Beyond Working on Blockbuster Movies, Alumnus Jeff Okabayashi Elevates CSUN Students
The final scene of “Avengers: Endgame” played at the Regency Village Theatre in Westwood, and the credits rolled.
Inside the movie theater, CSUN alumnus Jeff Okabayashi ’85 (Radio/TV Production) sat on the right side, halfway up among fellow crew members there to see a Cast and Crew screening of the film before its wide release.
As the scrolling names cascaded down the giant screen, Okabayashi’s name appeared, credited for his work as second assistant director.
After more than three hours of watching the film with a critical eye, rather than for entertainment, there was a sense of pride about playing a part in something special.
“You do get that overall happy feeling that you’ve accomplished something…that you did something in your life,” Okabayashi said. “I always wanted to say I was on ‘Star Wars’ or some big event like that. I guess it hasn’t sunk in, but maybe this is that moment?”
“Avengers: Endgame” had the biggest opening weekend in box office history and is tracking to have the all-time highest worldwide box office gross at nearly $3 billion.
It’s just one of the many megahits in the long list of film credits to Okabayashi’s name, starting with his first film “The Naked Gun,” and including Michael Bay-directed blockbusters such as “Armageddon” and three “Transformers” titles, three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and “Chronicles of Narnia” films and to the last two “Avengers” movies, working with fellow CSUN alumnus and executive producer Michael Grillo.
“Jeff is a legend in town,” said CSUN professor and film production option head Nate Thomas. “Everybody knows who he is.”
Okabayashi has had a distinguished career in the world of film as an assistant director on some of the most popular movies of all time. But, the impact he has made on campus at CSUN is immeasurable.
Years after earning his degree from CSUN, Okabayashi, a longtime San Fernando Valley resident, decided one day to drive to his alma mater and walk into the office of CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts.
“I just walked in there and asked, ‘Hey, do you guys ever need guest speakers?’” Okabayashi recalled.
Okabayashi was put in touch with Thomas, who has since taken the CSUN alumnus up on the offer several times.
Okabayashi has assisted CSUN students on their senior film project and served as a mentor and guest speaker on numerous occasions. He has also told his personal journey of success to students, giving them the kind of real-world wisdom of what happens on movie sets that goes beyond the classroom.
Okabayashi first attended UCLA as a mathematics major, but found it wasn’t the right fit for him and transferred to CSUN. After taking a film class at CSUN, he knew his course had changed.
“If you could one day say you worked on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Star Wars,’ wouldn’t that be something?” Okabayashi recalled thinking. “So I said, ‘Why don’t I just go for it.’ So I switched my major.”
Okabayashi knew that his energy would be right for the active and challenging nature of film. He said CSUN provided him with a wide range of knowledge, preparing him on the various aspects of visual storytelling.
After CSUN, Okabayashi earned a spot in the highly competitive and prestigious Director’s Guild of America Assistant Directors Training Program, which selects only a few trainees from hundreds of applicants. As part of the program, trainees work on shows or movies that are in production. Okabayashi’s first job was on a show called “Heart of the City,” starring a young Christina Applegate.
Because of his work ethic and critical thinking ability, he said his skills got better and he developed a reputation for being a reliable worker. It led to more work and eventually to his first film as a trainee — the 1988 comedy hit “The Naked Gun.” In 1989, he earned his first credit as second assistant director — a role vital to the scheduling of production — on “An Innocent Man,” starring Tom Selleck. Two years later, he worked on his first blockbuster hit, “Backdraft.” Many blockbusters have followed.
Prior to working on “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” in 2014, Okabayashi came back to CSUN to mentor CTVA students. He made CSUN students an offer that if they could get to Detroit for the filming of the movie, he would give them experience on a movie set and use them as production assistants. He said about a dozen Matadors took him up on the offer. The movie grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
Said Thomas: “This is a great university. Our students are great. Part of [the success] is the faculty, the students and all the good stuff we have going on, but it’s the mentorship — that’s [particularly] important for our program, and Jeff is a major part of that.”
Okabayashi has been around the world using his expertise and wisdom to make some of the biggest productions of all time run as smoothly as possible. The last six movies he has worked on have grossed more than $7.5 billion worldwide. It’s clear, from his desire to keep working and the energy he has, that he loves what he does.
“The most rewarding part is if you can make movies that move people — where it makes them happy, or cry or something, then at least you have some ability to change other people’s way of thinking,” he said. “I love movies that try to make you see something differently. …. It’s the power of films. It can change people’s minds. How many people believed in ‘The Force’ when Star Wars came out?”