‘No more talk, we need positive action’: exploring more diversity in VFX

A report from the joint VES and SPARK CG Society Diversity & Inclusion Summit.

If you weren’t able to attend the Diversity & Inclusion Summit as part of SPARK FX 2019 in Vancouver this year, don’t worry, befores & afters was there, and we talked to the chairs of the event, who were looking to advance the important discussion about furthering diversity in the visual effects industry.

The event had been the brain child for the team at the Visual Effects Society for over six months. “As a female VFX supervisor,” says Sue Rowe, co-chair for the VES Vancouver section and a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “I had experienced what it felt like working in a non-diverse and exclusive place. I have talked at length at events like this in the past. This year this felt old, no more talk, we needed positive action. Zoe Cranley (head of build at DNEG Vancouver and SPARK FX 2019 conference chair) was an influential part of SPARK and SIGGRAPH last year organizing many of the events. I asked her if we could combine forces and do a joint VES and SPARK FX 2019 event. We called the event ‘Tools for Change!’”

The recently held Summit was a follow-up to the inaugural event from 2018. “That was a huge success,” says Cranley, “adding a new ‘spark’ to our festival we hadn’t seen before. I was delighted when Sue approached us this year to come together. I loved their intention to build upon the positive platform we had set previously and springboard us to into what we can do but not what why we can’t – which reflected our theme for SPARK FX 2019, ‘Visual effects without limits.’”

A major idea behind the 2019 Diversity & Inclusion Summit was real, practical advice. Rowe says this was aimed at men and women, looking to help them “be aware, identify and learn about things that are affecting your friends and collogues at work. We would offer our audiences practical advice on how to deal with the important issues which affect our working lives. Let’s talk openly about equal pay, how to navigate difficult situations regarding our career paths and balancing everything with life and family commitments.”

And, says Rowe, it was important that the event was not only for women. “We wanted a mixed audience. We all have something to learn, especially as studios are continuing to strive to maintain and grow a culture of diversity.”

To help distill that advice, the Summit enlisted a host of guest speakers. Visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal was the opening keynote speaker. She’d just talked about her role as senior VFX supe on Venom on the main stage at SPARKFX. “Sheena has always been an advocate for women in VFX,” notes Rowe. “She talked to our audience about her experiences as a woman from a mixed-race background. She allowed us to relate to someone from a different perspective, she gave us advice and answered questions on how she became a VFX supe. This was not the usual VFX supervisor talk I had heard so often at similar festivals. This time we all felt like we could see ourselves in her. The Q&A was lively and thought-provoking.”

Other speakers spoke directly on topics such as ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘how to ask for a pay rise with confidence’, again, looking to offer practical advice to those in the room. Says Rowe: “We even de-bugged the statistics of the gender pay gap. One of the highlights was a talk by Ollie Rankin (CEO and creative director of Pansensory Interactive) representing ‘The Entitled White Male’ which was brilliantly witty and gritty. Enriching topics like gender fluidity in the work space opened our eyes to a view from the ‘other’ perspective.”

“I learned more than I expected and the questions from the audience were perceptive and enlightening,” adds Rowe. “We ended the day with an uplifting message of support from Mitzi Dean, the Parliamentary Secretary for Gender and Equity here in British Columbia.”

What made the Summit particularly positive was the strong turnout, despite some abrasive weather in Vancouver that day. “Contrary to the frosty atmosphere from the snowfall outside,” describes Cranley, “the room was warm, engaging, inspiring and uplifting. I admired people’s honesty in sharing their own stories and experiences and also their humility to accept others perspectives and differing opinions.”

“Like Sue, I learnt a huge amount and was spurred on to continue to listen and support our teams but to also encourage us all and those less aware that they can and should make a difference, be that a very small difference. As some very small changes in daily habits can make a much greater difference to others, which ultimately makes our workplace a happier, fairer and more successful place to create those insane VFX shots we love to see on the big screen!”

You can read more about the Diversity & Inclusion Summit at the Spark CG Society website.

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