Eileen Moran started out with ambitions of becoming an actor, like her college classmate John Turturro. But instead, she ended up creating a different sort of magic on the screen.
As a visual effects producer, Moran helped conjure up the magic that made scores of Hollywood films into spectacular viewing experiences, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, to Avatar, Prometheus and the 2005 remake of King Kong.
The New York native, who died at age 60 on Dec. 2 in Wellington, New Zealand, first gained notoriety as a production manager on TV commercials, where she worked with artists and technicians to plan and execute the clever, eye-catching visual illusions that help make one brand of product stand out from another in viewers' minds. From there, she jumped to Hollywood, going to work for Digital Domain, a special effects company partly owned by director James Cameron, and then, in 2001, to Weta Digital, a visual effects company in New Zealand formed eight years earlier by Peter Jackson and two other directors.
Here are a few of the amazing moments on both the small and big screen that Moran helped make possible:
- The Budweiser Frogs (1995). One of Moran's first big successes was orchestrating the creation of Budweiser's beer-drinking frogs, with the help of puppeteers from the famous Stan Winston Studios.
- Avatar (2009). Moran led the team that won an Academy Award for best achievement in visual effects.
- King Kong (2005). To create the illusion that a giant ape was rampaging through 1930s New York City, Moran's team had to digitally alter footage of the present-day city, removing more modern buildings and replacing them with the structures that had existed in their places. That meant studying period aerial photographs and digitally recreating or altering more than 90,000 unique buildings, down to fire escapes and door knobs.
- Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003). Gollum, the diminutive bald creature with the piercing gaze, was created through an ingenious combination of puppetry and computer-generated imagery. Moran's job was to oversee the details, such as making sure that his eyes were appropriately bloodshot.
- Guinness "A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle" Commercial (1996). Moran told the New York Daily News in 1998 that this was her favorite commercial work. Though the fish riding a bicycle appears in just the last few seconds of the commercial, it took an inordinate amount of effort to pull off. She supervised a team that created a computer-generated fish and then placed it atop footage of a bicycle traveling along a pier. To make it look almost believable, they had to buy fish from a market and scan the texture of their skin into the computer. "Afterwards," Moran said, "we made a great meal from the trout."