Chelsea Chan on breaking into the VFX and animation industry

What have you been working on recently?

I’m currently working on the Skull Island series by Legendary Pictures and Powerhouse Animation studio. It is an animated series about the origin story of King Kong. The series extends on the movie Skull Island which came out in 2017. You get to see more of the Legendary monster universe and will really get to know Kong as a character, diving into his past. I’m having a lot of fun designing the backgrounds and the world. It is very much like our world but not exactly the same. This gives me a lot of flexibility to play with. Before this project, I was on Tales of the Jedi and Bad Batch Season 2 under Lucasfilm Animation working on matte paintings and color keys. Throughout 2022 I was also working on some animated shorts, which is one of my favorite ways to tell stories. I also dabbled in 3D environment and character modeling, another big passion of mine. 

What inspired you to work in animation and visual effects?

I grew up watching a lot of Japanese anime and fantasy movies, like Pokémon and Harry Potter. I was always that student who had her textbooks all full of doodles. And when I was younger, my favorite afternoon activity included taking my sister’s Lego sets apart and putting together my own scenes. One of my signatures was firemen in a dollhouse. My urge to create never really died even after studying science for years. It started as my love for animation and throughout my journey, it was the people behind the scenes, people who also love animation with all their hearts that continued to inspire me to be in VFX and animation. 

What’s your educational background?

I always thought of drawing as more of a hobby than a viable career for me to pursue. I spent my teenage years studying math, physics and chemistry, but when I turned 18 I lost my motivation to pursue a career in chemistry. I was in a community college spending my days daydreaming and feeling completely lost. I started taking drawing classes for fun and it led to me spending every minute I had drawing and painting as I tried to make up for the years that I had abandoned art for science. After that I was able to take my art studies further, and then develop a career that I am passionate about.

What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?

When I first started out, I wanted to specialise in environment design. Later on, I was reminded once again the importance of actions and stories in an image. I dived into studying production design behind live action and animated films and TV. This led me to focus more on creating key arts, story frames that compact with emotions, actions, characters and story. 

Do you strive to learn lots of disciplines, or are you more focused on a particular specialism?

I am a naturally curious person, so I love learning new things. I do think it is very important to keep up with the new disciplines in the industry. Because you never know that you might be able to find more creative and efficient solutions to the design problems. Learning helps tickle my brain and that eventually helps me stay creative. 

What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?

I really enjoyed working on Bad Batch. I was a fan immediately after the first season came out on Disney Plus. I think the story about this team of clone troopers was so well written and brought me back to the Clone War series. I had an amazing time participating in the making of Season 2, painting the matte paintings as well as creating planets and designing the color key. Sci-Fi and fantasy are my natural habitat. I thrive to work on worlds where I could bend the natural rules a little bit and have fun with the designs. 

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

Roger Deakins is a legendary cinematographer who always manages to surprise audiences with his new way of shooting and lighting a scene. His work constantly challenges me to think of lighting and storytelling in a new way, or sometimes when lighting is the storyteller. The emotion he is capable of packing into one scene is incredible. 

Deborah Riley is the production designer for the Game of Thrones series. She has coordinated the design languages of the world so well, building sets on top of real-life locations yet still manages to paint a world that is quite different from ours. The amount of detail she put in every frame of the show for harmonious and thorough storytelling always amazes me.

What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?

I was very inspired by the recent South Korean film Decision to Leave. The movie was full of elaborate symbolism and carefully framed cinematography. I also really enjoyed Killing Eve, Andor, and the Bear. Andor and The Bear are those TV series that are so well executed and edited, I felt mesmerized days after finishing the stories. I love the thriller element and the acting in Killing Eve. I do try to spend my free time watching shows that have great production and are well put together, so I can study and get inspired.

What core skills are most valuable in VFX?

Communication is the most important. No one is a one-man army. It is a constant discussion back and forth with your team. Good communication helps save a lot of time and effort and it brings the team together. Curiosity is also important. Constantly learning and trying to solve problems creatively will bring many happy surprises.

What resources would you recommend to aspiring artists?

I love YouTube, it is an amazing platform full of talented people creating a humble and helpful community. Ian Hubert has some of the most interesting and useful Blender 3D tutorials. YouTube also has Roger Deakins’ podcasts Team Deakins where he and his wife interview different famous people in the film industry in every episode. The Director’s Cut is also another great podcast. It is produced by the Directors Guild of America. Here you can find some of the most famous and hottest directors having a one-on-one talk with each other.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

  • Stay positive. With the recent layoffs, the job market is not looking great. As artists, I think our career is also our life journey. We evolve and change. So you are just starting out, and have your whole life and career in front of you. It is okay if you don’t land on something right away. Stay positive when you have a hard time finding a job or when you feel frustrated that you don’t get to do creative design on the job. No matter what happens, hold on to your love and passion. Create your art filled with your passion. People can tell the difference.
  • Have fun. Some of the best design/painting I have done was when I was just having fun. I’m a strong believer that audiences can feel if we are having fun during the production. Only when the creatives are having fun, we feel more for the story, and we can all work better towards delivering the story. 
Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.