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Artist Profile

Ask the Artist with Gillian Simpson, Compositor

5 minute read

How she used Mocha Pro on HBO's House of the Dragon, making the jump from Avid editor to VFX, and what she'd tell her younger self.

Gillian Simpson is a London-based VFX compositor who graduated from the National Film and Television School (MA in Digital Effects). Her credits include Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, Dumbo, Venom, The King’s Man, and HBO’s highly-anticipated House of the Dragon. She relies on Nuke together with Mocha Pro’s award-winning planar tracking plugin. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Where are you from? How did you get your start in the industry?

I am originally from Scotland. I was an Avid editor there for many years, working on different genres, including documentaries, music, and sport, but it was working in children's TV that I first came across VFX. I did a show called Raven that was really popular. We did all the effects in Avid, and I loved it. After a few years, I decided to pursue that full-time and applied to the NFTS. I never thought I would get in, but I did, and I learnt so much there. Two weeks after graduating, I was lucky enough to get a roto/prep job on Isle of Dogs. It all started from there.

What Boris FX tools do you use? Which effects/features do you rely on most? 

I use Mocha Pro all the time. So much of my job starts with tracking. If you get that wrong, then nothing is going to work. I really like the new PowerMesh tracking, which is great for anything organic like skin or cloth.

You recently wrapped on season 1 of House of the Dragon. What was the overall experience like? How did you use Mocha Pro on the series? 

House of the Dragon was a dream job. I was a huge Game of Thrones fan. I was also with a team I’d worked with before, so it was a really special experience. A lot of the scenes that we had to do had set extensions and very fast-moving camera moves. Mocha was great for nailing the tracks on those. There were also face replacements and the usual clean-up on people, so it was essential for that too. I used Mocha almost every day of the 16 months I was on the show.

What project are you most proud of — and why?

I am obviously proud of House of the Dragon. It was such a unique experience. It was great getting to be on set and see the VFX supervisor (Angus Bickerton) at work. The in-house team of only 5 people delivered over 1200 shots. I think that's pretty amazing. I am also really proud of a film I worked on during lockdown called Silent Night which was directed by Camille Griffin. We had a lot of invisible effects to do, like adding snow to lots of shots which I hadn't really done before. I learnt a lot. It was a really fun film to work on.

How do you prep before a big project?

I am self-employed, so I use my own computer, Nuke, Mocha Pro, etc. I always make sure they are up-to-date and working. And I like to start each new job with a fresh notebook. 

What's a keyboard shortcut you can't live without?

Ctrl-Z — I use it all the time. I work organically, trying different things, and find I undo things quite a lot while experimenting.

How do you keep yourself fueled/your favorite snack when you're in an epic session?

I wish I could say I was really healthy, and I do try, but when it's busy, then it’s lots of coffee and sweet snacks. We usually have a secret stash of dark chocolate in our room.

Where do you find artistic inspiration?

I love art and go to galleries when I can. I am a big fan of Turner and love how atmospheric his paintings are. I love the Tate because of all the weird and wonderful art they have. The Turbine Hall always has something inspiring in it.

What do you do when you start feeling creative burnout?

My whole life is about being creative, so I never really experience burnout. I draw and paint to relax. I do a pottery class at weekends. It all helps keep the creativity flowing. I also watch a lot of films. They keep me inspired too.

What's your favorite film and/or TV series?

This is an impossible question! It changes all the time. Recent films I have loved are Promising Young Woman, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. I am also a big Marvel geek. My favourite TV shows are The West Wing and Ted Lasso.

If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Definitely, Gareth Edwards. I loved his first film, Monsters. It was the first time I thought VFX was something I could actually do as a career. I watched the behind-the-scenes. He was filming model aeroplanes in his bath, comping them straight into the film, and basically doing it all himself in his living room. The final result looked so good. I thought I want to do that. Also, my all-time favourite VFX shot is from his film Godzilla when they do the halo jump through the clouds. It's so beautiful.

What career and/or life advice would you give your younger self?

I would say be more confident. I have always struggled with that. I was lucky to find a mentor I have worked with on almost all the films I have done and who has always encouraged and supported me. That has made a huge difference to me.

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