Hampshire alum bags an Oscar

  • Hampshire College alumnus Greg Butler won an Academy Award on Sunday for his visual effects work in World War I film “1917.”  François Duhamel/Universal Pictures

  • Greg Butler stands on the Oscars stage after the Sunday ceremony with his wife, Lisa Rollins, who is also a Hampshire College alum. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Hampshire College alumnus Greg Butler won an Oscar award on Sunday for his visual effects work on the film “1917.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TODD WAWRYCHUK

Staff Writer
Published: 2/13/2020 4:20:39 PM

AMHERST — Hampshire College added to a growing list of alumni to be honored by Hollywood’s elite when a visual effects expert and 1993 graduate landed an Oscar last weekend for his work on the film “1917.”

Alumnus Greg Butler, a visual effects supervisor for the film, was recognized alongside Guillaume Rocheron and Dominic Tuohy for their work on the World War I film with the Academy Award for best visual effects. The win came a week after the team took home the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for special visual effects.

The award was Butler’s second Oscar nomination and first win — he was previously nominated for his visual effects work on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” which earned him his first BAFTA in 2012. Butler has also worked on films such as all three installments of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Forrest Gump” and “Maleficent.”

“I had been there once before with the chance at winning and didn’t, so I remember the sinking feeling of that,” Butler told the Gazette, “and now I get to know what it feels like the other way.”

Butler, who grew up in Suffield, Connecticut, and now lives in Montreal, said that while he felt that the “1917” team had a good shot at winning the visual effects Oscar, a level of uncertainty always remains when up against four other films deemed worthy of Oscar nominations.

“Every time, there are five movies that are good enough to win, good enough in the craft,” he said, “so once you get to those five, it’s about so many other things,” such as how Oscar voters felt about the movie, the complexities of the visual effects, and the impact that they had on the movie’s overall quality.

Butler’s mother, Ellie Binns, also kept these phenomena in mind when she flew out to Los Angeles for the ceremony.

“He’s worked on a lot of films in his career, and he’s had an amazing career,” Binns said, “but it’s like everything has to come together as a perfect storm.”

But despite this year’s competition, which included “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Irishman,” and “The Lion King,” Butler was optimistic that “1917” would come out on top.“I felt that we had a really good chance at winning, and after winning at the BAFTAs I tried not to let myself feel like it was going to happen,” he said, “but in my bones, I felt like it was going to happen.”

Hearing the film announced out of the nominees, Butler recalled that the logistics of accepting the award took over — the team only had a minute to walk on stage, accept the award and thank their supporters.

“All I heard was ‘19,’” Butler said, “and then the rest, I stopped listening and was trying to find out how to get to the stage.”

Hampshire to Hollywood

Growing up in the 1970s, Butler said that there were few windows into the world of visual effects. Behind-the-scenes movie features were rare finds, and learning the technical aspects of filmmaking felt comparable to understanding a magician’s tricks.

“I wanted to be involved with movies somehow, but a lot of it was because I wanted to work behind the curtain and see how it’s done out of complete curiosity,” Butler said.

Reflecting on his experience at Hampshire, Butler recalled, “I may have still ended up in the film industry — maybe even in visual effects — but I certainly wouldn’t have gotten there in the way that I did.”

His work with a fellow Hampshire student on her final project played a pivotal role in shaping his career, Butler said — after collaborating, his former classmate encouraged him to move to California and helped him to get a start at George Lucas’ visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic.

Early in his career, Butler also found that communication skills continued to advance his career as he bridged a gap between the artistic and technical sides of a company he worked at.

“I was somebody who was communicating to both sides, with both of them thinking I was basically on their team,” Butler said, “and that really advanced my career and my connections at that company, so when I left there I had really good support and encouragement from some amazing technical people and the creative filmmaking world.

“Both sides helped me with my next jobs,” he continued, “and I think that was something that Hampshire gave me — an acknowledgment that you can sit in a dark room and try to do things yourself … but a lot of it comes from finding like-minded people and doing things together that you care about.”

Butler also credited the Five College consortium, which allowed him to take classes at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in his film education.

Binns also recalled that her son’s interest in visual effects seemed to take form in college.

“I think it started at Hampshire College,” Binns said. “He did movies with his friends when they were young, but his career really started at Hampshire College.”

Hampshire has garnered a reputation as a launching pad for careers in the film and entertainment industry, boasting alumni such as Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ken Burns, in addition to numerous other filmmakers, animators and musicians.

Other Hampshire alumni who have won Academy Awards include filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jonathan Kitzen, animator Ben Fiske for his work on “Frozen,” and faculty member Christopher Perry, who won a technical achievement award.

Not everyone will experience the same level of success through Hampshire, Butler said, but “if you’re the kind of person who can thrive in an open-minded environment” without “being held to a particular set of rules or agreed-upon way of learning, then you can get something big out of it.”

He added, “With Hampshire, it’s the kind of school where you can succeed or you can fail, and it’s much more up to you than if you went to a more traditional school.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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