If you are a fan of VFX and the amazing work being done from ILM, then we’re excited for your to meet Charmaine Chan. She kindly took time out from her busy life across the pond at ILM London to talk to us about her work as a VFX artist on some of the world’s biggest movies, as well as her own project, which highlights women in the VFX community.
Interview by Wendy Woodhall
Los Angeles Post Production Group: When people find out you work at Industrial Light & Magic I’m sure they are impressed as well as curious about what it’s like being part of the team there. So starting off, you came out of college and ILM was your first job. Were you a big Star Wars fan and did you think as a young person that you would have the opportunity some day to make serious contributions to this legendary franchise?
Charmaine Chan: So surprisingly, I got introduced to Star Wars much later in life. I saw most of the films during my high school years, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but it wasn’t my original inspiration into loving films and visual effects. It was actually Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park! I remember watching them as a kid and thinking they were all real life! So I had no idea that it was a profession I could get into, I just thought they were documentaries! But growing up, I had a strong love for both art and technology. I wanted to get into something that incorporated both and visual storytelling. I had no idea the giant breadth of work that ILM did, I had an inkling, but when I first started my first project was Transformers, and I had NO idea what that franchise would become. So being able to work on that, Harry Potter, Mission Impossible, Jurassic, Star Wars, and all the new Marvel Cinematic Universe films has been an absolute dream come true, and I am so grateful for those opportunities.
LAPPG: I know one of the things that most excited you was that you got to be part of the creation of the porgs (wide-eyed avian creatures native to Luke Skywalker’s planet). What was it about these little creatures that you think connected to the audience and what criteria did you consider when you worked on creating them?
CC: One of the most fun things about the Star Wars universe are all the creatures that come out of it! When I first saw the concept artwork for Last Jedi, and saw all these creatures, I ran immediately to my coordinator and pleaded with her to give me at least one shot of each of those creatures. I definitely can’t take the credit creating them, we have amazing artists who worked on every little detail you can think of for the porgs. But I think there’s something to be said for them, whether they be droids or creatures, they have just as much heart and characteristics as their human counterparts.
LAPPG: When we last spoke you were at ILM San Francisco working as a Lead Compositor and now 6 months later you are living in London working at ILM London and as a Lead Compositor. Firstly, congrats on this exciting move and secondly, how was the adjustment living and working in a foreign country?
CC: Thank you! One of the things I love about this industry is how international it is. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people from so many different locations in the world. And being able to combine all that culture and history and experience into one collaborative environment is such a treat. ILM opened its London offices around 5 years ago, and it has thrived in so many ways. With our new TV/Streaming division being headquartered in London, it felt like a good opportunity and shift to try something new. I’ve worked with quite a number of our London colleagues, so it’s been a pretty easy shift and it’s very exciting what we have in store!
LAPPG: What skills do you think are important for a compositor to have, aside from being able to sit for long periods of time working at your desk?
CC: [Chan laughs] Yes, as visual effects artists we do work at our desks a lot. But whether you’re trying to become a compositor, software engineer, or producer, there’s many different aspects of visual effects you can get into. And you can come from any background. But we’re all very passionate about filmmaking, about visual storytelling, and finding new and exciting ways to create worlds you never thought existed.
LAPPG: I saw a statistic from 2016 that every single motion major picture released in 2016 contained visual effects, yet only 17.5% of the people creating VFX are women. That seems pretty astonishing but I’m curious now on the wake of the #MeToo movement are you seeing the tide changing?
CC: I think it’s very important for us to discuss the need for greater diversity within our industry. There’s been more conversations happening at companies and we’ve been seeing more active outreach, but it’s not quite the huge tidal change one would hope. We still have a long way to go, but there are a lot of engrained biases and societal “norms” we need to break through first.
I think we need to keep having these conversations, push for action, and never give up. Sometimes things will take time to change, but we must work as a community and industry together if we want anything to happen.
LAPPG: Being a compositor (the person at the end of the pipeline putting the last touches on to what you see on the screen) you had said the work you do is sort of like doing “fancy advanced Photoshop layering things together from all different disciplines.” How do you stay on top of changes to the technology?
CC: Technology will always change and evolve. I think a lot of people get tied up on needing to be on top of the latest and greatest software, but software is just a tool and people can always learn new tools. But at the basis, the fundamentals of filmmaking are still there and using those fundamentals and combining it with the ever-evolving technological landscape can make for exciting new ways of visual storytelling.
LAPPG: Can you go through a typical day from start to finish about what might come across your desk and how you keep yourself sane while working very intense, long days?
CC: For an artist, a typical work day revolves around working on your shots, submitting them for dailies so that they can be reviewed and critiqued, and doing iterations. During dailies, there may be discussions on how certain looks can be achieved, or discussions on how to help push a story point through the visuals. It’s actually a very collaborative environment, and while you maybe focused in one discipline, you find yourself working with all the other disciplines as everyone wants to make sure the best image comes across.
I think since most of us are so passionate about what we do, and love what we do, sometimes those long hours go by very quickly. However, there’s a strong need and awareness for people to have a work life balance and know what their limits are on working. A lot of young kids come into this industry thinking that working long hours is the only way they can prove their worth. It’s horrible, and should be stopped. Doing your work efficiently and quickly with results is what people should be aiming for. No one does their best work when it’s the 15th hour of the day. Keep yourself mentally and physically healthy and your work will reflect that.
LAPPG: One of the exciting projects you’ve been working for the past two years is a video series called Women in VFX. What is so valuable about this series that there are some stories that one can really relate to and it’s an amazing platform for voices that aren’t often heard. To date it looks like you have upward of about 50 interviews with women in VFX from around the world. And the series celebrates the many women working in the industry by sharing their stories sand experience. What gave you the impetus to start this project and beyond the series can you talk about the community you are building and what the goals are for it?
CC: When I first started in the industry, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of place. But as I worked my way through, and met even more amazingly talented artists, I soon found that there are indeed women, people of color, and LGBT folks in our industry as well. But the thing is they were rarely the ones highlighted or given the chance to speak publicly about their experiences working on some of these big blockbusters.
I dabbled a little in photo and video documentary in the past, and always understood the power there is to having stories heard. So, I knew a video series would be a great medium to finally get the experiences of women in visual effects out there.
It was very important to me to get as many stories documented as possible, and from all over the world. The reason being is you start to notice the same topics, issues, and themes being brought up. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or when you started in the industry, the issues are there and the need to want to change them are there.
I just want their voices to be heard, and I want people to be aware that these talented women exist, and we should be giving them just as many opportunities and chances as everyone else.
LAPPG: In the last 12 years of being at the forefront of major motion picture and amusement technology what are some of the changes you’ve seen for better or worse in terms of collaboration.
CC: I think we’re at a very exciting time for visual effects. There’s been so many advancements both in technology and creative ideas. I think there’s definitely a shift in bringing some old school film methods together with new school technology that’s giving us some exciting results. And I think we’re seeing a lot of different people with different backgrounds (whether that be film, games, VR, etc.) coming together and finding new ways to take on storytelling. It’s a promising time to be in visual effects.
LAPPG: What 3 pieces of advice would you give to someone fresh out of school ready to get out there who may not have booked a wonderful opportunity at ILM?
CC: – Set your goals and never give up on them. You may need to perform roles or work in companies that aren’t exactly what you want at first, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually get to it.
– Know your worth and know what you can do.
– Always keep on learning. You never stop learning.