The John Hughes Institute is helping visual effects professionals keep their edge
Story by Shanee Edwards | Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner
Everyone loves watching movies. They transport us to new places and emotional experiences using a skillful combination of art and science. When filmmakers incorporate visual special effects into movies, there’s literally no limit to the stories they can tell. Nobody understands this more than married couple Shish Aikat and Sue Lewak.
Aikat has a distinguished background in visual effects (VFX), having worked on dozens of films like, “Life of Pi,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Lewak holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from UCLA where she previously taught courses that included graphic fiction. The couple moved to Playa Vista in 2009 when Aikat worked for the visual effects and animation studio Rhythm and Hues Studios that was located north of Jefferson on Jandy Place, where TOM’s Shoes is now.
Visual effects pioneer John Hughes, a co-founder of Rhythm and Hughes, next formed The John Hughes Institute, or JHI, with Aikat in 2014 to serve as an educational and training resource for universities as well as film production studios not just in Hollywood, but all over the world. Lewak currently serves as JHI’s Director of Programs and Development.
“The John Hughes Institute,” says Aikat, “is about the art and science of entertainment. We are about learning the code, living the art and also learning the science.” Aikat says the goal is to bring industry professionals who are working on Hollywood’s best practices into the classroom – whether that be in a brick and mortar school, or a virtual one.
“The wonderful thing about the John Hughes Institute,” says Lewak, “is that it’s at the cutting edge of rethinking the classroom. It’s very inspired by the Khan Academy and flipped classroom, hybrid experiences that are partly in-person and online.”
Because technology is always evolving, this type of learning platform is critical to filmmaking around the world. Animation and visual effects studio, Tau Films, also co-founded by John Hughes in 2014, where Aikat serves as the Head of Global Learning, has production arms in India, Malaysia, Canada and Beijing. When filmmakers need to be educated on the latest VFX techniques, JHI fills the niche.
“Having an educated workforce, an educated talent-base, is really important,” says Aikat. “We work in a creative and technology-based industry, but in the end it’s all about the people and what they bring to the table. Being able to tap into that potential workforce out there is essential to the future of the industry.”
Aikat became interested in VFX in the mid 1990s when he worked on the lot at Warner Bros. in their MIS (Management Information Systems) department. On his daily walks to the studio gym, he was inspired by watching live film shoots like “Batman” and “Backdraft.”
“I would often stop to stand and watch [the filming] because I thought filmmaking only had a creative part,” he says. “But I would see electricians, mechanical engineers – there were all these people from the technology aspect really having a huge bearing on the eventual product. I thought, ‘I’m a mechanical engineer and I’m always interested in art and storytelling. How do I make those things come together?’”
In his spare time, Aikat started taking a correspondence class Cartoonerama (yes, through snail-mail) with the late professor Leo Stoutsenberger in Maine. After that, he earned his MFA in Film, Video, and Computer Animation from USC’s film school.
“The rest is history – I can’t get out of it now, it’s a trap!” He says with a laugh.
For Lewak, her interest in graphic storytelling started much earlier. She admits she was a secret comic book fan as a kid and often knows more details about the comic book characters depicted in the films Aikat works on.
“Comic books like “Fantastic Four,” “Avengers,” “X-Men” – that was my childhood!” Lewak says. “I had a brother who had all the comics so that’s how I found them. They had these great girl heroes.”
As a child, Lewak longed to see her female heroes in movies. “They didn’t exist or couldn’t be made unless they were 2D cartoons.”
Her love for these comic book heroes inspired her to include graphic fiction in her classes, which is just one step away from animation.
Both Aikat and Lewak hope to expand JHI’s global educational model beyond universities and film studios.
“Part of our long-term goal is to work with kindergarten through grade 12,” says Lewak.
Aikat agrees, “We hope to partner with an agency like the Khan Academy and give away [the lessons] for free, to have an entire sequence of tracks, get a MacArthur grant and teach people programming and computer graphics at the same time.”
For more info on the John Hughes Institute, visit jhughesinstitute.org.