Let's do an interview!
Here we have a great person, great artist, and a friend of mine who I met back when I was a student at Academy of Art University and who I have the pleasure working with currently at Ingenuity Studios.
-Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Azra Alkan, I’m a 26 year old compositor working on films, TV shows, and commercials. I grew up in the capital of Turkey, Ankara. I graduated from Academy of Art University in December 2014 with a Bachelor's Degree in Animation and Visual Effects, majoring in compositing. I’ve been working in the VFX industry for the last 5 years in Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
-You mentioned that you are from Turkey. What is VFX like back home?
When I left Turkey, there was no visual effects houses back then. All of the VFX were being outsourced to different countries. To be quite honest there was no market for it either. It’s only blooming over the past few years with the newly founded VFX studios. They mostly work on commercials because film industry still has a hard time trusting local shops.
-Tell me of your journey that got you to where you are today.
I was always infatuated with arts, particularly with storytelling, so I tried to learn that ever since I was a kid. At the same time I was very good at sciences and I was drawn to both sides. I started programming at a very early age as well as painting and writing stories. I got accepted to a visual programming major back at home and I was loving it. However I felt that the visual side of me wanted more freedom, so I applied to a school in U.S.A, convinced my parents with the scholarship they offered me, packed my stuff and moved across the world for the best art education I could get. Visual Effects was a rare industry that kept both my artistic skills and my scientific background in check. I fell in love with it ever since.
-What brought you to VFX?
When I was studying cinematography I felt the need to have more creative freedom. I wanted to capture the stuff that a regular camera cannot see. Live action art was not enough to convey my insane imagination. I wanted to create worlds that only I knew how they looked. I was fascinated by the movie Avatar at the time. Seeing Avatar, I said “this is it, this is what I have got to do!”
-What inspires you?
Humans, psychics, outer space, our existence, how big the universe is and nature itself are the topics I think about constantly. I really wonder about our place in the entire universe and it drives me to create futuristic effects, worlds, cities, planets in my work.
-What are some of the things that you have worked on?
I was lucky enough to work on many amazing TV shows, movies and commercials for my age. I got to work on my favorite TV shows such as Gotham, Agents of Shield, Stranger Things (oh I am obsessed with that show!), Westworld, Last Man On Earth. The latest blockbuster movie I worked on was Disney's Pirates of Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
-What is something that you love about your job?
I love the problem solving aspect of it. It is quite like a puzzle. As a compositor, I am at the end of the post production pipeline. I am given all the elements such as FX, CGI, image, etc., and I have to figure out a way to fit them all together to make them belong and look real. At the end of each scene I work on I still get surprised on how real it looks. I almost fool myself into thinking this is a real live action footage.
-What are some of the challenges that you have experienced?
Art is very subjective and sometimes what you think is great might not be what the client wants. Unless you are working solely on your own projects (which is why I love collaborating on indie movies) you have to keep your crazy imagination in check with what the clients think will bring in more viewers. Get ready for some very personal criticism on your art work!
-What are some notable experiences that you have gained?
When I was working at Studio 400A, which is a non-profit indie studio made of talented artists and their mentors, I got to lead Advantageous, which has been nominated in Sundance and many other film festivals. When I got hired to work at CoSA VFX, I got to work on Emmy nominated shows by Disney, Marvel, and Fox. Now at my current studio, Ingenuity Studios, I work as a senior artist leading a team of other talented artist for the show Fresh Off The Boat. It’s great because it is a show about immigrants and who is better than I to supervise it :)
-What do you see as the future of the VFX industry?
I believe the film industry started to realize how important visual effects artists really are to the whole process. I know there are many people out there that constantly point out that we get the worst treatment out of everyone in Hollywood, and to some degree I can understand that. However, we need to trust our talent and not let negativity or speculations affect our decisions. We are the backbones of this industry and we will continue to rise with the upcoming technology.
How do you want to contribute to this future of VFX?
I would like to continue working hard and continue having many irons in the fire to shine a light upon every fellow artist who are good at what they do and needs a platform/leadership to show their artwork to the world.
-What are your dreams and aspirations?
I eventually want to open up my own studio, where talented fellow artist are treated right, compensated the way they deserve, and where our only limitation would be our imagination.
-The VFX industry has a history of being a “boy’s club”. What has your experience been like? Is it still an issue and has it changed? How do you think you can be a positive influence?
For the most part, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who respected me for the skills I bring on the table, but yes, there have been situations. Some people have referred to me as the “best woman compositor” they have met or, in the past, clients have told me "Why are you behind the camera because the way you look, you should be in front of the camera”. I have been shamed for the way I dress up in studio by other women. I have been shamed for thinking about asking for the raise I sure deserve, because according to most women I should have been happy that I even have a job. Some clients chose to speak directly to the men in the room as if the women in there were just the help.
It’s a sore subject for many women in the industry. Not too long ago women weren’t even allowed to become animators, we could just be corrective artists, not creative. The tradition is surely still there but people are more sneaky about it. Or sometimes they don’t even know they are engaging in sexism. How I deal with it is by setting up an example to all fellow women and men that it can be done differently. That if you are good, you should ask for your worth. You call it out as it is and do not let the opportunities get away because people think you should just be happy you are even allowed in the industry. Women can and will be in the creative, critical parts of the industry and not just in an office aiding the production.
-Time for a lighter question. Here's a favorite back from TeaTime Animation (shout out woop woop!) What’s the worst and/or funniest mistake you have made when starting out?
I think the funniest thing we all think as artists when we start out is that we know everything. That we are so so good. Oh boy, was I wrong about knowing anything! It’s insane how much the industry progresses each and everyday. Now I know you are a senior artist, a veteran, if you accept you know nearly nothing and there is so much to learn still!
-What are some words of wisdom that you can share for all those young blossoming artists?
Please don’t disregard the connections you make at school. I am talking about the guy who sits next to you that you never thought you would be friends with. They end up being your coworkers, the people who decide to hire you, fire you, recommend you.
Also get yourself into many collaborative projects. Don’t worry about the money. Worry about making it look great. Don’t let your projects look good enough for your homework. Make it good enough to be in a feature film.