Being a mom working in VFX: Pregnancy

I had a pretty easy pregnancy. I didn’t feel amazing (no pregnancy glow here!) but I didn’t have any bad symptoms either (no crazy morning sickness, no complications). The most annoying things I had to deal with were fatigue and swollen feet (the joy of having an August baby!)

I told work after the usual 3 months and they were extremely understanding and supportive throughout. Our production schedule was pretty quiet for most of my pregnancy (pre-production on Lego movie 2) but we also helped on Lego Ninjago which delivered in July (8 months pregnant!). To be honest I was a bit concerned about it at first because there was a lot of work, but it went super smoothly. The amount of overtime we had to do was minimal and I never felt pressured or overstretched by work.

The biggest challenge I had to deal with was the fatigue. It was hard to stay focused and I couldn’t rely on my usual friend “Caffeine” to help me through the day. For a period of time, I would fall asleep as soon as I got home from work, wake up just to have dinner and then sleep again until the next morning! Having an amazing supportive partner really helped. We usually try to divide household chores equally but I totally dropped the ball during pregnancy. He had to deal with everything: cleaning, shopping, laundry, cooking and making sure to keep me healthy and fed… and he did a great job! I have no idea how single ladies do it: I probably would have lived in a pig house and survived on a diet of frozen pizza and ramen for 9 months!

In hindsight there are a couple things I would do differently.

1 Give yourself a break

Being a stubborn girl, I didn’t want to be treated any differently because I was pregnant. So I pushed myself just a little… Nobody asked me to do it. There was absolutely no external pressure nudging me in that direction. It was all me. And honestly: it wasn’t worth it. I don’t think it made a big difference in my overall productivity, it was a cause of stress because I was trying to uphold this imaginary benchmark. It was a completely useless objective that I burdened myself with. And the fact is: you are different! On top of your usual workload, you are growing a tiny human in there, and that’s quite a feat! So give yourself a break: you are not super woman… and nobody is asking you to be. I read similar advice countless number of times and yet I didn’t follow it. I am not sure what I was trying to prove but if there’s a next time, I will know better.

2 Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Taking a nap during my lunch break would probably have helped immensely. But apart from curling up under my desk I couldn’t think of anywhere to go. I found out later that there is a First Aid room with a cot I could have used… if only I had asked… Once again I think it was my stupid resolution to keep things “as normal” that prevented me from reaching out. From my experience people are more than happy to make your life easier during this crazy period of your life so help them help you!

I stopped working two weeks before my due date which seemed like a reasonable amount of time to sort out a few things and take a breather before the big day and a good compromise depending on whether baby decided to be late or early. I didn’t want to stop too soon because I knew I would go crazy waiting at home for a month or more… In the end I barely had time to put my feet up! I was in the hospital 5 days after my last day of work (and that includes the weekend!) It was a bit short and I could’ve done with a few more days off, but I would still do it this way. I will spare you the details of the birth. Enough to say that I had an emergency C-section but everything went well… and then our lives changed forever…

Next post: maternity leave


Being a mom working in VFX: Intro

I always knew I wanted kids… but I also wanted a fulfilling career. When I fell in love with VFX and decided it was my dream job, I never really thought about how I would manage to do both. I focused all my efforts on to breaking in. But as soon as I started working, I realized that this is not a family friendly industry. Overtime, unpredictable schedules, short contracts: how do people manage to have a family in such an unstable environment? And in particular how do other women do it? Is it even feasible?

I started to do some research, trying to find women who managed the ultimate balancing act: being a mom with a successful career in VFX. Needless to say it was like hunting for a unicorn! As we all know there are few women in this industry… and even fewer mothers. Luckily I met the wonderful Sue Rowe at a conference in Switzerland. A successful VFX supervisor and mother of two, she singlehandedly proved to me that unicorns do exist! Just knowing that somebody out there had managed to make it work gave me the confidence that I too could do it if I put my mind to it. As they say: if you can see it, you can be it!

But I still had so many questions. How do you manage day to day? How does it impact your career? How do you handle pregnancy? And maternity leave? And childcare? etc. etc. Despite my best efforts, I found little to no information. So now that I have taken the leap and am the proud “Maman” of a wonderful 11 months baby boy, I have decided to write a series of posts about my experience becoming a mom whilst still working as an FX TD. I am hoping that my testimony might help other women out there who are struggling with the same questions and doubts. Getting more women in VFX is a cause that I care about and I believe that uncertainty around work life balance and family might deter some of them. Who knows what I would have done if I had never met Sue? 

I don’t really have a clear plan about which topics to tackle so please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any specific questions you would like me to address. And of course if you are also a mom in VFX: don’t hesitate to reach out! I would love to hear about your experience and how you tackle the craziness! Next post will probably be pregnancy and maternity leave. Stay tuned…

Life in the VFX lane: Breaking in

Breaking in to the VFX industry (or the games industry for that matter) seems like an impossible feat. 98% of the job offers ask for at least 1 year experience, but how do you get that experience if no one ever gives you your first chance? For me it was a long and winding road. I was 30 when I got my first job working on a movie. I had been working as a 3D artist on and off for about 6 years, but never in a big studio and never on a movie. For my background story (studies and career up until I decided to finally pursue my dream job) please see my previous post. Now let’s pick up where I left off…

Although I didn’t work at Pixelux anymore, I still had very good relationships with the managing directors (..and still do!). So, even though it wasn’t public news yet, I knew that MPC was really interested in DMM and  was talking about integrating it in both its Vancouver and London studios. For me that was it: the perfect opportunity, my foot in the door. DMM wasn’t widely available yet and few artists knew how to use the technology. Maybe MPC would be interested by my profile even though I lacked production experience and my reel only had R&D demos on it. So I contacted them… several times. I wrote emails and sent letters. I also tried to meet them in Paris during one of their recruitment road shows. No success. Finally I managed to see them at the View conference in Torino in November. The feedback I got there was pretty positive, but still, I didn’t hear back from them…

Thanks to several professionals at tradeshows who were kind enough to critique my reel, I knew my main weakness was that none of my work was actual production work. So I decided to try and acquire more experience in small commercial companies. I had forgotten about  MPC and was working at boutiq ag in Zurich when I got an email from their recruiting team in February asking me if I could do a phone interview with the Head of the FX Department. I was over the moon… and sooo stressed! On D day, I had a massive flu and didn’t feel I was at the top of my game. I thought the interview didn’t go too well. I was so depressed. But a couple of days later I got an offer to start as a Junior FX TD in London… 6 months later in August! I was in!

So what made it happen for me?  I would say work and persistence did help, but also quite a bit of luck and good timing. What advice would I give to the new starters out there?

First of all be sure this is what you want to do. It’s not an easy career. The industry is unstable. You never know when you will be out of work. When you have a job, you often work long hours and week-ends. When you don’t, you can’t really relax and unwind from all the crazy work because you have to look for your next gig.  The schedules are unpredictable so it’s hard to make any kind of plans. You might need to relocate several times to follow the job market. All of this can be quite a strain on your personal life. Also, you will not always get recognition for your hard work and you will definitely not make loads of money.

That being said, I love my job and hope to be able to do it for years to come… For me it’s all about the passion.  My childhood dream was to be a ballerina. Everyone would tell me that it’s  a gruesome career: it is very hard on your body, most of the time you are in some kind of physical pain, the majority of dancers never become soloist and spend their whole career in the shadows of the corps de ballet, you usually retire around 40, the pay isn’t good, etc. But I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to do, no matter what. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about VFX. The conditions aren’t ideal, but I am willing to put up with them to do what I love. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have an easier work environment and if there is anything I can do to help make it happen I will. But right now these are the circumstances and if you want to get into this industry, you have to be aware of them and be prepared to make do.

Once you are sure you are ready for this, be persistent. It might not work right away, but don’t give up, just continue building your skills and try again later. Also, get some honest advice. Knowing where you stand and what you have to improve is very important. Don’t be too shy. I have a hard time showing my work, I never think it’s good enough, but getting criticism is the only way to improve. You can post your work on forums like cgtalk, but the best is getting advice from professionals. If you don’t know any, go to tradeshows and meet people. I found that if you ask them nicely and they aren’t too busy, most artists are happy to give you feedback.

Finally one factor I really underestimated is timing. At the end of the day, studios have work and need you or they don’t. You can be the greatest, most talented artist out there, if there is no work, there is no work! VFX is a very irregular industry: one day the studios are bringing in artists from everywhere to handle the massive workload and the next they are letting everyone go because a production has been pushed back. So try to know what’s happening in the industry: where the work is, who is hiring, who is firing, who just landed the next big project. The news on the studios’ websites aren’t necessarily up to date but I find social networks, LinkedIn and twitter to be very effective.

I hope these humble tidbits will help a few of you out there. Don’t hesitate to ask if there is another subject you would like me to talk about. My next post will probably be about my first days at MPC and life in a big studio.

Life in the VFX lane: Background

I was going to start this series with my breaking in story, but realized I should probably give a bit more information about my background and studies first. My career hasn’t really been straight forward. I only landed my first job working on a movie at the ripe old age of 30. In some ways I think that is a blessing. You really have to be sure this is what you want to survive in this industry. It is harsh. If you are just out of school, get a job and think it’s going to be a walk in the park, you might be disappointed.

But lets start at the beginning. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland and my childhood dream was to be a ballerina. That dream didn’t come true but it taught me a few things. One of them is that you have to be persistent. You have to be sure of what you want and be willing to make sacrifices to get there. As you may have guessed, the film industry in Switzerland is very small. When I graduated from high school and stopped dancing, I was a bit lost. The only other thing I was passionate about was movies and in particular what had to do with the look of a movie: production design, cinematography and most of all special effects. I wanted to build models, create sets, imagine new worlds. On the other hand, I also wanted a university degree, some kind of paper I could rely on. It seemed impossible to get both. At the same time, I was lucky enough to meet people who introduced me to computer graphics and digital visual effects. Since I wasn’t a big fan of computers, I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I wanted to try it out: it might be the answer I was looking for. So I spent my savings and enrolled in the NYU summer course: Introduction to Computer Animation and Visual Effects. I fell in love immediately. I had so much fun playing around in Maya and Shake, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living.

But I still didn’t know how to get there. What should I study? Where should I go? There were very few animation schools at the time and the ones I checked out were all very expensive. I finally enrolled at the Geneva University in… IT! This might seem like a stretch but there were a few good reasons for my choice. First education in Switzerland is really cheap (I only paid about 500$ per semester… yeah we are very lucky). Second, a computer graphics research lab (MIRALab) was part of the faculty so we would be getting a few courses on computer graphics, 3D animation etc. and I would be able to do my thesis in that field. Finally, I wasn’t ready to leave my family, friends, and boyfriend behind to go to some far away school. So I crammed through network, programming and data base courses for 3 and a half years and did my thesis on garment simulation for children. After graduation I considered packing my things and leaving, but once again, personally, the timing was bad. I decided to further my education and do a Master of Advanced Studies in Computer Graphics at the Polytechnic School of Lausanne. It consisted in a year of courses about graphics, programming, computer vision, virtual worlds etc. and 6 extra months working on a thesis (my subject was: Virtual Mirror: Real-time motion capture for virtual-try-on).

During my studies, I also got a job at MIRALab. At first I was just an administrative auxiliary (I made digital copies of old movies, archived press releases, organised documents etc.) but as my CG skills improved, they started trusting me with a few easy tasks. I was particularly interested in motion capture: the lab had a Vicon optical capture system and I would grab every chance I could to work with it. Eventually my work paid off and I got promoted to research assistant. I worked with the PhD students and researchers to create demos showcasing their work and by the time I left, I was responsible for the recording and post-processing of all the motion capture data.

After graduating, I took 9 months off to see the world. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, but that is another story… When I came back, I wanted to stay a few months with my friends and family. I was planning on doing some web design work and then leaving to pursue my dream of working in the film industry. Meanwhile, one of the former PhD students from MIRALab told me that a small startup was looking for a 3D artist and that’s how I landed a job at Pixelux Entertainment, the company who invented DMM (digital molecular matter). DMM is a Finite Element Analysis based simulation system that has been used in major video games and movies (for more info check out this fxguide article). When I started, the plug-in for Maya was still in development and the first major game including DMM (Star War the Force Unleashed) hadn’t been released yet. As the only 3D artist in the company, my job was pretty diverse. I tested the software, worked with the programmers to identify problems or develop new tools, created demos, went to trade shows, gave DMM courses, wrote tutorials, and even helped develop game prototypes. It was a great experience and I loved my job. Unfortunately about 2 years later, Pixelux underwent a massive restructuring and laid off all the 3D artists. Around the same time, MPC started to test DMM in their Vancouver pipeline. So I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for me to finally try and break into the VFX industry… and how that happened will be in my next post…

Life in the VFX lane

It took me a long time to break into the industry and before I did, I always wondered what it was like to work in a big VFX studio. You hear horror stories about long hours and crazy schedules but everyone still wants to get in. You want to be part of these amazing projects, create beautiful imagery, see how those movies you admire are made. So I decided to start a series of posts about my experience.  A few disclaimers: these are only my personal ramblings and I haven’t been in this industry long enough to know how it works elsewhere. Also there are certain things I won’t be able to talk about because of NDAs. But I hope some people will find this helpful. If you would like me to write about a certain aspect or subject, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will try to address it. Stay tuned: first episode about breaking in will be posted soon.

Annecy 2012: Wednesday

Today is the opening of the MIFA ( International Animation Film Market ) where 2,400 industry professionals from TV, cinema or new platforms from all over the world come together. The trade show is getting bigger and bigger every year, it’s impressive!

The Creative Focus also organises recruitment sessions, meetings and project presentations. The goal of these presentations is to support animation projects by giving them visibility and promotion. Thus, they will hopefully find the partners and producers they need to get off the ground. There are four different categories : short films, feature films, TV series and cross-media. A sponsor introduces each project, then the author explains his vision. I went to the Short Film selection:

  • Drole d’oiseau (Phuong Mai NGUYEN, France)
  • Tututú (Rosa Gertrudis PERIS MEDINA, Spain)
  • Parcham dar Sahel (Sarah SAIDAN, Iran)
  • Aube musicale ( Mauro CARRARO, Switzerland)
  • Wayang, les Ombres de Java ( Guillaume DELAUNAY and Sébastien D’ABRIGEON, France)

Apart from the trade show, the MIFA also arranges presentations. I went to the Side Effects Houdini 12 demo. The capabilities for this software are pretty impressive and I can understand why more and more facilities seem to turn to it for FX. I already started dabbling with it last year, but I am determined to learn more now. They also have a lot of free learning material on their website, which is really cool.


Annecy 2012: Tuesday

Yay it’s time to head to Annecy again, time to watch some amazing animation, listen to interesting conferences, learn more about the state of the art, meet cool people and overall enjoy yourself. The Annecy International Animation Festival is one of the biggest events dedicated to this medium with over 7000 participants. The 2012 edition started on Monday the 4th of June but Tuesday was my first day. Unfortunately I didn’t buy my accrediation in advance, so I couldn’t reserve any seats. One tip: get your accreditation early and be online the minute the reservations open. That’s the only way to get tickets to the most sought after sessions (anything Pixar or Disney, advanced screenings and making ofs).

I started off with a conference about hybridisation issues. Solidanim talked about their experience using motion capture in production and the development of their new product: Solidtrack. This system enables the previsualization of VFX by combining real time camera tracking and augmented reality. Platige Image presented “Another day of Life”, the first feature film by director Damian Nenow. It mixes the same stylised 3D animation he used in “Paths of Hate” and documentary footage. Finally Autour de minuit showed diferent examples of shorts and series that they produced, all of which mix different styles and mediums. I particularly liked the series  Babioles that will soon air on Canal Plus.

The line to get a ticket for the Making of Brave was incredibly long: impossible to get a seat. So I started queuing extra early for the next session: the Disney presentation about Wreck it Ralph, their next feature animation and Paperman a new short directed by John Kahrs. The over 2 hour wait paid off. Wreck it Ralph looks really fun. We got to see the first 10 minutes and the trailer (one day before it’s official release). Lorelay Bove, the Visual Development Supervisor showed us quite a few really nice designs. As for Paperman… well it’s just AMAZING! When I saw Tangled, I was really happy: it felt like Disney was finally back. With this short, they totally blew my mind. The story is pretty basic but the way it is told is superb: the pacing is right, the music is right, and the graphics… *sigh*… sooo beautiful… You don’t really know what you are looking at: 3D? 2D? both?… and you don’t care. It just looks stunning!

My last screening for the day was the 2nd selection of short movies in competition. As usual a very diverse selection, some I liked , some I didn’t, some I found interesting, some I didn’t understand at all.. My faves: Chinti by Natalia Mirzoyan for Russia and Hi-no-youjin by Katsuhiro Otomo for Japan (and if you are wondering, yes it is THE Katsuhiro Otomo…)

Overall a very good start to what will certainly be a great week!

Imaging the future 2011

I will be in Neuchâtel tomorrow for the Imaging the Future Symposium. I think it will be my 3rd time attending. I even spoke there in 2009 (answered a few questions about DMM at the end of Raphaël Arrigoni’s talk presenting Pixelux.) Each edition was great and I got to meet lots of very interesting people. So really looking forward to it! A few speakers:

  • Nicolas Aithadi, VFX supervisor, The Moving Picture Company, GB – X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Yates, 2010)
  • Marc Umé, VFX supervisor, Digital Graphics, DE – The Secret of Kells (Moore & Twomey, 2009), Home (Meier, 2008)
  • Hugues Martin, VFX supervisor, Independent, FR – Mirages (Selhami, 2010), Djinns (H. & S. Martin, 2009)
  • Karen Goulekas, VFX supervisor, Independent, US – Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011), 10’000 BC (Emmerich, 2008), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997)

There will also be a showcase of works by swiss companies presented by the association Swiss Made VFX.

You can check out the full program here. Please stay tuned for my report of the day!

Black Swan controversy

I was researching VFX breakdowns to give updated examples on the first day of the introduction to Maya course I will be giving tomorrow and I came across this Black Swan VFX featurette.

Ballet was my first passion. I trained to become a professional until I was 19 and still enjoy taking a few courses now and then. As a former ballerina, a VFX artist and a big fan of Aronofsky’s work, I was the best audience for this movie. And I absolutely adored it. It’s the first time a movie about ballet feels real to me. The environment, the interactions, life in the ballet world… they really nailed that.

This is why I feel so sad to learn about all this controversy. They created such a beautiful work of art, why spoil it with lies? Because even though she trained like crazy for a year, there is no way Nathalie could ever master the actual dancing. Her Nina character is supposed to be a prima ballerina in one of the top ballet companies in the world. So even the basic ballet exercices have to be perfectly executed (and are). Not many people realize, but even the smallest things are really really hard to master, not even mentionning the hardcore technical stuff like the last dance of the black swan. I trained for 10 years and never got even close to that level of technique! For anyone who knows anything about ballet it is just obvious that they used body doubles and head replacements. I didn’t even think twice about it. So why not give full credit to the dance double? I understand that Sarah Lane would feel used. Ballet is such an unrecognized profession already. I don’t think anybody realizes how much dedication, hard work, pain and passion goes into being a dancer.

What’s more, that does not take anything away from Nathalie Portman’s work. I usually hate it when actors play dancers. It never feels right. But she worked on just the right things: her posture, the way she walks, the way she holds herself. She is very convincing as a ballet dancer. Also all the head and arm movements are hers: that is quite a feat already. She certainly worked very hard to achieve all that. But she is an actress, not a ballerina. And that’s the whole point. She doesn’t need a twisted marketing scheme implying that she managed to dance as well as a professional ballerina in just 1 year to win an Oscar. What  is important is her performance as an actress. And what a performance! She was incresible, mesmerizing, breathtaking! She more than totally deserves that Oscar even though she never did a fouetté.

Learning new stuff: Digital tutors and scripting in Maya

Well… Long time no update…

I started to work at boutiq ag, an animation and motion graphics production company in Zurich. There’s only one other 3D artist so we pretty much have to tackle anything that is thrown at us. Which is why I have been trying to learn as much as possible!

Mainly I have been watching a lot of Digital Tutors tutorials. I can only recommend them. There are so many topics to choose from, it’s amazing. Some lessons are better (or at least clearer for me) than others but the overall quality is really good. For now I have been concentrating on learning Realflow, mental rendering techniques (shaders, sub surface scattering, global illumination, render passes, etc.) and brushing up on mel and python scripting.  Houdini is next on my list…

I have also decided to work some more on my scripting skills. I just bought 2 books: MEL Scripting for Maya Animators and Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional. I won’t be recieving them for a few weeks so in the meantime here are some cool internet links I’ll be checking out:

If anyone knows of any other good ressources, please let me know! Thanks!