LecturersMDTTeaching Fellows

Journey to becoming a VFX professional

By February 20, 2020 No Comments

Jessica Millar, Senior Lighting Technical Director and Trainer at Weta Digital, teaches one of our Master of Design Technology papers (Lighting and Rendering) as a guest lecturer.

Jessica, originally from Germany, has been working in the VFX industry for 17 years. She’s worked on many famous movies such as Harry Potter, Avatar, The Hobbit, The Avengers, and more. Projects she particularly enjoyed were pre-vis on set for a movie called ‘Sunshine’ at Moving Picture Company because she got feedback straight from the Director (Danny Boyle) and ‘Avatar’ at Weta Digital because “the quality of what they do there was unbeknownst to me before, it was really a notch up from what I had worked with before.”

Everyone starts out somewhere and we were interested in learning from Jessica, an expert in her field, how she got to the pinnacle of her career. Jessica said she’d been interested in digital design from a young age having studied a Bachelor of Virtual Reality Design with papers in Animation and Web Design – which was well ahead of its time for the internet had only just been invented!

Jessica remembers when the first Lord of Rings movie came out that “it was turning point for me, I looked at it and said this is what I want to do” but she wasn’t sure how to get there. She, believing in postgraduate study, ended up furthering her study with a Master of Digital Effects at Bournemouth University in the UK. Shortly after this, she landed a junior role at Moving Picture Company which is now one of the biggest VFX companies in the world.

Now, Jessica is now passing on her knowledge to a new generation of budding VFX designers by teaching our lighting and rendering paper. Jessica was approached by Raqi Syed, the Master of Design Technology (MDT) Programme Director who was a friend of hers, a couple years ago to teach this paper. It was perfect timing for Jessica, because she’d just had her second child so was looking to cut down her work hours, so she happily accepted.

Our Master of Design Technology (delivered by Victoria University of Wellington) builds upon students’ existing VFX, gaming, animation, and extended reality (XR) skills. The students work on real-world projects with support from industry guests via lectures and mentoring. It is taught at the Miramar Creative Centre (a partnership with Miramar Creative) among the Weta group buildings on Park Road and offers unrivalled access to work experience and professional connections. We have multiple lecturers who have previously worked at Weta Digital including Programme Director, Raqi Syed, who was Senior Technical Director there.

“They’re [the students] just so into it and you can really feel the motivation, it’s really amazing and it’s great for me too because it inspires me with my own work to look at new things.”

Teaching has helped Jessica learn, alongside the students, for “they [the students] know so many new things, it got me to look even further and dive into new things that I hadn’t really looked at before – it sort of rekindles the passion I had when I was a student.”

Jessica’s very passionate about lighting for “you can do as many technical things as you want but if you don’t present it in a nicely lit way then it just doesn’t look right.”

The course material was “moving away from traditional VFX lighting towards real-time game design lighting” which Jessica was excited to learn more about too. It’s cutting edge and the “facilities in this building are amazing. There is a MoCap [Motion Capture] stage that they can use at leisure and any cameras or lighting equipment that you would ever need or want are just there. It’s incredibly well stocked and the machines are high spec.”

The programme is an “intimate small group where you can really give direct feedback every session with each of the students” which Jessica loves because she can guide them more personally as opposed to a large lecture hall full of students.

“Every student I talk to has a specific path where they want to go and it’s really cool to see the students bouncing off and learning from each other.”

Reflecting on how the VFX industry has evolved, Jessica noticed how lighting used to be a bit of an oversight but now it’s advanced “to a point where people notice the details like the difference between a fluorescent light and a tungsten light.”

The most important skills Jessica thinks are needed in the industry are “patience, being a quick learner, resilient, humble and willing to learn” because technology is always changing which keeps you on your toes.

Jessica is excited to see the journey the students will go on and how it reflects her own, she said there’s “guest speakers coming in from different companies and just hearing their process is so interesting to the students because they see that we weren’t just born working in the industry.”

“Each of us had our own path, for example there’s a guy at work who used to be a dentist and now he does VFX. You can be from any background and, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. It’s possible.”

We’re very thankful for experts like Jessica for teaching in our programmes and if you want to be taught by industry professionals like her you can enrol in our Master of Design Technology today.

Leave a Reply