Career Advice: Working as a Lighting and Compositing Artist at an Animation Studio

Career Advice: Working as a Lighting and Compositing Artist at an Animation Studio

Meet Anna Marinelli, a Lighting & Compositing Artist at Walt Disney Animation Studio, as she shares her career journey from Generalist to her current role and imparts advice to aspiring artists.

Cats, 2019 Musical Film

If you aspire to have a successful career at an Animation Studio, meet Anna Marinelli, a graduate of Rainbow Academy, and a Lighting & Compositing Artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios. In this interview, Anna shares her journey from being a Generalist to a Texture Artist and, ultimately, to her current role. She also offers valuable advice to aspiring artists seeking an exciting and challenging career like hers.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am a Lighting & Compositing Artist, my role involve of taking care of the lights, mood and colour correction of the environments and characters.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?

I’m currently working at Walt Disney Animation Studio in Vancouver, on the Moana show for Disney+.

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

When I was 10yo I started to play video games and at the beginning I wanted to work in that field. Life took a different turn but I’m extremely happy of this pathway. As someone wise said: just trust the process and let it flow.

Scene from "Leo", Netflix

How did you get your first big break?

I remember it wasn’t easy, especially when the people around you don’t trust your choices, and you are stuck for several months looking for a job, which leads to a lot of self doubt. But as cliché as it may sound, you must trust yourself no matter what, and be determined in pursuing your goals. Use that time to learn something new and make personal projects, it will make you feel better and get some visibility.

Describe the journey you took into your current role.

I’ve had a few jobs in Italy as Generalist and Texture Artist, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the country at that point. But I soon realised I wanted better opportunities and I began to look for a job across Europe. I got an offer in Dublin that was the actual begin of my career as a Lighting Artist. I also worked in London and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, then I moved to Canada; it was the best choice I could’ve made. I worked in both FX and Animation, but I find animation much more artistic and fun.

Why did you choose to study at Rainbow Academy?

When I started to study there were still no videogames schools in Italy, and Rainbow Academy was the most prestigious certified Master in Animation with the most complete program, and I felt it could give me the right knowledge and background to start my career.

How does your education complement your work?

In this field education is extremely important, innate talent can help for sure but without the right technical background, and without improving and sensitize the artistic perception, it’s impossible to grow and progress.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team.

We have daily rounds in the morning with the lead to show our progress and get feedback. If the shots are approved during these rounds, we review them with the supervisor in the afternoon dailies. Typically, after dailies, we receive notes to address for the rest of the day. Subsequently, we render the shots overnight, allowing us to work on our shots for the next day's round and dailies. Once the supervisor also approves the shots, they are ready to be presented to the art directors who make the final decision.

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

I’ve used several softwares, the most common are Katana and Maya for Lighting, and Nuke for Compositing, the render engines are usually Arnold and Renderman. Currently, I’m working with Solaris in Houdini.

What does your workflow look like?

Before starting, I begin by checking the key lighting and references for my shot. In cases where it's a key shot, I refer to the provided concepts to set the mood. To ensure the best possible quality, I focus on pushing the limits in lighting, using blockers and modifiers to minimize the need for extensive rotos and grades in compositing, which can impact the image's noise and final quality. In Nuke, I merge all the passes and apply adjustments for balance and effects such as vignetting or lens flare.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

I work closely with several departments and key people, including FX, Animation, Layout, and Texturing/Shading. We collaborate with FX to ensure that effects are functioning correctly in the lighting stage. Layout is crucial because they address any scene-related issues or discrepancies with animation. Additionally, our strong connections with Animation, Texturing, and Shading are essential, as any issues in these areas become apparent during the lighting process.

I believe that one of the factors that can significantly affect Lighting is the choice of software. Sometimes, certain software becomes more 'trendy' among companies, and it's crucial for us to be flexible and adapt to these changes. Additionally, with the increasing power of real-time engines, I wouldn't be surprised if companies start producing shows and even features using them at some point.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

There are too many! For example that beautiful feeling of pride in hearing people exclaiming “ohhh” when they look at your shots, the chance to always learn something new, the possibility of meeting incredible artists/human beings all around the globe, and finally, the opportunity to travel everywhere.

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

I wish there would be more consistency in the workload. Usually, we have peaks of very low inventory and then peak of crunch times; it can be exhausting in both situations.

Career Advice

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

Having a Master's degree, a Bachelor's degree, or both can be essential for certain individuals, as it can facilitate the hiring process and visa applications. However, I've also observed highly skilled artists who are self-taught. The choice depends on the individual and their specific needs and circumstances.

Why would you recommend your Rainbow Academy to others?

Rainbow and all the teachers provided me with the knowledge and a much-needed 'reality check' to confirm my career choice. It's essential to determine if this profession is the right fit for you, and Rainbow offers a safe and supportive environment to explore different departments and make an informed decision.

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

To keep the LinkedIn profile and reels updated as much as possible, and to have even a basic website for an online portfolio. Also ask for recommendations whenever you can for your LinkedIn, several companies rarely hire someone who doesn’t have any, or doesn’t have any connections from the inside. Then always keep a positive attitude and obviously a fluent English that is usually the language most spoken.

Star Wars The Young Jedi, Disney Plus

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as Lighting and Compositing Artist.

To design scene lighting based on the concept or the lighting of other shots, ensuring continuity in terms of light direction and intensity ratio within the same sequence. Prioritize proper readability and focus on the main characters and storytelling. Additionally, monitor noise levels and overall image cleanliness.

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

I have never personally hired someone, but I would say someone flexible and resourceful, with a good balance of independence and team work, and a nice and humble attitude.

Describe your attitude towards your job.

I strive to maintain a positive and patient attitude towards change, while always showing respect and humility to everyone. I believe that we can learn from anyone, regardless of their position in the company or years of experience.

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

Literally from everywhere. Movies, anime, video game, traditional art, digital paintings, travels, everyday life…Beauty is everywhere if you are open to seeing it.

"My Little Pony: A New Generation", Netflix

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

Here are some guidelines for your reel: Start with your name and project names, and include your contact information at the end for a few seconds. Keep your reel under 1 minute, ideally around 40 seconds. Consider syncing the music with the shot progression for better flow. Be mindful of the lyrics if your music has words, as they may be offensive to some viewers. Additionally, adding a shot breakdown can enhance the viewer's understanding of your work.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

Sometimes artists don’t apply for a position they would fit perfectly for lack of confidence, and too often they don’t ask for an adequate salary.

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

It's essential to be absolutely certain that this is the right career choice for you. The path in this field demands numerous sacrifices, including the potential for a solitary life due to frequent travel and the challenge of maintaining stable relationships. Time with your family may be limited. However, in my opinion, the job's joy and satisfaction far outweigh these sacrifices in the long run. You'll lead an adventurous life, meet diverse people, explore incredible places, gain valuable experiences, and truly enjoy waking up for work every day.

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

To not lose hope and keep going, and to be faithful to myself and to my dreams.

You can reach out to Anna via LinkedIn, Instagram, and ArtStation.