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Summertime on Lake Irene

TyRuben Ellingson and hi childhood acquaintance, Karen Crane, were married in 2009.1 / 2
This is one of TyRuben Ellingson's vehicle designs.2 / 2

It seems extraordinary that a man who spent the past two years submerged in a magical land of Pandora - made famous through the recent hit movie Avatar - dreams of the shores of Lake Irene near the small town of Miltona, Minnesota.

TyRuben Ellingson's world is fast-paced, high-tech and focused on innovations of the future. While he now calls Chandler, Arizona home, he spends considerable time in Hollywood working with acclaimed movie directors.

Yet some of his fondest memories are of quiet days spent sailing the crystal clear waters of Lake Irene during the summers of his youth.

Life on the big screen

Ellingson originally thought he'd be an art professor like his father. He spent his childhood in his father's studio in St. Cloud, engaged in drawing, painting and constructing cardboard "machines."

While completing his master's degree at St. Cloud State University (SCSU), Ellingson taught drawing and design courses at the university and exhibited his work in regional and national shows, earning recognition and awards.

His master of fine arts degree was completed in 1987 at Southern Methodist University.

Ellingson found his calling when he began combining his passion for fine arts with his life-long interest in film.

He landed a position at George Lucas' Industrial, Light and Magic in 1989 as a visual effects art director. There, he contributed to the creation of ground-breaking special effects in films such as Jurassic Park, Star Wars: A New Hope and Disclosure.

Ellingson was involved in a variety of films and commercials through the years, with the highlight of his career coming in 2006, when he was called to serve as lead vehicle designer for director James Cameron's science-fiction epic, Avatar.

The days of summer

Despite the thrills his career and lifestyle bring him, Ellingson remembers with fondness his carefree summer days of youth.

He started spending summers on Lake Irene in 1967 at age 7. At that time, SCSU was setting up an art school (Studio L'Homme Dieu) and summer theater (Theatre L'Homme Dieu) on Lake L'Homme Dieu near Alexandria.

Ellingson's father, artist William Ellingson (1933-1994), was an art professor at SCSU and he purchased the cabin so his family could be nearby when he was teaching and working at Studio L'Homme Dieu.

Ellingson's memories of the Lake Irene cabin paint a different picture of the area than it appears today.

"At that point in time it all felt far more isolated," he noted. "There were fewer cabins, fewer people who stayed up there week in and week out, and a lot less boats on the lake on any given day. The road leading to our place was just gravel, we had no phone, but did have a tiny indoor bathroom - most cabins just had outhouses."

Ellingson also recalls only getting a "snowy Channel 7" on the television, which the family gathered around when his father was featured on the locally-produced Welcome Inn show.

"At any rate those early years on Lake Irene were nothing short of fantastic!" he said. "We would have artists who were visiting Studio L'Homme Dieu come to our cabin for barbecues and conversation. Many of my parents' friends would come to visit - other artists and professors, and doctors and surgeons as well, as my mother, Sharon was a surgery nurse at the St. Cloud Hospital."

Ellingson's father kept a working studio at the family cabin where he spent many creative hours, including hours designing a large addition to the cabin, which he later built.

The logs used for that addition were recovered from a barn that he found somewhere between Miltona and Osakis.

"Once he saw it, he just drove up to the farmer's house and paid for the old barn logs and wood," Ellingson recalled. "We used a boat trailer to haul them from the site to the cabin."

Ellingson didn't know at the time that it was on the shores of Lake Irene that he would meet his future wife, Karen.

Karen's father, Charlie Crane, was also a professor at SCSU and was good friends with Ellingson's father. Her mother, Jan, was an avid sailor.

During the summer of 1968, the family would visit the Lake Irene cabin, and eventually moored a Ray Green Rebel sailboat named "Ichi Bon" (number one in Japanese) there.

"This really got my father interested in sailing," Ellingson recalled. "A year later he also purchased a Rebel we named "Sock It To Me," and that began the many summers of sailing on Lake Irene!"

TyRuben and Karen just married in November 2009 and are spending a week this July walking down memory lane on the shores of Lake Irene. Ellingson's mother, Sharon, remarried after his father's death and still spends summers at the cabin with her current husband, Bob Bayne.

The Ellingsons plan to take in Miltona Tornado Days during their visit, as both have vivid memories of the summer of 1970 when a devastating tornado hit Miltona.

In fact, a memento of that occasion still stands at the family cabin: During the tornado, a large phone pole was blown down. Ellingson's father retrieved it with the boat trailer and later carved it into a totem pole that still stands on the shore of Lake Irene.

Ellingson said they've got some other things planned during their trip here, including a visit to the Miltona Meat Locker to purchase some of their "very awesome beef jerky," and a trip into Alexandria to have a photo taken in front of "the ever awesome Viking statue!"

More about TyRuben Ellingson

• Since 1990, has provided artistic and design services to successful Hollywood films including Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Mimic, Blade 2 & 3, Signs and Hellboy, and numerous others.

• In 2006, was one of the first designers called in by James Cameron to work on Avatar. Served as Lead Vehicle Designer, working with Cameron to design all but two of the vehicles seen in the film, including the mining equipment and AMP suit.

• Some of Ellingson's vehicle designs for Avatar were transferred to Ubisoft to be used in the video game parallel of Avatar.

• Worked on various theme park simulator rides and music videos.

• Has credits with numerous commercials for such companies as Coke, Pepsi, Disney, Reebok, Miller Lite, Intel, Kelloggs, etc.

• Has performed numerous speaking engagements during the past 20 years, including Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Stanford University, San Jose State University, Expression College for Digital Arts, Guadalajara Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Saint Cloud State University. In 1993, served as keynote speaker at the National Association of Art Department Deans, and that same year taught a semester in the cinema department at San Francisco State University.

• During the past year has contributed to two films scheduled for release in 2011: Priest, for Screen Gems, and Battle: Los Angeles, for Sony pictures.

• Currently working with fellow Avatar designer Yuri Bartoli to get an original movie project off the ground, one Ellingson has written for Bartoli to direct.

• More about Ellingson can be found at his website,

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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