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Visual effects producer Priyanka Balasubramanian pulls back the curtain on the VFX industry, to reveal the workings of the community
Tell us how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Priyanka Balasubramanian has a realistic, yet optimistic, attitude about working in the constantly-evolving, fast-paced visual effects (VFX) industry. Growing up and doing her undergrad in Chennai, followed by a Masters in London, paved the way for her pursuit of a career in the film industry. “I wanted to do my Masters in Film and Television, but not a lot of universities at the time offered scholarships in the arts realm. I aimed to get into producing feature films, but landed in visual effects,” she says, crediting a book a friend, who worked at Moving Picture Company, gave her as the reason she became intrigued with the field. Today, Balasubramanian’s resume includes work on films from the Marvel and Harry Potter universes, The Martian, and The Fate of the Furious.
What did you study?
I did my BSc (Visual Communication) at University of Madras and MA (Independent Film, video and New Screen Media) from University of East London.
What was your career path?
Her beginnings in the industry were humble. “I started by serving tea and coffee and delivering old tapes and hard drives to artists and studios. I think when you work in the London visual effects scene, everybody does start from the very bottom, current managing directors included. And people in the top tier, having gone through that, know how to treat runners, PAs and interns. This would probably be looked at differently in India, but what I liked about the UK industry is that everyone more or less starts out at the same level.”
Her time as a runner gave her useful insight into what was ahead and she transitioned into data-wrangling: a key aspect of pre-production that involves copious research, where her potential was noticed. “People saw me as quite organised, and recommended I give producing a shot, where I’d be managing people’s time and budgets and mediating with clients—which I enjoy because I think I am a people’s person. And working with people in this world can be challenging, but it’s worth it.”
Balasubramanian then went on to actively pursue production. She returned to India for two years, where she worked with studios in Mumbai on both Bollywood and Hollywood films. She points out that this experience was pivotal in her seeing the best of two very different but successful film domains. “Ultimately, my roots as an Indian were, and still are, important to me, and I didn’t want to alienate that, either.”
Tell us about a few of your VFX projects.
Thrown into the deep end, her first major project as a producer was Chandni Chowk to China (2009), one of India’s most VFX-laden films, with 2,000 shots involving effects.
“When I was in India, I didn’t know about the existence of an organised visual effects industry. I had thought it was all probably done in Hollywood by a small group of people. The more you get to know an industry, the more you see how little a contribution a single person makes to a whole industry. When you watch the unending credits of these massive movies, and you see your name in the midst of it all, it’s delightful.”
She says a key similarity between the East and the West is in the tools and technology used in compositing and animation: “For the bigger projects in Hollywood, though, you would have a bigger team of coders, writing scripts on how to make things more streamlined. But now with projects like Baahubali, India has really landmarked itself.”
After a move back to the UK, Balasubramanian added to her portfolio The Monuments Men, Ghost in the Shell,and the Harry Potter movies, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them included, and upcoming projects include Alien Covenant. “I’ve worked on medium-sized projects, too, because they tend to have smaller teams and they operate more like a family.”
Tell us about your venture.
In 2015, she founded her own VFX studio in London, Hula Hoop, where she works with artists from India, Turkey and Bulgaria. “On any set, you can see every ethnicity imaginable, and each person comes from a unique background, which really aids in the storytelling process of creating a film.”
A strong advocate for bringing women back to the workplace, she explains, “Since the industry is so unforgiving in terms of the number of hours you put in, as well as the nature of the work, it makes it tough to have a work-life balance. This makes it hard for people, especially women, after they’ve had kids, to keep up with the rigours of the VFX industry. And what we’re trying to do at Hula Hoop is keep women in the thrum of the work, while still letting them dedicate time to their families. The Internet’s made it so easy to work from home, and be safe and secure—and if we’ve worked with them before, why not keep them on?”
How does VFX add value to a film?
You would expect any VFX producer to enjoy the salient projections the most, but Balasubramanian differs, “For me, visual effects is not supposed to be a genre on its own, but a medium that helps you tell a story. I’m a big fan of ‘invisible VFX’—what you don’t see. Say I’m doing a scene set in 1920s or ’30s New York or London—if I can recreate that entire set without anybody knowing it was all computer-generated, I think that’s its own success.”
On the transience of art, she says, “A project doesn’t need to be screaming out loud that this is VFX at work. It’s the subtlety where it’s not seen as something artificial. The scale of visual effects is, ultimately, dependent on the audience it goes for. The big feature films, like that of Marvel, which include a lot of extraterrestrial and supernatural aspects, seem to nail the success formula. Great scripts make all the difference, conveying if the visual effects are supplementary or central to the story. And I love juggling between those scales, because each project’s individuality makes it exciting.”