From Disney to DC, VFX animator’s work on display in geekdom’s biggest franchises

EDITOR’S NOTE: Elaine Wu works at VFX company MPC (Moving Picture Company). MPC was instrumental in visual effects work for, among other movies, “The Jungle Book,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Justice League,” and now “The Lion King.”

Elaine Wu grew up watching TGIF and Saturday morning cartoons and basking in the glory of Disney’s animation renaissance, but working in the film industry seemed out of reach.

After several years in the pharmaceutical industry, she decided she’d rather be doing something she loved, so she quit her job and signed up for an online animation school.

Now, she’s a visual effects animator, working her magic on creatures, characters, and other elements of some of geekdom’s biggest franchises, including Harry Potter, X-Men, Underworld, and Marvel (including “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a couple “Thor” films, and “Iron Man 3”).

She also helped bring iconic characters, including Rocket Raccoon and Baloo the Bear, to life.

Elaine’s work has taken her to New Zealand and Peter Jackson’s famed Weta Digital; to London, where she was part of a team of animators assigned to Disney’s acclaimed live-action remake of “The Jungle Book”; and, most recently, to Vancouver, where she worked on a certain about-to-be-released film starring Wonder Woman and set in the DC universe.

The animator just returned to Los Angeles to work on what could potentially be one of Disney’s biggest live-action adaptations yet. (Hint: The cast was recently announced and it blew everybody’s mind.)

Yep, she’s basically living every film, comic book, and Disney nerd’s dream. 

You’re a visual effects animator. Most of us don’t know exactly what that is, so could you start by explaining your job?

Sure! The core of visual effects is creating imagery that cannot or is difficult to produce in real life. As an animator, I’m typically involved in what is called post-production. Essentially, after the live-action portion of a given film is shot, animators work their magic and bring life to a variety of characters, creatures, vehicles, etc. But before an animator can even start, there are a number of creative artists who model (create objects/characters in 3D) and rig (build skeletons) for us to manipulate. Then, there are a number of creative artists who follow animators and integrate CGI into the live action to bring to you the final product.

Were you always interested in working in the film industry?

If I have to be honest, the answer is no.  I grew up enjoying film and television just like most anyone else. Rushing home from school to watch TGIF or waking up early Saturday morning for cartoons was just normal. But the film industry just seemed like such an unachievable profession. I guess I just thought you’d have to be super lucky or be some kind of prodigy to make a living doing it.

How were you drawn to visual effects and, specifically, animation?

It wasn’t a straightforward path, that’s for sure. I actually started off majoring in neurobiology and working in the pharmaceutical industry (specifically in intellectual property) for four years before I found my future in animation. In my old job, I was constantly looking for a creative outlet. I found it for passing moments dabbling in my personal food blog, but it just wasn’t enough. I really wanted to be one of those people who loves his/her job! I just had no idea what that looked like.

My boss at the time (who wanted me to become a lawyer), gave me these words of advice, “Don’t try to fit yourself into a job. Find a job that fits you.” That’s when I started examining my interests and inclinations. I loved creating, whether it was through writing or just chatting with my friends and coming up with fun(ny) scenarios. I knew I had an appreciation for art. And I could work my way around computers at its most basic state.

Animation seemed to fit the bill (the little I knew of it), and after talking to a friend’s friend’s friend … (you know how it goes), I decided to quit my job and sign up for Animation Mentor, an online animation school. From the moment I animated my first bouncing ball, I knew I loved it. The rest is history.

Elaine Wu and co-workers dressed as zombies at the annual Halloween party at Luma Pictures.

Tell me about the start of your career. Was it tough to “break in” to Hollywood?

Through Animation Mentor, I was lucky to have made friends with many other aspiring animators. They were creative, technical, and passionate about the craft. Just being around them made me want to work that much harder. Before I knew it, I was voted “Most Improved Student” by my fellow colleagues — probably because I had never even opened up any sort of animation software before I started the program.

It was a lot of hard work, and I had to constantly remind myself why I was up in the middle of the night working so hard and getting mouse-induced finger cramps. A friend of mine let me know upon graduating that Luma Pictures in Santa Monica was hiring, so I applied, and I made it! Within a few weeks, I was moving to Los Angeles!

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love creating something out of nothing, and I love working with people who are just as excited doing that. To give life to a character and have an audience believe and connect with what you’re doing is a great compliment.  I think/hope other animators would agree.

Elaine and a fellow animator attempt “dynamic” poses during a Luma T-shirt photo shoot.

You recently wrapped up work on “Justice League” in Vancouver. What can you tell us about that?

Unfortunately, I can’t go into too much detail on that at the moment, but I can tell you that a lot of artists’ dreams came true working on that film, and you should all go and watch it!

You’re about to move back to Los Angeles for another job. Can you tell us anything about what you’re going to be doing?

I’m working with a wonderful team on the development of (Disney’s) “Lion King,” but I can’t say much more than that. I can tell you that teenage Elaine is freaking out inside because it’s super exciting!

You specialize in animating animals and animal-like characters. Why are you drawn to these types of characters?

I love creatures for several reasons. Aside from the fact that animating organic creatures is so complex, detailed, and challenging, there’s a real connection that humans have with animals. And it’s a great achievement when you can get an audience to believe they exist and, even moreso, connect with them on an emotional level. I find wildlife to be really fascinating already, so it’s not hard to be interested in them when I see them in real life or review reference material online.

You worked on Rocket Raccoon for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He’s a pretty iconic character. What was that experience like?

It was great! Rocket is such a lovable yet smarmy character, and there’s just so much depth to the way he reacts to his environment and other characters. You can’t not root for him!

What are some of your favorite characters that you’ve worked on?

I absolutely loved working on Baloo and Shere Khan (in Disney’s live-action “Jungle Book”). Attempting to make them look realistic while having their personalities shine through was challenging and rewarding. The team really did an amazing job on that film.

Elaine and some spooky friends at a Weta Halloween event in New Zealand.

You’ve contributed to a lot of Marvel projects, including “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World,” and “Iron Man 3.” These are some of the most popular movies of our time. What has that experience been like?

It’s always exciting to work on Marvel films! They’re so well-received across the globe, and to be part of all of that makes me feel fortunate. I almost wish I grew up reading all the comic books! But working on these films, being around Marvel superfans, you can’t help but get that energy from them. And I certainly have accumulated my fair share of geeky knowledge along the way.

You’ve accomplished the impressive feat of working on both Marvel and DC projects. Just between us, do you prefer one over the other?

You’ll find me in the audience for both Marvel and DC films!

Elaine and fellow animators dressed as a retro table tennis team for another Halloween at Luma. “Teamwork is everything!”

Is your job as terribly glamorous as it sounds or is it actually quite technical and routine?

It kind of vacillates between all those things, but I feel like that’s the case with most professions maybe? Animation is a lot of hard work and study. Observation is a big part of it which means that stepping away from the desk and living a fulfilling life outside of work is a big part of being able to bring something fresh into whatever you’re working on.

There is certainly a technical aspect of animation, but more importantly, the creativity and drive for excellence is what takes it to another level. You have to want your shot to look awesome and work together to make each film look amazing. Teamwork is everything!

I wouldn’t say it’s ever really routine as every film is different. But you do learn the art of being flexible in your workflow and to not take notes too personally. And as animators, we like to videotape each other for reference doing all sorts of crazy things that are relevant (or oftentimes not so relevant when we get carried away).

Elaine visits Hobbiton while working on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at Weta in New Zealand.

You spent several months in New Zealand working for Weta on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” That sounds like a dream job for a visual effects professional.

Haha, yeah, it was great being a part of the legacy that is Weta!

Did you get to meet Peter Jackson?

I did not! Though I’m pretty sure I saw him drive by me once. That must count for something?

Elaine encounters a troll at Weta.

Did you go to Hobbiton while you were there? Are you a “Lord of the Rings” fan?

I did go! I think my friends would’ve slaughtered me if I went all that way to New Zealand and didn’t go to Hobbiton. I’m a fan of “Lord of the Rings”, yes.  I’m not super hardcore, but I did watch all three extended version of “Lord of the Rings” once. Pretty sure I left a clear imprint on the couch I was on.

Cast photo for Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”

You were part of the visual effects team for “The Jungle Book,” which was lauded for its stunning VFX. What are your memories of that experience?

I look back upon it fondly as the right opportunity at the right time. It was definitely a work-hard/play-hard stretch of my life! I met some great friends in London working on it! It was a lot of grueling work though, as is the case with most films, but the entire team was really trying to strive for another level of artistry on this one. The whole experience of traveling, building friendships in the rain at the pub, devouring an inhuman amount of chicken wings on a weekly basis with my fellow animators, struggling through and finishing shots, and somehow coming out the other end with something you’re truly proud of … well, that makes for an extremely memorable time.

Elaine in costume for Halloween in London, where she worked on “The Jungle Book.”

Your career has included so many projects that would cause a geek to lose their cool, including a couple of “Underworld” movies, “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” What have been some of your favorite projects in your career so far?

One of my favorite times in animation was working on “Underworld 2.” If you ask anyone in the industry, surrounding yourself with the right people makes a huge difference in your experience. In animation, we typically have what we call “Dailies”, where we all get together in a screening room and review everyone’s work. A lot of the work in progress involves trying out new ideas and sometimes inserting little Easter eggs or gags in shots. I just laughed so hard day to day. Such a good time.

Also, working on “Harry Potter” (albeit a pretty small part since it was pretty early in my career), was a dream I didn’t know I had. Compounded by the fact that when I went on the Harry Potter studio tour in London, I saw my shot in one of their intro videos. I got a little giddy.

Are there many women in your line of work?

There is a slowly growing number of women in the VFX industry, but I guess I wish there were more? I don’t know what the statistics are exactly, but it feels like 10% of the VFX industry is women. MPC, the company I currently work for, is actively trying to encourage women to join the this industry, and I really hope it results in more gender-balanced crews! Having a team with unique and diverse perspectives really makes a huge difference in the direction of a film and, more specifically, acting choices in animation.

You’ve contributed your talents to so many fandoms, but what are some of your personal favorite fandoms?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the films and fandoms I’ve had the fortune of being involved with, but I just love Disney. Maybe it’s growing up within earshot of Disneyland fireworks or just being the perfect age during the Disney Renaissance of films. I guess it’s just a part of me. I used to have a little Disney Castle on my desk during animation school to remind me why I was still working well into the wee hours of the morning.

I also love “Peanuts” and “Game of Thrones”!

How does your passion for these fandoms manifest itself in your life?

You’d see these fandoms all over my household really! I just purchased an original character sheet of Fievel Mousekewitz! Can’t wait to frame this bad boy. And it’s Snoopy galore on my bookshelves. I’m proud to say I have a giant Snoopy plush at home. Purely for my nieces and nephews to play with, of course. I also have to give a shoutout to my Dungeons & Dragons character Corgilian, a Corgi barbarian who’s currently on a personal quest to Unicorn Run.

I’ve heard that you have thrown some epic “Game of Thrones” parties. And that you’ve visited some “Game of Thrones” film sites abroad.

My friends and I always have screening events and are part of a GoT fantasy league. We also had an epic party at my place once where we all dressed up as GoT characters, built mini catapults, drank out of goblets, and did some archery with my longbow in my garage. Let the nerdiness ensue … .  I also went with a good friend to Dubrovnik, Croatia, to visit the site of Kings Landing! I also stood where Tyrion slapped Joffrey and pretended to slap my friend. There’s a picture somewhere … . It was great!

What do you like about the series?

There are just so many things really. I love the characters (Tyrion is my favorite), and how we learn to love or hate them over time. There’s just such a skill in the direction for drawing us in week after week. And the VFX is really pushing boundaries! Also, I really just love shows you can watch with friends and really make into an experience. Another example being “Breaking Bad”.

Who should sit on the Iron Throne?

Probably should be Jon Snow, but now that there’s a destructive, fire-breathing zombie dragon, will there be an Iron Throne left to take? Hmm … .

Are you as grossed out yet delighted by that whole Jon and Daeny thing as we all are?

Of course! It was a long time coming!

Elaine and her new best friend, a Uruk-hai soldier, at Weta.

You’re a gamer. What video games are you into? What, how, and how often do you play?

I’m more of a Nintendo gamer? Does that count? I don’t play as often as I’d like, but I do have the Switch! My friends and I got together to play Zelda, and it’s fantastic! You really need to play it. I’m starting “Mario Odyssey” right now. Don’t make me play any of the more complicated games out there that require you to control the camera. I tried “Last of Us,” and my friends ripped the controller out of my hand because I kept pointing the camera at my feet. Needless to say, I was laughing so hard I was crying. Awesome game though. I’m a much happier spectator for those types!

How did you first get into gaming? What do you like about it?

My family played a lot of Atari and Nintendo growing up. I don’t know that I totally think playing video games for hours on end is a great way to have a child grow up, but I’m evidence that it’s not sooooo bad. I think playing video games is a great way to decompress from the day and also find adventure in another sort of reality. I’m also obsessed with point-and-click mystery games. I find them so zen.

A little bird told me you own a vintage pinball machine.

I do! I bought a “Lethal Weapon” pinball machine from a video game auction in Compton like 7-8 years ago.

The same bird told me you also build models. Tell me all about that, please.

When I have time, I like to build little things. I have a trebuchet (EDITOR’S NOTE: A machine used in medieval siege warfare for hurling large stones or other missiles) in my living room actually. I don’t do anything too complicated. I attempted to build a model canoe and haven’t finished yet! Thanks for reminding me! Love Legos, does that count? I have a Lego TIE fighter near me right now.

Looking toward the future, do you want to continue in visual effects animation? What’s on your professional bucket list?

I love animation and the feeling I get from it. I have a huge fascination with virtual reality though. So if I can combine animation with VR sometime in the near future, that’d be pretty epic. Perhaps an immersive experience or some kind of storytelling.

What’s it like seeing a film you’ve contributed to for the first time?

It’s really strange actually. I think the first time I saw my animation on screen, I wanted to turn around and see if anyone else saw it, too. Like, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Is this real?” It’s weird to see your work up on a big screen.  I don’t think that ever changes!

Do you still get excited when you see your name in the credits?

I used to, but now I get more excited when friends are excited! My friends who aren’t in the industry constantly remind me with their enthusiasm that being an animator is super cool! Sometimes, I get caught up in the fact that it really is a lot of work and sometimes a lot of hours. But it really pays off when you realize that the work you and your team did is being appreciated by people from all walks of life.

Winter is coming. Got any big plans?

Well, having just moved back to L.A., my plans are to throw on some flip-flops, put on some shades, have a healthy portion of Taco Bell, and order something from Amazon for same-day delivery. Quest activated.

About the Geek Goddess Interviews:

No Man’s Land chats weekly with a “Geek Goddess” whose devotion to her fandoms manifests itself in unique and inspiring ways. We’re always looking for interview subjects, so if you know someone who would be ideal, please respond via the comments, private message, or email lavendervroman@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “From Disney to DC, VFX animator’s work on display in geekdom’s biggest franchises

  1. Great interview, I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve wanted to work in animation since I was a kid but ended up finding myself in the medical field too (secretary) since it seemed like the safe path. I’m only now just getting back into the art field and really appreciate hearing inspiring stories like this about women making their way into the industry. Well done!

  2. Pingback: Liebster Award – The Introspection Connection

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