Amy Vatanakul: A Global Traveler Brings Stories to Life

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By Natalia Yurevich

Amy Vatanakul is bringing life to big movies. A senior pre-visualization artist currently at Proof, Inc, has worked on visual effects for films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 & 2, and some other exciting productions. 

Amy and I met for this interview at Aroma Coffee and Tea, a cozy cafe near Hollywood Hills and the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, L.A. to talk about her career in Visual Effects, what it is like to work in a male dominated industry, and about her biggest passion – traveling around the world.

Amy Vatanakul Senior Previs Artist Hollywood interview Madame Success
Amy Vatanakul, Senior Pre-Vis Artist, Interview for MadameSuccess.com

Amy, thank you for taking the time to meet. I am delighted to talk to you.

You have worked on visual effects for several big movies. When someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you explain?

I tell them I am a previs artist, but most people have never heard of “previsualization”. It is kind of like a 3D animated storyboard.  We help bring the director’s vision to life by creating an animated movie before the movie is filmed. We often use storyboards as a guide to help us figure out the shots, camera moves, action, timing, and storytelling.

Are you working in 3D?

Yes. We use a 3D program called Maya to create our assets and to animate.  I also often use Photoshop for texturing, After Effects to composite the shots, and Premiere Pro to edit the sequences.

Spider-Man by Amy Vatanakul, New York
Spider-man sighting in NYC. Image: Amy Vatanakul x Foap.com

You worked on The Amazing Spider-Man 2. What exactly did you do?

Our team and I worked on the Times Square sequence. Have you seen Spider-Man?

Yes.

It is the part when Spider-Man is fighting Electro in the middle of Times Square.  Our team was sent out to New York for a few months to pre-visualize that sequence.

You also have directed a short movie.

Yes, I directed a stop-motion animated short film for a GNOMON class with Stephen Chiodo as my instructor.  It was a great learning experience.

This is super cool. Would you love to share a link to it?

You can find it on Vimeo.

You were one of the artists who customised Star Wars stormtrooper helmets sold at a charity auction to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The LOST helmet you painted, was one of the top sellers. And that auction was attended by George Lucas! Tell me more about it.

Amy Vatanakul Artist Painted Star Wars Helmets
Custom Stormtrooper helmets painted by Amy Vatanakul.

That was an auction organized by the 501st Stormtrooper Legion. I actually painted 2 LOST Stormtrooper helmets. One was for the charity auction, and the other was a gift for one of the Executive Producers on the TV show LOST. The Star Wars helmet auction raised more than $50,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and my helmet was sold for $2,500.

I also painted a SLUSHO! Star Trek Enterprise for the USS Enterprise Art project to help promote the theatrical release of Star Trek in 2009.

What projects are you currently working on?

A Wrinkle In Time 2018 Amy Vatanakul Pre-Vis Artist DisneyI am currently doing post-visualization on a Disney film called A Wrinkle in Time.

I would track the plates in a program called SynthEyes to get the camera’s information, which I would then bring into Maya where I can look through the camera in a 3D environment.

Before A Wrinkle in Time, I was working on a Clash of Clans commercial in Venice, CA, and on the new Predator film in Vancouver, BC before that.

That’s lovely, it looks like you have the opportunity to work in different places.

Yes, and I absolutely love it! I love traveling. It’s a huge passion of mine. 

Amy Vatanakul Previs Artist Disney Travel GreenI have traveled for work every year for the past 6-7 years. Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to work in Beijing, China for a month on a game commercial starring Jet Li.

I was teamed up with a MotionBuilder professional from Australia and a Chinese team from Suzhou. That was a very intense project.  We were working 12 to 14 hours a day. But we were able to finish it in the first two weeks. So we got the last two weeks off to do some exploring.

Animal Crackers Amy Vatanakul Previs ArtistIn 2015, I got to travel to Valencia, Spain to do previs on an animated feature film called Animal Crackers.  It was one of the best experiences in my career, if not the best. Everyone on the team was so friendly and very talented. I can tell the whole crew was very passionate about their work.

How often do you travel?

Lately, I’ve been traveling overseas a few times a year.

On the day I finished working on the Clash of Clans commercial, I was told I would have the next 2 weeks off before I start post-viz on A Wrinkle in Time. When I got home that night, I booked a plane ticket to Cancun, Mexico for about a week. The flight was less than 48 hours away from the time I booked my ticket.

Amy Vatanakul Previs Artist Travel Amazing View
Image: Amy Vatanakul

In 2016, I was in Spain, Morocco, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Vancouver. This year, I was in Iceland and Mexico, and will soon be heading back to Vancouver again for work.

Do you have a travel blog?

No, I do not.  But I have an Instagram account where I would limit myself to post one photo a day during a trip.

Tokyo Blossom Amy Vatanakul Foap
Kanazawa Castle. Image: Amy Vatanakul x Foap.com

Amy, can you tell me a bit about yourself, did you grow up in L.A.?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles.  As a young kid, I would always be drawing and painting. Art was always my favorite subject. So, I decided to study Studio Arts and minor in Digital Arts at UC Irvine. I started learning Flash 2D animation in college and also when I studied abroad at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. But I did not want to be a Flash animator. I wanted to learn 3D animation, but UCI didn’t offer any classes in Maya.

You started with painting. How did you get to computer animation?

Before I graduated UCI, I checked out this library book called “Careers in Computer Animation.” In the back of the book, GNOMON was one of the schools listed and it was located in Hollywood, CA. I looked them up online and was blown away by the amazing student work being produced there. So, I applied to GNOMON and thankfully got accepted into their 21-month Certificate Program in High-End Computer Graphics.

Were your parents supportive of your career choice?

Yes, even though they were worried for me because, at first, they didn’t quite understand what visual effects were. But even then, they fully supported me because they knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. 

They knew that as long as I love what I am doing, then I will be happy, and that makes them happy in return.

Why did you decide to do previs?

Honestly, I had no interest in doing previs. I just wanted to do final animation. It was my dream to work for PIXAR or Disney and see my final work on the big screen. I even turned down a previs job before I graduated GNOMON.

Star Trek Amy Vatanakul as Previs ArtistA few months after I graduated GNOMON, I was hired by Bad Robot Productions as an animator. A month later, a previs company called Persistence of Vision (POV) had asked Bad Robot if they can borrow me to help out with the previs on Star Trek.  Bad Robot and POV were already working on the Paramount Lot, so it worked out for the both of us.

I was really excited because this was a great opportunity for me and it would be my first time working on a big live-action film.

Right from the start, I was enjoying the previs process. It was a lot of fun being able to work on everything in its rough format. From modeling to texturing, to animating and storytelling.

I was the only female artist on the team, but the guys that I worked with were all great.  I learned a lot from them. Even today, I am still learning something new from my colleagues around me, and I love that aspect.

Amy Vatanakul Previs Artist Travel Photo
Image: Amy Vatanakul

Did you happen to be just one of the very few girls admitted to your school?

Oh no, there were quite a few girls in my school. The majority, more than the half of the students were guys, though.

Would you say that the Industry is very male-dominated?

Yeah, this industry is very male dominated.

Why do you think, it is so?

Well, many artists come and go. Most of my female coworkers now have kids, and they end up quitting their job to stay home and take care of the baby. I think that could be the reason why there are more men in my field.

How do your male colleagues explain why women are so underrepresented?

Just a few days ago, I was discussing this with my colleague, who is also a previs artist. Together, we have counted only 8 girls that we have worked with, and maybe half of them now have kids and are no longer working in the field.

So, when women start getting kids, they drop off because the working times are not great for women with kids?

I would assume it could be the case. I hope it will change.

I like working with the guys but it would be nice to have more female colleagues.

What is it like working with the guys when you are the only girl?

It depends on who the guys are. So far, most of the guys I have worked with are respectful. And if not, I will call them out on it.

Image: Amy Vatanakul

Do you think, girls could be interested in a career in previs?

Why not? It is a lot of fun.

I don’t think previs and Visual Effects, in general, should be just for men or women. If you enjoy animation and making movies, then it is for everyone.

But it is important to know that it is hard work. When I went to Gnomon, I did a very intense 21-month program. Each class I took was 3 hours long. We had several classes a week covering different topics, and, of course, homework in every class. I spent a huge amount of time in front of the computer and in the lab.

Is it more difficult for a woman to start a career in Visual Effects?

I think it can be difficult for anyone, men or women, to start a career in visual effects. 

It takes a lot of learning and patience.

You get out what you put in. There is a lot of great talent out there and it’s a competition. But I do sometimes feel it’s easier for men to get hired than women.

Is it because guys are more into monsters? Do you like “monster movies”?

I am not a “monster movie” kind of person, although I don’t mind watching them. I used to watch horror films quite a bit.

My all-time favorite movie is The Gladiator.

I also like Braveheart.

However, you used to work on boyish kind of movies, such as Mission: Impossible or Star Wars.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Amy Vatanakul Postvis ArtistYes, I did post-vis on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The timing was actually perfect, because in 2015, while I was working on Star Trek Beyond, I took a trip to Europe that I had booked months before I had started the project. I visited Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Salzburg. Upon my return, my friend at Bad Robot said there was a post-viz company working on Star Wars that needed some help and he wanted to put me on it. I gladly accepted. 

I was thrilled to be a part of that history in the making and to experience that “wow” effect when somebody says: “Oh! You worked on Star Wars! That’s absolutely cool!”

Yet, I would not call it a “guys” movie, per se. It is a movie for everyone, just like Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In fact, that was one of the movies that influenced my career choice. I enjoyed it so much that it got me to wonder how the effects got made and what goes on behind the scenes. It definitely sparked my interest in working in the film industry.

I do not know whether it’s a “guys” movie. It can be a “girls” movie too. I enjoyed it.

Did any of your girlfriends enjoy it?

Yes, I have no idea how big the female audience for this movie is but I know enough women who absolutely enjoyed this movie.

Do you have favorite female characters?

Hunger Games Amy Vatanakul Previs ArtistOf all the movies with strong female characters that I worked on, I would pick

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games

She plays a strong and independent leader.

Who are your favorite actresses?

Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson.

Jennifer Lawrence seems like a fun person to hang out with. She’s comfortable being herself and doesn’t care what the world thinks.

And I like Emma Watson because she was appointed UN Women Goodwill ambassador and she promotes gender equality and the empowerment of young women.

Amy Vatanakul Previs Artist from Los Angeles
Image: Amy Vatanakul

Let’s talk about success. What does success mean to you?

Success to me is when you have accomplished your goals and you are generally happy and doing what you love.

Would you call yourself successful?

Yes, I believe so.

If I say successful, who is the first person who comes up to mind?

My parents.

When they came to America to start a new life, they had little money in their pockets.  But they have worked really hard to build a successful business and to raise three kids all by themselves.

What qualities are important to be successful in your area?

It is very important to have a positive attitude and a willingness to learn new techniques to improve your skills.

Besides working hard and pulling your weight, you have to be a good team player who works well with others. That will help you stand out from the crowd… because anybody can learn the program.

Amy Vatanakul and Natalia Yurevich Interview MadameSuccess.cm Los Angeles May 2017
Amy Vatanakul and Natalia Yurevich, Los Angeles. MadameSuccess.com

Really?

Well, it may take some time but it is doable! I started learning the program in less than 10 weeks.

Amy, what does your day look like?

It is very routine on the workdays.

I wake up early, make some coffee or tea, get ready, drive to work, get stuck in traffic, get into the office at 9 am, leave the office at 7 pm, drive home in traffic, eat dinner, play with my dog and watch TV, and then go to bed around 11 pm.

Do you draw at home too?

No, I do not really draw or paint anymore. With my work schedule, I’m so exhausted by the time I get home or when the weekend comes around. I would rather do other things with the little free time I have.

Are you into video-gaming?

Not anymore. I used to play a lot when I was young.  Some of my favorite games were Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, Warcraft, Age of Empires, and Sam and Max Hit the Road

Now I prefer to spend my time catching up on movies and TV shows and also making itineraries for future trips.

Amy Vatanakul Previs Artist and Global Traveler
Image: Amy Vatanakul

What do you eat for breakfast?

I am not a big breakfast person, but I sometimes make a healthy green smoothie. If I’m out getting brunch, I usually get eggs benedict.

Do you snack a lot at work?

I have been pretty good. I only snack once in a while, and I try to limit myself to healthy snacks.

Image: Amy Vatanakul

Do you have any favorite TV shows?

I love Game of Thrones.

I also have a favorite Netflix show called Departures. It’s a travel adventure television series where three guys, one of them being the cameraman, embark on a year-long trek around the globe and capture their adventures and challenges that they face. The cinematography is beautiful and the guys are so much fun to watch. They’ve already done three seasons.

Nashville on CMT is also another favorite show of mine.

I use this app called SeriesGuide to help me keep track any new or missed episodes of my favorite shows.

Are there any other useful apps you love or recommend?

I use Foap to sell my travel photos. Instagram. Spotify for music. Mint for finance. TravelPirates for travel deals, and Words with Friends.

Do you ever procrastinate?

Not really.

I just like to get things done and out of the way so I don’t have to think about it. It helps me to make a checklist of things to do.

Amy, what’s next for you?

I will be working on a new Disney project up in Vancouver, Canada at the end of August for a few months. I will also be traveling to Cuba for the holidays.

Amy Vatanakul Mountains Panorama
Image by Amy Vatanakul x Foap.com

Would you have any recommendations for girls who would like to pursue a career in animation?

It’s a competitive world out there. I would recommend taking courses at GNOMON. You will learn from some of the best professionals who have made it in the industry. You will also come out with a strong demo reel if you focus and work really hard at it.

Amy, it was amazing talking to you. Thank you very much for this interview.

My pleasure.

Useful links, addresses, and notes

Connect to Amy Vatanakul:

If you want to get into Visual Effects Industry:

Some of the movies Amy worked on:

Personalities she mentioned:

TV-Series mentioned in the interview:

Games:

Apps:

Images: Amy Vatanakul and MadameSuccess.com

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