Ellen Poon of Lancet Films (alum of MPC, ILM, Dreamworks, Double Negative, and Disney), is a true creative force in the visual effects industry. Having put her mark on classics like Hook, Jurassic Park, The Mask, Men in Black, Star Wars: Episode One, and Inception, Ellen’s learned that any role is a powerful one when you love the filmmaking process with as much fervor as she does. She’s worn the hats of animator, lighting artist, technical director, CG Supe, and VFX Supe, among others, and keeps her insatiable cinematic appetite well fed with films from every genre and from all parts of the globe. Fresh from a successful stint as VFX Producer on China’s record-breaking, Monster Hunt, Ellen reflects on her career path, that long list of film credits, and what it takes to stay a monster creative in this ever-evolving industry.
You entered the VFX industry in its infancy. What excited you about it?
When I was a teenager I saw a bunch of movies that really affected me: Blade Runner, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those films are so big and take you to such a different world. I had no clue what they did to achieve that in the filmmaking process because at school they had no such thing. It became my quest to learn how they did it. When I was a post grad at university I fell in with a group of people who were just as fascinated with this as me and we spent a lot of time talking about the industry. Eventually, it just lead to me working in it.
What was your first gig and how did you land it?
My first gig was at MPC way back in 1986. I was young and full of confidence. I knew how things were done under the hood – at least creatively – because I’d watched a lot of movies and was interested in design and animation. So I walked in there proclaiming that I knew everything and they believed me (laughs). It was my first job but I didn’t disappoint. I was really trying very hard to make sure that everything that was asked for was delivered. If I didn’t know how to do it, I would learn how really quickly or invent a way really quickly. In those days, CG was so new. We were using Alias 1.2, there was no Maya, and a lot of the things we use now were not invented.
Is it still an occupation where people are constantly thinking on their feet?
Nowadays, a lot of the research is done by an R&D group within the company, or effects are achieved by using software packages, so it’s harder to find room for that kind of breakthrough. Requirements are so high and films keep breaking new ground all the time, so it becomes more about how to go about assembling all the tools to do what you need to do within the timeframes you’re given. That’s the challenge. There is still room for invention but maybe of a different sort. "I have to say, Jurassic Park still wows me. I saw it again just recently and I was so happy with everything. Every frame of it was great."
What are your thoughts when you look back at your list of film credits?
I have to say, Jurassic Park still wows me. I saw it again just recently and I was so happy with everything. Every frame of it was great. I’m very proud of all of them because they hold up. Jurassic Park is a classic. The Star Wars franchise is classic. Men in Black is so fun. They never ever lose their entertainment value and I feel lucky and privileged to have played a part in them.
Having loved "Star Wars" so much, what was it like to work on "Episode One: The Phantom Menace"?
I felt so…"Wow!" It was challenging and it really was a dream come true. Star Wars is something we grew up with. We admired the story and how it all came together and the execution of the visuals. All of it was stunning. I just thought to myself, “I’m part of this now – what have I done to earn this?” I questioned it all the time (laughs).
Is the best part of your job knowing you’ve contributed to legacies?
I don’t think about what I’ve done in the past, I just keep looking forward. I look only to keep myself interested. I was an artist, then I became a supervisor, then I started to branch off into producing, and then going to other countries to work. I’m open to new ideas and challenges. You know the cliché of not resting on your laurels? You just really cannot. Things change so fast. Films nowadays have such a huge amount of CG elements in them, storytelling is quite different and the way the audience is taken on a journey feels fresh. I like to be involved in projects like that, on any level. I love being an artist working on shots. I love supervising and I love to produce. Some people say, “Oh, I need to be the number one guy,” but I’m pretty laid back. Any member of the crew has something to contribute. As long as you’re part of it, you can make it better.
In order not to rest on your laurels, how do you stay on top of your game?
I keep watching movies and finding out how things are done by other wonderful companies and artists. When I don’t know something, I’ll take a training course online. Software packages change all the time and you can’t possibly know everything. When I’m working, I have colleagues I can ask and I pick their brain on stuff but if I’m in between projects, I look at training videos.
What qualities make you, or anyone for that matter, successful in this industry?
You have to be eager to learn and you need to stay aware of what’s going on in the industry. I know people who are in the industry but don’t watch movies and that’s kind of weird to me. I’ll bring up references from current films, and even films from other countries, and they’ll say they don’t watch films that come out of that country, be it France, China, Kora, Japan, whatever. Every good director has their own way of telling stories and you can learn from it, so watching films is something I do a lot. I find it fascinating and it’s such a relaxation for me. Maybe more importantly, you have to be humble about what you know. No one knows everything. If you have questions, just ask. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. It’s about teamwork in this industry and no one can do it all themselves. It takes a village to do what we do.
What was the last movie you watched that wowed you?
Well, Monster Hunt, is one I just loved. Even though I worked on it, that's the truth. I’ve seen a few films lately but that one stands out. The story is really unique. It’s funny. There’s a balance between the CG element and the live-action element that really works. The CG work was done seamlessly so you don’t feel like you’re watching a sci-fi movie. I definitely feel really happy about that one, and I don’t normally go gaga over every project I’m on. Everyone’s work combined together makes this one so wonderful.
It’s great to see an example of storytelling and VFX working so well together.
I really respect movies where the story is so important. Effects can do a wonderful job of supporting the story but we really do need to keep our focus on the story first. Monster Hunt does do that.
Will you share your thoughts on being a woman in the industry?
Well, you know it’s there, you know you stand out as a woman in the visual effects business, but I don’t let it stop me from doing what I want to do, you know? Some might get discouraged or suffer burnout, but I keep chugging along. Sometimes it can be upsetting but at the same time, there’s no reason to let it hinder you. The fact that I keep going and I voice my opinion in a way that is respectful to the people I work with, it’s clear I am here for the long haul. I think that gets respect. I think if you don’t get the high-end job, that’s okay. Take the lower-end job so long as it’s one you can contribute something to. Like I said, for me, any creative job is a good one. If you have talent and you produce something that looks good, then people will say, “Oh, she really does have it, she’s good!” They’ll want to work with you again and again. So, I would tell others, don’t get discouraged and don’t let it get to you. Just show what you’ve got and that’s the way to win.
What’s left on your professional bucket list?
Ultimately, I want to direct a film, but much further down the road when I have the time and when the opportunity is right. I want the story to be one that I really like and I want to work with really good people. If those conditions don’t come through for me, then I don’t need to do it. It has to be just right in order for it to happen, and if it is, then that’s what I’ll do.