Ethel Kohn: Talent Manager

Ethel

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.

Bardel

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.

Bardel

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 and download high quality stock footage? These videos are very useful for VFX practice and for adding personal work to a demo reel. I’ve made 2 lists of links: “Free” and “Paid” for you to compare and utilize, as per student request.

FREE:

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Stock Photo by Andrew Zeller

PAID:

Shutterstock: You should know their name by now. 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 ($199 US Dollars for 4K, $79USD for HD) or get a ” video pack” of 5: HD clips for $359 ($71.80 per video) or 4K clips for $899 ($179.80 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.

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. If you pay $29USD 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.

Pond5: They have lots of 4K videos in MOV format. You can pay per video ($33 Canadian dollars is the lowest) or pre-fund your account by paying $650CAD for a credit pack (which includes a $33 bonus in credits). These credits are valid for 2 years, instead of 1. I especially like how much camera data they display for each shot. You can pay $260 per month or $1,295 per year to download 10 videos each month.

Big Stock Photo: They have photos as well as HD videos in MOV format (no 4K yet). You cannot pay per video. Their cheapest package is 5 videos per day (150 per month) for $79USD, which is only $0.53 per video.

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 $150USD, you can get 2 HD videos and save about $10. A single 4K video is $200, while the HD version is $80.

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!

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: https://texturing.xyz/

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 200 titles from films and television that have pushed the boundaries of VFX, popularized a style or technique, or created unforgettable imagery that continues to inspire active artists. Please let me know if you feel anything noteworthy is missing.

Click here to view the list on IMDb.com

Thank you and happy viewing!

Andrew

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.

Okja

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.