Betsy Mueller’s degree in studio art was supposed to lead to a career in traditional animation. Fate (and emerging digital technologies) intervened, and instead she spent almost two decades applying her artist’s eye to CGI in live-action films like Iron Man and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I spoke to Betsy while she walked outdoors in Texas, enjoying a hiatus from the demanding schedule and restrictive NDAs of working on blockbuster films, to learn more about her career as a lighting technical director and look developer, and how she’s getting back to her roots.
Leona Laurie: Let’s start with how you went from something as non-digital as drawing and painting to something as completely digital as VFX.
Betsy Mueller: I didn’t have any interest in computers when I graduated. I wanted to be in animation, and a traditional animator. I was a background illustrator and still using my art degree. Long story short, I was home in Colorado Springs and deciding what I should be doing, when I went to the yellow pages and looked under “animation” and happened to see a few (studios) listed there. I cold-called them and left messages, and one of them called me back.
I went in for an interview, showed my portfolio and he goes: “You’re great, but as you can see around here, we are all computers and no traditional. But, we have an empty computer here with the highest end software. You are welcome to come in, help us out, but also learn the program on your own.”
And I decided that was worth it.
With that, I actually was able to learn enough to figure out that I’m not an animator. But I still stuck with my background in illustration and got into setting the mood, setting the environment, finding out that I enjoy lighting and look developing and using the computer as an art medium. After tons of rejection letters, I finally got an offer asking if I would consider working as a lighter for three months in Dallas, TX. I said yes, and the rest is, so to speak, history.
LL: I never realized how specialized the different roles in VFX are! At what point in the production do you do your part?
BM: It depends. For look developing, that happens mostly at the beginning of a project but throughout we are doing tweaks and touchups to any given asset that is needed. There are times when we’re re-using assets we’ve used from other shows and we just have to figure out how they should work in the current project we’re on. An example is … oh, I don’t know, one of the spaceships, I guess.
As for lighting, that happens at the end of the project. We feel the deadlines looming over us, and these are very hard deadlines that must be met. Sometimes I’m making sure that everything is working properly— that there’s no snag in the software or assets, such as a spaceship, and that we are achieving the look that has been requested by the director.
I deal mainly with CG stuff. We look at the actors’ real filming, real shots, to make sure we’re matching and that nothing will stand out and make the viewer see it and go, “Oh, that’s fake.”
Besides, we all know spaceships are real, right?
BM: And aliens are, too.
You’ve basically been in this industry as long as it’s been more than Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” Do you feel like the master of your career domain? Have you peaked?
BM: To be honest, I’m still learning from each project. I have been very fortunate to be in some great positions that have exposed me to a lot of information behind the scenes, more so than when an artist comes in and just works on a project. Once you get to understand something, it’s like: “Oh, I can do that. I can try that.”
LL: And, let’s be honest, the projects you’ve “learned” on are kind of amazing.
BM: Being part of Force Awakens… I knew it was a big deal, but that was a pretty impressive show to be a part of. And thinking back to when I was part of Iron Man. That started a huge franchise! It was also incredibly rewarding to be part of the team that won the Oscars for Happy Feet (Best Animation) and Life of Pi (Best Visual Effects), as well as working on Star Trek with J.J. Abrams and his lens flares.
LL: You’ve been part of these massive franchises. You were part of the very beginning of Marvel Studios and the re-beginning of the Star Wars franchise! What kind of secrecy requirements are you honoring when you’re working? Do the people in your life ever have any idea what you’re doing?
BM: No they don’t, not really. You sign an NDA contract, and nothing can be leaked or you get into major trouble. You could be blacklisted and fired. You can’t say anything, which is totally understandable and needs to be that way, because there’s a lot of secretive stuff that we’re working on. It is on lockdown. Once things start getting broadcast from the studio or corporate (like trailers or interviews about the project), we can finally talk about it with our friends and family, but we can’t go into specifics.
We do watch what we are working on (sneak peeks of the rough cuts, if you will). I had access to Force Awakens, but no way would or could I say what happened.
LL: With that kind of access, what was the hardest secret for you to keep quiet about, where you saw something and were like, “Wow!” And then you just couldn’t tell anybody for like a year?
BM: What happens to Solo in Force Awakens. I was like, “WHOA.” I couldn’t even tell my family! They had to go see it in theaters.
LL: Wow, that was a big one. I have to assume there’s a huge overlap in the Venn diagram of computer artists and Star Warsfans, so the rooms you’re working in must be full of…
BM: Major fans, totally.
LL: Were your collective reactions to things like the first appearance of the Millennium Falcon in Force Awakens anything like the one I shared with the crowd in the theater?
BM: We had it on our computers and were watching it, but the best was actually going to the theaters and watching it with everybody. I mean, it’s fun with the crew, but everybody going to see it, the audience reaction and such– that’s just really neat. Especially after the long hours and hard work put into the film, it’s a great reward seeing fans enjoy the movie.
LL: Aside from the audience reactions, can you still enjoy watching movies? Or are you too savvy to the technical aspects?
BM: To be honest, it’s taken me a long time to actually go to a theater to watch anything for over two hours. We worked roughly 12 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes for a couple months straight, so it’s kind of hard to sit inside a dark theater for so long.
I do watch movies differently. I will admit that. I see things. I see matte lines, I see FX and I’m like, “Oh, that stood out.” Or, “That didn’t look right.” And there are some things where I’m like, “That water looked really cool.” And that kind of thing.
LL: I’m guessing your return to the theater coincides with your having stepped away from VFX for a little bit. How does it feel?
BM: Different. I’m trying to kind of get back to the balance. That’s one thing we would always talk about in the industry: the balance. I was never balanced because we were doing overtime on projects.
When you’re working on a project that closely you become a family. Then, when the project is done you’re like, “What do we do next?” And then you start all over again. It’s a constant little wave that you get in. And now that I’m not in it at the moment, I can honestly say now I’ve gotten to the point of relaxing.
I am getting back into pointillism. I really enjoy that, and a few people have asked for custom art from me. So I’ve worked on doing that and then just listening to see what’s next. To see what’s my next adventure. If it’s to go back in to the industry, that’s great. If it’s to find something different, I’m open to it.
LL: The industry’s pace and schedule and secrecy has to be hard if you have a family.
BM: It is. I am single, which actually helped for this industry. Though it was hard to make sure to have time for myself and not be working 24/7. And it’s hard for families. I know a bunch of guys whose kids don’t remember them. What’s also hard is that sometimes the work takes you to different countries, such as New Zealand or Australia, and you have to totally be gone, not coming home at night for a long time, and that’s tough.
LL: I notice you mentioned “guys” whose kids don’t remember them. What would you estimate the gender split in your jobs in VFX to have been?
BM: The ratio has been about one female out of 10 males, and at times one female out of 20 males. At some studios, I would be the only female lighter on the show, and it was rare to have more than one to three women in the lighting department. I was definitely in the minority throughout my jobs. Recently, the gender spit has gotten better – not close to 50/50, but definitely better.
LL: Did you ever feel like your gender was affecting your experience?
BM: There were times I did. But I have to say for the most part I was either oblivious to it, or it was done in a way that I didn’t feel that way.
LL: Why do you think that gender disparity exists in your field?
BM: I’d say VFX for film has become more pursued equally, but the departments vary in ratio. There have been “good ol’ boys’ club” cliques that didn’t invite women, seeing women as too emotional, not good enough to do the job at hand or believing it would be done subpar to their standards.
I believe there are varying reasons why women are the minority in VFX for film, one being that it hasn’t traditionally been seen as being doable by women. Another is that treatment is different towards women– harsh complaints about women in leadership roles, women accused of not being intelligent or assuming women can’t handle the complexity of the job.
LL: And now you’re out of it, bouncing back and forth between Colorado and Texas and working on pointillism. You’ve sort of made a hard shift from cutting-edge, 21st century technology to like 1880s technology?
BM: Yeah, right?
LL: What are you liking the best about your current moment?
BM: That the sky’s the limit. I’m not strapped in some place right now. I can take this time off and figure out what I want to do next.
Learn more about Betsy Mueller, see more of her artwork (and maybe buy some) at www.betsymueller.com. She says, “As any art work, my website is a work in progress.”
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