The set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) had a river of chocolate sauce flowing through it, and candies growing on trees. Every day we’d come to set and eat enough delicious sweets to put us into diabetic comas, and watch 20 small men sing and dance on the grassy hills.
Okay, not really. The river was a rank concoction whose stink hit you like a truck when you walked onto the stage. I “borrowed” one of the oversized Styrofoam lollipops from set, and it disintegrated a week later. BUT I did get to meet the incredible Tim Burton. Okay it was more like him standing over my shoulder while the whole crew waited for me to comp together one small man from twenty different takes in twenty different positions into one shot to make sure it all worked before we moved onto another shot set up. No pressure. Oompa-Loompa fact: there was only one incredibly good-natured actor playing all the Oompa-Loompas. He did a lot of singing and dancing.
As amazing as that experience was, I ended up a bit of a nervous wreck. But that’s VFX. It’s an intense industry full of a lot of hard work, and a lot of pressure. In fact, I think it’s either gotten worse over the years, or maybe I’ve just gotten tired. I’ve been doing visual effects for over 20 years. Yes, I started when I was 12.
When I first got into the business in 1991, digital effects were pretty new. While in art school in Ottawa, I said I wanted to do “art for TV”. I was showered with negativity. Teachers and guest lecturers said it was a pipe dream. I guess I’m the kind of person that uses that as fuel. I can be a bit stubborn and determined (read: obsessive compulsive and insanely focused on what I want) and I got a job at an animation studio before I graduated. Imagine that happy day when I told my teachers I couldn’t do the last 3 weeks of school because I had a job doing “art for TV”. They graduated me with honors anyway. I loved my time in that school.
The truth of it is, I begged the poor producer of the animation studio every day for like a month, to let me work there. I told him I’d work for free. On the night shift. Just give me a shot. Pleeease. He finally agreed. (He actually told me after we became friends, that he only agreed so that I’d stop calling him. Oops.) Within two weeks, I was on the pay roll, working the day shift, and completely exhausted from trying to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could and prove myself. But I LOVED it. I didn’t sleep for the first few years actually… I lived, breathed and ate my job. Those were good times. Funny fact: My iPhone has 400% more memory than my first computer in VFX.
Learning on the job was the only way to learn VFX then, because there were no schools teaching visual effects. Now, of course, there’s a ton of courses to choose from. In only two decades, this industry and its technology has flown forward faster than Superman. Actually, you can probably see the progression of the visual effects industry just from the Superman movies. Small fact: In the latest Superman movie, some of the spacesuits that Zod and his male crew wear are CG. The women’s suits are real. There was some issue on set with the men and their suits that the women seemed to be ok with. Just sayin’.
VFX have become more realistic, with grander explosions, scarier monsters, fantastic environments and even more impossible camera angles than we even know what to do with. Literally. Some directors have no idea what to do with us. And sadly, IMHO, some directors rely so heavily on limitless VFX spectacles, that they forget the most important thing is… Story. But I digress… that is not the fault of the visual effects minions, just an observation of one. Another observation: If anyone reading this is a director and using VFX please bear in mind… just because you can make a virtual camera do anything, doesn’t mean you should.
The VFX industry has gotten so much bigger/better/faster/stronger, that we don’t even know what to do with ourselves. I think we reflect the overall situation that the movie industry finds itself in. There is less money and therefore less time to make fewer movies. And VFX definitely feels the crunch. We can do things faster and better, but we have higher expectations and less time. It’s a pressure cooker.
I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are right… the industry is about to implode.
I moved from Toronto to LA in 1996 to work for Digital Domain. That was one crazy cool, kick ass place then. They were just about to tackle Titanic, Dante's Peak and Fifth Element all at the same time. We flew a pirate’s flag on top of the building. And we partied like it was 1999. I worked in the commercial division then with a few stints on all those movies, and we had a blast. I was a complete workaholic. I literally had no life other than VFX. I think that’s part of the secret to doing well in anything. Give it your all and love it. From that time, I met some incredible people who’ve gone on to become studio execs, exec producers, producers and supervisors, as well as some of the most amazing visual effects artists in the industry. It was a pretty special place and time.
In 2000, my dear friend and exec producer of Weta Digital in New Zealand, Eileen Moran, called me to see if I wanted to work on a film Peter Jackson was doing… Lord of the Rings. This was before anyone heard of Weta or Mr. Jackson. I was feeling restless, and always being up for an adventure, I said “Sure, what the hell”. Turned out to be a giant turning point in my life.
At that time, Weta was struggling to get people to move half way around the world. LA was the center of VFX, and London was second. Who even heard of New Zealand in the VFX industry? Now of course, it’s a different story. Sir Jackson and LOTR changed everything. I can honestly say I’ve never worked so hard as I did onLOTR3. It was an incredible labor of love by everyone involved. We worked 100-hour weeks for months on end. But we were extremely proud of what we were doing. By then (after the first two movies), we knew what we had, and we were as anxious as anyone to get this 3rd film out there. From these ubber-intense times, friendships are formed that last a lifetime. It was definitely a highlight in my career.
After LOTR3, VFX companies came to NZ to recruit. I accepted a job in London at The Moving Picture Company, with the lure of traveling Europe on my down time and working on a movie from one of my favorite directors, Tim Burton. London was spectacular fun, and while working on Alien Vs. Predator, and all their hideous drool, I met my amazing husband, also a VFX artist. How romantic.
The pull of Weta and New Zealand came again for KONG. It was on that show, that I learned my personal limits. This is a very important thing to know about oneself I think. As proud as we were of the work we were doing, I learned my breaking point, and I learned perspective, and I learned there comes a time when it’s okay to say no. Those lessons have served me well.
That said, one of the coolest working moments I’ve experienced was at the end of this show. The remaining crew who were delivering the last shots had to miss a much anticipated, cool annual NZ wine festival that everyone goes to. We were bummed, but that’s how that goes sometimes. The day of the festival, Eileen, our exec producer called us into the conference room for an “emergency meeting”. What was waiting for us was a mini wine festival of our very own. Our facilities and production crew went all out for us. It was amazing, and we all had a wonderful time. It’s times like those that make Weta such an amazing place to work.
The VFX industry suffered an unrecoverable loss when Eileen Moran passed away last year, shortly after The Hobbit premier. She truly loved being a producer, and her crew was her family. For those of us lucky enough to have called her a friend, her grace, wisdom and humor are a constant reminder of the standard to strive for in life.
In the past few years, I have slowly but surely been pulling back from my workaholic ways. As, I think, have many VFX artists. Look, when we first started, most of us were young, single and full energy for this new fantastic industry. Now, people are settling down, having families and not wanting to work these 100-hour weeks anymore. It’s become a catch 22. Most of the industry is now “contract work” where people are hired for a specific show. “Staff” positions are becoming extinct. People often have to find new gigs (which sometimes means moving countries) when a contract is up. So the industry has gotten more fluid just as the people in it want to become more settled. People talk of “getting out” of the industry, but they find themselves “trapped”, as if VFX is a kind of cult. Hey, the money is great (although that’s changing) and the work is great (okay, that’s also changing) and the people are amazing (that will NEVER change). It’s a very insular industry, with it’s own rules and culture. A 50-hour workweek is standard. Weekend work is expected. End-of-show madness is a given. And nothing is impossible. But once you’ve managed to get into the cult, it’s incredibly hard to get out. It also takes up so much of your life, that it leaves little room to explore anything else. Note: that doesn’t mean no room. I have VFX friends who are also filmmakers or painters or writers. I am very actively pursuing a career in screenwriting while working full time in VFX. It certainly can be done. It just means that I work a lot. But I have an incredibly supportive husband, and no kids (unless you, like me, call your dogs your kids.)
There has been some noise lately about the working conditions and business models for VFX companies. Some big companies have recently filed for bankruptcy. There are a lot of artists out of work. LA has become the place artists leave to find work, instead of flock to. The easier work is being “farmed out” to places that pay their people peanuts. Cities like Vancouver have blossomed with the opening of branch offices of big VFX companies who are happy to take advantage of the Canadian tax breaks and lower wages. Deadlines are more ridiculous and the work is harder.
Don’t get me wrong. The visual effects industry is still an amazing place to be. But change is afoot. Some brilliant people, like Scott Ross, are leading the way for change. I wish him, and the forward thinkers in our industry all the success in finding a solution.
I've worked on films of many inspiring directors, but I want to mention two particularly amazing work experiences I've had. On Avatar, I got to fulfill a dream of mine to do matte painting on that film. But beyond my own personal satisfaction, I was completely inspired by James Cameron. He is a man with a vision. He had the movie fully visualized, down to every last spectacular detail and knew exactly (I mean EXACTLY) what he wanted. This is unbelievably rare, and a true joy to be part of. Mr. Cameron also knows how to tell a story to people en mass. The sheer volume of what he’s achieved is staggering.
Another director I am in complete awe over (isn't everyone?) is Steven Spielberg. He's gotta be just the nicest genius ever. When we were working on Tintin, one of the things I noticed is that he seemed to focus a lot on tone and mood, and how they helped tell the story. I learned that it’s not necessarily about what you see. What’s important is how the visuals make you feel.
On a final note… if I were to give advice to anyone looking to get into VFX, I’d say… don’t bother if you’re not passionate about this career. It’s also not a place to be precious about your work. You have to be happy making someone else’s vision come alive. It requires a lot of patience and precision. It requires a healthy fascination with pixels and photo-real art, not famous people or glamour. You’ll likely sit in dark rooms and most of your interaction will be with a computer. But you will be rewarded by being surrounded with amazing like-minded people, passionate about what you’re all doing, working together for a common goal of providing a bit of magic for the world.
Lyse Beck got into the visual effects industry in ‘91. While the majority of her career has been as a compositor, she’s also been an on-set VFX Sup, a matte painter, a texture artist, and a producer. She’s worked in both film and television around the globe and currently lives in New Zealand, where she works for Peter Jackson's VFX company, Weta Digital.
When not writing or working, Lyse loves to be inspired by other people's creativity.
Lyse lives in Wellington with her British husband and their two Kiwi dogs.
Part II of Lyse’s guest post, where she describes her transition from visual effects to screenwriting, will run tomorrow.