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Despite having received his start in film as a part of George Lucas' famed visual effects team on "Star Wars" (1977), and eventually directing several high-profile movies himself, Joe Johnston somehow managed to keep a remarkably low-profile during much of his career. Originally intending to pursue a career in industrial design, Johnston's professional path took an unexpected turn when he answered an ad looking for illustrators to work on a new science fiction movie. That movie turned out to be "Star Wars," and from there Johnston worked as a visual effects director on that film's two sequels, in addition to similar duties on Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Encouraged by Lucas to try his hand at directing, Johnston enrolled in the University of Southern California's filmmaking program, although he continued to work on various Lucas/Spielberg projects. Shortly thereafter, Johnston was hired by Disney Studios to direct his first feature film, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (1989). Family-friendly material, filled with special effects became Johnston's stock in trade, exemplified by films like "The Rocketeer" (1991) and "Jumamji" (1995). Even as he made a name for himself as a director,...
Despite having received his start in film as a part of George Lucas' famed visual effects team on "Star Wars" (1977), and eventually directing several high-profile movies himself, Joe Johnston somehow managed to keep a remarkably low-profile during much of his career. Originally intending to pursue a career in industrial design, Johnston's professional path took an unexpected turn when he answered an ad looking for illustrators to work on a new science fiction movie. That movie turned out to be "Star Wars," and from there Johnston worked as a visual effects director on that film's two sequels, in addition to similar duties on Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Encouraged by Lucas to try his hand at directing, Johnston enrolled in the University of Southern California's filmmaking program, although he continued to work on various Lucas/Spielberg projects. Shortly thereafter, Johnston was hired by Disney Studios to direct his first feature film, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (1989). Family-friendly material, filled with special effects became Johnston's stock in trade, exemplified by films like "The Rocketeer" (1991) and "Jumamji" (1995). Even as he made a name for himself as a director, Johnston continued to help fellow filmmakers with visual design work, including creating the initial drawing of the massive automaton for director Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant" (1999). He also managed to deliver a more personal film with the acclaimed "October Sky" (1999), before helming the special effects blockbuster "Jurassic Park III" (2001). Johnston endured a few misfires, taking the reins of the horseracing epic "Hildalgo" (2004) prior to landing the thankless task of salvaging the cursed remake "The Wolfman" (2010). As a filmmaker, Johnston's legacy would be that of a competent director, perhaps too reliant upon visual wizardry. However, as an unsung hero and creative force on some of the most beloved movies of all time, Joe Johnston's lasting impact on cinema was already assured.
Born Joseph Eggleston Johnston in Fort Worth, TX on May 13, 1950, he originally intended to become a commercial artist, attending California State University, Long Beach in pursuit of a degree in the field. In 1975, however, a degree-less Johnston dropped out of college to instead look for paying work as a product designer. It was then that the young artist came across an ad on a bulletin board looking for creative designers and artists to work on a science fiction film. That "space movie" as Johnston would later quaintly characterize it, was, in fact, George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977), a film that would not only forever alter Johnston's life, but the entire film industry as well. Initially, Johnston worked as a storyboard artist and effects designer on the first film, as well as on its rip-off television series "Battlestar Galactica" (ABC, 1978-79), before serving as visual effects director for the "Star Wars" sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Among Johnston's considerable contributions to the Lucas universe were character designs for Luke Skywalker's gnome-like Jedi instructor Yoda and the teddy bear-like Ewoks. On "Galactica," he helped create many of the ships and vehicles - the eponymous space ark being among them. Working in a similar capacity on the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg collaboration "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), Johnston shared an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. For the follow-up "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), Johnston provided further visual effects direction, in addition to lending a hand as the film's 2nd unit director. After completing work on the film, it was mentor Lucas who suggested Johnston enroll in the University of Southern California's vaunted filmmaking program - Lucas himself was an alumnus - even offering to keep Johnston on as a part-time employee to cover tuition. It was an offer Johnston could not refuse.
While learning the craft of directing as USC, Johnston continued to work for Lucas at Industrial Light & Magic on projects like the made-for-television "Star Wars" spin-offs "The Ewok Adventure" (ABC, 1984) and "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor" (ABC, 1985), in addition to handling 2nd unit direction on the latter. Johnston also picked up more special effects design work on the breath-taking ultra-light sequence in the otherwise dismal "Howard the Duck" (1986), a failed comic book adaptation about a "wise quacking" hero from another world pursued by evil scientists on Earth. For "*batteries not included" (1987), a sci-fi comedy about tiny alien spacecraft coming into contact with a group of elderly humans in an urban apartment building, Johnston once again took on 2nd unit directorial duties. The following year, he earned an Associate Producer credit on the George Lucas-produced, Ron Howard-directed "Willow" (1988), a fantasy-adventure starring Val Kilmer as a swashbuckling rogue entrusted with protecting a baby from an evil queen. From there, Johnston was finally given the chance to helm his own feature film when Disney Chief Jeffrey Katzenberg hired him to direct "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (1989), a fantasy comedy about a scientist whose latest invention inadvertently reduces his children to the size of insects. With his background as a storyboard artist, effects designer, and experience as a 2nd unit director, Johnston was an ideal candidate to steer the production, which made extensive use of practical visual effects and cleverly executed camera trickery. The film was a bonanza for Disney Studios, spawning a series of sequels, and helped to propel Johnston toward a full-fledged directing career.
Despite helming his first feature film, Johnston was nonetheless happy to briefly return to effects work, designing the complicated aerial sequences for Steven Spielberg's romantic fantasy "Always" (1989), starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and Audrey Hepburn in her final role. Johnston's sophomore directorial effort "The Rocketeer" (1991) was a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of the matinee serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Newcomer Billy Campbell starred as a young, idealistic pilot who discovers a functioning jetpack, which he then uses to thwart a Nazi spy ring. Cut from the same cloth as the Indiana Jones films, Johnston's previous experience on those special effects extravaganzas served him well on the set of "The Rocketeer." Unfortunately, while the movie was impressive to look at, both audiences and critics found its pacing somewhat underwhelming, resulting in lackluster box office. Remaining in the genre he knew so well, Johnston did some pick-up directorial work for a 1993 episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (ABC, 1991-93), a series covering the untold adventures of the daring archeologist during his youth. Continuing to focus on smaller projects, Johnston next directed the live-action sequences that bookended the animation hybrid "The Pagemaster" (1994). Featuring Macaulay Culkin as a young boy literally drawn into a world of adventure, fantasy, and horror, "The Pagemaster" was unremarkable in nearly every way, better suited to Saturday morning television than a theatrical release. Johnston faired somewhat better with "Jumanji" (1995), his return to directing a full-length feature film. Starring Robin Williams, the visually stunning fantasy told the story of a young boy trapped in a reality-altering board game for more than 20 years, until two young orphans come to his rescue. Although the reviews were mixed, Johnston proved he could keep up with the technology, employing computer-generated effects with audience-pleasing skill and panache.
With his next effort, "October Sky" (1999), Johnston kept his feet planted firmly on the ground while simultaneously reaching for the stars, in a drama dependent more upon acting and atmosphere than action sequences and special effects. Adapted from Homer H. Hickham, Jr.'s memoir Rocket Boys, Johnston presented in fable-like simplicity the unashamedly inspirational story of four boys - featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickman - whose obsession with rocketry caused them to look beyond the narrow confines of their coal mining community. Even cynics finding fault with the decidedly upbeat plot could not help but be moved by the wonderful ensemble performances, including turns by Laura Dern and Chris Cooper. Building on his period work in "The Rocketeer," Johnston effectively evoked the 1950s Cold War-era, eschewing the use of too much technical wizardry in favor of allowing the source material to speak for itself. Ironically, he followed up "October Sky" with the effects-laden sequel "Jurassic Park III" (2001). Having expressed interest in directing 1997's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," Johnston was told by his long time friend Steven Spielberg - who helmed the original "Jurassic Park" (1991) - that Johnston could take a crack at the inevitable third installment. Loosely based on a story concept from Spielberg and penned by a cadre of screenwriters - including a pass by Johnston himself - the fantasy adventure delivered a reluctant Dr. Alan Grant (reprised by Sam Neill) to Isla Sorna, home to InGen's infamous site B, the setting for "The Lost World." While undeniably a satisfying thrill ride in its own right that performed exceptionally well at the box office, most agreed that it lacked the scope, sense of wonder, and character development of the first two entries in the franchise.
Flush from his success with "Jurassic Park III," Johnston turned his directorial eye toward only slightly less fantastical subject matter in "Hildalgo" (2004). Based on legendary U.S. Cavalry rider Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his attempt to win a 3,000 mile horse race across the Arabian Desert, the film was truly epic in proportion, with filming locations ranging from South Dakota to Morocco. Accused by some as being Hollywood hokum in the guise of a fact-based biopic, the family-friendly adventure performed only moderately well - a hard pill to swallow, considering its massive budget. After a relatively low-profile period, professionally, Johnston became involved in one of the most difficult and trouble-plagued projects of his career. In 2006 Universal Pictures announced its intention to remake their classic Lon Chaney, Jr. horror film "The Wolf Man" (1941), with Benicio Del Toro attached in the Chaney role; by 2007, they had signed indie filmmaker Mark Romanek to direct. However, after disagreements over the escalating budget - reportedly upwards of $100 million - Romanek left the production in early 2008, mere weeks before it was to go before the cameras. Universal then brought in Johnston as its new director, a decision largely based on his experience with design-heavy, visual effects-driven projects, in addition to an ability to deliver a film on time and on budget. Johnston had little time to address the perceived script problems and creature design issues he had inherited before he began shooting, only adding to the already challenging task ahead. When "The Wolfman" (2010) at last arrived in theaters, it soon became clear that the chronic production problems and last minute script overhaul had indeed adversely affected the movie. Roundly savaged by critics, "The Wolfman" was described as disjointed and lethargic, with much of the blame - justifiable or not - being laid squarely at Johnston's feet. There would be little time for Johnston to lick his wounds, as it was announced that he would direct the latest in a slew of super hero adaptations, "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) for Marvel Studios. Based on the comic book character first created in the 1940s, the film starred Chris Evans in the title role, as a young patriot who, via an experimental process, becomes America's "super soldier" during the darkest days of World War II.
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"October Sky" as a title works on two levels. October was the month when Sputnik first crossed the sky in 1957, and "October Sky" is an anagram of its source material "Rocket Boys".
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