Helen Ostenberg Elswit (Part 1)

Independent Visual Effects Producer in the Film Industry

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Arts

Helen Ostenberg Elswit is an independent Visual Effects Producer in the film industry. But her journey into the field of production was different. She left a very successful law career to follow her heart.

During our interview, Helen described how praying daily, relying on inspiration from the Bible, and trusting God helped her overcome her fears and directed her to a very fulfilling career.

How did you make such a major career move from law to movies?
During the height of the Wall Street frenzy in the late '80s before the stock market crashed, I was working on Wall Street for more hours than I could believe. I decided I would move to Kansas City to work at law firm because I wanted a life. I had family and friends there. After about a year there, I really still was not happy working as a corporate lawyer. My heart wasn't into the whole idea of business law. So, I opened up my thought to the film industry and began to explore opportunities in that field, even though I was in Kansas City, far away from Hollywood.

I started making a list of everyone I knew in Kansas City who had any connection to the film industry or television. Soon I met all these people who were real film buffs. I saw a notice in the paper that a movie called "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, was going to be filmed in Kansas City. My new film buff friends encouraged me to submit my resume, even though it was a law resume. I ended up working on the film as an intern as Paul and Joanne's driver. The people I met on that film became my contacts. One thing led to another, and I worked as a camera assistant for about three years. Then I decided my skills would be better served on the production side of the industry. Making this change was pretty scary because I was really on my own. That's when I started buckling down and praying daily. That prayer led me to work as a visual effects producer, which is what I've been doing for 8 or 9 years now.

You said it was scary. How did you deal with the fear?
I was most fearful during the transition from camera assistant to producer. Here I was in my 30s, turning my back on a very stable law career to try to get into the film industry along with everyone else in the world. Out of all my contacts, I didn't know anyone who could help me find my way into production. I had no money because I had gone quite a few months without work. So I prayed that the right activity would unfold.

A Bible passage that I really worked with a lot was, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). It was that sense of listening that was very important to me. I was willing to practice law again if that was what "listening to God" led me to do, and had interviews at some of the most prestigious law firms in L.A. About that time, a friend of mine introduced me to a producer who had a position that seemed to be tailor made for me. I thought it was the obvious result of all my prayer. So, when I got a call from the company saying that they were going to hire someone with more experience, I was in tears. When I called someone for spiritual guidance, prayer, and support, the individual said, "Oh, isn't that wonderful! God has something much more wonderful in store for you." She pointed out two Bible passages to me that I treasured and worked with daily.

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (I Cor. 2:9)

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Prov. 3:5, 6)

These passages became very important to me.

Could you explain how these passages helped you?
Sure. A friend of mine in the movie business had such a yearning to better understand true spirituality that we met daily to discuss spiritual ideas. Even when she went on location as an assistant director for "The River Wild" (filming in Montana and Oregon), she would call to discuss spiritual ideas. One day she called me to see if I wanted to work as her production assistant for two weeks when they filmed in Boston. She called me back the next day to say they'd prefer me to be a production coordinator because I had experience in that area. At the end of the two weeks, the director asked me to finish the film with them in Montana. I told him that I'd love to, but I couldn't come until the next Monday. His response made me feel that I had probably said the wrong thing. But I wanted and needed to attend a conference the following Saturday that would teach me more about prayer and our spiritual nature. The first words out of the conference speaker's mouth were, "We are all in the midst of production." To me, this was a clear message from God. Here I was, trying to get into production, and the speaker's message helped me to spiritualize the idea of production, to understand what it means to be productive in life - above and beyond just getting a job. I was happy that I had made the choice not to miss this meeting and happy that I hadn't been lured into thinking that I had missed an opportunity. Two days later I received a call from the film company asking me to come to Montana. It all worked out. I had my first real foray into production. Plus, on that movie, I met my husband.

The whole experience was a real lesson to me. If I had gotten that other job that I had thought was so right for me, I would have never gone into the fulfilling and wonderful aspect of production I'm in now. And I never would have met my husband. What I had thought of as my ideal job was not nearly as wonderful as what God unfolded for me.

That's how the Bible passages really came to life for me. I've learned to be humble and not to dwell in disappointment when something doesn't work out the way I think it should. It now seems limiting, narrow, and presumptuous of me to think that I know better than the Father what good He has "prepared for them that love Him" because there's nothing that I've "seen" or "heard" that could possibly be as wonderful as the plan that God has for me.

It sounds as if trusting in God to "direct your path" enabled your new career to develop rapidly and successfully, too.
Yes! Another wonderful development in my career occurred when I got back from Montana and my wedding. A producer, whom I had thoroughly enjoyed working with when I was a production coordinator for a small two-week project, called me to see if I would like to help him with a film called "Outbreak." "I want you to produce the visual effects," he told me. When I questioned him, he replied, "Don't worry. You went to law school. You can figure it out."

What did he mean? How did your practice of law, which seems so different from producing visual effects, help you in your film career?
I think I wouldn't be where I am today if I had not practiced law. As a lawyer, you learn to reason in a way that's helpful in any area of life. In my particular case, I think that the fact that I had practiced law gave me credibility as a woman in a very competitive business -- credibility that I may not have had otherwise. The area of visual effects was new to us back then, and the producer needed someone he could trust to learn about it and share the knowledge. He opened up a door for me that I would never have considered. It enabled me to produce on a much faster track than the conventional track -- being a production coordinator, then a production manager, then a line manager. Often people who go the conventional route never get the opportunity to work creatively because they get pigeon-holed on the business side of things. Then, too, part of my job as producer is to negotiate contracts. My law degree was instrumental in moving me quickly into the position I'm in today.

So it sounds like your willingness to listen and be grateful for whatever you were led to do allowed you to advance more quickly in a way that's been very fulfilling.
Yes, and even though everyone told me that it was impossible to get into film business in Kansas City, even though it sounded silly and stupid, I still opened my thought to the idea that had come to me. The fact that I was in Kansas City when this film came to town and was able to work on "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" opened up an avenue for me that may not have been possible had I moved to Hollywood where the competition is so intense. This experience taught me to listen to spiritual intuitions. The progression of thought starts with intuition. And to me, intuition has always been that "still small voice" (I Kings 19:12). It's a leaning of the heart. You feel something purely in your heart. I've really learned to listen to that spiritual intuition, to honor that, and to be open to it.

Is there anything you'd want to tell teenagers, or anyone?
I want to encourage them to open their hearts to the opportunities that come to them, and really to consider all the options and opportunities with an open heart. I would also encourage them to be grateful for what they have right now - and build on that.

About Helen Ostenberg Elswit

Helen Ostenberg Elswit's career spans several professions. She worked as a governess in Paris, a clothing store manager in San Francisco, an actress/hat check girl in New York City, and a corporate law attorney on Wall Street. She left the practice of law 13 years ago to enter the film business.

Her first job in film was as the driver for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." After that she worked as a camera assistant on such films as "Toy Soldiers," "Diggstown," and several made-for-TV movies. Ten years ago, she made the decision to work in film production (rather than as a film technician), and since then, she has worked as a production coordinator, an associate producer, and most recently, as a producer specializing in visual effects on various feature films including "Dangerous Game," "The Program," "The River Wild," "Outbreak," "Space Jam, "Jack Frost," and "The Perfect Storm." She is currently working on Peter Weir's adaptation of the Patrick O'Brian novel, The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe.

Helen graduated from Principia Upper School in 1969 and from Principia College in 1973; she received her Juris Doctorate from Brooklyn Law School in 1984.

More about Helen:
Helen did not take the conventional path to becoming a film producer. She followed a path (which she explains in the main interview) that enabled her to become a creative producer much more quickly. Below she explains how people usually get into producing and what she does as a visual effects producer.

How one becomes a producer:
What often happens in Hollywood is that you are a production coordinator for a number of years, then a production manager for another several years. After that, you become a line producer. You're really working up the ladder in jobs that don't have much interface with the director. Often people who go that route never get the opportunity to work creatively because they get pigeon-holed on the business side. Another way of getting into producing other than mine is to work for a studio and become a studio executive. And if you're fortunate or talented, you might end up being a creative producer. But there are a million different kinds of producers. A creative producer is one who helps with the creative decisions, like casting, story development, etc. Other producers may only have an ownership interest in the project. They may never set foot on the set. Yet another producer may be the one who rounded up the investors or pitched the project to a studio, or wrote the screenplay, etc.

Responsibilities of a visual effects producer:
In my job as a producer specializing in visual effects, I work very closely with the director who is making a film in which he or she is using visual effects to enhance the story. There are different kinds of visual effect films. There are films like "Spiderman" where the visual effects are obvious to anybody. But almost every film you see today has visual effects. You may be looking at a film and see a pretty sunset that looks very natural, but it's really a painting of a sunset done by an artist with a computer. This kind of painting is called a matte painting. Or you may be watching a stormy scene in which much of the rain or snow has been added in by a computer artist because the production shot was not convincing enough. Visual effects have become a really wonderful tool. And I've been fortunate that I have been able to work on a number of films that have a good story structure and good character development and are not just about the effects.

The film that I'm working on now is an example of that. I'm working with a director whom I have admired for as long as I've known about him. His name is Peter Weir. He directed "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Witness," "The Truman Show," "Dead Poet Society," and "Fearless." He's truly a film maker because he makes movies that are driven by story and character. Every film he does is different. I advise him on visual effects and how he can use them. Generally, I am hired as an independent producer by the company making a film. I'll read the script and meet with the director. He'll discuss how he wants the story to develop in terms of visual effects. Then I'll work with the director, the producer, and the studio to hire the company that will actually create the visual effects. Throughout the shooting of the film, I'm there to help ensure that the film is shot correctly to enable the creation of the visual effects we want. In post-production, my responsibility is to make sure the director is getting what he or she envisioned in terms of visual enhancement to the film. Essentially, I am the liaison between the director and the house (the vendor who provides the visual effects).

My talents really are organizational -- very much what a producer has to be. My overall job is to make sure that we do the visual effects on time and on budget. I negotiate the contracts with the visual effects houses. I also make sure that the quality of the product is up to the director's standards. This is where I feel as though I've been blessed with opportunities to develop creatively a sense of a film with the director.