JACKSON — Filmmaker Jeff Unay recently returned to his old high school with an inspirational message for a group of students: Dreams do come true.
Unay, who grew up in Ethel and attended Jackson High School — now East Feliciana high — was in Louisiana in mid-October to screen the trailer for his newest cinematic venture, "The Cage Fighter," at a film festival in New Orleans. He decided to stop by his old high school and share his story with some students.
Although he graduated 21 years ago, Unay’s stories about his life in Hollywood captivated the room full of students.
After graduation from high school in 1996, he attended Loyola in New Orleans on a baseball scholarship and fell in love with art and graphic design. After working in advertising, he later attended Full Sail University’s Computer Animation Program and started his career in film.
He studied facial anatomy and the nuances of expression using special techniques such as digital sculpting.
Two projects he worked on, "King Kong" (2005) and Avatar" (2009), won Academy Awards. Unay’s groundbreaking work creating the faces for the lead characters in "Avatar" led him to win a Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Live Action Character in a Motion Picture.
As a digital arts specialist, his work is in high demand, but since 2010, he’s also branched out into directing, writing and producing. His film for video game developer Valve Corporation, "Free to Play" (2014), about video game competitors vying for a million-dollar prize, received a record-setting 5.5 million YouTube views its opening weekend and 8 million in its first month.
Most recently, he’s received multiple accolades for "The Cage Fighter," including the Tribecca Film Institute/ESPN Prize and the 2015 Points North Best Pitch Award at the Camden International Film Festival.
“I grew up in Ethel, how did this happen?” he asked when Principal Victoria Dunn, who was his schoolmate at Jackson High, introduced him.
Through it all, Unay, who lives in Washington with his wife, three sons and goddaughter, advised the room full of students to “stay focused and do what you feel passionate about and what you’re really good at. Try to figure out what you’re naturally good at and what you love to do.”
He used the example of working with director James Cameron on "Avatar" to stress that his best art stretches boundaries. He said Cameron challenged him and wasn’t going to take anything but his best work.
“That made me want to continually challenge myself to always do my best,” he said. “It takes a lot more than talent and ability. It takes perseverance to finish. I know I can finish a project.”
"The Cage Fighter," a documentary focused the lives and struggles of cage fighters, is scheduled to be released in 2018. Unay said he because fascinated with cage fighters after meeting Joe Carmen, the film's main subject, while working out in a gym.
“He’s a real-life Rocky,” Unay said.
Unay said each project, in a small way, is about his own life experiences and gives him a voice to say what he has to say.
“You don’t have to have it all figured out now; I didn’t at your age,” said Unay, who was recently inducted into the Full Sail Hall of Fame. “But follow what you’re good at, and be good to the people around you.”
After some questions from the students, he and Dunn took the group to a large mural he painted as a student that still decorates the wall above one of the school’s stairway. It says, “We Believe.”
“Yep, we still believe,” Unay said.