Hard work wins international praise

Former Cromwell woman Cheyana Wilkinson (right), with colleagues Jo Davidson, Mike Cozens and...
Former Cromwell woman Cheyana Wilkinson (right), with colleagues Jo Davidson, Mike Cozens and Jason Desjarlais, after their win at the Visual Effects Society Awards in Beverly Hills. PHOTO: VISUAL EFFECT SOCIETY
From making short films for school projects to the red carpet — a childhood passion has turned in to an award-winning career for former Cromwell woman Cheyana Wilkinson.

The Wellington-based Wētā FX  senior lighting technical director  said from a young age she loved video games and animation, and watching "behind the scenes" and "making of" clips in the special features showed her it could also be a career.

"[It] really blew my mind, when I realised that making stuff like this was some people’s jobs. It really was my dream job after that," she said.

After Cromwell College she moved to the North Island to study 3D animation, working on animated television shows at smaller Auckland studios Oktobor Animation and Huhu Studio before getting the opportunity to join Wētā FX via its assistant technical director (ATD) programme in 2015. 

After learning the ropes as an ATD, she joined the lighting department.

"Broadly speaking, my job involves using computer software to create images that otherwise couldn’t be filmed in real life. Whether it’s an alien, a talking animal, superhero, or even a giant explosion — we can make it into reality on screen," she said.

"For lighting specifically — you could think of it like starting from a movie set that is pitch black with no light. Then it’s our job to add the light to our digital CG [computer-generated] characters and environments."

The goal was  match the lighting of any real-life footage used — a bright sunny day, dimly lit dive bar, a character silhouetted by firelight — as well as use lighting to help tell the story. 

"The way a light hits a character’s face can really affect what the audience thinks or feels about them in that moment," she said.

She loved the combination of technology and artistry that visual effects (VFX) offered and using computers as a tool to create beautiful images that tell a story, she said. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 characters Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Groot (voiced by Vin...
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 characters Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Former Cromwell woman Cheyana Wilkinson won a Visual Effects Society  award for outstanding virtual cinematography in a  computer-generated project work on the Marvel movie. PHOTO: MARVEL  
In February she and her team won a Visual Effects Society award for outstanding virtual cinematography in a CG project for Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

She was "over the moon" when she heard of the nomination,

"As one of the Lighting Leads on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 I was so proud of what our team’s accomplished," she said.

"It felt great to have our work recognised amongst the best of the best around the world."

Attending the awards ceremony in Los Angeles and hearing their names called to receive the aware was a "crazy, surreal moment", she said.

"I think the whole time from the moment we won to when I got back to my seat afterwards my body was on autopilot while my brain was struggling to process what was happening."

She had always hoped to work on movies people across the world would enjoy but never envisioned she would find herself gracing the red carpet in Beverly Hills.

"I’m still that small-town kid that was glued to the TV screen watching the ‘behind the scenes’, but now I’m behind the scenes myself," she said.

"When people I work with ask where I’m from, I’m often surprised by how many have heard of Cromwell, or visited the area. It’s always really nice when that happens.

"On the flight back from LA, one my team-mates actually happened to be sitting next to some Cromwell locals ... classic New Zealand two degrees of separation."

Visual effects was a team effort and  people should not let the technical side discourage them from pursuing the industry, she said.

"There’s so many different jobs within this industry that range from super technical to super art-focused, and plenty of things that are a mixture of both — like lighting. 

"If you’re interested in CG and movie making, and enjoy joining forces with like-minded people, you can do it."