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.