VES Award-nominated Cheri Fojtik takes us through her start in visual effects, the challenges of her role as texture lead, the dynamics of the assets department and the work she’s proudest of to date.
How did you become interested in visual effects?
Being creative was something I fell into at a young age, and I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort. However, with the whole struggling artist stigma I had no idea what to do with my life; Then Jurassic Park was released. I found the special features reel for the movie and after seeing my first glimpse of the wireframe T-Rex, I was hooked!
When I first became aware of visual effects, there weren’t many resources or school programs out there. So I went to school for my Bachelors in Graphic Design and Computer Science at Texas State University. I later realized there were specialty programs out there for what I was interested in so I went back to graduate school for Visual Effects and Animation at Savannah College of Art and Design. I originally wanted to be an animator, but I became more interested in the technical side of things, pursuing lighting and compositing, which led me to texturing. I just wanted to make things pretty!
Tell us a little bit about your career path. Where did you get your start and where has that path lead you?
I landed my first gig while I was still in graduate school, at Fisher Price in upstate New York. It was not the most glamorous job, not just because of the cold and snow, but because I was working on animated shorts to promote toy lines. The schedule was tight, and we had a small team, so the quality ended up being very cartoony. This was an excellent way to pay my dues. The lessons I took from this were invaluable: working in a team environment and meeting deadlines, while giving me the chance to improve my proficiency and skill level in several areas of the CG pipeline.
From there I was hired at Rhythm and Hues as a Jr. Texture Artist in 2010. My first movie was Hop, and I learned a great deal from the talented team of artists around me. It was an eye-opening experience working in a larger, structured production environment. Within three years I worked my way up to lead, learning a great deal along the way. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this studio and so many amazing projects including Snow White and the Huntsman, R.I.P.D., and VFX Oscar-winning Life of Pi.
Following Rhythm and Hues, I went to ReelFX. ReelFX was my first chance to work on an animated feature, Book of Life. This was a nice change of pace for me, coming from three years of photo-realistic VFX work. There was a bit more freedom to be creative and exercise my traditional painting skills.
After being out of live-action for a year, I was stoked to move back into it, particularly to work at Industrial Light and Magic. The nerd excitement factor was pretty high because I was at the studio that sparked my interest in visual effects with Jurassic Park! I even got to see the original T-Rex on-screen; I probably embarrassed myself with how excited I was.
What drew you to Image Engine?
Image Engine drew my attention because of the high quality of work, the location, the size of the studio, and all the rumors about it being a great place to be. I’ve only worked in larger companies, and as you can imagine, it is harder to feel involved in all areas of the pipeline, and take a step up. I bashfully applied for a lead texture position, thinking, there is no way I’m going to get this! But they hired me, much to my excitement and nervousness, and I haven’t looked back!
What do you like about working at Image Engine?
Image Engine has a family type atmosphere where you instantly feel welcomed. Communication is very open and collaborative and you get the sense you are an integrated part of the whole company. Management is fantastic at keeping up moral, with events and parties. Also, I like beer; they give us beer on a regular basis. It doesn’t hurt. 😉
What does your role as lead entail?
As a lead at Image Engine, I manage a small team of four, which at the highest has been seven artists, in the texture department. Duties include collaborating closely with the leads in the sub-departments of assets, resolving workflow issues and developing tools with pipeline as needed. I also attend meetings, working closely with the supervisors and producers across all shows. I’ll assist in candidate reviews, interviews and support the assets supervisor on bids for upcoming work. The best part of my job as lead is helping the team grow and learn, while they push me to do the same.
What are the most challenging aspects of your role?
The biggest challenges present themselves when the assets department gets busy with several shows at once. I still have to paint my own assets, so getting this done while managing the team and keeping up with what is going on across several shows at the same time can get a bit hectic. You learn so much from these busy times in production, about managing your time correctly and learning to be a better leader. It may be challenging, but it is worth it.
Tell us a bit more about the Assets department. How do its various pieces work together?
The Assets department is made up of several sub-departments.
The Concept phase is where the overall design, color, and textures are roughly determined and approved by the client. This important step takes the guesswork out of the following parts of the process. Modelling will start their work based on this and pass that model, and their sculpt to texturing. In the case of the graphorns, we used the sculpt from modelling as a guide to drive texture motivation and detail. The concept art and style sheet are necessary at this stage to help us flesh out the character with the right attributes. Once texturing has a nice first pass at textures, we will pass our maps to lookdev to start shader setup. There is quite a bit of overlap as we work back and forth to get the asset up to the highest of standards upheld here at Image Engine.
That’s a lot of teamwork!
Yep. Assets is a very tight-knit group, and everyone works extremely well together. I feel Image Engine is very particular in hiring personalities that fit this mold of individuals that are collaborative and fun. It helps that a couple of members of the team are what you would call class clowns and make coming to work a lot of fun 😉 I’ve received pings from our asset coordinator across the room, wishing she was sitting where all the laughter was happening!
What have been some of your favorite characters and projects?
One of my favorite assets at Image Engine has been the Graphorns from Fantastic Beasts. Putting together a fantastical creature that is a mishmash of several types of real world creatures is every artist’s dream asset. It gives you the chance to exercise problem-solving skills and develop the artistic eye.
On another end of the spectrum, one of my other favorite assets would be the hero digi doubles we created for Logan. There isn’t quite as much creativity that goes into creating hero digi doubles because you are matching as close as you can to a real person, so it becomes very methodical in the process. I learned a great deal about working with scan data and how to take that to the finish line by working very closely with the lookdev artists. We carefully analyzed the real world reference and made up for where the scan data fell short. It was an educative and rewarding experience.
One of my favorite contributions since being at Image Engine, though, has to be the work on Game of Thrones. Not just because of the exciting range of assets but being a huge fan of the show helps drive the motivation to do outstanding work. The Citadel Environment was especially fun because of the scope of the work and the team effort that went into pulling it off.
Your work on the Citadel got you a VES nomination. What was that experience like?
The VES Award nomination was the cherry on top! Being there was a bit surreal. I’m grateful and honored that I was nominated and that Image Engine afforded me the opportunity to attend. In college, I never thought I’d be good enough to get such an amazing job, much less be nominated for a VES Award. I honestly feel like it didn’t actually happen!
What aspect of your work are you most proud of?
Teaching. My favorite moments are helping artists on the team, and showing them a technique they may have never done before or helping them on a type of asset that is new to them and watching them get excited about that. I felt particularly proud when coaching one of my teammates, Emily, on the baby graphorn for Fantastic Beasts. Watching her get excited, learning and taking ownership of her work makes me boast with joy!
How do you see your career developing in the next few years?
I’d like to keep taking part in amazing work and see where that takes me. Ideally, I would start doing more of my own lookdev and be a bit involved in the technical side of things. As long as I can keep painting work that challenges me and I become more integrated into the entire process of asset development, I will be a happy camper.
What do you see as the future of texturing and assets?
With the recent surge and advancement in scanning technology, we are getting more accurate representations of real-world surfaces and actors. It’s hard coming from an old school way of doing things where you have to ‘figure it out’, so to speak, to it being practically done for you. This is obviously on an asset by asset basis, but I think embracing this technology and learning from it will help us with assets where scanning is not an option by creating a different understanding of the surfaces. Alternatively, if we have accurate surface scans, you will be getting the work done much quicker, leaving more time for the creative and fun tasks that go into creating a full CG asset.