Visual Effects Producer Jenny Fulle: Dream Jobs

by Kaki Flynn
for an MTV online property
Dream Jobs: Women in Filmmaking

From age zero through my teens, my main obsession was building model airplanes, creating characters out of clay. and using my disposable camera to get kids in the neighborhood to pose for shots that would make it look like they were flying, or leaping over something on a skateboard. It wasn't until I was living in LA that I even really knew about the visual effects industry. A fun interview for me. 

Jenny Fulle, executive vice president of production at Sony Pictures Imageworks and now the owner of her own production company, has a career that spans an impressive list of films for which she has managed visual effects, including the upcoming After Earth, also The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two Matrix moviesSpider-Man 3 and both Charlie's Angels films, among others.

But before her career in Hollywood, Fulle was already a hero in the world of sports. When she was just 9 years old, she began a three-year battle with Little League Baseball to allow her to play ball — they didn't allow girls on teams at the time — by writing a letter to President Nixon. After involving the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against Little League, Fulle won, and in 1974 Little League Baseball was required to admit girls. During Fulle's first season, she led her league in home runs.
At the age of 18, Fulle landed her first Hollywood gig — as a janitor at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. That job opened the door for Fulle, who quickly moved up in the world of visual effects and production.
I sat down with Fulle in her office at the Sony Pictures Imageworks headquarters to find out what goes on behind the scenes in the world of visual and special effects, and what it takes to break into the industry today.
Kaki Flynn: How did you end up being a janitor for George Lucas? 
Jenny Fulle:
 My stepdad was a landscape architect, and was doing all the landscaping for [Skywalker] Ranch. In the meantime, he was in charge of general services, which included the mailroom and janitorial. At the time, I didn't know what I wanted to do so I went in on a temporary basis. A few months later, he moved on and the person that took over thought I was such a good janitor they kept me on.
For me, it wasn't like my whole life I thought I wanted to work in movies. I hadn't. But when I heard the name George Lucas, I thought, that sounds pretty cool, I'll do that, and I just went from there.
KF: Did you ever get your college degree?
 No. I probably have about six college credits. Art and what not.
KF: What do you think about women now coming into the industry? Do you think you could still do that, or do you think women have to go to film school and have a very specific major?
 It depends. Certainly for the artists — the people who work on the computers — for the most part, you need to have some sort of a degree. You have to have some kind of formal education so that you can learn the basics of what exactly it is that they do.
Production is a little different. It's really about knowing someone, or getting in to meet the right person and making an impression so that somebody gives you a chance. I think it's really about being in the trenches and learning what works, and more importantly what doesn't work. It's a certain type of personality as well, and I don't think that can be taught.
My visual effects producers at Imageworks are all type A personalities. We sit in the producers meeting and it's the most stressful hour of my life, because everybody is so intelligent, driven, organized and incredibly vocal. They all have an opinion, and they want everybody else to hear it!
KF: When you were working as a janitor, did you ever think you would be where you are now? 
 In a million years I would never have imagined I would have ended up here. When I was a janitor, I remember thinking: "One day I might be a production coordinator. Man, what would I do with all that money?" I could have never imagined this ride that I have been on.
KF: Where do you see yourself five years or 10 years from now?
 Ten years from now I see myself retired. My son will turn 18, and when he goes off to college I will get in an RV or something.
When I left Lucasfilm I moved down here [to Los Angeles], and I had to get into a freelance mentality where you just go from show to show, from effects company to effects company or from studio to studio. It was really several-year stints here and there.
I really love it here at Imageworks. I've been here for 10 years, which is longer than I've ever been anywhere. We have a lot of really great people and we do lots of work, and I'm free to be me, and it's a great gig.

KF: Can you give me an overview of Imageworks?
 We do three different types of things here: We do live-action visual effects movies likeSpider-Man; we do performance capture movies like BeowulfMonster House and Polar Express; and then we do fully C.G. animated films like Open Season and Surf's Up. They all start with kind of the same process, but a little different.
For the visual effects films, the filmmakers will come here and then have an idea, and then have some storyboards. We then will assign a creative team to it that will help them take that to the next level. We then figure out technically how that is achievable.
The producers will put together all the parameters around that and set up the box for them to work in. The animated films and visual effects films can be very collaborative too; it just depends on the filmmakers.
We will work with them; they will get the story going, and then our guys here — our creative guys — will be involved in developing the stories and the characters.
We do this on the visual effects films too and with the performance capture — developing the characters, how they look, how they move, what their personality is, the environment and the overall style of the movie.
My job is overseeing the producers and overseeing the production at the facility, and really making sure that we give creative people as much space and as much room as we can while maintaining our fiscal and schedule responsibilities.
KF: What's a day in the life of Jenny Fulle? What does that look like, for example, when you are working on Spider-Man 3?
 My job is putting out a lot of fires. I can have nothing on my schedule all day — maybe a couple of meetings — and it can be a really quiet day for me. Or, all pandemonium can break loose and it can be crazy. My senior producers have all been here between eight and 10 years as well. We have really good shorthand. They are so good at what they do, and so they run the day-to-day on the shows, and when there are problems, then I jump in.
If there are studio politics that get involved, and if we have shows that are clashing or fighting for resources, then I'll jump in. But for the most part, the shows are pretty self-sufficient and can run themselves.
I have no problem when I have nothing to do all day, because everything is running really smoothly. That means I've done my job really well.
I also work with the studios and the filmmakers that come in and want to talk to us about new projects. Once we've secured a project, I am responsible for putting the teams together that will work with the filmmakers on the shows.
KF: Putting out a fire might be what? Politics? People aren't getting along?
 Something changes on a show, and the filmmakers don't agree. That is when I step in and try to smooth it over and make everything OK.
Anything kind of above and beyond the normal day-to-day on the show, when things are rough or problems come up that get kicked up a notch to the studio executive level or the producer level of the show.
KF: What are your hours like? Is it crazy hours?
 At this point, I've done the million-hour days, a million days in a row, but now I have a son, and it's important for me to have balance in my life. I don't work really hard for a year and then get to take two or three months off like a project-based artist does.
Mine is more of a slow and steady tromp, day to day. I keep pretty normal hours, eight-hour days, five days a week. I have my electronic leash, and I can be reached, and often am, but I keep pretty reasonable hours. I have to, or else I would completely burn out.
KF: You have ended up being involved in the visual effects of movies like The Matrix. Is that something that you have always been interested in?
 It was never something I wanted to do — I never thought, as a kid, this is what I want to do. I work with a lot of people that are like that, that have known from the time they were 4 and making little movies and doing little stop-motion, that this is what they wanted to do.
That wasn't the case for me, but I love it now, and I love what we do, and that we create a product that impacts lots of people.
I love the energy in this business. It's not so much that I love making movies; it's that I love the kind of people that it attracts, that are kind of creative — especially in a place like this — and that are eccentric and eclectic.
Normally I am in jeans and flip-flops and a T-shirt. And there are not a lot of places you can be an executive vice president and go into work like that.
KF: In an interview with CNN about being a pioneer for girls in Little League, you gave the advice to "just know that anything is possible and don't necessarily take no for an answer." Do you have advice for women coming into this field?
 When I'm looking for production assistants — that is an entry-level position in production — I'm looking for somebody who is a go-getter.
For example, five years ago, a caterer [for a party] brought his young son with him — young, 18 — that said he wanted to work in film. I said take some classes and call me when you are done. I didn't think anything of it. He was a really nice kid, but I get that stuff all the time. Well, I'll be damned if he didn't call me two months ago. He said, "Hey, it's Christopher, I graduated college, and you told me to call you, so I'm calling you now."
We are going to be working for that kid in 10 years. That's exactly the right stuff. He interviewed really well, and then he followed up with phone calls and emails, and so I really want to find a place for him, because that is exactly what you need to work in production. Obviously sharp, a really personable guy, and amazing follow-through. You don't really learn that in college — that's a personality trait that you kind of need to have to be successful in production.
KF: What about the creative side? Creativity is pretty subjective. 
 That aspect of this business terrifies me. I have no desire to be creative. I'm much more of a logistics person. I'm really good with a big war board — like masterminding a giant game of risk. That's where my strength is, and I really like that. I love when somebody says we can't do that, and I say, yes we can! I enjoy finding ways to get things done.
KF: Do you have a favorite movie you have worked on?
 The animated films have been really exciting — Surf's Up and Open Season — because it's a new area for us. And it's interesting, too, because the type of films I want to work on has changed a lot since I had a child. We worked on Hollow Man here, which was great at the time, but now I want to do movies that my son gets excited about — and his friends, too. He's the person I want to please the most in my life now, and I want him to feel proud about what I do. It's amazing how all that changes with a child.
KF: What do you think about organizations that focus on women in film? Is that a good idea for someone new to the industry?
JF: Anytime you can get contacts — the more you can network — the better chance you are going to have of finding somebody that you are going to connect with that is going to give you a break or an opportunity.
That is a big part of it — finding somebody who believes in you, so they are going to give you the opportunity. So, absolutely. I don't think there's any organization like that that can't be beneficial.
AE: You worked on the Academy Award-winning short The ChubbChubbs!, about an animated character who's a janitor who sings about his big dreams. Any connection?
 [laughs] No connection. Just a coincidence, but I like karaoke too. It does have all the Star Wars connections in there, too. I like that connection, but it is coincidental.

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