‘sure.’ That was the beginning of the career VES honored with this award. The timing was perfect. I stepped into this world at the beginning of its rapid growth into the massive industry we have today.”

For the next five years, Cox worked as a facility VFX producer on numerous film projects, including Titanic, Pushing Tin, Fantasia 2000, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

“One of the first projects I worked on at VIFX was Out to Sea with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, then I moved on to Titanic. I was there to help organize the facility to be more effective at a time when that was really needed. Richard Hollander, VES was the President and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor for VIFX under Fox’s ownership and for my collaborator on Titanic. I just started asking Richard questions about digital art and how to organize a production workflow. He was a huge influence in providing knowledge and mentorship.”

Cox continued about her work on Titanic. “It was like jumping into the pit of fire and learning under pressure, all at once. Jim [Cameron] was popular, but not like now, and we were looking at a runaway budget while he had the power to hold onto the reins. Plans constantly evolve. Movies are all theory until you shoot and cut and try to actually make them. This experience was intense and challenging, and coincided with my husband’s cancer diagnosis, which actually helped me keep perspective on what matters most in life as I went about my job.

“Jim is one of those uncompromising directors who wants to push things to the edge with the use of technology. The drowning scenes were shot in a tank in Mexico, and since it was very hot, you could not get any visible cold breath coming from the actors. At the time, the capacity to render cloud particles to that degree was unreliable, so we built a black cold room and my husband shot it. We had an actor in black read the lines. We captured his breath and had compositors working on Flame roto-ing hands and placing breath. It was one of many shots that called for our best problem-solving to bring the director’s vision to life. And it looked cool.”

In presenting the VES Lifetime Achievement Award to Cox, Richard Hollander, VES extolled her keen abilities. “I began working directly with Joyce as my VFX Producer on several projects including Titanic and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was able to experience her skillsets first hand. She was able to glide through discussions with our clients, portray the situation and tell them the truth, which was not something they always wanted to hear. Even with this frankness, our clients trusted her. There it was. A natural in our VFX workplace. I knew then that her career was only beginning.”

Hollander continued, “VFX producing is difficult on both the vendor and client side. It is just amazing how Joyce was able to carve out the ‘Joyce side’ by asking both the client and the vendor equally hard questions, sometimes in front of each other. I called it the Joyce quasi-state, a place between the two sides. She was able to walk that thin razor’s edge revealing, with her characteristic humor and wit, the underlying issues and keep the production on track.”

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES celebrates with friends at the VES Awards.

VES honoree Joyce Cox, VES celebrates with friends at the VES Awards.

Cox was honored with the title of VES Fellow in 2018, presented to her by former VES Board Chair Mike Chambers.

Cox was honored with the title of VES Fellow in 2018, presented to her by former VES Board Chair Mike Chambers.

In 2000, Cox moved to the production side. Over the next 20+ years, she worked with some of the world’s most talented directors and crews, creating beautiful, powerful and groundbreaking films, including: Superman Returns and X2: X-Men United with Bryan Singer; Avatar with James Cameron; The Dark Knight with Chris Nolan; The Great Gatsby with Baz Luhrmann; Men in Black 3 with Barry Sonnenfeld; and The Jungle Book with Jon Favreau.

“My time in digital facilities was instrumental because I now had the ability to understand and be compassionate and demanding of facilities. On the production side, I liked being one of the first hired and one of the last out, so I could participate and observe the entire creative process.”

Looking back at her decades in the film industry, Cox points to her takeaways and what she considers markers of success. “I have learned something on every single movie I’ve ever done because the technology is moving so fast and is antiquated by the time I’ve jumped to the next project. I get to explore the diversity of highly creative and exceptionally smart people and be a part of how those minds take words off the page and realize them through an intense process into a beautiful film experience.

“During the making of the films, I see all the pieces thousands of times, but when all is done and we’re in the theater and the audience knows none of the pain it took to birth this project – it feels good. It means we’re giving people something that inspires or enriches their lives.

“My job is not necessarily the most fun as the one with fiduciary responsibility, but it has also been my love of challenges, of puzzles that has made this such a rewarding career. Motivating people to the common goal of making the best movie on time and on budget is where I have had the opportunity to excel. When asked how I do it? I maintain altitude. I get my ego out of the way to help the team achieve. And together, we navigate the often-rocky journey and create something that is greater than what we could have achieved without this harmonic convergence.”



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