My NFTS Journey: From Studying Maths To Creating Visual Effects (VFX) Magic on The Witcher!
With places still available for prospective students to apply and start their Visual Effects (VFX) training in January 2024, we caught up with graduate Sian Drury to learn about her pathway from studying maths at university to working on Emmy-nominated The Man Who Fell to Earth and multi-award-winning The Witcher. Keep reading to find out what a typical day in the life is for a VFX Compositor and how training at The National Film and Television School prepared her for the role!
What were you doing before your time at the NFTS?
Before I started studying at the NFTS, I had just finished a Mathematics degree from the University of Exeter. I decided to study Mathematics before applying to the School as I knew it would give me a good foundation in problem solving, analytical and coding skills which have been especially useful to me throughout my career so far.
What made you want to apply for Visual Effects training at the NFTS?
I heard about the National Film and Television School from my secondary school Design and Technology teacher. I then attended an Open Day to understand more about the industry and the School. It was during that first visit that I knew that the NFTS was where I would like to study in the future!
I wanted to apply for the MA due to a combination of unique things about the course and the School. The first reason being that the course included a combined first project which meant that I wouldn’t need to pick a speciality (either compositing, CG or colour grading) until I’d had the chance to try each of them out first hand and received tuition in all three disciplines. As well as this, only having smaller class sizes meant that I would get almost personal tuition from very knowledgeable experts within the industry.
However, one of the major reasons I chose the NFTS over other film schools was that the course was set up to make their students immediately employable, with the Head of Department and Course Coordinator bringing in contacts from several VFX companies who were looking to hire new junior members of staff. In addition, the graduation projects were also set up in a way that reflected how film and TV shows are created within the industry. This meant that the Visual Effects cohort were encouraged to operate as a small VFX company, with the students taking on roles such as VFX coordinators, VFX supervisors etc, whilst also collaborating with other students in the school (including editors, cinematographers and producers) to achieve the best possible results and prepare them for their future careers.
How did you get your first job after graduating?
One of the key modules of the second year on the course was ‘Bridges Into Industry’, during which the department brought in several guest speakers to review our showreels and the work we had done so far on the course. It was through speaking to one of these guests about how much I enjoyed taking part in all aspects of the VFX process, from planning VFX shots, to gathering the on-set data required and compositing the final image, that a few months later that same guest speaker put me forward for a job on the Paramount TV show The Man Who Fell to Earth. I was then lucky enough to be hired as part of the Data Wrangling team on set and then later transferred into the in-house compositing team, which allowed me to put into practise all the skills that I was taught at the NFTS.
What are you working on now?
I was recently lucky enough to be part of the TPO VFX team that worked on the third season of The Witcher. It was a fantastic show and team to be a part of, with the team and I completing some very fun and complex shots across all 8 episodes.
What is a typical working day like?
Depending on whether I am working on set as a Data Wrangler or in the office as a Compositor, my days will look very different!
As a Data Wrangler, I will be working between 10 – 12 hours a day on location or in a studio. I would typically start by arriving at location, picking up a radio to communicate with the rest of the wrangling team and then proceed to set up all the equipment the team will need for the day. Throughout the day I will be expected to gather as much VFX data as I can, this includes the types of lens and cameras that are used that day, lighting information through the forms of HDRI’s and reference photography and any comments that the on-set or VFX supervisor has made about particular shots. Towards the end of the day, I would finish up my notes, pack down the equipment to be placed on the truck to be transported to the next day’s location and then collate that day's information to be easily passed on to the VFX editorial team.
Whilst as a Compositor, I typically work around 9 hours a day, however this increases towards the final deadline as we try and finish the final remaining shots of the project! My normal day would start by arriving into the office and then proceeding to check my emails and Shotgrid for any comments that came in overnight for the shots I have been working on. Once I have worked through these comments, adjusting my work, I will then proceed to work on the new shots that have been assigned to me by either the VFX supervisor or VFX coordinator.
At some point during the day, the team and I would also stop to have a dailies session, where we sit down with the VFX supervisor to review our shots on a large screen and in context with the rest of the TV show or film. This session not only allows us to make sure that our team's work is consistent, but also gives the opportunity for the VFX supervisor to give us direct feedback. Towards the end of the day I will then submit all the work I have completed, or want feedback on, to the VFX co-ordinator to be put in tomorrow's dailies.
What are the challenges?
The main challenge with a career in VFX is being able to look at a shot, listen to the brief and then find the best solution that will still give you the ability to quickly adapt the composition's look or data capture plan as comments from Supervisors and Executives come in. Another challenge is trying to keep up with the technology updates in the industry. One of the things I am having to pick up at the moment is the new AI tools that have been introduced to the software we use.
And what part of your job do you love the most?
The most satisfying part of my job is its fusion between the creative and technical. I need to be able to look at shots not only from the creative angle of whether my work aids the shot, but I also need to check technical aspects, such as whether the Nuke script I have created is as efficient as possible.
However, there is also a joy at being able to show the final film or TV show to my friends and family and show them what I have been working on for the past few months!
How has the NFTS helped you in your career?
The NFTS has been invaluable to my career so far. Before I applied, I had no knowledge of any of the VFX software and how you go about creating any of the VFX shots you see in film and TV shows. The expert teaching grounded me, by not just teaching me the fundamentals of compositing, but also on-set data capture, CG and colour grading. This meant that I not only came out with a deep understanding of my specialised field of compositing, but also gave me a understanding of other disciplines in the VFX pipeline that has helped me go confidently into the workplace knowing I can communicate effectively with different members of the VFX team and be adaptable to any scenario that might arise.
What advice would you give to others considering applying to the NFTS?
One bit of advice I would give anyone thinking about applying is that you don’t need extensive knowledge of VFX techniques before you apply for the course.
However, a great way to see if the course and the NFTS is right for you would be to spend some time volunteering on the graduation projects that film over the summer. I did this between finishing my 2nd year and starting my 3rd year at university, and not only did it give me a chance to obtain a more friendly and accessible way of having experience on set, but it also gave me a chance to watch the students in action and ask them questions about their experiences at the NFTS.
If you are looking to follow in Sian’s footsteps and train to work in vital VFX roles in the film and television industry, explore our course pages today and start your application.
Places available to start January 2024, apply NOW!