The art, science of films
The gig: As president of Fox Animation Studios, Vanessa Morrison oversees development, production and marketing of family-friendly movies made by the studio’s Greenwich, Conn.-based digital animation house, Blue Sky Studios. Films produced under her tenure include the global blockbuster “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” and the upcoming releases “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on Roald Dahl’s 1970 novel, and 3-D animated comedy “Rio.”
Unusual in Hollywood: Unlike most executives, who tend to jump between studios and jobs, Morrison, 40, has spent her 15-year career at Fox, becoming a specialist in broad-appeal family movies. She has held her latest title since January 2007.
Background: An only child who grew up in Berkeley, Morrison’s late father was a physics professor and a dean at UC Berkeley, and her mother was an elementary school teacher and artist. She has a vivid recollection of the movies she watched as a child, particularly Japanese Godzilla films, “The Red Balloon” and a British version of “Alice in Wonderland.”
In junior high school, Morrison made films with the Super 8 camera her parents bought her, and she has fond memories from her high school days of taking a bus trip with her mother to Los Angeles to attend a workshop on producing.
“This was the first time I got interested in how people put movies together,” she recalls.
Education: While majoring in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, she took classes in experimental film and critical studies with an eye toward a possible career in the business.
“I cherish that time, watching a lot of different kinds of movies -- from Stan Brakhage’s experimental movies to traditional Hollywood musicals like “An American in Paris.”
All in the family: Morrison’s greatest influences growing up were her left-brain, right-brain parents.
“I’ve always had an interest in science and technology through my dad,” she said. “When I first went to Blue Sky, it very much reminded me of the fourth floor of Berkeley’s physics department because animation has a technological aspect to it.”
Morrison said her mother, whose specialty as a teacher was writing and storytelling, exposed her to “all things artistic,” giving her an appreciation for the creative side. Both encouraged her to indulge her own curiosity and passion: “I grew up in a liberal free-to-be-you-and-me atmosphere.”
Valuable life lesson: When it came to pursing a career, Morrison said she only had to look at her father’s life to know she could accomplish anything she set out to do.
“My dad grew up as an African American man with a modest upbringing in Virginia during segregation. He was raised in a neighborhood that didn’t get paved roads until the ‘50s. He got a PhD in chemistry at Catholic University, was the first African American officer to teach at the Air Force Academy, and became one of the first African American tenured physics professors at Berkeley in the mid-60s.”
It’s no wonder Morrison was confident when it came to forging her own path.
“Having him make that enormous journey, it made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to do.”
The path: After graduating from Berkeley in 1991, Morrison landed an unpaid internship in the story department at Columbia Pictures.
“It was the first time I read a script and did coverage. It was exhilarating to me, like Disneyland.”
First paid Hollywood job: While taking classes at UCLA’s producers’ program, Morrison learned that 20th Century Fox was looking for a paid intern to read manuscripts. She called and got an interview with production executive Michael London, now a successful independent movie producer. After meeting him and his boss, Tom Jacobson, she was awarded the internship.
“I had an office in what used to be a vault -- it was windowless and freezing. I was thrilled!”
Her positive attitude and hard work eventually won the attention of Tom Rothman, who took over Jacobson’s production chief job in the mid-1990s. Under Rothman, now co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Morrison rose through the creative executive ranks.
Two pivotal events: Rothman gave Morrison oversight of the teen comedy romance “Drive Me Crazy,” which enabled her to visit the set in Utah and see firsthand what filmmaking was about. She was also assigned another movie that gave her a glimpse into the world of computer-animated effects. Her experience with that film, “Doctor Dolittle,” a live-action comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a doctor who can communicate with animals, also helped develop her interest and niche in family movies. She went on to oversee a number of family-friendly pictures, including the “Dolittle” sequel, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Fat Albert,” “Garfield” movies and the live-action-computer animated hybrid hit “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Big break: When Fox animation chief Chris Meledandri left two years ago to launch his own animation company at rival Universal Pictures, Rothman offered the job to Morrison.
“It was a natural outgrowth of what I had been doing in live-action,” she said. “It was an exciting new challenge and I felt that storytelling-wise and technically, I was prepared for it.”
Sage advice: “Not to ever forecast any kind of career plan. Work hard and follow the things you have interest in and passion for, and that will transfer into the right job.”
Toughest challenge: “Making sure I have a normal, balanced family life, giving attention to my 2-year-old son and my husband, who works at HBO.”