Since launching in 2021, the Toronto visual effects studio has seen its talent roster grow to include 35% women across all areas of production and creative leadership, providing rewarding career paths, creative project opportunities, remote work options, and flexible family support that have previously been anything but industry standard.
From motion capture systems like Xsens and advances in virtual production and LED walls to Unreal Engine’s innovations in real-time rendering, visual effects production technology has seen massive growth since the early days of rig removals and using tennis balls for point reference… though tennis balls are still pretty ubiquitous on-set.
But despite all the tools and tech that have changed the game of VFX and animation over the years, long-time animation supervisor Hayley Fromstein says it’s the demographic stereotyping of the industry that has changed the most.
“New tools and technology make our jobs a little easier and faster every year,” she begins. “New forms of media have entered the scene, such as streaming services, and bring in more work and create plenty of jobs. But though I haven’t noticed a huge change in the actual number of women in the industry yet, I have definitely felt a ‘vibe’ change. It’s much more gender-neutral and not so much a ‘boys club’ anymore. Women leading the way for other women has been a huge thing.”
Herne Hill, a new VFX company that’s sprung up in Toronto, has operated on the cusp of this change since its founding just two years ago in 2021. Fromstein, who has been working in visual effects for roughly 12 years on films such as The Shape of Water and Shazam, recently made the move from Mr. X’s VFX studio to Herne Hill.
“A lot of brilliant and talented people that I worked with at Mr. X had joined Herne Hill, so I knew it was going to be an incredible team,” says Fromstein. “I was a senior animator before, and now I’m head of the Animation Department.”
Sex/Life Season 2 VFX Producer Caitlin Foster, who also made the jump from Mr. X to Herne Hill in 2022, added, “I’ve said this a thousand times in the last year: coming to HH feels like getting the band back together. The biggest change is the level of creative expression I’ve been able to add to the work I do. The culture at HH offers me a platform to have a creative discussion with my peers and come to a consensus on the best, most impactful way forward on a project, how to make a shot better, or come up with a creative solution to a schedule or budgetary issue. No one department works in isolation, which I think has played an integral role in helping me hone my craft.”
Greater, more energetic collaboration is one benefit of working at a newer VFX company, where it’s all hands on deck. In January 2022, Mr. X joined forces with Technicolor Creative Studios' Moving Picture Company (MPC); the company then merged with MPC Film and MPC Episodic under the MPC brand. The three brands – Mr. X, MPC Film and MPC Episodic – are now integrated under the Moving Picture Company, making it one of the world's largest VFX studios. While this may be a cause for celebration for the Mr. X studio, it was a signal to artists like Fromstein and studio managers like Diana Remane that it was time to move on.
“I recall my first payroll at Mr. X was for 37 people and just a few years later we had over 150 artists and technicians,” remembers Remane, whose responsibilities included recruiting, purchasing, studio expansion, immigration, and operations. “It felt like a huge accomplishment and honor to be part of something that was making VFX history in Toronto. But the idea of starting something new is exciting and offers a fresh opportunity to do it all better and smarter.”
Remane, who has been working in VFX for two decades and joined Herne Hill in its founding year as part of the team for Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, believes one of Herne Hill’s “better and smarter” moves in the industry has been the studio’s commitment to offering flexibility to balance family needs. It’s something Remane says has had, and will continue to have, a direct impact on female engagement in VFX.
“In the past 20 years I have seen a demographic shift,” explains Remane. “A once male-dominated workforce is now becoming more balanced. Herne Hill’s roster is 35 percent female and not just in traditional scheduling and budgetary roles. We have women across all departments and in leadership roles as well. Herne Hill offers a balanced work life, with flexible remote and hybrid options.”
She continues, “Remote work was rarely an accommodation that could be managed pre-Covid. The times of physical presence and face value no longer determine one’s direct contribution to a project. This has been a major shift.”
Remane, Fromstein, and Foster have all personally benefited from VFX workforce support for family responsibilities. Remane, a mother of several young children who had been at Mr. X since 2006, has been in the industry longer than both Foster and Fromstein combined; she shares she has not worked for any company in the past that was willing to provide this type of flexibility. “Thanks to the perpetuated myths about gender roles and ‘family values,’ women have been disproportionately affected by the expectation that we have to work like we don't have kids and somehow simultaneously parent like we don't work outside the home,” notes Foster, whose work has spanned both series and features such as Monster Hunter, Nightmare Alley, and Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. “Not only is that archaic, but it’s also not physically possible. Family or not, I think we're all just looking to be treated humanely. I don't have kids or dependents to take care of, but the flexibility at HH allows me to focus on my personal health and relationship with my partner. The data is already out there. We work more efficiently when we're happy, supported, and fulfilled.”
And women observing this change from the sidelines are also benefitting from the ripple effects, not just with a more welcoming path for them to enter the industry, but with more women within the workforce at studios like Herne Hill.
“I have the most fun on projects when I relate personally with the people I made them with,” says Foster. “The running inside jokes we come up with throughout a show, the collective nerd joy we experience when we get that first look at the creature we poured our souls into, those are the experiences that stay with me and keep me coming back for more. Hayley and I first worked together on Monster Hunter. I was very new, but I remember her being very approachable and easy to talk to on rounds. When you're in dailies for five-plus hours a day, you get to know people: celebrating the wins, and commiserating over the shots that make you want to rip your hair out. With remote work becoming standard post-pandemic, it's felt even more important to feel a personal connection with the people we interact with every day.”
As Herne Hill navigates modern, non-gender specific hurdles such as AI and VFX’s growing dependance on technology versus practical effect usage, the women of Herne Hill remain inspired and optimistic as they carry the torch for more female-led innovation in entertainment effects.
“I’ve always been an artist and it didn't take me long before I discovered 3D animation, especially Discovery Channel’s dinosaur documentaries, and it ignited a spark in me,” recalls Fromstein. “I never really gave much thought to it being a boy’s club, although there were a few times while I was a junior that I overheard some pretty tactless conversations. But the vibe of the industry doesn’t feel that way as much anymore. I really hope we inspire more women to work in VFX, because it’s such a fun industry with lots of opportunity.”
Foster adds, “I think things like STEM camps for young girls and the accessibility of technology and open-source education have also played an important role in expanding the talent base for both women and the industry in general. I hope we’ve been successful enough at challenging the patriarchy such that inherent, internalized misogyny stops being an unconscious part of what it means to be a woman, and that we can just pursue our passions as people. Continuing to consciously make space for other voices is something that we should never stop striving for.”