Case study

Sian Drury — Data wrangler and compositor for film and TV

National Film and Television School

Sian graduated from the National Film and Television School’s (NFTS) Digital Effects (now Visual Effects) MA course. Since graduating, she has worked on TV series including The Witcher and The Man Who Fell to Earth

How did you hear about the NFTS?

I heard about the NFTS from my secondary school Design and Technology teacher who put me in contact with the head of department and course co-ordinator. They suggested that I attend an open day to understand more about the industry and the NFTS. It was during that first visit that I knew that the NFTS was where I would like to study in the future.

At the time I was too young to apply for the course, so the head of department and course co-ordinator suggested that I keep in touch with them, allowing me to get their advice every now and again until I was ready to apply for the course.

What made you want to apply for the course?

I wanted to apply for the MA due to a combination of unique things about the course and the NFTS.

The first reason being that the course contained a combined first project, which meant that I wouldn’t need to pick a speciality (either compositing, CG or colour grading) until I had the chance to try each of them out first hand and receive tuition in all three disciplines.

As well as this, only having a class size of up to 16 people 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 NFTS course was set up to make their students immediately employable, with the head of department and course co-ordinator 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 DFX cohort were encouraged to operate as a small VFX company, with the students taking on roles such as VFX co-ordinators, VFX supervisors etc, while 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.

What did you do before you applied for 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 NFTS, 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.

How did you get your first job after graduating?

One of the key modules 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 guest speakers 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 the 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 currently working on?

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 eight 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 work between 10 and 12 hours a day on location or in a studio. I 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 am 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 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.

As a compositor, I typically work around nine hours a day, however this increases towards the final deadline as we try and finish the final remaining shots of the project. A day starts 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 then proceed to work on the new shots that have been assigned to me by either the VFX supervisor or VFX co-ordinator.

At some point during the day, the team and I 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 submit all the work I have completed, or want feedback on, to the VFX co-ordinator to be put in tomorrow's dailies.

Which part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

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.

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.

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 are your career ambitions?

In the future, I would like to be able to find the right balance between spending time on set as a data wrangler and working as a compositor, as I think there is something special about compositing the shots that I helped film.

What advice would you give to others considering applying to the NFTS?

One bit of advice I would give anyone thinking about applying to the NFTS 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 in the summer between finishing my second year and starting my third 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.

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