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Gail Currey Interview, Life & Lucasfilm Animation

In My Circle – Magazine Interview with Gail Currey, VP/General Manager Lucasfilm Animation LTD

CIS: When did you first notice you had an affinity to film?
What was that experience and how did you develop it and let it grow?

GAIL: I am not sure “affinity” is the right word.  As a child my father used to rent movies from the library and we would show them to all the neighborhood children.  I got to be the host for these events.   One time he rented a movie called ‘Nanook of the North’. It was a very old black and white movie directed by Robert Flaherty on the lives of Eskimos.   Well one of the things about “life as an Eskimo” is that the women have their babies at home and there was a scene showing in graphic detail the birth of a baby.  All my little friends then went home and told their parents all about “life as an Eskimo” and my parents were fielding phone calls for days.  None of these phone calls had to do with thanking my father for help in educating their children.

Also, like everyone else I knew, I read comics and watched cartoons, but I do remember thinking about how powerful images can be even without color or music or dialogue.

CIS: I know you went to film school.  Where did you go, and what was the most valuable lesson you took from those years?

GAIL: I actually didn’t go to film school.  I went to art school and that is really quite a different thing altogether.  I did study film and photography at The Art Institute of Chicago which I really loved, but the concentration was always on visual language rather than on dramatic presentation.    One of the most valuable lessons that one gets at an art school is that you have to live through critiques. You can’t just write a paper and receive the professor’s remarks to contemplate in private.   You have to show your work to your professors, other professors who are total strangers and peers as a group, and then listen to their reactions publicly.    You have to do this when something isn’t finished or not what you want it to be or not even completely formulated yet.  This is a difficult lesson in humility for anyone but it also taught me a great deal about where the lines of a common experience and the lines of a subjective experience cross.  You also learn how quickly a film or a photograph takes on a life of its own and can not always be manipulated into what you want it to be.

CIS: After school what was your first official “film” job?  What did you do and where did it lead you?

GAIL: I worked as a production assistant for a company doing videos for not-for-profit groups.   I learned all about lugging heavy equipment around, where the best deli’s were and all the usual pa things.  Paying your dues like that is actually a very important part of the film industry.  You learn the hierarchy and you learn to be the first one on location in the morning because you simply can not be late and those are really good lifetime lessons.   I also learned book-keeping which is a very practical skill and I found out I was a very good interviewer.  People would open up to me and talk to me in a very natural way even with the cameras running.

CIS: How did you land at Lucasfilm and when did you arrive?

GAIL: I was working at a post-production company that was doing work for Industrial Light & Magic and one day, instead of calling me up to book an edit suite, they called me up and wanted to know if I wanted a job.  I said that I did.

CIS: I also know you were the Visual Effects Producer for ILM on the movie “Schindlers List” with Steven Spielberg, and that that film had a profound affect on you.  Will you talk a little about that experience?

GAIL: Sure, as effects movies go, this was not a big film for ILM.  However,  ILM was able to do an amazing job of touching lightly on the emotional impact of the film by adding a red coat here or a candle glow there.   It would have been a powerful film without any thing that ILM did, but we had the opportunity to contribute visually to a truly great human story without adding explosions, or sinking ships or dinosaurs or aliens.  Don’t get me wrong, I love explosions, sinking ships, dinosaurs and aliens but to see my name on the credits of Schindler’s List made me cry.  I was proud to be a tiny little part of that movie.

CIS: You are VP/General Manager for Lucasfilm Animation.  What is it like spearheading a new division for  Lucasfilm?

GAIL: Well, to put it simply it is really very exciting to work for Lucasfilm.  It is quite a unique company.

CIS: Are you allowed to tell us what you’re working on?

GAIL: Sure, we have been working on a fully cg-animated TV series:  Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which will launch on Cartoon Network on October 3rd.

CIS: I know you have been spending a lot of time in Asia for Lucasfilm, and especially Singapore.  Why Singapore?  Why not Hong Kong or some other Asian city?

GAIL: Well, we knew we wanted to be somewhere where the infrastructure is strong and where IP protection is taken seriously.   However, mostly we wanted to set up a studio in a city where talent from around the globe could come and find it an attractive place to live.  Singapore is a multi-cultural city and we can pull in very talented artists from around the region in addition to local people.

CIS: Animation is so popular right now and most young filmmakers would give their eyeteeth to work for Lucasfilm.  Any advice?

GAIL: Sure, animation is a wonderful story telling medium because you are not constrained by the real world.  Yet what you find is that people respond to very human emotions and stories that touch their real world lives.  Our creative people, like Dave Filoni, the supervising director on The Clone Wars, can be telling a story about cloned warriors on a far away planet but underneath it all is the story about the individual strengths and weaknesses of a team and the role of a wise mentor.  So, some advice for young filmmakers is to understand the story you want to tell and only then think about how you visually and musically want to tell it.  Often people seem to want to start with “and this would look great” when they don’t know the story.

Secondly, animation right now is a wonderful collaborative medium requiring people with deep technical skills and people with deep creative skills but it is rare for people to have both.  The industry loves to find people with both.

CIS: Most people don’t know that you and your husband Dan are licensed pilots.  What is it like for you when you are in your plane?  What does flying give to you that film does not?

GAIL: My job is all about multi-tasking and problem-solving and making sure a great many people have the resources, the support and the training to be able to do their jobs well.   In that way it isn’t a very focused job but one in which one needs to bring focus to others.    Flying is nothing but focus.   You can be looking down at the Golden Gate Bridge and thinking how magnificently beautiful it is but you are still and always “flying the plane” because when you fly, any illusion you may have of immortality is lost.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it:  “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things”.

CIS: Since this is Cracks In Sidewalks I have to ask, besides not moving to LA, what have you done in your career that has been different or unexpected?

GAIL: Well, some days I wake up and think that everything I have done is unexpected.  I am a fairly simple person and I really always assumed I would have a simple life.  For example, I never wanted to learn to fly.  I am not one of those people that always wanted to be up in the air.  I really had no interest, but because my husband is very clever, he set it up so that I discovered that I could fly and then I discovered that I actually liked it.  Finally, I discovered that I absolutely needed it.

Lucasfilm is one of those companies where the unexpected, the surprising and amazing is the end goal and to work here is full of  unexpected moments and unexpected career changes.  I never would have guessed that I would be flying back and forth to Singapore as part of my job 10 years ago.  However, it has always been challenging and in that way it has been very rewarding.

CIS: Anything else you want to add?  Any important questions that I missed?

GAIL: Nope, I don’t think so….

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