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From an Unpaid Roto Artist to VFX Studio CEO: Kseniia Ivanova's VFX Journey

By: Rebelway

At the beginning of her career, Kseniia Ivanova was happy to pick almost any gig that would bring her closer to creating Hollywood-level VFX. Now, Kseniia has numerous world-famous movies and TV series on her resume and runs an indie VFX studio, InSoul Effects.

In this interview, Kseniia talks about how she went from being constantly underpaid and overworked to creating VFX for Game of Thrones, compositing for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Cats, and eventually starting her very own studio where she mostly does VFX supervision. 

vfx supervisor, compositor Kseniia Ivanova

Let's start from the very beginning: when and how did your VFX journey begin? Are you a self-taught artist or did you take courses in digital art/VFX?

It all started a while ago. But now, when I’m thinking about it, it’s actually quite hard to pinpoint the exact moment. I was never that kid who runs around with a camera. I have never been a Star Wars fan (I hope it’s okay). But every time I watched films, TV shows, or read a book, it felt like I was hanging out with a group of friends. Stories always helped me escape from everything and I should admit – I do understand the imaginary world better than the real one. 

I do remember though, when exactly I decided to build a career in VFX. It was my first year at the university where I was studying directing. During the break, I went to the UK with a few friends to shoot a music video. I didn’t know a word in English, but what truly mattered was the team I was there with. When we were thinking about the story behind the video, we came up with ideas that were only possible with CGI. I watched a few videos on how to use After Effects (back then there weren’t many) and assured the team that we could do it. I could do it. 

Just before wrapping up and going back home, I came across Cinefex magazine, and it changed everything for me. I got amazed by how beautiful zeros and ones could look. Programming meets the art, logic meets creativity – it’s amazing. When I saw that magazine, one thing instantly became clear to me: I’m going to nail that music video, I’m going to become famous, win an Oscar and whatnot, and I am with no doubt going to work on the next Harry Potter film. But oh well…

As you might guess, the result I got after watching that After Effects tutorial wasn’t quite as great as I expected. To be honest, it was not simply far from great – it was terrible! I disappointed my friends and learned a few lessons. I hope those guys forgave me for that. Spoiler alert: I saved all the files and re-edited the video with my friend three years later. 

When I was getting started, there was only one VFX school where training was almost as expensive as buying a good car. So I went with the self-education method. Thanks to that, I tried out quite a few software applications, got familiar with Python, and learned how to make a 3D bar of chocolate – all thanks to YouTube and those fabulous people who share their knowledge online. I highly respect that. You learn what you can, find an internship, and keep asking questions. It’s as simple as that.

How did you start working as an FX artist and what were your first projects? Did you begin as a freelancer or did you join a production studio?

When I had that fiasco with the music video, I found an internship in one of Moscow-based studios. Not sure how many studios in total there were back then, but it still feels like there were just two major production teams. The idea was to go there and do all the cool stuff like fire, water, and explosions. I didn’t know those were called simulations or that what I wanted to be was called an FX artist, so I decided to stick with “cool stuff”. 

Unfortunately, they didn’t have that role available, but offered me to do something called “rotoscoping”. It didn’t sound “cool” at all, but it was on the table, so I took it. I think you need to start somewhere, even if that is not exactly how you would picture it. No matter what happened later, I’m grateful that I had that experience. I learned a lot about the world of VFX and people in it.

For three months, I had been working for free. That was for the project called Metro and then got “promoted” as I started working on the Stalingrad movie. I still remember that offer. Around $250 per month. Crazy? Sure. But I was 19 years old, lived with my parents, and absolutely loved working on movies.

Compositing was never easy for me. I have a very logical mind and was in a physics and maths class at school. It took me three months to finish my first comp shot! I’ve cried, given up, started over, and repeated the circle. Sometimes a few times per day. Those few first shots are the hardest. Stereo, 6K, full CG – a piece of cake. But that first static tiny background replacement – worst ever.

As a woman in VFX, what was your experience like? Unfortunately (and it's no secret), there's a certain degree of skepticism towards women and their skills in any IT-related area, digital art included. Is it true that the "woman = less skilled = less worthy" mindset is still a common issue?

I believe in people and I think that most of us are decent human beings, but I can almost guarantee that you will eventually bump into someone who has that mindset unless you live on the Moon. There will always be people who assert themselves by humiliating others, because it’s easier than to prove that you are actually worth something. 

One morning while at work, my father called me. It was during the daily session, so I couldn’t answer. Later that day I found out that he died… Can’t tell you how it changed the way I see things, but I will save it for another story. I asked the head of the studio to make me a full-time employee so that I could have a stable salary. At that time it was the minimal $500 per month (at that point, I’d been working for that studio for a year and a half) and he said no. Just before I quit to find a job that could pay my bills, he told me this: “You will never be an artist.” Needless to say, now I am a better artist than he ever will be.

After that incident, I was at another studio where the CEO said and I quote: “A woman can’t be a great artist”. He really believed it! Some people say it right to your face. Sometimes they don’t, but you won’t get a job for this very reason. And almost always you will be prosecuted for every tiny mistake you make, because you’re a woman. If a man made the same one, no one would even care. 

Is it fair? Of course not. Life is very far from fair. My advice is, don’t let it get to you. Stick with people who treat you right. Listen to your friends and family. Of course, not all people are mean, and I have been lucky enough to have laughed more in my life than I have cried. I could write an entire book about cruelty, but I’d rather write one on kindness.

You are from Russia and the first titles on your IMDB page include some really popular Russian movies. Then you went on to create VFX for HBO's Game of Thrones, handle compositing for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Cats, and more. How did you start collaborating with major foreign production studios and what were the main challenges of working with international clients and FX teams?

After a few years of hard work I guess God just heard me praying. Honestly, I’ve been sending my resume all over the world and had zero interviews. In 2015, a lot of people I knew were moving to the UK. It seemed like a booming period for the industry over there. But whatever I did… I couldn’t get in. 200 emails. I remember this like it was yesterday. My day starts with checking the inbox and ends with hoping that the following day something is going to change. A bit later, I learned that it’s just how my life goes: I can’t get anywhere when it seems extremely easy, yet then manage to get something that is hardly achievable for most people. 

My father rarely traveled. “There is only one place where I want to go – Australia”. When I found Iloura (also known as Method Studios and now it’s Framestore), I had no idea where Melbourne was. Only once I received a reply from them, I realized how far it was from home. 

I still think of this part of my life as a reward for all the hard work. I love every minute spent with those amazing people at Iloura. Melbourne will always be my home. Later, I came back to Australia and met more lovely people, whom I consider my best friends. It’s a very special place for me.

The biggest challenge was to maintain a healthy work-life balance that wouldn’t push me closer to the edge each day. In Australia, I learned a rational way of handling projects. Iloura became my ideal example of what a studio should look and feel like. Later I found out that it had nothing to do with the studio being foreign, and not all overseas studios worked as smoothly as Iloura did, but it was my first experience, and it quickly made me realize how sorry I felt for all people with whom I worked back home. I wanted to change the industry in Russia for the better, make it healthier. I was working as a mid compositor and decided to become a VFX Supervisor.

Of all projects you've worked on, which one has been the most memorable/the most challenging/the one that taught you the most? Is there a personal favorite in terms of artistry and skill that went into it?

That would be Cats. I was the Lead Compositor on that movie and it was the most challenging project in my career. My good friend Davee recommended me and honestly, I think I got that position because not too many people volunteered to get unpaid overtime, while I didn’t mind a good fight. 

During the fourth week, our Compositing Supervisor broke his leg, so he was out. We had 300 shots in the making and more than half of those were my responsibility, with the deadline being just 3 months away. The compositing team had over 100 people working on those. After that project, I knew three things for sure:

  1. If you die, a studio can replace you within two weeks. So you will be pushed to your limit and beyond until you absolutely can’t do it anymore.
  2. People can do impossible things if you know how to approach them.
  3. I’m done with VFX.
cats poster and screencaps

A big part of this project was the mental load: our core team spent four months without sleep doing something that even our coworkers would laugh about as soon as they got home.  Well, at least I made some great friends and visited Australia for the second time – it wouldn’t have happened without that project. Should we improve the production process? Yes. Should we encourage toxic behavior? Absolutely not. I am afraid we are forgetting that we are creating movies and it’s supposed to be fun.

At some point, you founded your own VFX studio - InSoul Effects. When and why did you decide to take this big step towards creative independence? What are the biggest struggles of running your own VFX studio (especially the one that is based in Russia, especially now)?

After Cats, COVID caught me on vacation in Thailand. I had a contract with a Canadian studio. I had sent all my suitcases over there (fun fact – they’re still there!) and went to spend time with my family. Needless to say, I had no intention of going back to Moscow, but COVID changed plans for many of us. So I was back in Moscow, burned out and with no work at all for some time.

After a while, I started to miss the studio life and its vibe. I knew that Empire V was supposed to be in post-production, and I really wanted to be a part of that film. Funny enough, the guy for whom we shot the video in the UK (where my VFX journey started) had a role in that movie.

I asked around. One big studio was looking for a replacement for their VFX Supervisor (he wasn’t the first one who resigned). I volunteered (again) and got the job. Another piece of advice for those who want to supervise – just ask for it. 

On that project, we were separated from the entire office. This felt like we had our studio inside a bigger one. It was the demo run when I realized that I could do it for real, I could run a VFX studio. The only person I need on board was my great producer Marina. We made a plan and talked a lot about our core values, goals, and dreams. That’s when we finally decided that we could do it – start InSoul Effects.

After a few weeks and a few coffees, our mission sounded like this: create a meaningful story together, fulfil ourselves and share the joy of creation.

music video vfx

We wanted to be able to live while working without being tied to a computer. AWS sounded like the right choice. These days, we are a fully cloud studio powered by Amazon.

Regarding the struggles, I can say just one thing: too many things happened. We are now living in a completely different world than we used to. We lost projects and clients, but it is all understandable. I hope and pray that in all madness we don’t forget that we are working with artists, with humans. Our passports have nothing to do with our personalities. At the end of the day, it’s just paper. 

But human interaction aside, there are legal issues, taxes, banks, and money transfers, and all this boring stuff that is far from art yet it blew up to our faces and we have to deal with it. I am lucky to have the immense support from my family and my business partner. For me, fighting is easy, but letting go is the hardest part. This time we won and managed to find a way out of this situation. We successfully relocated all our assets to Armenia, and since we are on Amazon, the concept of remote work stays the same. 

insoul effects vfx shot

Running your own company grants you more creative freedom and at the same time brings about tons of new responsibilities. What is the most rewarding part of being an FX studio CEO that makes you want to keep going? What are your goals and aspirations and where is InSoul Effects headed?

I would say the most pleasant part is the ability to choose projects and people with whom you work. You get a chance to build a work culture. I had experience working at a company where the team was rock solid and at a company where the team almost felt like a bunch of strangers spending time together. After having experienced those, I can say that people are the defining factor in this field. It’s not software, it’s not how prestigious a studio is, it’s not how intricate the production pipeline is – it’s all about people.

Iloura helped me to reach my dream and work on Game of Thrones (we even won a Visual Effects Society award for outstanding compositing with that episode). That company changed my life and now I want to do the same for others with InSoul Effects. I wish for InSoul to be known among artists as a safe place to work. Since we’re just starting out, we decided to build it one department at a time. We focus on compositing tasks, aiming to be famously known as the best vendor for compositing that you can wish for. 

For me, it will never be only about VFX. It’s about stories. About the getaway that it can create for you. It’s all those unique stories we carry inside us and share through art. I’m lucky to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to meeting every soul who wants to get involved.

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