When it comes to visual effects, Star Wars is considered by many (including The Visual Effects Society) to be the most influential film of all time. The studio behind Star Wars' special effects would soon become a household name for filmgoers: Industrial Light and Magic. Over the course of almost four decades (ILM turns 40 in 2015), ILM has contributed work to landmark films like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Star Trek, The Avengers, and countless others.
Sonja Christoph is a Gnomon School graduate currently working as an environment artist at Industrial Light and Magic. We took a moment to talk to her about her education, her projects, and, of course, R2-D2.
How did you first get involved in the world of visual effects?
I come from the live action world, so my first contact with VFX was on set, waiting for the green screen to be set up, but I have to admit I knew very little beyond that. It wasn't until I saw ILM VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett, with whom I had worked on Timeline give a seminar at the Director's Guild of America that I began to understand how incredibly powerful VFX is. Visual effects through artists and ever-advancing technology enable us to tell stories we could only dream of telling just a few years ago. It was in that moment that I knew I wanted to know more about VFX. It was also the moment I realized how much work a little phrase like “fix it in post" can entail.
Tell us a bit about your VFX background.
I feel very blessed because, as short as my VFX journey has been up until now, I was able to experience working at various studios of all different sizes and had the chance to work on everything from film, to TV and commercials. I was hired by Rhythm and Hues with a little over a month left before graduating from Gnomon. At the time I was enrolled in Gnomon's Digital Production for Entertainment program. At Rhythm and Hues I had the opportunity to work on various features and was able to work with and learn from the very talented matte painters there. After Rhythm and Hues I went on to work at the Mill, where I got to experience the commercial world. Subsequently, I did a bit of freelance work as a concept artist and worked on TV Shows such as Dracula and Burn Notice during my time at Stargate Studios. Then one day I got a phone call from the ILM recruiting team and I've been here ever since.
What is your primary role at ILM?
I'm in the generalist department. We do full environment shot work including everything from matte painting to modeling to animation and pre-comp. Every day brings a new challenge which is one of the things I love most about my job.
What are the responsibilities of a digital matte painter?
The responsibilities of a matte painter can vary from studio to studio, but generally speaking, as a matte painter you are expected to be able to create photo-realistic paintings, set up camera projections, and have a basic knowledge of modeling, texturing, and shading.
What is your average day like?
We stay pretty busy at ILM. During the day I split my time between meetings, dailies, and working on my shots. At lunchtime I like to work out in our gym downstairs. After work we can participate in an array of classes, such as figure drawing and sculpting. We also have movie screenings and a guest speaker series. Sometimes R2-D2 is seen roaming the hallways. There is always a lot going on at ILM.
What would you say has been your most challenging project so far?
I've been very fortunate in that every project I've worked on has been more challenging or challenging in different ways than the previous one. So to answer your question… my most challenging project so far is the one I'm currently working on, but I'm afraid I can't talk about it. Top secret! Sorry!
What would you consider a dream project?
One that tells a great story, where the director values your input, and that calls for beautiful scenery and design.
How did your VFX education impact your ability to work in the field?
Gnomon gave me the tools to succeed and I would not be where I am today if it hadn't been for the amazing teachers I was fortunate to have learned from.
How did you approach landing your current position?
I didn't actually. Shannon Wiggins, Gnomon's Placement Manager, had passed my information along to the ILM recruiting team and they reviewed my work and contacted me. After that I just worked hard and tried to do the best job I could every day.
What advice would you give to aspiring VFX artists?
Challenge yourself every day, learn to stay positive even under pressure, respect and value those around you – remember it's a team effort, be passionate about what you do, and at the end of the day – don't forget to have fun.
Thanks so much for your time!
Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more