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June 01
2022

ISSUE

Summer 2022

KRISTEN PRAHL: VFX PRODUCER FINDS SUCCESS COMES WITH ‘A LITTLE FAITH, TRUST AND PIXIE DUST’

By TREVOR HOGG

Kristen Prahl, VFX Producer for Ghost VFX in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Image courtesy of Kristen Prahl)

Kristen Prahl, VFX Producer for Ghost VFX in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Image courtesy of Kristen Prahl)

Even though Copenhagen, Denmark has been home for a decade, Ghost VFX Visual Effects Producer Kristen Prahl was born in the American South and raised in the Midwest, first living in Kentucky, then moving to Troy, Ohio, which is just north of Dayton. Her mother was an art major, but decided to go into teaching because she thought there would be better career opportunities with a degree in education rather than art. Childhood hobbies were shared amongst the siblings.

“My older sister and I were very involved in 4-H growing up. It was more ‘artsy’ though and we’d do tons of craft projects. I made it to State a couple of years, otherwise my early claim to fame was at the local county fair.” Movies were also part of her adolescent life. “Hands down, the movie that has left a lasting impression on me is Jurassic Park [1993]. I was only 11 then, so naturally I was that girl in the theater that screamed and jumped out of my seat during the Velociraptor kitchen scene. Another special movie for me is the original Lion King [1994]. I made my dad take me to the theater twice. My parents got the hint and took me on a studio tour at MGM where I got to see animators at work. From that day, I swore to my parents that that was what I was going to do when I grew up.”

Disappointment arose when after high school Prahl attended Ohio University where she studied in the School of Art + Design with hopes of earning a major in Graphic Design. “Unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut, and I told my parents I was thinking of art history as my new major. My parents gave me the option of pursuing art history or choosing any school [within reason] that I wanted, without majoring in art history. I took them up on their offer and choose Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After three years, I graduated with a BFA in Visual Effects.”

California soon beckoned. “With prospects looking slightly better in the early 2000s, I got to make the leap, and I owe my parents everything for that,” says Prahl. “During my last year of college, I went on a school trip to Los Angeles and managed to get an internship at Zoic Studios. Initial industry highlights include being a lip double on CSI and painting ooze on a ‘dead’ body for a forensics scene.”

An interesting early job for the aspiring artist was as a dust-busting lead at Digital Domain. “It’s not far off from regular housekeeping,” notes Prahl. “You essentially paint out any dust that might have gotten caught when film is scanned. Typically, you’ll just clone pixels from another frame or from another part of the same frame. Most films today are shot digitally, so dust-busting isn’t really needed all that much, but I had some great years at Digital Domain, which I’ll always cherish.” She then transitioned to be a rotoscope artist on Speed Racer and Star Trek. “I haven’t been on the box as an artist for some time now,” she admits, “but obviously the technology has gotten better. Nevertheless, the process of rotoscoping is still user driven, and so, until an AI learns this art form, it can still be extremely time-consuming.”

A temporary move to Europe became more permanent. “My boyfriend at the time [now husband] is Danish and wanted to try life a bit closer to home as he’d been stateside for over 10 years,” recalls Prahl. “I was totally onboard to give Copenhagen a try. We had only planned to stay for a year, but 10 years later and we’re still here. I was quite worried about being able to find the same type of work, but I was able to get my foot in the door at Ghost in 2011 as a freelance roto/paint artist. I bounced around at a couple of other companies, but always found myself back at Ghost. The atmosphere was similar to what I knew from Digital Domain, and a giant plus was that the working language was English.”

VFX Supervisor Ivan Kondrup Jensen, Prahl and Creative Director Martin Gårdeler representing the Emmywinning Star Trek: Discovery Ghost VFX team on the red carpet. (Photo courtesy of Ghost VFX)

VFX Supervisor Ivan Kondrup Jensen, Prahl and Creative Director Martin Gårdeler representing the Emmy-winning Star Trek: Discovery Ghost VFX team on the red carpet. (Photo courtesy of Ghost VFX)

“Often, success is a perplexing combination of hard work and chance. Remember that you need both, and trust that you’ll stumble upon what you need, when you need it.”

—Kristen Prahl, VFX Producer, Ghost VFX

Ghost VFX had humble origins. “Ghost was originally founded by a few ex-LEGO employees working out of a garage [aka trailer],” explains Prahl. “They did mostly commercial work at first, but over the years local features were added, then Hollywood blockbusters. I remember when we were awarded work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was a milestone for the company and also one of my favorite shows to have been part of. Production has been at a ludicrous speed ever since, and today high-end streaming shows make up the lion’s share of what we do.”

Becoming a visual effects producer was a natural transition. “I’ve always been a bit compulsive in terms of organizing and planning,” Prahl acknowledges, “so when Ghost looked to expand their production group, I threw my name in the hat. I started out as an assistant on various commercials and local features, then moved into my first real producer role on Legendary’s feature Krampus and their first season of the TV show Colony. In more recent years, I’ve been primarily working as Ghost’s VFX Producer on Star Trek: Discovery.”

Prahl celebrates winning the 2021 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy for the Star Trek: Discovery episode “Su’Kal.” (Photo: Anna-Lene Riber. Courtesy of Kristen Prahl)

Prahl celebrates winning the 2021 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy for the Star Trek: Discovery episode “Su’Kal.” (Photo: Anna-Lene Riber. Courtesy of Kristen Prahl)

A milestone for Ghost VFX was being awarded work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

A milestone for Ghost VFX was being awarded work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

One of the favorite projects Prahl worked on was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

One of the favorite projects Prahl worked on was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

A number of the Ghost VFX artists who worked on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story grew up with the Star Wars franchise. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

A number of the Ghost VFX artists who worked on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story grew up with the Star Wars franchise. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first film in the franchise to deviate from the Skywalker family storyline. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first film in the franchise to deviate from the Skywalker family storyline. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Lucasfilm)

As technology advances, the role of the visual effect producer has essentially remained the same, according to Prahl. “Obviously, shows come in many shapes and sizes, but I think that being a producer at its core is about understanding team dynamics and keeping everyone’s focus on the [hopefully] shared end goal. On the client side, it is about building trust, creating transparency and clear communication. Internally, it’s often about trying to predict future challenges and never assuming anything.” She has endured a few tough shows over the years. “The hardest of shows also make you realize that you are a part of an amazing team of very talented artists, and that you can take on any curveball the client might throw your way. I’ve managed to be incredibly lucky to have so many talented people working alongside me.”

Working on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was memorable for Prahl. Rogue One was a blast because most artists [at Ghost VFX] grew up with Star Wars, and everyone at the company wanted to help out with any small task just to be able to say to their friends or parent, ‘I worked on Star Wars!’ To be honest, I didn’t see A New Hope until I got to college. My dad was a big Star Trek fan, and I’ve seen every old [and new] Star Trek movie and all of Next Generation multiple times.” Over the past six years the company’s focus has been more on high episodic content. “The biggest difference is schedule and pace,” Prahl observes. “Movie shot production can span many months, even years, depending on where in the chain you start. Here you have the ability to work on looks for months before rolling it out to your hero shots, then all shots. Episodic shows, on the other hand, always have new assets or effects for every episode. We still run through all the same steps, but much faster and often with overlapping episodes as these typically are spaced out a few weeks apart.”

From Lost in Space. Prahl believes that a VFX producer should understand team dynamics and keep everyone focused. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Netflix)

From Lost in Space. Prahl believes that a VFX producer should understand team dynamics and keep everyone focused. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Netflix)

“[B]eing a producer at its core is about understanding team dynamics and keeping everyone’s focus on the [hopefully] shared end goal. On the client side, it is about building trust, creating transparency and clear communication. Internally, it’s often about trying to predict future challenges and never assuming anything.”

—Kristen Prahl, VFX Producer, Ghost VFX

There is a convergence occurring between visual effects for television and film. “Right now, we are finding the streaming schedules to be an excellent fit, but we always try to push for as much visual complexity and realism as we can, and so any additional time is always greatly appreciated,” states Prahl. “There’s a high demand right now, and for many vendors not having enough capacity is becoming a real challenge. I do think we’ll see this trend continue in the years to come with heightened competition for viewership and market share between all the studios. However, as we move from growth to a more mature streaming market, we’ll see the usual suspects assume their dominant role, and it will be up to us smaller shops to be lean enough to compete.” In regard to Netflix buying Scanline VFX, Prahl notes, “We’ve seen studio in-source in the past, but typically this has been through organic growth with varying success. If demand continues this crazy upward trend, it’s likely we’ll see more studios secure capacity through retainers and acquisitions.”

There is a convergence occurring between visual effects for television and film, as illustrated by the Netflix production of Lost in Space. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Netflix)

There is a convergence occurring between visual effects for television and film, as illustrated by the Netflix production of Lost in Space. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Netflix)

Prahl has served as the production VFX Producer for Star Trek: Discovery since Season 2. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Prahl has served as the production VFX Producer for Star Trek: Discovery since Season 2. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

“This year’s Oscar nominees, for instance, were all male. However, women are well represented in production, and at Ghost we are also starting to see an uptick of more young women coming through our doors. We still have a way to go, and it would definitely be fantastic to see more women in every discipline and at all levels.”

—Kristen Prahl, VFX Producer, Ghost VFX

In recent years, Prahl has been primarily working as Ghost’s VFX Producer on Star Trek: Discovery. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

In recent years, Prahl has been primarily working as Ghost’s VFX Producer on Star Trek: Discovery. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Prahl has traversed multiple galaxies in her career, from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), one of her favorite shows she has worked on, to Star Trek: Discovery, pictured here. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Prahl has traversed multiple galaxies in her career, from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), one of her favorite shows she has worked on, to Star Trek: Discovery, pictured here. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Prahl is proud of what the Ghost VFX team has been able to accomplish on Star Trek: Discovery and their capacity to handle the high demand for content. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Prahl is proud of what the Ghost VFX team has been able to accomplish on Star Trek: Discovery and their capacity to handle the high demand for content. (Image courtesy of Ghost VFX and Paramount+)

Overall, the bidding process has remained the same. “But we see a bit more time put into previs, which is extremely helpful,” remarks Prahl. “Time zones are not necessarily important for the client, but can be a huge advantage for vendors with solid global pipelines. However, rebates have historically been a requirement for getting a seat at the initial bidding table.” Sharing shots and assets amongst vendors has become easier. “As the industry has matured, off-the-shelf software and open-source formats have come to play a central role at most facilities. As a result, this also means that most companies can now easily share geometry, textures and shader assignments. Disciplines further down the pipeline are still often too entangled in proprietary code, so things like rigs and shading still typically require a full rebuild, albeit with a turntable or similar as reference.”

Inspiration can be found in the application of real-time graphics and video game technology. “Especially virtual production, both as we saw on The Lion King and with ‘the volume’ on The Mandalorian, has really taken the industry by storm,” states Prahl. “At Ghost, we’re starting to implement some of these approaches, but mainly with game engines and real-time renders as another tool in the ‘traditional’ visual effects pipeline. It will be exciting to follow how/if the game and visual effects industry will merge.” The visual effects industry remains male dominated, especially on the artist side. “This year’s Oscar nominees, for instance, were all male. However, women are well represented in production, and at Ghost we are also starting to see an uptick of more young women coming through our doors. We still have a way to go, and it would definitely be fantastic to see more women in every discipline and at all levels.”

Prahl expresses the enjoyment she receives working in the visual effects industry. “First, I really love my job and what I do, and this a common factor for anyone who’s had a long career in any industry. I’ve poured my heart and soul into this industry and learned from ‘Dory’ to just keep swimming when faced with adversity.”

A particular career highlight would appeal to her father. “Nothing beats seeing your name on the big screen for the first time, but honestly, I’m still on an all-time high from our recent Emmy win for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Single Episode for Star Trek: Discovery (“Su’Kul”). I got nominated alongside Ivan Kondrup Jensen, Ghost’s VFX Supervisor on the show, and I’m so proud of what our team was able to accomplish. A favorite quote comes from Peter Pan, which goes, ‘All you need is a little faith, trust and pixie dust.’ Often, success is a perplexing combination of hard work and chance. Remember that you need both, and trust that you’ll stumble upon what you need, when you need it.”


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