Central Production Manager
Alyssa Ritz shares what surprised her about working in production, what she loves about her job, and how production plays a crucial role in VFX projects.
When it comes to visual effects (VFX) in film, TV, and other media, it’s easy to get caught up in the magic of what appears on screen. However, behind every stunning effect is a team working tirelessly to bring it to life. And at the center of that team is production, a critical aspect of any VFX project’s success.
In this blog post, we sit down with Alyssa Ritz, Image Engine’s Central Production Manager, to learn about her path to production, what she loves about her job, and the role of production in the VFX pipeline.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into production?
I’ve been with Image Engine for over five years and have been in the VFX industry since 2010. Originally, I went to school for a Bachelor’s in Art History before quickly realizing I wanted to do something in the entertainment industry instead of education.
I initially started my career at Prime Focus as a nighttime render wrangler for the film Tron Legacy in 2010. I spent three years working in the technology department, where I assisted as a Production Assistant (PA) and Database Admin. Eventually, I was able to make my move into production as a coordinator for Fast and Furious 7 at Digital Domain. It wasn’t a direct path to a coordinator role for me and at the time it was quite competitive to get your foot in the door.
What was your secret to success when starting out?
I made it my goal to work in each department for at least the length of one show, if not more. This approach helped me gain a really good understanding of how each department works.
The more I understood how each department worked, the more I could bring context and understanding to the challenges my team might be facing.
My favourite department to work with is FX. It is technically challenging, has many upstream and downstream dependencies making it difficult to schedule, and is very creative!
I eventually became Image Engine’s FX Department Production Manager (DPM), supporting them across several shows. It gave me the experience and confidence to boost me into the Production Manager (PM) role and eventually the Central Production Manager (CPM) role.
What does being a CPM entail?
Production serves as the glue that keeps the creative teams working seamlessly towards a common goal. We act as a support and leadership team, ensuring that information flows smoothly between different teams, clients, and vendors.
As the CPM, I work really closely with our Resource Manager (Olga Trailina), Executive Producers (Shawn Walsh and Liz Roberts), and Head of Digital Content (Greg Massie) to support and advise the day-to-day running of the shows as well as develop, revise, and maintain production workflows and best practices.
I like to ask questions, see how things work, and then ask, “Can we make this better?” Not just technically, but also about how are we approaching a problem. What is our methodology? How are we thinking about it from a support perspective? I really enjoy that even if it can be frustrating at times.
Additionally, I provide support to all production team members. Building a safe space to learn and grow. I’m passionate about training and building career progression and mentorship opportunities. Both having mentors and being a mentee gets people invested in other people’s career paths. We encourage team members to find what interests them, upskill, and move their way into new and exciting roles. Image Engine is really good at hiring within.
What do you love about working at Image Engine?
I love working at Image Engine because of the incredibly talented people who are passionate about making cool stuff, and the studio’s commitment to maintaining a healthy work-life balance despite having grown to 400 people.
Our culture is very open, communicative, and non-hierarchical, with no attitude of “that’s just how it’s done.” We value people above work, and encourage team members to find what interests them, upskill, and move into new and exciting roles.
Image Engine is also great about fostering innovation and collaboration. Anyone can brainstorm on how to improve a system, regardless of their role or seniority. For example, as a coordinator, I helped change how we tracked, scheduled, and coordinated the FX department, and we still use that system we implemented four years later. It’s great to work in an environment where even as a coordinator, you can significantly impact the company and contribute to improving things.
How big are production teams at Image Engine?
At Image Engine, we have a flexible show environment that allows us to customize our teams based on the specific needs of each project. This means that we start by determining the scope of work required for a particular show and then build teams with the necessary skills and expertise to complete the work efficiently and effectively.
For smaller shows, we may have a lean team consisting of a Producer, PM, Coordinator, and PA to handle a project with 50 shots. On the other hand, a larger project with 700 shots may require a larger team, such as a Producer, two PMs, an Assistant Production Manager (APM), seven Coordinators, and two PAs.
By customizing our teams for each project, we are able to provide the right level of support to ensure the success of the show while also maintaining a high level of efficiency and flexibility. This approach allows us to adapt quickly to changes in project scope or timelines and ensures that we can deliver high-quality work to our clients.
What do you love about working in production?
Working in VFX can be challenging, but it’s also a highly rewarding experience because of the constant opportunities to learn and grow. It’s a passion for people and processes that keeps me here.
You’ll have certain projects that really stand out to you as a great experience because of the people. It’s really about all the connections that you make along the way that truly make this job fulfilling. Even on challenging shows, the people you work with can make all the difference and turn a difficult experience into a fun one.
What was a project at Image Engine that stands out to you?
One project that stands out to me is Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. As a Coordinator in the FX Department, I had the opportunity to work with a great team on this project, which took 13 months to complete and involved delivering 147 shots and 432 assets.
What made this project particularly challenging was the presence of grey area development items, where there was no clear solution to the creative brief and required us to develop new techniques to create the Grindelwald Transformation and water interaction with the Theastral Chase. This made scheduling very difficult because there was no clear understanding of how long it would take the artists to complete the work.
Collaboration between departments such as Assets, Animation, FX, and CFX was crucial in solving these complex problems, and our VFX, CG Supes, Producer, and PM teams allowed for a creative space to experiment and find solutions.
As production, we worked closely with the teams to break down the work into manageable tasks and provide support throughout the process. This required patience and a willingness to be flexible in order to meet tight deadlines. This project redefined how we approached complex multi-department tasks at Image Engine, and the lessons learned were carried forward to subsequent projects such as Bloodshot, Venom 2, and the Mandalorian. I learned a great deal about leadership from this experience and the importance of production in supporting the creative process.
What surprised you about a career in production?
One thing that surprised me about working in production is how much technical knowledge is required. As a coordinator, you have to be familiar with the tools and software used in the production pipeline, as well as the technical constraints of the project.
You’re often asked to help troubleshoot issues from artists and supervisors. Over time, you start to see patterns and develop a good sense of how to solve certain types of problems. It’s rewarding to be able to quickly solve a problem that makes someone’s day better.
What advice do you have for someone interested in working in production?
My advice is to focus on building strong communication skills. You will need to be confident when communicating with your team, leading meetings, and talking to stakeholders, such as clients.
Developing relationships with your team members is also important because in production, it can often feel like you’re constantly asking artists when they can deliver and trying to get them to meet deadlines. You have to make sure it’s not just transactional.
Avoid the “us vs them” mentality. Teamwork is essential in production, so it’s important to collaborate with others and find solutions together. Remember that every project is a team effort.
Lastly, keep in mind that while the work and deadlines can be hectic, it’s not a matter of life and death. Don’t take everything too seriously, and try to enjoy the process.
Join our team
At Image Engine, we’re always on the lookout for passionate and skilled people to join our talented team. If you’re looking for a dynamic and supportive work environment where you can collaborate with some of the best artists in the industry, check out our current job openings and apply today! With our award-winning projects and commitment to developing our team members’ skills, this is your chance to make an impact in the world of VFX.