3D Artist

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan

News & Features
Carrie Mok

The ILM compositor and compositing tech lead tells us why she started the portrait and video series highlighting women in the VFX industry

Across the VFX industry, the gender gap has been a noticeable and often discussed issue. Though the gap has been closing in recent years, it can’t be denied that there’s still that overhanging problem that there just isn’t enough women in visual effects.

One project that’s hoping to change that is Women in VFX. Started by Charmaine Chan, Women in VFX is a portrait and video series that brings a voice to the women working in the industry and hopes to inspire future generations of women to join and excel in the field. We spoke to Chan to find out more about the project and the current state of the industry.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan

What’s your professional background?

I started off in the industry doing motion graphics at Deluxe, specifically for DVD and Blu-ray menus. However, when I first started at ILM, I had a more technical role as a Digital Resource Assistant dealing with data management. I then moved on to become an Assistant Technical Director, where I learned all the in’s and out’s of the ILM pipeline across all disciplines. Since I had a 2d background from start I took more interest in compositing and helped develop a canonical system with Nuke and streamlined the overall compositing workflow. I am now currently both a Compositor and the Compositing Tech Lead for ILM San Francisco.

How different was the industry when you first started? How did it make you feel?

I started in the industry about 10 years ago. It was a very intimidating environment starting off at ILM. It was a company full of veterans who essentially created the VFX industry. And here I was as a 21-year old kid with barely any experience trying to work on big groundbreaking films. However, the more I got to know the people working at the company, the more I would hear common stories of how certain star artists and supervisors have worked their way up the company, starting in very similar roles as myself. That was the push I needed to know that I could be successful as well.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan Photo credit: Film Frame.© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

What is the current state for women in the industry?

There is definitely a shift towards more women entering into the industry. Recently, ILM noted that half of the entry-level workforce at the company are women, and I definitely see that change. However it’s retaining that talent pool of women and helping them learn and grow that should be most company’s focus. There is also a strong presence of women already in the industry that just don’t seem to get the limelight like their male counterparts do. That is why I have started my project “Women in VFX”

What is it like to work to work as a woman in your current place of work?

The VFX industry is a tough industry to begin with, long hours and crazy client demands, can make it difficult for anyone. However as a woman, there are times where it can be difficult to get a point or opinion across. It’s not exactly overt sexism, but the little actions like being spoken over or interrupted that has more so to do with our cultural upbringings than anything. It’s not something common that happens, but it does happen. However on a more day-to-day basis, ILM is a very supportive environment for women. We are a company run mainly by women. And we have a good amount of female leads and supervisors (however there can always be more ;). We also have a strong presence of women in our R&D and pipeline groups, so we’re spread across both art and technology.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan Photo Credit: Film Frame.© Marvel 2016

Where did the idea for Women in VFX come from?

In the last 5 years or so, there’s been a huge buzz about the inequality of women in the workforce and how the pay gap and glass ceiling still exists across numerous industries. Both the tech industry and Hollywood have been at the forefront of the topic, yet for visual effects, an industry that encompasses both, there has been very little discussion about it at all. I started trying to look into statistics and numbers of women in VFX and was shocked to find barely information at all. I could try to talk to companies and try and get those numbers, but I didn’t feel like that would be as effective. I knew there were super talented and driven women in our industry already, and that we are so used to being behind the scenes, perhaps for once we should be in front of the cameras and finally be heard about our experiences of being in the industry.

Why is a project like Women in VFX important for the industry?

If we are to be in an industry that innovates new ways of visual storytelling, we need a diverse group of people and mindset to get that. And the only way to achieve that is through the inclusion of more women, more people of color, more LGBTQ individuals, etc.

Were there any responses from the artists involved in the series that surprised you?

We started interviewing right before the election and it was rather uplifting to hear how many of them were excited for a possible first female president for the U.S. But then of course the election didn’t go that way, and we continued our interviews after it. There was definitely a different vibe to our interviews after that event. What surprised me most was that despite political parties, whoever you may have voted for, every single woman felt like the results of the election was in some ways a personal attack on them.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan
Women in VFX: Kaori Ogino is a CG technology supervisor

What do you want to achieve with Women in VFX?

I would like to gain a global worldwide perspective of what it’s like to be a woman within the industry. Right now we are starting locally in San Francisco with just ILM, however we’d like to expand out to all the other visual effects houses out there. The more visibility there is of the talented women already in the industry, the better representation we can show to hopefully influence future generations of women to want to be part of this amazing industry.

When are the next batch of interviews being uploaded and who will feature in the series next?

Our first batch of interviews consisted of 9 supervisors. We are releasing a video every other week. Once we finish editing this first batch, we will move onto our second batch of ILM interviews including more artists, production, pipeline engineers, and of course our Academy Award winning R&D team.

However in the long term, we want to make this as widespread and global as possible so we are in talks with a few people and companies around the world about our next stages of this project.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan
Women in VFX: Lindy De Quattro is a VFX supervisor

Do you think enough is being done right now to increase diversity in the industry, whether for gender, ethnic minorities, LGBT etc?

Personally I don’t think enough is being done. There is a movement going on for equality and diversity, but within the industry itself, no one is taking charge for being the change that we need. We need the people in charge actively and publicly showing the action and change for diversity. Don’t get me wrong, there are many organisations like Women in Animation who are positively working hard to make that change, but that change needs to be seen on a more corporate/film level.

How do you think the industry could improve in those areas?

A huge issue that I and a lot of other women have faced is that over and over again we’ve been given less opportunities to excel, not because a lack of skillset, but because of cultural and societal expectations. We need more leaders to rethink their approach their employees and new hires. For example, just because one is a mother with children at home, does not mean she cannot be a successful supervisor. We need to set aside our gender biases and look at people as people.

But we also need to realise that right now the imbalance is there, and we need to reevaluate all minorities in across the board and really think about whether or not they were given every chance to excel.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan
Women in VFX: Lana Lan is a model supervisor

What do you think about the lack of women being nominated for any of the films up for a Best Visual Effects Oscar this year?

I think this again comes from the cultural expectations of women. Because we work in an industry that has long hours and is not the best when it comes to work life balance, some people automatically assume women are not fit for the role of a supervisor or lead; or that she would have interest in the major blockbuster films that typically receive nominations. Last year was the first time we saw a female supervisor win the Oscar! So it’s rather disheartening to go from such an achievement back to absolutely no women being nominated once again. On the brighter side this year marks the second year a woman from ILM was awarded a Technical Academy Award and that’s a trend I love to see.

Women in VFX: Q&A with Charmaine Chan
Women in VFX: Maia Kayser is an animation supervisor.

What advice do you have for studios to increase diversity?

First, I think they need to acknowledge that it’s very likely that there is a lack of diversity in their company. Then they need take a hard look at which departments and disciplines stand out due to this omission. Once people begin to look at their organisation they begin to realise that sometimes the minorities with the most talent aren’t necessarily the most outspoken or the obvious choices. So first we need to identify these talented individuals then we need to be supportive and help them to become the leaders and mentors this industry is currently lacking.

And what advice do you have for young women wanting to enter the industry?

At the end of the day, visual effects as an industry makes the impossible possible. We get to bring worlds to life creatures never imagined to the screen and, for a few hours, happiness and entertainment to a global audience. If you are passionate about it, and you know you want to be that visual storyteller, keep at it. It will be hard, and your patience will be tested, but you will be in an industry with other people just as motivated and imaginative and you will learn and grow so much!