The Journal continues the monthly series “From the Studio” with Kathaleen Roberts as she takes a close look at an artist.
Bill Tondreau’s Oscar sits wrapped in Target towels in a gym bag tucked away in his Northeast Heights closet.
“I’m not the type to rest on my triumphs,” said the photographer / special effects software designer.
The 8Â½-pound gold-plated action figure arrived in 2004 as an Oscar nod to his entire career. Weeks before the glittering event, a friend had warned him to watch the mail.
âI called my wife,â Tondreau said. âI think we went to Taco Cabana. The phone rang four or five times a day for weeks.
In total, Tondreau has three Oscars won during a career spent in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. His over 50 credits include work on the sequels to “Star Wars”, “Titanic”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Avatar”, “Back to the Future” and many more.
He still wields some of his technical magic, but instead his focus has been on panoramic impressions of the Albuquerque area landscape.
These landscapes are exhibited in the Sumner & Dene Gallery with titles such as “Afternoon on the Rio Grande”, “Corrales in Pink” and “River’s Edge”.
Tondreau grew up in Southern California, the youngest of three boys, all of whom were to become lawyers. The kind of kid who built things out of used toilet paper rolls, he harbored other ideas, majoring in English at California State University. The 1956 sci-fi classic âForbidden Planetâ was his favorite film.
âI wanted to do interesting things,â he said. âI said to myself, ‘This is so cool.’ “
He worked as an in-house photographer for influential American designer, architect and filmmaker Charles Eames.
âPeople who have done this often compare it to working in Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance boutique,â ââTondreau said. âI had the field free. “
He worked there for 10 years. Then he spotted a study in American Cinematographer magazine on the use of motion control in special effects.
âI just read technical stuff and found the chips and the technology. I built little circuit boards on my little table, âhe said.
The result was the “very user-friendly” Tondreau motion control system. While older systems required five operators, his used one.
âI didn’t invent it, but I modified and molded it for a visual effects operator to use,â he said.
Tondreau advertised his invention in American Cinematographer magazine, and clients kept coming.
Although he rarely interacted with the main actors on sets, he remembers a few.
âMy best experience has been Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin,â he said. The movie was 1988’s âBig Businessâ.
âThey were twins and they were separated at birth,â Tondreau said. âThey used my motion control to create the twin. Bette walked over to the camera and said, “That’s my best side,” “a finger on her cheek.
âThey had a set that must have cost $ 20 million. It was a luxury hotel, âhe added.
Eddie Murphy was another favorite. Tondreau worked on “The Golden Child” in 1986.
“It was just a good sport and he would let anyone guide him,” he said. “He traveled with about eight of his friends and they got into a fight and got kicked out of hotels.”
As for âStar Wars,â he said, âWe were used to doing lightsabers and explosions and rays.
â(George) Lucas is a very reserved guy,â continued Tondreau. âHe said, ‘We love the look you are giving us.’ “
In 1993, Tim Burton used his software to produce “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.
Tondreau landed in Albuquerque in 1988 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her Californian doctor knew of experimental treatments that were not available anywhere else.
âAt first I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to spend three months in Albuquerque.’ It was in the deserts, âhe said.
Tondreau’s doctor knew of a group of Albuquerque specialists using a Los Alamos proton accelerator for treatment.
âThey put me in the proton beams a few times and voila,â Tondreau said with a snap of his fingers. “It was dangerous because it had never been done before.”
Today, the treatment is sometimes used on brain tumors in children.
As he recovered, Tondreau realized that Albuquerque was “a great place to live.”
In Los Angeles, he had driven up to 100 miles a day in massive traffic to make an appointment. He paid a monthly rent of $ 5,000.
He realized he could work from his spare room here for nothing.
Tondreau’s regular hikes through Embudito Canyon revealed an unexpected beauty.
âAlbuquerque has beautiful scenery,â Tondreau said. âI was amazed to find that there were some wonderful places just outside the city limits.â
He bought a digital camera and started playing with it.
To create his incredibly detailed landscapes, he tweaked already existing software to âstitchâ multiple images seamlessly while he took his images into sections.
âYou can view extremely wide panoramic angles without distortion,â he said.
His first and second Oscars came in the form of certificates; one for a first version of its system in 1989 and in 2001 for motion capture technology.
But the award for all of her accomplishments came with full-fledged glitter: red carpets, flashing lights, and stars galore.
The technicians all fought to find the cheapest tuxedo.
Jennifer Garner presented Tondreau with the sparkling statue.
âI think she thought of me as a wet mound of hay,â he said unmoved. “I don’t think we exchanged five words.”
Outside her hotel, a woman asked if she could rock her Oscar.
âEvery two years I take it out and put it on my desk. “