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September 17, 2019

9/6/2019 11:24:00 AM
Robinson native creates movie, TV 'VFX' magic
Fantasy films and television series carry audiences to amazing worlds beyond reality. A Robinson native is among the effects artists who bring those worlds to life.

Jason Pethtel is a matte painter at DreamWorks Animation. For seven years, he has worked in the film and television industry as an environment artist and matte painter, adding his touch to everything from U.S. Navy recruitment commercials to a sequence showing Daenerys Targaryen flying on the back of one of her dragons in Game of Thrones.

"Using computer software, I create believable worlds for storytelling," he explained.

For Pethtel, who graduated from Robinson High School in 2002 and Lincoln Trail College two years later, his job is a dream come true. From an early age, he wanted to work in visual effects.

"I wanted to be a part of the magic of filmmaking," he said.

"I was inspired by '80s and '90s sci-fi mostly," Pethtel said, pointing to films such as Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien.

"As a child, I was captivated by the use of miniatures and optical compositing, which are relics of the pre-digital era now," he said. "There was also a show on basic cable in the '90s that showed the whole filmmaking process, called Movie Magic. I was obsessed with it."

Pethtel went on to study art as well as the highly-specialized software required in creating special effects.

"I opted to learn the software at Parkland College, in Champaign," he said. "There are now many resources online that anyone can access."

Pethtel started his career as a photographer and later a graphic designer. He finally decided to pursue his filmmaking dream after losing his job "a few times" during the recession.

"I took night classes to learn the industry standard software and leveraged connections that I had made professionally and through my education to try to land an interview in a VFX studio."

It wasn't always easy. "I lived on friends' couches in L.A. and tried my best to make myself known, and eventually I landed a job," Pethtel said.

His first job was as a matte painting technical director at Rhythm & Hues Studios. There, he worked on the movie, 300: Rise of an Empire.

Since then, he has lent his skills to a variety of project for both the big and small screens.

Pethtel has worked on films such as Mary Poppins Returns, Trolls, Boss Baby and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

His other projects include TV shows such as The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, The Man in the High Castle and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.

Not all his work is science fiction or horror-related, however. He has also worked on Emipre, Young Sheldon, Criminal Minds and True Dectective, to name a few, as well as commericals for Honda, Lexus and Guiness.

Among his most recent projects was the remake of Disney's The Lion King.

His efforts are also on display in Abominable and Trolls 2 later this year.

"They are beautiful films," he said.

"In The Lion King, I created the first pass of a couple key environments in early pre-production that largely remained the same in the final picture. So much of what we do is a collaborated effort, that no one shot belongs to one artist."

Still, there are some bits he can proudly call his own.

"Some of the shots I'm the most proud of are the dragon flying sequence in Game of Thrones and a few fun ones from Trolls and Boss Baby," Pethtel said. Some of his best work can be seen at

Pethtel's wife, Beth, is from Lawrenceville. "She's been on this adventure with me every step of the way," he said. "We've carved out a nice life for ourselves out here."

Beth gave birth to their first child, Stella, in January, leading Pethtel to opt for "a bit of stability for our family."

He still has family in the Crawford County area, including his mother, sister and uncle.

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