WisBusiness: Movie magician pushes risk-taking as key to success

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE – Jim Rygiel’s entrepreneurial journey started in Kenosha a couple decades ago, and ended up in New Zealand, where he lived for more than three years doing the visual effects on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Rygiel returned to his home state Wednesday to speak at a luncheon of the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference.

The three-time winner of the Academy Award for visual effects said the key to innovation is to learn how to think out of the box and to be willing to take a risk.

“When I was growing up in Kenosha, I had choices – work in farming, work in a factory, work in a shopping mall or leave,” said Rygiel, a 1973 graduate of Kenosha St. Joseph High School and a UW-Milwaukee fine arts graduate. “I chose the latter and packed up my 1971 Gremlin, made by my dad, and headed to the West Coast.

“One of the first cornerstones of entrepreneurship is risk. I didn’t know what exactly I was headed for, but I knew I was headed out of the box.

“The industry I am now involved in had not been invented yet. I bought my first computer out of fear, because the news media was telling us how it would take over our lives. I decided after about an hour that it was just a dumb piece of silicon, but it had great potential.”

Rygiel earned a masters in fine arts at Otis Parsons School of Design and then “found myself working in that shopping mall, but it was in Los Angeles.”

While earning money at the mall, he also kept working on design and gravitated into computer graphics and visual effects. Along the way, he worked for several startup businesses that eventually failed.

Rygiel finally broke through a bit in commercials, with the first computer-generated commercial for Pentel Pen. “Ray Bradbury even did the voice. That was how far out we were at the time,” he said.

Gradually, in the 1990s, Rygiel worked as a freelance designer for the film industry, which finally was warming up to digital graphics and other computer-assisted effects.

Today, his credits include The Last Starfighter, Species, Outbreak, Air Force One, Ghost, and many others.

His work on Lord of the Rings has earned him the three Oscars and much other critical acclaim.

Rygiel showed the audience several scenes from the trilogy Wednesday and demonstrated how many of them included techniques from old technology and new technology.

“You have to think out of that box and not become trapped in one or the other, either-or,” he said.

Rygiel’s next venture might be as a director. He knows there will be some risk involved, but said, “I decided some time ago that if I’m going to go under I want to be the guy who is under.”