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Richard has the FX Factor

IF Avatar wins the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards this weekend, a Tallaght man will be collecting it. Animator Richard Baneham has been a quiet force in Hollywood for the past 16 years and, while his name is unknown to the average Irish film-goer, he's fast gaining a reputation as an industry trailblazer in the US.

No Oscar nomination is really just for one person. Best adapted screenplays owe appreciation to the original work; best actresses must thank the director who elicited their performance . . . and their husband, agent, dog, Pilates instructor . . .

And then there are the teachers, the people who encouraged these huge talents to make their first tentative steps. One of the most unlikely winners in the Oscar nominations this year is Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

Four Irish graduates from the college have been nominated in three different categories at this year's awards, one of whom is Baneham. A betting person would consider him a certainty to take home the gold statuette: the animator has already scooped a BAFTA and an IFTA in the same category.

But he's quick to bestow congratulations on the college where he carved out his early career. "If you look at the other Irish nominations, they're all from around the same time," he reveals. "The rest of my class are here [in Los Angeles] working for DreamWorks or Disney or they run companies in Dublin."

In fact, so close are the original Ballyfermot contingent, that it took just 20 minutes to round up 25 Irish expats to come to the pub and celebrate Baneham's Oscar nomination.


Like his classmates, Baneham has lived in LA for many years now, but he insists he hasn't been LA-ised, nor has he ever ordered a Grande Soy Latte. "We have a strong group of Irish people here. We all have kids the same age. You wouldn't get away with being 'Hollywood'. They'd take you down a peg if you were."

A self-confessed day dreamer during his school days -- "I was away with the fairies at times" -- Baneham's first artistic endeavours came from drawing on his fellow students' schoolbags. "That was the first step towards professionalism," he laughs. "By the time I was 12, I could draw fairly well."

A course in animation at Ballyfermot College of Further Education followed. He graduated early after securing work with American animator Don Bluth and, with serendipity on side, he also acquired the golden ticket of the early 90s: a Morrison visa.

LA was the obvious destination for Baneham and his childhood sweetheart, Aisling. With a fistful of money and a cartload of dreams -- and the "second passport" that is the bit of Blarney -- they made the brave move.

The couple arrived in LA with enough money for a month's rent, given to them by Aisling's father. But there was no need to spin tales to the landlord: within the month, Baneham had found work as a clean-up artist on animated film, The Swan Princess. Next he was off to Warner Bros as an apprentice animator. After a two-week course in 3D animation, he was promoted to the post of CG animator. It was the beginning of an upward trajectory. Soon Baneham was choosing the movies he worked on rather than the other way around. He was responsible for the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings II and III and Aslan (the titular lion) in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. "My mother read me and my sisters the book when we were children."

His work was being noticed, in particular by one James Cameron, creator of The Abyss, Titanic and a soon-to-be epic, Avatar.

"The very first meeting I had with Jim [Cameron] was in his office to do a review on the material that was coming back from ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]. We were doing it as a teleconference and I had no idea who was on the other end of the line. I was giving some cursory notes and I was feeding the notes to Jim.

"After a few minutes he said, 'I'm sick of this. Look, come over and tell them' and he grabbed a chair and pulled me up beside him. Then Jim says, 'did you get that?' and Dennis Muren leans over and says, 'I did'.

"'My good, good Jesus, that's Dennis Muren,' I thought." For the uninitiated, Muren is the six-time Oscar-winning special effects artist best known for his work on Star Wars (and his star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame). It gives you some idea of the respect the 38-year-old Dub is commanding within industry circles.

And so began a four-and-a-half-year journey. "We were working six days a week, 14 hours a day for 18 months to two years. Sometimes we'd work 18 and 20 hours on Saturday with the rest day on Sunday. We did experience some burn-out factor with some artists."

While Baneham was dedicated to the cause, he wasn't altogether convinced that Avatar would be the boundary-breaking, record-smashing film that it has become.

"We understood the scope of work and what it was we were trying to achieve but, to be honest, I wasn't too convinced, early on, that we could achieve what they hoped, or the epic that it has become.


"There was a lot of things I found particularly shocking. The very first time I walked into the art room where all visual development artists worked, I was taken aback by the colour, the sheer strength and vividness of it. I wasn't 100pc convinced that that colour palette could be sold.

"Even up until we started seeing our first finals back, I was still a little concerned that it may not be consumable by the public. As a testament to Jim, one of the earliest notes that came back consistently was how much the audience did react and enjoy the colour palette."

In fact, his six-year-old son, Luke, the eldest of three children, was rather more optimistic. "We did a focus group very early on. It included some heavy Hollywood hitters, including producers who are up for Oscars this year.

"It was on a Sunday, the only day I had off, so I was going to sit it out. But Jim asked me to come and bring the young fella. We had a round of notes afterwards and we talked about what went right and what went wrong.

"Luke turns around and says, 'will they come to me -- will they ask me to talk?' I said, 'if you want to talk, just put up your hand'. So he puts up his hand and he says, 'I think all the notes you are giving are crazy because that was a great movie'."

I wonder how he rates his father's Oscar chances?