Alumnus wins Oscar for “The Golden Compass”

GW alumni often receive recognition for their post-graduate political accomplishments, but alumnus Bill Westenhofer received a different type of recognition last Sunday – he won his first-ever Academy Award for achievement in visual effects.

Westenhofer graduated from GW with a master’s degree from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 1995. He is now a visual effects supervisor for the Rhythm & Hues film studio, based in Los Angeles. His work on “The Golden Compass” as part of a four-person visual effects team got Westenhofer his first Oscar.

“In this field, people tend to be either technological or artistic, it helps to be both,” said Westenhofer, who was nominated for a visual effects Oscar in 2005 for his work on the film “The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Westenhofer said he has been interested in art from a young age and studied computer science at GW under Professor James Hahn, who was head of the graphics department. Hired by Rhythm and Hues studios before finishing his thesis at GW, Westenhofer entered a field where he could combine his art and computer interests.

In his extensive career, Westenhofer has worked on such blockbuster movies as “Elf”, “Men in Black II” and “The Rundown.” His next project is a film called “Land of the Lost” starring Will Ferrell, which he describes as a comedic take on the 1974 television program of the same name.

“It’s just a blast to make stuff that doesn’t exist,” he said of his work.

Westenhofer began working on “The Golden Compass” in 2006, where his company specialized in the effects for the film’s “daemon” characters. His work on the film ranged from editing graphics on computers to working with actors.

He recalled a scene in the film where he had to coach Nicole Kidman, one of the film’s stars, on how to hold a “golden monkey daemon” that would later be edited in by using a green bean bag as a stand-in.

Of his Sunday night win, Westenhofer said, “It felt as good as you’d expect and then some.”

He said the win was unexpected. “The favorite was ‘Transformers.’ If I’d been on the ball and was a betting man I could have made a lot of money in Vegas. The odds were against us,” he said.

Westenhofer also won a BAFTA, the British version of the Academy Award, for the same film and was in London two weeks ago to accept it.

Of his experience at the awards ceremony, Westenhofer said, “We made sure on the red carpet that we lingered near famous people so that we were in the back of a lot of … photos.”

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