Growing up in a ski town, watching films like Star Wars and
Lord of The Rings, the world of Hollywood (or Hobbiton) seemed like another whole planet. Even as a little kid, I always wanted to “make movies,” but I never really realized it was actually a tangible reality.
Although the town of Whistler, where I grew up, is only a few hours up the Sea to Sky highway from the city of Vancouver, aptly nicknamed Hollywood North, those visions of making movies and working on large films and television shows seemed like an impossible dream.
When you’re still a kid, it can be hard to know what path to take in life. I knew I wanted to create those same amazing shots I was seeing on my tiny, old CRT television, but the path towards that seemed like it just didn’t exist. How do you even start doing that?
Conceptual Render - Shelter - from JETSAM previs
For myself, that journey started through making small ski movies with my friends, or even just goofy, little stop-motion videos with my older sister.
Whistler is home to the World Ski and Snowboard festival, so most of my direct relationship with filmmaking came through that side of things — action sports. Eventually as the internet became more a part of our everyday lives, I came across a couple of small YouTube channels, like Corridor Digital and Freddie Wong.
These YouTube channels seemed like a couple of guys who were basically the older versions of my group of childhood friends. A group of friends making films that emulated the big Hollywood productions I longed to be a part of. Through watching their videos and their behind-the-scenes making-of and tutorials, it started to seem like an approachable goal. I could make an action movie too!
Of course, it was never going to be that easy, but I rounded up my buddies and we swapped out our skis for some toy guns and set off into the neighborhood to film our first big Hollywood production. The end result was of course hilariously janky, but I remember how stoked everyone was that we were able to add ‘real’ muzzle flashes to the guns!
As soon as I composited that first shot, I was hooked.
Fillory - from The Magicians series finale
Now that we were entering high school, we had the option of taking some elective classes. One in particular I was extremely excited about: ‘Graphic Layout and Design’. It wasn’t exactly filmmaking, but being able to spend an entire block of high school messing around in Photoshop quickly made GLD my favourite class.
We had an absolutely incredible teacher, named Georgina Titus, who was incredibly encouraging and happy to bend the curriculum to whatever her students were passionate about. I noticed a couple shortcuts on the school computers to a couple of programs called 3DS Max and Softimage, and remember asking her about them.
Mrs. Titus informed me that she herself didn’t really have any experience in 3D software packages, but if I was able to mess around and learn something, and ideally teach some of the other students how to use these programs, she’d be happy to use that as the basis for my grade in her class.
I couldn’t believe it — real 3D graphics! I jumped right in and started learning how to crudely model, animate and light little 3D scenes. I was just having fun and learning, but what I didn’t realize at the time that I was actually forming the foundation for what would become my future career.
Through the end of high school, I kept learning 3D software and making short films with my friends, often filled with over-the-top blood spray elements, explosions and always a handful of muzzle flashes.
Conceptual Render - Pemberton Station - from JETSAM previs
During my final year, my only real plan for the future was ‘I want to make movies’ and so close to the end of my formative years, I still didn’t really know what the path to that future was. That same group of friends I’d made all those little films with we’re all applying to universities to pursue ‘real jobs’. I felt pretty lost around this time. Was I losing my film crew?
During the final months of high school, my sister was back visiting home, and on a whim we attended an open house at Think Tank Training Centre in North Vancouver. We’d always made stop-motion videos together, so it seemed like it might be a fun thing to check out an animation school together for an afternoon.
The moment we entered TTTC, I knew that this is where I wanted to come for my secondary education. They were going to teach us how to use 3D programs and how to composite shots! There’s actually a school for this? My mind was blown, it seems silly, but until that day I’d never really realized what a prolific city Vancouver is for not only its film productions, but also the quality of post secondary education for filmmaking and VFX.
I spent the year after high school working at a ski and snowboard clothing store, and hoped that I’d hear back from Think Tank with a letter of acceptance. After that year of work, I finally received my letter of acceptance to TTTC and made the move from my hometown, down to Vancouver to attend classes. My time at Think Tank was amazing! I learned more than I could have ever have hoped for and met so many amazing people.
One in particular was my mentor Landon Bootsma. Landon ended up recommending me for a junior compositing role with his childhood friend Chris van Dyck. Chris recently formed a small studio called CVD VFX, and it had grown to the point that he now needed to start hiring other artists.
I’ll never forget my first time walking into the first CVD office — essentially two fancy janitor’s closets with a hole in the wall between them. I didn’t know it then, but those people I met the first day would turn out to be my role models and life-long friends.
CVD VFX continued to grow, and we eventually made the move to a larger studio space. From there the team expanded, and so did the scope and quality of the work. It wasn’t long before we’d once again outgrown our new studio space and made yet another move.
At this point, we were beginning to feel like a real VFX studio, but the company still maintained its small-family feel. Not only was the studio growing, but I was also growing as an artist. Working in this tight-knit environment allowed me to not only learn a ton from those around me, but also to showcase some of my own abilities and work my way into a compositing lead position.
The little CVD VFX team had grown into an amazing studio and managed to maintain almost its entire core team along the way. During this time I had the opportunity to return to Think Tank Training Centre, only this time I was the one teaching the students. Through teaching and mentoring at TTTC, I could tell I was growing not only as an artist, but also learning the skills to be a better leader and guide for newer artists just entering the industry. I truly believe that teaching is the best way to learn. It definitely forced me to be better.
Pelican Drop Ship - from Think Tank Training Centre’s Comp & VFX 200 curriculum
I was steadily working my way towards a supervisor role and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to be asked to supervise a small team and project. I was really excited about the opportunity and extremely motivated to do the best job I could. Then March 2020 happened. The COVID-19 pandemic brought not only the film industry, but the entire world to a halt. Within a few days we went from collaborating and creating in the studio all together, to being stuck at home and trying to sort out a work/life balance when our work was now in our home and ever present in our lives.
The first project I had the opportunity to supervise ended up being done entirely remote, making it an added challenge and definitely more stressful and consuming than I imagine it would have been in-person.
Luckily, we’d built a great team at CVD VFX and were able to successfully deliver the project.
Just prior to the work-from-home transition, our CVD VFX family had also been going through a transition. The studio had grown and we were being looked at for a possible acquisition. Eventually, the US-based VFX house Crafty Apes brought CVD on-board to become their Vancouver-based location. Transitioning the entire studio to a new pipeline and studio environment entirely remotely certainly had its share of challenges, but the teams both worked to create a great environment. It was amazing to look back and see that our tiny janitor’s closet office had now grown to become part of an international, multi-studio team. I think back to my first day at CVD and it feels like an entirely-different person to who I am now.
With all things, growth does not come without change. In this industry it’s unusual to stay at one studio for such a long time, and I was feeling like it might be my turn to see what else is out there. My two closest friends at the studio, Camil Adell and Erik Jensen, who I started with at CVD, had both grown into incredible artists and leaders, and were now making the leap to starting their own studio, Outlanders VFX, similar to how Chris had done so in the past. With Erik and Camil moving on, I started to realize the only way to continue to learn and grow in the way I’d hoped to would be to leave the comfort of our team at Crafty Apes. I had been receiving some really-enticing offers, and for the first time in my career, figured I should actually cut together a showreel.
Eventually, I ended up having the opportunity to sign on with the incredible team at Weta Digital. Truly a dream come true for me, and an amazing opportunity to continue to learn and grow as an artist.
In writing this piece, I’ve found myself so thankful for all of the people that have helped mentor and guide me along the way. I truly believe that taking those smaller, albeit riskier positions at smaller, more boutique studios, can allow for incredible opportunities, and I always encourage my students to take the time to seek out something small that aligns with their own wants and needs, rather than chasing the biggest project.
You may just find that diamond in the rough.
Fenner Rockliffe can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.