Albuquerque-based photographer Bill Tondreau stitches together masterpieces - Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque-based photographer Bill Tondreau stitches together masterpieces

Editor’s note:

The Journal continues the once-a-month series “From the Studio” with Kathaleen Roberts, as she takes an up-close look at an artist.

“Sandia Fantasia,” by Bill Tondreau. (Courtesy of Sumner & Dene)

Bill Tondreau’s Oscar sits wrapped in Target towels in a gym bag tucked inside his Northeast Heights closet.

“I’m not one to rest on my triumphs,” the photographer/special effects software designer said.

The 8½-pound, gold-plated figure arrived in 2004 as an Academy Award nod for lifetime achievement. Weeks before the glittering event, a friend had warned him to watch the mail.

“I called my wife,” Tondreau said. “I think we went to Taco Cabana. The phone rang off the hook four or five times a day for weeks.”

All told, Tondreau counts three Academy Awards won across a career spent in both Los Angeles and Albuquerque. His 50-plus credits include work on the “Star Wars” sequels, “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Avatar,” “Back to the Future” and many more.

He still performs some of his technical magic, but his focus has instead moved to panoramic prints of the Albuquerque area landscape.

Those landscapes hang in Sumner & Dene Gallery with titles such as “Afternoon on the Rio Grande,” “Corrales in Pink” and “River’s Edge.”

Tondreau grew up in southern California, the youngest of three boys, all of whom were expected to become lawyers. The kind of child who built things from spent toilet paper rolls, he harbored other ideas, majoring in English at California State University. The 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” was his favorite movie.

Photographer Bill Tondreau holds the Oscar he won in 2004. Locally, he is known for panoramic photographs now on display at Sumner & Dene Gallery. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“I wanted to do interesting things,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s so cool.’ ”

He worked as the in-house photographer for the influential American designer, architect and filmmaker Charles Eames.

“Corrales in Pink,” by Bill Tondreau. (Courtesy of Sumner & Dene)

“People who have done this often compare it to working in Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance shop,” Tondreau said. “I had complete free reign.”

He worked there for 10 years. Then he spotted a study in American Cinematographer magazine about the use of motion control in special effects.

“I just read technical stuff and found the chips and technology. I built little circuit boards on my little table,” he said.

The result was the “very user-friendly” Tondreau Motion Control System. While the older systems required five operators, his used one.

“I didn’t invent it, but I tweaked it and molded it so a visual effects operator could” use it, he said.

Tondreau advertised his invention in American Cinematographer magazine and the clients kept coming.

Although he rarely interacted with the principal players on movie sets, he remembers a few.

Bill Tondreau adjusts a camera at Sumner & Dene Gallery. (Roberto E. Roslales/Albuquerque Journal)

“My best experience was Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin,” he said. The movie was 1988’s “Big Business.”

“They were twins and they were separated at birth,” Tondreau said. “They used my motion control to create the twin. Bette came up to the camera and said, ‘This is my best side,’ ” finger to her cheek.

“They had a set that must have cost $20 million. It was a luxury hotel,” he added.

Eddie Murphy was another favorite. Tondreau worked on 1986’s “The Golden Child.”

“He was just a good sport and he would take direction from anybody,” he said. “He traveled with about eight of his friends and they would get in fights and thrown out of hotels.”

As for “Star Wars,” he said, “We were used to do lightsabers and explosions and rays.

“(George) Lucas is a very reserved guy,” Tondreau continued. “He said, ‘We like the look you’re giving us.’ ”

Actress Jennifer Garner, center, poses with Bill Tondreau, right, and Dave Lebolt, accepting for Digidesign, and their Scientific and Technical Oscar at the 76th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 29, 2004, in Los Angeles. (Laura Rauch/Associated Press)

In 1993, Tim Burton used his software to produce “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Tondreau landed in Albuquerque in 1988 after a brain tumor diagnosis. His California doctor knew of experimental treatments not done anywhere else.

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to spend three months in Albuquerque.’ It was out in the boondocks,” he said.

Tondreau’s doctor knew a group of Albuquerque specialists using a Los Alamos proton accelerator for treatment.

“They put me in the proton beams a few times and voila,” Tondreau said with a snap of his fingers. “It was dangerous because it had never been done before.”

Today the treatment is sometimes used on brain tumors in children.

As he recovered, Tondreau realized Albuquerque was “a livable place.”

In Los Angeles, he had been driving up to 100 miles a day in massive traffic to make appointments. He had been paying a $5,000 monthly lease.

He realized he could work from his spare bedroom here for nothing.

Tondreau’s regular hikes through Embudito Canyon revealed an unexpected beauty.

“Railyard,” by Bill Tondreau. (Courtesy of Sumner & Dene)

“Albuquerque has magnificent landscapes,” Tondreau said. “I was astonished to find there were gorgeous places just outside the city limits.”

He bought a digital camera and began playing with it.

To create his impossibly detailed landscapes, he tweaked already existing software to “stitch” multiple images together seamlessly as he shot his frames in sections.

“Dusk on the Rio Grande,” by Bill Tondreau. (Courtesy of Sumner & Dene)

“You can show extremely wide panoramic angles with no distortion,” he said.

His first and second Academy Awards came as certificates; one for an early version of his system in 1989 and in 2001 for motion capture technology.

But the lifetime achievement award arrived with full-on glitter: red carpets, flashing lights and stars galore.

“Afternoon on the Rio Grande,” by Bill Tondreau. (Courtesy of Sumner & Dene)

The tech guys all competed to find the cheapest tuxedo.

Jennifer Garner presented Tondreau with the gleaming statue.

“I think she thought of me as a mound of wet hay,” he deadpanned. “I don’t think we exchanged five words.”

Outside his hotel, a woman asked if she could cradle his Oscar.

“Every couple of years I take it out and put it on my work table.”

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