Careers: The importance of mentoring young VFX talent
Shaina Holmes
Issue: March/April 2020

Careers: The importance of mentoring young VFX talent

Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles VFX industry seemed like an expensive, impenetrable fortress to enter as a female film school grad. Yet, when I started in the industry, I was amazed that I could train on the job using cutting-edge, hard-to-come by equipment and software. Simply put, if you could get trained, it was only going to happen because of strong mentorship and a company that could afford these digital tools and physical equipment.  

Photo:  Shaina Holmes with her students

I started at a small company with a collaborative spirit. We had a few strong female digital artists who mentored me and shared various VFX techniques and tricks. They allowed me time to absorb and learn while working on new VFX shots. It was exciting to work on projects such as Gangs of New York (2002), Elf (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), plus rewarding learning my craft within a professional community of artists willing to share their knowledge. 

A lot has changed over the past two decades, and as a result both opportunities and expectations for entry-level digital artists have changed drastically. A driving force for these changes is economics. Many “mom-and-pop” VFX companies today are only breaking even and do not have the extra capital to train employees on the job anymore. Instead, artists are expected to train at home, unless they’re lucky enough find an apprenticeship program. Those entry-level tasks (roto, paint) that previously trained newcomers, have been outsourced to places like India, whose large workforce perform these technical tasks at a lower rate and quicker turnaround.

I’m doing my part to fill-in these training gaps and provide the type of female mentorship I benefited from so greatly when I was starting out. Two years ago, I joined the faculty at Syracuse University, where my goal has been to encourage students and strengthen the abilities of the next generation of VFX artists. My strategy is three-pronged: build on-campus collaborative-learning post-production groups; maintain an online community for the students to network with alumni professionals working in the field; and create a post production company based on mentorship and training-from-within.

I created post production groups at both Syracuse University (SUP!) and Ithaca College (Park Post). Simply put, the post groups are 0-credit courses where the students create the curriculum themselves. I am there to mentor each student, encouraging them to share and learn from each other as a community for project feedback, growing skills and advice navigating the industry.

My students discuss everything post-related, from the art of color grading, the theory of editing, creating proxy workflows, or developing a personal brand to stand out in the job market. Additionally, students have access to the entire alumni post group community through Slack, which has channels relating to the latest software releases, useful tutorials, job openings and other post production topics. 

Shaina Holmes on a panel at Sundance.

I also created the post production company, Flying Turtle Post, which employs former students as freelancers and includes on-the-job training. Depending on their interests, they can observe client interactions, aide in the bidding process, work on VFX shots, or maintain our company branding materials. We are building the company together, so it feels like a collective, whether they’re contributing on client projects or designing our website, reels, and logos. This immensely helps the students gain client experience for feature film quality work. 

For example, on the features Holly Slept Over (2020), Big Time Adolescence (2019), and Banana Split (2018), I mentored lead artists on their sequence. To reinforce inclusion and collaboration, each lead artist trained a partner to assist on graphics, roto, tracking, animation or CG elements. As a result, eight entry-level digital artists now have feature film content available on Hulu and Apple TV to distinguish their portfolio as they hit the job market. 

The ultimate goal for the Post Groups and my company is for these entry-level artists to become aware of issues in the industry relating to diversity, equality, work-life balance and business practices early on. As a group, they gain confidence on how to approach these difficult issues while pursuing their career goals. I stress that change happens now only if this generation entering the industry makes those changes. It will take time, but if we continue to encourage more diverse candidates to enter the industry, change will happen.

Shaina Holmes is a visual effects artist, producer and supervisor with over 200 film and television credits, including Chicago, The Notebook, Tropic Thunder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Men in Black 3, Swiss Army Man and True Detective. In addition to staying active in the industry with her company Flying Turtle Post, Shaina is an assistant professor at Syracuse University, where she teached visual effects and post production, and founder of the Syracuse and Ithaca College post production groups SUP! and Park Post.