By Greta Chiocchetti
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the School of Animation & Visual Effects (ANM) hosted a roundtable with five accomplished Academy of Art University alumnae to share how they jump-started their dream careers in the visual effects industry.
The panel took place over Zoom on March 31 and was hosted by 3-D Animation & Visual Effects Director Catherine Tate and Studio X Head of Production Sasha Korellis. The ANM leaders asked the Academy graduates (Melina Cuffaro, 2019; Ryan Bauer, 2012; Lauren Ellis, 2012; Chaiwon Kim, 2017, and Jumanah Shaheen, 2015) about getting their first industry jobs, transitioning to working remotely in the wake of COVID-19, and what they envisioned for the future of visual effects.
For Ellis, who worked in Studio X back when it was known as Studio 400A (named for the Academy classroom where the movie magic happens), the transition from being a student to working in the industry was not a jarring one.
“I don’t know that there were any surprises [after graduation], other than being surprised at how well [the coursework] mimicked what it was going to be like,” said Ellis, an executive producer at Zoic Studios who graduated in 2012. “The [Studio X] project that catapulted me to L.A. was ‘Fruitvale Station.’ I was able to show that I wasn’t just coming into the industry with no experience whatsoever—we had a leg up on other schools who didn’t work on those kinds of projects.”
Cuffaro, who works as a production assistant at Lucasfilm, said her time in Studio X gave her the skills that boosted her into her first role post-grad.
“It definitely was a huge, huge help getting into the industry,” said Cuffaro. “It gives you the skills to do more than just the entry-level position.”
Despite fearing she would be facing a serious learning curve when she landed her first job as a stereoscopic compositor at Stereo D, Bauer discovered that her foundation was much stronger than she thought.
“I was so nervous being so green. I felt so new and inexperienced in the industry, but once I got settled in, I found that I had the skills I needed to do the job,” said Bauer, a compositing supervisor at CoSA VFX. “There were veterans [at the studio] that had been working there for years before me, and I didn’t have any trouble keeping up. So, it was just like a seamless transition right into the industry.”
Being a year into the pandemic, the topic of remote work was unavoidable.
“We developed a remote lab, basically using Teradici. Because we had so many Zoom students before the pandemic started, we handled it pretty well ourselves, but there are lots of challenges,” said Tate, who then asked the panelists, “I was wondering how have you changed? How are some of these practices going to be permanent? How do you deal with the stress and mood issues that have been coming from the pandemic?”
Cuffaro noted that many people have been dealing with extra stress and frustration due to isolating and staying home. She makes a point to be mindful of how others may be processing the situation.
“I created a lot of touch-bases, checking in with people that I hadn’t heard from in a while,” said Cuffaro. “During a team meeting—sometimes if someone doesn’t talk a lot, or if someone isn’t able to make a meeting—I like to do a little check-in to see how everybody’s doing and if there’s something I can do to maybe help make things a little bit better. Sasha taught us breathing exercises in one of our classes, which sometimes I still use to this day—it’s needed. In production, being able to keep a cool mind is so important.”
As a supervisor, Bauer noted that respecting boundaries around a work-life balance is essential to keeping a team healthy.
“From a supervisor perspective, once an artist is off work, even though their station is just right there, we have to respect that they’re off work,” said Bauer. “And the awareness has to go both ways as well because artists have to be really tenacious about checking their messages or making sure that they get alerts if a text message pops up on their machine. Because if that’s really the only way that we can get ahold of you and there’s something urgent, we need to know [that you’ve received the message].”
“What kind of pivots did you guys do at your studios in terms of technology?” asked Korellis. “Did you already have some things in place? How difficult was it for you to pivot?”
For many panelists, there was a scramble to create a virtual pipeline after a stay-at-home order was issued last spring.
“It was a weekend—IT turned everything around, and our team was already making lists, seeing how everyone was working. We proved to the higher-ups that virtual could work,” said Cuffaro, who also responded to a question in the live chatbox. “To answer someone’s question, ‘Do you think that remote work will continue in the future?’ I would say yes. In some capacities, it’s a work from home first scenario from here on out.”
Students asked their most pressing questions in the live chat—mostly about how to land jobs and internships. Kim, who interned at Pixar in 2016, said the portfolio that landed her the role was primarily comprised of work from Studio X.
“You definitely need to know the company’s style,” said Kim, a look development artist at Disney. “When I’m in a review room, I hear a lot of comments that they don’t have our style, and they only have a game style, for example. So, it’s really important to understand what the studio style is. That doesn’t mean you only need to work in their style—it’s always good to show a variety of your talents, like a realistic or cartoony or very stylized animation—but it’s just different styles in the end, and the studio style is at the front.”
As the webinar came to a close, Tate asked the panelists what being a woman in a largely male-dominated industry meant for them.
“I personally don’t look at it as I’m being seen as female or not female or whatnot. And that’s why I’m here,” said Shaheen, a VFX producer at Ingenuity Studios. “I look at it in terms of I have noticed—that there aren’t as many visual effects female supervisors. I’ve noticed that there aren’t as many editors. I’ve made a conscious effort ever since that kind of clicked in my head that whenever I’m seeing a girl or a woman or whoever working in a field where I know she is super talented, to hype her up and to let her know that I see that. Sometimes I even questioned my capabilities and my skillset, and hearing, ‘No, you got this, keep going,’ from a friend makes those moments of doubt really go away. Motivate your peers, push them forward. I know at one point we all need that push.”
Watch the full Women in VFX panel below.