The MPC junior compositor on the magical potential of VFX, finding her voice and learning over lockdown, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
All of Emma Tyler’s family were artistic, whether musically or involved in creative careers. As a result, she grew up pursuing artistic hobbies. Having realised that she wasn’t a natural violinist she stuck with drawing and painting - well, there was the odd bit of gaming thrown in too. It’s a hobby she still loves, though as a kid it largely consisted of watching her sister play the levels she couldn’t.
Emma didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up, but knew it had to be something creative. Now a junior compositor at MPC, she’s ended up in a creative career that combines her love of image creation as well as some of the technology used in games.
Growing up in South London (where she still lives), Emma spent every summer holiday with her extended family in Norfolk, which helped her gain an appreciation for the escape of the countryside. “I have a slight disability with my legs, one is a bit shorter than the other,” she says. “So, I could not join in with the long bike rides or hikes growing up, so I spent many an afternoon sat with my grandad watching Star Wars and Disney while snacking on biscuits. I think that is where my love of VFX came from, always being amazed at the magic on the TV.”
Her first serious thought that led to her career path as a compositor came when she was looking into colleges as school came to an end. Emma came across an Animation, Games and VFX course at a local college. “It felt more enticing than the graphic design course I was considering,” she says. She went for it, but this college didn't have the funding to properly run it, so she left and went for another college called Nescot, offering a similar course that was further away.
Emma couldn't join the new college right away as they thought she would struggle to keep up - they were four months into the course - so she had to wait till September for the new enrolment. In the gap before enrolment, she got a job with an online watch retailer that she’d done a bit of work experience with in the past. Emma’s main role was to assist the lead graphic designer by doing smaller tasks for her. “I think this was a great job, but the repetitiveness of the role and its limitations showed me that it was still VFX that I wanted to chase,” she says.
At Nescot Emma was able to use a range of software to fully find her place, becoming well-versed in After Effects and Nuke. And it was after a two-week work experience at Framestore that she realised compositing is what she wanted to do after speaking to a few artists.
When she finished the course with two distinctions, Emma really didn't want to go to uni. “While I'd enjoyed my time in education I just wanted to get into the industry,” she says. After applying for apprenticeships, she eventually received offers from Framestore, ILM and MPC. “I think MPC stuck out to me most as they spoke a lot about creativity and I got to meet one of their junior compositors. I liked the fact that they were smaller in size and everyone knew each other well,” she says.
Beginning at MPC, Emma’s perfectionism found a home and she made use of the expertise around her at the company. A natural introvert, it took a while for her to open up but when she did, she found that she was able to learn from everyone around her. “Working at MPC has really helped bring me out of my shell as everyone is so welcoming and chatty,” she says. “Early on I think learning to ask for help and to always ask questions really helped me develop as an artist. My co-workers were always up for showing me tricks or setups and I was able to pick up a lot more than if I'd just sat there stuck on my own. I like working as part of a team, the collaborative process is always inspiring and is what helps me get better as an artist.”
As a woman in VFX, Emma knows firsthand that the industry needs more diversity. Even in college she was one of only four girls on a course with about 25 people. “I felt like because of my gender that I had to stand out and prove myself, which is frustrating but it has benefited me in the long run as it's meant I've worked pretty hard. I just wish that it was more inviting for women to get into VFX and technology as a whole. I had to deal with a few sexist comments at college and I know for some that could have been harmful.”
Emma’s also keen to stress the importance of the industry improving its dedication to mental health. “A few apprentices I know found themselves very overwhelmed with no one to talk to, they were just told to expect this level of pressure all the time. I feel more fortunate than some as the people I work with have been very supportive when I've gone through personal struggles, but there needs to be an industry standard to protect artists from overworking themselves and putting work above everything.”
Her first project was Eurostar's ‘You See More when You Don't Fly’. “It was really exciting as I was on it from the very beginning, to see it develop and to be a part of that process, it really opened my eyes to how much a project can evolve,” she says.
But the project that really changed her as an artist was Lynx Africa's ‘Hot Since '95’. The team started in the studio and then had to shift everything over to working at home at the very last minute. “I couldn't get the mentoring I was used to and had to adapt my own set skills to make certain shots work,” says Emma. “One of my favourite shots from that advert is the Anthony Joshua bobblehead - me and my supervisor were brainstorming how to make him pop and somehow a magical halo sprung to mind.”
“Lockdown for me was quite challenging,” says Emma, as she was still in her apprenticeship at the time. “Having lessons over Zoom and technical difficulties with virtual desktops could really be stressful,” she says. She’d only been in the studio for six months and hadn't even met all her co-workers yet so meeting them via webcam was certainly an interesting experience. But she found that working from home does have its benefits, the extra time from not commuting has allowed her to get more into fitness and drawing again.
She’s also used her extra time in lockdown to get into digital art. Her favourite artists have been Erik Johansson and James Gilleard and she’s been trying to give it a go herself using an iPad and Procreate. “It's so cool to be able to mimic pencil or paint strokes to get the traditional art feel. I find that getting creative in my free time also keeps me sharp at work.”
Another thing that Emma does to hone her skills is to keep on top of the developments in VFX tools. “I think to keep yourself evolving in this role you have to always show interest in others' work and have a love for technology,” she says. “I subscribe to Foundry's emails so that I can learn to use new and updated tools. I'm always excited about new developments like the fact that Nuke now has some machine learning capabilities and how these developments will make me a better artist.”
She also pays attention to co-workers' debates on the right methodology for workflows, and what one of her mentors would refer to as ’going rogue’. She adds: “I think that communication is very important in my field and that compromise is always best as artists you need to get good at making the most of your notes and criticisms.
“I really look up to my previous two mentors, they've both moved on from the company, but I keep in contact. Alex Snookes was the first to get super involved with my learning and I just admire how quick thinking he is as an artist - he's always prepared for any situation, he's worked on some really big projects like John Lewis's Buster the Boxer. My other mentor Vanessa Duquesnay just always knows how to bring a shot together and as a supervisor was always so spot on, she always had the eye for how a shot should look.”
As someone new to the business, Emma says she tends to struggle with confidence in her work. “It can slow me down because I always want something to be 100%. Luckily, I have my supervisors to guide me.”
But the satisfaction when it all comes together is worth it. Emma loves “seeing the final look and knowing how much creativity and time went into it.
“In compositing I think the goal is always to carefully toe the line between realism and storytelling, knowing how to make something stand out but also look completely natural. I can't wait till I can achieve this seamlessly; I think there's no ceiling with compositing and you can always grow as an artist. I'm at the very beginning of my journey.”
All sorts of events continue to inspire Emma, as well as other artists in the industry. She still loves watching ‘before and after’ on YouTube. Now that she’s seen behind the curtain, the magic of VFX has lost none of its wonder. “It still amazes me even now I know what happens since it still takes a lot of work and creativity, when watching I just can't help but think, ‘damn I want to try that myself!’”