Melissa Merli's Art Beat: Centennial grad plays role in Oscar win

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: Centennial grad plays role in Oscar win

By the time Steve Eisenmann was a freshman at Centennial High School in 1998, he was using his computer to create 3-D images.

In an interview then with The News-Gazette for its Spin Off youth page, Eisenmann said he hoped to have a career creating special effects for movies.

Fifteen years later, the 29-year-old Centennial alumnus has sort of scaled the heights in that area.

He works at Rhythm and Hues, an El Segundo, Calif.-based company that won the Academy Award for special effects last Sunday for "Life of Pi."

As a lighting technician, Eisnenmann digitally lit a dozen or so "Pi" scenes, among them the spectacular one of luminescent fish flying over and around the boat carrying the title character and the digitally created tiger who shares his harrowing journey.

Eisenmann himself did not receive an actual Oscar statuette. The two given Rhythm and Hues, the primary special effects firm on "Pi," went to Bill Westenhofer, visual effects supervisor, and Erik-Jan de Boer, animation director for the company.

From a bar in El Segundo, Eisenmann and coworkers watched on television as their two bosses picked up the award.

"I was cheering; I was really excited about it," Eisenmann told me.

However, his celebratory mood dimmed when the Oscar producers, using theme music from "Jaws," cut short Westenhofer's acceptance speech. In it he tried to talk about the dismal state of the U.S. digital effects industry.

Two weeks before the Oscars, Rhythm and Hues filed for bankruptcy. Digital Domain, another special effects company founded by James Cameron ("Avatar"), filed for bankruptcy protection in September.

After the ceremony, Westenhofer told Southern California Public Radio he wanted to say in his acceptance speech that "it is ironic that at a time when visual effects movies are dominating the box office that visual effects companies are struggling."

During a telephone interview with me Wednesday, Eisenmann said foreign countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and India give movie makers generous subsidies, resulting in lower pay for digital effects artists working in those countries.

"It kind of artificially floods the market and makes it hard for American companies to compete with international companies," Eisenmann said. "We're competing with government and tax incentives. It's creating problems not just for us here in the States but also for artists in other countries. It forces companies to undercut, to cutthroat each other. It's kind of a race to the bottom to see who can make movies for the absolute cheapest."

To protest the Oscars having cut short Westenhofer's acceptance speech, visual effects workers posted blank green screens on their Facebook, Twitter and other social-media sites.

"Every special effects artist changed their profile to a green picture to visualize what movies would look like without special effects," Eisenmann said.

Eisenmann started working at Rhythm and Hues in June 2010 after obtaining his bachelor of fine arts degree in visual effects from the Savannah College of Art and Design. After graduating from Centennial, he studied at Parkland College.

For a couple of years while in college, Eisenmann worked at the Beckman Institute on the University of Illinois campus. He called it an amazing place where he gained a lot of valuable experience.

Still, creating the lighting for "Life of Pi" scenes, particularly the one with flying fish, was a big challenge.

"I spent a long time figuring out how to get them to shine like that," he said.

Before he worked on "Life of Pi," Eisenmann read the Yann Martel novel of the same title on which the movie was based. (This is a case in which the movie is actually better than the book.)

"It was the first time I worked on a story where I read the book beforehand," Eisenmann said. "It was really neat watching how the movie went from book form to movie form and how decisions are made to closely follow the book or to go off in other ways on the screen."

Though he played no role in those decisions, Eisenmann found the process educational.

He is now switching roles, moving to an area called "look development."

"That's where you have more to do with designing characters," he said. "I still do lighting, but now, more or less, I design how a character looks."

His current project is another movie heavy in special effects: "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," a fantasy film and the sequel to the 2010 film "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief."

As for UI alumnus Ang Lee, who won the Oscar for directing "Life of Pi," Eisenmann did not work directly with him. But he's been around Lee, who's known as a nice guy in Hollywood and beyond.

"I watched the first test screening in a theater of 'Life of Pi' with Ang Lee," Eisenmann said. "He served me cake one time at Bill's birthday party. He's very humble."

Van Cliburn

One of the most celebrated pianists of all time, Van Cliburn, who died Wednesday at his home in Texas, at age 78, performed at least three times in C-U: in February 1966 and October 1967 at the UI Assembly Hall and October 1972 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Cliburn opened the 1966 event by playing the national anthem.

People stood but did not sing along, according to News-Gazette staff writer Bonnie Blankenship.

"It was well that they stood in silence, however, for in playing the anthem, the legendary prodigy displayed the sensitivity which has won him worldwide acclaim," she wrote.

The three encores at that concert were followed by a standing ovation, which led the pianist, somewhat reluctantly, to perform two additional encores, Blankenship wrote.

When he appeared at the Assembly Hall the next year, N-G staff writer Dianne Graebner met the famed pianist in his dressing room. She described him as a gentleman and a man of spirit.

He told her that even in a big building like the Assembly Hall, he feels his audience. He also said "music is intensely personal," even when the performer tries to stay honest to the composer's intent.

N-G staff writer Carol Ann Smith, who covered Cliburn's 1972 concert at Krannert, described him as "shy, almost diffident."

In that concert, he played Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Ludwig van Beethoven and other pieces, receiving at the end five standing ovations. He performed five encores.

"The concert was over only when Cliburn, visibly tiring, waved good night to the audience," Smith wrote.

Van Cliburn had shot to fame "in an unprecedented intersection of music, media and Cold War politics" when he burst onto the international scene in 1958 as winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Dallas News classical music critic Scott Cantrell wrote.

"The competition was widely assumed to be a showcase for pianists from Russia and its satellite countries. The surprising triumph of a tall, gangly, wavy-haired Texan with enormous hands, all soft-spoken politeness, was splashed all over newspapers, magazines and television screens. A Time magazine cover hailed 'The Texan Who Conquered Russia,'" Cantrell wrote in Cliburn's obituary.

Back in the U.S., Cliburn was celebrated with the only Wall Street ticker-tape parade given a classical musician.

My, how times have changed.

Art history

The Indi Go Artist Co-Op in downtown Champaign will offer, beginning next Sunday, a series of art history lectures called "Reliving the Renaissance: Italian Art from 1300-1564."

Caroline Baljon, who received a bachelor's degree in art history at Bowdoin College and a master's at the University of Amsterdam, will deliver the weekly lectures, which will begin at 1 p.m.

"Yes, they are free and you don't need to sign up," she told me via email. "I'll provide more information and a syllabus at the first lecture on March 10."

For more information, contact Baljon at

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

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