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Episode 142 — Kat Evans — Discussing 15 Years in VFX
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 142! I’m speaking with Kat Evans. This is the third and final part of this interview. Check out my previous Episodes with Kat:
– Women in VFX: www.allanmckay.com/127/
– Exiting the Industry: www.alanmcay.com/132/
We get into really great stuff. Kat talks about the balance in the industry and the changes that are happening. She also talks about leaving the industry which is not a common subject. In this Episode, she talks about her career and a lot of really great insights. There is a lot to benefit from it.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[-49:02] I’ve got some high end visual effects training out right now: www.allanmckay.com/energyball/. This will be available for a few weeks and then it’s getting locked away in a vault. You’ll find 10 hours of creating a high-end production shot from start to finish; going through the entire pipeline.
Check it out: www.allanmckay.com/energyball/.
INTERVIEW WITH KAT EVANS
Over the course of her decade long career in visual effects, Katharine “Kat” Evans has worked for large studios like ILM, Tippett Studio, Giant Killer Robots and several others. Her credits include films like Hellboy, Matrix Revolutions, Fantastic Four, Transformers, Rango, Lucy and the Iron Man franchise.
Kat received her MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She began her career as a Roto Paint Artist, then moved on to Match Moving and Camera Layout. Since 2017, Kat has been focusing on a new career in User Experience Design (UX).
In this Podcast, Kat talks about her career in visual effects, as well as shares her insight on how to break into the industry, how to avoid working overtime and how to communicate with clients.
Katharine Evans’ Website: http://cleverevans.com
Kat Evans on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1498320/
Kat Evans on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/cleverevans
Kat Evans on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katevans/
INTERVIEW WITH KAT EVANS
[-47:47] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Kat: Sure! My name is Kat Evans. I’ve worked for the last 14 years in the visual effects industry. I started out as a Roto Paint Artist, then moved into Match Moving and Camera Layout. And I’ve worked for ILM, Tippett Studio, the Orphanage, and Giant Killer Robots. I’ve worked on the Transformers and the Iron Man franchise. I’ve done a lot!
[-47:13] Allan: Do you want to talk about how you started? I feel like everyone’s journey is different. Did you always want to be an artist growing up or did you fall into it at a later date?
Kat: Yeah, I loved art growing up. I did a lot of drawing and painting as a kid, took art classes at school. I was on track to being an art teacher and I was working as a teacher in upstate New York. That was the time when two significant movies came out: Toy Story and Jurassic Park. I saw them and thought, “I have to know how to do that! I have to learn how it’s done!” It was absolutely fascinating. In New York, they required teachers to get a Master’s Degree. So I was facing going back to school anyway. So I thought, “Why don’t I just get a Masters in Computer Graphics?” So that’s how I got on the path of doing visual effects.
[-45:39] Allan: That’s cool! In the very beginning, did you study that and instantly start in the industry — or did you have a lead-up to that?
Kat: So I was a student at Savanah College of Art and Design. I graduated and they took me on as a faculty member. That was a great experience! It enabled me to finish a short film that I was working on and gave me a little time to get my head on straight. But I thought, it wasn’t what I came there for. It was a great opportunity, but…
[-44:53] Allan: But I want to go make dinosaurs!
Kat: Exactly! So I left Savanah. I had a friend working for Kleiser-Walczac in Massachusetts. They were working on X-Men 2. The thing they needed was: Rebeca Romijn-Stamos refused to wear prosthetic contacts, so we had to track her eyes and make them yellow. They were a lot of other things we needed to do. That was my first job.
[-44:09] Allan: That’s cool! The first feature time you got to work on was X-Men 2. Was it, like “Oh, my god! That’s my first job!”
Kat: That was my first gig and I was excited. I liked the first X-Men film. When you start working on a film, don’t you get an idea if it’s going to be any good?
[-43:40] Allan: Well, I remember they were working on X-Men 3. I was at Frantic. I wasn’t on it but I kept asking everyone about it. And people told me [every character] died in it, as if they were going to end the franchise.
Kat: I thought it was a good film and I certainly had a good time working on it. It was the middle of winter. I was there with a couple of my graduate school friends. Basically, we would hang out. Most of the time, we would work at the studio. When we weren’t working, we were playing video games and cooking, hanging out. It was like being at a visual effects summer camp.
[-42:40] Allan: That’s cool! You mentioned going to Kleiser-Walczac and the relationship with friends in the industry. I think that’s a critical thing. What people need to realize is that relationships are really critical, especially in school and beyond it. One or two people will get their foot in the door and everyone else will trickle in through them. You ended up coming in through them, correct?
Kat: Yeah. Speaking to people who are out there and trying to break into the industry, you kind of need a few components:
I. Number 1: You need to know what you’re doing. You need to be good and have a portfolio.
II. Beyond that: You have to have relationships. So many people ask me why they should go to college. Don’t get me wrong, higher education is really expensive, but it gives you relationships with a community of people. You get a reputation among them. They go out into the world and get jobs and refer you. You have to have relationships.
III. You have to be persistent!
IV. The fourth thing I usually mention is luck. But I think luck is about persistence. Because sooner or later, if you have those other things — it will work out for you.
[-40:27] Allan: I think you’re right about luck. It’s about making yourself available and trying every opportunity. I remember working on Priest. One of the kids came in [as a new hire] and the immediate thing we did was ask if he knew other people who were good at a junior level. All it takes is one person getting through the door. It’s so critical. I have mixed feelings about college for visual effects, but one of the critical things is the accountability aspect and the community.
Kat: Yes, I agree absolutely. If you go to school — and it’s online or a physical one — you build a community of classmates. Usually what happens is that there is one or two shiny apples on the tree. They get picked first. But then, they know who the best people in the class were. Or, maybe they aren’t the shiny apples.
[-38:22] Allan: Or they’re really outgoing. Those people are the ones who show up at SIGGRAPH.
Kat: Yeah. That’s also where being a personality and being reliable comes into play. If someone is recommending you, you’re going to be a reflection on them. If you don’t work out, that’s a bad reflection on your friend and your friend will never recommend you again.
[-37:45] Allan: Absolutely! I think it took me a while to work that out. I had to stop myself and think if I really knew that a certain person was great or if they just told me they were great. There are times you recommend someone and they completely mess up and throw that to the wind.
Kat: Yes, that’s true…
[-36:52] Allan: I can tell you’re hesitating to tell a hundred stories right now.
Kat: Yes, but I’m not going to repeat them.
[-36:41] Allan: Do you want to talk about some of the projects you worked on? After X-Men, what were your next projects?
Kat: From X-Men, I went to [ESC Entertainment] here in California. They were working on Matrix Revolutions. That show was on fire at the time and they were trying to get it done.
[-35:59] Allan: I’ve never met anyone who thought that show was a dream.
Kat: Well, it was a challenge and a lot of hard work. They were burning the midnight oil and I don’t think that mode of working is sustainable for anyone. But sometimes productions get themselves into such situations. I did have one film credit on my resume and that’s what got them to open their doors for me and I got to the West Coast. After those two films for me, it was off to the races. From there, I went to Orphanage to work on Hellboy.
[-34:56] Allan: Just to loop back to the Matrix for a second. Do you feel like after you worked on those two films, you got 5 years of experience? Because there are some projects you go through a lot, and the growth you get is worth its weight in gold. Pressure sometimes pushes you to get the most growth.
Kat: I would’ve learned a lot even if I was leaving at 6:00 p.m. at the end of the day. Any new job you start, there is always a learning curve. But even if you work 70-hour weeks, you do learn. If you don’t learn quickly, they don’t keep you around.
[-33:47] Allan: That’s trial by fire. What were the specific things you worked on?
Kat: On X-Men 2 and Matrix Revolutions, I was part of the roto paint team. On X-Men 2, I was doing a lot of roto and tracking. But then at ESC, on Matrix Revolutions, I started to do plate reconstructions and rig and wire removal. I was starting to learn a basic compositing skills. We were using Shake and there was roto paint software called Commotion. It was buggy but it did have a good tracker. I was learning how to do procedural paint techniques, corner pinning, that kind of stuff: Basic compositing skills.
[-32:33] Allan: And then you went to the “O” from that point?
Kat: Here is a funny little story about getting hired at the Orphanage. They were on fire with Hellboy and they needed people. ESC was letting some people go and I think they confused me with a more senior Paint Artist. I think they thought I was her. They put me in an office (instead of into the sliver where all the people sat together) and the first day they gave me this incredibly difficult shot. I swallowed my fear and said, “I can do that”, called a friend on the phone. I [also] got to know some of the artists there. You have to muddle your way through sometimes — and be over your head — in order to stretch your skills.
[-31:07] Allan: So how did it that work out?
Kat: I got a little help from a compositor but I did end up getting it done.
[-30:56] Allan: I nearly went to work on that. I was going back to Australia in 2004. It seemed like it was an amazing team working on. The Orphanage being a few doors down from ILM, I’m sure it would have been fun to work on.
Kat: You know, the “O” was certainly going through their growing pains. I think they really had their hands full. Did we ever work at the Orphanage together?
[-30:01] Allan: No, but there were so many opportunities to work there! It was really bad timing though, every single time. I remember when I finally went to work on Priest, they had been trying to hire me for 10 years. I never worked with them but always stayed in touch.
Kat: I think you and I were never in the same facilities until ILM. I was on Rango at that time. By then, I was doing camera layout and match moving. And that was a lot more fun! That was really what I wanted to get into. I really loved the visual aspect of storytelling in layout. So much of a film happens with cameras and editing. The more I learn about movies, the more I really appreciate cameras and how stories are told with them. Working on that show really taught me a lot about the importance of a good use of a camera.
[-27:42] Allan: For me, I never was interested until I started shooting. I feel like if you are to get more into camera and previs, you get a lot more creative control. Most other areas in CG, you’re in a reactive mode. You get to have creative input yourself [when] being involved early in the project.
Kat: I certainly learned that directors cared about cameras a lot. Gore Verbinski was really involved with cameras on that show. It’s absolutely true that the camera gives you more creative control. You do need to consider that there are several types of roles in a visual effects pipeline.
- Some roles are shot based: animation, compositing, lighting. It’s all about getting the shots done.
- But then there are other areas that are asset based: modeling, shading.
For effects, it’s more shot based.
[-25:47] Allan: Yes, it’s pretty much shot based, in the long run. As much as you want to plan ahead, it never works out that way.
Kat: But I will say that in terms of lifestyle, my observation has been that things aren’t as bad when you’re in an asset-based department (if you’re modeling or shading). Life isn’t always as hard as it is — if you’re compositing or lighting or animation — where you have this massive inventory of shots to plow through.
[-24:52] Allan: It depends on where you are in the pipeline. I feel that compositing and effects are always at the end. At smaller studios, it’s not unheard of that you end up tweaking someone’s animation at the end of production because everyone else has gone off to other projects. Suddenly, effects and compositing have to juggle everything else that comes through. Modeling and storyboarding are in the beginning. Earlier in a pipeline, there are more jobs you can work remotely as well. It’s very unlikely that you can comp shots from home.
Kat: I think that people want that but for so many reasons, it has not worked out. A remote visual effects team is really hard to wrangle. There is something to be said for when you’re having a problem with something, going down the hall and asking about an asset. People do make mistakes. As time has gone on, I realized that if production set aside 4 months, it’s going to take 4.5 months. It will take as long as there is time. There have been a few difficult productions and I would look at when the film is supposed to come out. Sometimes, it can be 10 months [in the making]. Sometimes, I think it’s about getting the right people to make decisions. I understand they want to get it right and cover every base. And things take time, or there were poor choice made when they shot the film. If they know they’ve got time, they will take that time.
[-21:14] Allan: You have Parkinson’s Law [that says that] time will expand or shrink in relation to the time one has to complete it. I feel like that’s the rule of thumb with visual effects. You can get 90% completion of a shot within a couple of months. But then in the last two weeks, we could get it all done. It’s about making decisions.
Kat: I didn’t know there was a name for it.
[-20:06] Allan: With visual effects, it describes what we go through. On Superman, I ended up leaving halfway through. Working from home, I like working on several jobs at once. Why should I babysit a job?
Kat: Or, the other thing that gets you in visual effects is: They need to get things to a certain state either for the trailer or for temps. My approach is: The first time you put something out there, you know it’s not what they want. You may not have visual references to tell you. But at least putting something out there gets the conversation going. Then they can tell you what they want. Sometimes, they kind of like it and they don’t want you to deviate and build on top of that. When you have something that’s poorly constructed but they “love this move!” — you have to go back and fix everything that’s underpinning everything.
[16:46] Allan: We were pitching this big CG explosion. I usually make something and then a slightly bigger version, and then again one that’s too much. That way I can measure. I can get the final result. But I do remember making this big, over-the-top explosion and they chose it. It backfired. And it happens so much now!
Kat: I haven’t been in that situation very often. Sometimes, I realize that they want something else and I’m misunderstanding them. But that’s how you get there. After a while, you realize it’s just the process.
[-14:41] Allan: I’ve worked with a guy who said, “As long as they have the money, I have the time.” And that stuck with me. If they come back with a 100th reiteration, part of my job is to help them get to the decision they want. I never took it personally. I’ve seen so many people take it personally. We are in a service / vendor industry and we create someone else’s vision. Clock in and do the work!
Kat: I totally agree with you! This isn’t about your personal vision. Maybe you have something special that you bring to the table, but it’s really about listening to what people want and helping them get that vision up on the screen. It’s absolutely true that your job is to listen to your Sups and the director — and try to give them what they’re asking for. There are times when you’re burning 80 hours a week and you’re trying to get a lot done. But everything does come together. And then sometimes you have a client who doesn’t have the hard date to finish. They have time to noodle stuff. Sometimes, I have experienced working with clients who feel they have a room full of ninjas and they don’t have a vision of what they want. They have money and time. Eventually, those things restrain them. Oftentimes, that’s when a project comes to a finish: they run out of either.
[-10:38] Allan: I did 140 shots of bird poop for Disney once. And it’s literally for split seconds. You know those shot codes that stick with you for the rest of your life.
Kat: And you look at the screen and the shot is a fraction of a second! [And you think,] “That was a month of my life!”
[-09:53] Allan: That was my marriage or whatever you went through! Visual effects is a brutal industry. There are projects that set personal lives up in flames.
Kat: Yes, that is the downside of visual effects. If you let it, it will consume your life. When I was younger, I was happy to have it consume my life.
[-09:07] Allan: It’s fun. But when you get older, you say, “Fuck it, I have a life!” You have a mindset shift.
Kat: I think it fun to go through that but it’s not sustainable. I push back. Any studio culture that says, “If you aren’t here until 9:00 p.m., you’re doing it wrong.” That’s bad planning from my point of view. It’s not sustainable in the long term. Is that what you life is going to be about?
[-07:38] Allan: Even when I was younger I was aware when someone made a poor decision, it affected everyone on the team. I wrote an article Overtime vs Productivity:
That was about the unnecessary requirements of working long hours. In the long run, the number of mistakes people make and burning people out isn’t worth it. At the same time, we as artists, must take some of the responsibility. If you’re going for extended lunch breaks or play video games at 4:00 p.m., there is all that free time you’re wasting. It’s critical for all of us to become optimal for when we’re at the desk.
Kat: I’m all about working smart and not hard. I think you, Allan, care about being efficient or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. When you start out young, you have to build good work habits. When you’re pressed into overtime, what ends up happening is that people reach saturation points. If they’re expected to just show their face, they have to blow off some steam. What’s better is if you do stay focused and reach a level of completion, and then step away — and let someone else take a look at it. There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to some of this.
[-03:54] Allan: Then it comes down to management: Running people into the ground will make artists create their own buffer. Managers need to give people breaks, give people time off. When you leave at 2:00 a.m. and come back at 9:00 a.m., it’s really depressing. As fun and rewarding as visual effects are, it is a lot of work.
Kat: There can be something rewarding about pushing yourself. If the overtime is well warranted, to me it’s worthwhile. The abusive thing is when they need you to do 65-hour weeks for three months. That’s paying for someone else’s bad decision making. Over time, it’s difficult to not resent that. I don’t think visual effects need to be that way.
Once again, I want to thank Kat for this interview. I think this Episode was really cool. Please feel free to review it on iTunes.
The next Episode will be PART II with Ivo Klaus, VFX Sup at Scanline. Here is Ivo’s first interview: www.allanmckay.com/136/.
That’s it for now! Rock on!