Conversations with TyRuben Ellingson, Cinema Program Director

TyRuben Ellingson

We are so pleased and excited to share that as of this Fall Semester, Communication Arts Department Chair TyRuben Ellingson, has extended his leadership role to include the VCUarts Cinema program.

With a storied background in major motion pictures, we sat down with with TyRuben to chat about his career and his thoughts about filmmaking.

What got you into the film industry? 
When it comes to Hollywood concept designers, I think it’s safe to say that everyone, including myself, navigates into that role because they were deeply inspired by the films they watched growing up. Whether it was Close Encounters, Bladerunner, Star Wars, or Guardians of the Galaxy, at some point in time, one has to ask, “who comes up with all of that cool crazy ass shit?” Then, not long after that, you pick up a book or a magazine (or now, use google), and run across the title, “Concept Designer” or “Concept Artist”, and that’s that, you decided, “that is what I want to become, and what I’m going to do.” I really loved all kinds of movies in my youth, and still do, however it was after seeing the original Star Wars that I started seeing Visual Effects and Concept Design as a pathway for me to get to Hollywood.

As the university I attended in my home state of Minnesota had no film making program, I focused on building my drawing and painting skills in the Art program there (my late father, William J Ellingson, was an artist, so that was a logical step for me). Then, in the summer of my junior year of college, I did an internship with a company in Dallas, Texas, that built architectural scale models, which allowed me to learn to read blueprints and work with tools. I attended graduate school along the way, and at some point in my late twenties, I had amassed enough skill and artistic capability that I was able to get myself noticed by George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic and landed a job there in 1990.

In reality, the story is a good bit more complex than what I’ve sketched out here, nevertheless those are the critical steps that took me from Northern Minnesota to Northern California. ILM then became my gateway to Hollywood, but that’s a whole other story.

What are some films that inspire your work?
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, without a doubt, sits on the top of my list of inspiring films. For me, beyond being a true masterpiece, 2001 is a work of pure genius and really unlike any other film in history. The fact that 2001 is also the film that introduced me to the idea of “special effects” cannot be ignored, nor that, many years later, it would also bring me to an understanding of “conceptual design.”

As a conceptual designer, you are asked to conceive of “things” that need to appear in a film, but do not exist in real life. Whether robot, spaceship, dragon, or time machine, when done effectively, these “constructs of the imagination” play an important role in telling the story the director wants to tell. Though I enjoy a wide spectrum of films in all genres, a list of those that inspired me would include, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner & and Blade Runner 2045, Silent Running, Rollerball (1975), Robo Cop, Forbidden Planet, The Matrix, Zardoz, Star Wars, The Abyss, Terminator and Terminator 2, and of course, Alien and Aliens. There are many more, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Check back soon as we continue the conversation to learn more about TyRuben’s work on Jurassic Park, Star Wars: A New Hope, Avatar and Mimic — In addition to the amazing artists he has worked with, like James Cameron, Guillermo Del Toro and more!

If you just can’t wait – check him on IMDB or on our Faculty/Staff Page.