Living in London, I meet many people with big dreams professionally. However, only a few of those with the big dreams and plans, do actually achieve them. Lenka Zuckova is one of them. I met this upfront Czech girl when she was working as an au pair and I was looking for someone to do a 2D animation for my low budget first film shot in Bolivia “Campo de Batalla”. We clicked; I loved her work ethic, her talent for drawing and her “what you see is what you get” personality with no hidden agenda other than being a friend- In this city and industry you meet a lot of people who are only interested in you as a contact not as a person so I can spot them easily, Lenka was not one of those- And so,we have been friends ever since and I’m very proud of how much she has achieved as a visual effects artist in the film industry. During her career as a lighting Technical Director, she worked on movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Dr Strange, King Kong: Skull Island, Jurassic World and X-men: Days of Future Past. She started in smaller companies in London and was later hired by companies such as MPC, Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic. In her most recent career move, Lenka decided to join the games industry and is currently working as a Lighter at Electronic Arts in Vancouver.
Meet Lady of the World born and bred in The Czech Republic, Lenka Zuckova:
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background
I always liked to draw. I was pretty good at it but being a traditional artist did not seem like the right career choice for me. I loved watching movies like the Matrix, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, but never thought even for a second that I could one day have a career in postproduction. I studied Hotel Management and Tourism because it was one of the few schools in my home town allowing me to learn two foreign languages. After completing my studies, I worked as an au pair in England so that I could improve my english.
How did your career in the film industry start?
After two years of being an Au Pair for various families, a few low paid cleaning and office temping jobs, I wanted to move on. I decided to further my studies and picked a University near me that offered courses in Digital Animation.The first year was tough, I had to catch up to most people who were more computer savvy than myself, since I was coming from a more traditional art background and had little to no experience with graphic design or computers in general (if you don’t include Word and Excel) and was still struggling with English a little. But by the end of the three year program, I graduated with 1st Class Honours, giving me the opportunity to take part in a teaching exchange program at Chiang Mai university in Thailand.
Finding my first job in the industry was not easy, I think I sent out about 100 emails before one company in London got back to me. I started as a render wrangler. Soon, I became a generalist and after two years, I started to specialize in lighting.
What does a Lighting TD do and what is your current role?
The job of a lighter is to integrate CGI elements into live action footage. You start your digital set in complete darkness and it is your job to simulate lighting that matches closely to the set up on the live action footage. Lighter also sets the mood and helps guide the attention where it is needed in the shot. This can be anything from small elements, like cg arrows to giant creatures like King Kong or cg background such as spinning streets and buildings of New York city in Dr Strange. In full cgi animated movies the artist can have a bit more creative freedom and often also works as a compositor. It is both an artistically and technically demanding role. It requires attention to detail, understanding of real world lighting and a lot of patience.
How is a working day in the life of a Lighting T.D?
In films, usually you are assigned a set of shots by your team leader or CG supervisor. During the day you have one or two dailies session where you present the progress of your shot to the VFX supervisors . They will give you more feedback for you to improve your shots. Standard working time is 8 hours a day but when there is crunch time, such as trailer delivery or actual film release deadline, it is not unusual to work longer hours and weekends. It can be a pretty demanding job, depending on the project you are on. Since lighting is the last step in a 3d pipeline, you often work closely with other departments such as animation, layout or compositors, so good communication is very important.
Are people very competitive in this industry? Are they all about team and vision?
As many other industries VFX can be pretty competitive. It is also a very complex process that requires a lot of talented people working together so being a good team player is an important part of the job. As technology evolves very quickly, It also means you have to keep up to date with the latest trends.
At what point does a girl decide what she wants to do in life is work in VFX?
Everyone is different so I don’t think there is an exact point in life. Some people knew since the age of 7 but I have also met people who join the industry at 30 or 40. It is never too late to change your career, unless you want to be a professional athlete or dancer.
Why do you think there are not that many women going into the VFX industry?
I have seen an improvement in the number of women entering the industry but the ratio is still very small. I would say on average, there is about 10-20 percent of women depending on the department. Generally; compositing, animation and lighting have more women than for example fx or rigging. When I entered the industry, I was usually the only woman in the lighting team, sometimes there were one or two others if the team was bigger. Perhaps many don’t know much about a career in vfx. I certainly never heard of this job when I was growing up or never read an article that featured a woman. I always saw just men so it never occurred to me I could ever work there. It was my passion for art and a bit of luck that got me interested in the industry. I definitely think diversity in the workplace helps. Diversity not just in gender, but also in age and background. I have seen companies making more effort to hire women, which is great but I also think it is important to see more female role models and definitely more women in leadership positions.
Do you feel your story has a fairy tale element minus Prince Charming? Going from being an au pair to working on Hollywood Blockbusters such as King Kong and Star Wars?
I guess it can be perceived that way. But I also think it is the story of a girl who decided to write her own fairy tale. Often things did not go exactly as planned but I was not afraid to jump at opportunities that arose. All the struggles I have gone through during my job as an au pair, such as language obstacles, financial struggles and months of unemployment have made me appreciate what I have now more. It made me into a stronger and more confident person with better perspective of the world I live in. Without these struggles I would not be who I am now.
How does the London VFX industry compares to Vancouver?
Both Montreal and Vancouver have a growing film and game industry and there seems to be more work opportunities. I also enjoy a healthier lifestyle, shorter commute, hiking and skiing opportunities very close to the city. On the other hand, I do miss the history and culture of London.
There are not that many women directing big Hollywood films or in major leadership positions. How does this compare to women working in Animation and VFX?
During my career, I have worked with only one female lead and one female supervisor. I think that says it all. I think it is important that companies not only hire more women but also make a good working environment that will make them want to stay and progress in their careers.
You are also an artist, what inspires you to draw ?
Painting is very relaxing for me, it is nice to get away from the computer in my free time. My style evolves depending on my current mood. I love to paint animals, or capture the passion and strength of a movement. Female dancers and powerful lighting is the perfect combo for me.
I understand you recently moved from films to games. What made you switch?
I currently work as a Lighter at Electronic Arts. One of the reasons I decided to move was because the company offered me a different work/life balance that suited my current lifestyle better. I was also fascinated by the visual improvement in games over recent years. I felt like I could bring my skills from films to games and learn about real time rendering and different technologies. The future of games is pretty exciting and I want to be part of it.
What is your advice for a little girl in a small town who dreams of making a career as a VFX artist?
Believe in yourself. Do what you are passionate about, because it will be the passion that will drive the rest of your career. If something doesn’t go smoothly the first time, don’t give up and try again or find another way. It’s going to be the mistakes you make that will help you grow and improve. Also, do your research. Currently, working in VFX is not a 9-5 job, it requires commitment. A lot of jobs will be temporary. You will probably have to switch companies, cities , or as in my case, countries. There is plenty of information available so do your research. I wish I had the opportunity to learn to code while I was at school.
what are your current career goals ?
My goal is to bring my experience of the film industry to games and help to make it more realistic and visually interesting. Those are my near future plans but I always aim bigger. In the end, what I want is to look back at my career and think I’ve managed to make a difference. My head is always spinning with ideas and not all of them are job related. However, if I help to inspire even just one girl to work in either industry, I will be happy.