Goodbye Kansas Lead Environment Artist Irena Smitakova on how she hit her goal of becoming a Lead before age 30

What is your job title, and what does this role entail?

I am a Lead Environment Artist at Goodbye Kansas, with a focus on developing Digital Matte Painting workflow and Environment.

What is it like working at your company?

It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of such a humble team of people. I feel like I have a lot of space to develop as an artist in a lot of areas, and also to develop my management skills. It’s one of the first companies where I feel I’m fully using all my knowledge, and I feel constantly inspired by others.

What’s the best thing about working there?

Definitely the team. I love how cooperative and humble everyone is, always wanting to achieve more and get better results than last time. Goodbye Kansas is also one of the companies that understand that for a lot of artists it’s easier and better to work from home. The company gives us the freedom to choose whether we want to work fully remotely or come into the studio.

I very recently visited our Stockholm location, which is one of the nicest offices I have ever been to!

What’s your educational background?

I studied Photography and Applied Media at secondary school in the Czech Republic and then two years later, I moved to the UK to study Visual Effects and Motion Graphics at the University of South Wales in Cardiff.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

It certainly has been a wild journey. I have been interested in art since I was 13, from getting my first digital and analog camera, and learning how to develop film in the darkroom, to experimenting with shooting documentaries and stop motion short videos, and doing graphic design and music production. I certainly went through a lot of experimenting before I found myself in Visual Effects. 

In 2017, I started as a Junior Compositor at Animoral Studios, where I also got to do my first matte paintings. Shortly after finishing my studies at university, I joined Milk VFX in Cardiff thanks to Tamsie Thomas, who was then the Head of 2D, and that’s where everything started. I later moved to London, where I got to work on my first feature film – The Lion King – at Moving Picture Company (MPC) as Matte Painter. I later also got to work for companies like Scanline VFX and Framestore, where I developed my CG environment knowledge for the animation studio Red Knuckles, and a few clients in the Czech Republic and Canada for more stylized work. 

Now I am part of the team at Goodbye Kansas.

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

My goal was to eventually become a lead by the age of 30. I can tick that off my list now!

Do you strive to learn lots of disciplines, or are you more focused on a particular specialism? What would you say are the pros and cons of being a specialist vs a generalist?

I definitely strive more toward being a generalist. I like knowing how to do multiple disciplines, from concept, digital matte painting, and CG asset creation, to texturing or lookdev, env layout, and some basics of compositing. The pros are definitely the variety of work you get to learn and do. Being a specialist is fantastic as well though, because you are the master of the craft and you are constantly perfecting your mastery.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

People I have worked with in previous studios, my leads, my supervisors, and heads of departments. I always took some additional valuable knowledge from the colleagues and friends I worked with in the past.

What show, exhibition or film has most inspired you recently?

The latest show I have seen and absolutely loved was Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. I love the game as well, so seeing this series was very exciting for me.

What project are you most proud of?

It’s hard to name one, but: The Lion King, Star Wars: Andor, and Rebecca.

What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?

Definitely learn about CG. It is really difficult to go without it these days, unless you are a traditional concept artist or illustrator, but even those very commonly use CG as a base. Knowing the basics of CG is always handy for all disciplines in VFX.

As well as real-time rendering.

What resources would you recommend to aspiring VFX artists?

If you want to learn something creative then head over to Learn Squared, The Gnomon Workshop or sites like SideFX’s learning hub. If you want to be inspired then listen to The Collective Podcast, The Learn Squared Podcast or our Goodbye Kansas podcast, Yellow Brick Road. If you want to find your style, get art books, play games, or just go out and observe the world around you.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to show your progress, network and always ask questions. And remember that we all started somewhere.

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.