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June 01
2022

ISSUE

Summer 2022

SHEILA WICKENS: COLLABORATING TO REALIZE A FILMMAKER’S VISION IS A VFX SUPERVISOR’S DREAM

By TREVOR HOGG

Sheila Wickens, VFX Development Supervisor at MPC (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Sheila Wickens, VFX Development Supervisor at MPC (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

A career highlight for MPC VFX Development Supervisor Sheila Wickens was being invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a member of the Visual Effects Branch in 2018. The film industry honor is an indication of how far she had come from her early days as a Multimedia Program Developer at the Limerick Institute of Technology and teaching assistant at Bournemouth University Computer Animation Department. The native of Monaghan, Ireland is the daughter of a primary school teacher and a civil servant and has six elder brothers who helped spark her interest in playing football and computer games.

“One of my brothers was studying electronic engineering when I was seven and he taught me some Basic programming on our BBC home computer,” recalls Wickens. “I was always interested in maths and science, and had thought I would like to be an engineer until I got more into art and wondered how these interests could be combined.” The works of legendary puppeteer and filmmaker Jim Henson were inspirational. “I absolutely loved Henson’s Labyrinth and was also a huge fan of The Muppets and Fraggle Rock. I remember going to the touring exhibition of ‘Muppets, Monsters and Magic’ in Dublin as a teenager and being amazed to see behind the scenes. Another favorite film from that time was The Princess Bride, so I was excited when I had the opportunity to work on Ella Enchanted and then Stardust as they reminded me so much of that classic.”

Wickens did a year at an art foundation after school in an effort to improve her portfolio and creative skills with the goal of becoming a graphic artist or illustrator. “During that year I found out about the National Center for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. Although a fan of traditional animation and stop-motion, I had never heard of 3D animation before and was so excited to discover this subject that combined my interests. I left Ireland to study there for three years and got a degree in computer visualization and animation.” Most of the graduates with the same degree went on to work in the video game and visual effects industries. “I took a job at Bournemouth University as a lecturer’s assistant which allowed me access to the kit there. During that time, they started to branch into compositing, and I had the opportunity to learn Softimage Eddie and Quantel. That led to me getting a job as a Hal operator in a TV station in London. I left that after a year and a half to work on a kids’ TV show as a compositor using Combustion, and then finally got my first job in film at Cinesite working as a rotoscoper on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

Wickens plotting out a complicated army replication shot for BBC One World War I miniseries The Passing Bells. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Wickens plotting out a complicated army replication shot for BBC One World War I miniseries The Passing Bells. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

“I have always loved working directly with the filmmakers and content creators, and being there from the start to help them realize their vision as a visual effects supervisor. So this is a dream job!”

—Sheila Wickens, VFX Development Supervisor, MPC

Compositing was an area in which Wickens excelled. “When I discovered compositing, where you could take images that exist already and put them together rather than starting from scratch, I took to it much more than I had done with 3D. The software has changed over the years. I started out using Cineon, moved to Shake and to Nuke. Essentially, it’s the same principles, although the big shift was the move into Nuke because that was when 3D tools became available to compositors.” The next step was to become a visual effects supervisor. “There was an in-between bit of being a compositing supervisor at MPC and then moving to Lipsync. I became a supervisor in the absence of anyone else more senior than me in the visual effects department at Lipsync at the time. I learned on the job, initially doing work with DNEG then going on set for independent films. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was the first shoot supervision I did on my own. It started out in 3 Mills Studios in London then went on location to New York City. That was one of many films I did with Stephen Woolley’s and Elizabeth Karlsen’s company Number 9 Films.”

Wickens works with MPC Executive VFX Supervisor Pete Jopling. (Image courtesy of MPC)

Wickens works with MPC Executive VFX Supervisor Pete Jopling. (Image courtesy of MPC)

Wickens hanging out in the BBC offices with an iconic Doctor Who character known as a Dalek. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Wickens hanging out in the BBC offices with an iconic Doctor Who character known as a Dalek. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Wickens at the top of Mount Teide in Tenerife in the Canary Islands where the Gallifrey, the home of Doctor Who, is going to be created with the TARDIS supervising the production. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Wickens at the top of Mount Teide in Tenerife in the Canary Islands where the Gallifrey, the home of Doctor Who, is going to be created with the TARDIS supervising the production. (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Colette director Wash Westmoreland photographs Wickens excited about the giant greenscreen constructed outside the studio in Budapest (2018). (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Colette director Wash Westmoreland photographs Wickens excited about the giant greenscreen constructed outside the studio in Budapest (2018). (Image courtesy of Sheila Wickens)

Being associated with major movie productions provided Wickens with some family benefits. “I got to work on some exciting big films including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which impressed my nieces and nephews at the time and now my children too! Also, I got to meet my hero, Tim Burton, on Big Fish and then worked on Corpse Bride as well. I love the books of Dan Brown, so The Da Vinci Code was amazing. I got to work with some great supervisors whom I learned so much from, in particular Tom Wood, Chas Jarrett and Richard Stammers. That was a great time, but I love smaller independent films the best, so when the opportunity came up at Lipsync Post to help build their visual effects department I took it. Even though the work was much simpler, I loved that you were working directly with the filmmakers. To work on them was incredible because they were great stories with a lot of heart,” Wickens offers.” Made in Dagenham (2010) recounts the push for equal pay for female Ford plant workers in the 1970s. “I remember going on a recce for Made in Dagenham out to East London to see around the sites. It was a period drama, so we did environment work to help recreate the look of that era.”

Kilo Two Bravo (aka Kajaki in the U.K.) takes place in 2006 and revolves around British soldiers trapped in a minefield in Afghanistan. A CG Chinook helicopter had to be created within a tight time frame without having the benefit of the visual effects team being present during the shoot. “It was an incredible film,” remarks Wickens. “The director told us that one of the military personnel at the premiere asked, ‘How were you able to get hold of a Chinook when they were all in service?’ I consider that to be a tremendous compliment. They shot with a regular helicopter so you can get the dust blowing up from the ground, we painted it out and put in the CG Chinook. It was an intense couple of months trying to get that done knowing that there was no flexibility, because the military charity premiere was already booked. Woman Walks Ahead was another incredible experience. I got to go on location in New Mexico. It was absolutely stunning. Definitely a career highlight from that point of view. I remember the first time I walked on set, and it felt like I was starring in a Western myself!”

Not all of the projects have been movies, as Wickens has also been responsible for television series such as Harlots, Big Little Lies, The Romanoffs and Doctor Who. “Being at a smaller company for so many years, we were used to having a dynamic workflow and figuring out what is the best that you can do with the time and resources available,” states Wickens. “It’s all about the artists, the team and getting the best out of them to produce the best work.”

The experience translates well for Wickens’ newly established role at MPC. “I work with the new business and development team. As clients are coming in with the work, we’ll read and break down the scripts and put together bids. I work with the art department to show clients ideas and to visualize certain sections of the script. I’m also getting jobs set up until the producer and supervisor who are going to stay on the show are available. I am helping across the board in a more general role to make sure that clients have a contact point.”

A report has been released stating that women are significantly underrepresented in the visual effects industry [Editor’s note: the Visual Effects Society has an all-women Board Executive Committee at this time]. “I think growing up with so many older brothers might have prepared me in some way with working in an often male-dominated environment, but I haven’t had any gender specific issues in my career that I’m aware of. However, I do fully support all initiatives to support and attract more women into the industry. I’ve had excellent mentors over the years and I’m very proud to have mentored other women, too. At MPC we recently became members of AWUK [Animated Women UK] and WFTV [Women in Film & Television UK], and I’m looking forward to attending their events throughout the year and seeing more women choose a career in VFX.”

Wickens went to New Mexico to shoot Woman Walks Ahead (2017). (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

Wickens went to New Mexico to shoot Woman Walks Ahead (2017). (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

“Getting asked to supervise Doctor Who was such an honor, but also completely terrifying because of the its legacy and fan base.”

—Sheila Wickens, VFX Development Supervisor, MPC

As for whether there is a visual effects shot that haunts her, Wickens replies, “One that strikes me was in a film called A Bunch of Amateurs. The camera does a 360 around Burt Reynolds, and as it moves around him, he goes from a small theater to a bigger theater to a theater with an audience. This was done in Shake before 3D compositing tools were available.” There have been several memorable moments for Wickens. “I remember when Sara Bennett [Visual Effects Supervisor at Milk Visual Effects] asked if I would like to join the ‘Academy.’ If she had specified AMPAS, I wouldn’t have been confused! I thought I’d better clarify what she meant before getting too excited – maybe it was a horse riding academy or some other club she had in mind! Getting asked to supervise Doctor Who was such an honor, but also completely terrifying because of its legacy and fan base. And of course, now
I have this exciting new role as VFX Development Supervisor at MPC working with Executive Supervisor Pete Jopling, Art Director Gurel Mehmet and VFX Development Executive Rory Knight-Jones. I have always loved working directly with the filmmakers and content creators, and being there from the start to help them realize their vision as a visual effects supervisor. So, this is a dream job!”

An incredible experience for Wickens was working on the Western Woman Walks Ahead (2017), which stars Jessica Chastain. (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

An incredible experience for Wickens was working on the Western Woman Walks Ahead (2017), which stars Jessica Chastain. (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

A major greenscreen setup was required to recreate Moulin Rouge for Colette. (2018) (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

A major greenscreen setup was required to recreate Moulin Rouge for Colette. (2018) (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

Period street extensions were created for thriller horror film The Limehouse Golem (2016). (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)

Period street extensions were created for thriller horror film The Limehouse Golem (2016). (Image courtesy of Lipsync Post)


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