Member Spotlight: Jan Kobylka
Jan Kobylka, a now retired member of 891’s Construction Department, reflects on his long rewarding career in the motion picture industry.
Jan Kobylka's career making motion picture magic was built on a passion for innovation.
“I love the challenge when somebody says this cannot be done. That's when I get excited,” says Jan, a member of 891’s Construction Department for 38 years before retiring in 2018.
As a structural engineer, working with steel was Jan’s main material of choice before getting involved in the craft of motion picture production. He would go on to harness his skills for the screen, acquiring decades of notable set construction under his belt, and getting recognized for his innovative approaches.
Jan has built worlds for dozens of blockbuster films across all kinds of genres, including westerns, wilderness adventures, and science fiction. His long list of credits includes working on award-winning films such as The Revenant, Legends of the Fall, and Unforgiven (a production also formative to the career of 891 Props Master Dean Goodine, whose story you can read here).
It was during Jan’s work as Construction Coordinator for the film Watchmen that his expertise in building with steel demonstrated a serious advantage. The film was partially filmed outdoors, and the set involved intricate construction to prevent any damage to the landscape. Grips set up shipping containers for a green screen, while Jan set forth on a plan to use steel studs for part of this particular set.
“Nobody wanted to have anything to do to with steel, because nobody knew how to work it without spending way too much money,” says Jan.
That did not deter him. Jan used his experience to construct parts of the outdoor set with steel studs and counterweights, knowing steel could provide benefits like strength, durability, and the possibility of easy reuse.
It turned out to be a good decision.
“There was a huge windstorm and everything in the area kind of collapsed except Jan's set because he had built it so well using steel structures instead of wooden frames,” says Mary Van Eeten, Jan’s wife and a member of the 891 Construction and Paint Departments.
Jan would use his expertise building with steel on none other than the film Man of Steel, plus many more action-packed features such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Star Trek Beyond, and Chronicles of Riddick, where he oversaw a crew of 400 people including painters, metal fabricators, and construction workers.
JOURNEY INTO MAKING MOTION PICTURE MAGIC
Jan didn’t start his career in engineering thinking it would lead him into the world of making motion picture magic. Originally from the Czech Republic, he had studied in Europe before settling in BC. In the 1980s, Jan had his own construction business in Vancouver focused on renovations. One day, a friend asked him for some structural engineering support for a film production they were working on called The Changeling.
Jan took the job, fell in love with the challenge, and never looked back.
“I found it very interesting. It can be kind of addictive. What I loved about building sets for film and television is it’s so diversified. One day you’re building a castle and the next day a rocket ship.”
He recalls his first real big break being work he did on a film called Iceman, filmed in BC and Manitoba. The film tells the story of a neanderthal man discovered frozen alive in a block of ice, after which scientists race to study him in a specially constructed biodome. Jan’s mission was to construct the large dome that would then need to be lifted and placed over the set.
Jan made an impression with his forethought and technical skill. First, he suggested the approach of prefabrication, having components of the set prebuilt in the studio and trucked to set for assembly. At the time, it was a novel idea, he says. Then, the feat of getting the assembled dome successfully dropped over the set, slowly, inch by inch, required a great deal of much applauded precision.
Jan’s wife Mary says it helped build BC’s reputation as a place to find innovative crews.
“It was such a feat that it actually put the film industry on the map here in Vancouver," says Mary. "Word spread that if you go up to Vancouver, you’ll find crews doing new and innovative things that haven’t been done before."
For Jan, it ignited a life-long passion for building the seemingly impossible for the big screen.
“The challenge of coming up with solutions when everybody tells you something cannot be done, or will never happen, or is crazy - the more people tell me that, the more I get involved and the more I enjoy it and become determined that I'm getting it done despite all of that skepticism,” says Jan.
The dome Jan constructed for "Iceman".
BUILDING WITH THE FUTURE IN MIND
A resourceful drive is a common trait among many who work in the motion picture industry, but creating masterful sets takes more than willpower. Mathematical precision is needed to ensure sets are constructed safely, and construction materials must be planned down to the millimetre.
For Jan, it wasn’t just about getting something built, but building in a way that was smart. For him that meant crafting with the forethought of making items recyclable or reusable and, in 2010, he was commended for his efforts.
“I was issued an Innovator Award from the Recycling Council of BC in recognition of ongoing commitment to ideals of responsible stewardship,” says Jan.
“Thinking about the environment, it was always important to me. I was impressed that somebody actually noticed and that they cared.”
Jan’s work was also noticed by Czech Newsweek, who called him up to speak to him about his work on The Revenant. The magazine did an eight-page feature article celebrating his work in motion picture production in BC.
In 2018, after more than three decades in the industry, Jan retired. He reflects on how important joining the Union was to building a successful career in the industry.
“Being a part of the Union community gives you bargaining power to negotiate a better deal for your crew, and gives you a sense of comfort to be able to know that someone is looking out to make sure you are treated fairly, and everything is built safely,” says Jan.
When it comes to the future of the motion picture industry, he says it’s important that Union members keep watching each others’ backs.
“There were a lot of things that were ignored for the longest time before the Union got involved,” he says, particularly around health and safety, adding that safety needs to stay at the forefront of members’ focus.
As for advice for people still working in the industry, he says patience, forward-thinking and a positive attitude can go a long way to building a rewarding career and a motion picture community where workers’ wellbeing and creativity can thrive.
Read more 891 Member Spotlights here! Help shine a light on other 891 members making BC’s motion picture community a great place to work. Email spotlight suggestions to email@example.com and visit Ourwork.ca for more on the benefits of joining the Union.