22 July 2014

May Leung, FX Technical Director

May Leung is an FX TD working on shots for films featuring explosions, destruction and natural phenomena.

May was our FX animation supervisor on the BAFTA (yes!) nominated Dark Knight Rises and did the “exploding cafe” for the Oscar winning (yes!) Inception. She is currently working on Ridley Scott’s Exodus.

How did you get into the business?

I’ve always had a passion for the creative industry and had a love for film. The decision was easy. My first job was with an editor whilst I was waiting for an internship at a Post Production Facility. I was ecstatic once I got my foot in the door.

Is there anything you wish you had done before you joined the industry which would have better prepared you for your career in VFX for Film?

Instead of doing a double major in Economics and Fine Arts, I would have pursued Computer Science and Fine Arts instead.

Is there any advice you would give to someone coming into the business?
I remember applying for my first jobs in the film industry, and one of the postings read ‘This is not a 9-5 job’, and you’ve got to remember it really isn’t but the sense of accomplishment when you see your work on the big screen makes it worth every minute you spent working on it worthwhile.

What natural skills do you think lend themselves to doing your job?

Creativity and an eye for detail.

Are there any particular training / courses you’d recommend?

Computer science and maths.

The worst and best thing about your job?

Sometimes the hours can be strenuously long but it’s not the worst thing in the world, especially when you love what you’re doing. The best thing about the job is being surrounded and inspired by so many creative artists from all around the world.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERS

From Nicklas Lindstrom: What programs do you use? Alternatively what programs would you recommend students to learn if they want to make a career in FXTD?

I use Maya and Houdini primarily but, when you’re studying, any of the main programs are a good introduction into the FX world. Once you have a good understanding of the software, it won’t matter which package you use. Often companies have their own self-proprietary software so you will have to learn their tools anyway.

From Niall Horn: I am not studying Maths/Physics at college however I teach my self realflow, Max, Maya and plugins etc. Will it affect my chances of getting a job with no Physics or Maths? Thanks.

It is definitely an asset to have either Maths or Physics but it’s not a necessity – having a brilliant reel can make up for that!

Also from Niall Horn: what is better for a FX TD/Artist Grades from Uni/ College or an Amazing Reel? Thanks.
From Josh Fry: Do you believe a degree is necessary for students looking to become an FX TD? In either physics, maths film or games design… Or do you believe it’s a case of what people can make without a degree?

There are a lot of people in film that do not have a degree and just have a passion for film and work hard to achieve their goals. There are just as many that have a degree. Education is important as it will offer you much more opportunities than the person without. The film industry is not a dying industry, you don’t need to be in a hurry.
A University Degree will offer you more opportunities especially as the film industry is so International. This will open the doors to getting a visa to work at companies outside Europe. That being said, an FX reel that demonstrates your understanding of physics, matching to real reference as well as quality output is essential. Having the educational backing is a plus.

From Max Auer: What is the best way to get into the industry for a student?

In your reel, show a clear direction of what path you would like to take. It is always better to show one fantastic simulation than to show too many simulations or techniques that are not quite working.

Do you have a favorite project and if yes why?

Working at a fantastic company with many talented people makes it exceptionally hard to choose a project. I have had fun on many shows at Dneg as the teams are always great to work with. Inception is a favourite as it offered something unique, but aside from that all the shows here are challenging and the people great to work with.

From Leonid Karachko: What are your expectations from a vfx producer you’ll work with on a project? Hypothetically. And is it going to be a direct collaboration or you’re gonna have few positions between?

Your vfx producer on the project is very much part of the team. There is a definite hierarchy on each show as it’s important to ensure shot delivery and maintain excellent communications between departments, but no doors are left closed. Everyone is approachable.

From Ceri Miles: What would you say is the most important skill to focus on other than mastering the software you use?

Aside from mastering the software, a good understanding of Maths and Programming are beneficial but the qualities you can bring to a role are also important, having an outgoing personality and a team player mentality are invaluable, as is the ability to troubleshoot.

From Arihant Gupta: I know at the day end softwares are just tools, but my primary tools are Houdini, Maya & Naiad. What other applications do you think might be useful to be an FX TD?

A lot of companies have self-proprietary tools, the most important thing is to have a good understanding of one package and being flexible enough to be able to pick up any tools written specifically for a project at any given company. The end result is you should be able to deliver a quality image in any package you choose to use or are expected to use.

From Darwin Muis: What and how to show ppl that u’re the right person for the FXTD job? (a good demo reel is a given, so how do u evaluate them?)

Pick something fun to do and go crazy with simulation, make it look good and have fun working on it. It will show on your reel.

From Aleksandar Atanasov: What are the actual responsibilities of an FX Artist? There are like no Junior level FX Artist positions open (in ANY studio), does this mean the only viable entry position is as runner or matchmover? Because, even if a recent graduate has a decent FX Reel, he still lacks the 1-2-3 years working experience for any “non-junior/internship” job.. Cheers!

Entry levels can be difficult to get into and for the most part these involve starting out as a runner. It’s not a bad thing as it allows you to meet lots of artists at the company and allows you to learn the ins and outs of everyday work life in the film industry. If you have a fantastic FX reel, it will not be overlooked and opportunities will arise right out of graduation.

Responsibilities of an FX artist are different depending on their levels of expertise, as well as projects they are on. As a junior, you would be expected to perform the basic tasks and deliver your work with close supervision.

From Tan Chee Kwang: you are doing shots that did not happen in real life before. How do you imagine an effect to look like what it is in the movie?
From Jon Saunders: Really interested to learn how you would breakdown/approach an FX shot you are working on, especially if it’s a shot with a concept which means you can’t draw on previous work to help?

Conceptual FX is definitely more difficult to work on. A lot of companies have concept artists that will paint up the VFX Supervisor/Client’s vision. The conceptual image will be guided by the VFX Supervisor. He will be briefed by the client and in turn will provide a brief to the artist. In most cases, the artist is provided with Concept Art that is approved by the client. This helps you break it down into several elements which can guide you as to which techniques you need to draw on. Even with the most conceptual idea, there are always references you can take from.

Also from Tan Chee Kwang: As a supervisor what are your roles? do you do the shots yourself? Before you became an fx animation supervisor, what did you work as? what will you be doing in the next five years?

As an Effects Supervisor, it is not necessary for you to do shots yourself as you rarely have the time. However, in the early stages of build on a show, when your team’s not in place, there are tasks you’ll undertake yourself.

Prior to this position I was an FX TD and what will I be doing in five years time? I’ll be producing quality images for film!

From Andy Lawrence: If you were working towards an FXTD position and were looking to get an entry level role, how would you gear your application and showreel for this, compared to a more traditional VFX artist type application?

The things to look for in an FX TD are simulations that are representative of the real physics of the element they’re producing, their attention to detail and their technical skills.

From Sam Wilson: What’s the main thing to have under your belt to get into fxtd. do you have any examples?

I can’t pinpoint anything specific to get into FX TD. It’s good to start with the basics, a good understanding of particle simulation, then try fluid simulation such as smoke and dust hits. Then you can get more complex with explosions, fracturing and water simulations. You cannot know everything right away, so pick a focus and stay with it. Make it as realistic as possible and have fun doing it.

From Irene Koh: How often would directors request for effects that is a merge between the reality of things and creativity?

This definitely depends on the type of show you are working on. On a show like Harry Potter, where it’s very magical, it’s expected that a lot of the work are geared towards more conceptual elements and a show like Batman Begins is very much geared towards photo realistic look and motion. The director has a vision which will be relayed to the VFX Supervisor on the show and at the company. They will give you clear direction on what they expect and with the help of your Supervisors and Leads, you should be able to deliver your elements.

Given the immense experience, knowledge and understanding towards CGI, of an effects supervisor, how much can he/she influence the directors (who are probably less aware of techniques in CGI) in making steps towards creating visuals that would push boundaries or help tell the story better?

The role of the Effects Supervisor is to ensure that the FX TDs are working on their task at hand, hitting their targets and addressing the notes of the VFX Supe or Director. They are also there to provide technical help when needed, helping setting up FX pipeline, and liaising with RND on tools required for the show. They’d rarely have any contact with the director. That is the role of the VFX Supervisor, who may either directly or through the CG Supervisor or Sequence Supervisor, require technical explanation by the Effects Supervisor for a more complex element. Although from time to time we’ll have projects where the director is local and likes to get hands on with more of the team, which can be fun!

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