Episode 188 — Mariana Acuña Acosta

Mariana Acuña Acosta is an entrepreneur who is driven by her passion for new and emerging technologies. Over the past four years, her focus has been in VR, MR and AR workflows, cross-pollination of products; the changing landscape of entertainment and the new ways of creating content. She is the Founder of Jolt VR and a CPO and Co-Founder of Glassbox Technologies (previously known as Opaque Studios), a company that is pioneering gaming technology in Virtual Production, utilizing VR and AR by creating a framework for visualizing performances, environments, virtual collaboration, virtual location scouting, and much more for real time production.

As a VFX Artist, Mariana has years of experience working as a Compositor on films like Invictus, Alice in Wonderland, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Green Lantern, The Rum Diary and the tv show Lost.

In this Podcast, Mariana talks about her experience working in different companies around the world, the importance of knowing every part of the pipeline; the latest developments in VR / MR / AR — and why it’s a great time for artists to get into the field.

Mariana Acuña Acosta on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1598737/
Mariana Acuña Acosta on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marianaacuna
Mariana Acuña Acosta on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user35714309
Mariana Acuña Acosta on Twitter: @Da_VFX_Chick
Jolt VR: http://joltvr.com/
Glassbox Technologies (formerly knows as Opaque Studios): http://glassboxtech.com/



[00:49] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

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[45:46] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!


[03:21] Allan: Hello and thank you for taking the time to do this! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Mariana: Sure! My name is Mariana Acuña Acosta I’m the Founder of Jolt VR and Co-Founder of Opaque Studios [now known as Glassdoor Technologies].

[03:32] Allan: Looking back at the beginning of your career, did you always want to be an artist?

Mariana: I actually went to school for it, for my Bachelors and Masters Degrees. But I ended up working on set. But then I realized that I felt in my heart I wanted to be behind a computer, being an artist.

[04:01] Allan: I know that in the beginning of your career, you talked about Young Sherlock Holmes being a big inspiration for you, to get into film. Can you elaborate on how that more?

Mariana: Oh, no! My interest in film goes way back! [After the movies] Alien and Terminator (the original), and Young Sherlock Holmes, that’s when I knew I wanted to be in visual effects and I wanted to make movies. I started making stop motion movies very early on, as a kid. It’s always been a real passion.

[04:46] Allan: As you moved into visual effects, what was the first project you got to work on?

Mariana: One of the first projects I got to work on was a Mexican movie that won the equivalent of the Oscars in Mexico. It was a visual effects film called KM 31. It was about a spirit that walks through his life in a lot of pain, a soul in misery. It’s a big urban legend. This was a big film in Mexico. That was the first big major film I worked on. There were four compositors, to work on something like 400 shots.

[05:45] Allan: Wow, that’s a pretty tight crew of people to knock out that many shots! Compared to working in LA — which you’ve obviously done a lot — what was it like to work with such a small team? What was it like for you to go from a smaller team to a bigger one in LA?

Mariana: It was actually quite different for [a different reason]: In most companies in Mexico, there were more women. In LA, I thought there would be a bigger balance. I was surprised to be the only woman in the compositing department. (Obviously, there were other women in production.) But in special effects, I was often the only woman for many years. I felt very strange about that. And I realize that’s how it is in other parts of the world as well, but it wasn’t like that in Mexico. And then of course, in LA, you get hourly and you get overtime; they also feed you. None of that happens in Mexico, no hourly rate or overtime. Of course, I can’t complain; but when you work such long hours, you end up being pretty burnt out.

[07:41] Allan: Yeah, that definitely doesn’t change in that respect! I feel that the industry has balanced out, in terms of gender, in recent years. Do you find that visual effects has become more mainstream?

Mariana: No, I don’t think so. Mostly I think it’s such an ageist industry as well. There are no artists above 50. You also can’t be a 55-year old and work the hours that a 21-year old is working. When you’re 55, you’re more worried about going home and spending time with the family. Now I realize why so many women weren’t around: Because it’s really hard if you have a family. A lot of women leave the industry after they have kids.

[09:12] Allan: Yeah, I’ve had a few interviews with Pixar artists who are women who said the same thing (www.allanmckay.com/127 and www.allanmckay.com/168). It’s a volatile industry that needs results, and sometimes those results are gotten in a very unorganized way. And the artists are the ones that suffer through it (http://allanmckey.elegance.work/overtime-vs-productivity-pt-2/). I’m curious about this. You’ve worked in so many locations. Do you find much difference between LA and New York? There are more people in companies in LA, whereas in New York, the deadlines can be a lot tighter.

Mariana: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I mostly feel that in New York, you mostly get advertisement or commercial work. That means tighter deadlines or smaller budgets. The deadlines are definitely very short. I agree with you! In LA, there are no complaints. Everything is different: The publishing the system, the communication between departments — everything! How you talk to the team! It’s very organized, you’re never going to get assigned the wrong shot. The review system is so well coordinated as well, and so well produced.

[11:12] Allan: There have been times when I land in New York and someone hears that I’m in town and ask me to work for a few hours because they have a job due in the morning. I never hear that in LA! To talk about some of the projects you’ve worked on, how do you compare working in tv vs film? What was your experience like on Lost compared to feature films (with bigger budgets and longer deadlines)?

Mariana: Well, actually, working on Lost was a lot of fun. It was the last season and people were crazy about that show. We had people harassing us. I had no clue what was happening [on the show] — I just had my shots. It was a really great show! Edits were happening really fast but they were never ambiguous. The changes requested were very fair. I’ve heard some horror stories and I try to avoid that at all costs. There are stories about lack of organization. Obviously, that’s mostly in commercials. In films, there is more organization, more camaraderie among the artists, better budgets. I don’t feel that happens in commercials.

[13:52] Allan: Yeah, I feel like [in commercials], you get through 90% of the job and there is no budget left for the last 10%. Whereas in film, it’s allocated for.

Mariana: Of course, I’m generalizing, but it’s true.

[14:15] Allan: I’ve always enjoyed working in commercials because it’s a good way to start out in the beginning [of your career]. It gives you a variety of challenges and the turnaround is typically only 2 weeks. It tests and pushes you a lot further. What I love about film is that you get to collaborate with so much different talent; and you try to make the best work you can. It’s definitely different worlds.

Mariana: Absolutely!

[14:51] Allan: What was The Green Lantern like to work on? And which studio was that at? Was it Sony?

Mariana: That was Sony! I loved it. I know people hate that movie.

[15:04] Allan: I went to that wrap party, in Santa Monica. I remember the ice sculpture which was fun.

Mariana: You were there? Did we know each other?

[15:14] Allan: I don’t think we’ve met. But I looked at your LinkedIn. We have 200+ common contact. So what was that project like? For some people it was fun.

Mariana: I know people hated that movie. They were a great employer! I was pregnant at the time, they took care of me. They always worried about me and making sure to make my life easier. I learned so much from the team. Every morning, we would have a meeting. I never worked with a tight team like that! There was a camaraderie and a lot of work. We supported each other and all of my sequences were terrific; so I loved it! Unfortunately, something like 300 people were cut out of the credits. I was bummed about that!

[17:24] Allan: I remember around 2010…

Mariana: No, it was around 2011.

[17:43]6] Allan: I remember around that time, Sony was doing some weird stuff like trying to speed up the credit roll to save money. I worked on Priest. They would roll the credits at double speed because they figured it would save them money printing film. All these weird things they were doing. And on your film, they omitted half the talent.

Mariana: Then we talked about if we had a union, that wouldn’t happen.

[18:48] Allan: Going to Foundry, what was that experience like?

Mariana: It was such a hard decision, to tell you the truth! Going from the crazy hours, it took me a while to realize I didn’t need to feel that anxiety anymore. “Oh, wow! That’s what a sunset looks like! Oh, wow!” It was really weird after so many years in visual effect to go into a regular schedule.

[19:25] Allan: You wouldn’t think people would have that problem: adjusting to a normal schedule.

Mariana: No, it’s probably PTSD. It was amazing though! Being able to talk to the engineers and product managers. I was also adored, I was a big groupie even before working at Foundry. And it was great to be able to have a say! I was able to travel all over the world and see what [other companies] pipelines were like, what their pain points were. There were a lot of similarities, when it [came] to a lack of gender balance or lack of work / life balance. It was great to see the type of work that was produced around the world! And to be able to influence the direction of the product and to know about the new features and the latest version. That was incredible! I would do it all over again. Plus, the founders of the company were super supportive and approachable. It was really amazing! Now it is a huge company and it changed a lot. It went from a start-up to 400 people.

[22:10] Allan: You coming in as a compositor, would you ever recommend that to other artists: to be exposed to other parts of the pipeline and understand workflow?

Mariana: Oh, yeah! I also always felt that one of the pain points for artists was the lack of time to improve their skill sets. You may have started 5 years ago and learned the techniques on matte painting or digital painting. And you just keep using that same technique and not get a chance to improve it or get feedback from other artists. To be able to see and learn all the different technique — and to see how the software was being applied in different ways, in different studios — was very valuable for me. That’s not something that a lot of artists would get to experience. Five years go by and you continue to do what you were doing all along, and you don’t know about the new ways (even if you have an updated version of a software). And of course, you’re working crazy hours. The last thing you want is to go home and do more tutorials. I felt it was very valuable. You also learn about how software works.

[24:40] Allan: That’s a completely different perspective. You were the regional manager for Australia and New Zealand. What was that like putting up with New Zealanders all that time? (I’m Australian.)

Mariana: Quite frankly, I think Australia is a really interesting place. I had the best time working there. All the different places and studios! It was pretty entertaining. I went there because studios wanted to stop spending money bringing in talent and on their visas. The main complaint was that there wasn’t enough local talent. Not like in LA! They wanted to help bridge that gap with universities and colleges. In general, what I found that there wasn’t that much interest in Australians to learn that. I think it’s because Australia hasn’t had a recession in a long time.

[26:15] Allan: Yeah, work ethic is very different there too. We’re very relaxed. There is no panic and freak out, and take-pride-in-your-work. There is no panic button. We feel that it will all work out.

Mariana: Yeah, exactly! It’s the land of no worries! And the people who are working in visual effect are not Australian. There are so many [foreigners]: French, Italian, Canadian, American artists. Is anyone is actually Australian? The country is so beautiful, but there weren’t so many Australians working in visual effects.

[27:21] Allan: It’s also a younger industry as well. In the early 90s, there were times when things fluctuated. Other countries had more consistent growth. For you, going from Foundry to VR, what was it like? What attracted you to VR, AR?

Mariana: Oh, I had that interest while I was at Foundry. I switched in 2013, but I was doing AR it since 2005. In 2013, I [realized] it was the next big thing and it would change the world. With the help of Foundry, we thought we should be there at the forefront. I was working [on] gathering feedback, thinking about what features we were going to put in. Then I was working with real time. The one thing that was clear is that I wanted to do the switch. The feedback from all over the world was about making it more stable and faster. And I thought it had incredible potential in storytelling. I just saw how the industry was changing. There is going to be a whole new way, with creating and pipelines. That just felt like the next logical evolution.

[32:11] Allan: What’s the main difference between Opaque and Jolt, your two different businesses?

Mariana: Absolutely! I’m the Founder of Jolt VR and the soul barer of what happens with the company. I have an amazing producer Tanya Leal-Soto. I opened [the company] in Mexico because VR didn’t exist there. We did music videos but also an original short film called Etienne. It used 8 actors and 2 locations. We ended up at Cannes. We’re going to be on the Tribeca Channel. It was a cheaper way to bring VR to Mexico and educate people. I’ve been able to collaborate with some amazing creators. It’s basically my sandbox. I’m not getting rich off of it.

With Opaque, we are a team of 16 people. My CTO is Andrew Britton who used to be the Head of Technology at CBS Digital. I have developers in Melbourne. (I’m going there next week.) We are building real time production, for filmmakers. It’s the next logical evolution.

[35:29] Allan: So with Opaque, you’re doing a lot of creative productions, correct?

Mariana: Well, we’re a technology company. We’re basically building software with Alpha / Beta. We’ve talk all the time with Unity and Epic Games. We just did a Chinese production. We are doing the production — we’re just delivering the technology. We help with real time productions.

[36:25] Allan: This is for some of the artists that want to break into this field: What are some of the biggest trends that are happening with VR, AR, MR? Are there big shifts? It’s obviously growing so quickly.

Mariana: I think we’re going to see a lot more use of the cloud. Everyone is using virtual machines. The pipelines are going to be living in the cloud. AR is changing how things are done in animation. VR and MR is having a shift into having more tools that are more enhancing to human experience. You have choices of experience. You can randomize behavior and have characters that interact difference. And then there is the real time ray tracing. GPU powers are only going to go up from now. I feel like it’s a really good time for artists to create content. At the end of the day, you’re going to be an artist. There is so much content and disruption. It’s a good time to get in there.

[39:10] Allan: For students and young artist who want to break into VR, do you have any advice?

Mariana: It can get really technical. If you’re looking to get in because it looks fun from the outside, I think the barrier entry is [pretty high]. You have to study up! There are all these devices but not enough content. It still requires some knowledge in what you’re doing. It’s a lot more technical than studying film. Technology is getting better. So educate yourself! There are so many videos on YouTube and free resource. Just know what industries are making a lot of money. If you look into entertainment, it’s not the place to make money. There are more stable enterprises. In VR post-production, there aren’t so many jobs. And it’s demanding: You’re dealing with so many more cameras. So you need to be super passionate to get into it. In AR, there’ve been some improvements. With AR, you can start developing apps. My advice is: Be passionate about what you’re doing and know what you’re getting yourself into!

[43:19] Allan: Thank you again for taking the time to do this interview! Where can people go to learn more about Opaque and Jolt VR?

Mariana: I haven’t gone on the Jolt VR website in while [http://joltvr.com/]. You could go to our Facebook or Instagram. With Opaque, you could go to www.opaque.studio / http://glassboxtech.com. We don’t have social media for Opaque yet. We will be rebranding in the future and we can launch it then. You can see what the tools are about.

[44:39] Allan: Thank you again for everything. This has been so great!

Mariana: Thank you, Allan!

I want to thank Mariana again for taking the time to do this interview. I hope you got a lot from this Episode. Next week, I will be talking with Sergio Paez and Mitch Bowler on the lifestyle of being a digital nomad.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a free VFX Course on City Destruction at www.VFXCourse.com.

Until then —

Rock on!


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