Career Advice: Working as a Surfacing and Lighting Artist in Australia

Career Advice: Working as a Surfacing and Lighting Artist in Australia

Sam Ma is a surfacing and lighting artist at Animal Logic in Sydney, Australia. She sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

Want a successful career working in VFX? Sam Ma is a surfacing and lighting artist at Animal Logic in Sydney, navigating her way through the early peaks of her career, an avid doodler and friendly conversationalist. She sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

The Journey

What is your current role and what does it involve?

I’m currently a lighting artist at Animal Logic working on “The Magician's Elephant”. This involves lighting scenes on a shot/sequence basis and basic forms of compositing. On most occasions, I receive a set up from another artist or my lead and further finesse the shot to the near final look before handing it off to DI or Comp.

Previously, I was a surfacing artist at Flying Bark working on Marvel’s “What If…” series. Over there I textured and look dev’d assets and characters.

What type of projects is Animal Logic involved with?

I’ve been at Animal Logic in Sydney for nearly a year now and they’re most recently known for the Lego movies and Peter Rabbit but also for the Oscar winning feature, Happy Feet.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

Pretty early on, I guess. If we’re speaking officially then I would say the year before finishing high school, when I was actually preparing to go into a career in forensic science but then realised that I couldn’t possibly go into that for the rest of my life.

I needed a plan and after a very long and teary conversation with my career advisor, we figured that I had always loved the entertainment industry and that with my background in traditional art, animation was just a logical choice.

Personally speaking, I have this core memory about a book that I obsessively borrowed at my school library when I was seven years old, “Special Effects in Film and Televison” by Jake Hamilton, 1998. It was a rundown of all the different types of special effects from animatronics to explosions and on a cute little two page spread was CG. It just filled me with a longing to be a part of something so collaborative and end up making something beautiful and impactful.

How did you get your first big break?

It was the last semester of my Masters, I was a lighter for the short film we worked on at Animal Logic Academy and it was crunch time for us (adorable, now that I look back). Suddenly one by one, we received LinkedIn messages from the recruiter at Flying Bark and it was just complete chaos, we rushed to prep our reels and CVs to front ourselves as the professionals we wanted to be. Eventually I was of the lucky few that got an interview and following the last Friday of my Masters, I started work on Marvel’s “What if…” on the Monday.

Describe the journey you took into your current role

If we’re starting from the beginning then it was because I hated that my older brother could colour better than me in the colouring book we shared as children (as if the fact that hand-eye coordination didn’t have anything to do with it).

Luckily it was something I stuck with as a kid and in year 2, I remember a teacher from my primary school hand picking me from my class to join an art program. She nurtured my creativity along with my oil painting mentors as a child. In high school, the Visual Arts department took a shining to me and encouraged me to be better every year.

Personal work of Sam Ma

Following my decision in high school to go into the field (I also realise that I’m a little bit of an outlier to be so decisive about my career path so early on), I got my Bachelor of Digital Media. I worked odd jobs behind camera, in sound and video editing, I was even an extra and a voice actor for a little bit too.

Funnily enough, I was fired due to budget cuts from my first 3D job. I took it was a sign to sign up for the Master’s course that I heard so much about at University of Technology Sydney. What a strange cocktail of emotions that year was, I didn’t even know what I wanted to specialise in, let alone how to navigate life at the beginning of the pandemic. Along the way, I fell in love with surfacing and lighting. Luckily, I’ve been able to work in both specialisations (at Flying Bark and Animal Logic respectively).

Why did you choose to study at Animal Logic Academy?

Is it so silly to say that I trusted one of my closest friends (who also studied there and who immediately got work in industry) so wholeheartedly that even understanding that with the financial fee, she’d do the course all over again? Well, proof was in the pudding. It looked like a great place to grow and form connections and hey, it was.

How does your education complement your work?

Well UTS ALA was a well simulated situation: you’re locked into a degree that’s formatted like a job, 9-5 five days a week for a year. You’re basically a small studio that you’re paying to work at. Granted, we had access to our own farm, servers, endless licenses to ludicrously expensive software and wisdom and advice from our leads that work in industry. It prepared me in nearly every single way possible for actual work.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team

Everyday, I check my schedule for any meetings and if I were in studio, then I’d get coffee and breakfast from the studio kitchen and return to my desk as I review any renders that came in from the night before.

Work on shots of order of priority and then review, work more on shots and occasionally message my peers or lead crying that something broke. If I have a lot of targets for the week/day then just increase both my heart rate and speed of my work by five fold.

What third party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

I mostly use Nuke, RV and an in-house lighting program called Filament.

What tasks would you typically be asked to do as a junior artist?

As previously mentioned, I usually take shots that are derived from key shots that other lighters have worked on. Seldom do I ever get assigned a sequence or part of sequence to myself to look dev (happened once and that was very exciting). What the tasks lack in complexity is made up for in quantity however. Same could be applied to when I was a surfacer, I wouldn’t be assigned the main character of the episode but maybe a character that had a few lines at most.

What does your workflow look like?

Generally I receive a rig from another more senior lighter who’d already gone through the process of getting the key lighting approved. I’ll get a run through about what obstacles and issues there are (no shot is ever perfect) from said lighter. I’ll have a pass through Filament and fine tune thing in Nuke before being reviewed by my lead and Lighting Supervisor. I’ll make adjustments as per feedback and that process will be repeated through to review with the CG Supervisor and then eventually with the client. Rinse and repeat until final lighting gets approved, in which case QC happens and we make sure that DI or Comp get what they need.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

Department wise besides my own, would be the lighting TDs (bless them and their miracle work). They fix the technical issues we face in lighting all the time. Other than that, I mostly talk to my lead, production coordinator and peers.

Besides how covid impacted every industry in overworking involuntarily, I don’t really see much considering that I haven’t been in the job for that long. I do notice that more online streaming movie/series projects are around. I guess that is the nature of how the media is consumed now.

One thing you would never change about your job?

The people. I’ve been lucky enough to work in very healthy work environments with amazing people. At first, when I entered the industry, I was scared that there was some sort of cutthroat culture (not saying that there isn’t somewhere) but no, I remember my lead from my last job would literally say at the end of the day, “It’s 6 o’clock! Go home people!”

I’ve had both leads, other more senior artists and friends sit down with me and basically be like, “Hey, it seems that you’re not getting this, I’ll go through it with you and we’ll figure out where it’s going awry.” Beyond that, I’ve built friendships with my peers that offer me life advice and an ear about my personal and professional life. Something like that is irreplaceable.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

Possibly the extreme deadlines that I’ve heard of? Not really in my pay rate to be able to change such a thing but general audiences don’t give any recognition to the people behind the curtains and even have the audacity to critique without any real understanding. I’ve heard of very toxic workplaces and cultures as well (as with any industry but especially so here), which I have yet to experience thankfully, but there must be some way of changing that.

Personal work of Sam Ma

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

No! Not at all! People who are self taught are honestly some of the most intimidating personality types to me. That level of self discipline is something I can only aspire to have but unfortunately as is the way of the universe, everyone is different; that includes the way we learn.

I’m the type of learner that can only learn something when I need it, if I encounter a problem at work and I can figure it out myself or get shown the answer then I’m more likely have that tidbit stick.

The way that my Masters [at UTS Animal Logic Academy] was formatted forced me to be in a simulated situation where I encountered problems with urgency and frequently. It was the perfect condition for my own growth and for many others.

Why would you recommend your school to others?

I recommend it because you might be an artist or technician with junior level knowledge and skillsets but applying them to an actual job where you have deadlines, complex production problems and team structures, is something entirely different. Sure, you do figure it out after a bit of time but you also get to deal with varying personality types, you butt heads and make mistakes, but at least you’re doing it in an environment where you’re encouraged to grow (and also where your next paycheck isn’t at risk).

I realise that not everyone is social, in fact, quite a large portion of people in the field are introverts but whether or not you like to be a lone wolf, media in general tends to be a team sport. Learning how to get along with others but more importantly, work with others is a very important social skill.

Throughout the course we also met many higher ups in the industry that are currently working, if you’re luckier than me (I started my course in 2020 when lockdown was all the rage in Sydney) then you’ll actually physically meet these people. People who you might make such an impression on that you might just get a job when you finish up. Even beyond that, they impart powerful wisdom, things they wished they could’ve learnt earlier in their careers. You’re being drip-fed advice not just from these guests but from the leads who are with you everyday.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

How to balance my life better maybe. It’s an ongoing battle, I mean it’s something that all adults encounter but the problem comes about when creativity is one of my main outlets and I become almost meditative in the zone. It’s my stress relief and cause of stress in one factor of my life, all bundled together. Exercise is something a lot of people turn to and is an active part of my routine as well. On the weekends, I try not to touch the computer (unless it’s a relaxed day where I want to game) and instead I do physical chores around the house or cook for hours on end.

If you could give one piece of advice to artist’s trying to get a job, what would it be?

To hang in there, finding a job and getting rejected or not hearing back is completely demoralising and soul crushing but also find a new angle in the meanwhile. With my personal projects, I tackled them with the goal of expanding a skill.

If you’re currently unemployed, studying or partly employed; just go make things. I know that you’ll more than likely have the time so find something that you’ll enjoy making, will challenge you and go do it. It’s a fun way of tricking yourself into being productive.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

I started as a creative and avid art student. All forms of art and the philosophies (or lack of) interested me and so the influences of Da Vinci, Kahlo and Van Gogh (along with many others) seeped in. As a child, I loved cartoons (still do) and so shows like Sailor Moon, Avatar Last Airbender and Arthur (sneakily taught me morals and life lessons in consumable animations).

Getting older, I grew to appreciate films, series, games and even music from an analytical point of view and that it’s all essentially just flashy storytelling. The works I do and take part of ultimately tell some sort of story. Might not be a long one, sometimes it just carries an emotion I was feeling at the time or a situation I was in. My work is a vehicle for the amalgamation of everything I ever thought was cool and whatever I felt like I needed to say.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

Enjoy yourself, your career shouldn’t be everything in your life. Even the position you’ve been wanting shouldn't be your one and only endgame. Your skills (including personality and social skills) might actually be suited to something else better and picking up something else shouldn’t be the end of the world. You’re still green and on a journey so you might as well embrace it.

Also, baked goods are a very good way to make friends with your department and colleagues!

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

Probably the above. I honestly do wish I had taken time to explore my options of education before jumping into my first degree. To take care of myself better too. That’s definitely a work in progress.

You can find more of Sam Ma's work on her website, and can contact her via LinkedIn.

If you're looking for more inspirational stories like Sam's, read on here.