Alumnus John Hackney is working on some of the biggest films in Hollywood, and it was Texas Tech’s adventure media that prepared him.
John Hackney stood on a busy road in the middle of Morocco's largest medina. With the sun beating down on him, an electronic tuk tuk came barreling around a corner and collided with a fruit stand.
Time freezes for a moment as it comes his way.
“Cut!” yells the director.
The tuk tuks reset and the stand is reassembled. Hackney ensures his team has everything they need for post-production.
The Texas Tech University alumnus gets ready to go again as Harrison Ford's stunt double reassumes his position.
“On some shoots, you might not be able to guess what movie you're working on from scene –to scene,” Hackney said. “But this, you knew. You knew you were on the set of Indiana Jones.”
Learning to Learn
The Lubbock native isn't new to hot and dry climates.
“I've been on movie sets that were brutal,” he said. “You're just dripping in sweat, exhausted and working 16-plus-hour days.
“Being from Lubbock got me ready for that.”
As did attending Texas Tech.
Hackney graduated in 2017 from the College of Media & Communication where he studied electronic media and communication, now known as creative media industries. But his college journey didn't start there.
“I thought I wanted to be an engineer because I've always been a tinkerer,” he said. “I love learning how things work.”
But after a semester in that field of study, Hackney realized the passion wasn't there. From there, he tried business.
“Texas Tech has an amazing business program through the Rawls College of Business, so I checked that out,” he said.
It wasn't a fit either.
Hackney was struggling to believe college was for him at all when Todd Chambers reached out to him.
“Todd was a friend of my family, and he knew I'd always had a passion for photography,” Hackney said. “He encouraged me to check out the College of Media & Communication.
“I was perplexed because I honestly didn't think photography was something you could make a good career out of.”
As Hackney settled into the program, he quickly realized the error of his assumption. He met faculty members who were not only great instructors, but also industry professionals.
“Many faculty in that college are also out doing what they teach in real time, which makes their instruction so valuable.”
One professor Hackney studied under was Jerod Foster.
Foster leads the university's notable adventure media course. The course culminates in a week-long outdoor trek usually cycling or hiking. The experience offers students practical insight into producing media not only outside the classroom, but in difficult, high-stakes, ultimately rewarding contexts.
“That class helped me realize I had a desire to go out and be in new places, meet new people and work in different cultures,” Hackney said. “I was hooked. It built a confidence that I could tell the stories I wanted to tell.”
Hackney connected with like-minded students in those courses and reminisces on their early attempts at producing films and other projects they'd dream up.
“We'd make up all sorts of stuff,” he said. “We did film competitions, made short films and even a horror film I think.”
That group who “made stuff up” has done well for themselves. One is a director in Hollywood, another is a university photographer, and another a PBS documentary maker.
“We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those years of learning,” Hackney said. “The program gave us an opportunity to learn from experts, but it also taught us how to teach ourselves.”
Hackney emphasizes the importance of learning how to learn.
“That sounds weird, but it's very real,” he said. “Every day that I don't learn something new is a wasted day, and I inherited that spirit from Texas Tech.”
Going For It
After graduating, Hackney worked a few marketing jobs while building his freelance videography and photography business.
“I quickly realized I did not want an office job,” Hackney laughed. “It killed me sitting at a desk from 8 to 5.”
But Hackney did pick up a few skills during that would later be helpful.
“I learned a lot about project management in those jobs,” he said, “which is definitely useful in the film industry.”
And the film industry is where Hackney knew he wanted to be.
“I think I'd always wanted to make movies,” he said, “ever since I was a kid, but like photography earlier in life, I wasn't sure how to get into it.”
He moved back to Lubbock in 2019 to ponder his next move.
“My career was still really young, but I felt I was at an important crossroad,” he said. “I was doing OK in marketing, but that was never the dream.”
Hackney looked at his life. He didn't have a spouse or kids, and he realized if there was ever a time to go for it, it was that moment. Maybe he would fail, but he wouldn't know if he didn't try.
Hackney packed up and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in hopes of making connections with crew members shooting on various sets in the area.
“That was the closest film hub from Lubbock, so I figured it was a good first step,” he said.”
Moving was only half the battle. The other part was making a connection with someone in the industry.
“Film doesn't work on interviews,” he said. “You have to meet someone doing what you want to do, and then hang around until the day when they're short a crew member.”
For some, that day comes only once.
Luckily for Hackney, he was ready when it came.
“I'd connected with my father's childhood friend's younger brother who was an assistant director,” he said. “One day, I finally got a message back.”
The family friend introduced him to a contact who needed some work done on commercials. Impressed, the director introduced Hackney to another guy by the name of Jonas who was working on a Zack Snyder zombie film called “Army of the Dead” that was shooting in Albuquerque. They needed a production assistant and Jonas asked if Hackney could come help.
Hackney was already halfway out the door.
“Looking back, that was probably my ‘big break,' if you will,” he said. “That was a pivotal point for me, but I'm not sure it felt like that at the time.”
Hackney spent his days walking around the desert passing out water to hundreds of extras dressed as zombies. Mostly excited, he also felt unsure of what he'd stumbled into hydrating the half-dead.
Production assistance on the zombie film turned into some work in visual effects.
“They realized I knew a lot about working with cameras and lighting and needed some help in visual effects,” he said. “I loved it.”
Hackney gladly switched from hydrating zombies to filming them.
As the film wrapped, some of his colleagues headed to Santa Fe to work on a Tom Hanks film called “News of the World.” Jonas had been happy with Hackney's visual effects work and asked if he would want to work on this new film.
Excited to learn more about visual effects, Hackney started on set with his friend. The plan was to learn from Jonas throughout the shoot.
That came to an abrupt halt one of the first days of shooting when Jonas jumped off the box truck and shattered his ankle. Suddenly, the spotlight was on Hackney to pull off the visual effects – a job he'd only done once before.
“That was the hardest film I've ever worked on,” he said.
The change of plans threw Hackney into the deep end, but he didn't sink.
“That shoot was a challenge every day,” he said. “The logistics were all over the place and I was trying to excel in visual effects while they were shooting with 1600 zoom-lenses.”
Having to tackle a relatively new skill on a shoot with complicated cinematography made Hackney a fast study. The wide-set frames meant even more data to collect, and that challenge wasn't lost on others.
After that film wrapped, jobs started opening for Hackney in Los Angeles and Atlanta. His work was impressive and other visual effect artists recognized the talent Hackney had for the job.
From there he did a run of work for Marvel Studios, working on shows such as “Ms. Marvel” and “Moon Knight.” He also did Marvel films “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Black Widow.”
At this point, Hackney had become what is known as a data wrangler.
Simply put, data wranglers are responsible for collecting and organizing raw data and footage so it can be transformed into another format in post-production. As more and more films rely on the use of visual and special effects, there is a need for larger data and post-production teams.
After being a data wrangler for numerous projects, Hackney found himself leading teams.
“Now, not only am I responsible for gathering my own data, but I'm also responsible for whole teams of wranglers, sometimes across various sets of the same shoot,” he said.
It's an incredibly technical job, one that very few colleges or programs even offer training to do. But Hackney knows the work he did at Texas Tech gave him the foundation to get the job done.
“One key skill you need is understanding how lighting works,” Hackney said. “It will be really obvious later if you built visual effects into a scene from a 3-D model and the lighting doesn't match up.”
So, while technically someone could shadow a data wrangler over time and pick up the skills, Hackney attributes his quick rise to his college degree.
And Texas Tech wasn't important just for camera technique.
“Now that I'm leading teams the management and communication skills I learned in college are really getting utilized,” he said. “This job requires me to be organized in my communication with team members, vendors, producers and directors. So, I use what I learned at Texas Tech every day.”
Hackney singles out adventure media as a niche learning opportunity that prepared him for the fast-paced life of working on set. He says the ability to learn on-the-go and keep pushing yourself when uncomfortable were things he picked up on those trips.
“I learned how to be bad at something before I became great,” he said. “Having that mentality is crucial when you get into the real world.”
Continuing the Adventure
Hackney's latest job came via a phone call while he was in Jordan.
He had been shooting scenes for “Moon Knight” and was about to head home when Clayton Lyons called him and asked if he wanted to drop down to Morocco.
“I had been abroad for months at this point,” he said. “A lot of the Marvel projects I worked on had location shoots in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, so I'd been in about 13 countries.”
Hackney was tired, but then Lyons offered him a chance at Indiana Jones.
“Indiana Jones was my hero growing up,” Hackney said. “To be on that shoot would be a career highlight; there was no way I could say no.”
The next day, Hackney landed in Fez.
“I remember sitting on set one day thinking ‘How is this real life?'” he said. “It felt surreal.”
Hackney has shot Ecto 1 driving through Manhattan in “Ghostbusters,” worked with some beloved Marvel actors and actresses and even shared lunch with Tom Hanks, but shooting a chase scene for his childhood hero topped it all.
“I'm so grateful to do what I do,” he said. “I'm fulfilling those dreams that were born in adventure media back with Jerod Foster and my friends.
“I'm going new places, meeting new people and working in new cultures – to an extent I never thought possible.”