Every kid dreams of chasing pirates on the high seas or being on the pad as rocket ships launch off into space, and that’s usually where the exploits end. Not so for assistant director Jeff Okabayashi, a one-time engineering student whose career has quite literally spanned the globe in a feast of action adventure and make-believe.
“I just woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to be sitting behind a desk for 20 years,” Okabayashi relates from location in Australia where he is working as 1st AD on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, directed by Michael Apted,the third feature in The Chronicles of Narnia series. “I switched my major to film, and joined the DGA Assistant Director Training Program after graduating. For a kid who came from very modest means and never got to travel, I’ve been fortunate the way things have turned out.”
The projects Okabayashi has worked on definitely get the adrenaline pumping. “I was working as a 2nd AD on Michael Bay’s Armageddon,” he recounts, “and one scene called for us to shoot directly underneath the NASA space shuttle while engineers were installing the protective tiles to prevent it from burning up after re-entry. There are times with this job when I’ve literally pinched myself knowing no one else gets to see this.”
Another of those times was a scene he helped set up for Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, which included more than 100 period cars and 500 background extras taking over downtown Chicago. “The sheer scale of it all was amazing,” Okabayashi marvels. “Every single background [person] needs to know what they are supposed to be doing, and why they are doing it to help fill out the entire picture behind what the foreground artists are doing. To make sure everything and everyone is in place and ready to go on the call of action points to the art of being a 2nd AD.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader marks the first time Okabayashi has worked as a 1st AD from prep to wrap. “I think the biggest change from 2nd AD to 1st is that as the 2nd I was the executor of the plan; as the 1st I create the plan. I still wake up early, but maybe not that early.”
Dawn Treader is yet another challenging show set on the high seas (he worked as a 2nd AD on Pearl Harbor and two Pirates of the Caribbean films) where the elements can overwhelm the best of intentions.
“Last Friday was the big storm sequence on the ship,” Okabayashi explains with a boyish glee. “We’re talking rain, mist, violent winds, and dump tanks and water cannons for waves, which all have to be created at an exterior location without real storms or weather taking us out. The actors, kids, stunts and background are all on the ship, which is 20 feet above ground on a gimbal that rocks the boat so hard the performers have to be harnessed so they don’t fall off. You just have to sit back and think, ‘Wow! That was really cool.’”