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January 28
2021

ISSUE

Winter 2021

ZOE CRANLEY: Lessons Learned, Leadership, And A Love Of Match-Moving In VFX

By IAN FAILES

Zoe Cranley, Head of CG at DNEG Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of DNEG)

Zoe Cranley loves match-moving. As Head of CG at DNEG Vancouver, this is a VFX task she no longer gets to enjoy, but it is one that, when she started at DNEG in 2005 in London, immediately captivated her. “I really enjoyed it, to the point that later when I was a CG Supervisor, I would still say, ‘Oh, can I just match-move one shot? Just one? Please?’ It’s such great creative problem solving.”

Problem solving is something Cranley currently does day-to-day in the Head of CG role, the pinnacle of a journey that has included stints at DNEG’s London and Singapore offices before the move to Vancouver, and experience on films such as John Carter, Godzilla (2014) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Before she embarked on a visual effects career in the U.K., Cranley was initially interested in going to art school. “When I applied they actually told me I was too academic to go to art school,” she says. “I was so mad! I actually argued with them about it.”

After that early setback, Cranley thought she could instead combine her artistic interests with a love of computers and mathematics to earn a computer animation degree at Bournemouth University. This was in the early 2000s, a time when the London VFX industry was growing rapidly. “As soon as I finished my degree,” she remarks, “I sent off my DVDs – actual DVDs with a front cover and everything! – and I luckily got offered a job pretty much straight away at DNEG.”

Cranley was hired as a render wrangler doing shift work to monitor render jobs on DNEG’s ‘Alfred’ render farm. At first, it seemed a far cry from her initial goal of working in feature animation. “Actually,” Cranley notes, “a lot of people from my degree course turned it down. I think they wanted something more creative. At the time, I was just grateful to get a job in the industry, to be honest. I’ve always been like that; you take any opportunity given to you and you build on it, no matter what.”

The render wrangler job proved to be a “great first job,” Cranley says, since it required her to meet a lot of different people at the studio and understand the technology early on. She also got to wield some impressive rendering-related power. “I had to be able to walk up to people or email them and say I’ve turned their priority off because they didn’t have permissions or discuss that their render was causing errors. It was a great introduction.”

Cranley was able to segue into a match-moving and lighting role after a few months at DNEG, working on films Flyboys and World Trade Center. But then she decided to quit. “I went to America and did three months in a summer camp in a leadership role, which was really fun, but also tough going. While running the Arts and Crafts program, I got a chance to lead very creative and artistic sessions, but at the same time a lot of managing as well. It was at that point I realized I just really enjoyed leading people. I got a taste for it quite early on from this and I learned some really valuable people skills.”

Cranley holds a Macbeth chart during an on-set shoot. (Photo courtesy of DNEG)

After the summer camp ended, Cranley returned to DNEG in London as a lighting TD and later a 3D sequence lead. In those roles, she contributed to films such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sherlock Holmes and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Then along came John Carter. “That film is still my favorite show to date,” Cranley exclaims. “I was on it for almost two years. I worked mainly on the baby aliens, I had so many high hopes for toys and backpacks and everything from them, but that never happened. I was so disappointed – it was two years of my life and I didn’t even get a backpack! However, the experience and lessons learned while working on that show were still worth it.”

Cranley’s work on John Carter, however, led to another significant change – being asked to move to Singapore where the studio had set up a satellite office. “They were looking for people to go out there, to help advance the team, their pipeline, and start taking on more challenging work. I thought I might go for six months, but it ended up being for two-and-a-half years.”

It was in Singapore that Cranley had to take on some of the most challenging assignments in VFX she had ever faced. She would oversee a significant number of shots for the film Total Recall, many with complex CG ‘Synths.’ It was some of the most complex work that the Singapore team had tackled at that time.

“The team wasn’t really ready. I wasn’t ready. It was really tough work, but we had to get it done. It was probably one of the hardest challenges of my life until then, actually. I didn’t know the team. I didn’t know their strengths, their weaknesses or their skillsets. They also didn’t know me. We did some long hours, and sometimes I’d be ringing London at three in the morning asking for help, but the team delivered some impressive shots. I’m still really proud of the work we produced in those short months.”

Cranley moved into a CG Supervisor role at DNEG after that, working on films including Alice Through the Looking Glass and Wonder Woman. Over the course of those projects, she moved back to London from Singapore, before transferring to the studio’s Vancouver office.

Becoming a CG Supervisor opened up a whole new set of experiences and challenges for Cranley. “The difference now was, whereas I used to look to someone else up the chain to make a decision or propose a solution, there wasn’t that person anymore. Suddenly that was me.

“I also had to learn how to delegate to other people,” adds Cranley. “It wasn’t just about you being a good leader anymore. It was about also getting others to lead as well, make the best decisions on artist assignments or how artists were going to work.”

Cranley’s work-from-home setup in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of Zoe Cranley)

The original plate for a scene from John Carter. (Image copyright © 2012 Walt Disney Pictures)

This is the final shot with CG creatures. Cranley’s role on John Carter was as a CG Sequence Lead at DNEG. (Image copyright © 2012 Walt Disney Pictures)

One particularly thorny issue for her to solve as CG Supervisor was the difficult matter of disk space usage. “Suddenly you were very aware of how much data visual effects creates,” Cranley says. “I would be asked to do these disk estimates and my first response was, ‘What’s a disk estimate?’ There haven’t been many things that have brought me to tears in visual effects, but doing my first ever disk estimate made me cry. I don’t know, it was just one of the hardest things.”

“The difference now [as a CG Supervisor at DNEG] was, whereas I used to look to someone else up the chain to make a decision or propose a solution, there wasn’t that person anymore. Suddenly that was me.”
—Zoe Cranley, Head of CG Vancouver, DNEG

What also came with the CG Supervisor role was the opportunity to be on set for Alice Through the Looking Glass and Wonder Woman. Those times would prove to be extremely valuable in terms of both practical lessons and discovering even more about leadership. “I was so inexperienced about anything on set,” acknowledges Cranley. “I literally had no experience whatsoever, so I just followed people around and tried to absorb and learn as much as I could. Also, up until that point, I was always like, ‘Why didn’t they shoot this? Why didn’t they get an HDRI?’ And then when I went on set and I was like, ‘Oh, now I understand. It’s a film set. It’s crazy. You get what you can get.’”

As a CG Sequence Supervisor at DNEG on Total Recall, Cranley’s role included extending plates like these with more digital ‘Synths.’ (Image copyright © 2012 Sony Pictures)

The final shot with the expanded crowd of CG Synths. (Image copyright © 2012 Sony Pictures)

“They were looking for people to go [to Singapore] to help advance the team, their pipeline, and start taking on more challenging work. I thought I might go for six months, but it ended up being for two-and-a-half years.”
—Zoe Cranley, Head of CG Vancouver, DNEG

Zoe Cranley introduces a session at Spark FX 2020, run by the Spark Computer Graphics (Spark CG) Society in Vancouver, of which she is the Chair. (Photo: Marisa Molinar)

An HDRI capture for an on-set shoot that Cranley was involved with. (Photo courtesy of DNEG)

On Wonder Woman, Cranley was on location in Italy for three weeks with other DNEG crew. She remembers the anxiety of one time being thrust into the demands of production by overseeing the VFX supervision for the shoot that day. “The supervisor said, ‘I’m just going to give you a bit of advice: Whatever you do, if you’re asked a question, just make a decision. Just say yes, confidently, or no, confidently. Don’t dither.’ It was absolutely terrifying. The whole day. The director, Patty Jenkins, asked me at one point about a shot where there was this large, wooden target in it, which had to be replaced with CG. She said, ‘Do you want it in shot or out of shot?’ Being unsure, I said confidently, ‘Just leave it in.’ A few months later,” continues Cranley, “the plates came into DNEG and the shot came up, with the entire target filling the frame and Comp asked, ’Is there a clean plate for this shot? Why is this target in there?’ I owned up and said, ‘It’s my fault! Sorry!’ It was really interesting to realize that you make the decision and you have to work with it. The shot actually ended up getting omitted, but it was really great experience.”

Today Cranley says that when artists at DNEG ask her if they might be able to go on set, she always tries to help make that possible. “It’s so valuable. I really changed after my experience. I learned so much and had a lot more respect for the way we capture HDRIs, LiDAR and reference.”

Still, the on-set experience also informed Cranley that she was not necessarily interested in being a VFX Supervisor or going to sets regularly. “I felt on edge the whole time. You’ve got to be so quiet and I felt anxious for all of it. Once, actually, I was walking around the set of Wonder Woman and I heard this crunch and I turned around, and I’d trod on and broken the end of a prop. Thinking my set days were numbered, I looked over and saw the prop guy, and he went, ‘Don’t worry. That’s why you’re in visual effects. You’ll have to paint that back in later.’”

From 2017, Cranley worked as Head of Build (Assets) at DNEG Vancouver before starting as Head of CG in the middle of 2019. This role involves strategic planning at the studio, show and pipeline levels and supporting career development for the DNEG crew she oversees, while also reacting to the typical daily challenges that tend to erupt in visual effects. “I tend to have an overarching eye on the beginning of a show – getting in the right bids, working out how we’re going to do it, who’s going to do it and where we’ll do it – through to wrapping it up and doing a post-mortem,” outlines Cranley. “I’m a big believer in learning from the past by running post-mortems and collecting actuals. This involves producing and showing graphs. I love a graph!”

Outside of DNEG, Cranley is the Chair of the Spark Computer Graphics (Spark CG) Society in Vancouver, a role that gives her the chance to participate in the local VFX community. Spark’s various conferences and industry events also provide an opportunity for Cranley to keep learning about technology and techniques in visual effects. Furthermore, she sees the Spark position and her leadership role at DNEG as a way to champion more women in the industry – the number of women working in VFX has historically been very low.

“If me being in these positions can help show and represent, then I like that,” says Cranley. “I like to connect with amazing women that are in senior roles in visual effects, especially technical roles, and put them on the stage. I hope by giving them the chance to be in the limelight to talk about their craft and talent, it highlights that there are great opportunities for women in the industry.”

Where, though, does all that fit in with her love for matchmoving? It’s not something the Head of CG gets to do these days. When asked about it, Cranley actually admits to another secret VFX passion: UV mapping. “I love UV’ing. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. I used to be like, ‘Quick, give me that model! I’ll UV that!’”


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