Audrea Topps Harjo: Creating Movie Magic

Q & A 

Gary Flynn

Flynn Film Forum

BORN in Washington D.C. the Howard Univeristy film graduate was nominated for a Student Academy Award in 1993 for her thesis film Hard Candy. This only paved the way to bigger things and an untapped potential many always knew she had. Since then she has gone on to work at acclaimed visual effect organisation WETA Digital and worked on films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Starship Troopers, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, The Avengers and The Hobbit. Audrea was kind enough to catch up with us and have a chat about her distinguished career. 

GF: How did you get involved in visual effects?

 

AH: I was looking for work at the start of the new year in January 1995. A friend of mine who I had worked with on a television show for Showtime had just got hired at Sony Pictures Imageworks a brand new visual effects studio. Her name was Jeanette Volturno and she is now head of production at Blum House but back then she was a production coordinator on James and the Giant Peach. She told me that there where two positions open. One for digital coordinator and the other for software coordinator. By the time I got the interview only the software coordinator position was open. I interviewed with the Head of the Department. She asked me if I knew any software program languages like Perl or C++ and I told her no. She asked me what did I do. And I told her that I tell people what to do really well and she hired me on the spot. 

GF: What is a typical day like for you?

 

AH: I currently work from home so I get up and take a 3 mile walk in the mornings and clear my head. My partners are all over the world so what ever time I start someone is working. I'm currently Producing a feature film focusing on Post Production and VFX. I have potential vendors in China and my producing partners are in Los Angeles. 

GF: Can you tell us about some of your favorite projects from your career so far?

AH: My favorite projects are Contact, Stuart Little, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

GF: What do you wish regular people knew about your field?

AH: How complicated visual effects is to manage and how long it takes and how many people. It takes a virtual army to make all of those beautiful images that now seem to be common place but there is nothing common about the talent and skills necessary to dream up something that has never been done or seen before.

GF: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

AH: The best advice I got was from Debbie Denise at Sony Pictures. She told me that you need to work smarter and not harder and that you need to find balance in your life if you are going to survive this business. It was the best advice I had ever gotten. I still live by it. 

GF: What do you wish you had known when you were starting your career?

 

AH: How all consuming it would all be. There are phases in my career that can only be measured by film production schedules. You can put your head down and work - work - work and years would fly by. 

 

GF: Did any particular film(s) make you want to get into visual effects

 

AH: I always looked at my career through the lens of a filmmaker. I've always loved stories. As luck would have it, I fell into Visual Effects but my favorite stories where Star Trek, and Pride and Prejudice and A Clockwork Orange. I pretty much run the gambit when it comes to great stories. 

 

GF: What's the most challenging visual effect you've ever worked on and why was it a challenge?

AH: Working at Weta Digital and managing the Creatures Department on The Adventures of Tin Tin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes at the same time was a challenge just by sheer volume of work that needed to get through both projects at the same time. 

GF: Do FX artists ever get specific directions to over exaggerate an effect for cinematic punch beyond the artist's comfort level? 

AH: Not to my knowledge. Most shots are meticulously designed and an artist is assigned that task based upon their skill set. It is very rare that they would be assigned a tasks that was beyond their reach without support from a supervisor. It would be a waste of resources and time. 

GF: What's been your most challenging project?

AH: "Contant". We worked for 7 days a week for 3 months to get those VFX shots done but it was and still is my favorite show. I got the change to work with some amazing artists who are still killing it in VFX even to this day. 

 

GF: How do you divorce your work on a film from how you feel about its overall quality?

AH: I always meet the work where it stands and I align my expectations accordingly. 

GF: What's the collaboration process like with the director, producers, and other VFX artists?

AH: Directors and Producers hire a studio Visual Effects Supervisor and a VFX Producer. It is their jobs to select VFX facilities that can deliver the required work on time and on budget and to quality. The main Director and Producer rarely interact with the VFX artists. That is left to the in house VFX Management team and the in house VFX Supervisors to manage the artists. The Studio Visual Effect Supervisors are responsible for maintaining the over all quality and disseminating director feedback. 

 

GF: Is there a specific moment in a film that changed your opinion on what visual effects could be?

AH: The motion capture work that Weta Digital has accomplished over the years has been mind blowing specifically the work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It was very impressive to watch that unfold. 

GF: What's the most exciting thing about the future of visual effects?

AH: Full emersion and VR is the future. You are there in it all the way. 

From Top Left to Right: Actor Robert Richard, Actor Jet Li, Actor/Singer Quincy Brown, Sean Gilchrist (Producer: Samera Entertainment)

GF: Do you work with the cinematographer for visual continuity (to match the various lens characteristics that they chose to use)?

AH: No. That job is in the hands of the Visual Effects Supervisor. 

GF: What is your favorite type of VFX shot to work on? Subtle, invisible-to-audience, large space battles, or what?

AH: I never worked hands on any given shot. I always managed the talented artist that did so, but my favorite will always be the superhero stories. Give me a Superman's cape or an Avenger any day and I'm happy. 

GF: Any advice for aspiring VFX artists such as myself?

AH: Know what your talents are. Find and work with and for the best and you will have a great career. 

 

GF: How is it working with Peter Jackson, I see on your IMDb you have several projects with him.

AH: Peter Jackson has a very unique style. He has set up the pipeline at Weta Digital where he can change any aspect of the effect at any given point of development. Which makes his team very nibble. He requires the best and his team delivers time and time again. It was very impressed with the talent in New Zealand. People come from all over the world to work there. 

 

GF: What is your favorite project you have done that is listed on your IMDb? and Why.

AH: I think my favorite project will always be "Contact". The team was so great and I learned so much and it was my first big show where I had so much responsibility. I loved it. I have taken all of those lessons learned at that point in time and it has sustained and propelled me into a wonderful life in visual effects and film. 

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