Beck Veitch on finding a career that matches your aptitudes, and how to break into the VFX world

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. 

In the following Q&A Beck tells us how she discovered that a career in VFX, and in compositing specifically, was right for her; how she got her first job, how she learned to deal with critical feedback, and what happened when she had a child.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

I always wanted to work in a field that challenged me. I figured out that I am a visual problem solver and it took me two careers before VFX to figure out that compositing was what I was looking for. 

Blade Runner, the original Star Trek, Last Starfighter, Tron, Jurassic Park, LOTR, Master and Commander were films where the craft inspired me, and as I kept learning about myself and about what made me tick, I realised that I could get a job working in VFX too.

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

When I got out of secondary school, I had no idea want I wanted to do. I only knew that it had to be challenging and that it would be art and design related. I didn’t want to apply for university before knowing that I would enjoy what I was studying, so I completed short courses in photography and Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

I got into The University of Melbourne’s Bachelor in Education (Secondary) Visual Arts on my second try (a good way to build resilience, for sure!), and the course was amazing. I got to try woodwork, metalwork, printmaking, photography, life drawing, ceramics, painting, and of course, teaching! I thought I’d end up in photography in the last year, but I’m a spatial thinker, which led me to furniture and woodwork instead, and today that’s how I chill out.

When I started teaching, I quickly realised I loved teaching but was not a good fit for schools. I loved the classroom but did not love the support work you need to do to teach. Meetings, reports and school politics made me stop and re-assess my options. Once I had that realisation, I started to design more, but I needed to go back and study

I completed a Diploma of Multimedia at RMIT in Melbourne and that course taught me the foundations of graphic design, multimedia, web design and animation. I tried hard at animation, but my timing is terrible! Everything I animated was so slow and ponderous! However, I loved the story telling process and how it blended art and science…I had got a taste for VFX, and I was hooked.

I worked in Advertising for a while, but in my own time, I started to go to Animation and VFX festivals to see who was working in Australia and enrolled in a short course in Shake to see if compositing was my bag. It was, but I had no contacts in VFX, and I found it very daunting to cold call.

However, as luck would have it, I went to a seminar for animators that was organised by the EP of Rising Sun Pictures, and he sent me an email receipt for my ticket. I had his email address! I had a contact! I kept in regular touch as I began to work on my showreel. I composited a music clip for a friend, and he, in turn starred in a short film I made where I comped him into the same shot four times. It was a simple idea executed well. 

When my showreel was ready, I emailed the RSP Adelaide office and let them know I’d be over from Melbourne on a holiday. Did they have time to meet? Should I bring my folio? They replied—well if you’re going to be in town, let’s meet up! I booked flights to Adelaide for the day, totally faking a holiday to get an interview. Six weeks later, I moved to Adelaide to start an internship with RSP. Be bold, be resilient, be persistent.

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

In the beginning, no. I grew up with three younger brothers and had taught in ‘technology’ subjects (woodwork and metalwork), so being the only female in the room was not particularly strange or intimidating to me. However, as I have progressed in my career, I have come to realise that gender balance is incredibly important to any work culture. So yes, I think it is problematic and every company needs to be aware of the issue and have strategies in place to fix it.

Everyone in the room has experiences, perspectives, wisdom and ideas to share. However, in a mostly monoculture male environment, minorities can feel very vulnerable trying to contribute in that space—not even mentioning that your contribution and ideas can get co-opted or you may not be given the same opportunities to contribute as the men in the room. I’m a cis white woman and still experience this from time to time. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for POC or LGBTQIA+ communities.

Tell us about your job role.

Currently, I’m a Compositing Supervisor at Wētā FX. My last project was The Batman, where I oversaw the Batmobile Chase, the Mitchells Memorial, the Iceberg Lounge Fight, the Bat Cave and the Platform Fight sequences. I supervise the compositing team for the project, both local and remote artists, steer the direction of compositing look and tool development and advocate what can and cannot be done by the compositing team.

I work closely with the VFX Supervisor, the Lighting and FX Supervisors, my Compositing Leads and the Production team to get the best quality VFX done with the tools, people, time and budget we have. I try to anticipate the needs of the VFX Supervisor, and for my team, I try to find out what my compositors feel they can contribute and how they want to challenge themselves, then work with production to try and make that happen. 

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

A sharp eye for detail and great observational skills. I’m constantly looking at our source material or reference for clues on how to integrate disparate elements. You also need to have a willingness to learn and share knowledge. VFX is a team sport, and being able to work with others and have a back and forth is essential. We’re called VFX artists, but really we are designers. We are fulfilling a brief that is not our own, and our work has to fit the client’s needs, so it’s a balance between having ownership over the craft and not being precious about changing your contribution if needed, and that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. 

For me, being able to respond to critical feedback took work and practice. Initially I would get defensive about changing work I thought was ‘done’. During this time I read ‘Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre’ by Keith Johnstone, and had an epiphany! The book is about improvisational theatre and describes the game ‘Yes and…’ a technique that teaches the value of cooperation and the ideas of others. I found this to be instrumental in improving how I communicated with Leads and Supervisors.

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

To be honest, for a long time, I was just thrilled to be working in VFX because I never thought I’d get there. Compositing is one of the best visual problem-solving jobs around. I still kick myself sometimes.

As I’ve become more senior and moved into team management, I’ve found my teaching skills have become increasingly relevant. One of the reasons I wanted to become a Compositing Supervisor was to help build better teams. I enjoy finding out how people want to work but also giving them work that challenges them and makes them happy. I try to foster an environment where it’s safe for everyone to offer up ideas and ask questions, so we can all meaningfully contribute to what we see on screen.

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

There is an enormous range of technical and creative skills that are needed in VFX and the technology is always changing. It’s easy to google the specific skills used right now and the schools that teach them. But this is what worked for me.

  • Leaning into areas that interest you, that make you tick, that excite you! It’s that passion that you’ll bring to work and to your team. It’s that drive that will make you excited to solve those problems when you get to work in the morning.
  • Working in teams. Soft skills, people skills will always be needed. 
  • Hone your observational skills. VFX will always reference something real.

I said this about working on The Batman – It’s thinking outside of the box, while flying by the seat of your pants.

Lateral thinking and problem solving are essential, as well as making the best of the people, time, and resources you have.

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

Be bold. Be persistent. Be resilient. Be present and take up the space. Practice taking critical feedback. I found that hard when I started out. This is where the improv game ‘Yes and…’ really helped me – almost overnight! Instead of holding on to work and resisting changing it when I thought it was done, I learnt to work with my supervisor to make the shot better. ‘Yes and…’ is a powerful team-building tool for interacting with your supervisors and clients.

VFX has always been a mix of artistry and ingenuity and is both a mathematical and visual language – so when you are studying, choose something that reflects your own interests. Find your strengths and passions and follow them—there are many paths in the industry, so have the confidence to know yourself and what makes you tick!

I went to many animation and VFX festivals before I saw RSP talk about ‘The Core’ and something clicked for me during their presentation, so research the companies that will support you best. Ask “Do they have a good reputation? Do they offer flexible working, career paths, and an inclusive culture?”

And probably the most important thing: forge connections with other talented women, in different fields, and network, network, network. Do that and you’ll find yourself support, friendship, mentorship and opportunities!

Go to festivals and seminars, ask questions and talk to professionals. If someone offers you contact details, then contact them! I found the hardest thing was not knowing anyone in the industry. Download student editions of software and practice and work on group projects. VFX is a team sport. Contact VFX companies and find out about intern opportunities, and keep contacting them with updates to your CV and showreel. Again—be resilient, be persistent, be bold.

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

When I had my daughter, what hit me the hardest was the loss of my professional identity and my professional network. I really struggled with this for the first year. I would love to see a program that keeps women in touch professionally with events at work while they are on maternity leave, and flexible return to work, with consideration for childcare demands. Covid has enabled WFH, which has increased flexible working conditions and I think this helps all working parents.

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

There are a variety of issues, but two of the big ones that I can talk to are:

  1. Losing women from the industry when they start a family, and
  2. Visibility of women where you want to improve the gender balance.

There are a number of issues that account for women leaving the industry when they start a family—the gender pay gap, work/life balance, and lack of flexible working conditions for a start. For me, the gender pay gap is the big offender – until that is resolved, women will mostly be pressed into the role of primary parent, and because this is the ‘tradition’ the unpaid work that women do will continually be undervalued and underestimated. I have an 11 year old daughter, and my husband is the primary parent. I am very grateful to him as he volunteered to stay home while I worked, but we work together to balance home duties and the mental load of looking after a family because we are very aware that we are not the norm.

Being able to see a ‘version of you’ further into your chosen career path is hugely important. To know there has been a trail blazed before you makes those career steps tangible and reachable. My daughter just finished up three years of STEM club, where she was the only girl in a class of five, so I can see it’s still a problem that far back down the chain. In my opinion, this is in part because not enough of our daughters see their mothers in STEM industries. I believe girls are unconsciously steered out of those careers because they can’t see their future selves there. If you want greater diversity, companies need to be cognizant of planning for it earlier than the end of secondary school. Victoria Alonso was so right when she said, ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ in her 2017 VES Visionary Award speech. It’s a mantra I repeat in my head when talking to my own daughter about work that she is interested in. I find women in those fields that she can see!

I participate in Wētā FX’s Outreach because I can help blaze that trail, I can be the contact in VFX that helps a young woman get her foot in the door, and I can be seen doing the job that I love!

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.