Vision & Craft: News

Meet the Women of ILM – Clair Bellens

A Q&A Series

Tell us about your role at ILM, and how long you've been in the film industry.

I've been with the company about one and a half years now. This past September I became a developer in ILM’s Research & Development group, my focus is mainly with the crowds department. My focus is more in helping the artists, leads and supervisors establishing new and/or expanding and upgrading existing workflows. Before that I was a pipeline developer supporting Ready Player One, but with almost a sole focus on the crowd department.

I started my career with a small company in Brussels working on an animation film (Walking the Dog) and I stayed with them for a bit more than a year and a half. After that, I moved to London and started with MPC where I worked with their techanim (characterFX) department for the next 3 years before joining ILM London. So about 6 years in the industry.

What is your background? What was your main course of study in school?

After high school I joined the army (I wasn't made out for it, so I was there only very shortly), before going to university to study engineering. Engineering didn't turn out to be a great fit either, but I found out that I absolutely loved programming and that I was pretty good at it. I switched tracks to study Informatics, finished my bachelor and started my Masters in Mathematical Informatics (it was the closest study they had related to artificial intelligence).

Just before my thesis year started I heard about a game development study at a sister university and I enrolled in both studies (my final year and the new one track). Three years later I graduated as a Bachelor in Multimedia and Communication Technology - Major Digital Arts and Entertainment - Minor Game Development (try saying that 5 times fast in a row), and went to work.

What inspired you to go into visual effects?

After graduation I took a month holiday before starting to look around for a job. At the end of my time off one of my friends contacted me and asked me if I wanted to help him out with a feature animation movie for about 3 months. I thought: it's close enough to video games, and the experience would look good on my resume and I can look for a job in game development after that. One and a half years later I left the company to work in London for MPC.

It was never my intention to stay in visual effects this long, but I like it here. It's challenging, demanding, but also fun and the people you get to work with are amazing.

What was the most challenging point in your career and how did you rise above it and persevere?

There are different kinds of challenges, all having their unique issues and resolutions. I've had a few situations where if it didn't work out it was probably game over or at the very least a major setback for my career, they just never felt that way when I was in the situation. It was something needed to be done and nobody was coming up with a feasible plan, so I did the best with what I knew and put it forward to my seniors to examine and discuss it. In general since starting in this industry I've been working on new parts of a pipeline or updating existing ones without much of a back up plan in some cases (sink or swim) and sticking my neck out and saying: I can do this, just give me the opportunity.

I worked with a CG supervisor that seemed to do the opposite of what common sense dictated and trying to shield the artists from the effects of that wasn't easy. Communicating clearly with the production people involved and the supervisor’s superiors was what resolved the situation in the end (that and the artists were a bit more shielded from the supervisor).

I've stepped up to the CEO of the first company I worked and told him I was going to sit on the bench outside (in their back garden) reading my book because there weren't enough licenses for something and he needed the artists to finish their work more than I needed to implement a new tool (trailer delivery). That if they needed me they could call me on my phone or yell out the windows. We got some extra licenses before the day was over.

Three times now I've been in a situation where I had to lead a team of more junior people through a new part of the pipeline (smallest team was 2 people, biggest was 6, going from a few weeks to months), while keep on developing that pipeline and supporting the existing tools in order to finish a show. That involved a balancing act of priorities (post it's so far are by far the best scheduling tool that I worked with - at least for managing myself) and working some evenings and weekends.

Any of those situations could have backfired, but I would like to think that because of communicating clearly and knowing what my limits are, how to manage myself and who I could rely on if/when needed (if only to vent frustration), it worked out.

Did you have specific female mentors or role models that helped push you forward?

As a mentor and a role model that would be Ceylan Shevket, my former boss at MPC, without her I don't think I would be where I'm at now. She saw something in me and gave me the opportunities to prove that I was capable of doing more. I've learned a lot from her and I still talk often with her.

In general I do find that I can learn or admire something in most of my colleagues (both female and male), you never know where that Eureka! moment can come from.

What's your favorite motivational mantra?

I'm more of a frustration venting kind of girl (not suitable for sensitive ears) rather than a motivational mantra one, I think the closest thing I have to something vaguely motivating is counting down the weeks till the end of the project or holidays (x more weeks till it's over).

How do you think the film industry can better encourage girls and women of all ages to get involved in filmmaking?

I think it boils down to the same question as how to get more women in technical areas in general. As usual there isn't a fixed answer, but rather a combination of things.

Almost all industries (if not all) already have women, some not much, but it does mean that it is possible. Have some of those speak at schools and show the students (can be high schools as junior years) that it can be done and preferably even that it's normal to have a women in what would be considered a man's job. As soon as you make a fuss about it that it's a special person in a special role, people (and especially younger girls) will see it as something that is outside of the group or norm, and who at that age wants to be singled out? But also the opposite, have some men talk about their jobs that are viewed as more fit for a woman.

I heard that some of the studies started doing some summer courses for women only so they can get their technical skills/levels improved before starting the actual studies. That seems like a good thing also, although you would need to be careful as to not make them feel singled out. It could give them a confirmation or a little boost in self insurance to know that they are capable of doing this and if not that they can ask the teachers for help.

Even going younger, if you have to give a gift to a little girl you know, have you considered something more technical? Or was your first instinct to go for a cuddly toy or doll? She can love playing with dolls, but how do you know if she might not like to play with something more often chosen for boys (Lego, ...). If you don't know, there are some 'girly' variants on some of the boys' toys, it might be worth giving that as a gift and show her a whole new world.

What advice would you give to women considering film, and specifically visual effects, as a career choice?

It's the same advice I would give to men also: it's hard work, if you are looking for a 9-5 job, you are not likely going to find it here. There will be moments where you will be asked to work late or weekends (you are not obliged to do so). The work will be frustrating at moments, you might work on something for days or weeks only to hear that it's been canceled from the show, but it will also be rewarding: you get to see your work on the big screen and your family and friends will be able to watch it. The people you get to work with are in general amazing.

It's not a conventional job and it's a small world, people move around a lot and soon enough you know someone in the different companies and countries. I can't say this enough: it's a small world and people talk. I've been contacted already by companies that I've never heard of, but someone there worked with me before and they put my name forward.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take her career to the next level?

Speak up, be polite, friendly and respectful of course, but do speak up and be as direct as you can about it. Throwing subtle hints and hoping that the other party will pick up on it and give you the role rarely works in my experience. Speak up, say why you think you are fit for the role or why you would deserve this chance. Women tend to be more unsure about ourselves and in general hope that our superiors notice our worth and give us that role. But if you have never said that you are interested in growing further in the company, or even in what direction, how will your superior know? So speak up, you have a 'no', but you might get a 'yes', you will never know until you ask. What's the worst that can happen? You might not get the job, but if that's the case, ask for feedback, what areas you should work on, ... At least at that point your boss will know that you want to grow and if he/she didn't knew this before, you are still better off.

How can men be better allies to women in the workplace?

I think first women need to become better allies to themselves. There is a difference between men and women, and there probably will always be one, communication is one of the biggest. Men tend to be more direct, while women are in general more subtle in expressing themselves. We would need to communicate more directly instead of relying on hints and hoping that the other party will pick it up. With a more direct communication everybody involved know where they are at and the hints can't be ignored or misinterpreted.

How men can be better allies to women, it's difficult to say. So far on the work area itself I rarely had an issue with a guy just because I am a woman (so far in my career I had it once, and that guy has learned the hard way not to make that mistake again). The only moments where I did feel like me being female was part of the equation is when you talk with some of the higher ups (usually men) about a certain role and potentially getting that role. Somehow people always assume you want to get a baby (or multiple) as soon as possible and just after giving you that role and that always gives you a downside that for instance a male candidate won't have.

I have to say though that of the places where I worked so far, that ILM has more women in leading roles.