A diverse group of nine female creative professionals working at Pixomondo share their career histories, motivations and insights from navigating a male-led industry.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, AWN is pleased to share with readers the stories of nine women, all visual effects professionals working at the international visual design and special effects studio Pixomondo, who have excelled in a difficult, highly competitive segment of the entertainment industry, a historically notorious “boys club” dominated by men, not just in positions of creative production but in creative leadership as well.
VFX production is a tireless, grueling business, half sprint, half marathon and half tug of war. Calling it relentless is like referring to a tornado as a gentle breeze. Exacting attention to visual details, crushing deadlines, razor thin profit margins… and that’s on a good day. Career longevity means a steady diet of patience, perseverance and dedication. Especially for women.
Talk to women working in animation and VFX and you get a sense that while the industry has made significant strides of late in addressing historic disparities in the number of jobs, as well as compensation levels and decision-making roles afforded to women as opposed to men, there is still a long way to go in eliminating gender bias at all levels of the workforce, let alone addressing additional steps needed to make workplaces safe and free from all forms of bias and harassment. The prevailing sentiment seems to be: “Things are much better than they used to be. But, so much more must be done.” Expertise in creating all manner of stunning, touching and funny imagery hasn’t immunized the industry from suffering through its share of ugly #MeToo moments. The pictures have not always been shiny and pretty.
And the numbers paint a pretty dismal picture as well. According to Women in Animation, more than 60% of all animation and art school students are women, while only 20% of the creative jobs are held by women. With a stated organizational goal of 50/50 equal gender employment levels by 2025, Women in Animation’s ongoing efforts to positively influence, encourage and lead industry change, to address head-on stark gender inequality, shows both the courage of their convictions as well as the uphill battle they face. While there are many reasons more women don’t take up careers in animation and visual effects, the historic lack of an industry embrace, as well as the fear of an unwanted one, are certainly factors.
As one of the industry’s leading creative studios, Pixomondo maintains a diversified portfolio of business activities which includes feature films, episodic, gaming, themed entertainment, previz and virtual reality, as well as the development and creation of innovative original concepts. It has won three Emmys for its dragon work on Game of Thrones and an Academy Award for its VFX work on Martin Scorsese Hugo. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the company has facilities in six cities: Canada’s Toronto and Vancouver, Germany’s Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and China’s Beijing and Shanghai.
According to Pixomondo COO Sara Mustafa, “Pixomondo has always been gender neutral when it comes to our hiring process. We don’t give special treatment to women, but we certainly give them fair treatment! And that’s what each woman strives for - a fair chance and opportunity in a predominately male industry. We also have female mentors and role models at the studios and partake in events such as ‘Women in VFX and Media.’ We believe it’s important for all our artists - in particular female artists - to flourish and expand on their talents.”
Participating in this story are a group of nine women from the studio, who have volunteered their histories, motivations and insights:
- Adela Baborova, Associate VFX Producer (Vancouver)
- Jennifer Friedman, previs artist and animator (Los Angeles)
- Jenne Guerra, Head of Production / VFX Supervisor (Vancouver)
- Divya Gupta, compositor (Los Angeles)
- Tricia Kim, Matchmove Supervisor (Toronto)
- Stella Ying Li, Executive Producer (Beijing)
- Gayle Munro, VFX Producer (Vancouver)
- Kristin Patterson, VFX Producer (Toronto)
- Anna Seidl, VFX / VR Producer (Stuttgart)
Their roles at the studio are as different as their individual backgrounds, though as VFX professionals, they all share a passion for visual entertainment, working with other talented artists and dedicating themselves to continued learning and personal development.
In describing her job as a compositor, Gupta points out, “I am the last one to touch the shots before they leave the VFX studio. I integrate various elements like live-action footage, computer generated footage, effects and artist renditions into a seamless video. The finished product gives the illusion of reality blurring real life with fantasy.”
For Friedman, being a previs artist and animator means she helps visualize a film's narrative through camera and character animation, mapping out composition, lens, character position and action. “I enjoy being part of a creative team that works together through the previsualization process,” she explains. “It's challenging and exciting to be part of the early stages of a film because it allows for a lot of creativity.
Li reveals her job requires being a good observer and communicator. “As an executive producer, you have to learn the market in-depth through close interactions with industry people. Observing market trends helps me better judge how to meet the needs of clients. I also have to keep constant communication with all our teams to troubleshoot any problems and prepare them for the market.”
Kim adds her job as a matchmove supervisor entails “a sense of translation, rotation and scale with an addition of ‘patience.’” She has developed a “good working knowledge about physical cameras and lenses, as well as a solid understanding of both 2D and 3D environments, and the importance of how other departments use our CG cameras and virtual sets.”
As the head of production as well as a VFX producer, Guerra not only oversees projects, but is involved in the studio’s bidding and business development efforts. “I ensure the team is clear on what work needs to happen and when it needs to be done,” she says. “I also ensure all facility departments are aware of the production’s requirements… for example, disk space and rendering. But I also work with visual effects supervisors on bids as well as help develop new client relationships and successfully maintain existing relationships.”
According to Munro, a VFX producer as well, her job involves “working with the client to ensure shot costs are achieved that both parties are happy with. Along with the show’s production team, I ensure that tasks are scheduled to meet the deadlines, and that we are only working on active shots in the film/episode.” “Most importantly,” she continues, “I also work with the VFX supervisor to ensure the work we present is something to be proud of.”
A major focus of Patterson’s job as a VFX producer is making sure that projects run smoothly. “Whether I’m contacting the client for things we need, resolving conflicts, making sure our schedules are accurate, or ensuring that we have the right people for a particular shot, it's my job to make sure my team is on top of everything and that we are getting our shots done correctly and efficiently,” she shares. For Seidl, both a VR and VFX producer, her job combines what she enjoys most about the production process. “I love pulling all strings, keeping the overview, caring for outstandingly creative people, taking over responsibilities, controlling what goes where and being a service provider.” Baborova, an associate VFX producer, spends part of her time “bidding new shots or changes to the current scope of work.” In addition to proposing different solutions when problems occur on projects, she “acts as a leader in conversations and meetings, making sure people stay on track and focused on the goal, as well as analyzing through the project the resources needed for the completion of the shots and assets.”
Another common thread within the women’s stories is that with every step of their career, they each devoted considerable time, energy and focus on learning as much as possible from people and projects, always applying new insights and skillsets to enable transitions into more challenging, fulfilling and responsible roles. This is exemplified by Patterson, who has worked in visual effects for seven years, starting as a vault and camera assistant, learning about the VFX pipeline and how projects worked. A year later she was scheduling on a movie, which led to more feature film work. “Before joining Pixomondo three years ago, I spent two years working on features,” she explains. “I learned so much about project management, client interaction, and the place of VFX in the film pipeline.”
A formal education also played a part for many. Like a number of her colleagues, Baborova studied in school before entering the world of VFX production. “I learned about film production in High School, and then University,” she points out. “Upon graduating, I was offered a job at a small production company. Education and networking were crucial to my budding career.” Friedman voiced similar sentiments. “I received my B.A. in fine art, and then later went back to school to pursue a career in VFX,” she notes. “It involved a lot of determination, hard work, networking, and surrounding myself with other creative people with similar interests.”
Guerra also first went to school before venturing into visual effects. “I studied CG animation and media in University,” she shares. “After moving to L.A. to pursue this path, I realized that I wasn’t nearly as talented as the professionals in the industry. I decided to move towards production and found that it was the right fit for me, allowing me to flex both the right and left sides of my brain.” For Seidl, she too realized early on that her skills were better suited to production management, a fit she immediately knew was right for her. “At the age of 17, I started as an apprentice in movie and trailer editing,” she explains. “Then I joined a tiny little company working mainly in outdoor sports. Since the company was small and every helping hand was needed, I focused more on working as a camera operator. That was when I realized that there are people who can do that job better and with more passion than I was doing it. But I did not want to leave that field of work; I just did not want to operate ‘actively’ anymore. I liked coordinating the camera teams around me and being on site with clients - this is how I became a producer for commercials and trailers. Eventually, I joined a VFX company as a coordinator and was happy from the first day on. Creative people, office environment, tough clients, tough deadlines, requirements to fight for and to laugh about - this is where I belong!”
Talk to any woman in animation or VFX, especially in executive, decision-making positions, and they’ll tell you an important step needed for reaching gender workplace equality is having more women working in the industry take on mentorship roles, providing guidance and support for students and young professionals. Leading by example, sharing expertise and insight, not only shows young women that careers in entertainment are available, and viable, but realistically attainable. Patterson personifies the importance of that dynamic, noting that she directly benefited from such tutelage and support. “My advice to young women starting out in the industry is to find a woman in your career path who you respect and let them help teach you how to respect yourself,” she says, “I worked with three incredibly talented women in L.A. when I was a coordinator, and they taught me so much. They gave me honest feedback on my performance, showed me new skills and new ways of doing things, and were amazing examples of competence and standing up for themselves and the women on their teams. They taught me that my opinion meant something, and that has helped me every day since.” Munro adds that it’s important to take advantage of your situation and learn from everyone you can. “To the young professionals already in the industry, always keep an open mind and listen to those around you… their depth of experience is something you should utilize in your own learning!”
In describing what she likes about her job, and in offering advice for women already working in animation and VFX, or considering such a career, Gupta echoes a sentiment shared by all her colleagues, a feeling, a passion that permeates their thoughts and helps, each day, to propel them in their work. “I am a detective, an inventor, a storyteller and an artist in my job,” she says. “I assemble each shot meticulously like a jigsaw puzzle combining elements together to trick your eyes into believing my creation is real. Each of the shots tells a story in which I create different environments and travel with characters to diverse worlds. In a way, you are doing magic because it is hard to tell how it was done and that makes it very fascinating for me.”
“Hard work is paramount to success in this industry,” she continues. “Many projects have demanding timelines and it is important to stay focused on the task. In addition, be ambitious in learning new methods and tools. Don’t be afraid to try something new and express yourself.” Seidl agrees, adding, “Stay focused, but don't be too pushy with yourself. Do it for you, not for the credit. This industry lives from the passion and dedication people (male and female) bring to it. Therefore, be yourself.”
Li mentions that you should not feel discouraged if you’re not getting the results you seek. “Be patient. If you’re frustrated by not having achieved the goals that you set for yourself, it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong or that you should change what you are doing or who you are. Be patient until that opportunity comes.” For Kim, it’s important to like what you do. “Put your efforts into something that you enjoy doing,” she notes. “Seek knowledge constantly, stay on top of the latest innovations and be prepared at all times because you will never know what the future may bring. There is more room in the industry for women!”
Guerra concludes with advice that gets to the heart of an issue women often face in many aspects of their lives: the struggle to not only have their voices heard, but to play an equal role in any discussion without fear of being trivialized, belittled or simply ignored. “Don’t ever feel like your questions or opinions don’t matter. Challenge yourself to learn and choose to take more responsibility.” Friedman concurs. “Stay motivated, ambitious, and inspired,” she adds. “Everyone has their own fears, strengths, and weaknesses, but stay determined. There are so many talented women in the industry and I encourage and admire them all.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.