Despite the demanding hours of his work – creating visual effects for some of the biggest and most influential productions in Hollywood – Ben Tillmann takes time out for artistic and athletic pursuits such as photography and representing Singapore in international dragon boat competitions. He talks to us about his enduring love for his job and how he’s enjoyed life in Singapore over the past ten years.
21 Feb 2022 / By SGN
Growing up near Toronto, Canada, Ben was mesmerised by the magical imaginary worlds of cinema. Today, he is part of a team creating that magic – producing visual effects (VFX) for some of the biggest films today and mesmerising new generations of audiences.
“I could quote all of [Star Wars:] A New Hope when I was a kid, and Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in the theatre twice, so having been able to work on both of those franchises has been significant for me,” he says.
As a child, Ben developed an early interest in drawing and photography. With this strong grounding in visual arts, he studied and worked in 3D animation, before eventually making the jump to VFX.
Halfway around the world
As he entered the world of VFX, Ben told himself that, if he wasn’t at one of the top studios by age 30, he would probably have to reassess his career path or go back to school.
The right opportunity presented itself in 2011 – three years shy of his deadline – to join Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), except it required him to relocate halfway around the world.
“That the opportunity was in Singapore was initially a bit scary, as I had never travelled to Asia, even though I had always wanted to,” Ben says. He didn’t know much about Singapore, either, apart from its geographical location on a map. Nevertheless, he jumped at the offer, and boldly moved 15,000km to the foreign city and continent.
Much to his relief, Singapore turned out to be a clean, safe and pleasant place to live in. And though the heat and humidity are consistently formidable (“Every time I return from trips abroad, I am always shocked by how much leaving the airport feels like walking into a wall”), he likes being able to enjoy the outdoors all year round.
After a decade here, Ben has settled comfortably into the quirks and rhythms of this once-unfamiliar city.
“Since I’ve lived in Singapore for 10 years, it very much is my home,” he says. “It’s weird: when I’m in Singapore I refer to Canada as home, but when I’m in Canada I refer to Singapore as home.”
Drawing and dragon boating
Outside his long and demanding work hours, Ben is highly active in dragon boating and outrigger canoeing, and has represented Singapore in international competitions.
“Both are sports that I had no knowledge of before moving to Singapore. Now, they are two of my favourite things to do, because they’re a great way to keep in shape, channel my competitive energy, and find some stress relief,” he shares.
Shortly after coming to Singapore, Ben joined the Canadian Dragons Singapore (CDS) on the suggestion of a good friend. The competitive dragon boat team – which was founded by Canadians but accepts members from all over – was a welcome return to his love for team sports (he had played hockey in Canada, from the time he could walk all the way through to college).
Ben has since become captain of CDS, and one of his proudest memories is of the Club Crew World Championships 2016 in Adelaide, where each boat he participated in made it to the finals.
Apart from water sports, Ben continues to pursue his lifelong passions for drawing and photography, which he documents on their respective Instagram accounts. He tries his best to draw something every night, and is on a constant lookout for excellent shoot locations in Singapore.Apart from water sports, Ben continues to pursue his lifelong passions for drawing and photography, which he documents on their respective Instagram accounts. He tries his best to draw something every night, and is on a constant lookout for excellent shoot locations in Singapore.
Since he was a child, Ben has had an interest in drawing and photography.
As much as he enjoys life here, Ben maintains strong ties with Canada. He connects with Canadian friends in Singapore and has an NHL.com subscription to follow his favourite hockey team – the Toronto Maple Leafs – through the season. He also communicates with loved ones back home as much as he can.
“Thanks to the Internet, I am able to talk to my family and friends in Canada pretty much every day. And until COVID changed things, I would travel home for a few weeks at least once a year to see everyone in person,” he says.
Turning imagination into reality
In the realm of VFX, Ben’s specialisation is in lighting, which he says is essentially the digital equivalent of lighting a set. Lighting artists create depth, atmosphere and realism through computer-generated lights, taking reference from on-set photos and cinematography.
As one of the lead lighting technical directors at ILM’s Singapore studio, Ben works with a diverse team that comprises Singaporeans as well as people from Hong Kong, Italy, the UK, France, Turkey and Norway.
Although work in progress is kept tightly under wraps, a quick glance at his IMDb page reveals an impressive range of the biggest Hollywood productions: Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin – not forgetting blockbusters in the Marvel and Star Wars universes, plus the upcoming Jurassic World Dominion, which hits theatres this June.
Ben is proud to work at the very studio that pioneered the field of computer-generated VFX and has contributed to beloved films with a legitimate cultural impact. “Directors have come to expect top-quality work from us. Singapore is no slouch when it comes to delivering on that promise,” he says.
After 15 years in the industry, he remains grateful for a dream job that allows him to engage both the creative and technical sides of his brain, and be on the forefront of technology and innovation.
“The thing that I love most about my job is being able to turn imagination into reality. I am very fortunate to be able to wake up wanting to go to work on more days than not. I know a lot of people can’t say that.”
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Ben is a lead lighting technical director at Industrial Light & Magic whose projects include Avengers: Endgame, The Mandalorian and Jurassic World Dominion. Outside of work, he is active in dragon boating and outrigger canoeing, and is an avid photographer and illustrator.
Connect with him here.