Please tell us about yourself

Academy of Art University School of Animation & Visual Effects alumnus Saurabh Maurya has grown into a powerhouse VFX artist working on prolific projects, such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Marvel’s The Iron Fist, The Defenders and Jessica Jones. Currently he works with Crafty Apes VFX, a studio based in New York, where he is the CG lead on Star Trek: Discovery, but he has had a tough path to the top.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

“I’m from Bombay, India. My mother is a doctor and my father is an engineer. I was in engineering college before, but it wasn’t my thing. It took me three years to convince my parents to let me do something else,” said Maurya. “In India, there is no infrastructure, so I don’t blame them. [Visual effects] was completely unchartered territory.

Maurya’s first exposure to visual effects was The Matrix and he had wanted to learn how to do the work since. “Everybody thinks art is for somebody who doesn’t excel in study. Everybody looks at someone who isn’t doing medicine, or engineering or law as somebody who is not doing well in life,” chuckled Maurya

I‘m sure a lot of us will relate to this but through out my entire childhood every one around me, my family, my relatives, my friends’ families, their relatives, even my friend’s dog had a plan for me. A mantra to lead a happy successful life, ‘Excel in Academics, get a decent job’. As simple as it sounds it had many hidden layers – excel meant you can only come first in all exams, there is no option of coming second and a decent job means either an engineer or a doctor. In India every one thinks if you choose a profession other than a doctor or an engineer you’ll end up being homeless or even worse. My brother chose to be come a doctor so i was left with the only other alternative. now i don’t have any thing against engineering but i hated every second of it. There was no way to justify these emotions because people would label you as dumb and a failure. And as clichéd as it sounds, if you don’t love some thing that you do then failure is inevitable. i failed in my very first year of engineering and that one moment of failure turned out to be the biggest turning point of my life.

There is this beautiful quote that i stumbled upon, “i’m not what i think iam, i’m not what you think iam. Iam what i think you think iam.” I realised that this path that my parents, my friends, the society was carving for me, i didn’t feel like it was for me. That failure took away all the inhibitions and i was constantly looking for a different path. Iron Man was released around that time and it blew my mind. i had this curiosity built up inside me and i wanted to be on that path to pursue filmmaking. The last time i felt this curious was almost a decade ago when i saw The Matrix and at that time the idea of pursuing filmmaking was as bad as be ing a terrorist. I was scared to bring up the idea again to my parents so i let curiosity be the guide which introduced me to photoshop, and from photo shop to AfterEffects to Maya to a new world of animation. I gave into my curious gut and decided to convince my parents that i wanted to drop out of engineering and pursue animation. It took me three years and a lot of courage to finally convince them and hesitantly so, they gave in.

What were the other challenges?

How ever my parents were not the only ones that needed convincing. We live in a prying society where i was constantly being told, ‘Your father is an engineer, your mother is a doctor, even your brother is a doctor, why are you taking up arts? You don’t like studying’, ‘You will have a miserable future and will be poor and homeless’ to things like ‘Your parents will have to give dowry for you’. This list is endless and it started making me insecure, and i started questioning my decision. But i was clinging to that one moment of failure in engineering, which ironically enough gave me the courage to take the leap of faith and go to SanFrancisco to pursue animation at Academy of Art University. I learned this the very hard way that you can not make every one happy. It sure was a bumpy ride but i was glad that i took up this chance. i was also told that art students never get visas/ sponsorship. And there came a day close to my graduation where i got a job offer but the visa did not come through. For a moment i started thinking i was wrong. But this entire journey from dropping out of engineering to animation was one of the most fantastic learning experiences for me, and i am not just talking about the skills that i learnt but the resilience that i had built up. I made some great friends and mentors throughout this journey who have been and are still my biggest support system. i knew i was doing all the right things, giving 100 per cent, converting the interview to a job offer but the visa is not in my hand.

Being an international student there will always be extra layers of hassle. i decided to work on something that is within my approach. So in stead of working on a new Hollywood blockbuster movie be fore i graduated i was working on a student thesis short film. Little did i know but this student thesis short film (Soar) went ahead and won a Student oscar in 2015. Yet again this failure of me not getting a visa actually turned out to be a gamechanging moment. I realised that i had changed my focus on getting a visa rather than why i came here in the first place. i went back to my curiosity, embraced the randomness and pursued my passion and figured the visa will fall in place. Four years in this industry and having worked on a little over 30 films/tv shows and here we are. i am glad that i took the leap of faith, i am glad that i failed be cause now, “i’m what i think i am”.

Tell us about your work

He began his work at the Academy as a traditional compositor but moved into CG compositing, because he liked doing more photoreal work. This presented the new difficulty of not finding enough CG renders. “I started exploring modeling, lighting and texturing. I’m basically a generalist,” Maurya said. “Most people get jobs by specializing. I’ve done different things with almost every project. Make sure you have a secondary skill set also.”

Paul Kanyuk, Maurya’s former instructor at the Academy, said he excelled in his Crowd Simulation and RenderMan courses, which had a reputation of difficulty. “The projects in both classes are often some of the more technically challenging, and Saurabh was able to thrive in this environment,” Kanyuk said. “Shortly after he graduated, I was thoroughly impressed that he had taken the initiative to learn Katana on his own, installing Linux on his home machine. That kind of self-sufficiency goes a long way in this industry and I’m sure is a part of what has helped Saurabh succeed in the field.”

Fresh out of graduation, Maurya wanted to move into television and feature film work, but was having difficulty securing work. He spent a brief period doing visual effects work for Google and Apple ads, but he made sure to keep an impressive demo reel of professional and personal work at the ready. Chen Hsu, an old classmate from the Academy who was working at Atomic Fiction, approached Maurya for work Atomic was doing on Game of Thrones.

Your career path?

My first job right out of school was at Ntropic (a design agency based in San Francisco) where I worked for four months on Ads for Google, Apple, etc. I wanted to work in films but, being an international student, things were not working out due to visa complications in the first place.

Thankfully, one of my good friends from the Academy, Chen Hsu, who was working at Atomic Fiction in Oakland, referred me to his studio. That was the breaking point to me, as I got to work for Game of Thrones, The Walk, and Pixels, along with other exciting titles, which brought me ensuing opportunities. I will forever be grateful to Chen for referring me.

Your advice to students?

Networking is very important. Your skill set will get your foot in the door, but your relationships and how you conduct yourself keep you there,” he stressed. “Also, you have to know what trends are happening and what the industry is doing right now. Don’t use your class assignments as your demo reel. Make something on your own. Everyone has a dream of working at ILM. Whenever someone gets the job, I examine what is in their portfolio that’s not in mine. That’s why they got the job.”

Maurya wants both professionals and students to know that for a demo reel it is best to have a strong primary skill and a secondary skill. However, diversity of work is also important. Collaboration and work in unfamiliar environments can lead to the development of new skill sets and connections.

“I met most of my classmates working on Recoil, a thesis film of a student at USC. After that I worked on Soar, which won the Student Academy Award,” said Maurya. “It wasn’t my style, because I prefer more photoreal work and that was like a Pixar style, but I benefited from that because I learned time management—what to move forward with and what to leave behind.”

Put your work on ArtStation and CGWorld for feedback, not Facebook, and make sure to look for trends in the work. And if you want to make a portfolio, specialization is the key. Don’t build an entire city. Work on a small scene so you can show close ups.”

“My mom still thinks I make cartoons, although my dad watches my shows on both TV and in the theater. They’re pretty happy with my work now.”