MJ Cunha shares her story of starting out as a runner at Milk VFX before being promoted to junior roto artist

How long have you worked at Milk VFX?

I started in October 2019, so it’s been two years. I’m excited to have recently been promoted to junior roto artist and my credits include the films Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Amazon), The Last Letter from Your Lover (Netflix) and Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth!

What are your daily tasks?

As a runner my role was to support the whole team at Milk and make sure that everyone has what they need. A day is never the same due to the high variety of tasks and responsibilities as a runner. It can range from delivering messages between departments, organising client meetings, taking calls and connecting to the right department, assisting IT, putting workstations together. And of course, to make sure the office is clean and tidy. I like to say that a runner needs to be like a meerkat: always looking around while multitasking and making sure they can assist even before someone needs/asks.

What do you love about your job?

My favourite thing about being a runner was, without any doubt, looking at what all the different artists were working on while walking around the studio (before we were working remotely). It always amazed me and made me appreciate being given the opportunity to work with such talented people.

What do you hate about your job – be honest!

This is a weird one, I used to hate phone calls. I think I had kind of a phobia so at the beginning it was hard for me, just hearing the phone ring would make my heart rate increase and after the call I would obsess about what I said and how I said it and replay the conversations in my head… Today, I can’t believe this was me two years ago, as nowadays when someone is needed to take a call or make one, I’m the first to jump to the phone.

Rebecca, Netflix

Are you given training and a clear career path?

I felt totally supported from week one, I was bowled over by just how caring everyone at the studio is. Only two months in and I got a chance to work on my first VFX shot. Later, I was given a fantastic learning opportunity, to help with some roto and prep work on a few shots for the Netflix film Rebecca (supported by the head of department) and since then, I’ve been continuously helping on other shows – working around my runner duties. This helps give me the experience I need and build up my confidence. I was very lucky to have the right artists/friends beside me, I asked a lot of questions and they were always happy to help, no matter how silly the questions were.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Right now, due to Covid, it is quite hard to predict the future, be it five years or even just a month ahead! I would like to be comping at Milk and helping other runners the same way I was helped. It’s so important to have a good start, it makes you feel like you can do anything.

One of the benefits of being a runner is the opportunity to progress in my chosen VFX field. Now I have been promoted to roto artist I am beyond happy and grateful to get my shot after such a challenging year.

Why did you want to work in VFX? Who or what inspired you?

I was completely obsessed with films when I was at school, I think I got it from my father. I would watch a movie a day and look for the behind-the-scenes stuff and how everything was made. I remember thinking ‘one day I’ll work on a film too’. Later I met Fonzo, my fiancé, he was my biggest influence in pursuing my dream and he helped me find what I really wanted to do. He works in VFX too, but in animation, something he tried to teach me but… it was not my cup of tea! After understanding how everything works and all the different VFX departments, I just knew compositing was what I really wanted. I did a taster day at Escape Studios, which was great to see the program and the software before signing up for a course. It got me ready to start in the “real world”. Today, I feel inspired by all my colleagues at Milk, we can really see that there’s talent everywhere in the studio.

Did you go to college or university, and if so what did you study?

I studied Graphic Design at Faculdade de Belas Artes, in Porto, Portugal. Shortly after moving to London, I decided to take a short course at Escape Studios: Compositing 2D. Although my background was graphic design, my passion was always to work in films.

How did you get your job?

I always had an eye on openings for entry level jobs in the London VFX industry. When the opportunity finally arrived, I didn’t hesitate and dropped everything to pursue my goal.

Where did you see it advertised?

A friend that was already working at Milk VFX let me know a position opened up, and I applied as quickly as I could!

Did it take you long to secure a job in VFX?

It took a while to get an interview for a runner position that would give me training to follow my path in compositing. While I was working at a movie theatre, which made me feel close to the world of movie-making and kept the dream alive, I sent applications to many VFX houses but unfortunately they were mainly hiring runners who were interested in production or editorial at the time.

Rebecca, Netflix

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in VFX?

I would say, don’t be afraid to go on LinkedIn and send messages, try to connect with artists and ask what you want to know, because we all had a million questions and doubts before we started studying/applying. Usually everyone is quite happy to help and there’s nothing better than hearing from the inside what it is like.

What are three key traits that make a good runner?

Adaptability: coping well with working under pressure with different shifts and sometimes late-night shifts. Organisation: for me it’s all about post-it’s to make sure I never forget a task. And last, but most important: passion. You really need to love VFX. If you do, the runner position will open the door to this amazing world and the everyday life at the studio will be so much easier and more fun.

What do you learn as a runner, other than the technicalities of your craft? How important do you think it is to start as runner?

I got to know everyone in each department, and even how to solve software problems, or to put machines together. All this helped me when I eventually started to work on my own shots. I wasn’t scared to fail or to ask for help because I was already in, and I think that made it so smooth and easier for a start. Starting as a runner made me realise that if we are comfortable to talk and ask questions, we can solve problems more efficiently and quickly, working as a team is mostly really just about communication.

What is your dream VFX job?

My dream and goal right now is to do compositing. Besides VFX, I have another little film-related passion: I always had this curiosity for stunt work. It amazes me so much that last year I enrolled in a masterclass for screen combat (still on hold because of the current situation). I would say my big big VFX dream would be to work for an Asian production as a compositor in a big fight sequence with samurai weapons.

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.