Move to the USA and work in Hollywood - perhaps the most common dream of creative people. True, not everyone decides to make drastic changes, all the more so to change one part of the world to another. We spoke with visual effects specialist Katerina Berezhnova, who, in particular, worked on the Stranger Things series, about the intricacies of work, the difficulties of adaptation and the components of the profession.
Interview: Anastasia Narushevich
I am 27 years old, I was born in the city of Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Region. As a child, I studied in a regular school, a music school, and an art school. When I was fifteen, my parents started saying that they wanted to send me to England. We decided that I would finish the eleventh grade as an external student and at the same time start studying abroad.
In England, you need to graduate from college to go to university. There you choose the classes that are suitable for your future specialty. I studied accounting, politics, economics - everything for diplomacy. Then I added more graphic design and photography. On vacation, she returned to Blagoveshchensk, where she took exams and wrote tests in order to graduate from a Russian school. After completing the first year of study in England, I realized that I had been engaged in art all my life and was not predisposed to economics, mathematics and the like. At this age, it's hard to understand who you want to become. But the first year of study helped me find the direction, set the vector.
I came back, talked with my parents, they understood me and supported the idea of continuing my studies, but this time in art and design. In my second year, I returned to England to college in Brighton and changed my profile. I had to start all over again: I enrolled as an illustrator at the University of Bormouth, in the south of England, and studied there for a year. True, after the first year I realized that I was not very interested in the career of an illustrator, I wanted to learn something more and get new skills. Then I started doing computer graphics, painting in Photoshop, doing small animations in After Effects. I studied them with the help of tutorials and video tutorials.
I really liked the idea of creating an illusion, deceiving the eye. In movies, you often don’t realize that there are visual effects. One of the films that inspired me to pursue this specialty is "Panic Room" by David Fincher. It features the famous scene when the camera flies through the keyhole, then through the kitchen, then up the stairs and up to the bedroom of Jodie Foster's heroine. I was amazed that the effects give unlimited possibilities for camera movement. Everything was very realistic, although all the kettles in the kitchen were completely made in 3D, and, of course, the camera could not fit into the keyhole. I liked that CGI helps to get rid of any limitations when creating a story.
About moving to the USA and looking for work
I was dating a guy who was studying to be a director. We met in college, he was also from Russia, from Obninsk. We thought the entertainment industry was in the United States, and we took the risk of moving, although we had never even been there before. When you are young, you don’t think too much, you just set yourself up that you have to work hard and you have to go through a lot. The move brought us together: we were not alone and could always support each other. In this regard, moving together was even easier.
Friends were easy to find, but close circle was not easy. Make friends, and then everything crawls away, and you start over. At first, we avoided Russian-speaking people, tried to assimilate and communicate with Americans. But close communication and relationships did not work out. Then we began to communicate with Mexicans, French, Hungarians, other Europeans, I think we have more points of contact.Now my main social circle is made up of Russian-speaking Armenians, Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians.
In the USA, in Los Angeles, I studied at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, in the direction of visual effects simulation. But when I finished my studies, there was a crisis in the industry. We had the last quarter left, and then many retrained to work in the gaming industry. I didn't really want to go there, but just in case I took a few lessons. I also started freelancing and took on completely different projects - from imaging medical implants for hernia and for ophthalmology to independent films where the heads of office workers explode. I did not limit myself in projects - it helped me to get my hands on, meet different people and expand my professional skills.
When I finished the course, I applied to forty different companies. I was immediately answered by Aaron Sims Creative, it turns out that several of their employees studied with me, and I did not even know about it. At that time, the company had one girl who was engaged in HR, and one girl-animator, the rest were all guys. The company was thinking about hiring me or another guy, and the girls strongly recommended me to dilute the men's party a little.
The visual effects industry is pretty small, most of them know each other. Due to the specifics of the work and the specifics of the industry, many do not stay for a long time in one company: usually, at the end of the project, people move to another place. It's also not that hard to find a job, because doing visual effects can go beyond the film industry. You can do medical projects, go to military or scientific institutes, where objects are visualized in 3D. Visuals aren't limited to the entertainment industry.
People are usually hired very quickly, again due to the specifics of the industry. During tight deadlines, when there is an urgent need to finish everything, a lot of people are hired. But there is another problem here: often new employees are not particularly checked, they just say: “Sit down, do it,” and then they figure out on the way whether the person is doing well or not.
Another problem is that visual effects workers do not have a labor union, unlike other film professions. For example, there is a guild of directors, producers, electricians, even drivers, but this is not the case in our field. Just in the crisis period, they tried to organize a trade union. But there is one more thing - in the effects industry we compete with the whole world, and most of the work can easily be transferred somewhere else. Studios can just start sending out scenes for visual effects. Now this practice also exists, but for more painstaking work. For example, rotoscoping (a technique when the contour of an element or a character is traced over a real frame) - there, it happens, you need to cut out a very detailed image of a person, with cilia and hairs. Naturally, this is expensive to do in the US, so they do it in India or Thailand.
About visual effects
The visual effects process is long and can involve the work of many people or even several companies. In visual effects, as opposed to special effects, real shooting is combined with computer graphics, or completely creates a frame using graphics. The work can last in different ways: we worked on one project for two to three months, on another film we worked from November to May (seven to eight months). After the effects producer finds the project and estimates the volume and cost of the work, we get the scenes and frames from the film and proceed.
The frame passes through a "pipeline" - in English this process is called "pipeline". The frame is passed from hand to hand to narrow specialists. It all starts with a concept artist who designs a character, environment or scene. Then the modeling artists come in and create 3D models.Then they transfer the result to texture and shade artists - they create the texture of leather and other materials. Next, the frame is passed to riggers, the people who create the skeleton so that the animators can control the character. Animators transfer elements to simulation specialists, for example, to create hair or saliva. Next, the frame is illuminated (lighting artist) and already rendered (render artist), that is, rendered. If it is, for example, a monster, at the end of this process, when the monster is rendered, it goes to the composer artist, the one who integrates the 3D element created using computer graphics into the real frame.
Since there are usually a lot of visual effects in monster movies, all the work is divided into several companies. For example, there may be twenty frames in a scene, and they are all divided between different artists.
Our company also worked on the TV series Stranger Things. We made a design for a monster, that very Demogorgon. This is an original concept - what the monster looks like was completely invented by our company. The directors, the Duffer brothers, were not well-known at that time, and we did not expect that this would be a successful project. When we got footage from the show, we even laughed at what a visual effects nightmare it is. The light is constantly flashing there, and you need to match it frame by frame to the visual effects. If you put Demogorgon in there, then on it the same lighting must constantly change.
It was a very interesting process, we had to figure out how to approach this kind of unusual lighting to make everything look realistic. Then we had a small team, so one person made the models and textures, three animated, one “burned” and “destroyed” the monster, and four inserted the character into the frame. I was one of the composers, and I also did the work of the visual effects editor. They send us a ready-made montage: my job was to compare the timing and see that Demogorgon left one frame and entered another at the right time. It is necessary that everything goes sequentially, and not so that somewhere Demogorgon is small, somewhere big, somewhere he was standing near the sofa, and somewhere behind the stove. We also worked a bit on Stranger Things season 2 and made designs for all the creatures: the frog-Demogorgon, the dog-Demogorgon. We also animated Demogorgon for promo videos and Emmy Awards.
We work from ten to seven, Monday through Friday. At the beginning of the project, we have regular working hours, and at the end, we work twelve hours a day and on weekends. We get paid extra for every hour of overtime. Sometimes it is difficult to sit in a dark office in front of a computer without windows for twelve hours with the same people, but you learn to balance.
There are twenty-four hours in a day, twelve of them you work, seven or eight are needed for sleep, two hours are spent on moving and two hours remain for breakfast and a shower. In the beginning, I worked, came home and watched Netflix, and so - every day. I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and I thought: "Is this really all?" Then I went to the other extreme - I started hanging out a lot and sacrificed sleep. But this also cannot last long: you sleep for three to four or five hours and once a week - seven to get enough sleep. As a result, I found a balance - three times a week I meet with friends, we go somewhere. I started doing yoga and learned how to relax properly. Once a week I try to go to the beach or hiking in nature to be outdoors. And once again in three months I get out of the city and go somewhere to travel.