With over 30 credits to her name, it is no doubt that Kristen Tooley is an accomplished VFX Artist. From Ghost in the Shell, to Blade Runner 2049, and the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns out next month, Kristen has worked on an impressive collection of projects. Read the interview below to hear how Kristen got started within the industry, what the role of a VFX Artist consists of, and her essential advice for any aspiring effects artists.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
I’d been an artist of some form or another since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and while I won’t claim any genius in that regard, art was a constant in my life. I also learned to love computers, and again, while I was no whiz, I learned enough to enjoy tinkering in the margins of the more technical stuff.
When I was in high school, I took a summer class that involved very basic computer animation, 2D, and some simple game design. I enjoyed it so much I convinced the teacher to let me come in the week following the official end and finish my little project.
It was that class that I remembered when I was leafing through university programs looking for inspiration. Film animation, with a second and third year in digital, seemed like the perfect marriage of both my art and computer loves. I did my BFA majoring in Film Animation at Concordia.
Still, that didn’t get me started. The program at Concordia had a major emphasis on the ‘Fine Art’, and honestly seemed more designed to churn out National Film Board starving artist types than VFX artists. The art training was good, the CG and career training, not so much. I did a great deal on my own instead of in their labs. After floundering for a few years after, I decided it was do or die time and applied to Centre NAD, at the time a one-year intensive 3D for film class meant expressly to get people into the film industry, taught by industry people. It was intense, but it was also exactly what I was looking for — training for commercial effects work instead of ‘art’. I won an award and walked out of that right into my first job.
In retrospect, I should have realised the difference earlier. But as an introverted young adult, fine art still had a romance to it, and more to the point I felt pressure to do a university degree instead of a non-degree college. At the time, it seemed like the only correct choice. (Luckily, that isn’t as much the case anymore. And, VFX is showing up in more university programs.)
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?
Several, really. A moment that stands out to me was when my brother got a book about Industrial Light and Magic, filled with huge behind-the-scenes photospreads of the effects films I grew up watching. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. This was mostly pre-digital, when optical effects were the cutting edge of film tech… but I pored over that book and was fascinated by the tricks they used to make the fantastic come to life on screen. I grew up watching and loving effects films and TV, practical or CG. It was amazing watching effects evolve through a multi-generation franchise like Star Trek.
Two movies in particular; the first was Tron, the original. I watched it dozens of times as a kid, and later I learned about how it was made, a mix of opticals, hand animation, and then totally cutting-edge computer generated imagery… which was all done in command-line math and painstaking rendering from two totally different methods. The creepy polygonal face of the Master Control Program is an enduring (if somewhat dated now) image. The light cycle duel sequence is iconic and, to my mind, not beaten in intensity by the updated Tron: Legacy version.
The second film was Young Sherlock Holmes, which featured one of the first (if not the first?) fully CG character, the stained glass knight. As a creature literally made of panes of glass, walking past the camera, it was an effect that could not have been done by a man in a suit or hand-animated. Brief as it was, you could tell it was game changing.
What is the role of a digital effects artist? What day your day to day consist of?
The thing with VFX at this point is ‘VFX artist’ covers a staggering array of roles. Not one artist does the A-Z process. At this point, most jobs are highly specialized, and run the gamut of purely technical to very artistic and everything in between. As an Environment TD, my job is somewhat more generalist, but focused on solving the various challenges of creating the spaces in which all the action takes place. I like to joke that if I do my job right, you never know I was there. I build buildings and city streets, whole forests, or a path in the woods. I have to think about skies and horizon lines as well as the much more immediate vicinity. I often have to manage huge builds with thousands of objects. I work closely with digital matte painters who fill in any 2D work.
I use several different programs and am often moving between them during the day. I’m loading shots and assets, working on them, then passing them into the pipeline to test the results. I go to dailies to show my work and get feedback, and now as a lead, I’m managing the artist under me and checking on his work. As a lead it’s also my job to maintain the logistics of our shot setups, bugfix when I can and when I can’t, flag issues to the people who will fix it. I talk to my supervisors and production daily, and I communicate with the artists in pipeline-adjacent departments regularly. VFX is, at this point, a complex team effort.
How do you choose your projects?
I have enough seniority now to choose my projects to an extent, though a great deal depends on resource availability and what shows my company has won the bid on. I am not, personally, a ‘show chaser’. Some artists will pick up and move cities and studios to work on a particular film, and their choice of employer can be governed by what films that studio has on the docket. I’ve always been more of a creature of habit, and I prefer stability to my particular choice of film. As a result I tend to stay put at one company. Then I tend to choose between what we have upcoming, based on my own preferences, working with crewing to see who needs what when.
This is not to say show chasers have it wrong… more like saying, in a world where there’s a lot of that going on, there’s also non-chasers like me. And we need both, because someone has to stay and know how the pipeline works!
You have an extensive list of notable credits, such as Fantastic Four, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, and Blade Runner 2049, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?
I’ve learned that you never know from the outset if a project is going to be good, manageable, or a disaster. Something you have to learn to live with is a great deal of the moviemaking process is totally outside VFX’s control. A film can be a nightmare to work on but end up very good in cinemas, or vice versa. We only see parts of the film, and in an unfinished state, and before you start on a film, it’s an open question. You might like the property… but it will have very little bearing on how the next several months of your life go while working on it. Renowned directors can be notoriously picky or prone to chronic indecision, studios can make sudden demands, famous actors can constantly interpose their opinions and demands… and that’s not even counting the particular human alchemy of the studio team itself. There are so many moving parts, you really never know.
Given that, you make your choice based on what you know, and past that, kind of hope for the best. I’m a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell, so I lobbied to be part of that one. Fantastic Four seemed like it would be fun, as I love comic book movies, but ended up being a nightmare. The initial designs of King Arthur also looked like fun, and a very different take than Excalibur, which I loved. Blade Runner was intriguing but an unknown at the time, because Hollywood has nothing if not a very dodgy track record with remakes and unasked for sequels. I hoped for the best, and ended up getting a win out of that one — the film was good! I never anticipated it would also result in a BAFTA and an Oscar.
Another significant credit is Ghost In The Shell, one of my personal favourite films of last year. The visuals are simply stunning. How was the process of working on such a futuristic looking film?
We were going for future/real, so we ended up with a lot of reference material from real places combined with concept art. I built the so-called courtyard set (the fight in a few inches of water) based on a concept artist’s rendering, and hundreds of photos taken by a ref team in Hong Kong.
The biggest task by far was full-CG builds of cityscapes that the camera flew through. It was a colossal effort that strained resources both human and computer. The challenge there is even a future city is still something familiar to audiences, and they’ll feel it if the visuals don’t work. The massive flythroughs required a large number of hero assets that couldn’t be cheated, and all the reflective surfaces and interior spaces further complicated everything. We created a huge number of assets then put them together into huge scene builds.
On the subject of upcoming projects, the trailer for Mary Poppins Returns was recently released. Disney live action films have such a specific look and feel to them, how was working on this project? Is it easier when there is previous work to be inspired from? For example, Beauty and The Beast, Cinderella, The BFG etc.
Mary Poppins has different demands and feel… the other Disney live action films are going for verisimilitude — a ‘real’ version of the Beast, for instance, as if he existed in the real world. The new Mary Poppins is hewing closer to the original idea of, in essence, being something of a stage show on film. It was a charming oddity even in its time. Because of that, it was a huge challenge to sort out how to bring that into being with modern effects technology. Our usual standards of hypereal or photoreal VFX simply don’t apply in the same way to an artistic style that was obviously and deliberately ‘stage-show painted’.
When coming aboard a project on a big budget film, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between a digital effects artist and the director?
There’s a whole bidding phase where a studio looks at the scope of work and bids their asking price. Once a show is awarded, resources are allocated and timetables are set up. Then we begin the ingestion process from the client — plates, reference material, concepts, plans, LIDAR set scans, actor scans, etc. The whole thing gets rolling from there.
Even as a department lead on a show, I don’t talk to the director. There’s a whole hierarchy of communication above us artists that manages that relationship. An entire cadre of VFX work is production; coordinators, production assistants, line producers, producers, supervisors, etc. Information that filters down to us is in the form of the changes we need to make. The upshot of this is we’re relatively insulated from the less than savory moments of ego and stress. I’d rather focus my energy on the small part I’m responsible for, especially when people in the highest positions of power on a film can be notoriously ignorant of what we actually do.
What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?
Two things are challenging. The most obvious is problematic clients. And that’s not always directors, it can come from anyone in a position of power. Often, there’s a surprising amount of indecision, especially surprising considering the millions of dollars being burned every day on the whole affair. You have to learn to grin and bear the worst of the idiocy, because they’re still the client. Professionalism means keeping your feelings out of it, doing your job, and venting later. Luckily, bad shows end and you move on to a new one.
The second is the inevitable clash of many humans in a space mixed with complex technology. The tech evolves constantly, it’s never ‘finished’ (ever), and multiple platforms have to communicate across terabytes of dataflow. The bugs are constant, sometimes elaborate, and often crop up at the worst times. Part of being a VFX artist is being a fixer. You learn the personality and foibles of the software you use, how to cajole it into doing what you want, and who to ask about what issue.
The enjoyable part is seeing it come together. Watching your test renders evolve from looking like bad pizza to indistinguishable from the plate shot on set. I also live coming up with solutions to creative problems. Moviemaking is, at its heart, an elaborate cheat. I get profound satisfaction from finding an elegant one. When we were building the courtyard for Ghost, the client saw our evolving builds for the courtyard, and ended up re-framing all the shot footage to show more of the backgrounds. That kind of confidence extended by the client is quite the reward. Or, you have moments when a client decides to ditch a plate altogether because the CG looks better. This can be time-consuming… but it does come with a certain satisfaction.
What would be your dream project to work on?
In a way, that’s the wrong question to ask… me at least. As I said above, whether a show is enjoyable to work on tends to be completely agnostic from the film’s content. After many a stinker and a lot of B-grade disposable projects, I joke that I’ll settle for a film being good. The team you work with makes a huge difference, as well as the client. I honestly prefer to think of my quality of life for the months it takes to complete it, rather than the end result, if that makes sense. A good end result on a film I enjoy is, of course, a source of pleasure and pride, as well as looking good on my reel. But I find you just can’t predict that in advance.
Considering the films I enjoy, I’d like to work on a Marvel movie, and the rumored Dune film(s). I love good sci-fi and genre stuff, but I’m also wary of Hollywood’s addiction to bad reboots. It’s honestly a fascinating moment to be a film and genre geek. It keeps you guessing. But Denis Villneuve has done some great sci-fi and I’d like to work on more of it.
What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a digital effects artist would be to an outsider?
The sheer extent of our intervention. We touch so much that most of the audience is never aware of. Everyone knows Guardians of the Galaxy is an effects extravaganza, but most people would be shocked at the sheer amount of VFX in something realistic like The Darkest Hour. More and more, we fully replace backgrounds, characters, props, you name it. For Blade Runner, we got quite a lot of real on-set shoots… and replaced quite a bit of it for various reasons (all at the behest of the director, mind you — we don’t shift a pixel without they and the VFX sup’s direction). We replace actors in dangerous stunts, location shoots where the weather didn’t cooperate, prop failures, bad planning, costumes not looking right, an actor cut his finger, the director likes this take for that part but that take for the other, etc etc. We fix anything and everything.
A common joke at work is live plates (footage from set) is expensive reference material. And based on what I’ve seen, this trend is only going to continue.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a digital effects artist, how would you recommend they go about it?
This is a difficult question to answer because a) it’s been a dozen+ years since I did it, and a lot has changed in that time, and b), I just don’t think there is or ever was a single concrete answer that applies. This isn’t a well-trod career like law or medicine where so many people have gone before you and there are clear school-to-job pathways. Arguably, school-to-job is less and less clear over most careers these days. My path was certainly less than straight, and that’s despite living in a very good city for it, and having the privilege of financial support from my parents. Not everyone has those things.
It’s also difficult to answer because the sheer variety of tasks needed under the umbrella of digital effects means there simply isn’t one way to go. Some people, like me, will come to it from an almost purely artistic background, and work on technical skills as they go. Others will come to it from programming, computer tech, or even math. (Apparently, to make the snow effects for Frozen, a group of Phd math geeks worked for something like three years? VFX is, at its heart, a huge math equation.)
With that in mind, I would tell an aspiring artist to first figure out what part of the process they legitimately enjoy doing the most. Having established that, then figure out what core skills will influence that task. Be it acting, sculpture, digital painting, programming, simulation, light physics, composition, color, timing, movement of objects in space, or what have you. The skills that travel with you regardless of software or proprietary pipeline. Mastering a software is great… until the industry moves away from it (or in my case eight professional years with Softimage, only to have be bought by another company and shot in the proverbial head. It happens. It will happen again.)
Core skills don’t get lost when this happens. A great animator will always be great because they understand acting, timing and expression, not because they know software X. This is also what employers are looking for on your reel. Knowing a particular software is a bonus, not the central issue.
If I had one opinion it’s that VFX schooling starts you learning how to work with other artists. No one is a lone wolf, you have to get used to that fact of life.
What would your top three tips for aspiring digital effects artists be?
VFX employers are only interested in your reel — your actual work. Your degree is a piece of paper. It might show a certain dedication, but it’s no substitute for showing you can perform the job. You don’t need to rely on classes to build that reel, either. At this point you can find a treasure trove of tools and lessons online.
Teamwork is incredibly essential, and your reputation is important. VFX is a small community with members that travel constantly. You can win or lose jobs just based on being a good or bad co-worker, because your reputation will travel too.
Software and technology is changing all the time. You will never stop learning, so the portability of skills between softwares is what counts in the end. A modeler needs sculpting skills, an animator needs acting chops, lighters need to understand surface qualities and color, etc.
Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of digital effects artists?
One more thing for new artists: take a stand for your personal time. Overtime is common and runs the gamut from reasonable to challenging to completely abusive slave labor, depending on the studio and film. Do not sell your life to a studio — you will burn out. You will make mistakes that cost everyone else more time. VFX artists deserve work/life balance too, and both you and the work you do will be better if you take time away from it. If a studio is being abusive, leave. The upside of VFX being something of a travelling career is changing studios is totally normalized.