In Trimester Two, Raqi will be delivering the Design Professional Practice and Lighting and Rendering courses as part of our Master of Design Technology and Master of User Experience Design programmes, delivered by Victoria University of Wellington School of Design.
Design Professional Practice (CCDN422) Course Coordinator and Lecturer @ Wellington ICT Graduate School
Lighting and Rendering (MDDN431) Course Coordinator and Lecturer @ Wellington ICT Graduate School
Raqi Syed is a visual-effects artist. She began her career in feature animation as an Assistant Technical Director for Disney Feature Animation on films such as Meet the Robinsons and later as a Lighting Artist on Tangled. She then went on to work as a Senior Technical Director with Weta Digital on films like Avatar, The Planet of the Apes films, and The Hobbit Trilogy.
Q. What inspired you to follow a career in film, specifically visual effects?
I was exposed to an art education pretty early on and began making stop-motion short films when I was 12 years old. I was lucky enough to go to a high school which had a unique animation program. There, I made several animated shorts that won some student awards and got me excited about studying film. At The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts I continued to study film theory and learn more about animation and digital arts. Working in feature animation felt like a natural fit for me when I left film school because it combined two things I was really interested in: technology and visual storytelling.
Q. What drew you to Wellington and Victoria University?
In college, I was inspired by work being done on The Lord of the Rings films. The level of craftsmanship and the magical location — Middle Earth — functioned as a kind of myth for me and my classmates. When the opportunity to work at Weta Digital presented itself, I knew I had to go. Eight years and a lot of movies later, I began to think about how I could take the skills I’d acquired in visual storytelling and apply them to my own work. I pursued an MA at Victoria’s Institute of Modern Letters where I wrote a thesis which I am currently developing as a literary fiction novel. This work branched off into broader research into storytelling and new media.
One of the reasons I’m so excited to be teaching (and learning!) from students here at Victoria is that I feel pretty indebted to all the great teachers I’ve had along the way. From these teachers I learned that making films, thinking about films, writing about films, and passing on knowledge about films is a fluid process. We learn by doing and do by learning.
Q. What are your research interests and methods?
My research is primarily focused on the relationship between digital technology and narrativity. My work as a visual effects artist informs my critical writing about cinema and how new technologies continue to shape our contemporary understanding of storytelling. My current research pivots around the idea that new mediums like virtual reality must draw upon and extend the tradition of established media such as literature, theatre, and film.
Q. Do you face any challenges in what is typically known as a male-dominated industry?
I’ve written and thought a lot around the subject of gender, diversity and technology. In visual effects, the practical and psychological challenge for me and many women I know often came down to being the only, or one of a handful of women in the room. There has historically been a leadership gap for women in VFX. When we don’t see other women in top roles not only is that alienating, but it also contributes to a final product, in this case big budget feature films, that feel like they’re being made for the same audience over and over. An audience, we are told, that must identify with white male heroes.
Q. Tell us more about the Design Professional Practice and Lighting and Rendering courses you teach? What will your students learn?
CCDN 412 seeks to engage students in the practices that will propel them during their transition from academic life to professional careers as artists. I encourage my students to answer the central question, “What is my story as an artist?”, and use this to construct an industry-focused portfolio, along with strategies for sustaining long-term engagement with their artistic practice.
MDDN 431 is focused on the art and craft of Lighting and Rendering, which is a specialty in VFX production. In addition to learning core technical skills such as look development, beauty lighting for characters, image based lighting, working with shaders and textures, and efficient rendering strategies, students will learn to think like digital cinematographers.
Q. What opportunities does Wellington offer for Design Tech students?
Digital mediums continue to grow. In Wellington we’ve got companies large and small specializing in gaming, film production, visual effects, VR, AR, MR, web content, AI, machine learning, and several more nascent platforms. Our students are prepared to work professionally across these media. They are also prepared to carve new paths and figure out how the next media we haven’t even thought of yet will tell stories and solve design problems. All this talent has created a great landscape of opportunity for students and entrepreneurs to access a relatively small but highly skilled creative community.
Q. You’re a member of Women in VR and actively involved in the Wellington Virtual Reality community. Tell us more about your mission to increase the visibility of women to this field?
I believe the ecosystem for gender parity in the professional world begins in our educational systems. By fostering a diverse student body in our classrooms, we not only instil the significance of such a value system in our students but we also create a framework for the next generation’s workforce. Through my own research partnerships, I have found that much of the best talent in Wellington and at Victoria happens to be male and female feminists. I’m really invested in working with people who also believe in gender parity because when young women see other women in positions of leadership they see forward pathways for their own creative endeavours. And it is only by placing women in key creative and technical roles that the content of work produced will feature complex and nuanced representations of women. In other words, we need to tell our own stories and design our own worlds.
Q. Describe some of your latest work?
I am a Coordinator in the Virtual Worlds DRIL Stream. In 2016 I received a grant from Victoria University’s Digital Futures initiative to investigate the relationship between cinema and virtual reality narrative strategies. The project, titled “Circle versus square: VR as the Third Experience,” produced a short VR experience that is currently in its final stages of production. The project incorporates 3D printing, spherical camera construction, 3D sound, and a pipeline for creating spherical 360 content — all technologies which will feed back into graduate and undergraduate post-production curriculums. “Circle versus Square” relies heavily on relationships between the Design, Film, and Theatre, encouraging a cross-disciplinary approach to research and exhibition.
I am also preparing a paper which takes a long view of virtual reality by looking at the history of early cinema, the French New Wave, and the American New Cinema of the 1970s. Theoretical and practical intersections between these global film movements and the experimental work being done in the American Expanded Cinema scene of the 70s are a framework through which the technological underpinnings of virtual reality can be traced.
To learn more about Raqi’s work and a full list of her publications visit: www.hydroxandhorlix.com
A full list of her film credits can be found over at IMDB.
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