How I Hired an Illustrator

This is the process I used for finding and hiring an illustrator for my first children’s book: Sleepy Baby Samurai and the Magic Painting. I’m sure everyone’s process is different and mine may not be the “right” way. But I’m extremely satisfied with how it turned out and learned a lot!

Step 1: Research & References

To begin, I needed to have a solid idea of the type of illustrations I like and was seeking for this particular book. That meant looking through all of my favourite picture books and analyzing what I liked and why. I also started building a reference library of images that continued to grow during the illustration process. In total, I collected 180 reference images, which I organized into 11 different folders/categories, such as: Cover Design, Environments, Characters, Clothing, Hair Styles, etc. These images were used as a guide or inspiration, rather than me saying: “Just copy this.” Sharing visual references with the each other was a convenient way to help express ideas and answer questions.

Step 2: Ask Other Authors

I wanted to find out how other children’s book authors selected and collaborated with an illustrator. I am fortunate to know another author: K.L. Harris, who provided many insights into the process of creating her book: The World is Full of A**Holes (which I own and recommend). I also took an online course: The Illustrator Survival Kit by Eevi Jones, and Eevi also responded to a question I had via email. She has a wide variety of courses on writing children’s books. You can clearly see how she has helped many new authors write, publish, and market their books. Mentors are incredibly valuable!

Step 3: Contact Illustrators Directly

By browsing sites like Instagram, LinkedIn, and Artstation, I was able to find a handful of talented artists with work that matched my goals. I also asked some of my artist friends and former students with fine art backgrounds for recommendations. The challenge with this method was some artists were too busy or too expensive for me. Only 2 artists made it to my shortlist through direct messaging. Thanks to Ya-Wen Liu (a talented artist herself) for an especially good recommendation!

Step 4: Create a Job Posting

To increase my options, I created a free account and job posting on It’s a convenient website for both artists and clients seeking artists to gain international exposure. I shared my basic book concept, budget, and timeline so interested artists could share their bids with me either publicly or privately, based on their preference. Here is my personal referral code if you’re interested in signing up and receiving some $$ for your own project! In total, I received bids and communicated with 80 artists from around the world through this website.

Step 5: Ask for a Sample Illustration

It is fairly standard practice to ask for a sample illustration from artists you’ve never worked with before. Some only shared previously completed work, one would only provide a pencil sketch, and 10 artists sent me a custom, full colour illustration. Since this is basically free labor, I didn’t want to make it unnecessarily time-consuming. Asking for one character and one environment piece (a tree) was enough for me to make a decision, even though many respondents went above and beyond this request. The sample illustration also gives both artist and author a good sense of what it will be like to work together: promptness, communication style, and professionalism (or lack thereof). I really enjoyed seeing many different styles and interpretations, and have saved the contact info of artists whom I’d like to work with in the future on other projects.

My Sample Illustration Prompt & References

After walking down a dusty path, a 2-year-old Japanese boy in traditional clothes stops to look up with wonder at a very tall tree.

I only need to see the boy and the tree, other details around them aren’t necessary. Please look at the references for inspiration. I’m also looking to see your own style too. The tree should look large, beautiful, painterly, and not frightening. The boy should look small, cute, young, curious, and have personality. He should look less painterly and more like he was drawn with pen or pencil. You may use whatever medium/tools you prefer to draw/paint with. Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to seeing what you create!

Shortlisted Sample Illustrations

Final Step: Make Your Decision

I shared these sample illustrations with several people whose opinion I trust. The vast majority preferred illustration G (by Duha Lee) overall, with illustration C (by Cecil Lu) being a close runner-up. Duha also exhibited the most enthusiasm for the project and has personal connections to the story, so I felt like she was the natural choice for this book. It’s been incredibly validating working with her and I can’t wait to share her beautiful work with you when the book is published! (Update: It’s published and available here now!)

Why “Just Be Yourself” is Terrible Advice

I was listening to the radio recently, and the hosts were discussing a survey about career-ending moves made in job interviews. An example mentioned was repeatedly swearing in the interview.  One host teased the other, saying this applies to her since she frequently swears. The other retorted: “Look, I’m just being honest and true to myself. That’s my message to kids out there: be yourself.”

I wanted to laugh, because it seems like the real-life message was: “Don’t swear repeatedly in a job interview if you want that job”. And is that really so hard and dishonest? If you can’t avoid swearing repeatedly during a 20 minute job interview, do you really have the self-control to effectively work for 40 hours per week?”

While they certainly seemed to be joking around, I think many people today take the “just be yourself” mantra very seriously. It inspired me to reflect on it for several days and discuss this advice with friends. I’ve received this advice and appreciated it, as well as given it to a few of my former students. Yet I came to the conclusion that “Just be yourself” is terrible advice.

Let’s use the job interview scenario as an example. I approach my instructor or colleague and ask for advice. I’m nervous about this job interview because I really want to do well. In the best possible scenario, nervousness is my only problem, and this person recognizes that. By telling me to “just be myself”, I could feel more confident in the interview. If this role really is an ideal fit for me and I’ve already done enough preparation, then perhaps I succeed in nailing that interview. Mission accomplished and no harm done, right?

So why was it terrible advice? For several reasons, and again, that was the best-case scenario. I find this phrase particularly unhelpful and dangerous to young people, who are generally looking for or in need of guidance. “Be yourself” is a rejection of guidance. It is essentially the same as saying to someone who is angry: “Don’t be mad.” Has that ever helped someone feel less angry?

“Be yourself” might be what I say when I have no idea what to say, because it seems like the safest answer. In the process, I claim authority on two subjects that I probably know little about. The first is the job interview itself. Do I really know what this interview will be like? Do I understand the job requirements, the company, and the interviewer well enough to make that call?

The second subject is my student/colleague themselves. Do I really, truly, deeply understand who that person is? Does that person even truly and deeply understand who they are? And do we have the exact same version in our heads at that time? In my mind, I might think I’m telling them to be the confident, intelligent person I assume them to be. They might think I am enabling them to be the rude, wise-cracking jerk they assume I appreciate. So you can see it’s either a vague fallback statement for someone without anything constructive to say, or an overly ambitious judgment call that could be completely wrong.

“Just be yourself” sounds like good advice at first, but what if you’re a jerk? What if you’re a serial killer? Maybe you should be someone else. “Believe in yourself” is fine, but “anything is possible”? No, it’s not. Expressing yourself, respecting yourself, and being honest with yourself are somewhat tautological but not usually directly harmful. But “you have to love yourself first” has a crucial flaw: people who really love themselves are called narcissists, and they make horrible relationship partners.”

– Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before

Yet this phrase is directly and indirectly tattooed all over modern society. And amidst some truly wonderful tolerance compared to previous generations, we have given birth to a “cancel culture” that renders “just be yourself” a lie. We have grown so accustomed and comfortable with telling ourselves that we’re already perfect, that we ignore the logic that this statement is either false or only applicable to certain extraordinary people: like me! And because I’m so perfect, I have the right (no, the responsibility) to verbally assault and crush the career and social lives of people who I feel do not have the right to be themselves. This is where it becomes so dangerous and lives begin to fall apart.

So what do we do? Do we just let powerful, famous people continue to do intolerant acts and speak words of prejudice? Do we stop recognizing the good in ourselves and others? No, no. Please don’t get me wrong.

What I’m suggesting is we start on a personal, individual level and make careful, realistic assessments. This starts with acknowledging that “be yourself’ shouldn’t be said anytime to anyone. It starts with admitting that I can’t claim to know who you truly are, but that I might see areas where you can become better in a particular area (if I actually know you well). You probably can see the same for me too in this case. It starts with recognizing mentors in our life, and giving them the freedom to speak to us truthfully without fearing that we must feel good about everything they say. I’m thankful that I’m far from perfect in any regard, because it gives me room to grow, to learn, and improve myself. The advice I try to live by is:

"Never stop trying to be the best YOU that you can be."

There’s this oversimplified view that we need to stop hating ourselves and start loving ourselves. But in real life we fluctuate on a spectrum between the two, and need each other to prevent us from dwelling too much on either side: self-hate or self-infatuation. So while “be yourself” may arise out of kindness or love, real love comes through wanting the best for someone else. It comes from teaching your child not to steal candy from other children, so they grow up to be respectful and generous. It comes from helping someone overcome an addiction they’ve been struggling with or from stopping them from saying something stupid when they’re drunk. Tolerance and love are not the same thing. A tolerant person ignores the angry shouts of a homeless person. A loving person buys them food, listens to them, and treats them with respect. One is a lot harder than the other. We can all strive to be the best versions of ourselves: that isn’t becoming someone else; it’s becoming more fully ourselves.

How to Fix Modern Education

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

– Mark Twain

“The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.”

– G.K. Chesterton

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of education have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

– Albert Einstein

My Background:

20 years of schooling

6 years of teaching (and counting)


The Problem with School:

I consider education to be paramount for solving problems, from the personal to the global level. One significant problem is that our schools haven’t changed much since the industrial revolution in the 1700-1800’s, whereas our society, technology, medicine, and job market has changed dramatically. This and other problems with many schools are explained more adequately a more experienced Teacher: John Taylor Gatto, in his writings. His article entitled, “Against School” influenced me greatly when I first read it 20 years ago. I highly recommend reading all of it here, but here’s a taste:

Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

– John Taylor Gatto

My Teaching Philosophy:

As a teacher, it is my responsibility to grow and adapt to meet each student’s needs and preferred learning style. I must ensure the curriculum I teach helps students develop skills and knowledge to contribute positively to society as a whole. My goal is to help them find meaning and purpose, which I prioritize over success and happiness (both of which can be fleeting and compromise only a small part of the many wonders of human experience).

There is a more recent article, technically an award speech, that the late John Taylor Gatto gave and filled with even more wisdom. I will provide the link to the entire speech transcript here as well as one more quote below.

Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent – nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.

We’ve got to give kids independent time right away because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must re-involve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than more abstraction… Independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different apprenticeships, the one day variety or longer – these are all powerful, cheap, and effective ways to start a real reform of schooling… There is no shortage of real problems in the city. Kids can be asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention of the total adult world. Good for kids, good for all the rest of us.

– John Taylor Gatto

15 Books I Read in 2020

I completed only about 3 or 4 books in 2019, while in 2020 I completed 15!

I actually read more than that too, but the 15 I’m counting are books I both finished and enjoyed. I know I’m not the only person who did a lot more reading this year. Others read WAY more than I do, and I respect them for that. But I dived much deeper into this hobby than I ever have before, purchasing a Kobo Forma eReader and trying out Audible and Kobo Audiobooks. I also got a library card last December. With these expanded opportunities to read and more time to do so (since I worked from home and didn’t have to commute), my numbers went way up!

Additional Actions that Helped Me Read More:

  • Disabling Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube from my phone (This wasn’t easy and I would re-enable them every once in a while, but Facebook Messenger is really the only one I need, and “need” isn’t really the right word).
  • Setting aside time to read every morning.
  • Listening to audiobooks while doing chores.
  • Actively searching for books that interest me, and not worrying about quitting if I lost interest.
  • Celebrating in some way every time I completed a book.

Reading isn’t and shouldn’t be like exercise or eating vegetables. But I had to retrain my brain to recognize it can be just as entertaining, informative, and satisfying as watching a movie or listening to a podcast. I’ll share the books I enjoyed below in case any of them might appeal to you.


How to Be a Dad: The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, & Dirty Nappies by Dr. Oscar Duke (Family)

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card (Writing)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Writing/Memoir)

As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling by Anne Serling (Biography)

The Dying Game by Asa Avdic (Mystery)

Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin (Mystery)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Mystery)

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (Mystery)

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries: Book 1 by Martha Wells (Sci-Fi)

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries: Book 2 by Martha Wells (Sci-Fi)

The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton (Fiction)

The Gospel of Mark (from the Word on Fire Bible) (Religion)


Planetfall by Emma Newman (Sci-Fi)

After Atlas by Emma Newman (Sci-Fi)

The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald (Mystery)


Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie: Volumes I and II (Art/Sci-Fi/Biography)

Hope you discover many great books in 2021! Happy Reading!


Life is like a Puzzle

“Life is like a puzzle gifted one piece at a time. You never know the content of the next piece or how many pieces you will receive. All you can do is appreciate each piece and try to see how they fit together.

More impressive is how your puzzle fits together with other people’s, forming one grand puzzle that reaches around the world and connects the past to the present. The empty spaces, to be filled by the future, gives us reason to be afraid and hopeful. But an ever-expanding puzzle is one that grows more and more interesting: full of potential and possibilities.”

– Andrew Zeller

My Nuke Gizmos

This is a list of Nuke gizmos I have created and shared publicly. I will continue to add to it.

AndrewsRotoCheck – Gives you 20+ ways of checking your alpha! A must-have for checking your roto or keys.

Video Tutorial

Get it from:
Nukepedia (must have an account to download)
Github (just copy and paste the text into your Node graph)

AZ Channel Mixer – Contains 27 pre-shuffled channel combinations, with grading and sharpening options included. Use it for better tracks, better luma keys, or to make cool black and white portraits (perhaps for your LinkedIn photo).

Video Tutorial

Get it from:
Nukepedia (must have an account to download)
Github (just copy and paste the text into your Node graph)

AndrewsPaintCheck – Contains multiple tools and different views to check the quality, precision, and accuracy of your paintout work.

Video Tutorial

Get it from:
Github (just copy and paste the text into your Node graph)

Tip: If you’re uncertain about how to download and use gizmos, I recommend this helpful video made by Ganz Ramalingam.

Love, VFX, and Relationships

Dear Andrew,

I’m a VFX Artist and my partner isn’t. I’ve run multiple simulations for our relationship, trying to create the ideal working model. But sometimes I feel like this industry is rigged against us. I was wondering if you could shine some light on how to composite a healthy work-life balance and relationship with my partner.

Dear VFX Artist,

I am not an expert on this topic, but have learned a few things from personal experience and others who are smarter than me. Relationships require a lot of time and effort, if you want to have a strong relationship, and each one is as unique as individuals. It is such an important part of life to consider, and writing to you has made me consider how much I still have to learn.

I found a partner outside of VFX and we got married. She doesn’t completely understand or have much enthusiasm for VFX, and that’s ok. I don’t need that in our relationship. I can discuss VFX with my friends and colleagues. My partner once fell asleep in the theatre while watching a movie that I worked on (it had nothing to do with my work and everything to do with the script and acting). On multiple occasions she waited in her car outside the studio late at night for hours until my shot was approved to drive me home. This is far more meaningful and impressive to me than being able to stay awake during a Vin Diesel film. If you can find someone willing to do that for you, love them and never let go.

Here are some practical tips that have been helpful for me (and could be for you).

1. Ask if your partner wants to watch a movie that you worked on. Nobody likes to be forced to watch something.

2. Ask if your partner minds if you pause or interrupt their viewing experience to point out which shots you worked on. (Kayla & Ray’s Tip: You can squeeze your partner’s hand each time your shot appears on screen if they are ok with that). 

3. Try to be home in time for dinner. If you’ll be late, tell your partner as soon as possible. It can be difficult to estimate how long our work takes to complete. When in doubt, overestimate how late you will be.

4. In the gaps between contracts and working overtime, give your partner extra care and attention.

5. Try to do at least one fun or playful activity together every week. It can be different each time or you can pick something you both like and make it part of your routine.

6. Take care of your own health and well-being. If you aren’t sure how, consult experts. Doctors, dentists, therapists, counselors, nutritionists, personal trainers, yoga or Pilates instructors, massage therapists, etc., can help you become a better YOU. A better YOU is a better partner.

7. Balance is key. Throwing all your energy into work can lead to exhaustion. Throwing all of it into pleasing your partner can lead to resentment. Throwing all of it into yourself is the fastest route to loneliness (and unemployment). You’ve already scheduled time for work. Why not schedule time for your partner and time for yourself (self-care, hobbies, time with friends, etc.)?

8. Protect the time you have with your partner. To make it quality time, I recommend putting your phone on vibrate or silent. You can focus on the same thing (i.e., watching a movie together), but your partner would probably appreciate having your attention on them just as often, if not more. Quality time is more important than quantity, though you need to have enough of it that both of you are satisfied. This requires trial and error, shuffling around your schedule, and sometimes compromise.

9. Ask questions. Listen to your partner. Communication is vital. Make sure they feel heard and cared for. Be clear about what you want and need. Double check that you understand their expectations of you. Yes, you are a visual artist, so speaking and listening might not be your top skills. But this is so important and so good for relationships. It’s great in our work to have a problem-solving mindset, but your partner may not want solutions. They might want to be heard and have their feelings validated. They may already know the answer. For example, if you lost one day’s work because you forgot to save, you wouldn’t want your partner to say: “Why didn’t you save your files? Next time you won’t make the same mistake, right?”

10. Find things that make you both laugh. Savor those moments. 

I personally believe that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice: to will the health and happiness of another through our words and actions. And it’s a choice we are presented with every day. Choose love!

Kind regards,


I’m in Love with a VFX Artist

Dear Andrew,
I have fallen for a VFX Artist, but not knowing much about VFX, I sometimes find we have difficulty understanding each other. I love my partner very much and want us to grow closer, but to be honest, I’m not too interested in VFX. I worry this could become an obstacle in our relationship. Could you please give me some advice?

Best wishes,
Normal Human

Dear Normal Human,

Congratulations! It’s uncommon for VFX Artists to date outside of their industry, so the fact that you’ve met one and developed a serious relationship is an accomplishment! VFX is a time-demanding job that involves working overtime and self-study outside of work. That is why many VFX Artists may only date within the VFX community. It makes it easier to understand the choices and work of their partner. Plus, it’s difficult to meet people outside of work when you spend so much time in front of a computer.

Does your VFX partner exhibit any of the following characteristics?

1. Works long hours, sometimes losing track of time

2. Has trouble completing basic mental tasks after work, moves and speaks like a zombie

3. Inability to stop watching a movie until the end of the credits

4. Wants to have a long conversation about the movie immediately after watching it

5. Frequently complains about how bad movies are, despite spending so much time watching them

6. Always (or never) wants to go outside on weekends

7. Stares too long at people, animals, objects, reflections, shadows (or takes a lot of photos of them)

Don’t worry, these strange behaviors are quite common. Of course, everyone is different. Yet every relationship has obstacles, highs, and lows. Your friends only appear to have flawless relationships on social media. People only share what they want to share, and images can be manipulated (that’s kind of what your partner gets paid to do). Rather than trying to avoid relationship problems, it helps to be understanding and forgiving towards each other, so that when there are issues, both of you can work through them.

I cannot claim to be a relationship expert. I can only speak of people I know and my own experience as a VFX Artist married to someone working outside the field of VFX. We are living proof that there are couples like you and your VFX partner who can make it work. Whether your relationship grows stronger will probably depend less on your interests and more on your priorities, values, and how you both deal with obstacles in your lives.

My partner helps me stay grounded and keep things in perspective. I’ve learned by her example how to take better care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. This isn’t usually taught or considered much in a VFX workplace: it’s expected you know how and will take care of yourself. In an industry that is subject to many quick changes and developments, the stability you can provide will be invaluable. Your VFX partner’s job is essentially about trying to make the client happy by finding quick ways to change their project to better match their vision (or to hide all the mistakes). So, if you ask your partner to wash the dishes more carefully and their emotional response seems way too big, this might be a sign that they’ve reached a tipping point of people being unsatisfied with their work from that day. In other words, the reason they’re upset could have little to do with you. If you know they’ve had a hard day and are extra supportive and affirmative of your VFX partner after work, they will heal faster and appreciate you even more.

What do you want from this relationship? What does your partner want? The answers to these questions will guide you in supporting each other. Learning about your partner is a never-ending journey, but one that makes all the difference, because to know someone is to love them, and vice-versa. This doesn’t mean you need to know exactly what they do each day at work. Asking them how their day was, how they feel about a certain person, or to tell you about their goals and dreams will tell you far more about them as a person than trying to fully understand their job.

Kind regards,

Helpful Books for Writers

After discussing this topic with a student, I thought it might be valuable to share which books on creative writing have helped me the most.

October 2020 Update: I am currently reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby and find it insightful and very comprehensive. For something less analytical but just as valuable, I also enjoyed Stephen King’s autobiographical, fun, and practical book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Story & Structure

  • Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
    Robert and this book are infamous among screenwriters. This book is bold, clear, and goes beyond screenwriting, but I must admit I find it more enjoyable to skim and bounce around than to read it cover to cover. Watch the 2002 film, Adaptation, to see him (as portrayed by the great actor Brian Cox) giving a writing seminar.
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    Joseph inspired George Lucas and many writers, and I’d estimate there are at least 50 writing books that basically just simplify and repeat what he said. It is dense, being a study of world mythology. I forgot to photograph Mythology for Dummies, which is a better intro to the topic.
  • The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
    This is one of those books that borrows from and simplifies the words of Joseph Campbell, but it does so very effectively. For new writers, this would be my top recommendation to learn about story and structure.

Ideas & Character Inspiration

  • 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto
    It’s basically a notebook filled with 642 writing prompts. I’ve written in my copy and will probably revisit it someday. I think it’s a good book to help build a writing habit and work that creativity muscle.
  • The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon
    This book is my secret sauce and I’m almost unwilling to share it. It’s a surprisingly helpful book with a lot of lists, including things like potential character names, occupations, adjectives to describe their appearance, vices, etc. It’s a great resource if you like to explore possibilities, shortlist items, and pick the most fitting words for your story.
  • Chinese Horoscopes: An Easy Guide to the Chinese System of Astrology by Debbie Burns
    I don’t think Debbie Burns is a Chinese name, nor do I really follow Western or Eastern astrology. So why is this here? I’ve discovered it’s actually a great resource for character personalities and relationships, at least as a starting point.

Writing Novels/Fiction

  • Writing Fiction For Dummies by Peter Economy and Randy Ingermanson
    Pretty comprehensive and easy to read. It’s very well organized so you can skip to whatever you’re looking for if desired.
  • How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
    Regardless of how you feel about his fiction writing, Mr. Card wrote Ender’s Game and among many other books, and is also an experienced writing teacher. He provides valuable advice for writers looking to write in these two genres, in terms of world-building, rules for magic, futuristic technology, etc., all of which he takes quite seriously.
  • Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
    The Save-the-Cat methodology was first introduced in a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder. It also borrows from common themes found in universally loved stories, reminding me of Joseph Campbell’s work. While it provides a helpful roadmap, I would recommend not limiting yourself to matching its guidelines exactly, or ONLY reading this book. Many writers have created story structures (Dan Harmon’s story circle, for example), that have similar benefits in creating a story that flows in a familiar way.


  • How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method by Vicki King
    This old gem is the first book on creative writing that was ever given to me. I have my great Aunt Jacque to thank for that. It holds a special place in my heart and I’m happy to see a revised edition is expected for August 2020. It’s a comprehensive book that speaks to you like a mentor and a friend. It was my companion when I wrote 3 feature screenplays. I referred to it again recently when working on my novel and found it still contained wisdom I had forgotten. If it’s not clear already, this is my favourite book on writing.
  • Good Scripts, Bad Scripts: Learning the Craft of Screenwriting Through 25 of the Best and Worst Films in History by Tom Pope
    You’ll notice while I own many screenwriting book (see photograph above), I’m only recommending two. Honestly I feel many screenwriting books are the same, and most contain primarily contain opinions that could help or hinder your writing. This one is a fun one, that definitely contains opinions, but is looking at popular opinion and trying to understand it through close examination. It encourages you as the the reader to examine and break down the stories you love (and hate) to think about what didn’t work for you, and how you would try to make it better. If you already do that, then you don’t need this book. Lastly, I’d like to recommend the Scriptnotes Podcast, as it is delightful and also immensely comprehensive (400+ episodes).

Are there books that I missed that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments below.

How People Steal Your Time

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been reflecting on how I manage my time. My original expectation was that I would have MORE time, but I started to feel like I actually had LESS. How is that possible? And perhaps more importantly, why? Coworkers and friends shared similar sentiments, which inspired me to examine this feeling more carefully. Time, as in every second of our life, is as precious at life itself. Yet we often end up letting time management become secondary to the management of our money, material goods, emails, social circle, etc.

During the pandemic, our daily schedules have been transformed in various ways. As a personal example, my daily work commute time went from 90-120 minutes down to 0 minutes. That’s 7.5 to 10 hours per week that I suddenly have available for other things. There are still 24 hours in a day (or 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds). My work hours have not changed. But now I have many more options for what I can do during my “commute time”.  Another effect of working from home and going out to eat less is that we spend more time cooking and doing dishes. I am able to help out my wife with chores more often. But this is nowhere near 90-120 minutes of my day.

With my newly discovered free time, I am trying new things and moving around various tasks to see when is the best time to do them. And in that process, it’s important to remind myself of 1 simple fact. Humans are actually very bad at estimating how long it takes for them to do things. The term for this is the “planning fallacy” and you can read more about it here. Just because you are at home, don’t assume you won’t run into obstacles, distractions, and hang-ups where you feel stuck. My expectations for what I can do with “all of this free time”, which I didn’t quantify until now, are unrealistically high. I need to set reasonable goals and continue to refine my schedule, while remaining aware of the fact that other people are still going to impact my schedule.

This brings me to the title of this article: “How People Steal Your Time.” Chances are if you’re reading this, your time and attention is in high demand. When we aren’t occupied with something, we have to make a choice of what to do (or to do nothing at all, which it turns out, is the secret to productivity). The first obstacle in being able to make your choice freely is that most people don’t know and/or don’t care about your personal schedule. Since we’re at home, people are more likely to assume we’re not busy. On top of that, people tend to make at least one of the following assumptions about you during your free time:

1. You’re not doing anything (or anything important).
2. You’re open to and would like their suggestions for what to do.
3. What they want you to do is something you are willing to do.
4. What they want you to do is something you want to do.
5. What they want you to do is something you can do right away.
6. What they want you to do is something you will enjoy doing.
7. What they want you to do is something you will be benefit from doing.

This doesn’t only happen with people. The main problem arises when you realize that advertising and most media makes the same assumptions about you, and is also competing for your attention. Think about how often a friend shares movie recommendations with you. Compare that with how often advertising recommends movies for you to watch. Everything produced for our entertainment or to sell products is designed to grab and hold our attention for as long as possible.

The ironic thing is that by clicking “only share relevant advertising with me”, we actually make it harder for ourselves to ignore online advertising. Now you receive the same amount of ads, but all of them appeal to some aspect of your personal data. It’s like walking through a shopping mall where EVERY store sells things you like, when your original intention was just to go to the bank to make a deposit. A 10 minute errand can easily become a 1 hour shopping spree. We actually benefit from having things we don’t like or don’t care about around us. They’re like the spaces between words, the breaths we take between taking sips of water: we need them.

It’s inevitable that other people, advertising, and media will steal some of our time. But we do have some control over it, and I personally appreciate a moderate level of control over my time.

The best advice I can give is this:

1. Make plans and keep a schedule, especially for reserving time with people who are important to you, and for yourself. Keeping a schedule can actually be liberating, in that you can say: during this time, I will do nothing but BLANK.

2. Make those plans simple and focused. If I make a plan to spend 30 minutes at the park to take 24 photos, write a chapter of my book, and do 100 jumping jacks, I will probably only be able to 10% of each of those things. That will result in me feeling frustrated, unproductive, and probably spend longer than 30 minutes (potentially being late for something else, which can have a domino effect). If I change that goal to taking at least 3 photos, then I will have a goal that is attainable. I get the satisfaction of taking more than 3 photos and not having to rush.

3. Limit notifications and spend time away from your phone. In order to have time without distraction, this is a challenging but important step. Turn off notifications from apps that aren’t urgent. Remove apps from your phone that you only really to see once a week or less. Use your computer to check those, as it easier to limit and be aware of your time on the computer. I have hours planned for when my phone is on silent and put away. If that scares you, start with small increments: 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 1 hour. This will help you stay focused on whatever it is you want to do or whoever you’re spending that time with.

4. Allow the right people to steal time from you. Trust in your family, friends, and mentors. Don’t give all that time to someone claiming to know everything in a YouTube video or random website (like this guy writing this post, acting like some kind of expert). Sometimes my wife asks if I want to take a walk and I go even when I don’t feel like it. After those walks, I’m always glad that I did go. We’re not always the best people to be in charge of our own schedule. So if you’re going to let someone else drive, at least choose someone you know, respect, and trust.

By reading this, I technically “stole” some of your time. Did you read to the end? Did you click on the 3 hyperlinks I included? Did you click on any of the links you saw in those articles? Did you get interrupted while reading by a notification on your phone? This is how your time gets stolen. What you thought might take a few minutes probably took longer than you expected. But I hope, at the very least, you learned something valuable along the way. Thank you for your time.

Do you have any time management tips to add? Feel free to share in the comments below if you like. – AZ

Ethel Kohn: Talent Manager


What’s the difference between a Talent Manager and a Recruiter?

Recruiters are in charge of external hiring and I’m in charge of most internal hiring. So let’s say Bardel has 400 people working on one show. I need to move them to another after they finish. So, I’ll talk to the Supervisor. I already know about everybody’s work performance. This show is a more realistic-looking show, so this person will be good for that. I make sure that voices are heard and they don’t get lost in the system because it’s a huge studio with many people. I deal with everyone on the floor, where you have the production team, artists, and upper management. A Talent Manager is an Artist Manager. So I manage the artists at the studio here in Vancouver and in Kelowna.

How do you manage the studio in Kelowna from here?

I travel there once a month. I try to go there as often as they need me. Even if I cannot, we meet in the rooms here using Skype. I have weekly meetings with the HR department there just to address any issues or concerns. I also have Skype meetings with the artists. I already know everybody because I’ve been there a few times so they know me and trust me. We have about 150 artists working in Kelowna. It’s a bit challenging because they are far away. But we do our best and we are all working together.

How do you keep track of all of the artists?

Basically every production has their own list of people. We have weekly production meetings every Tuesday morning. I meet with all of the Line Producers and call on the team as well and we’ll talk about every issue that we are facing. If we need 10 more artists for a show, can I move people internally to fill those roles? If so, then I will do it. If I cannot, then I will approach our recruiters and say, “Listen, I cannot find people here, can you find us 10 people?” So my job involves a lot of crossover between the HR department, recruitment, and the production itself. There’s also all of the immigration questions to address, like, “She’s a foreign worker, can we hire her?”. Or somebody they want to hire is already here in Canada but he doesn’t have a work permit. I help take care of all of this as well.

It sounds like a job with many responsibilities.

Yes. It’s such a unique niche because I have the skills in immigration, that’s my background, and HR, and production, because I used to work in production as well. So if they have a problem or delay in the Assets department, I need to inform everyone who will be affected. An understanding of the pipeline really helps me to do my job. So I was intrigued by the position when I first saw the ad. They contacted me after I applied and we had a lovely conversation. They said, “We really want you but talk to us when you’re back in Canada.” So I did and they scheduled a second interview. After that I had a third interview with the production. I never was a Talent Manager before, but I felt like all of my my previous experience made me a good fit. You do a bit of everything.

You mentioned your background is in immigration. How did you end up in Visual Effects?

When I finished school here, I worked for a law company for almost a year, but I didn’t like it. I’m a real “people person”. And then I saw an ad that a visual effects studio was looking for somebody to take care of all of the work permits and LMIA applications. It was Hydraulx. I applied for the job and was hired. After a while, I fell in love with the production, the people, and the creative environment. It’s not like 8-5 work in a law company; it’s very different. After a year and half they promoted me and I got more involved. I managed the studio.

What did you enjoy most about working in Hydraulx?

I will say the family environment, that you know everyone by name. It’s a very loving and caring company. It gave me a lot of tools to deal with a lot of obstacles. It really helped me to develop my management skills as well. And the owners are so nice and friendly and they supported me all the way.

Part of the Hydraulx Team: August 2015

Moving from a smaller visual effects studio to a larger animation studio, how did you find the environment different?

The size and the hours. The hours in animation are better than the hours in visual effects, at least in my experience. When people sometimes keep working until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, I have to make sure that they get home safe and sound, the overtime pay, dinners, etc. There are a lot of things that we need to consider, not only the work. Other than that, they’re both international environments with creative people. You get to know people from many different parts of the world, which is great!

People sometimes talk about an “invisible divide” between artists and production, but it sounds like the Talent Manager is the bridge.

Yes. And I think a lot of studios now understand the need for a person like that, so we have a lot more studios with a Talent Manager, or 2 or 3 in charge of different departments for bigger studios. I think they should be an approachable person you can go and talk to because they’re on the same floor, they know your name and what you do, and they understand you. Artists feel more comfortable to talk to you a lot of times instead of the LP’s (Line Producers), because the LP’s are so busy doing other things, so I found I can really help artists do their job better.

What skills or personality traits are needed to become a Talent Manager?

I think you have to be patient and very understanding. You need to be there for the artists and understand the pipeline. Maybe you used to be an artist and you move to production or HR because then you know what they have to deal with. I think a lot of people don’t know what it means to be an artist. This is your work; you create something. And that’s the reason that a lot of them are very protective and sensitive about their work. If they receive negative feedback, you need to know how to deliver the feedback without hurting the person’s feelings. I think we need to take into consideration the amount of hours that an artist works in a day. It’s not easy work. If a person has a family issue, and I already know about that, I can approach the production and say, “He’s having a tough time, please be more patient or tolerant with him; it’s just a temporary situation.” If it’s a foreign worker, they may feel the stress of having to deal with the work permit situation or worrying if their family will have to go back home. You need to be able to support them. There are a lot of different aspects to be taken into consideration. If somebody wants to be a Talent Manager, they need to know that they are managing people.

I imagine your job can be stressful because so many people depend on you. How do you de-stress?

I think it’s important to remember that all we do here is animation. We’re not going to save the world tomorrow. Sometimes I’ll take a 5 or 10 minute break and go outside the office to take a walk and think. Take time to think. I will go around Granville Island because it’s such a beautiful place. If I have any second thoughts about any decision, I will go talk to the head of production and say: “Listen, this is my situation. Do you think what I’m going to do is ok? Do you think it’s going to have any bad effect?” Because you have to carefully consider everyone’s feelings, especially if you have to deliver bad news or ask a difficult question. I am there to support the artists.


What is the origin of the Bardel?

Bardel was started by a married couple in 1987 in their apartment. Barry Ward and Delna Bhesania ran the company for 30 years and then sold it to Rainbow S.p.A a couple of years ago. Rainbow is based in Italy and it is one of the largest animation studios and licensors in the world. Rainbow recently brought on a new CEO, Rick Mischel, who previously served as a producer at Sony Pictures Animation and even before being a producer, Rick was the Senior Vice President of Sony Pictures Imageworks, launching and managing the animation/VFX facility. It’s exciting because he brings a lot of experience. Bardel has seen a lot of growth in the last 30 years but honestly, even after it has grown so much, it’s still a personal company where people can communicate face to face. It’s a big studio but we try to keep it friendly. Ashley Evans, that’s her job, making sure we have a culture here and we keep it going. We offer this amazing work environment. If you’re going to work 10 hours a day somewhere, we want to make it fun.

On average, how many projects are going on simultaneously?

Last year, we were working on 17 shows. That was a BIG number for us. 2D and 3D. It was a really busy year for us. The quality is really high here for TV and we work on such cool projects. So it attracts a lot of good talent as well.

In terms of internal hiring, transfers, and promotion, I know Bardel does a lot of very different styles of animation. If you have a new project that is a very different style than previous show, do you still look internally first?

It all depends if it’s 2D or 3D animation. If I know that we have the skills here, I will look internally. We would like to give people in the company the first opportunity to express their interest in the role. If they have the right skills, then I will move them. To do that, first I talk to their Supervisor and look at the performance review. We discuss the possibility together. I ask the Supervisor if this person can handle the style of this show, based on their skill and knowledge right now. If the Supervisor approves, then I will present the person with a job offer and explain the new role. They will tell me if they like it or not and then we can negotiate rate, vacation, and so on. If I cannot find someone, then I will approach our recruiter to look externally.

For the artist, that must be appealing, because they can work on something new and different without changing studios.

Yes, and sometimes I’ll put somebody on a project and in 2 or 3 months, they’ll come to me say, “Ethel, I thought I would like this project but now I feel it’s really not my style. I don’t feel like I can connect with the project or the people. I would like to look for other options.” As a company, we try to keep a person in production for at least 4 months before we will move them. But if I see it’s definitely not for them, then I don’t want to force anybody, so I will do my best to move them.

What do you think is the most valuable question to ask in a job interview?

If the person shows interest and asks specific questions about the role, the team, and the project, then we can see this person did their homework before coming here, which always looks great. If you’re very motivated, that’s what we want: people who are eager to be part of the project.

Do people leave Bardel and then come back to work?

Yes and for different reasons. Some go off and travel. Sometimes they take a short contract somewhere else for experience but would like to come back to Bardel. We’re really proud of that and being flexible with our hours, especially for parents with young kids: they can come in earlier and leave earlier. It’s not something you can usually say about companies in this industry, because it’s very demanding. But we do have this understanding.

Do you think visual effects and animation is a male-dominated industry or not?

No, it’s not, now more than ever. When I started in visual effects, I saw maybe 3 or 4 girls. But now it’s half and half. It comes back to the hours, and understanding the needs of our society today. Let’s face it: it’s no longer the generation where one parent can stay home and raise the kids. Both of the parents are working so we need to take that into consideration and be flexible. Bardel is very active in ensuring gender parity as much as possible in the workplace. Our VP of Development and Production, Tina Chow, sits on the board of Drawn Together Vancouver, which is a group designed to help support women advance their careers in animation.

What do you think about the casting of a fellow Israeli, Gal Gadot, as Wonder Woman?

She’s amazing! And I’m not talking just as an Israeli. It’s funny, before that, nobody knew about Israeli accents, so people used to ask me all the time: “Where are you from? Quebec? Europe? What is this interesting accent?” After Gal Gadot appeared as Wonder Woman, everybody knows the Israeli accent. People will say to me: “Oh, you’re from Israel!” And I’ll say: “Yes. How did you know?” And they’ll say: “Because of Gal Gadot, you have the same accent.” Everybody asks me about her. It’s a great role and she really represented an Israeli woman because they are very strong and they speak their mind. I watched a few interviews with her, saw her joke about things. She seems very approachable. She’s gorgeous, obviously. I can’t believe she has 2 kids and looks like that. But she was a model and the beauty queen of Israel.


What do you expect for the future of Vancouver and its visual effects/animation industry growth?

It depends on tax credits. For the last 5 years, it’s grown a lot. I expect that to continue, because it brings a lot of money and talented people to the province that stay here.

Is there any advice you could share for people wanting to move to Canada and work for a visual effects or animation studio?

You have to be unique, as we’re looking at thousands of applications. When I see your reel, I want to say, “Wow, this person, I want to interview them.” It’s also important to prepare yourself, mentally, to move to another country because a lot of people don’t know how stressful that can be. There is a lot of paperwork and many things to do to establish a new life somewhere. It’s a big step and you have to be mentally prepared for that, especially if you have a family. You should also be open-minded, because the country you come from may not have the same mentality that you have here. I found with some people, it’s not only a different language, it’s a different work ethic. So sometimes they don’t understand or they think they did a bad job when everything is actually ok. It’s good to have an understanding of how things work in Canada.

Do you think Lost Boys | School of VFX prepares students of VFX for the industry?

For years, I have hired graduates from Lost Boys. The level of talent is really high and what I really like about Lost Boys is they prepare people for the real work. It’s not only theories that students learn, about also how things work in a studio environment. So I really like their approach.

Does Bardel offer internship opportunities?

Bardel offers paid Apprenticeship Programs in Storyboarding and in Animation, with individual mentoring for new grads, students, and entry-level artists. We show them how we do things here to let them work on real shots from high-profile shows. So they will be part of a team, with a Supervisor checking in to see how they are doing. It gives them hands-on experience. After about 2 to 3 months, we decide if this person is suitable for us to hire, to see if they have the skills needed to grow, so we can put them on a production. We really want to help people grow and share our knowledge. (For more info, click here and scroll down to check for available Bardel Academy Internships).

When you look back over the past 5-10 years, what are you most proud of in your professional life?

Coming from a Law background, it was a big adjustment for me to enter this industry. I started off only doing work permits, from being the immigration consultant to managing a studio, which is a big task. It comes with a lot of responsibility. At my farewell party at Hydraulx, I looked around and realized I brought more than 80 people to the company. And these people, they’re staying here; they have family here; they are permanent residents now. To know that I made such a big difference in people’s lives, for me, it’s everything. It was very emotional for me to understand the importance of my role. I’m happy that I was there for them. And now, to be a Talent Manager, to know that all of these people trust me and the company put their trust in me, that means a lot. So I’m really proud of that and for the next five years, I hope I can continue to do that and continue to grow. When you know a person’s name and their personal story, you can see them develop and do amazing things. I don’t know how many people in other occupations can say that.

Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for interviewing me. I know that most of the time, when people are interviewed in the industry, it’s from the artist’s point of view or from very high level management. People don’t know much about those of us who work on the floor, making sure everything runs smoothly. We put everything together because it is a puzzle. On a daily basis we have so many different challenges to solve and things to communicate in the most efficient way. That’s our role. By acknowledging what we do, I hope other studios will see the value of having a Talent Manager. If in a company of 600 people, a person feels like they are known and their voice is heard, that’s a great achievement. So I’m happy that you gave me this opportunity and hopefully people will understand better what a Talent Manager does as a result.

Thank you, Ethel.

Interview by Andrew Zeller.

To learn more about Bardel, visit their website.

Where to Download 4K and HD Footage

Where can you find high quality stock footage to download for VFX practice and compositing new shots? I’ve made 3 lists of links: “Free”, “Free with Paid Options”, and “Paid” for you to compare and utilize.


With free sites, there are less shots available and you will have to navigate through ads. I’ve tried to make that process easier.

Mixkit: Limited videos and low quality, but free is free and you might get lucky finding something good.

Pexels Videos: While they don’t have any 4K videos, they do have a wide selection of HD (1920 by 1080) mp4’s. I also like how their ads from Shutterstock display at the bottom of your search results instead of at the top.

Pixabay: They have some 4K footage in mp4 format, but limited variety. Most are less than 1 minute long and the variety is limited. Shutterstock, a paid stock footage service, displays their own search results at the top of your search in Pixabay. Just skip the top row if you want free videos. There Server was down the last time I checked. Hopefully it’s back up now?


Pikwizard: PikWizard is a (mostly) free stock image and video site with libraries that hold over 1 million stock images and videos. All assets are premium, contemporary and completely copyright-free. They do include results from Adobe Stock, which are not free, but I would consider this as a plus.

Videvo: They have limited 4K. Some are mp4’s and others are Quicktime files (MOV). The top row of search results are from Shutterstock and ads are clearly mixed in between rows of real results. They have paid Premium Plans to access ALL of their videos, which are $15 to 25 per month.

Videezy: It’s a sketchy name for a site but they actually have some nice 4K mp4 videos. The first two rows of search results are from Shutterstock. They now have paid options too, with a Pro accoutn costing you $19 to $49 USD, depending on how many credits you purchase (1, 5, or 10).

Stock Photo by Andrew Zeller


Adobe Stock: As you would expect, Adobe has a lot of high quality 4K videos in MOV format. Videos aren’t included in their subscription payments, so you will need to purchase credits. With 16 credits at $150 USD, you can get 2 HD videos and save $10. A single 4K video is $200, while the HD version is $80.

Artgrid: This site is pricey and in US dollars, but they have very professional-looking work. Selection is a bit limited compared to other paid sites, but at least it all looks good. You can choose between $300 (HD), $479 (4K & more video formats), and $599 (Up to 8K, RAW/LOG clips) for a 1 year subscription and unlimited downloads.

Big Stock Photo: They have photos as well as HD videos in MOV format (no 4K yet). I see a 7-day free trial that allows you to download up to 35 clips! You cannot pay per video. Their cheapest package is 5 videos per day (150 per month) for $79 USD, which is only $0.53 per video.

Filmsupply: Stock footage for big companies (and maybe you). They have a variety of 4K, RAW/LOG, and clips shot on 8mm/16mm/35mm film. Prices are high but the quality is quite good. Expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $159 USD per clip at minimum!

Pond5: They have lots of 4K videos in MOV format. I especially like how much camera data they display for each shot. If you create a free account, you will pay $38 CAD minimum per clip you choose to purchase. You can pay $305 per month or $1,515 per year to download 10 videos each month (with a monthly rollover of unused downloads).

Shutterstock: This is probably the most popular stock site. They have lots of 4K and HD clips in many different file formats (make sure you’re getting the format you want). You can choose to pay per video ($179 US Dollars for 4K, $79 USD for HD) or get a ” video pack” of 5: HD clips for $359 ($71.80 per video) or 4K clips for $599 ($119.80 per video). They have pricing options for packs of 10 and 25 too, in HD or 4K. Be careful: if you don’t spend your video pack credits within 12 months, they will expire. They also have monthly and annual subscription plans for downloading 10-20 clips per month, for $159 to $359 per month, or $15,99 per year.

RawFilm: All of these videos are Royalty Free and shot on RED cameras, available in Raw files, H.264, and ProRes 422 LT formats at 4-8K! A one month subscription is $299 USD, and you can download up to 20 clips per month (so $20 per clip). Single clips costs $149.

Storyblocks: Monthly plans are available for $25 CAD per month (5 videos per month) or $50 per month (unlimited video downloads) as of this writing. HD and 4K plates are both available, and their selection is impressive (835,000+ videos).

Videohive (from Envato): They have a smaller selection of 4K compared with Shutterstock. Some are mp4’s and others are MOV’s. The price per video varies widely, and have some free options. If you pay $16.50 USD per month, you have access to unlimited downloads. You purchase credits to buy videos, similar to Shutterstock, with the same possibility of your credits expiring after 12 months without spending. I have personally used them for music (Envato’s Audiojungle) for commercials and was satisfied with the result.

Vimeo Stock: Royalty-free clips ranging from $80 CAD (for HD) and up, to $200 (for 4K). They have special deals related to their membership that are worth checking out if you plan to be a Vimeo Plus or Pro user.


In general, I recommend you search the free sites first. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, then check the paid sites. The number of videos you need, the videos available, and your budget will determine the rest. If you know any other helpful stock footage sites, feel free to comment below. Happy hunting!

UPDATE: Here’s another article with a few more links on where to find free and “affordable” footage.

Stock Photo by Andrew Zeller

Sandy Romero: Texture Artist

Stranger Things Season 2: Hydraulx VFX

How did you first learn about VFX (Visual Effects)?

I loved watching sci-fi movies as a kid. Jurassic Park really inspired me. The story drives you through the film, but I loved the magic of visual effects and wondered how they managed to do them.

What made you decide to move from Venezuela to study at Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver, Canada?

While studying Journalism in university, I took some courses in cinema and eventually decided to do a thesis about 3D. I learned graphic design and became familiar with programs like Photoshop and 3DS Max. But I wanted to learn more so I looked into all of the possibilities. After reviewing many schools, I found Think Tank to be the best option to study CG.

What did you get out of your experience at Think Tank?

They matched my high expectations. The quality of the alumni’s reels is impressive. The instructors are great artists that work in the industry and know what is needed to be successful. The owners, the staff, and my classmates were always friendly and helpful. They guided me to become a better artist and became my family in Canada. There was one experience that helped me select my path as Texture Artist was during the first semester Texture class, taught by Peter Hogan, where the assignment was to create a texture for a character. Mine was a mixture of different textures: reptiles and octopus skin.

Can you tell me about your mentor: Justin Holt?

I was one of the first two students to be mentored by Justin. He gave a demo on texturing and from then on I was hooked on textures. He taught us to focus on creating realistic detail for a simple object, rather than a huge environment for our demo reel. I learned so much from him.

What does a Texture Artist actually do?

Our job and challenge is to recreate, as closely as possible, the properties and look of an object, painting different maps with information like colour and glossiness, plus surface details like scratches, wrinkles, and bumps.

Maleficent – Method Studios

Where does a Texture Artist fit in the pipeline of a VFX studio?

Once the 3D model has been made, the Texture Artist will do the UV’s (or the Modeler will, depending on the studio). I think the Texture Artist should do it, because then they can control the position, size, amount of patches, and arrangement. Then we bring it into Mari, Zbrush, or Mudbox for texturing. When we finish our texture work, it gets published in the pipeline and then the Lookdev artists can use it.

Besides Mari, Zbrush, and Mudbox, are there any other programs that Texture Artists will use?
Substance is the new one everyone is talking about. It has recently entered the pipeline of some studios, including Method. Before it was used mostly for games instead of VFX. Marmoset is also very powerful, but I haven’t seen it being used in VFX studios yet. Even though more work is becoming procedural, there will always be a need to texture and we will adapt as the tools become better.

Does a Texture Artist need to have a background in fine arts, photography, or 3D?

Fine art is the beginning of everything. I personally don’t have that background, but I did do photography in school. I was known for also taking close-up photos of details, and that has helped me with my work.

What is the strangest or most unusual thing you have had to reference?

For one project, a character’s cranium was broken open, so I had to look for gruesome photos of victims of accidents to achieve a realistic look.

What is your pet peeve when you see bad texture work in movies?

My pet peeves are when you can recognize tileable textures or when they don’t respect the proportions of the object, for example the pores on a CG character’s skin that are way too big or too small.

San Andreas – Hydraulx VFX

How is your work different in a smaller studio like Hydraulx compared to a larger studio like Method?

Now I have the opportunity to work with more texture artists and render with different software. Working with my mentor, Justin Holt, has been fantastic. I work with other Texture Artists that I really admire and we are divided by show/film into groups working under a lead and a supervisor.

What were some of the most challenging tasks/shots you were given at work? How did you deal with them?

There was one project I worked on that was based on something I loved as a kid. The look they were going for was totally opposite of how I had imagined it. It is important to understand that the job that you are doing is something to deliver to please a client. They are making art too and may have a different vision, so you cannot get really attached.

At Hydraulx, when the lead Texture Artist left, I had to fill in for him. I didn’t think I could do it but Chun Seong Ng, the Modeling Supervisor at the time, really helped me build confidence. I had to learn how to do organic surfaces in addition to hard surfaces: a little bit of everything. This experience helped me become a lead at Hydraulx.

What do you like most about your job?

I get to spend the whole day doing what I love: painting! That’s priceless. You get to tell a story with an object as a Texture Artist. All of those wrinkles, pores, and imperfections make something more believable and more interesting.

How has the industry changed since you started working here 4 years ago?

The role of a Texture Artist is more defined and stronger now, so there are fewer generalists. Much of the work used to be done only in Photoshop, but there are more software options and new tools now. Mari is always improving and Substance is a great asset.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

Everything made by Marvel Studios excites me. Method Studios works on most of the Marvel films so I am really pleased with where I am now. Working on a new Planet of the Apes or Star Wars would be fun too.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

Don’t be limited by your age or language. If you want to do it, you will do it. So far this has worked for me. Be modest and don’t be scared of asking questions. Learn from the people around you. You get more ideas from a new pair of eyes. Push yourself to be a better version of yourself. If you want to be a Texture Artist, a really useful website is:

Thank you for your time, Sandy.

My pleasure, Andrew.

The Maze Runner – Method Studios

Interview by Andrew Zeller. September 3, 2017.

To learn more about Sandy Romero and see her many credits, here is her IMDb, Linkedin, and website.

Iconic and Inspirational VFX

This is a response to a student’s request. I have a compiled a list of 365 titles (one for every day of the year) from films and television that have pushed the boundaries of VFX, popularized a style or technique, or created unforgettable imagery that we continue to talk about or be influenced by today. Please let me know if you feel anything noteworthy is missing.

Click here to view the list on

Thank you and happy viewing!


Alarich Alvarez Mahl: Compositor / Roto Paint Artist

How did you first learn about VFX (Visual Effects)?

I started by making my own videos. Like a lot of other people, I wanted to know how to make the lightsaber effect. The program I used for that was After Effects. There were lots of tutorials for After Effects online that I watched to learn about VFX.

Alarich Alvarez Mahl

How did you choose a school to learn VFX?

Most of my research was done online. I looked at student reviews of schools on message boards. Student work was also really important. Everything I saw pointed me to Lost Boys School of Visual Effects.

What did you get out of your experience at Lost Boys School of VFX?

I learned a lot. After graduation, I had a well-rounded education and set of skills. Lost Boys helped me get a foot in the door at a studio. From that, I was able to get my first job in VFX. I also made good friends that I still hang out with today.

What led you to pursue work in VFX?

My goal was to get into the film industry, to write and direct my own films. Knowing about visual effects is a skill that will be helpful for my future, not only for my current work. A director with a visual effects background can communicate easily with that department.

As a filmmaker/director with experience on set, how would you compare working in post-production to production?

They are very similar. You encounter many of the same problems and solutions, even if production is more physical. Both jobs can be very draining, but different types of energy are required. You still have to make judgment calls regardless.


What are some of your credits?

My recent ones are: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Okja, Power Rangers, and Doctor Strange. The others haven’t been released yet.

Could you tell us about your experience working on Okja for Netflix?

For that film, I did so many things: paint, roto, vendor fixes, and even a bit of matte painting. Okja was probably the most complicated job I’ve ever done. Most of the shots I worked on were above 600 frames, each at 4K resolution.

What was your favourite film to work on and why?

My favourite film to work on so far has actually been Power Rangers. Many of the stunts were done practically, so there were a lot of shots that needed wires removed and clothing recreated. I found that kind of work fun because I had creative control.

Power Rangers

What has been your favourite studio to work at so far?

Method Studios. They get all of the big Marvel movies, the work schedule is reasonable, and the pay is good.

What software did you use while at Method?

I used Nuke for roto and paint and mocha Pro for tracking.

How do you explain your job to your family and friends?

I always say it is like Photoshop but for video. Then instantly, they get it.

Did you ever work on a shot that seemed impossible? How did you deal with it?

I complained. (Laughs). Just kidding. I asked for help. I worked with a paint lead who was really good at breaking down a shot into individual tasks. That process makes it much easier to manage the workflow. Now I use that skill whenever I start a new shot to plan ahead.

What do you like most about your job?

It is seen by everybody, at the movie theatre, on a giant screen. I can point and say with pride that I worked on that shot.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

I would love to work on a new episode of Star Wars.

Doctor Strange

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

Pick up the software and start learning. There are trial and non-commercial versions you can download at home for free. Once you get a job in a studio, always ask for help when you need it. Try to learn from people who are more experienced. Be active, not passive.

Thank you for your time, Alarich.

My pleasure.

Interview by Andrew Zeller. August 2, 2017.

Connect with Alarich Alvarez Mahl on Linkedin.

Yi Shen: Associate Production Manager

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Sony Pictures Imageworks

You have an interesting background. How does someone with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology/Animal Biology end up working in VFX (Visual Effects)?

I was considering my career outlook and looking at where other graduates went (usually back to get another degree). I didn’t have the desire to continue going to school, so I started looking for a job right after I graduated. I saw a job posting online for “Production Assistant” at Lux Visual Effects Inc. I knew what VFX were and that they were cool, but had no idea about working in the VFX industry.

What does a VFX Coordinator do?

It varies from company to company. At Lux, I started as a PA but soon began doing tasks that are normally done by the Coordinator, until I became one. A coordinator is usually responsible for scheduling: talking with artists to find out their ETA’s (when they expect to finish their shots), and making sure we hit deadlines. I sorted and distributed onset camera data to the artists. When we shared work with other studios, I was a vendor liaison, and took notes during client review sessions. At that time, we shipped physical hard drives to clients, so I ensured it was mailed to them without any errors. It probably wasn’t expected of me, but I did Q.C. work, checking frame-by-frame to make sure we didn’t send any files with technical bugs or mistakes. I even did some editorial work, because the previous coordinator also did some editing.

How did your job change when you became a Coordinator at a larger studio: Method?

In Method I started communicating with other departments, both horizontally (between lighting and compositing departments, for example) and vertically (e.g., between different leads and supervisors). There were only about 20 people at Lux, so they would just talk face-to-face. Method had bigger shows and more people, so there was more data to handle and more inter-departmental communication to facilitate.

The Maze Runner – Method Studios

How is that role different from your current role as Associate Production Manager at Sony Pictures Imageworks?

Sony has even more people and their own hierarchy, so there are more levels within the Production team. After you gain enough experience as a VFX Coordinator, you can move up to APM, my position. An APM is basically a DPM (Digital Production Manager) in training, because that is a big jump. From DPM, the next highest role would be Digital Producer, who works under the VFX Producer.

But to answer your question, the main difference is that I’m no longer responsible for only one department. I’m also learning about general show setup, managing resources, render queue priorities, and much more. On Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I worked with the lighting and environment departments. Now I’m working on a SPA (Sony Pictures Animation) with the C-FX or Character FX department, which focuses on cloth and hair simulations.

Is there specific software that you need to know how to use for your job?

A lot of companies use Shotgun nowadays. Sony has their own in-house tool. They offered me a week of training before starting work on production to learn the basics. I learned more tips and tricks from coworkers and experience.

You have worked at 3 different VFX studios: Lux Visual Effects Inc., Method Studios, and Sony Pictures Imageworks. Do they operate quite differently?

Lux is smaller, so there’s much less structure and it is really organic. You do whatever you can and the best you can to get to the finish line. For some people, that is an ideal environment. Method is a medium-sized studio in Vancouver with a team structure, a clearer hierarchy, and more formal client reviews. They require experienced artists and gurus who can troubleshoot. For big companies like Sony, there is a lot of structure and people to inform before you can make decisions. But it’s quite well-organized, which is why they are known for having a great pipeline.

What skills do you think are most needed for working in visual effects? Technical, artistic, or soft skills?

It depends on the job. Artists obviously need to have artistic skills, since it is their job. But you always remember someone who is enjoyable to work with, so soft skills are important too. Leads need more technical skills, I think, because most of the time they’re doing the hardest shots, troubleshooting, and debugging other artists’ work. For supervisors and production, soft skills are the most important because so much communication is required.

How do you deal with the stress of deadlines and unhappy clients?

I don’t feel stressed very often. I think it’s because I stayed focused on my role. Unless you’re at the very top, you’re not responsible for the big issues of keeping the client happy. There is almost always someone above you whose job is to worry about those things, while you only have to focus on excelling in your role. If an artist is really struggling with their shot and can’t meet the deadline, the worst thing they can do is tell no one that they’re struggling. It’s important to say when you don’t think you can finish something so a coordinator can find help for you.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

It can be challenging to ask your artists at the last minute if they can work OT (overtime) or on the weekends. We try to give people a heads-up but sometimes unexpected situations happen. When clients need work done by a certain time, we have to deliver that message to the artists. For Suicide Squad, the clients were really uncertain how the Enchantress character’s costume should look. The actress was filmed without a complete costume so they could choose a design later in post to add on top. The FX lead came up with many, many versions, which were quite different from one another. Some had a nebulous texture while others had spaghetti-like strings floating in the air around her. He even had to work on Christmas. Everyone was relieved when a final version was selected.

Suicide Squad – Sony Pictures Imageworks

What do you like most about your job?

Seeing the cool stuff! I don’t mean the finished product, but rather seeing a cool explosion that an FX artist in my department created, for example. I feel proud and happy, especially when their hard work is approved by the client. We get so happy to mark anything as “done”, no matter how small.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

Kingsman 3. I hope they make a sequel because I really enjoyed working on Kingsman: The Golden Circle! The people and the films are great!

How do you think the VFX industry has changed since you started working in it 7 years ago?

There is more diversity: Vancouver used to only work on TV shows mostly, but now there is feature film work and many different types of projects. There are also more studios. So it has become easier to find work.

Hotel Transylvania 2 – Sony Pictures Animation

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

If you want a glimpse into the VFX industry, working as a PA is one of the easier jobs to get. It’s an entry-level job that allows you to see how studios work and the different types of jobs. Bigger studios like Method or Sony tend to keep production staff, which may appeal to people looking for stability. There really is no one path into VFX. People come from all different backgrounds.

If you want to work in production, be humble, make friends and connections, and learn everything you can. Stay positive! Don’t get emotional or take things too personally. Being organized is also important, since you have to deal with lots of information and be able to communicate it well.

Thank you for your time, Yi.

Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about and reflect on my job.

Interview by Andrew Zeller. August 15, 2017

Connect with Yi Shen on Linkedin.

Yves McCrae: Senior Roto Paint Artist

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Digital Domain

How did you first learn about VFX (Visual Effects)?

The first time was probably watching a DVD bonus feature from the original Star Wars trilogy.

What led you to pursue work in VFX?

The regular university thing didn’t work for me, since I wasn’t motivated unless the subject interested me. I studied 3D animation here in Vancouver but my first job in the industry was working as a Production Assistant at Hydraulx. They were really kind to me and said I could learn from the artists and later work on shots once they got a new project. I saw the entry path for 2D and found it more appealing than 3D.

Is that where you became a roto paint artist?

I actually learned how to roto using Silhouette FX at my next job, which was at Gener8. My work involved doing quality checks of the mattes created by other artists for stereo conversion and attending weekly meetings. Later I became a Rotoscope Pod Lead, overseeing and supporting a group of 5 artists.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Gener8

Which projects did you work on while you were there?

Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Maleficent, Godzilla, Escape Plan, and Into the Storm.

You also worked on the first season of the Amazon series: Man in the High Castle. What was that experience like?

It was great. A friend of mine was working on that show, and they wanted to have some onset VFX work done before sending the bulk of it off to other vendors. So they set up some work stations there for us to do roto and comp right after filming. I was the only rotopaint artist; the rest were compositors.

What has been your favourite studio to work at so far?

Digital Domain. They gave me shots I was comfortable doing and the chance to prove myself. My leads were very supportive and helped me when I had questions. I enjoyed answering the questions of newer artists as my skills improved.

What software did you use for rotopaint while at Digital Domain?

I used Nuke for roto and paint. They have mocha Pro for tracking too.

Digital Domain had quite a few VFX shots for The Fate of the Furious and Spider-Man: Homecoming. How did you handle the workload?

At crunch time, we had a team of about 40-50 artists for rotopaint sharing the shots. We all worked really hard.

How do you explain your job to your family and friends?

That’s a good question. I usually just tell them I make things disappear or I paint out wires. There was a shot in the trailer for The Fate of the Furious that I worked on where a submarine bursts out from under ice and launches cars into the air. The cars were practical, supported by wires, and the tires needed to be changed. Specific examples like that are helpful for explaining the kind of work I do.

The Fate of the Furious – Digital Domain

Did you ever work on a shot that seemed impossible? How did you deal with it?

There was a wire paintout shot on The Fate of the Furious that was really challenging. I kept trying different techniques thinking I could finish it by the end of the week. But it took me about a month before it was approved. I asked for advice and just kept at it to find what worked to get it done.

What do you like most about your job?

Being part of the creative process, part of the army needed to tell a story is the most rewarding aspect for me.

Is there a film or series you would like to work on in the future?

I’d love to work at ILM on part of the Star Wars film series. I really enjoyed The Force Awakens.

How do you think the VFX industry has changed since you started working in it 5 years ago?

There is a lot more work now, with so many franchises and adaptations of comic books, etc. Film studios often try to appeal to everyone by creating spectacle, but that doesn’t always result in a good movie. It’s rare but really nice when VFX are used to tell a good story.

Yves McCrae

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the VFX industry?

Learn as much as you can. Don’t be difficult to work with. And find the right balance in asking for help. You don’t want to ask questions too often or too little. You can even ask someone at the beginning: how often can I ask you for help? If they say, “anytime,” and you can see you’re not bothering them, take the opportunity to learn from them. Learn how to read people.

Thank you for your time, Yves.

You’re welcome.

Portrait Photo and Interview by Andrew Zeller. July 16, 2017.

Connect with Yves McCrae on Linkedin.

10 Things to Have at Your Desk as a VFX Artist

You have just started working in a visual effects studio. What do you keep at your desk? You look around and see what other people have at their desks. Here are some things that you are likely to see…

1. Snacks – The energy-giving, friend-making companion. Healthy options: nuts, fruit, carrots, sliced cucumber. Just don’t leave them in the open overnight or you might attract insects, pests, or hungry but shy coworkers.

2. Mug/Tumblr – Choose a unique one so everyone will know it’s NOT theirs, but also one you won’t mind seeing someone else use if that happens. I personally recommend Swell bottles, as they keep your beverages hot or cold for a long time. Stay hydrated.

3. Humidifier – Breathe clearly, avoid dry skin, and pretend you have a dragon.

4. Anti-Fatigue Glasses – Embrace your inner geek and protect your precious eyes. Take them off for color-correction work since they block out a percentage of blue UV light. I recommend ones that block 40%, rather than 20 or 70. Mine are from: Spektrum.

5. Medicine – Always have what you need and keep pain/headache and nausea relief just in case. The studio may not have what you need. Check expiration dates too.

6. Toys/Figurines/Vehicle Models – Not to play with. You are a serious professional so you simply look at these occasionally for inspiration. They’re good icebreakers for conversation too.

7. Phone Charger – Because you’re not sure how you would survive if it died.

8. Headphones – Earbuds if you need to interact with others often at work, noise cancelling if you need to avoid distraction.

9. Pen and Paper – Even if you have a photographic memory, writing stuff down shows others that you care about what they say. Plus crossing things out on 2-do lists feels so good. Good to have at least 2 pens. Some studios provide you with paper.

10. Lens Cloth – to clean your glasses and/or monitors. Some studios provide monitor wipes.