Valdosta Daily Times

November 25, 2012

Lowndes graduate goes from ‘Star Wars’ to Mexico

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

-- — Ken Bryan found his dream job creating magic on movie screens for everything from “Star Wars” to “Men In Black” to “Harry Potter.” Now, the 1985 Lowndes High School graduate is creating his dream home in Tulum, Mexico.

“I made a childhood dream come true in working (for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) and making movie monsters and now, I’m living a new, adult dream,” Bryan told The Times. “… I’m building a completely sustainable, totally off-the-grid house out in the jungle in the Mayan Riviera.”

The house will be solar powered. Collected rainwater will be Bryan’s water supply. He will use composting toilets and natural water filtration with plant-based systems for sewage and waste-water treatment. Wood and stones collected from clearing the site and driveway serve as the house’s building materials.

“… All designed and planned as computer models with the same technology I used in the movie business,” Bryan says.

Some may think building a house in the middle of a jungle is a long way from creating digital creatures for blockbuster movies, but knowing Bryan’s past, it seems to fit. Bryan didn’t start creating creatures on a computer. As a kid growing up in Lowndes County, he found his inspiration and his materials in the great outdoors. He created his first dinosaurs from South Georgia red clay he dug out of the ground near his home.

He still has roots in South Georgia – father and stepmom LaRue and Edna Bryan of Lowndes County. He is a grandson of the late D.C. Watkins, who founded the popular Saturday night spot Watkins Music Hall. His mother is Fay McElvey.

After graduating from Lowndes High, Ken Bryan enrolled in Valdosta State University. He considered becoming a potter until discovering the school’s new computer-graphics program. In 1989, Bryan graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree. He spent an additional year studying computer graphics at Valdosta State.

Working at freelance jobs, Bryan spent a brief time in Miami before moving to Atlanta. After a few years, he sent four reels of his work to four different companies. All four companies offered him a job. He accepted the job from Star Wars creator George Lucas at the legendary Industrial Light and Magic in 1996.

There, Bryan participated in a pantheon of special-effects classics and blockbusters: “Jurassic Park” movies, “Star Wars” movies, “Men In Black,” “Harry Potter” movies and “Iron Man,” to name a few.

So what leads a 45-year-old man, at the top of his game, to leave his dream job to build a house in the Mexican jungle?

“I'm pretty young to retire. But I figure just because I quit working I won't sit idle,” Bryan says. “I'll just have more time to do the things that I want to do for me instead of for a client. I've been neglecting my own artwork for a long time while I was working so I look forward to having more time to make art for fun again.”

ILM was the perfect job, Bryan admits. A childhood dream. Good money. Artistic fulfillment. The knowledge that people saw and appreciated his work even if they didn’t know his name.

“As I entered my 40s, I became restless,” Bryan says. “I felt like I was spending too much of my life in front of a computer. The money was great. My coworkers were wonderful. The work was interesting. It was about as perfect as a job could be but it took up most of my life. I wanted more time for myself and money can't buy that.”

He thought of his grandfather’s versatile life.

“My grandfather, D.C. Watkins, lived to be 95 years old and right up to the end he always told me that life is too short no matter how long you live so make the most of it,” Bryan says. “My Mom and Dad always encouraged me to follow my dreams and that worked out well for me at ILM, so I figured there was no reason I couldn’t make my dream of being on permanent vacation a reality as well.”

He chose to take his permanent vacation at a spot where he had enjoyed past vacations from work. Tulum is a place where everyday is like the best day of summer, he says. Beautiful beaches that have managed to escape overdevelopment. Beautiful jungles. Diverse and exotic wildlife. Bryan says he’s always been fascinated by such animals and now they run through his front yard.

Tulum is also steeped in Mayan history and culture.

“Tulum and the areas around here are still primarily inhabited by Mayans so it has a different cultural influence than other parts of Mexico and the Caribbean,” Bryan says. “The ruins of ancient Mayan cities are scattered all along the coastline and out in the jungle. There are crystal clear, freshwater cenotes (deep natural pits inherent to Mexico) that are sacred places to the Mayan people all over the place here. And the people I've met are some of the kindest, most hard-working, humble folks I have ever encountered. I think it was their smiles and warm welcome every time I came here as much as anything else that made me know I wanted to live here. I felt at peace every time I came down for vacation. I kept staying longer and longer on each visit and I still didn’t want to leave at the end of the trip. Now I don’t have to leave.”

As for U.S. media reports of brutal drug violence in Mexico, Bryan says Tulum is far removed from these incidents.

“It’s an awful problem but it’s not just a problem in Mexico,” he says. “Many places in the U.S. are dangerous as well. I wouldn’t move to a bad neighborhood in Mexico any more than I would in the U.S. so it’s really not an issue for me. If the only thing anyone ever heard about Georgia was the statistics on gang violence in its most crime-ridden neighborhoods one might not think it was such a great place to settle down either. The same thing goes here in Mexico. There are certainly bad things happening in some places in Mexico. I just don’t go to those places.”

In addition to knowing he wanted to live in Tulum, Bryan gave much thought to the type of house he wanted to build.

“Building a sustainable, off-grid home appealed to me because it makes so much sense from a financial and environmental standpoint,” he says. “I like the sense of independence and security that comes from knowing that no matter what happens to the market price of oil, or how badly we pollute our groundwater with agricultural runoff and petrochemicals, I won’t be at the mercy of energy companies or public utilities of any kind. With solar power, rainwater collection and storage, composting toilets and constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment my home will be completely sustainable and self supporting. I will be doing my part to keep my little piece of the world as clean and natural as possible.”

Inspiration for building such a house came while visiting a friend who lives off-grid in Mexico. As he and she watched shooting stars one night from her rooftop deck, he asked her about her house. To his amazement, he learned it cost her less to build her house than it had cost him to buy his car. His monthly mortgage and utility payments cost more than her house expenses for an entire year.

During this same trip, he attended a cocktail reception for a new development. He was hooked by the beauty of the off-grid, old-growth jungle.

“That was on a Wednesday. I flew back to California on Friday. The following Monday I sold the sports car that I had bought myself for my 40th birthday and used the money I got for it to buy five acres in Los Arboles Tulum,” Bryan says. “I started saving my money and designing my house right away. I thought that it would take me about five years to get everything together financially and emotionally to be ready to retire and move to the jungle, but things happened faster than I anticipated. I sat at work everyday thinking, ‘One day soon I’ll be sitting on the beach instead of sitting at this desk. One day soon I'll be watching real monkeys from my deck instead of making CG creatures on the computer.’ And one day soon came in January 2012 when I decided there was really no reason to wait any longer to start living the rest of my life. I sold and donated all of my possessions except for my artwork and a few clothes and moved to Mexico with nothing but a carry-on suitcase, a backpack and a dream.”

House construction has stayed on schedule with completion expected by year’s end. Bryan’s biggest challenge has been learning Spanish. He thought being immersed in the language, it would come quickly. That has not been the case, Bryan says. The people have been accommodating. His smartphone language-translator app has been a great help as has the timeless communication bridge of sign language.

“The construction workers building my house speak Mayan primarily with Spanish as their second language so I'm really lost trying to communicate with them in my limited Spanish,” Bryan says. “But they are so fun and friendly that we still manage to crack jokes with each other and laugh at things together even without understanding what we're saying most of the time. Smiles and laughter are universally understood.”

In creating his house, Bryan has adopted permaculture building techniques where wood and stone cleared from the site and driveway are incorporated as building materials. Sixteen rooftop 235w solar panels will generate electricity which will be stored in 16 390AH batteries. The rooftop will have a drainage system collecting and filtering rainwater to be stored in a 20,000 gallon cistern that will also serve as a deck off of the bedroom. Low-flush composting toilets and a constructed wetland will handle sewage and gray water treatment. His only utility bills will be natural gas for cooking and a satellite/Internet connection.

Mexico is a long way from South Georgia, but so was California. Bryan says his father was initially apprehensive about his living in Mexico, but has come to understand it. Bryan’s mother has been an avid supporter of the project, he says. He will still try returning to Valdosta a couple of times per year, but not this Christmas as he supervises the building of his house. But Ken Bryan’s sure he will be back to Valdosta after the house is completed.