Episode 258 — Emmanuel Shiu



Emmanuel Shiu is a Concept Designer and Illustrator for film and video games. His credits include films Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Blade Runner 2049 , Ready Player One; The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Looper, Superman Returns and Hellboy; and video games including Lost Planet 3, Star Citizen and Destiny 2.

Emmanuel began his career in CG as a Generalist at Lucasfilm. He then went on to work as a Matte Painter and Matte Painting Supervisor at The Orphanage, and as a Concept Artist at ImageMovers Digital.

In this Podcast, Emmanuel talks about the importance of creating your personal art, as well as gives tips on how to build and maintain professional relationships and how to leverage your skills in a new career or specialty.

Emmanuel Shiu’s Website: http://www.eshiu.com/
Emmanuel Shiu on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1618807/
Emmanuel Shiu on Art Station: https://www.artstation.com/emanshiu
Emmanuel Shiu on Deviant Art: https://www.deviantart.com/emanshiu
Emmanuel Shiu at the IAMAG Master Class: https://masterclasses.iamag.co/speaker/emmanuel-shiu/



[03:40] Emmanuel Talks About Starting out as an Artist
[06:32] Emmanuel Talks His First “Big Break”
[09:06] Emmanuel Discusses Leveraging Your Skills
[11:28] Emmanuel’s Talk at the IAMAG Master Class
[14:21] Emmanuel Talks About the Importance of Doing Personal Work
[20:14] Emmanuel Gives Tips on How to Build and Maintain Relationships
[23:17] Allan and Emmanuel Talk About the Power of Empathy
[33:19] Emmanuel Gives Tips on How to Compose a Successful Email
[40:09] Emmanuel Gives Advice on How to Stand Out
[47:38] Emmanuel Talks About How He Landed His First Job



Welcome to Episode 258! This is Allan McKay.

I’m chatting to Emmanuel Shiu, a Concept Designer and Illustrator for film and video games. He is currently working on films like The Matrix 4. Previously, he’s worked on projects like Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Runner 2049, Ready Player One; The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and many more.

I’m excited about this one! In this Podcast, we talk about his career and projects, as well as the importance of creating your personal art. I want to do another follow-up Episode with Emmanuel.

Please share this Podcast around. I would love for it to reach other people and help them with their careers as well. Thank you for taking the time to share it!

Let’s dive in!


[01:00] 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!

[53:47] 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!


[03:40] Allan: Thanks for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Emmanuel: Sure! My name is Emmanuel Shiu. I work in the film industry. Actually, more in the entertainment industry. I’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. Currently, I’m working on films. That’s the bulk of what I do.

[04:04] Allan: Obviously, you’ve heard me say this before. Starting out, did you always want to be an artist or did that happen later on in your life?

Emmanuel: Um, when I got into this, I was always an artist. I started out as a photographer. I went to art school for photography, then switched to architecture. It’s always been some kind of art. Photography started when I was in high school which happened to be an art school. That was a God sent! You end up being immersed in art. From that point, it was always about art, but I never thought about doing illustration or anything like that.

[04:55] Allan: Did you know there could be a job out there in the entertainment industry, doing some kind of artwork?

Emmanuel: No idea! I thought I would be a photographer. But that really quickly turned out to not be the case. I got into an accident when I was around 19 years old. It got me into a wheelchair. It’s going to be hard to a photographer in that condition. So I thought, “What can I do here, effectively?” Let me try architecture. It involved into that. Then you get out of school, you get the real insight of what it means to be an architect and you realize it’s not what you were thinking of. It’s really tough and cut-throat. The multimedia field was just starting then and they were looking for a generalist in 3D. And I happened to take one class and at that time, it was good enough.

[06:32] Allan: It is kind of funny how if you knew 3D back then, you were in some kind of a secret club. No one knew what it was. It opened some doors.

Emmanuel: Oh, 3D totally paved the way for me! How lucky are you when the first job I got was a place called Hyperbolic Studio (which no longer exists). But one of the co-owners was one of the designers on the original Star Wars and Aliens. That’s my first boss! Can’t get luckier than that!

[07:27] Allan: You know Kevin Bailey and Ryan Tudhope, right? Those guys got hired straight into Lucasfilm straight out of high school.

Emmanuel: I have a funny story about that. We were at the Ranch and [someone tells us], “There is this portfolio by these two kids still in high school.” And the next thing we know, they’re working there.

[08:10] Allan: I think their test was to do a video at the end of high school. I remember Kevin telling me about it.

Emmanuel: The main thing is that they were hungry. The 3D side was still a bit of a dark art at that time. So they wanted it and it worked out. They really wanted to work with people and they are good at it.

[09:06] Allan: Nothing but love for those two! Just to touch on your studies: A lot of people look at everything in a single column. If you study something and don’t follow through, you think you just wasted time. But you would’ve been able to leverage everything you’ve learned. Architecture, obviously, has a massive influence on what you do. What are you thoughts on how it all added up into what you do now?

Emmanuel: It’s funny, I’m mentoring someone right now and we were just talking about it. It’s the culmination of your experiences that gets you far, in my opinion. Just because you don’t finish a course, those things can be very valuable. They add so much depth into what you end up doing. I am interested in provoking images and designs. [10:54] The more you get insight from different disciplines — the better! Of course, you still need one main discipline to showcase your ideas. But that can change. It can go from painting to sculpting to VR now. I’m bit proponent of knowing more and using your life experiences to influence what you do, because that’s how we get a unique design. Otherwise, it’s just cookie cutter.

[11:28] Allan: That’s really great! Also, just to segue for a second. You’re doing the IAMAG Master Class in Paris this year. What’s your talk on this year?

Emmanuel: So my talk is going to be on the power of personal art. The premise is that a lot of people don’t realize how important that is, not only for your career advancement but also for your own sanity; and then creating something to call their own. A lot of people I talk to don’t do their own art because they’re so busy. I’m going to show how personal work got me over this hump and got me hired to do things I never thought I would do. But it’s all from personal work. And with professional work, it may take years before you can show it. So your skill set is years behind. You have to do some kind of personal work to let people know: This is what I’m about now.

[12:44] Allan: And you’re so right! There are so many concept artists and illustrators who have a website but it hasn’t been updated. Once you’ve been in the industry long enough, it’s all relationships. You rarely need to show your work to validate what you can do. Early on, people will look at where you are from your last post, in terms of your abilities. What you’re learning on the job is really going to push you. Naturally, you’re going to go in ten-fold.

Emmanuel: Exactly! And for people who’ve been in the industry longer, you will want to explore some other avenues of expression. The only way to do that is by doing your personal work. By working for someone, you’ll never be able to do your own take, really. You’re working for a client. It will be heavily art directed. There may be some directors that’ll give you free reign, but that’s really rare.

[14:21] Allan: How important is it to make time to do your personal work? And how do you force yourself to make that time?

Emmanuel: I think it’s crucial to make time and I’ve learned the hard way. I almost burnt out and I thought, “Something’s got to stop!” And then I took some time off. Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet, work hard and then take a sabbatical. Or if you are disciplined, you can block out 5 hours on a Sunday. But it has to be some kind of a discipline. So by showing examples of work that came from my personal work, hopefully that will show people that you really need to do this! Once they see that, they can say, “If it happened to you, it can happen to me.”

[16:09] Allan: And has there been a strategy of doing personal work? Have there been projects that come your way?

Emmanuel: Lately, it’s been true for most of the work. People have been saying, “I’m coming to you because of this thing that you did.” I don’t think in the last 2 years, anyone has come to me because of the professional work I did. They don’t look at Blade Runner and say, “Hey, you did that!” But they do say, “You did this personal piece. Can you do that for my project?” And that’s how most of the films come to me. For example, I’m working on [The Matrix 4] right now, and they said specifically, “These are the types of images I’m interested in” and they point to my Art Station.

[17:25] Allan: Why do you think they’re seeking out more of your personal work? Is it because the other stuff is related to the other film?

Emmanuel: I think that’s part of it. But when you do personal work, there is certain energy in it. If you do it right, it’s unique to you and you’re speaking your own voice. So they’re seeing something unique and they want that. And they don’t want another Blade Runner.

[18:16] Allan: The way I’ve always communicated through my demo reel is to keep it short and with shots that qualify you. But later in your career, rather than making a 60-second reel, it’s a 5-minute reel. It becomes about showing the sample portfolio for the agency or a director. It is more to spark their interest. It ends up being that thing of giving them all the different ideas.

Emmanuel: Absolutely!

[19:42] Allan: In terms of how you first started out, what was the first big break that you got?

Emmanuel: I would say the first big break, depending on which side of it: games, film, matte painting. Each one is a separate career. It depends on which one you mean.

[20:14] Allan: Let’s go into games first. It used to be that it used to be hard to prove yourself in that world. And once you did, how did you leverage that to get into film?

Emmanuel: I got lucky and I got into a studio and we were doing a Civil War game. The owners and the artists there were all high caliber people. One of them was Brian Flora who is a matte painter at ILM. He was working there before ILM. It’s the people that you meet along the way that will give you a boost. When that first company folded, I’d learned a lot. Brian recommended me to Lucas Learning and that was my entry into Lucas family. The next thing is the Ranch where I met Kevin and Ryan. That’s how it started, one step at a time. It’s more from the people you meet. They’ll validate if you can do the work. Most of the time, it’s how you come off to certain people. I find that’s my biggest asset: Being able to communicate and to find people who can help me. And I always try to pay it forward now when someone needs some help.

[22:30] Allan: Do you have any advice on how to build and maintain relationships? Relationships are the number one thing people undermine.

Emmanuel: That’s a really good one! [23:17] I think I used to feel that my work will win me the job. I’m going to get everything from it! And that’s the merit. The truth of it is yes, you must have strong work. But I think that having that relationship is hard for some people, easier for others. I think the main thing for me was to be true to myself and not try to have a relationship. To genuinely be interested in the people you talk to. There are things you have to do when you network. But for me, everyone will have something you’re going to like about them. Be genuinely interested in them as people and it will go from there. I was messaging this guy who worked on Star Citizen which is a game funded online. We started talking about him and who he was. I liked him! Next thing you know, he said, “Hey, you want to do some work?” But I didn’t plan my networking strategy. People can see through the agenda.

[25:40] Allan: It’s definitely obvious when people do that. There are people who will talk to you to try and figure out what they can get from you.

Emmanuel: Some people will email me and get straight to the point, “I want you to look at my portfolio”. Tell me about you first. You have to be personal. If you want to know to learn about me as a person, I will be interested in you. I just want to meet nice, cool people. I’m not thinking if that person can give me a job.

[27:30] Allan: I’ve always given the advice of asking genuine questions at a job interview. Obviously, the more you establish the relationship, the more they’ll be interested to invest in you.

Emmanuel: Absolutely! I also support creating your own reality. You will get the job if you have strong work. But if you have a genuine personality, it may just come a little quicker.

[28:57] Allan: This has become a frequent theme we talk about. People don’t understand how busy people are. The more you understand that, the more your approach should be unique. Instead of “Give me, give me!”, you should be more conscious.

Emmanuel: For me, when I receive an email, I can tell when someone is cognizant. When I’m emailing a director who is busy, I get to the point but not by being rude. Don’t write 5 lines when 1 line will do. Tell them what you want, what you need and what you can offer them. Tell them that you appreciate their time. Writing a page in a way is telling them you don’t appreciate their time. I’ll tell you if I wrote a page to a director, they would just delete the email. To me, writing 4 lines has always worked better. Tell me something personal.

[32:17] Allan: Because then they’re a person.

Emmanuel: Exactly! Instead of being some copy and paste thing. I’m onto the next email so I can start working.

[32:34] Allan: My wife will spend a whole day answering emails and she won’t get to her art.

Emmanuel: Email is a huge time suck. If you get a lot of emails, get some help.

[33:19] Allan: I think it’s so important to have a good email game. I put more emphasis on email when it comes to the outreach. I have to be so careful with that. The naive version of me would be afraid to ask for what I needed and bury it under all these niceties. Do you have any approaches for email structures?

Emmanuel: I don’t know if I’m the best guy. The thing that I do is be genuine and professional. I’m a horrible texter, but an email has be constructed professionally. No misspelling or bad syntax. As for the content, if you’re a direct person — be direct. “This is why I’m emailing.” If I’m emailing a DP or a Director to say I wanted to get on some show, I’m not trying to chat them up. I do my homework. I look up who they are and I tell them why I want to work with them. But I’m not just telling them my work is awesome. I’m telling them their work is awesome and I want to work with them. It would mean a lot to me to have a collaboration. Here is my work, here is a PDF. You make it easy for them. But I also want them to know that I really like their work.

[36:57] Allan: A lot of people make the mistake of making it about themselves. I think there is nothing wrong with copying and pasting parts of your email. If you’re doing a lot of outreach, you still want to make it personal about them.

Emmanuel: That’s absolutely crucial! When someone emails me and says, “I just looked at this one frame you did and I think it’s…” I’m interested to see what the person thinks. It grabs me. When they tell me their work is inspired by mine, I do want to check it out.

[38:54] Allan: This is the business side of art! It’s important to handle your business.

Emmanuel: You can go to Art Station, you can see there are so many people. You have to learn how to stand out. Everyone is doing good work. It’s about creating relationships and knowing how to maintain them through email. (No one is doing phone calls anymore.)

[40:09] Allan: You just touched on how saturated the market is. The level of resistance to get into the field is low. Over the course of your career, what are the 3 most vital things that you’d advise to other illustrators?

Emmanuel: For anyone getting in: Be focused! Some people advise [to be a generalist]. I prefer focused because I can see what you’re best at. You can’t sharpen 5 knives at the same time. Going to the Olympics, you choose one thing. Otherwise you become okay at many things. So become specialized. It will help you become better!

[42:00] Allan: I think that’s important! I feel like this is a sensitive subject: How do you stand out? The best think I’ve recently heard is goat yoga: It’s so absurd, it makes you stand out. If you do surface modeling, you have to specialize in a specific thing.

Emmanuel: Also, ask the questions. This is my opinion. Whom would approach about sci fi? If you are going to hire the best person, you’re going to hire the best guy in that specialty that you can afford. And that guy will then hire generalists. And it’s okay to be that too. But now I want to focus all of my attention on that one thing, until it changes.

[44:32] Allan: There will be some people who are afraid of being pigeon holed: Just because they do one thing, it doesn’t mean they’ll be doing that their entire life. You’re in control of that!

Emmanuel: Exactly! I’ve been a compositor, a modeler, a lighter, a TD, a texture artist, a matte painter and now a concept artist. And each of those, I spent years doing to get to a certain level. It can change. I matte painted until I realized it was too tight. So I moved on. That’s part of being human. You can change. All the stuff I learned, it helps me out now.

[45:50] Allan: I was going to ask you for a favor. I would love to pick your brain more in Paris. Could we do a Part II?

Emmanuel: Absolutely!

[46:16] Allan: I’d love to dive in more into the projects you’ve worked on then. Where can people go to find out more about you?

Emmanuel: I have an Art Station page: https://www.artstation.com/emanshiu. I have an Instagram and you can find it easily.

[47:38] Allan: Do you want to talk a bit about how you landed your first job?

Emmanuel: I graduated from art school and at that time, the multimedia thing was happening. For some reason, the counseling center sent me to interview at this one place. I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be an artist or a race car driver. I went home and I got some floppy disks (that’s a thing!) I put my images onto the disk, went to the interview in my race car. One of the owners who interviewed me was an ex Nissan race car designer. We ended up talking about race cars. At the end, he just went, “You’re hired!” This is an example of talking about the personal passion. You can talk about anything that can strike a bond between you and whoever is interviewing you. I gave him the floppy disk, but they thought I was cool enough. The lead 3D guy said to me I was an investment because I was someone they could mold. That’s my first entry into the field.

[50:31] Allan: Especially at smaller studios, they’re bringing you in just to make sure you’re not crazy and that you have commonalities with the team.

Emmanuel: I’ve failed at times, in my career. I’ve had some roadblocks because of me. I had to overcome that. I’ve had to interview for new careers.

[51:33] Allan: What‘s that like to get someone’s vote of confidence that you can do that other thing?

Emmanuel: Not easy! But I will say that you need to do the hard work. But you also need to know that’s what your next evolution is. I happened to be at ILM when I decided to be a matte painter. I befriended the painters there. One of the guys was into table tennis, so was I; and he’d give me some feedback.

[52:33] Allan: Let’s definitely pick up this conversation Paris! There is so much more to chat about!

Emmanuel: I’m honored to be on! Just let me know when you want to do a follow up!

[53:05] Allan: I’ll just quickly mention that Goro Fujita is in San Francisco. I bring him up because he’s inspired me to do my personal work.

Emmanuel: Oh, he’s prolific that guy! He’s like an energy bomb. And seeing good stuff from good people will inspire you to do good stuff too. And you’ll inspire other people.

[53:44] Allan: Well, thank you, man! This has been really great.

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Emmanuel for taking the time to do this. This was a lot of fun!

Please take a few seconds to share this Episode.

Until next week —

Rock on!


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