As a homeschooled youth in Delta Junction, Alaska, Ben Grossmann enjoyed a childhood filled with snowmachining and ATVing and nights camped out in an off-the-grid cabin. How does one get from that place to the stage at the Academy Awards accepting an Oscar for his work on a film by Martin Scorsese? “Hollywood is a town full of needs, and a town full of moments … I just happened to be able to fulfill a need at the right moment.” The Alaskan ingenuity inherent of the tough folks who live here, he explained, lends itself well in such situations.
Hundreds of individuals in five countries worked around the clock for months on this project. By his own choosing, he traveled over the next two years with his Oscar statue in tow, so those who played a part in its being would have the opportunity to see it for themselves, if only briefly. It’s fitting and a testament to his Alaskan spirit that his Oscar journey would end here in a small community center in the heart of the interior during the holidays, as he gave a presentation in a community many Alaskans have never even visited. “I wanted to bring the Oscar home, and saved Delta for last.” He pulled the statue from a small bag, took it to the back of the room, and one by one each person there touched it, held it, and as a true statement of the times, took selfies with it as Grossmann instructed them (with a smile) to put their “thumb under the bum” if they wanted to hold it properly.
… by Wednesday he was in London and working on the film “Hugo” with Martin Scorsese
and the best names in every aspect of the movie business.
A graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he started out at the Fairbanks News-Miner as a photographer/reporter, using his Alaskan tenacity and a loan, to purchase his first set of decent camera equipment (as a photographer myself, I had to ask the age old “Canon vs Nikon question – and the answer was an enthusiastic “Canon!”). This led to a stint on the Fairbanks Fox TV station where he worked on TV commercials editing and compositing. He was even a weatherman for a bit. Then there was a national contest he participated in with a coworker that was designed to increase market share in all the Fox markets and would bestow upon the winners the opportunity to stand on the red carpet in Hollywood and interview attendees. It seems somewhat prophetic that Grossmann and his associate ended up winning that contest and standing on the red carpet, a sign of things to come perhaps.
The question of his “Alaskan-ness” was never far from one’s mind as he described driving a broken down Saab (which he had to push to start) all the way from Alaska to Los Angeles. After various temp jobs, he ended up working for a talent agency in an office position. “I was good with computers.” He explained all those long cold days and nights in sub-zero temperatures in a cabin in Interior Alaska gave him a lot of time to learn. When asked by his boss, Bob, what he might be interested in, several things came to mind – videography or video editing, for instance. Unfortunately, these required union membership and years of journeyman training. Visual effects was suggested and when Grossmann asked what they did exactly, the answer was a whispered, “Nobody really knows.” This, he believed, was his “in.”
He started learning everything he could and using his photography, video, editing and computer experience to get his foot in the door, and asked his boss to put him up for the projects no one else wanted. Again, his ability to think on his feet landed him a TV commercial, then another gig, and then another. He was working on some major projects but still spending his time between gigs just getting by. A call from London received on a Friday told him to get to London by Monday for a really big project. Having no resources to get there, however, Monday came with another phone call from London and the question, “Where are you?” Those in charge made it happen and by Wednesday he was in London and working on the film “Hugo” with Martin Scorsese and the best names in every aspect of the movie business.
The entire project seemed overwhelming in scope. Grossmann was in charge of visual effects, or VFX as they’re referred to. “If it’s impossible or not real, it’s visual effects,” explained Grossmann. It’s amazing the amount of work that went into making this film: He showed about a two minute clip and multiple stills of various scenes, describing what was real and showing a lot of green screen, which indicated what was added by the VFX team. A children’s novel so unique and task so enormous, it was rumored throughout production by publications such as “Variety” that the project would never be completed. The Hollywood rumor mill seemed to be in overdrive and Grossmann was at its epicenter, making major decisions and using his Alaskan tenacity, ingenuity and problem-solving skills on what seemed like an hourly basis.
As his limo driver explained
after a police line parted to let him through, “Your Oscar allows you to do whatever you want
for the next 24 hours.”
He was met weekly by teams of insurance underwriters and lawyers, and finally deployed what he called his “Alaskan Survival Technique” – not shaving! He displayed a selfie of his own – a somewhat unkempt, bearded, and barely recognizable Grossmann, who assured us this persona was often met by others with a “let’s not mess with him right now” attitude. He was finally able to work and get things done, often putting in 80-100 hours or more a week.
The project being completed and blessed by Scorsese, Grossmann went about his next project as rumors started to circulate that “Hugo” could be a contender at the Oscars. First the movie made the short list and to their pleasant surprise, the film made the final list of nominees in several categories including VFX. Ben Grossmann would once again be walking the red carpet.
His excitement and youthful enthusiasm were evident as he described the evening. From ending up on the wrong red carpet (who knew there was more than one?) to his surprise at the finely dressed men and women who filled the theater (the professional seat holders), he described the event in great detail until he got to the part where “Hugo” and his name were announced. At that point, he said everything seemed a blur and he has no recollection of how he got onto the stage. He only remembers the phone call he received from his mother in Alaska right before the ceremony asking him to get the envelope if he won. Standing on the stage and allowing one of the others who also won to speak, Grossman doesn’t remember what was said, but he does remember seeing a presenter slowly walk away with the envelope his mother requested. Re-enacting his actions in slow motion as if it were one of those 360 degree scenes from “The Matrix,” he was able to retrieve the envelope and exit the stage.
Next came a whirlwind of interviews, parties, and “hanging out” with folks such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Seth Rogen, and the Rolling Stones. His Oscar statue was his ticket into some of the best parties, and everywhere he went he was greeted the same way – “Congratulations, sir.” As his limo driver explained after a police line parted to let him through, “Your Oscar allows you to do whatever you want for the next 24 hours.” He even used his Oscar to “part the seas” so he could get to the bathroom at an extremely crowded event.
After the awards, he went on to work on “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and had the opportunity to speak to a group of NASA engineers. It wasn’t until he gave that presentation that he fully understood the impact VFX had on movies, and science fiction in particular. Many of those in attendance explained they got into science because of “Star Trek.” As a bit of irony he stated, “I started working on VFX because I wasn’t good at science.” When asked if science fiction is his favorite type of movie, he explained he was more of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” kind of guy.
Grossmann finished up the evening by taking questions. When asked what his next project is, he said he has started a new company because he wants to use VFX and his talent to contribute to society in a way that’s meaningful through stories. He currently has several projects in the works, including one with a children’s museum and also the Smithsonian. He is hoping to give experiences through those venues by putting people “there” through technology. Throughout the event, residents of Delta smiled and nodded in agreement or acceptance – many having known him since he was a child. Grossmann posed with anyone who wanted a photo with him, or his statue, or both. The entire family was all smiles and the pride in his accomplishments was very evident. Their Alaskan son had come home.
While here visiting home for the holidays, Grossmann and his family spent time doing the things they love, those outdoor adventures that define Alaska. He was even able to take his daughter for a ride on a dogsled with a local musher and they made a trip to the Santa Claus House in North Pole. After the Delta presentation, as Grossmann’s wife held their sleeping daughter, he ended the evening by packing up his Oscar in a backpack, having given everyone a very unique experience.
From Interior Alaska to Hollywood, Ben Grossmann has had quite the journey. But it’s the humble, thoughtful man behind the wild imagination and creativity who is most endearing. He won his Oscar on a Friday, and the following Monday he was back on the set of “Star Trek.” But in a corner, under a chair, in his backpack, was his Oscar statue. Throughout the day he would look at the backpack, and smile quietly to himself, because only he knew it was there.
Story by Tracey Mendenhall Porreca