Career Advice - Working as CGI Lighter with Amanda Sparso
Want a successful career working as a CGI Lighter? School of Visual Arts alumni Amanda Sparso sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists, looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I currently work as a CG Lighter for commercial, tv, and film. Through the use of light and color, I am responsible for setting the tone and mood of the piece in order to further the story. Along with training the eye to create appealing visual shaping, lighting also involves an understanding of materialistic properties in order to accurately mimic how light would react in the real world.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
I am currently working on a freelance basis with several animation studios in both New York City and Los Angeles. Most of the work I’ve had the joy of helping out on has been based in advertising; but I’ve also worked on episodics ranging from time piece dramas like Dickinson, to the blood and guts work of Sci-Fi’s like Fear the Walking Dead. Lastly, I am especially excited to have worked on some of the CG/VFX work for a musical film that will be released later this Summer 2021.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
For the longest time, the idea of going to college, getting a degree, or pursuing anything remotely related to computers was the farthest thing on my mind. Prior to studying computer animation, I spent my summers in high school training pre-professionally with American Ballet Theater and Gelsey Kirkland. Having studied ballet since the age of three, I truly thought I was going to pursue a profession in the performing arts.
However, when I did begin to research colleges, a career in computer animation appealed to me because it offered the opportunity to hold a more stable career than the travelling life of a ballerina would have, while also maintaining its ability to convey story, emotion, and performance in an artform that’s both technical as it is creative.
How did you get your first big break?
My first big break came from my thesis mentors, Harry Dorrington and Elizabeth Ku Herrero. Both of my advisors were kind enough to mentor me from classroom to studio, and open doors which lead me to where I am today.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
I began my career as a CG lighter upon graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2018. I knew from the start that I wanted to explore as many studios and projects as opportunity would allow, so I chose to pursue freelancing.
One thing I would never change about my job is the people I have met, and the friends I’ve made along the way. Behind each artist is a different story, a different background, and a different path taken to somehow be in the similar places that we all are today.
My first official booking was with Aardman Nathan Love, where I learned how significant being part of a great workplace culture is and cherish those memories to this day. From there, I went on to freelance with several other studios including Buck, Method, Nickelodeon, Carbon, Alkemy X, The Molecule, and Psyop, whom I am currently working with today.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
Matcha, render farm, coffee, render farm.
Working in CG is as collaborative as it is individualised. While we are communicating as a team throughout the day via slack or zoom, a lot of the day is also spent working on perfecting the look of materials and lights in our scene files, and watching the dreaded render farm.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
On a daily basis, I primarily work out of Maya and Nuke for lighting work. However, depending on the specific needs of the job or the main software the studio implements, I have also completed lighting and rendering out of Houdini, texturing in Substance, and tracking in Syntheyes.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
In any stage of the pipeline, it’s typical to be in communication with the job prior to yours, as well as the job right after yours. Since lighting falls more towards the end of the pipeline, I am mostly in communication with the compositing team.
Lighting and compositing work symbiotic to each other because as lighters, we are always handing off renders, mattes, IDs, and whatever else is needed for the compositor to achieve the final look desired in order transcend our raw renders.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
Work from home! As is the case with many industries, Covid completely changed the way we work over the course of this past year. With productivity remaining just as high, we are able to have two hours of our lives back thanks to a save on the commute, thus allowing artists to implement more of a healthy balance to our work/personal life routines.
I’m seeing friends and co-workers do more of the things they love to do outside of their career, from making large moves to that place they always dreamed of living, to spending more time giving back to themselves doing the things they’ve always wanted to do, but just didn’t have time for.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
One thing I would never change about my job is the people I have met, and the friends I’ve made along the way. Behind each artist is a different story, a different background, and a different path taken to somehow be in the similar places that we all are today. By combining our unique experiences, different ways of thinking, and individual skills, it can turn even the most banal projects into fun memories.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
If we look at the increasing majority of students enrolling in Computer Art and Visual Effects programs, the rooms are sixty percent female to forty percent male. However, I still find myself being the only female on the team more often than not.
Because of these experiences, I began volunteering with Access:VFX to mentor recent grads and college students, especially young women, during the pandemic. I believe that mentorship is invaluable, and being able to see ourselves reflected in positions of leadership is key to providing more inclusion for women as we move forward.
So if one thing were to change about this industry, my hope is that women will be given more access. The more culturally diverse directors, supervisors and leads we hire, the smaller this mountain will become, and the better we will be able to climb it together.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
Due to the over abundance of workshops, master classes, tutorials, and in depth documentation that is made accessible online, most will say that a formal education is not essential. However, there are invaluable experiences gained from learning in the classroom with your teachers and peers alongside you, that you simply cannot Google search your way to.
Furthermore, connections are vital in this industry, so partaking in a degree from a notable institution where you have access to many contacts can prove itself essential to some.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
To artists beginning their careers, my biggest piece of advice is to make sure you are choosing rooms that allow you the space to grow. You are never going to become the person or artist you want to become if you are the only person in the room that believes in yourself; so move to rooms that will also hear you, see you, respect you, and nurture your greatest potential.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
I struggled with a lot of sexism in my first year freelancing, which led to a lot of self doubt and times where I almost quit altogether. I let a lot of things go because I knew the importance of having thick skin; but what I didn’t know then that I do now is that there is a difference between staying strong and letting your self-worth be disrespected and devalued just for being female. Now I believe that when we stand up for ourselves as women, we are also standing up for all women around us and after who will take our seats at the table.
Amanda Sparso is an adoptee advocate and CG Lighter based in NYC. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts and releasing her debut film, Yuanfen, Amanda hit the ground running as a freelance artist, connecting with the AAPI/adoptee community, and using her experiences to help mentor other young artists. She aims to spread light and color everywhere she goes, both through her work on screen, as well as her work off screen, through her impact on the lives of others.
When Amanda is not behind the computer, she enjoys filling her free time with plant shopping, home DIY projects, cooking new recipes, and spending all the quarantine time she can with her cat, Jumba.