By Randi Altman
Industry veteran Jen Howard started her career as a model maker before transitioning to a career as a compositor. After spending the last 20 years at ILM working on features — including Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Transformers, Hulk and Jurassic World — she recently made the move to Carbon Chicago to work on commercials.
While Howard’s official title is Nuke compositor, she has been credited on films as digital artist, lead digital artist, sequence lead, compositing lead and sequence supervisor. We recently reached out to her to talk about her transition, her past and present. Enjoy!
While you specialize in Nuke, your official title is compositor. What does that title entail?
Regardless of what software package one uses, being a compositor entails marrying together many pieces of separately shot footage so that they appear to be part of a single image sequence captured at one time.
For realistic-style productions, these pieces of photography can include live-action plates, rendered creatures, rendered simulations (like smoke or water), actors shot against greenscreen, miniatures, explosions or other practical elements shot on a stage. For more stylistic productions that list might also include hand-drawn, stop motion or rendered animations.
Sounds fun as well as challenging.
Yes, compositing presents both technical and aesthetic challenges, and this is what I love about it. Each shot is both a math problem and an art problem.
Technically, you need to be able to process the image data in the gentlest way possible while achieving a seamless blend of all your elements. No matte lines, no layering mistakes, solid tracking, proper defocus and depth hazing. Whether or not you’ve done this correctly is easy to see by looking at the final image — there is largely a right and a wrong result. The tracked-in element is either sliding, or it isn’t. However, whether you’ve made the right aesthetic decisions is a trickier question.
The less quantifiable goal for all the artists on a shot is to manifest the director’s vision … to take the image in their head and put it on the screen. This requires a lot of verbal discussion about visuals, which is tricky. Sometimes there is production art, but often there isn’t. So what does it mean when the director says, “Make it more mysterious”? Or what if they don’t even know what they want? What if they do, but the people between the director and the artists can’t communicate that vision downstream clearly?
When you build an image from scratch, almost everything can be in play — composition, contrast, saturation, depth of field, the direction and falloff of lighting, the placement of elements to frame the action and direct the eye. It is a compositor’s job to interpret the verbal input they’ve received and know what changes to make to each of these parameters to deliver the visual look and feel the director is after and to tell their story.
What would surprise people the most about what falls under that title?
I think people are still surprised at how many aspects of an effects shot are in a compositor’s control, even today when folks are pretty tech-savvy. Between the person doing the lighting and rendering and the compositor, you can create any look. And they’re surprised at the amount of “hand work” it entails, as they imagine the process to be more automated than it is.
How long have you been working in visual effects?
During college, I became a production assistant for master model maker Greg Jein, and he taught me that craft. Interesting fact — the first lesson was how to get your fingers apart after you’ve glued them together. I worked building models until about 1997 then crossed over to the digital side. So that’s about 30 years, and it’s a good thing I’m sitting down as I say that.
How has the industry changed in the time you’ve been working? What’s been good? What’s been bad?
When I was a model maker, most of that work was happening in the LA area. The VFX houses with their own model shops and stages and the stand-alone model shops were there. There was also ILM in the Bay Area. These places drew on local talent. They had a regular pool of local freelancers who knew each other, and a lot of them fell into the field by accident..
I worked with welders, machinists and sci-fi geeks good at bashing model kits who ended up working at these places because someone there knew them, and the company needed their skill set. Then all of a sudden, they were in show business. There was a family feel to most shops, and it was always fun. Some shops were union, so the schedules for projects at those places mostly fit the scope of work, and late nights were rare. The digital world was the same for a long time.
Model shops mostly went away, and as everyone knows, most digital feature effects are now done overseas, with some tasks like roto and matchmoving entirely farmed out to separate smaller companies. Crews are from all over the globe, and I’d hazard a guess that those folks got into the industry on purpose because now it is a thing.
What we’ve gained with this new paradigm is a more diverse pool of new talent who can find their way into the industry pretty much no matter where they’re from. That makes me happy because I feel strongly that everyone who has a love for this kind of work should get a shot at trying it. They bring fresh vision and new ideas to the industry and an appetite for pushing the technology further.
What’s lost is the shorthand and efficiency you get from a crew that’s worked together for a long time. They’re older and have made a lot of the mistakes already and can cut to the chase quickly. They make great mentors for the younger artists when tapped for that job, but I don’t feel that there’s been the amount of knowledge transfer there could have been — in either direction. Sometimes an “us versus them” dynamic emerges, which is really unfortunate.
Another change is the increasingly compressed schedule of feature production, which creates long hours and weekend work. This is hard on everyone, both physically and emotionally. The stress can be intense and translates into work injuries and relationship tension and is extremely hard on families with children. Studios have been pushing for these shorter schedules and cheaper prices. VFX work has been moved to countries that offer tax breaks or a generally cheaper labor pool. So quality now takes a back seat two ways: There isn’t enough time, and sometimes there isn’t enough experience.
You recently made the move to Chicago and spot work after years at ILM working on features. Can you talk about the differences in workflows?
The powerful role of advertising agencies in commercial work really surprised me. In film, the director is king, and they’re there all the way through the project, making every creative decision. In advertising, it seems the director shoots and moves on, and the agency takes up the direction of the creative vision in post production.
The shorter timeline for spot work translates into less time for 3D artists to iterate and finesse their renders, which are time-intensive to run, and so the flexibility and faster turnaround of comp means more comp work on renders, sooner. In features, 3D artists ideally have the time to get their render to a place that they’re mostly happy with before comp steps in, and the comp touch can be pretty light. (Of course, feature timelines are becoming more compressed, so that’s not always true now.)
Did a particular film inspire you along this path?
Two words. Star Wars. (Not unusual I know.) Also, when I was older, Japanese anime. Starblazers (Yamato), specifically.
Growing up, I watched my mom struggle to make enough money to support us. She had to look for opportunity everywhere, taking whatever job was available. Mostly she didn’t particularly enjoy her jobs, and I noticed the price she paid for that – spending so many hours with people she didn’t enjoy, doing work that didn’t resonate for her. So it became very important for me to find work that I loved. It was a very conscious goal.
You mentioned school earlier. Was that film school?
Yes, I went to Cal Arts in Valencia, California, just outside of LA. I studied animation and motion graphics, but I discovered pretty quickly that I had no talent for animation. However, I became fascinated with the school’s optical printer and motion control camera, and I played a lot with those. The optical printer is the chemical way of compositing that was used before digital compositing was developed. Using those analog machines helped me understand digital compositing down the road.
Can you name some recent projects you’ve worked on?
My last ILM project was the new Star Wars ride that opened recently in Disneyland, called Rise of the Resistance. Other recent projects include Solo: A Star Wars Story, Transformers: The Last Knight, Kong: Skull Island and Bumblebee: The Movie.
While at Carbon I worked on a spot for Porche called The Heist and a Corona campaign.
What projects are you most proud of?
For model making, I’m proud of the work I did on Judge Dredd, which came out in 1995. I got to spend several months just detailing out a miniature city with little greebles — making up futuristic-looking antennae and spires to give the city more scale.
On the digital side I’m really proud of the look we developed for Rango, ILM’s one and only animated feature, directed by Gore Verbinski. We brought a lot of realistic cinematic zing to that world using some practical elements in combination with rendered layers, and we built comp into the process deliberately so we could dial to our hearts’ content.
I’m also extremely proud of the first three Pirates movies, in which we did something of the opposite — brought a fantasy world to reality. The pirate characters are extreme in their design, and it was especially rewarding to see them come to life.
Where do you find inspiration now?
Chicago is amazing. I’m a fan of architecture, and I have to say, this city knocks my socks off in that department. It is such a pleasure to live somewhere where so much thought has gone into the built environment. The Art Institute is constantly inspirational, and so is my backyard, which is full of bunnies and squirrels and my wife and our two kids.
What do you do to destress from it all, especially these days?
Well, we don’t really leave the house, so right now I mostly hide in the bathroom.
Any tips for folks just starting out?
– Do whatever you’re doing now to the best of your ability, even if it isn’t the job you ultimately want or even the field you want to be in. Relationships are key, and it can be surprising how someone you worked with 10 years ago can pop up suddenly in a position to help you out later on..
– Also, don’t be scared of software. Your most important asset is your ability to know what an image needs. You can learn any software.
– Start saving for retirement now.
As for me, I’m glad I didn’t know anything and that there was no internet or social media of significance until after I finished school. It meant I had to look inward to figure out what felt right, and that really worked for me. I wouldn’t want to spoil that.