Spotlight – Charmaine Chan

by Graham Edwards

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Charmaine Chan works as a compositor and area technical lead at Industrial Light & Magic. Her feature film career highlights include Black Panther, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Pacific Rim. Charmaine is also the founder of Women in Visual Effects, an online project highlighting and advocating women who work within the visual effects industry.

Charmaine Chan

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Charmaine?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I have always had a passion for both art and technology. I was an art major in University, but had a knack for programming and scripting on the side. I wanted to get into a field that combined both of my passions, and visual effects was just that. While I was at University, I worked part time at Deluxe doing motion graphics for DVD and Blu-ray menus – that was kind of my first taste of what it was like in Hollywood. Once I graduated, I mass applied to every television- and film-based company there was in California. My big break was an entry level position at ILM as a digital resource assistant.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

CHARMAINE CHAN: Our industry is global, so a lot of my co-workers are from many different parts of the world. When you bring together such a diverse group of people, that’s when you find unique and new perspectives on where we can take visual effects. Seeing all these people of different backgrounds working together to produce such stunning imagery every single time is what makes me most excited for our field.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I think one of the biggest issues with visual effects is that the industry has become very dehumanized. We’ve somehow become just machines that push buttons to produce imagery. But we’re not – we are talented and passionate individuals who love what we do, and our industry needs to reflect that. We need better work-life balance, better hours, better support of families, and overall care of every individual who puts all their heart and creativity into those images.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

CHARMAINE CHAN: On Transformers: Age of Extinction, I was faced with setting up a whole new pipeline for stereo compositing. It was the first large show that was shot natively with stereo cameras, and trying to configure that while working on shots proved to be a difficult endeavor of time management and multitasking. It was pretty brutal with the overall show schedule, trying to get everything done at once, but our shots and images were fun and exciting and the final results made all the work worth it.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I think one of my weirder tasks was to hide the apple box that Tom Cruise was standing on in Mission: Impossible to make him look taller. Movie magic, right?

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

CHARMAINE CHAN: There’s been a nice influx of women coming into our industry, whether that be entry-level positions or other artistry roles. I think there’s a need for a higher inclusion of diversity overall, but the more we educate younger diverse generations about our industry, and teach them that they can thrive in such environments, the better we can make the future of our industry.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

CHARMAINE CHAN: I personally would love to see the inclusion of more women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ individuals in supervisor and leadership roles. Only through diversity do we get new perspectives and ideas we’ve never thought of before. A homogenous environment doesn’t breed innovation – a diverse one does.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

CHARMAINE CHAN: If you have the love and passion for film, television or any medium for visual storytelling, this is the industry for you. It is filled with so many brilliant and creative minds that you can’t help but absorb all that knowledge and want to create more from that. But it’s a tough industry – there are long hours and grueling requests. People right now are trying to make those standards better, but it’ll take a while. Until then you will need work and learn as hard as you can!

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

CHARMAINE CHAN: 2001: A Space Odyssey – Kubrick used visual effects in a way never done before. While no computer or digital imagery was really used, his ways of manipulating the sets, cameras, and compositing made such impactful images and scenes that constantly stick in my mind – specifically the jogging in the rotating room, and walking down the hallway in the spacesuit scene.

Blade Runner – because of the amazing cinematography. The lighting and color palette is such a great nod to film noir. The scenes that stand in my mind are the wide establishing shots, like the opening shot flying past this dystopic, run-down version of L.A. Then the city night shot with the geisha billboard on the building.

Jurassic Park – this was the film that inspired me as a kid to want to work in the visual field. The dinosaurs felt real to me, and the visual effects still hold up to this day. My favorite scene, of course, is when they’re first welcomed to Jurassic Park and you see that wide shot of all the dinos.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

CHARMAINE CHAN: Sour Patch Kids! I know this is totally weird, but I feel like the movie experience isn’t complete until the roof of my mouth is completely shredded by all the sour crystals from the candy.

CINEFEX: Charmaine, thanks for your time!

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