I left Singapore for the United States at the mere age of 20 with only $1,500 in my pocket and with zero connections to the Hollywood visual effects industry. I would not have guessed at the time that not only would I be one of the few from my school (and possibly even country) to work on one of the largest television shows in the world (The Walking Dead) before I had even graduated from of college, or that I would eventually go on to make a mark in the virtual reality space, and also be given opportunities to present technical presentations at conferences – let alone give a TED talk on the subject.
Today, I have worked with over 20 studios and independent filmmakers as a VFX compositor, supervisor and even VR specialist, and have taught over 22,000 students (both online and in-person) Nuke and After Effects compositing, rotoscoping and Maya 3D skills. I’ve even founded a VR content creation studio, Seyenapse, through which I led a project team of about seven people from five different time zones to work on a collaborative VR desktop and mobile game, launched for the Oculus Rift and Gear VR devices — a project that spanned seven months with a collective team of 18 to 20 total collaborators.
Many would say that I am either extremely lucky or extremely talented, but I would say that it all boiled down to knowing exactly what I wanted out of life and knowing exactly how to stay relevant.
You see, ever since I was 14, I knew I wanted to be involved in post-production for movies.
After editing my very first video using the free Windows Movie Maker software that came with my very first personal computer, I made it my mission to make video post production my business. Though I do enjoy watching movies and have met many in my career who got into the movie business due to their passion for movies, the true inspiration and source of my passion wasn’t because I loved watching movies. I mean, we all love watching movies, if you really think about it.
It was the fact that I – being extremely shy and quiet back then – felt like I had a voice and was able to express myself through video editing. So much so that it compelled me to be a part of that world. All that being said, I was still in Singapore — a city whose film industry is still growing and still trying to compete within the Southeast Asian film industry — making working on Hollywood films seem like a farfetched dream.
To top it all off, having come from a very traditional Asian family, it is almost an instant “KO” to pursue any type of career in the creative or arts fields, with parents usually preferring their kids to become doctors, lawyers or bankers, since those jobs usually provide the greatest financial security.
Either way, having a clear vision and mission for what I wanted to do with my life, I still pursued an education in digital media at my local polytechnic, known as Singapore Polytechnic.
When I started school in 2008, I did not mess around and took all my classes very seriously, eventually becoming one of the seven top graduates out of the 6,000 students who graduated from Singapore Polytechnic in 2011. With a government scholarship and two additional US scholarships under my belt, I made the decision to continue my education in visual effects at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) and that’s when everything starting falling into place.
I started out as an independent freelancer at first, working on miscellaneous projects and short films from AFI and SCAD students. It wasn’t until 2013 when I actually had my first break (which actually almost became my first lost opportunity) working as an intern at Stargate Studios.
You see, when I was younger, I developed the habit of reading things placed on noticeboards. Because I was so isolated and extremely shy at the time, I mostly hung out by myself and read flyers and posters on noticeboards. So, when I was roaming around the SCAD campus, I happened to glance across a single flyer by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences calling for applications for their internship program. I was not exactly looking for an internship, but figured that I’d look into it anyway out of sheer curiosity. They required non-US citizen applicants to already have a work authorization at the time of application, but I bucked that rule and submitted my application a few days later, thinking nothing of it.
To my surprise, I eventually received an email stating that I have been shortlisted as an intern and after some further shortlisting processes, was finally chosen by the studio to be the representative and sole intern for their “Special Visual Effects” category as part of their internship program. I was elated and went on to fill out the paperwork only to discover that I don’t have a social security number.
What happened next took me by surprise.
The coordinator of the program decided that they had to disqualify my selection, stating that I had to already have a work authorization permit and that I required an SSN in order to be working as an intern. Without either of the two, I was made ineligible to proceed, which was funny because in order to get those two items at all, I had to first have a job or work offer from an employer.
Enraged at this perceived injustice, I went to SCAD’s international student services office and explained the situation to an officer at the time, Brook Serrano, hoping to get a third party’s opinion, or at least some sort of clarification on the entire situation that seemed rather unjust. There was no way in the world of logic that I could get a work authorization permit or an SSN without an offer letter to begin with!
As it turned out, telling my story and sharing my disappointment with Serrano was the best decision I ever made. What followed after was something that I will never forget.
Almost immediately, Serrano contacted the program coordinator and explained the delicate situation of international students, visas and all that mumbo-jumbo, eventually leading me to be reinstated for the internship consideration and eventually going on to become the first international student to be selected for the TV Academy internship program. And yes – I eventually sorted out that work authorization and SSN situation, after I received my offer letter for the internship.
I started my internship at Stargate Studios in June 2013 and on the very second day of my internship, got a chance to work on real shots from pilots and shows such as NBC’s Dracula and Season 4 of The Walking Dead. In fact, I was so good at my internship that I didn’t have to wait at all after graduation till I was back at Stargate Studios, working as a visual effects compositor again. All because I dared to challenge the status quo and had people willing to fight for what is right, I broke into the Hollywood visual effects industry and circled around several studios in California.
Hence, my advice to all those who are starting out or even those who have been in the industry for a while but are wondering when they are going to get their “big break,” is to never ever settle after being rejected (especially if it was completely uncalled for). Don’t sit there and cry either — it is just a waste of time and tears. I certainly did not. I got up, got angry, and found an ally at SCAD who technically, helped me break into the industry, to work on projects fans could only go insane for.
So, not getting the responses you were hoping for in your job applications?
Get up, get out and work even harder than you did yesterday. Turn that disappointment or sadness into rage and channel that energy into something productive.
Keep challenging the decisions and situations people thrust onto you and ask why, if not how; and always ask for help, if you need help. You’d be surprise how many people are willing to help you if you’d only ask for it.
That is how you get that “big break” you’ve been dreaming of.
When I left Singapore in 2011 with no connections or ties to anyone in the Hollywood film or visual effects industry, I never would have imagined that I would be graduating from SCAD in 2014, having already worked on one of the biggest television shows of our time and have a job ready for me, even before I walked off campus. In fact, even if I told anyone back in my hometown that I have worked as a VFX freelancer with over 20 companies and filmmakers, they would not have believed that it was even possible to make any sort of money in a creative or artistic endeavor.
Yet, against all the odds and the naysayers, I made it – and I am still making it. Keep fighting and never apologize for challenging the status quo.