Jessica Teach on the importance of core skills, why it’s great to work at ILM, and her advice for women interested in VFX

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 Jessica tells us how she got into VFX, what it has been like working in a male-dominated environment, how ILM supports its female employees, and much more.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

To be honest, I fell into this industry; I am so thankful I did, but it certainly wasn’t planned. My coworkers are more than just colleagues – they are dear friends and they inspire me every day. I have put down roots at ILM because of them, how much I have learned from them, and how much I have grown with their encouragement and influence.

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

I went to college on the east coast and after graduating, I moved to San Francisco. My plan at the time was to spend one year here to get “life experience” and then return to New England to pursue an MFA in writing.

When I arrived in the Bay Area, I had no plan and as fate would have it, a friend of a friend recommended a local temp agency. At the time, I didn’t realize that they specialized in placements for tech and creative companies. I am so fortunate that they did. I was placed at a company called Mondo Media, who at the time were an established 3D animation house, specializing in high end, in-game cinematics for cut scenes (way back when game engines couldn’t render at the quality needed in-game). Mondo Media made me a staff offer within a few months and I had my first official, post-college job!

Mondo Media was growing – the founders had secured investment to expand the business into a studio that created bite sized, original, 2D animation delivered as downloadable episodes. This was back in the days of dial up connections and at the time, before Netflix, the idea of accessing animated shows through your computer was revolutionary. I had so much fun working with development teams to create the content and then with the animation teams to bring the shows to life.

At Mondo Media, I had the benefit of working in a startup environment inside of an established and successful animation studio. I learned so much and wore many hats there, from receptionist to office manager to coordinator to producer. It was a blast. But then came the dot-com bust of the late nineties and despite fighting really hard, we went through really difficult times and many rounds of layoffs. Although I was one of those affected, I learned so much from being laid off – at the time it was so scary but it really helped shape and prepare me for the rest of my career. I was out of a job for about 6 months and not having a safety net and being across the country from family was frankly terrifying.

Another friend of a friend suggested that I apply to a company called ILM to be a production assistant. Looking back, this is cringe-worthy, but I had no idea what “ILM” was. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) insisted I apply – thank goodness! I was brought in as the last production assistant on Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, for a 4 month role. I was convinced that would be the end of my ILM journey, but somehow, they saw something in me and asked me back. I am so thankful they did!

Although I was a producer at Mondo Media, I never saw joining ILM as a production assistant as a step back. I had so much to learn about visual effects and starting at the bottom was a master class in this industry for me. Every new project and role I took on helped me gain confidence and develop expertise. Those experiences early on in my visual effects career also helped me gain the credibility that I do today with the teams. I have worked in the trenches and have so much empathy for what hard work that is. In my current role, I do everything I can in my power to help remove roadblocks so the ILM teams can do their best work, because I know first hand what a difference that can make.

During my early years at ILM, I took on increasing responsibilities on our film projects (we call them ‘shows’ internally) and after many years on various shows, I was given the opportunity to manage artists directly in a talent management role. Talent managers are responsible for hiring and recruiting decisions, compensation negotiations, performance management and helping artists career aspirations align with the many opportunities across ILM. In that role, I finally felt like I had found my place.

In recent years, I have taken on more company-wide leadership responsibilities and helped set our global strategy along with the rest of the executive team. In my current role, as Vice President, Operations, I am responsible for our talent and inclusion strategies across ILM and for improving and standardizing our operational processes. I collaborate with such a large group of smart folks across the world and across our five studios in San Francisco, Singapore, Vancouver, London and Sydney. I mean it when I say I have my dream job. The teams at ILM have always motivated me to do my best work and so to be able to drive our talent strategy day to day is just such a privilege for me.

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

I have found it lonely at times, but I wouldn’t say problematic. Because I came up through the production group at ILM, which has significant female representation, I have always had the benefit of a network of women who I could lean on and who actively mentored me along the way. As I was working on shows and partnering with the creative teams, who are predominantly male, I did struggle to find my voice and at times to be heard.

I recognize that my journey is different from those of women in visual effects who come up through artistic and technical roles. Although things are changing for the better, we still have a long way to go to have more representation in our creative and tech departments. I have heard from many women in those teams that in the meetings they attend, they are often and consistently the only woman in the room. When I hear those stories, I am reminded that I am very privileged in that I have had a different experience as I was growing in my career, and those differences are what drive my commitment to make change across the company as a whole.

I am very proud to be the co-executive sponsor of our Employee Resource Group (ERG) dedicated to people of underrepresented gender identities — including all women, nonbinary, and transgender individuals. Our ERG works to create networks across the company to build an inclusive, supportive and safe environment for us all. It has been such a rewarding part of my role; I am so energized by the passion and commitment within our ERG.

ILM is also unique in that our executive leadership team is very inclusive of women, and it has been as long as I have been here, and so seeing women leading the company and leading huge teams to create the visual effects on blockbusters has really inspired me. Many of them went out of their way to mentor me and help me find my path and I always try to pay that forward. Industry experts like Lynwen Brennan, Janet Lewin and Vicki Beck have supported me and advocated for me throughout my career. They are truly inspiring to me and I am so grateful for each of them.

Tell us about your job role.

As I mentioned I am Vice President, Operations, which is a global role across all ILM studios. We have five in San Francisco, Singapore, Vancouver, London and Sydney. I partner across ILM’s executive team to help shape and drive our talent and inclusion strategies – to ensure we have the best talent in the world at ILM and that our teams are representative of the larger world – there’s so much work to do on that front and I find that very exciting. I also look for every opportunity to define and streamline processes, from our annual financial lifecycle, to our performance management system and our compensation planning and processes and on and on. I love that I am able to help influence such important aspects of our business and ultimately, help all our creative and technical teams focus on what they do best, creating amazing imagery!

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

My ability to listen and to help clarify has served me well over the years. Clear communication and follow through has always been important to me, and I try to bring those qualities with me every day. This will be my twenty-first year at ILM, and having been with the company for so long has also helped prepare me for my current role. I have the benefit of many relationships and connections and as a result, I know “who to call” for when complex problems arise and we need creative solutions. I have always felt that what we do at ILM is so challenging and complex that no one person can know every single thing about what we do. So knowing who can help find the answers needed is one of my specialties and being able to pull those folks together helps us move quickly. I love how collaborative our team is – always ready for the next challenge!

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

Well, based on my ILM origin story, you can probably imagine that at the time, and because I had no idea what ILM was (again, cringe!) – I really just wanted a job. It was less about finding the dream job and more about getting stability back.

As the years progressed and I found my footing at ILM, I was so thankful that I landed at a place where there were new challenges around every corner. I really thrive on big challenges and at ILM have certainly never been bored! As I learned and gained confidence, I did start to feel that something was missing, and when I became an artist manager and began helping our teams with career development I truly felt at home, so to speak.

Recently, as I have been able to focus on our broader talent strategy and as our commitment to creating a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment has really deepened, as well as with my work in the ERG, I have felt my role align with my personal values and I feel like I am able to bring more of myself to my work, and that means so much to me. It is incredibly rewarding.

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

Visual Effects is a team sport. So the ability to listen and partner with others for the sake of collaboration is so important. Of course artistic chops and technical prowess are also needed but in our field, those with a strong foundation of communication, in addition to their area of expertise often excel.

I also think the ability to compromise and collaborate for the best solution or outcome is so important. There’s often more than one solution to the complex problems we face and letting ego or pride get in the way of the best solution is counterproductive. Working together to assess the possibilities in a way that benefits the majority is an artform and is highly valued at ILM. Despite the list of enormous accomplishments and accolades, our teams are so humble and open to great ideas from anyone and everyone. I find that incredibly inspiring.

What sort of soft skills are valuable in VFX?

I am so glad you asked this question. I feel strongly that the term soft skills should be rebranded. They are actually core skills, and I find it interesting that that particular set of skills is termed soft, i.e. feminine. Regardless of gender and regardless of role and responsibility, at ILM, everyone needs strong core skills to do their best work – those abilities aren’t exclusive to women, nor should they be. And we all need support and mentorship to hone those skills – they don’t come naturally to most folks and that’s ok. It is more about practicing and the intention to do your best in this area, that’s where the growth happens and where abilities deepen. I am proud to work at ILM where we truly value those skills and where so many of our talented folks, regardless of gender, embody those abilities. We also provide training and support to help grow these important skill sets.

Ok, now I will get off my soapbox and back to the question. Core skills are absolutely essential and assertiveness is as well. As I mentioned earlier, collaboration to work together to find answers and the desire to learn – curiosity – are also incredibly important. As is self-care. We work long hours and setting boundaries around your work hours, as much as is possible, is so important. Especially now when we’re all working from home – having boundaries and stepping away from work fully after a long day is so important.

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

I would absolutely say, if you’re at all interested, to give it a try! ILM’s legacy is bringing together talented people to pull off the impossible. Many of the original VFX pioneers didn’t have formal schooling or training in the field and were making it up as they went along. That rebel spirit still lives in ILM – we often don’t know exactly how we are going to deliver our filmmaking partners’ visions at the start of a project, but they come to ILM for the collaboration and to create remarkable work together. Being comfortable with the unknown is part of our DNA and it takes so many diverse skill sets to do what we do. Our talent truly comes in all forms, with so many diverse backgrounds.

I have a degree in writing. Some of our most accomplished team members have backgrounds in illustration, industrial design, architecture, computer science, and so on. There’s no one size fits all for what the ideal VFX expert looks like. That is so liberating! And that diversity makes us stronger.

We have so many roles – production management, technology management, software engineering, hardware engineering, any artist discipline and focus you can imagine – from building and texturing models – creatures or spaceships, to creating and lighting elements, creating stunning backgrounds, particle simulations, camera creation, integrating multiple elements into a seamless photo real final shot – we have it all! Come join us at ILM!

Looking at the VES awards nominations this year, there are not many female names. What factors do you think are behind this?

We all know that we have a serious lack of representation in the VFX industry and certainly in terms of gender, racial, and ethnic representation, we need more women and people of color in leadership roles. Not just in production where representation has historically been somewhat above average, but in creative and technical leadership roles as well.

What do you think are the barriers to entry into the VFX industry for women, and how could they be addressed?

There are many factors – some of it has to do with stereotypes and biases that we all navigate – the old assumptions that women are more organized and better communicators, and that men are more creative and stronger in terms of technology and problem solving for instance. While those stereotypes are outdated, the perceptions live on, and so women get pushed in a specific direction in terms of career growth. We can counter this by seeing the value of ALL the skillsets people bring to their role, regardless of gender, and by not assuming that only people with one set of very rigidly defined skills can succeed. Adopting this open mindset helps challenge those assumptions – at ILM we have found the more diverse our team is, the more creative solutions arise.

There’s also the chronic challenge of long hours in the industry at large and in VFX specifically, and the sacrifices women, and all working parents, have to make to grow in their careers. There are many ways to tackle this from being more intentional when it comes to crewing to proactively manage anticipated overtime, to job sharing and thinking very carefully about what the core responsibilities of a leader are and adding more leads and up and comers to help our supervisors divide and conquer. We have the benefit of mentorship programs across our studios that help our teams grow with confidence and support and that also help us create a deeper bench of leaders.

Lastly, and VFX is certainly not the only industry that needs this, we need young girls of all races and ethnicities to be exposed to and take an interest in STEM and STEAM classes – we need to inspire kids with the myriad of roles that exist in VFX – creative and artistic roles – software programming – editorial – hardware engineering – project management and on and on. It is such an exciting industry and we need more folks to see what we do! We have a very robust outreach program at ILM and in all five of our studios, we are actively engaged in this work with some really great results!

To what extent is reaching out to women seen as a means to address the talent shortage in the industry?

I disagree with the premise that there’s a talent shortage. It is true that we’re at a point in time, with the astronomical rise in streaming projects, that talent is at a premium, at the same time, we are very, very successfully hiring stellar talent into ILM – these folks may have less tenure – but they are bringing amazing knowledge of software and cutting edge techniques and such enthusiasm to the work we do! We are so fortunate to have the absolutely best talent in the industry.

What does ILM do to encourage women to take up careers in the VFX industry, and to work at your company specifically?

As I mentioned, we do a lot of outreach. We have five studios across the world – San Francisco, Singapore, London, Vancouver and Sydney and in each of those cities, we are very engaged in the local talent space and work to connect with both up and coming talent who are new to the industry, as well as school age kids, to inspire them to join us. We participate in conferences like Grace Hopper, AfroTech,and Lesbians Who Tech, as well as many others, to reach as many folks as we can. This work takes a very large team, so we engage our recruiters, our department leaders and managers and our employees who want to develop better presentation and public speaking skills. It is a really exciting part of our work – to inspire folks with the work that happens across the slate of premium and amazing projects ILM is consistently awarded! Sometimes you can get jaded and forget just how amazing what we in the industry collectively do is but all you have to do is take the opportunity to see it through fresh eyes and it all comes rushing back.

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

In the early days of the pandemic, we introduced Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) across all of ILM. The ERGs are groups of people who have a common identity – women, LGBTQIA+, people of color, to name a few. Those groups partner with our executive studio leadership and our Diversity & Inclusion team to advocate for change – from bringing in speakers, to sharing pronouns consistently and instituting the widespread use of captioning during virtual meetings, to requiring diverse interview panels for new talent joining the company – they have helped us establish so many best practices! The scope of ideas and the impact these amazing teams have had at ILM simply can’t be overstated.

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

This is absolutely a challenge for women especially, and also for any working parent. We see that the pressure to work long hours also means that men struggle to ask for paternity leave and child bonding time too – so your earlier question about work life balance is so important on this front for all our employees. That being said, for women, the struggle can be compounded – the maternal and initial child bonding leave can mean women may inadvertently miss out on great projects and wonderful opportunities, and when they return, they may have missed out on key areas of innovation around our workflows, which can change quickly. They may require additional training on the latest tools and techniques. At ILM, we feel we have a responsibility to support our talent to do their best work – through training and mentorship through all stages of their careers and this certainly holds true for women returning to work after having children. We work to accommodate flex schedules as much as possible – so if an employee needs to work fewer hours for a period of time, for child care – or any kind of caregiving – we work hard to accommodate those requests. There’s no silver bullet that will fix all of the issues women face in returning to work but I’m confident that by instituting changes across the board, some small and others large, we can make real strides towards the inclusive and equitable workplace we all want to see.

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.