Beck Selmes on her thriving career in VFX, and how communication is the most important skill for a VFX supervisor

Starting on International Women’s Day, we began a series of articles looking at the gender imbalance in the industry and what it’s like to be a woman in VFX. Over the coming weeks we will be profiling great women who have made a career in VFX, and asking them how working practices can evolve to be more inclusive. So far we have heard from Jessica Teach, VP, Operations at Industrial Light & Magic, and Beck Veitch, Compositing Supervisor at Wētā FX, both of whom have fascinating origin stories and insights about the industry.

In the following Q&A Beck Selmes of Jellyfish Pictures explains how she has thrived in VFX, despite being initially terrified of working with computers.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

Like most people, I grew up being swept away by films. I found myself caught up in the pictures, stories and characters. I watched movies over and over, quoting them, entering colouring-in competitions at the local video store to win my own VHS. As I grew up this didn’t change (the colouring competitions and video stores, unfortunately, did, however). What also developed was my absolute love of being creative. Fine Arts was an area I poured my heart and soul into. I spent all my time painting and drawing, taking photos of things I found beautiful and interesting. There was always a desire to merge these two important things in my life. Both things captivated me and gave me a space to escape and daydream.

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

My career was not a linear one. From a very young age working in animation was a dream that I didn’t know was achievable. Life took me in a different direction where I studied fine arts and then design. I majored in ceramics and objects which entailed building with my hands. I was illustrating and creating traditional art. I lived in a very physical world creatively and only started working with computers in a 3D capacity when I started to step into the world of Design. I never felt I was in the right place with design. I liked creating work as a designer-maker but when asked by the head designer at my industrial design internship “what do you want to do? What is your goal in your career?” I found myself internally answering with “I want to work in film.”

At that point I needed to make a change, a scary change as I had worked for so many years toward a different career. I looked up jobs in 2D animation and concept art however what I saw constantly pop up was VFX jobs. Computer graphics jobs that quite frankly terrified me. A woman who had spent years building, sculpting, drawing, was looking at jobs that involved something I spent years avoiding, a computer. I decided to go back and study again.

18 months later I started as a freelance Lighter in Sydney and found it challenging emotionally. Contracts were very short (3-4 weeks) and needing to have a back catalogue of contacts instantly was overwhelming. The struggle here made me question the career change, if I had made the right decision and would it actually work out.

Six months in, there was finally an opportunity to join Animal Logic for my first film (“Peter Rabbit”) and a contract longer than 4 weeks! It felt like I had won the lottery and even though I hadn’t worked in Creature FX or in Houdini, I was thrilled I could learn on the job.

Post “Peter Rabbit” there was very little work for me to pick up so my adventure in the UK began. I got a Visa, a plane ticket and off I went. Having moved without a job I felt a lot of the same pressures as when I freelanced in Sydney, only I was 24hrs away from home. Luckily I have an amazing friend who introduced me to everyone. I took those opportunities as the perfect time to expand my network in London which has been one of my most important assets. I meet and talk to everyone, and that has helped make my career. I was able to progress in my career in London by taking the chances given to me and pushing myself to achieve more and more each time. I never accepted a role that made me feel like I wasn’t able to grow and challenge myself. I drifted towards jobs that had me dealing a lot more with people so when I was able to prove my ability as a lead or supervisor I jumped on it. Step by step I gained experience in the roles I enjoyed and I am fortunate it has led me to this role as VFX Supervisor.

Have you ever found it problematic to be working in a male-dominated field?

At times I have struggled with the lack of diversity in the industry. A lack of diversity in any area is a sad thing and when you are passionate about your career but see very few examples of it turning out the way you hope can be disheartening. The amount of women artists is increasing slowly but surely; however, the number of women in leadership roles is still incredibly low. Women in department-based leadership are becoming stronger from what I see, but it is not as prevalent in show based leadership. I had only met one female CG Supervisor before doing that job, and I had never met/worked with another female VFX Supervisor before getting this role. Examples are important, and diversity is important. I think supporting women in these roles and growing them to be great leaders in companies is so vital. As a woman in VFX, it has been so easy to look around me and feel like the quest is slightly hopeless, but it isn’t at all.

I have unfortunately had my fair share of sexist comments, patronising, aggressive behaviour from men in this industry BUT it isn’t the norm. The vast majority of people in VFX are lovely and caring, and going to work can be so much fun. I believe we are taking steps in the right direction. VFX is an exciting career and one that needs people from all walks of life. That is how we successfully tell stories and captivate people. I want future generations of women in VFX to feel this change and to know going in, that they have the ability to make their career what they want regardless of gender.

Tell us about your job role.

My role is Visual Effects (VFX) Supervisor. It is incredibly people-centric, and that is what I love. I work with clients to meet their creative needs on a show as well as trying to facilitate artists meeting their creative needs and potential. All departments and artists work together and I am able to guide them in the direction we need to go. Sometimes it is clearly laid out for us and sometimes there is more freedom to play.

On some shows my job will start on set where I am able to be part of the decision making that will hopefully help the job run smoother. A lot of creative decisions are made during the shoot–by thinking of the VFX elements at that time it can really help execute the final shot to its best quality.

In the studio my role is to meet with clients (virtually mostly) about the work we have been doing in-house. We review the work and direction and discuss how we are going to move forward and progress with the work. From there we meet with the artists, usually in their departments. This happens daily in what we aptly call ‘dailies’. In these spaces we are able to collaborate with the artists about how the client is feeling about what we have done and how we not only hit their notes but hopefully elevate it further. This is a good space for us to throw out ideas both creatively and technically as a group to get the best result.

In the end we are always working to deliver the highest quality creative work and it takes teamwork on all sides to get it done. My role as a VFX Supervisor is to help bring everyone together in a collaborative way and meet these goals. I think the best jobs are the ones where everyone is able to work together and communicate well to create something to be proud of.

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

As VFX Supervisor I need to be good at communicating. It all stems from there really. I need to be able to communicate visions of others and myself, communicate process and technicalities. This doesn’t mean I know all the answers but means I am able to find the answers with other people. Treating everyone no matter the skill level with the same respect and trying to give them the support they need to do the job is crucial to a fun and happy project. Fun and happy projects create beautiful work from people.

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

At the very beginning I wanted to work as a 2D animator but I decided to aim for the career with more options. I liked lighting, however I was finding coming at the end of a project wasn’t what I was after. I fell into Creature FX as it was my way into Houdini and FX and I ended up staying in it for quite a while. I liked the idea of being a Creative Director or VFX Supervisor from the beginning but I considered following the Creature FX path further. When I stepped back into a more generalist and supervision role I knew that this what what I loved. I like the people side of the job, the ‘big picture’ and the creative development. The idea of also going on set where I could be hands on with work again was a big plus. So that is the goal I aimed for and was very privileged to get the chance.

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

Soft skills are so important in this industry. A lot of the time soft skills are neglected when learning about VFX. There is so much focus on the technical skill or the creative skill – the big question of “What are you? Creative or technical?” that plagues us all. In my opinion, most of that stops mattering if no one can work with you. Soft skills can be learnt and developed as much as any other skill, and it is vital to have them. Learning a specific software isn’t important–I have learnt most software on the job–and a lot of the time, starting out in VFX we feel that is our only way in. Being able to communicate and learn is a HUGE asset.

What sort of core skills are valuable in VFX?

Communication as an integral skill for anyone in VFX no matter the title they carry. It is just as important for a junior as it is for a supervisor. Work can get intense at times in VFX and even though morale can sometimes drop, a valuable skill is still lifting others up rather than beating them down. It is never fun to work with people who drag down a team with negativity. This doesn’t mean you can’t struggle with elements on a project but coming back to communication, it is learning how to deal with this. Being open to talking to the right people about things can be a big help for not only the project but your own mental health.

What advice would you give to a woman who’s considering a career in VFX, or who is just starting out?

Women should go for it. Dive right in and tell people what you want. Every company who spoke to me in London knew that my goal was to be a VFX Supervisor. Don’t be embarrassed or feel like you are too pushy for wanting something for your career. Talk to the women around you and support each other, we all want the same thing for each other. Don’t be scared to negotiate the things you want or feel you deserve.

There are also so many amazing men in this industry who want to see women succeed. It isn’t just something felt on one side. If you feel at a loss at any point there are so many people who want to help and will do what they can for your success. Just go for it!

What factors do you think are behind the gender imbalance in VFX, and how could they be addressed?

This is a very good and hard to answer question. I am not sure, to be honest. We can trace some of this back very early on in education, where girls tend to move towards ‘less tech-y’ classes and jobs. I think it is changing though, and that is trickling into industries such as VFX. There is a push to balance this out in companies and I think it is important. It’s also important not to approach it as “well they just need more women, women just get handed the jobs”. I have heard this many times, and it isn’t helpful or accurate.

Support should also go further up. The more I progressed, the more I heard about the impacts of having children. I saw progression stop for a lot of women, or them really struggling to balance what VFX demanded of them and a family. To me, this is an unfair compromise for people to make, and an area I think could do with some work.

In what ways are the culture and working practices at Jellyfish Pictures favourable for women?

Jellyfish have been a great place for me to challenge myself in my career, take a big step forward in a role I wasn’t seeing represented. It was a privilege to begin working with a company investing in women and trying to build not only women artists but women leaders. I have felt the support and their excitement to have me on the team, which is something I am very grateful for.

How can we make it easier for women to return to a career in VFX after having children?

One of the few positives from living in a pandemic has been the flexibility to have your family and career, which is something I found a daunting prospect. Not only were the women in VFX very few, but the age at which representation dropped drastically was also when they would start a family. It’s important to note that this flexibility also allowed a lot of fathers to be with their children more than they otherwise could have. It’s about supporting the whole unit and not just the individual that makes this successful.

Going forward I think that flexibility is key and having a family is something to be celebrated in any industry. Women shouldn’t feel it is a choice between two things but supported in both. It only strengthens the industry, it doesn’t hinder it. Personally for me it was a fear that I would get to a point and have to give up one for the other, but I am slowly seeing that this might be shifting for the better and companies are embracing families and peoples lives outside of work. It can only make for a happier workplace.

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.