Alannah Belanger, Head of Production at MPC, on her career in VFX

Tell us about the values and culture at MPC.

MPC is one of the largest VFX companies in the world, but to me I have always had a sense of team here. The main value is to play as one – supporting each other, training people up, and never having an attitude of ‘it’s not my job’. I can go to anyone on the team and know that they will try to help me out as best as they can. We are focused on delivering amazing quality work, while making sure everyone enjoys their day and is supported in what they do.

We are actively invested and involved in various activities and initiatives, both internally and externally. We have access to mental health first aiders and financial wellbeing advice, run internal Diversity, Equality and Inclusion campaigns and lunch and learns. And with International Women’s Day today it’s apt for me to mention we’re now members of Women in Film and TV and Animated Women UK and are looking at other initiatives across other locations. We also have lots of fun activities in the studios, from massage days to sports teams and life drawing to screenings.

What’s the best thing about working there?

The best thing for me is the amazing, creative people I get to work with and support to make their visions come true. I have never been a visually creative person; my talents lie more in organization. I love that every day I can use what I’m good at to help make amazing art come to life.

What have you been working on recently?

We’ve recently wrapped up The Wheel of Time, Lost in Space, House of Gucci and The Last Duel which were some great projects! I am currently overseeing the slate of MPC projects in London, including Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon, The Little Mermaid, and Sonic the Hedgehog to name a few.

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

As cliché as it is to say, if you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be the Head of Production, there is no way I would have believed it! I won’t lie, I got into visual effects production completely at random. I studied International Development Economics at university and had dreams to work in the non-profit sector, and basically try to save the world. But all through school and university, as a hobby I was doing theatre production – starting mainly in stage management and then eventually moving up to be a production manager of my university theatre company. I loved production and loved the fact that at the end of it all, you could point to the show you put on and know you had a hand in it. So when I graduated, I was torn between finding a role in my studied field, and finding a role in production, whether that be theatre or film/TV. I ended up choosing the latter, and in my hunt I came across a runner job at MPC, so that’s where I started! I followed the typical production route– assistant, coordinator, manager, and then the opportunity came up to be the Central Production Manager which was my first foray into people management.

What are the main responsibilities of your job role?

I look after three main pillars: team management, show management and process improvement. On the team level, I am responsible for looking after the production team in London, along with an Associate Head of Production Sabrina Martins and Central Production Manager Sarah Pike. This includes any day-to-day people management, as well as training, career progression, etc. In my role I am also responsible for the overall delivery of shows – ensuring schedules are correct, tracking delivery, and to be a point of escalation. Finally, I work with the technology, creative and production teams to develop new tools, processes or workflows to allow production to work more efficiently and make everyone’s lives easier.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

Probably individual management – 1 to 1s, feedback sessions, training, and coffee catch ups. People need and deserve to feel supported in their job, and that consistent support ultimately empowers them to be able to handle things on their own, meaning we have a strong and capable team to get through any challenge.

What do you need to be good at in your job?

Prioritizing and solution-focused idea generating. Many things come up in this role, and often everything can seem like it should be the number one priority. You need to be able to prioritize what is going to have the most impact across the board, and to be able to quickly come up with options and solutions to whatever issue you are facing in the moment.

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

When I first became a runner, I really didn’t know what the roles were in production or what my path could be. Once I started to work on a show as a PA, I think like most production people I had the goal of being a producer as that’s the standard track. But I quickly discovered that when I am on one project, I get so into it to the point where I can’t take care of my mental or physical health; I literally don’t sleep as I constantly have shot numbers running through my head! So it just wasn’t right for me. In the central realm, there are so many things to look after that it keeps me always shifting my focus, which allows me more balance. My goals now also involve not only my own career, but what I want to see for my production team.

What’s the most challenging part of your role?

The emotional side – whatever any member of your team might be going through, you are there to support, and for a large team that can quickly become very emotionally challenging.

What’s the most rewarding part?

The long-term positive change you can affect from this position is one of the most rewarding parts. Things like project casting, overtime management, and the general culture of production are now within my domain which is exciting. When my team tell me they feel supported and enjoy their work every day, which often correlates to the project doing well, I know I am doing something right.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

I am very privileged to have been surrounded by people who wanted nothing but the best for me, and gave me opportunities to succeed. All of the managers, producers and HOP’s that I worked with while I was coming up through the ranks took the time to teach me something I now use in my day-to-day. I was always given the space to voice where I wanted to take my career and offered a path to make it happen. In particular, VFX Producer Will Newis and VFX Supervisor Adam Valdez have supported me from our work together on The Lion King and on everything afterward, coaching me through tough situations and just generally being parts of my closest support network at work!

There are also several women at MPC who influenced and inspired me throughout my career as they rose into senior positions before me, whether they were mentoring me directly or paving the way for women in leadership – Lizzie Horsburgh, Christina Graham and Leah Beevers just to name a few!

What project are you most proud of?

The Lion King (2019). That project was my first coordinator role, my first manager role, the team on it really felt like a big family, and I made some of my most long-lasting connections on that one. It also felt like we were making history while we were on it, and it was so well-received by the public and the VFX industry alike which made it even more special. I loved it so much, I got a tattoo to commemorate it!

What do you miss about being in a less senior role?

I think my attitude to each role I’ve had has rendered them similar despite the seniority – I am someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself, whether any is coming at me externally or not. Something I am working on! I suppose I miss the times when some decisions I made didn’t have very wide-spread ramifications; now in this role, even seemingly small decisions can have a large impact on either the company or an individual.

What strategies do you have for coping with the pressure of your work?

A lot of self-care! I have a pretty set-in-stone Sunday routine of doing things like laundry, groceries, cleaning the house, hair and face masks, the works, all to ensure I’m rested and ready for the week ahead. When I don’t follow it, I can feel it immediately on Monday. I also meticulously manage my calendar – I block out all of my tasks, both recurring and ad hoc, to ensure I stay on top of everything and the pressure doesn’t get to be too much.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Whether you do or do not know exactly what you want your career progression to look like, make it known to your manager. If you want to try other opportunities in your company to see what you love, they can help you find them. If you know exactly what your goals are, they can help you get there. But what they can’t do is read your mind or decide for you – you must take ownership of your own path, be vocal about it, and along with the support of your central production team you will no doubt achieve it!

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.