Q&A : Nora Wixom on visual effects

Nora Wixom (BC ’13) shares how she got to work on the visual effects of blockbuster films Jurassic World, Captain America : Civil War, Kong: Skull Island, and Star Wars Episode VIII.

Wixom at graduation, Spring 2014.

Shortly after Wixom graduated from Barnard College with a computer science degree, she found herself working at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects company founded by George Lucas.

On IMDB it says your role was creature technical director for Episode VIII. What did you have to do? 
At ILM, a creature technical director (TD) is a visual effects artist who governs the motion of a digital asset, creature or otherwise.

Having an animator control every moving piece of a movie by hand would be way too tedious and time consuming so we step in and help deform certain elements programmatically, like clothing, flesh, and hair. If you think of an animated character as a puppet, a creature artist first “rigs” the character, or puts the strings on the puppet so the animators can move it.

We then turn the character or asset over to animation, where the animators move the bones of the character in the shots throughout the movie. Those shots then come back to creature, where we use the animated primary motion to govern secondary motion, or anything that moves in response to animation. An animator might move the bones of an arm into a flexing motion, and in return we would simulate bicep muscles flexing, skin creasing and sliding, clothing wrinkling, or fur moving.

Creature technical directors at ILM also simulate non-creature assets such as crowds, leaves on trees, and major pieces of explosions or crumbling buildings. On Episode VIII in particular, I was working on hair and flesh simulations for the fathiers and the crystal foxes, as well as rigs for the Resistance ski speeder, and ship explosions for fight sequences.

Kong: Skull Island

Were you part of a team, how big or small was it? 
We always work as a team, but the size of the team depends heavily on the movie. For smaller or less demanding films, I’ve worked with creature crews as small as two. On large shows that are centered around digital characters, we can have 30+ creature artists in San Francisco alone with more assisting from ILM offices around the world. 

Creature artists also rely heavily on many other kinds of artists to bring our characters to life: modellers to sculpt the creatures, texture artists to control their look and feel, lighters and compositors to integrate the digital character into the filmed footage. Even the smallest creature crew requires a support team in order to make our work shine.

How long did you have to work on the project?
A creature TD typically spends four to six months doing “shot work” on a film, but can spend one to two years on a film if they are involved early on with rigging assets since that has to come before any animation. For Episode VIII, I was exclusively doing shot work, so I was crewed to the movie for a period of around six months. However, a movie can spend much longer inside the doors of ILM from concept art to final delivery; multiple years is not unheard of.

What was your favorite part or scene to work on? Why?
My favorite part of working on Episode VIII had to be simulating TIE fighter explosions for the final fight sequence on Crait. That’s such a classic Star Wars moment, and it felt incredible to be able to contribute in a fun way to the Star Wars canon.

Wixom at the employee screening for Episode VII.

What was a major challenge that you encountered while working on visual effects?
One major challenge of Episode VIII was the inclusion of the most adorable character – the Porg. Originally, the director wanted the Porg to be a puppet, and all the footage was shot with a practical, stuffed Porg. Unfortunately, once we started reviewing the footage, the director decided he no longer liked the look and feel of the puppet and wanted it replaced with a digital Porg.

Removing and replacing a character is much more difficult than just shooting without one and adding it later, and keeping the look consistent between the shots with the puppet and the shots with the digital character can be a challenge as well – not to mention this entire digital character was entirely unplanned.

In the end, it was the right choice, as the digital character was much more expressive and able to emote more fully, but it certainly would have helped to know that from the start!

You graduated in 2013, how did you get to work for ILM just two years after graduating?
Landing at ILM so quickly after graduation was a combination of good timing, good connections, and being well prepared. I had a friend, Victor Frenkel, who had graduated from the 3:2 Combined Plan Program a year ahead of me and went to work for ILM as a technical assistant (an entry level job where you support render farm utilization across the studio).

Two months after my December 2013 graduation, he contacted me to share that he was getting promoted out of his role and into research and development, and knew I may be interested in filling his position. He recommended me to the team at ILM, and I proceeded to interview and be offered the job. So, although I did have a strong network, I also had the experience and the knowledge to be the right candidate for the job at the right time.

Once at ILM, I worked as a technical assistant for around eight months before transitioning into the creature department. I was able to make that transition by reaching out and working closely with the creature supervisor on Jurassic World; she would sit down with me and teach me skills, and I would have to go back on my own time and replicate what we did to prove to her that I understood.

Jurassic World

After two months of working on simple assets and shot work, she offered to bring me on to her show as a full time creature artist. My very first shot as a creature TD was the shot in Jurassic World where (spoiler alert!) the facilities worker gets eaten by the Indominous Rex after it escapes from the enclosure – I simulated the clothing on the digital double of the employee.

How did your CS degree help you prepare for work after graduation?
Studying CS at Columbia made me a much better creature TD because it gave me a low-level understanding of how our software fundamentally worked.

A creature TD will run in-shot simulations by tweaking solver parameters like time steps and spring strengths. Since I had taken COMS 4167, I had first-hand experience building a physics engine and had deep knowledge of how these solvers ran their calculations. COMS 4160 taught me how raytracing worked and how images were rendered, and COMS 4170 gave me the user interface background to design effective tools for other artists to interact with my characters. The linear algebra skills I learned were also incredibly applicable as all movement in 3D space is represented with vector and matrix notation; to this day, I’m amazed by how this knowledge comes back again and again.

How did you become interested in visual effects?
Believe it or not, I initially declared chemistry as my major as I intended on going to medical school. However, it turns out I was both impatient and pretty terrible at organic chemistry, so I reevaluated my options after about a year. I had realized that perhaps my interest in medicine was at its heart an interest in anatomy, and maybe there was another way to indulge that.

Motion capture shoot for the Jimmy Fallon ride at Universal Orlando resorts.

Reaching back, I did not grow up in a gaming-friendly household, but I remembered playing The Sims on my computer and thinking that the game had a sense of humor and must have been fun to work on. Working on characters for games and film seemed like it could be a good way to combine that sense of humor with STEM, art, and my anatomical interest, so I looked at character-based job listings at companies like ILM and Pixar to see what kinds of degrees and skills they required.

The shortest path between Columbia and there seemed to be through the CS department along the vision and graphics track, which taught courses in image generation, vision algorithms, and the technical aspects of animation. Although I had absolutely no CS experience, I loved the idea that computer science was a major where I could be creative and constructive and have some cool projects to show for it at the end of the day instead of a stack of papers and problems sets. I changed my major the next week, and the rest is history.

What advice would you give to students who want to get into visual effects? And how to get that first job?
One important piece of advice I’d have for students pursuing visual effects (or any non-traditional career path for that matter) is to not be shy about blazing your own trail!

Jobs like this kind of fall out of the scope of what the predefined CS tracks prepare you for, so you may need to do a bit of legwork on your own to learn the skills you’ll need. In my case, I needed to have some experience using creative software packages like Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop, so I took classes at the School of Visual Arts and the University of Michigan to make sure I had those bases covered. It’s safe to assume you’ll learn a ton on the job, but coming in with enough knowledge to be comfortable using the necessary tools is critical to your job application and to your ability to succeed once you’re there.

Admittedly, I struggled to find the kinds of jobs I was interested in through the Columbia employment resources. That being said, I would also highly, highly recommend that any students interested in applied computer graphics take the time to attend an industry conference like GDC or SIGGRAPH. These conferences have job fairs, portfolio reviews, and interviews on-site, and they are great places to discover hot topics in the industry, connect with like-minded individuals, and see where your skills can take you after graduation. 

Although these conferences are expensive, they often offer discounted pricing for students, or have positions open for students to volunteer at the conference in exchange for free admission. SIGGRAPH typically rotates between Anaheim, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, but will make a rare visit to the East Coast (Washington DC) for the 2020 conference, so I strongly recommend going next year if it sounds interesting to any students out there.