Episode 324 — Erika Burton — DNEG — President, Global VFX Production
Episode 324 — Erika Burton — DNEG — President, Global VFX Production
Erika Burton brings over 25 years of senior-level experience to her role at DNEG. Most recently, she led as EVP, Global Features & Streaming VFX at Method Studios. Prior to that, she held senior leadership positions at major studios, including Walt Disney Animation Studios, PDI / DreamWorks Animation, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues.
Erika Burton is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Producers Guild of America and the Visual Effects Society.
DNEG (www.dneg.com) is one of the world’s leading visual effects (VFX) and animation studios for the creation of feature film, television and multiplatform content. DNEG employs nearly 7,000 people with worldwide offices and studios across North America (Los Angeles, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver), Europe (London) and Asia (Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Mumbai).
DNEG’s critically acclaimed work has earned the company six Academy Awards® for Best Visual Effects and numerous BAFTA and Primetime EMMY® Awards for its high-quality VFX work. Upcoming DNEG projects on behalf of its Hollywood and global studio and production company partners include Dune (October 2021), No Time To Die (October 2021), Ron’s Gone Wrong (October 2021), Last Night In Soho (October 2021), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (November 2021), The Matrix 4 (December 2021), Uncharted (2022), Borderlands (2022), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2022), The Flash (2022), and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).
In this Podcast, Erika Burton speaks about her experience in VFX and her role as the President of Global VFX Production at DNEG, the importance of paying your dues and the path to becoming a supervisor.
Erika Burton at DNEG: https://www.dneg.com/dneg-welcomes-erika-burton/
Erika Burton at LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/erika-wangberg-burton-425b0a9
The Hollywood Reporter Announcement: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/dneg-erika-burton-exec-vp-vfx-global-head-of-studios-1234955108/
DNEG Website: https://www.dneg.com
[04:25] Erika Burton Introduces Herself and Talks About Her Beginnings
[08:25] The Lessons of ILM
[10:42] Erika Discusses Her First Film Projects as a VFX Artist
[19:35] What Makes a Successful VFX Producer
[23:10] Paying Your Dues and Understanding the Pipeline
[29:01] Erika Talks About the Most Memorable Projects
[32:50] Representation and Diversity in VFX
[34:53] Erika’s Position as the President, Global VFX Production
[37:52] The Importance of Having a Global Presence
[41:28] The Standards of Visual Effects in TV
EPISODE 324 — ERIKA BURTON — DNEG — PRESIDENT, GLOBAL VFX PRODUCTION
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 324! I’m sitting down with Erika Burton who is the President of Global VFX Production at DNEG. This is a really great Episode! Erika and I talk about the beginning of your career and how it led to where she is now. We talk about the importance of paying your dues, how to build a path for your career, and how she got to where she is.
I thought it was great to get these tips for her. There is so much we get into! I think you should have a pen and paper ready for this one!
Please take a moment to share this Episode with others.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:33] 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!
[43:43] 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!
INTERVIEW WITH ERIKA BURTON
[04:25] Allan: Erika, thank you again for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Erika: Sure! My name is Erika Burton and I’m the [President of Global VFX Production] at DNEG.
[04:36] Allan: You’ve had a very extensive history in VFX. How did you first get involved?
Erika: I was bouncing around as an executive assistant at a couple of entertainment based companies. I just so happened to work for Jim Henson and The Muppets when he was still alive. It was an amazing experience in and of itself. I was living in LA at the time. I was relocating to Northern California when a bunch of people at Henson said I needed to go work at ILM. I have to admit I knew nothing other than Star Wars. It was this thing that lived out there, but there was nothing I was really focused on. I was focused more on film and tv production and development. I moved up North and out of the blue I got a call from ILM: They were looking for their travel coordinator. This was in 1991-1992.
So, 30 years ago I joined ILM. It changed my life. I got the job. At the time, there were 200 employees at ILM. I was 26 at the time. I got there and suddenly everything clicked for me: I think I’ve finally found my place in entertainment. I knew I loved film and I was passionate about it. I had high hopes of being a producer but I didn’t know the path to get there. Then suddenly to get into the world of VFX, into the world of creative people — and the passion! — it was so incredible! Suddenly, all those pieces clicked in my brain. That’s how I got started. Being at ILM was better than a 4-year education at a major university. The way they taught you to understand and produce VFX, there was nothing like it! There was discipline and uniformity to everything. You’ve learned from the bottom up. The mentorship there, they really had it down. Even some of the things I do today I learned from there. And they had so many brilliant people there, they’re still in the industry. Everyone was incredibly generous with their time! It was just the best!
[08:25] Allan: I was chatting with David Tanaka (www.allanmckay.com/281). We talked about his journey about starting there. I became aware of him because of his time at Pixar. You mentioned that today you still apply some of the lessons you learned there. What were some of the bigger takeaways?
Erika: Everyone at ILM carried themselves with such integrity. There was mutual respect. That alone solidified that idea that you could do anything. There was never this thought you couldn’t do something. “It may sound crazy, it may sound hard, but okay! We’re going to figure it out.” If it was from an RnD perspective, if there was a really challenging show, everyone treated it like we were in it together. It was such an incredible teamwork there, that idea carries with me everyday. There is a problem? We’re going to solve it! No one person can do it alone in this business. It takes a team of people! I learned the core of that from ILM. It wasn’t about any one person.
[10:42] Allan: I started in VFX in ’96. I used to nerd out on all the documentaries. The one that stuck with me was, “with CGI, anything is possible”. That’s my poor attempt to segue into the film The Indian in the Cupboard. I haven’t seen that yet, but I’ve been meaning to watch that project. It was one of your early projects, correct?
Erika: Yeah. People will look at that and say it was really cool work. I think that you really have to know it was really hard to achieve. From the shooting perspective, so much planning had to go into the 1/24 scale. We were on a blue screen stage for 6 months. I think we averaged 2 shots a day, much to the dismay of production. It was a family movie, but the complexity of it — and the lighting and having to match the sets from the family’s house to the Indian being the cupboard — the collaboration was remarkable. The live action! Then taking all that back to ILM and doing compositing shots. For its time, it was really remarkable. And having to find the lenses to determine the depth of field. I just remember the tremendous amount of research that went on. Eric Brevig helped determine the best way to shoot it, to make it look like anything in the cupboard was living. We had an incredible crew, and the amazing crew back at ILM. It’s a good one!
[14:18] Allan: I used to nerd out on VFXHQ which was a website back in the day. It would dissect a lot of the VFX films. These days we take it for granted how many visual effects went into films like Men in Black and Mission Impossible. A lot of people would see it as action films. What was your experience like on Mission Impossible?
Erika: Again, those were incredible experiences, in different ways! I was the plate coordinator on those films. That’s what they called it at the time. In those days, we had significant crews go with us. They’d fly in with a motion control rig. For Mission Impossible, we were on the 007 Stages at Pinewood, in the U.K. It was this massive set with the train. We had a team of 6: camera assistant, DP, CG Sup, VFX Sup John Knoll. The helicopter [sequence] was originally supposed to be live action. I believe there were some callouts for CG, no tar. But ultimately, you wanted to see the transition. All the trans sequences were shot on the stage. We used a lot of live action plates from Scotland that we shot from a train. That was incredible! We did the face reveal in Mission, via motion control passes. That was sort of in the day when you started to transition to thinking about the CG world. You could create something in CG that looked like the real world.
By Men in Black, there were so many different characters and visual effects, that was huge! It was lots of fun! I don’t think any of us realized what that film was going to be until it went to the theaters and became a phenomenal success. It was interesting to work on that! At the time, the final sequence of the movie was supposed to be a practical, animatronic bug. It wasn’t accomplishing what Barry Sonnenfeld wanted. There were conversations about doing it in CG. When something isn’t working practically on set, how quickly we can adjust and create it in CG. I remember that was a particular distinction and how VFX was taking it to a whole new level. That was one more progression of going into the full CG world. That’s when you got more into the aspect of it being CG.
[19:35] Allan: As you moved into more of a VFX Producer role, what did that involve: from looking at the script treatment to budgets?
Erika: I became a VFX Producer not through the traditional route of being a coordinator at the facility. There are all different levels now. Just being on set and seeing how to execute it on the front end and how that will affect the backend. I was always conscious to track the shots and to meet what we budgeted. I got to experience that part of it, [including] interacting with clients. That gave me that experience of how to say things, what to say. It’s a very unique relationship you build with a client. All that experience on set with clients helped me when I did jump into the Producer role. I was able to handle the difficult and complex conversations because of my experience of watching on set. Filmmakers aren’t always able to achieve what they want, not just in a VFX capacity. You’re constantly improvising. Because I was able to see that, I was able to take that with me. Those are the questions I have as a Producer in terms of appeasing the client and looking out for the best interest of what’s happening at the facility. Learning shot progression and every department a shot goes through, that I knew peripherally. I was out on location a lot. I was a PA at ILM. I built on everything I learned:
- How are things shot on location?
- How do you prep? How do you shoot?
- How all of that combines into how you plan post-production.
You build on your knowledge and experience. Overtime, things change in how they get done. New software tools allow you to do things faster. Not everything is linear when you go into a studio. You just take all the things you’ve learned and combine them. That’s what makes a well-rounded Producer.
[23:10] Allan: I’ve had many discussions about paying your dues. It’s in the trenches where you learn the most. Knowing the fast amount of experience you’ve had, what’s your opinion on that?
Erika: Someone might now like this answer. My 20-year old nephew is in film school. He wants to be a director right away. For me, you don’t have to stay in any one thing doing that job for years and years. But I do think it makes a huge difference — be it an artist going to a supervisor, or a PA to a PM — you have to know everyone’s job once you get into that leadership role. You don’t have to know everything about it, but it’s really great to be able to understand it and have a really broad view of what everyone does. It only makes you better at the job. I was incredibly lucky that I didn’t spend too much time in one position. I was surrounded by a lot of people willing to give me opportunities. I do think that in my career progression, I hit every department at time. I have an understanding of what it means to do that job and what it means around you. How that job affects everything else. There are all these causes and effects. It really helps when you have an understanding of every step along the way. You don’t have to be an expert at everything.
[26:25] Allan: You need to know where things are coming from and where they’re going to. That way, you can prepare things for the other person, or to ask things from them.
Erika: Totally! And the most amazing thing about working in VFX is that you never stop learning. It’s always changing! Even when you’ve done all these jobs, it doesn’t mean you know everything. It’s constantly evolving every day. It’s what keeps you on your toes.
[25:11] Allan: Do you have any advice for people on how to focus on how to build relationships in their career?
Erika: I’m a fairly and innately shy person. The networking thing, I don’t think I do it well at all. For me, what I’ve tried to do is whatever job I do — I do my best at it. I give it my all and I have been fortunate to be recognized for my hard work. I think it’s served me well in terms of the people I’ve met through that. Every job I’ve ever had has come through working on something else with a person who referred me to it. That’s how my career has evolved. Just show up and work really hard, and do the best you can. I’d say 99% of the time, you will be rewarded for that!
[29:01] Allan: I think that’s so important. You’re putting in the time! It all accumulates. Over the course of your extensive career, is there one that stands out?
Erika: I think we’ve mentioned some of my favorites: Indian in the Cupboard, Men in Black, Mission Impossible. They were very formative for me. I was still at the beginning of my career. Being on set and being surrounded by all these craftsmen — and then to know there’s a whole other side of it in post. You’re with a bunch of artists on computers. Combining those things, you go, “I can’t believe I actually get to do this job!” On Mission Impossible, we worked for 29 days with no day off. There is that aspect of it too! It almost killed me but I recovered and I look back at it so fondly. There were so many special projects! The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe was really an incredible one. That was the last who I produced before I became more of a manager. That was one of those moments of not knowing how we were going to make a photoreal lion that could talk. Who’d believe that? Two years later, I was in the theatre and my niece couldn’t believe I made that. It was magical for her. The work holds up beautifully! That was quite special. There are so many projects! I don’t want to say any one project because they’re all special in their own special way. It’s the people that stand out to me and the relationships you form. You go into war with these people.
[32:50] Allan: It’s been a very male dominated industry but it’s shifted in the last 15 years. What are your thoughts on the industry diversifying, gender-wise and globally?
Erika: I think there is still a lot of work to do on that, but I am seeing incredible change. There are so many of us who are older and it’s incumbent upon us to create this change of inclusion and diversity. It’s up to us to make a difference by allowing opportunity. There are a lot of people who are capable but may not come forward for a variety of reasons. It’s up to us to keep our eyes open. That’s important for everyone to be on that lookout. There are people sitting in the background and we need to make sure that it’s not happening anymore.
[34:53] Allan: One hundred percent! Recently, you’ve moved in with DNEG. Can you talk about this position?
Erika: DNEG is obviously a global company. It’s quite big! We have a presence in India, Montreal, Los Angeles. There is more to come! My job is to oversee operations globally, with Merzin Tavaria who is the President at DNEG. It’s just a constant oversight that my job involves: client interactions, making sure productions run smoothly, and the financial health of the company. Operationally, are we running as best we can? What are the best practices? I’m two months in. I’m more on a learning curve. Every company has its own style of doing things. On the global level, my job is to be the glue that bridges all the sites. You can imagine with all the time zones, you want to make sure the communication is as good as it can be. Because that’s such a critical component. Ideally, you need to standardize as many practices as you can. Whatever you see in Vancouver, you need to make it similar in Montreal.
[37:40] Allan: How big are the teams now? It is at 8,000 people now?
Erika: I think it’s more at 6,000 and growing.
[37:52] Allan: That’s amazing! How important is it to have a global presence? What’s your perspective?
Erika: I think it’s vital and the business drives that with rebate territories and tax incentivized countries. I think our world is global so VFX needs to be global as well. You can tap into an endless amount of talent. We have amazingly talented people in India. It allows for our cost structure to be competitive. I think all the major VFX vendors do have a world presence. Obviously, the standard of the work has to be at excellent quality. On a scale, where you take on large projects, it’s imperative. I was at Rhythm & Hues when we started to have talent in India. It’s been a part of my career life. It’s something I embrace wholeheartedly.
[41:02] Allan: I believe R&H was the first to realize there was so much untapped talent down there.
Erika: I don’t know if they were the first, but they were one of the first. The talent pool there is amazing and I think it’s so much part of a necessity.
[41:28] Allan: With tv changing so much these days, it’s so competitive. For DNEG, what has it been like?
Erika: The volume of episodic and streaming work has exploded. There is so much content out there, as well as demand for VFX. It’s another part of the business that’s a huge growth opportunity for us. We’re right in the middle of it right now. We’re doing streaming and episodics. We’re more in the episodic world now. That’s where a lot of our work is happening, like at HBO. Some of the work we’re doing is like films. If you’re doing 10 episodes, you’re doing 10 films in terms of expectations and creatives.
[43:34] Allan: I want to thank you for your time, Erika!
Erika: Thank you! It was nice to meet you.
What did you think? I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Erika for her time. So much great stuff here!
Please share this Episode with your audience. It’d be a great way to show your support.
I will be back next week. I’ll be sitting down with Sam Wickert, the Director of Chalk Warfare. Until then —
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