Nice work if you can get it: Visual Effects Artist for Weta

(This is just one of many interviews with folks who have awesome, envy-inducing jobs. They all also happen to be my friends. When I was living in New Zealand, I attended a house warming party in Island Bay. As I was nibbling on a piece of Whittaker’s, I heard a sweet, sweet sound in the distance. Whaaaat? Pray tell, is that an American accent?! It was, and it belonged to Michael. As most expats do, we immediately joined forces to talk about home and discuss funny animal videos. Not only is Michael an aficionado on the best viral videos featuring penguins, he also works for Peter Jackson’s production company, Weta. Lord of the Rings, y’all. Jealous yet?)So what’s the deal? What do you do?
I’m a visual effects artist. My official title is ‘Technical Director’ which is a fancy way of saying I make pretty pictures or ‘shots’. A shot is a continuous camera take. A movie can consist of a couple thousand shots a few hundred or thousand of which can have a visual effect in it. These shots are divided amongst us artists, and our job is to add the effect (anything from monsters to buildings to giant turtles) as realistically as possible. Other times we have to remove stuff such as wires, lights or acne. On rare occasions we’ll even remove or replace a bad actor like Keanu Reeves.

Obviously these days the majority of this work is done on computers. We use 3D graphics software such as Maya to produce the said turtle and 2D compositing software such as Shake or Nuke to combine it with Keira Knightley or a likewise sex symbol.

Tell us about an average day in life of your job.
Well we get into work around 8 or 9 and review Dailies – which is basically all the previous day’s work. At Dailies we’ll address notes from the Director, Studio, Producer or sometimes his cousin or niece. We’ll make sure all the shots are headed in the right direction and are looking convincingly scary/pretty/sexy and look good together in sequence. Sometimes the work will look so amazing someone will cry. Most of the time it looks like shit.

We’ll spend the rest of the day making corrections and progressing our shots to show at the next day’s dailies. A couple of times during the week we may have meetings or conference calls with the Director and his at the time girlfriend or other Studio heads and Producers and their relatives.

Did you go to school for this? Or get any special training? How did you get into this line of work?
There really weren’t any schools for this kind of stuff when I was studying. I did study Computer Science and did some computer graphics work at University, but it was more on the engineering and research side of things than artistic. I got my break in the industry doing an internship while I was in college and then landing a programming job at ILM (Lucasfilm) who was just starting work on the new Star Wars when I graduated.

Are there any drawbacks to working in film?
The hours are pretty long so you really have to love it. You also need a bit of thick skin because there are quite big egos in the industry.

What are the highlights?
The job can be rewarding because people see your work on the big screen. I remember being in a theater hearing a kid next to me gasp ‘whoa’ when my shot came up. You get to meet some important and famous people now and then I guess and the parties aren’t bad. I used to be a Star Wars geek so getting to work on the prequels was a big deal for me.

What are the misconceptions about working in film?
People think its glamorous and working on a movie is a big party. The reality is very meticulous and tiresome with a lot of grueling hours. It’s also very technical. Most people get bored pretty quickly when they find out its not all fun and games making a movie.

What suggestions would you give to people interested in doing this?
I wouldn’t suggest going to school to study 3D graphics. Anyone can learn to use a computer and software. A traditional art background is much more useful as well as a broader liberal education. Its more about having a good artistic eye and understanding color, composition, and lighting. Its an art not a trade and you need to have a place to draw from.

Is anyone out there a fledgling film geek? Any queries for Michael?



What a cool job!… I started out as a film major, but soon found that I had no technical ability what so ever. The only thing I was any good at was writing scripts…and now I’m a writer… a writer who can’t operate my hand-held Sony Cam-cord.


No questions, just jealous of his amazing job! I think that rocks that he’s worked on some of my favorite films ever!


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