Academy graduate and VFX artist Saurabh Maurya shares his industry journey along with tips for success
Academy of Art University School of Animation & Visual Effects alumnus Saurabh Maurya has grown into a powerhouse VFX artist working on prolific projects, such as “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld,” and Marvel’s “The Iron Fist,” “The Defenders” and “Jessica Jones.” Currently he works with Crafty Apes VFX, a studio based in New York, where he is the CG lead on “Star Trek: Discovery,” but he has had a tough path to the top.
“I’m from Bombay, India. My mother is a doctor and my father is an engineer. I was in engineering college before, but it wasn’t my thing. It took me three years to convince my parents to let me do something else,” said Maurya. “In India, there is no infrastructure, so I don’t blame them. [Visual effects] was completely unchartered territory. Finally, my dad agreed to let me do it and I came here [to the Academy.]”
Maurya’s first exposure to visual effects was “The Matrix” and he had wanted to learn how to do the work since. “Everybody thinks art is for somebody who doesn’t excel in study. Everybody looks at someone who isn’t doing medicine, or engineering or law as somebody who is not doing well in life,” chuckled Maurya.
“I went back to India for my brother’s wedding. One of my long distance relatives thought that I worked at a grocery store. I played that joke for a long time.”
He began his work at the Academy as a traditional compositor but moved into CG compositing, because he liked doing more photoreal work. This presented the new difficulty of not finding enough CG renders. “I started exploring modeling, lighting and texturing. I’m basically a generalist,” Maurya said. “Most people get jobs by specializing. I’ve done different things with almost every project. Make sure you have a secondary skill set also.”
Paul Kanyuk, Maurya’s former instructor at the Academy, said he excelled in his Crowd Simulation and RenderMan courses, which had a reputation of difficulty. “The projects in both classes are often some of the more technically challenging, and Saurabh was able to thrive in this environment,” Kanyuk said. “Shortly after he graduated, I was thoroughly impressed that he had taken the initiative to learn Katana on his own, installing Linux on his home machine. That kind of self-sufficiency goes a long way in this industry and I’m sure is a part of what has helped Saurabh succeed in the field.”
Fresh out of graduation, Maurya wanted to move into television and feature film work, but was having difficulty securing work. He spent a brief period doing visual effects work for Google and Apple ads, but he made sure to keep an impressive demo reel of professional and personal work at the ready. Chen Hsu, an old classmate from the Academy who was working at Atomic Fiction, approached Maurya for work Atomic was doing on “Game of Thrones.”
Networking is very important. Your skill set will get your foot in the door, but your relationships and how you conduct yourself keep you there,” he stressed. “Also, you have to know what trends are happening and what the industry is doing right now. Don’t use your class assignments as your demo reel. Make something on your own. Everyone has a dream of working at ILM. Whenever someone gets the job, I examine what is in their portfolio that’s not in mine. That’s why they got the job.”
Maurya wants both professionals and students to know that for a demo reel it is best to have a strong primary skill and a secondary skill. However, diversity of work is also important. Collaboration and work in unfamiliar environments can lead to the development of new skill sets and connections.
“I met most of my classmates working on “Recoil,” a thesis film of a student at USC. After that I worked on “Soar,” which won the Student Academy Award,” said Maurya. “It wasn’t my style, because I prefer more photoreal work and that was like a Pixar style, but I benefited from that because I learned time management—what to move forward with and what to leave behind.”
Put your work on ArtStation and CGWorld for feedback, not Facebook, and make sure to look for trends in the work. And if you want to make a portfolio, specialization is the key. Don’t build an entire city. Work on a small scene so you can show close ups.”
“My mom still thinks I make cartoons, although my dad watches my shows on both TV and in the theater. They’re pretty happy with my work now.”