To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Lindy Wilson De Quattro is a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic. From the long list of feature films she’s worked on, she lists her highlights as including Downsizing, Pacific Rim, The Great Gatsby, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rush Hour 3, Evan Almighty and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
CINEFEX: Lindy, how did you get started in the business?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: I grew up in Silicon Valley. My dad has a PhD in electrical engineering from The University of California, Berkeley, and he started his own semiconductor company the same year I was born. We always had computers and the latest technology around the house when I was growing up, and my older brother and I spent a lot of our childhood playing videogames, starting with simple arcade games like Pong and other Atari games, then progressing to text-based Infocom adventure games, and finally to games with graphics – Legend of Zelda anyone? That was really my first exposure to animation and visual effects, although at the time I had no idea how it was made.
I was always good at math and science, but while I was a total geek on one hand, I was also very girly on the other. I loved art, fashion, shopping, dressing up, doing my hair … all the stereotypically feminine activities. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend the day shopping and sunbathing with my girlfriends and then come home and spend the evening playing videogames with my brother. Eventually, I followed in my father’s footsteps and went to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate work where I was in a sorority – Go Chi-O! – and double-majored in computer science and fine art. I spent a semester oil painting in Italy and Paris, and a summer working as a programmer at Intel. I wasn’t quite sure how to put those two fields together into a career so, after I graduated, I decided to go to USC to get my MS in computer science because they had a strong graphics program.
While I was in my last semester, a professor from the USC Film School came to talk to our class and told us that they were starting a new program that offered an MFA in film, video, and computer animation, and that if we were interested and had an art portfolio that we should apply because they didn’t have enough applicants with a computer science background. I had an extensive portfolio since I had been an art major, so I asked my parents if they would mind paying for yet one more degree, and they reluctantly agreed. I applied and after getting my MS in computer science, I became one of the first 13 students to graduate with an MFA from the new program.
While I was at USC film school, I became friends with Breck Eisner whose father, Michael, was running Disney at that time. Breck was directing a short film called Recon for his senior project and he was looking for someone to do the visual effects. The work I did on Recon got me a couple of internships while I was still in school, and eventually got me my job at ILM.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Being on set is always exciting. Every film has a different dynamic and a different set of challenges. It never gets boring or old. I’ve gotten to travel to many amazing places in the world and to meet some of the best artists, actors, and filmmakers in the business. I love having creative discussions with directors, and being able to contribute my artistic vision to the projects that I work on. I love that I found a career that allows me to use both sides of my brain.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Once I reached the level of visual effects supervisor, I was exposed to the ugly side of the business. As a woman, I don’t get the same opportunities that my male colleagues do. It’s extremely frustrating to be passed over time and again on jobs for which I’m well-qualified. There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of opportunities for female directors. I hope that eventually the doors that they are opening will help those of us in other departments on the film set. There are so few female visual effects supervisors, composers, editors, cinematographers … the problem goes much deeper than just directors.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Every single show! Honestly, it’s the truth. We often joke that it’s like building your car as you’re speeding down the freeway. Every show has new challenges and needs changes to the pipeline, and there is absolutely no guarantee that we are going to be able to achieve what we have promised our clients. We just have a bunch of crazy-smart, dedicated artists and scientists who work brutally long hours and pour their hearts and souls into making it work and somehow – miraculously – it always does.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Every so often we get tasked with some ‘vanity’ work. I’ve removed double chins, removed acne, covered up visible nipples, filled in thinning hair, gotten rid of love handles and smoothed out cellulite. The list goes on and on, but we are always discreet and I would never reveal who had what work done!
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Certainly the globalization of the industry has been the most dramatic change. Not only are very few films shot now in Los Angeles – or anywhere in the US – but also a lot of the post work in visual effects is being done at companies all around the world. At the beginning of my career, I rarely travelled outside the US, but for the last few years I’ve been a United Platinum member because of all the miles I rack up. In the early ‘90s, when I entered the industry, all the visual effects companies were in LA with only ILM in Northern California. Now, a lot of those early companies are gone and there are hundreds of companies that have taken their place all over the world.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: I would like to see equality for women and minorities. That not only means equal pay, but it also means equal opportunities in terms of hiring, crewing, and promotion. I’m not seeing any of that right now. I would like to see all the major studios commit to quotas. They need to commit to a certain percentage of female visual effects supervisors – and other department heads – each year, and they need to increase that until they reach a percentage that accurately reflects the make up of our population. For women, that’s 50 percent. Until people get used to seeing women and minorities in leadership roles, they won’t get comfortable with the idea that it works. So, until that happens, quotas are the only way to force the issue.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: First of all, understand that this is a very low-margin business, so make sure you really love the work itself. You’re not going to get rich working in visual effects in the film industry. There are no stock options. There is very little security. You must love to travel and to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle as companies continue to chase tax incentives around the globe. Those of us who stick with it do so because we love film and we love creating beautiful images. If that’s not you, then you may want to think twice.
If you still think this is the career for you, study hard in math and science. Make sure you take some classes in composition and color theory because visual effects work is art first and science second. Get an internship. You need experience before you are of value to anyone so get it any way you can, even if that means working for free for a year or two. Understand that film-making is collaborative. If you can’t work well with others, you won’t last in this business. Put your ego aside. Getting critiqued on your work is part of learning and if you can put your ego aside and really listen, then you’ll be a better artist for it. Once you are successful, look for ways you can help others who are struggling or just getting started. Look for ways to give opportunities to those who aren’t getting them. Give back.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: Oh, it’s impossible to pick my three favorite effects movies – those change every day. Of course, I am very partial to the films I myself worked on because I am intimately familiar with all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making them. For a festival however, I would pick three films that had the greatest impact on me growing up, that made me believe in worlds that didn’t exist and allowed me to dream about what could be possible. Those three films are:
Logan’s Run – when Logan discovers the abandoned city of Washington D.C., I was mesmerized. It was fascinating for me to see what a city would look like if left abandoned for years, and I was amazed that the filmmakers were able to show that to me in a way that – at the time – seemed so realistic.
Star Wars – of course, this had a huge impact on my childhood. I was nine years old when Star Wars came out and I went to see it with my older brother. It was such an amazing experience. The hologram of Leia that R2D2 projects was eerie and heartbreaking and so real to me. I had never seen anything like it, and the fact that the film had a pretty girl as a starring character and she was also tough and independent and smart was not lost on me. I went back to see the film many more times that year and have been a Princess Leia fan ever since.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – a film that embodied the types of adventure videogames that I like to play. When the faces of the Nazis melted off, I don’t think I slept for a week – that was truly one of the most terrifying things I had ever seen!
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
LINDY DE QUATTRO: I am a Junior Mints girl all the way. Yummy, and keeps your breath fresh so you can still whisper to the person next to you without embarrassment.
CINEFEX: Thanks for your time, Lindy!