Why ‘Women Need to Help Other Women’ According to VFX Producer Andrea Knoll

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Photo Source: Jan Thijs

What does a VFX producer do?
A visual effects producer executes the visual effects necessary to effectively tell the story of a film or television show. As head of the department, I’m responsible for assessing the creative and logistical needs of a show, balancing the creative with the budget, and hiring the right artists for the show, including the visual effects supervisor, in-house team of artists and production staff, and the appropriate vendors.

“In visual effects, you work on the show from pre-production through final delivery.”

How did you become a VFX producer?
I graduated from Boston University with a film production degree, moved out to Los Angeles and landed a job at Dreamworks. I worked my way up the production chain until I became a producer. As an overall producer at Dreamworks and Sony Pictures, I was exposed to visual effects and worked closely with all departments. Having over a decade of experience in production, it was a smooth transition when I started on “Stranger Things” taking on a hands-on role in visual effects specifically.

What does a day in the life of a VFX producer look like? 
Unlike other departments, in visual effects, you work on the show from pre-production through final delivery. This is a rarity in production as most departments are on exclusively for either the prep/shoot or for post. I’m on a show until the very end when it’s launched.

During prep, I’m breaking down scripts and determining the scope of visual effects work that will be involved on the show, which ranges from cleanup work to set extensions to utilizing CG assets for bigger visual effects scenes. I’m also determining the budget of the show based on the scope of work I’ve outlined in my breakdowns and the creative discussions I’ve had with the showrunner and executive producers. During pre-production, we have department head page-turner meetings where we comb through the script and department heads discuss who will tackle what and how they will approach the episode, in a more global sense, with the director and the showrunner.

Once principal photography begins, I normally try to be on set whenever possible, working hands-on with my visual effects supervisor, analyzing the framing of the shots, and discussing with the director and DP so we can ensure we’re getting what we will need to work with in post-production. Many times I’ll be evaluating dailies as well to determine if there were any unpredictable needs that arose during the shoot so I can make the studio aware of these hot costs since they fall outside the original budget I projected for the episode.

The world of visual effects is fast-paced and exciting because we are in a constant state of pre-production, production, and post-production. While we’re cutting episode one and turning over shots to begin visual effects work, we are shooting episode two, and we are prepping episode three. Depending on the state of the script, this can be an ever-changing and evolving process, in terms of prepping later episodes and re-evaluating the scope of work involved.

During post-production, we’ll review shots from vendors and once I approve the shots then I’m ready to show the showrunner for feedback. We keep refining until we get it right.

Who do you collaborate most with during a project?
When I started on “Tales from the Loop” and had my first meeting with Nathaniel (creator), the showrunner, and the producers. We sat and discussed, conceptually, the vision for the show and we were all on the same page. Rafi Crohn is an amazing producer and very supportive of artists. I did my own breakdown of each script and communicated upfront what we would need from a visual effects perspective to achieve the high quality of visual effects. We all wanted everything to look photorealistic, we never wanted a [Computer-Generated] look, and we’re excited we achieved that.

In addition to the showrunner, I’ll collaborate closely with the visual effects supervisor on the show. We’ll review shots together, troubleshoot, have creative discussions, and determine together when shots are ready for specific feedback from the showrunner.

How do you hire your team? 
Production managers, coordinators, and production assistants are critical roles and essential to the success of a show. I will assess candidates’ experience in order to choose the right fit. The top qualities I look for are someone who is a go-getter with a positive attitude and can juggle many different priorities at the same time while remaining calm. We’re on from the beginning until the very end so it’s like being on set for 18 months at a time. It’s crucial to have stamina, good time management skills, and to be able to prioritize so you can make it to the finish line strong.

When hiring artists, I review reels of their work to choose the right talent. I’ll review reels from vendors or proof-of-concept work they might have put together for the show and then I determine who we should hire as vendors for the show.

What kind of training/education would you recommend someone have if they want to pursue a career in VFX?
The best way to learn the ins and outs of producing is by being hands-on in production and working your way up. This gives you the opportunity to learn about each department which, in turn, gives you a comprehensive understanding of the movie-making process, each person’s role on a production, and how to balance the daily priorities and challenges that you encounter on a fast-paced production. Having worked my way up and worked with every department, I know what each person does, how long it takes for each department, and each crew member to do their jobs, and it has made me more efficient, effective and knowledgeable as a producer. For a career as an artist, there are schools and programs that can help you hone your artistic and technical skills.

What advice would you give an aspiring VFX professional?
Women need to help other women, whether it’s mentoring, referring, or hiring. Most of the obstacles I’ve faced in my career have come from the previous generation of women who weren’t very supportive and I felt held back. I was told by a female producer, “You are too ambitious.” I’ve turned this into a positive by making it a point as I moved forward with my career to mentor as many women as I can which has been very rewarding. To be very honest, in 2020, women are still not supportive of each other and that needs to drastically change for there to be an actual substantial change in the industry.

“In 2020, women are still not supportive of each other and that needs to drastically change for there to be an actual substantial change in the industry.”

In terms of visual effects, like any other facet of the industry, it’s male-dominated and it’s because of the same principle. There aren’t a lot of women specializing in visual effects across the board, whether it be as visual effects producers, supervisors, compositors because they’re often not given the opportunity. We’re still behind in this industry in terms of how we treat women, especially women in roles behind the camera. A woman has to spend years proving herself to “earn” an opportunity, she has to have experience under her belt to be hired as a department head or as a director, for example. But for a man, if he says he wants to try something, he will be given that opportunity. If someone has intelligence, leadership skills, creative talent, they will excel in any situation and women should be treated with the same trust and respect as men and in my experience, we’re not.

What are some of your favorite moments of great VFX? Any projects you're particularly inspired by in your work?
Jurassic Park” is one of my favorite films and a great example of blending practical special effects with visual effects. What I love so much about the original film is how life-like the dinosaurs appear and it’s because they built animatronic dinosaurs. They not only looked real but they also contributed to the actors’ performances since they were interacting with physical dinosaurs. It was early days for CGI and the visual effects work was beautiful, very cutting edge at the time—and it still holds up.

We actually approached the robot work in “Tales from the Loop” the same way by blending practical special effects with visual effects and we were very fortunate to work with the brilliant Alan Scott and his team at Legacy Effects-who worked on the original “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs. 

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