Visual Design plays a crucial role in storytelling, by conveying a certain depth and realism that complements the narrative!

Rebecka Petersson, our next pathbreaker, Visual Development Artist at Kuku Studios (San Francisco), designs sets to make sure the visual atmosphere fits the style and overall layout of the show based on the story.

Rebecka talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the massive impact stories had on her as a teenager and a child, and feeling fortunate to help create those same stories to inspire others !

For students, be bold enough to follow the path that you want to take, and not what others tell you to. There are many roads that lead to the same destination, just do what you enjoy doing, and do it well !

Rebecka, what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in Sweden, and was lucky to know very early on what I wanted to do. When I was 11 years old, my art teacher gave me a pamphlet about animation and I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do. Though I was not the best artist in my high school (where I majored in Art & Form), I made sure to draw every single day, and I would also convince college professors to let me join their figure drawing classes during my free-time. I think this really helped me later when I began my studies at the Academy of Art, because I came to the University already with a little practice under my belt which is always nice and helps relieve some pressure once there.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied 3D Animation & Visual development at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. During college, I was sure I wanted to be a Character Designer. It wasn’t until my senior year, when my substitute teacher told me I should try Set Designing since I already had knowledge of 3D Software due to my classes in 3D Animation. 

I fell in love with designing sets, and enjoyed the mix of 3D and 2D in my work. After my graduation from Academy of Art in Dec 2019, I took a few months to build up a new portfolio geared towards Set Design. During these months, I followed up with that substitute teacher who was kind enough to give me feedback and notes on my work.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

So many things made me want to pursue Animation. I had always enjoyed drawing, and animated films had a special place in my heart. As a young kid, I was terribly afraid of being home alone.  It was the only sort of entertainment that managed to shift my focus from the fact that I was alone, to something else, and it became kind of like a friend of mine whenever I felt alone. During this time, Glen Keane also had a huge impact on me. I used to watch his interviews and lectures online and yearn for when I could speak about something with such passion as he did.

Tell us about your career path. How did you get your first break?

If I was not international, I probably would not have taken the path I did. I would probably not have gone to college, but instead taken online courses to build up my skills that way.

When applying for jobs in this field, no recruiter looks at what school you went to, instead they look at the quality of your portfolio. What you do get from the University though is friends and connections with people in your field.

Looking back, what really helped me with my career path was friendships. I truly believe that if you work hard and are kind, you’ll eventually get a job. It was because of the fact that a friend of mine (during my sophomore year) showed my work to one of her acquaintances who worked at Pixar, that actually led to me getting my first job in the industry almost four years later. I made sure to stay in contact with them, and later on that same person was a substitute teacher in my class and eventually took some time to mentor me for a few months post graduation before recommending me to the legend Steve Pilcher, who is the Production Designer on the film that I have now been working on for the past two years.

Can you explain the concept of Set/Production design?

At my current job, I do Visual Development (pre-production artwork, more exploration), Prop Design (designs of hero props), and Packeting (detailed packeting of a design to serve as a guide to the other departments later in the pipeline), though my main focus is Set Design.  As a Set Designer on a 3D feature film, you get to use multiple software and different mediums. I always start out by doing research and looking for references, then move onto thumbnails or sketching loose ideas. I will make a few of these presentable, and along with the research/reference I’ve found, I will pitch these to my Production Designer or Art Director.  He will guide me and give me notes before I make a finished version/s of my work and present it to the Director/s.

What I will end up presenting depends on each set. Usually it is research first, then I move on to sketches/ideas, then the finished painted version, and after that I will usually have a 3D model that explains the 3D space, scale and layout of the set to the modellers.  Giving a rough 3D model of your design really helps speed the process along, and you can solve a lot of problems/questions early on.

Hut Interior

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

1) Self-doubt is inevitable as an artist. I struggled with it all through university, and still do. Fear will always limit you as an artist. It will cause you not to develop as fast as you could, as you will be too scared to try something new and challenge yourself. And if your technical talent isn’t developing as fast as your taste is, this will create even more fear. That is a vicious cycle to be in, and I’ve found myself there many times. It helped me a lot when I started my first professional job and got to see the amazing talent of my coworkers. They were not afraid to show their work that was still in progress and which might not have been perfect at the time. What we do is not only about creating beautiful art, but also about helping tell a story, and about coming up with solutions and ideas. I try to remind myself of this every time I start doubting myself.

2) Being a female in a male dominated field is a challenge in itself. Networking, as a female, when many senior artists are male, can be hard. I do not date people in the same industry for this reason. I don’t think it is the best solution, but it is a decision I made very early on.

What I’ve found helpful is to connect with other females who can help you meet your goals, learn to negotiate, and give yourself space to vent your frustrations.  Also, keep an eye out for mentors, both male (who want to be allies to the women they meet) and females. Be on the lookout for these women and men and don’t be afraid to ask them for mentorship and advice.

Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your work as a set designer?

I mainly work as a Set Designer at Kuku Studios  (started by a group of Pixar artists). With the help from the Production Designer, I make sure the end product fits the style and needs of the show. This is to say 1) I make sure that the look fits the style of the film 2) that it reflects the character/s who live there and 3) that the scale is working and so is the overall layout (I do this by placing a 3D camera into the 3D rough model to match the storyboards)

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

Traditional drawing skills, painting skills, rough 3D modelling skills.

In school, I took basic classes on perspective, still life, understanding of light and shadow. I never took 3D modelling classes during school, but since I studied 3D Animation, I was already familiar with Maya (3D software I use to both Animate and Model in 3D). So, I learned modelling during my free time after school. I did not take any painting classes during school, and this is something I’ve been doing in my free time after my graduation, to build up that skill of mine. The class I took that really helped me is Peter Chan’s ‘Seeing Color’.

I also study film and storytelling in my free-time, and I think this really helps a lot as well when I make decisions at work.

What’s a typical day like?

Wake up, eat, work out. I start work at 9 AM until around 11 AM, when I go out for a coffee and do my personal writing. I have a ten minute lunch at 11.50 AM. On Mondays, I meet coworkers for figure drawing (A figure drawing is a drawing of the human form in any of its various shapes and postures). After that, I work for two hours and then take a break, with a change of environment (I often try to get a breath of fresh air) before I go back to work until 6 PM. At some point there is usually a director’s review meeting where we go over our work with the directors. This is usually twice a week.

What is it you love about this job?

Because I decided what I wanted to do at such a young age, and had 10 years to build on an expectation of what that would be, I was terribly afraid that I would be let down once I started studying/working.  But it was all the things I had imagined, and more.

I love the fact that I get to be creative all day long as a part of my job. I love my coworkers. Our Art Dailies (meeting where the artists show their work to the Art Director / Production Designer) have become my favorite time of the day. I love talking to my coworkers and seeing their work every day.

How does your work benefit society? 

Stories have such a huge impact on society. I love that I get to be a part of that. Just looking back at how big of an impact it had on me as a teenager and a child, I feel so lucky I now get to help create those same stories for other kids, and adults!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be kind, work hard, and value your friendships.  Be brave to follow the path of doing what you want to do, and not what other people tell you you should. There are many roads that lead to the same destination, just do what you enjoy doing, do it well, and be kind to those you meet along the way. Don’t doubt yourself, and if you do, just remember that tomorrow will be better. We all have days when we feel like we’re shit. But then there are days when we feel like we’re on top of the world.

Future Plans?

I am currently writing a novel. It is nice to have another creative outlet other than what I do for work, and I’ve found writing to be a really great way to get my creative juices flowing whenever I feel a little creatively exhausted by work.

Portfolio / Website:
Instagram: Rvpetersson