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Lessons from ASWF’s Careers in Film & Technology Webinar Series

By August 13, 2021No Comments

Our recent Careers in Film + Technology webinar series gathered developers and engineers from top Hollywood studios to give students an inside look at different career paths in visual effects and animation. Curated by ASWF’s Diversity and Inclusion working group, the 6-part series fostered informative discussions about how the speakers got started in their careers, advice on useful soft skills and educational resources, and the impact that open source has had in their professional development.

Today, we’re releasing full video recordings from the webinar series on our YouTube channel so that this information will be available to anyone on-demand. 

To share a taste of what’s covered in the webinar series, we’ve compiled some of the key themes here. Read on for tips directly from film and technology professionals at Netflix, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), DreamWorks Animation, and many more. And if you’re a high school or college student who loves movies and are at all interested in technology, computer science, computer graphics, VFX, or animation, be sure to get involved with ASWF through our student Slack channel, joining a mailing list, or even contributing your own code to one of our open source projects!

Communication is Key

In addition to developing technical skills, it’s essential to develop and demonstrate “soft skills”, such as good communication. In VFX and animation, artists and technologists often work closely and have to speak each other’s languages in order to successfully collaborate.

Karen Ruggles (Associate Professor of Computer Science at DeSales University): Beyond learning C++ or Python, a lot of the skills needed to be successful are more of the soft skills: being a good communicator, talking to people who don’t really speak your language in the sense of you’re technical and they’re artistic or you’re artistic and they’re technical. So developing your communication skills early is really important.

Ferby Cremer (Graduate Student Instructor at UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering): Practice your communication with friends and family. If you can get that person who doesn’t code to understand your coding project or your coding problem, then your communication skills are at the highest level.

Bridgette Powell (Senior Software Engineer at MobileCoin): Soft skills are really important in the film industry as well. I think that being comfortable with asking questions is the biggest thing that you can learn, and that’s also something that you can learn now, like taking advantage of asking your professors clarifying questions when you don’t understand. Also admitting what you don’t know. A lot of times it saves everyone time when you just say that you don’t know something and that you’re willing to find out, or to find somebody who does and learn from them.

Noe Martinez (Supervising Technical Director at DreamWorks Animation): A big part of a job like a technical director is to interact with different teams, so we definitely look for some sort of representative experience or skills. I think one way that you can develop that is perhaps being a TA in school, or even just getting comfortable explaining things to people in your life. You know, try to explain a modern mobile app and what it does to your grandparents – that’s seriously useful for developing those skills.

Learn the Artistic Side

One of the most tangible steps to preparing for a career in this industry, even in a technological capacity, is to take a class or other tutorial in VFX or animation. Gaining first hand exposure to the creative applications and workflows will give you a solid foundation for understanding the creative production process that can inform your career.

Bridgette Powell (Senior Software Engineer at MobileCoin): If your school has it, I would encourage you to take an animation and visual effects class, even if you don’t want to be an artist, because it gives you great perspective as to what a lot of artists are going through. It’s really more about getting you familiar with the process of making movies, and an appreciation for the amount of work that artists do. No one’s expecting you to be a world famous animator, but at least learning how to navigate around Maya and understanding the different modes that exist in the program I think is really helpful.

Tracy Priest (Software Engineer at DreamWorks Animation): I don’t have an artistic background, but in my grad program I took a modeling class, an animation class, and a texture class, and that really gave me the basic foundations for what those departments do and helped me understand their workflows better. So as a technologist I can now use that knowledge to help make tools for them to ease their pain during the production process.

Mallory King (Pipeline TD and Systems Engineer at Apple): For getting started in this business, it’s very useful to learn how to communicate with artists using their language. So understanding how a painter would describe what they’re doing, or how a photographer or cinematographer would describe what they’re doing, and be able to talk about things in terms of shots and camera lenses and composition and all those kinds of things – because that helps you understand how the artists are using whatever tools you’re developing and it helps you build better tools.

Get Involved with ASWF

One great way to build both your skills and your network is to get involved with the Academy Software Foundation! Whether you’re contributing code to one of our open source projects, or just getting to know people in our student Slack channel, there’s a way in for anyone who’s interested.

Rachel Rose (R&D Supervisor at ILM): One of the things that we’re really looking for when we interview new people, especially people that are just coming out of school, is showing initiative. Being involved in something like the Academy Software Foundation or an independent project that you’ve gotten really excited about and really pushed to the extreme, that is the type of thing that catches people’s attention. Getting involved with the ASWF shows future employers that you have both the ability to interact with people that are in the industry and doing this job, and also that you have a lot of drive and excitement in this space.

Michael Dolan (Lead Pipeline Developer at Epic Games): If you’re a computer science student wanting to get involved, you can choose an ASWF project like OpenColorIO and go to the Github page, you can look at the issues being flagged which will help you find sort of like entry level stuff to get you familiar with the code. And then you can start to contribute in little ways, you could be fixing bugs, you could be improving documentation, and you’ll start to get more familiar with it. It’s cool to be able to learn from those who have been doing this for a long time, you get a lot of feedback and it’s a really great mentorship opportunity.

Rob Bredow (SVP and Chief Creative Officer at ILM): The ASWF projects are a really good way to get exposed to leading technologists in the industry and it’s completely open to anyone whether you go to a prestigious university or not, or even if you don’t have any schooling, but if you’re interested in some of these areas or you want to develop your skills this is a great place to do it. You’re getting your code reviewed by somebody who’s been working in this industry for 15-20 years – that’s an opportunity that might not have been available to someone without an interest in open source.

Tracy Priest (Software Engineer at DreamWorks Animation): If you’re interested in Technical Director as a career goal, I recommend trying to get involved in any of the open source projects at the Academy Software Foundation. This is a great way to get your feet wet in film technology, learning the technology that the different studios are using, and meeting a lot of the people who are contributing to these projects who are industry experts and super welcoming and helpful. If you’re not ready to start contributing to open source, joining any of the working groups is also a great way to see how we’re using these technologies.

Ask Questions

The industry is constantly changing, forcing us all to keep learning new things and adapting our skill sets. No one knows everything – so there’s no shame if you have a question or need to learn a bit more about an unfamiliar topic.

Kathryn Skorpil (Supervising Technical Director at DreamWorks Animation): We really like people that are really proactive and aren’t afraid to go ask questions and are comfortable being wrong. I joke all the time that I still have lots of questions, I don’t know the answers to everything, even after 11 years and that’s totally fine! It’s just part of the job, and part of what’s fun about the job too.

Carol Payne (Imaging Technologist at Netflix): Never stop learning. It’s so cheesy but this industry changes all the time. It’s only a few years ago that I’d never worked on anything related to, for example, virtual production in my life. Everybody in the film industry has had to have a crash course in changing the way that we make content on a lot of our productions and that’s pretty insane. And don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. It’s really hard to admit when you don’t know something, especially in front of people that you admire and that you know you want to work with, but in my opinion, a great way to gain people’s actual trust is to say, “I don’t know.” And to then follow that up with, “but I can figure it out, let me go and do some research, let me double check my answer,” and then follow up. I’d so much prefer hearing that than a half answer or not saying anything or pretending like you know.

Karen Ruggles (Associate Professor of Computer Science at DeSales University): Always be learning and always be honing your craft. If you’re not honing your craft and you don’t have anything left to learn then you’re probably declining. So keep learning and keep exploring and don’t be afraid, it’s only going to make you better.