Indian Harbour Lake native member of Oscar nominated visual effects team

By Lois Ann Dort    
March 18 2020

From time to time Nova Scotians have a shot at an Oscar or are part of a team that has a shot at an Oscar. And this year was one of those years. Martin MacDonald, originally from Indian Harbour Lake, Guysborough County was a member of the visual effects team nominated for an Oscar for the film: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The Oscar for the category went to the film 1917, and deservedly so, said MacDonald in an email interview last week with The Journal, but that didn’t take away from the thrill of working with an Oscar-nominated team.

How does a kid from rural Nova Scotia end up working on a celebrated Star Wars film? According to MacDonald, through no set plan, just an innate desire to build things.

“The path to my career has been a lifelong one and it's defined pretty simply; I built things. My whole life I have built things. As a child I was inspired by my dad, Ken MacDonald, who could seemingly build anything, and who never stopped me from trying to do the same. No matter how many times I cut myself, he never took the tools away.

“My grandfather, Frank Burns, built ship models in his woodshed. As a child, they were the most incredible things I'd ever seen. His work can still be seen in the windows of the boat shop in Sherbrooke Village.

“My uncle Graham and great-uncle Seymour built beautiful ship models which also inspired me. From that early inspiration, I went on to work and learn from some of the greatest builders in the world. My educational path never stops as I learn something new every day,” said MacDonald.

The predisposition to learn new things is fueled by curiosity, said MacDonald. “I've always been curious about how things work, and I've always appreciated great art and craftsmanship, which has led me to try my hand at many different arts, from furniture to sculpting. Each of these seemingly disconnected interests and skills have proved useful in my career. I've been lucky enough to have my building abilities take me around the world to places like Paris, Rome and Berlin, along with three trips to the White House. I look back and realize my path hasn't been a straight line, but every turn had a purpose.”

MacDonald’s path into the special effects’ arena was a series of unpredictable events. “My story certainly isn't the norm,” he said. “When I first moved to California, I had to wait several months before I could get my Green Card and get a job. During this time I needed something to do, and since I had always built models and miniatures, I decided to build a few models and sell them on eBay as a way to make a little money, and to give myself something to do. This went better than expected and ended up being a full-time business for several years.

“During that time my mother-in-law was at her gym and ended up on a treadmill beside a model maker who had formerly worked at Industrial Light and Magic. When she told him that I was a model maker he was interested in meeting me. He and I became friends and he introduced me to his friends and colleagues, and before you know it, I had a new career working in model shops around the Bay Area. Sometimes life takes turns you can't predict,” said MacDonald.

MacDonald’s job could be described as a 'MacGyvor’ role – doing what needs to be done to accomplish the desired visual effects. “My role when I work on an SFX is to build whatever is required to accomplish the shot envisioned by the special effects supervisor and designed by the production designer. Often times this involves creating something that explodes as intended, collapses as designed, or fills space in the background. We may use steel, wood, plaster, or multiple other materials to achieve the required effect.”

There’s no manual for this type of work and MacDonald has to use his wide range of skills to get the job done. “By far the most challenging part of the job is the problem solving required throughout the entire process. Often, we are doing something that has never been done before, and it requires an entire team with all their various skills to accomplish the finished piece.

“The most rewarding aspect is seeing the finished shot on screen and knowing that it worked the way we planned. If we are working with pyrotechnics we never know until after the explosion if it worked, so there's always moments of terror followed by, hopefully, moments of satisfaction,” he said.

Working on a Star Wars film would be a dream come true for many of the films’ devoted followers but while he enjoys his work and appreciated the craftsmanship of the models used in the movie franchise, MacDonald would only classify himself as a casual fan.

“I spent several weeks restoring the original models from the first six films in preparation for the "Star Wars: Identities" travelling exhibit and developed a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship of the original builders. It was fascinating to be hands on with models from the 70s and see the progression in both materials and techniques over the course of the original six films. The love I have for the series is based more on the craftsmanship involved in creating the movies than the films themselves,” said MacDonald.

The production work MacDonald does takes him from job to job pretty quickly. When the announcement for the Oscar nomination came out, he was already working on a different project. The team from the Star Wars job had all moved on but shared virtual high fives to celebrate the news.

While an Oscar nomination is thrilling, MacDonald is enthusiastic about his diverse work experiences which include commercials for Dr. Pepper, General Electric, Coke and Pepsi. “My most recent commercial work was with Kit Kat and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks. For a Canadian hockey fan, that was a fun day,” he said.

His work also includes “live production work, building sets and props, for tech companies. I've been fortunate to do a world tour with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, along with many, many projects for Google, Salesforce, Linked In and others.”

MacDonald is swimming in a different sea from that which he grew up in. But his story and success go to show that learning from our elders and being given free rein to pursue your passion -- no matter the mishaps along the way -- can lead to wonderfully unexpected places.