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Twenty Questions with Fon Davis
by Spotlight Mike

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Fon and Friend

Fon and Friend

Today, we go behind the scenes once more and speak with Fon Davis, Founder of Fonco Creative Services, and responsible for the hottest visual effects in today’s hottest movies, to name a few:
- WAR of the WORLDS
- MARS NEEDS MOMS and most of the STAR WARS series
Fon is currently spearheading his own project, MORAV, his graphic novel that he is working to produce into a live-action adaptation.

Matchflick: Fon, thank you for speaking with me.

Fon: Thanks for having me Michael!

Matchflick: Fon, you cut your teeth doing model making working for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), one of the premier visual effects company in the world today. How did you get from Saigon to the Skywalker Ranch?

Fon: Wow, how do I sum up that twenty years, chuckle. My father John Davis was a crew chief on an F-101 Voodoo in the US Air Force when he met my mom Kim, in Saigon during the Viet Nam War. They fell for each other and had my sister and I. After the Viet Nam War ended, he brought us back to the United States, where I grew up on a healthy dose of things like comics, science fiction television, anime and movies. We eventually moved to Oregon, where I was unfortunately a tiny Asian kid while there were still elements of racism in the schools. I think being exposed to the darker side of people from birth forward and having to fight so much shaped who I became. Simply put I'm not afraid, I know I need to work hard and see the value in being able to escape the real world sometimes.

One of my little escapes was STAR WARS, I really latch on to not only the fictional world, but the artists who made the films. It helped that three of the model makers I saw in behind the scenes books and magazines were Asian, and growing up the way I did I actually thought to myself, Cool, they let us Asians do that job. I want to do that job. From there forward I was driven to do just that! I worked really hard, always with my sights on ILM. First I worked as a carpenter in San Francisco remodeling apartments, then as a set builder in commercials and music videos, then finally as a miniature set builder on my first feature film, The NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It was there where I met a bunch of ILM free lance artist including model making legend, Steve Gawley, who help me get my job at the ILM model shop. My first job there was for another legend Lorne Peterson. These were people I had seen on trading cards as a kid! I worked at ILM for an amazing ten years, until they sold off their model shop and stages.

Matchflick: Was there a movie that inspired you to take up this profession?

Fon: Yep, it was STAR WARS, without a doubt. I was seven when that came out, a perfect age to completely geek out. It had really come full circle when I got to ILM and not just because I got to work on STAR WARS, but because one of the three Asian model makers I that helped, inspire me, was still working at ILM when I got there. It was Larry Tan. Through the years I was also had opportunities to meet the other two Asian model makers, Ease Owyeung and Greg Gene. Life is indeed an incredible ride.

Matchflick: I always envision future movie makers making stuff in their garages or bedrooms when they were young. What was the very first thing you created, even before you decided to do this for a living?

Fon: The 70's were a great for inspiration for me. When I was in the Third Grade especially, I made ramps and buildings from Speed Racer with card board, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea submarines with blocks and alien planet landscapes from Star Trek with paper mache. I was way in to making things.

Matchflick: As a model maker for ILM, how far in the process
FX is Not All Spaceships and Explosions

FX is Not All Spaceships and Explosions
are you involved in to get the imagery you see on the screen?

Fon: Every show was different. Some times you got a blueprint and other times you got a napkin. There were many opportunities to be really got creative from doing CAD and concept models through building and eventually supporting photography. My personal favorite was working with Geoff Herons special effects team blowing models up.

Matchflick: How much of the collaborative process (director, cinematographer, stunt team, etc.) are the visual effects team involved in when creating a gag (is it called a gag, like stunt teams call it?)

Fon: We were mostly involved on the post production side shooting miniature effects. Every show was different. Sometimes we would have visits from the director, but that was not very common. ILM was pretty independent, they have their own art department and the special effects supervisors oversee most shows. They would report to the director.

Matchflick: What personal skills do you use to create, construct, and animate your projects?

Fon: A lot of people specialize in carpentry, machining, fabrication painting and among other trades. I really like variety and want be involved everything, so I am more of a generalist. I don't specialize so I can start early on a project with design and development and take it all the way through photography.

Matchflick: One of the visual effects that was brought to my attention was an animatronic horse that was used in COWBOYS & ALIENS. Tell me a little about the process of creating such a tactile, interactive effect?

Fon: I can't be specific because I did not work on COWBOYS & ALIENS. I would not venture to guess what that was like because every effect we do is different and challenging in ways you could never predict. That is one of the great things about this field. Every director wants something new and different, so we are always doing something new and different.

Matchflick: What would you say is your showcase product to date?

Fon: Oooo. I get that question a lot and I have a very difficult time choosing. People usually respond to STAR WARS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, PEARL HARBOR, The MATRIX series and NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS I feel like my showcase product would have to be MORAV, because I take on a lot more with my own creations than I get an opportunity to do on other peoples projects.

MORAV is a Giant robot science fiction series I've been working on through my own studio for over five years.

Matchflick: Is there a project you were assigned where you said (to yourself), You’ve GOT to be kidding!

Fon: Oh yes, all the time, usually in a good way. Like, wait a minute, you want us to design and build super hero armor? or You want us to make a space ship and blow it up? What could be better! There have been some strange jobs too like painting a nude woman to look like marble or we need you to wiggle Pierce Brosnan's dismembered body parts with these ropes.

Matchflick: Is (was) there a project you really wanted to get your hands on?

Fon: There are always movies I've seen that wished I had worked on. Then through the magic of sequels I get to do just that. STAR WARS, TERMINATOR, MATRIX, etc. Right now I'm really digging on the production design in TRON LEGACY. I'd like to work in the art department on a TRON project. There have also been directors that I've wanted to work around. Tim Burton, George Lucas, Michael Bay, Bob Zemeckis, Steve Beck, and my favorite was Neill Blomkamp. Stephen Spielberg, and Ron Howard are still on my list, you here me guys? Chuckle,
My Baby

My Baby

Matchflick: Do you go to the movies and point out your credits, saying, That’s me! We did the (fill in the blanks)?

Fon: There is a lot of we and not so much me on all these projects. So it would feel wrong to verbalize those thoughts, but I do have them. I might nudge my wife or friend sitting next to me when the credits roll by or when the scenes I worked on occur. It's pretty funny actually because there are so many people here in the San Francisco who work in effects, if you sit through the credits you will likely see who they are and give a knowing glance to them when the light come up. It's like secret society! Chuckle, ok not really.

Matchflick: What effect have you produced that didn’t look like it was created? For instance, in The RING, I was told the at road Rachel drives down to the lighthouse was completely CG’d, but it passes by with little notice.

Fon: Ah, yes, the best visual effects are the ones that go completely unnoticed. The best thing for a visual effects artist is oddly, to get no recognition. The kind of stuff I am most involved in have clearly been fantasy, but in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE III there was a Cobra helicopter we that flew through a fireball and destroyed that was only six feet long. I think that might have fooled audiences pretty well.

Matchflick: How did Fonco Design and Fabrication come about?

Fon: Ahaha, I originally came up with the name Fonco as kind of a humorous name for my company when I needed a business license for toy shows, with every intention of changing it when I came up with a better name. Then it was such a pain in the neck to take time off and spend two days in government offices, that I never changed it. The Fonco name has been established now, since 2000. The name is recognized by clients. Because we are all freelance in the film industry, Fonco started as a way to keep myself and several ILM model makers working between large motion picture projects. Over the years we've grown in to more design and development and less fabrication. Now that many of the practical effects studios have closed, Fonco has become a full time studio. We now do training and lectures, product development, commercials in addition to the design and fabrication work in television and motion Pictures. It's been a really challenging and exciting time for the team here!

Matchflick: What projects have come out of Fonco?

Fon: Boy oh boy! The best ones are the ones I can't talk about. What a drag, eh? We are all very proud of the work we did on a series of stop motion shorts we did for Brisk Tea early this year. There were three spots, Brisk Machete, Brisk Ozzy Normal and Brisk Eminem which premiered on the Super Bowl. I was production designer with my super awesome Fonco art department and we also did most of the set and prop fabrication and some character design too. I say super awesome because I feel like I've got an incredible team. We believe it is possible to work hard and still have a great time here.

Matchflick: Now, MORAV is a project from your own studio. Where did the idea for a graphic novel about giant robots come from?

Fon: MORAV is basically the giant robot science fiction series I always wanted to see, but I felt like no one was doing, so I decided with the support of my friends, to create it myself. I really want to see a realistically depicted vision of the future where giant robots are common. I had to come up with why and how they were built and most of all how they would affect the daily lives of people around this terrifying technology.

Matchflick: What was the genesis from idea to graphic novel to producing the feature film, and how far along is the project?

Fon: I actually launched the series with a pitch for a live action series. MORAV later developed in to what is now the Graphic novel titled MORAV: The History of Robotic Warfare. The book was suppose to help fund the live action series,
We Need Your Help - Visit Kickstarter

We Need Your Help - Visit Kickstarter
but quickly became its own project with its own production costs. Now I am producing a live action pilot to get the whole live action side of MORAV off the ground. We have been working for a year on three main elements. The Script of course being the most important, the full sized giant robot interior set and a nearly six foot tall model of the robot exterior. We are very close, but I definitely need to put more in to all these things and then start casting the actors and actresses.

Matchflick: As with all independent filmmaking, the budget is always the biggest issue. What is your strategy for getting backers?

Fon: My strategy has been to finance the entire project myself. That was working great until the economy collapsed. Now I'm having to be more creative. We're trying a Kickstarter campaign that may help us get done with our pilot this year. If that does not pan out we'll probably take another year till we'll be ready to shoot. It's a huge bummer, but that is the way of the world. It's just a tough economy right now.

Matchflick: When people walk out of your film, what do you want people to talk about at the watercooler the next day? (e.g. “Wow! Did you see that (fill in the blanks)?

Fon: I would like people to get immersed in the character side of the story and say how intense the experience was. I want them to feel what it might be like be in this MORAV crew and face terrifying realities of giant robotic warfare. It should be visually and emotionally stunning.

Matchflick: After MORAV, what’s next for Fonco Design and Fabrication?

Fon: We are doing what many companies are doing right now. We are diversifying the type of projects we take on. In addition to MORAV, we are launching on our first full start to finish stop motion commercial, we are about to release our first training DVD and we are in the planning stages of producing our own micro budget feature films.

Matchflick: At this point in the interview, I give my subject the “microphone that speaks to the world.” What would you want the world to remember you by (so far)?

Fon: That's an intense question, because I'd love to speak to the world and I'd also like a few days to prepare what to say. Chuckle, chuckle.

The first thing the come to mind is the proverb It takes a village to raise a child. I believe this concept extends beyond the literal Child and in to a more symbolic idea of the child as something great that needs to be nurtured. To me this means we should all work together and help each other do great things. Great things can be anything from a song to defeating hunger. It does not matter as long as we all contribute something. Be inspired and inspire others. I would like to think I have inspired others the way I have been inspired.

Is that too heavy? Chuckle, chuckle.

Thanks, Fon, for a great interview!

Fon and Fonco Design and Fabrication are hard at work getting MORAV in the theaters, but they need your help. Fonco Design and Fabrication has set up a funding site on Kickstarter. As of this writing, they are halfway toward their initial goal. He has a deadline of October 18th to reach is goal. Read about the MORAV project on Facebook, and if you want to be a part of the movie making process, visit the Kickstarter site and make an investment to decent Sc-Fi!


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Mike Thomas
Oct 6, 2011 9:27 PM
[X] delete
A correction: one of the model makers that helped Fon was incorrectly listed as Greg Gene.

The person's correct name is Greg JEIN.

The administration apologizes for this error.

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I Could Be Wrong
Every other Wednesday

Until I find my footing, I'd like to vent on the state of today's movies. I will occasionally praise a movie that piques my fancy. But it's a whole lot more fun railing against a person's work who makes more money on a single project than I would make if I lived 500 years. Oh, I will usually make observations on movies rather than films. The difference? Films are critically acclaimed, while movies are just darned good fun.

Other Columns
Other columns by Spotlight Mike:

Adventures in WonderCon

In Praise of the Movie Producer

The Life of a Film Reviewer



All Columns

Spotlight Mike
Born in the Fifties with an extreme phobia for movies in general, I became obsessed with movies when I broke that phobia with the first movie I actually enjoyed, “The Ten Commandments.” I particularly like the kind of movie where you can put your brain on hold. I get enough reality and drama in my everyday life; I refuse to pay someone to subject me to the same.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Spotlight Mike by clicking here.

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