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Aug. 15, 2022

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Vancouver native nominated for visual effects Oscar

Kelly Port up for award for supervising visual effects on latest Spider-Man film

By , Columbian Features Editor
4 Photos
Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and other familiar villains return in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which received an Academy Award nomination for visual effects.
Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and other familiar villains return in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which received an Academy Award nomination for visual effects. (Contributed by Digital Domain) Photo Gallery

The man behind the dazzling visual effects in the box-office smash “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was born in Vancouver and spent summers here growing up.

Kelly Port recently learned he received an Oscar nomination for his work as visual effects supervisor on the film.

His mother, Linda Mealey Port, a 1966 Hudson’s Bay High School grad who now lives in California, emailed The Columbian about his Vancouver connection.

“What do ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ ‘Avengers: Endgame’ and ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ have in common? … One very talented man was the visual effects supervisor on all three films and HE IS FROM VANCOUVER.”

Kelly Port’s colleagues describe him as “affable” on LinkedIn, an apt term for a guy who obliges his mother by agreeing to an interview with her hometown newspaper.

Port jokingly bragged that when he was born at Vancouver Memorial Hospital in 1967, he was the second largest baby delivered there at 10 pounds, 9 ounces.

He said his parents moved to California when he was 3 so his father, Larry Eby (a 1966 Evergreen High grad), could attend design school in Pasadena. Tragically, his father died in a car wreck shortly after the family’s move.

Port and his mother stayed in Southern California but he spent summers in Vancouver with his grandparents, Ken and Thelma Eby and Bob and Janice Mealey. (Bob Mealey served as principal at the Washington State School for the Blind.) As a kid, Port delivered The Columbian during summers here.

Early inspiration

Port vividly remembers going to see George Lucas’ “Star Wars” right around his 10th birthday. The line circled the block.

“I went in and I was blown away,” he said. He came out of the movie thinking, “I don’t know what that was, but I want to do that.”

Over his childhood, though, his interests scattered. “I was always into movies to some extent, but really I was interested in so many things,” Port said. “I was very curious, like a lot of children — always asking my mom so many questions.”

He went through phases of wanting to be a doctor, marine biologist, artist, teacher, painter, photographer — “you name it,” he said.

Port’s interests coalesced when he studied at UCLA. The history major took elective classes about computers, photography, art and graphic design — “things that, without me knowing it at the time, are what ended up being my career,” he said.

After college, Port worked as a postproduction assistant at Aspect (then called Aspect Ratio), a company that makes theatrical trailers. Then he landed a job at Digital Domain in Los Angeles, where he’s worked ever since.

When Port entered the visual effects field in the early 1990s, Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic dominated. Digital Domain, the upstart, was founded in 1993 by a trio that included an alum of Lucas’ company, as well as James Cameron, today best known for producing and directing “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

Did you know?

Visual effects are not the same as special effects. Special effects, or SFX, are pyrotechnics, animatronics, fake weather, prosthetic makeup and so forth captured during filming. Visual effects, or VFX, are added after filming by integrating computer-generated imagery with live action footage.

Hard work

On March 27, Port will receive red-carpet treatment in front of a worldwide audience during the Academy Awards ceremony. However, he began his career with far less glamour.

Port’s first job at Digital Domain was as a production assistant in the software department, where he did everything from fetching coffee to testing software. He helped a software developer who had carpal tunnel syndrome by typing computer code as it was dictated to him.

“I would literally type it letter by letter,” Port said.

Then he took a UCLA course on coding so that the developer could abbreviate terms in his dictation.

“I learned it enough to get by in that context, and worked my way up to different jobs within the same company,” Port said.

He served in a variety of roles, including digital effects artist, compositor and computer graphics supervisor.

“My most favorite film credit is the one from ‘Titanic’ because it was the Wild West of standardized credit names,” Port said. He’s identified as “digital paraphernalia supervisor” on that movie because he was allowed to choose his own description of his role. “I’m pretty positive that there’s no other human being credited with that title.”

Port worked on film after film, each taking a year or two. “I never thought I would be the guy at a single company for 29 years. I get bored quickly,” he said. “The projects change so much. And the technology is rapidly changing every year.”

‘Labor intensive’

Port’s favorite project to date, though, is “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“So many of the shots that look like live action are visual-effects shots,” he said.

Of the approximately 2,600 shots in the new “Spider-Man” movie, 2,500 of them involve visual effects, he said.

While special effects are captured during filming — animatronics, pyrotechnics, prosthetic makeup and so forth — visual effects are the computer-generated images integrated into live-action footage after filming.

Moviegoers might think of Spider-Man fending off Doc Ock on New York’s Alexander Hamilton Bridge (a scene filmed in Atlanta). Or the third act, a battle on Liberty Island that unites three Spider-Man generations (including the first of the three Spideys, Tobey Maguire, who also lived in Vancouver as a child).

But it’s not just the sweeping action scenes that require intensive visual effects. So do the details. For example, in some scenes, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man suit is entirely digital from the neck down, so the visual effects crew had to precisely match the actor’s muscle movements.

“People don’t even necessarily realize that’s a hugely labor-intensive thing,” Port said.

He spent 25 months on the film, preproduction through completion. He and his team worked late nights, including a 36-hour stretch.

“The overwhelming response at the end makes that pain go away,” Port said.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” just displaced “Avatar” as the third-highest grossing movie at the domestic box office ever.

Port has won awards from the Visual Effects Society and other industry organizations. He was nominated for a 2019 Oscar for his work on “Avengers: Infinity War,” but “First Man,” a biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong, won that year. Now Port’s up for an Oscar again.

“I’m appreciative of any kind of recognition,” Port said, adding that it’s really for all those who worked on visual effects for “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” He estimates that 1,500 people were part of that effort.

Port dismisses those who say visual effects in movies are just “all computers.”

“That’s like saying, ‘It’s just a frying pan,’ to a chef. You need a frying pan. You need a lot of other tools, too. And you need someone who knows what they’re doing,” Port said.

The visual effects industry encompasses perhaps a dozen different career paths, he said, from concept artists to animators to engineers to programmers to the compositors who put elements together as if they were all photographed at the same time.

After 30 years, Port said he still learns new things, whether from an older peer or a new hire. His advice for anyone who hopes to someday make movie magic like he does?

“Keep your eyes open. Embrace curiosity. Question and learn. Have an open mind about learning new things every day.”


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