Though the world of visual effects is brimming with technological advancements, achieving photorealism in animation is as difficult as it gets !

Anisha Gupta, our next pathbreaker, Senior Lighting Artist at Method Studios, Montreal (Canada), works with CG and VFX professionals to make every image realistic and immersive.

Anisha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work in top animation studios (Rhythm and Hues and DreamWorks), and complementing her experience with a fine arts degree in illustration from California College of Arts to understand the nuances of visual story telling.

For students, it takes a lot of effort behind the scenes to make an animation movie. But its all worth it in the end when the final product is unleashed on screen !

Anisha,Your background?

I primarily lived in Delhi with my parents and elder sister. My father is a Mechanical Engineer and my mother, after completing B.Ed., chose to be a homemaker to take care of us. As we grew, she had her share of successful entrepreneurial ventures. My father started his career in Research and Development and worked his way up to be a management consultant. My sister studied Architecture but eventually found her passion in IT and Data Management . I have always been surrounded with Doctors and Engineers through my extended family. 

After some introspection, I realized that I was interested in practical work. I found myself engaging in explaining logic.

I was good at arts and crafts in school and took part in  competitions, also won a few of them. My parents recognized my strengths and encouraged me to pursue higher studies in art and design. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated with an Advanced Diploma in Fashion Design. Since it was a Diploma, none of the prestigious colleges in India offered me a chance for post graduation. Despite being a promising student, I had to drop out from NIFT Delhi’s post graduation program in Fashion Design because I did not have a Bachelor’s Degree. After the setback, I explored opportunities in the Animation Industry. I worked for a couple of years as a Lighting Artist. Later, in order to get a professional degree in the field of animation, I decided to pursue a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts from California College of Arts (Illustration) in the US.

What brought you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As a kid of the 80’s-90’s, I remember the only channel we could watch on TV was Doordarshan. We did not have a tv/cable connection until we were in college. We just got 30 minutes of TV time. I would always pick cartoons as my favourite. Those days the most popular ones were He-man, Duck tales, Tom and Jerry, Mickey mouse and the likes. There were some Indian animation short films like Ek Chidiya, Anek Chidiya. I was fascinated by them which made me curious to know more about how they were made.

In the early years, there was very little awareness about the huge effort that goes in behind the scenes to make a movie, especially in the Animation industry. It is a huge team effort and the end product is the result of hard work and co-ordination between the various departments, from inception to the final product.  

Coming from a family of doctors and engineers, this was not a career option at all. In the absence of the internet, neither our schools nor we were equipped with knowledge on offbeat careers. 

As an animation professional, one is acknowledged behind the scenes. Your name is part of the credit list that runs down at the end of every film. For an introvert like me this seemed like a perfect world. It was my dream to see my name in the credit list of any movie. But, I finally went to a Design college to study Fashion Design.

I am not sure if I had mentors. I always went by my own instincts. After completing my studies, I went to work with a top notch export house followed by design studios. But I always felt something was missing. I was always dragged towards advertising, graphics and media.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

I really didn’t plan my path to the Animation industry. I saw opportunities and kept exploring them. I had tried the National Institute of Design entrance examination once, but unfortunately was not selected.

While I was working for a design studio I got to know about a 6 month animation course that promised industry experience. After a lot of research, I enrolled into a certificate course that taught the various software that are used in animation. Towards the end of the course, the institute organized a field trip to Mumbai. I went on the field trip and could feel that my dreams might finally become a reality. I met some industry professionals through seminars, went for some studio visits, and got a bird’s eye view of the process of making an animation film. After completing my course in Delhi, I returned to Mumbai to find a job. I spent a month hand delivering my demo reel and resume to every possible studio. 

My first job in animation was a 6 month internship as a Lighting Intern with a small studio called Maya Entertainment Ltd. After completing the internship I got a permanent job offer with a decent salary. 

After a year, because I had hand delivered my demo reel, I received a call from Rhythm and Hues (India) asking if I was still interested in being a part of their organization. At that time they were the harbingers in the live action (VFX) movies department other than Weta and Industrial Light and Magic. They had won an Oscar award (Academy Award) for Golden Compass in the year 2008. They had a niche for creature animation, hair and fur. I went through a series of interviews and got through their 3 month training program. As a part of the training, they taught us Linux (Linux is an operating system used in every established studio today), as well as in-depth concepts of Lighting and how a production pipeline works. After a few months, I moved to Prana Studios and finally to Dreamworks Dedicated Unit (India). In Prana Studios I had worked as Lookdev and Lighting artist. This experience gave me an opportunity to understand how textures, shades and models react to lights.

With my experience in all the studios, I grew in terms of technology, techniques, creativity and soft skills. At Dreamworks I had the opportunity to see how animation movies were made from inception to a finished product.

When I started working with Dreamworks, I went through 3 months of learning. Like Rhythm and Hues, they had a process to work with crowds, fx, scatter objects (generally used for foliage). The process was advanced and was built to be efficient, yet keeping the quality standards high. Another unique fact was, a lighting artist is also a compositing artist. That meant an image from lighting is the final product. I not only got to enhance my creative and technical skills but also tremendously grew in terms of managing time, organizing my day and learnt to be methodical in my approach. This was also one studio where an employee had an access to pre-production and post production work. We could see daily updates on every task.  

After a few years of working with Dreamworks, I decided to take a break and study further to learn the process of designing. It took me quite a while to explore different options, but eventually I joined an Art School in the US and graduated with a BFA in Illustration. I also got to know about the different ways in which science could be combined with Arts. Because of the extensive use of science and technology in the animation Industry it is now a part of the STEM program in the US.

Illustration is the language of visual story telling through any form of art. One can express their opinion in a powerful yet subtle way. In a way Illustration and Animation are interconnected – they both are means of storytelling. Illustration helped me in learning the design process involved in visual story telling. In two and half years of studies, I had gained much more than expected. For my thesis project, I had written, designed and Illustrated a children’s pop up book. I had also developed interest in paper engineering and VR. 

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.”-Jack Canfield. Coming from a middle class family in India, it can be tough to study in an art school as an international student. These schools demand a lot time, effort, energy and can be financially draining. During my last semester, I had applied for jobs all over the world. I got a some responses that resulted in a few interviews. I finally settled with Moving Picture Company (MPC) in Montreal. I was excited as well as anxious to be back to Lighting after a long break. This was my first work experience outside my home country while every aspect around me was new.

Though the concepts of lighting remain the same, the process to achieve photorealism is very different. In VFX, we get “on set” data in the form of grey and chrome spheres that shows us the position and kinds of lights used on actual sets. We replicate this information in computer through software. By this process we make sure the computer generated element fits with the image provided by the client. The process does reduce the creative complexities but increases the technical challenges. Dumbo was my first project in MPC and probably the longest. This project literally built my concepts in lighting for VFX. Thereafter, I worked on Maleficent 2 : The mistress of Evil, Noelle and The voyages of Dr. Dolittle.

After a while, I got an opportunity to work with Redefine FX Ltd. It is a sister studio of Double Negative. As a Senior Lighting Artist I got to work directly with CG supervisors and VFX supervisors. Because the team was much smaller I got the freedom to work independently on a lot of shows. To name a few : Sweet Girl (Netflix movie) , The white tiger, Bhramastra and Foundation. Because of Pandemic the last two years have been a bit slow with less work than usual. 

I have recently joined Method Studios based in Montreal. I am still to unfold what is in store for me in this studio.

How did you get your first break?

My first job in animation was a 6 month internship as a Lighting Intern with a small studio called Maya Entertainment Ltd. After completing the internship I got a permanent job offer with a decent salary. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Software and Pipeline : In my opinion, the biggest challenge in Lighting is also a blessing. Lighting is one department in the process of CG (Computer Graphics) where every element (model, texture, rigging, animation, FX) is brought together and then converted into a 2D image. This image is what we see on the screen after it goes through compositing and editing. With the understanding of how these elements are put together, we ensure every aspect is up to date and approved by clients. Every studio has their own workflow and custom software. The only way to overcome this challenge is to learn, observe, always ask questions and be determined in building solutions. 

Challenge 2: Technology : In my opinion this field is quite robust. An ever-growing thirst for getting as close as possible to realism never lets one rest. Emergence of AI/VR has brought another level of complexity. The growth is so fast that sometimes it is difficult to keep up. With time, I have realized it is good to have enough knowledge that one is able to converse about it. Having to work on it is subjective to the requirements and interests. 

Challenge 3 : Creativity : Learn to enhance your creativity with boundaries. Lighting can be quite creative especially in animation where every element is computer generated. During the process there might be creative differences among the team and these should be resolved by keeping the end product in mind. A supervisor knows what the client wants and we as artists trust his instincts. Sometimes these instincts do not go well, but in those times a good supervisor comes back to you and says the client liked your idea. Therefore, it is always good to keep your ideas in front of them, but at the end of the day, it is theirs and the client’s choice that matters. 

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I am presently working with Method Studios in Montreal, Canada. 

What problems do you solve?

Lighting is a problem-solution oriented department. Problems like, why do I not have an approved animation / CFX / FX, layout or textures in my shot, to why are my images failing to render or why is this render taking 128GB of memory and still failing to render? There could be some strange requests from supervisors – can you change the color in lighting, we don’t have time to go back to look development or could you show me a test with a light rotation every 15 degrees? Could you do a test on fur/hair with different thickness, height and density? Sometimes we need to set up similar shots together so that we can render them at one time and get the same result (by the way that almost never happens). Last but not least, it also requires the ability to convince my supervisors that some of the results he is looking for cannot be obtained. This always involves a series of tests and showing him results in a methodical manner. These are just a fraction of the issues that I face everyday.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Until I had joined MEL, I knew lighting was only creative. Getting into production, I learned that creativity is just one aspect. Rhythm and Hues was my introduction to Lighting for Production. I understood that Lighting with computer graphics was a science in itself. It is technical, needs observation, smart work and learning the science of Light rays. We are replicating real life inside of computers. It is sometimes amazing and sometimes not so much. Lighting is also one of the last departments in the production pipeline. That also means crunched deadlines since the project has a release date. This department is placed in the production workflow in such a way that it is the first time that somebody gets to see an image with colors, lights, shadows. In a nutshell it has life now. Every department’s hard work first shows up here and so do the mistakes. So we do have a responsibility to make each and every image beautiful, attractive and immersive.

Soft skills : We need to observe the world around us, especially how light falls or looks at different times of the day and affects objects. What is the light color, how is the corresponding shadow color. How can color create different moods?

Listening, learning, patience, a calm mind when there is chaos, solution oriented attitude, being a team player, an attitude to get the job done, time management – I follow a simple rule, if I can’t fix a problem in 20 minutes I will ask for help. Be generous to teach and help colleagues. 

Hard Skills : Software that helps us do lighting. At any studio, I use three software at one time to get a final image. An understanding of programming languages like Python, MEL scripting, C++ is preferred, but is not necessary. 

What’s a typical day like?

I generally start my day by looking at the render farm. A render farm is a collection of computers that input defined 3D data and converts them into an image for us to view. If these images are ready, I prepare them for my supervisor to review. During early mornings, our team gets together with the Lighting supervisor to show progress in our work and to discuss any issues that would need his attention. We carry on working once we have our notes and our next steps. Depending on which part of the world the VFX supervisor lives in, we have another session where we again show our work for any further notes. When a shot is approved by a VFX supervisor, it goes to the client for final approval. Towards the end of the day, according to the deadlines, we send our shots to the render farm. In case a shot is a priority and needs updates from any upstream department (an upstream department could be look development, animation, FX, creature FX. For a shot to be approved by client in lighting all these stages needs to be approved)  or we have notes, we sit back late to finish it. Remember a deadline is a deadline – any show has a release date that cannot be extended. Depending on the complexity level a shot can take from a week to a couple of months for an approval from the client.

What is it you love about this job? 

I think it is a sheer joy to see people’s emotions in a theatre or next to a TV screen. It means we have been successful in creating the mood we wanted to create. There is a feeling of accomplishment with the success of the movie. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The role of the Media industry has never been as prominent as it has been during the pandemic. The movies, episodes and animation that kept people entertained while they were stuck at home during lockdown has shown that VFX/animation is a necessity. The lockdowns in 2020 had a major impact in new content creation. Now movie makers have realized the impact of computer graphics. More movies are now shot with blue or green screens and actors while they heavily rely on CG for effects, environments and sometimes even animation.

Besides entertainment, it is a very strong way to bring any kind of message across to a society. Remember Ek Chidiya Anek chidiya – beautiful message on Unity in Diversity. Toy story for friendships, Up for relationships and togetherness, Inside out, Madagascar, Kungfu Panda – these are just some movies that bring out a very strong message for our society. There are some incredible short stories made by students on youtube. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Madagascar-3 was my first Hollywood animation feature. In comparison to the size of industry in India, the team in the studio was very small. 

Dumbo – was my first VFX movie that I was part of from beginning to end. Besides, it is directed by Tim Burton – one of my favourite directors/Illustrators. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Having been a part of the animation/VFX industry for a while, I would say it is a career that needs a lot of motivation, inspiration and dedication to be successful. One can stay for long in this career if he/she has the inspiration and passion for movie making. Nevertheless, despite the deadlines, one needs to learn to maintain a healthy work life balance.

Future Plans?

The art program in the US opened a whole world of opportunities for me to explore. I appreciate their vision to combine Science and Arts. Through my studies I have acquired more skills and one such skill is paper engineering. I dwell into learning this form of art as and when I get time. There is also a work in progress project.

Working in computer graphics is my primary career while I want to dwell in VR filmmaking. VR filmmaking is a fairly new concept and I have seen some studios experimenting while I was studying in San Francisco. In the future, I would like to be a part of them as well.