Admittedly, I’m not what you would call “up-to-date” when it comes to TV shows. Between fulfilling my duties at the Texas A&M Foundation and at home, there’s just not enough time in the day to binge-watch all the pop culture I’ve fallen behind on. Which is a shame, because even I know how anticipated this last season of “Game of Thrones” is for those avid watchers around me. I find myself intrigued and amazed by how so many different people are drawn into the series’ big, fantastic, fictional world. But what’s even more fascinating is how those worlds are built in the first place.
Few know more about that than Derek Spears ’91. Spears is a visual effects artist who has more than 25 production credits on major studio films and TV shows. Some of the most notable include “Superman Returns,” “The Walking Dead,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and, yes, even “Game of Thrones.” Before he found himself in Hollywood, Spears was a second-generation Aggie from Spring, Texas, who studied electrical engineering. After graduation, he began a career in software development, but switched gears when he discovered the huge potential for digital effects in the entertainment industry.
In creating visual effects, Spears mentions the importance of getting “out of the way” and letting his team’s effects tell a story, rather than making stories that show off his team’s effects. When he and his team are doing their job well, he says, their work is practically invisible to the common viewer.
For example, one of the biggest problems his team encountered while working on “Game of Thrones” was digitally placing a real actress, Emilia Clarke, on a virtual flying dragon. Through problem solving and teamwork, they created stunning yet functional scenes that allow the audience to focus on what is happening with the characters. Their ability in these scenes to sustain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, or their willingness to accept the impossible for the sake of enjoyment, earned Spears and his team three Emmy awards for Outstanding Special Visual Effects on “Game of Thrones” in 2015, 2016 and 2018.
That virtue of putting the big picture before one’s own interests is a lesson we could all stand to remember from time to time. Oftentimes, the leadership that happens behind the scenes is what makes the finished product shine. Even though Spears and his team don’t get their names on posters or receive invitations to appear on late-night talk shows, their hard work allows fans everywhere to escape into a world as vast as imagination itself.
Thanks and Gig ’em,
Tyson Voelkel ’96
President, Texas A&M Foundation