High-end artist on how she got her start, using Silhouette and Mocha Pro to save precious time, and what it was like working on The Book of Boba Fett.
Ask the Artist with Heather Steckley, VFX Artist & Motion Graphic Designer
9 minute read
The award-winning artist discusses her fine arts influence, using Mocha Pro and Silhouette together, and her favorite projects.
Heather Steckley is an award-winning VFX and motion graphics designer based in NYC. She has over 15 years of experience creating original designs, animations, and compositing work for HBO, Cinemax, CNN, and more.
Where are you from? How did you get your start in the industry?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received my BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. After college, I worked in web design and realized that I had a strong interest in animation. At that time, I wasn’t sure what area of animation I wanted to go into. In 2002, I went to Parsons, The New School for Design, and entered the Design and Technology department to hone my interests and skills. My thesis project was a stop-motion animated short called I Can’t Draw. While working on my premise, I explored character & set design, compositing & stop-motion animation in great detail, and in 2004, I received my MFA in Broadcast Design and Animation.
After graduating from Parsons, I freelanced for a time, and in 2006, HBO offered me a long-term gig which eventually turned into a staff job. I worked for HBO for 14 years, creating sessions for broadcast and film. The position called for a wide range of skills, such as styleframe design, animation, motion graphics, compositing, shot touch-ups, and more. Some of my projects were long-term, while others required super quick turn-arounds.
It was at HBO that I learned how to solve intricate technical problems on the fly and to work very quickly and accurately in an effort to meet my deadlines. This post also provided me with an opportunity to work in many different areas of design that I found interesting. Some of my projects were design and motion graphic specific, while others consisted more of compositing, painting, and rotoscoping. Eventually, I became the Manager of Graphics Operations, overseeing staff, freelancers, and select projects. Since my time at HBO, I have worked for CNN, and I am now working as a full-time freelancer.
What Boris FX tools do you use? Which effects/features do you rely on most?
Mocha Pro is my go-to for any rotoscoping or replacement work. I have found this program to be super efficient, and I use it quite regularly. I also use Silhouette for the same types of applications depending on which stills or segments I am working on. Both of these tools used in tandem have proven to be absolutely essential to my work on tough compositing shots.
In 2022, I was hired to perform VFX and design work for the HBO documentary film Pelosi In The House. There were many shots in this piece where certain locations were not allowed to be clearly identified by the public. This restriction was put in place by the Capitol Police Department due to the ongoing investigation into the January 6th, 2020, insurrection and general security for political figures. A large portion of my task was to blur, paint out, and obscure specific identifying imagery so that these locations could be safely included in the film. Mocha Pro and Silhouette were used for nearly every shot, and these were numerous. I used the Boris FX tools to remove walls, replace, track, blur, paint, obscure, and enhance the shots. All of these applications were reliable and essential for my compositing process. I also used the Boris FX Continuum plugins extensively, specifically the Image Restoration and Key & Blend plugins.
What project are you most proud of — and why?
It’s hard to pick just one project, but here are a few that I’m really proud of…
HBO Documentary Film: Pelosi In The House: This was a large and challenging project. It was very personally fulfilling to use my acquired skills to help with this film. Completing certain shots for the film was a technical challenge, and I feel as if I’ve contributed to vastly important work. As a bonus, the rest of the team was wonderful to work with.
HBO Sex and the City Remastering Project: As the Manager of Graphics Operations at HBO, I oversaw the Sex and the City Remastering team on the East Coast, which partnered with the West Coast team. My team was tasked with reworking the entire series, which was rescanned for a 16x9 format. Our team then removed, painted out, and composited the footage so that it was accurate for viewing. Mocha Pro was used extensively by the artists.
HBO Fraggle Rock Promo: This assignment incorporated styleframe design, 3D, animation, and compositing. It was a rewarding experience for me to collaborate and dive into all of these areas of this project. Designing and animating Fraggle Rock imagery and Fraggle fluff was an absolute treat!
HBO After The Thrones: As per the established look of the show, I was asked to design and animate elements to be used within the production. The process of creating and animating swords, dragons, and fire was a wonderful adventure.
How do you prep before a big project?
These days, I like to tidy up my computer and make sure it’s running well. I also clean my home studio and set up an environment that is ready to go.
What's a keyboard shortcut you can't live without?
- Mocha Pro: Astrix key and the Z and X keys
- General Shortcuts: CTRL + S is a shortcut that’s always at my fingertips.
How do you keep yourself fueled/your favorite snack when you're in an epic session?
My coffee game is pretty serious. I have an automatic espresso and milk frother machine that gets quite the workout during lengthy sessions! Of course, I try to drink lots of water and make sure I get up from the chair and move around from time to time.
Where do you turn for artistic inspiration?
All kinds of places! I used to work in the NYC/Flatiron district and during my lunch hours I’d walk around and admire the incredible architecture. I have countless photos on my phone of beautiful sculptures, buildings, moulding, and architectural details from which I draw inspiration.
Additionally, I like to learn new techniques. I find the process of learning to be invigorating and playful. This usually gets my artistic juices flowing. Another way that I find artistic inspiration is to simply get away from the computer and work with my hands. I have designed and fashioned jewelry since I was quite young. Experimenting with new and different materials is always exciting to me.
Finally, I can’t leave out a day at the beach. Watching the waves and a day in the sun always opens the mind to creativity.
What do you do when you start feeling creative burnout?
I’ve found that the best way to avoid creative burnout is to strive for a good work-life balance. I’m sure most would agree that this is hard to accomplish when immersed in the most demanding projects. My approach is to get up early, go for a run, and hit the gym. Whenever I start my day like this, my sessions are more fluid and productive.
What's your favorite film and/or TV series?
My favorites change over time, but I enjoy older films and have always loved The Wizard of Oz, The Shining, Jaws, and The Silence Of The Lambs.
Some recent films and TV series that I fancy are The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro), Elvis (Baz Luhrmann), Cabinet of Curiosities (Guillermo del Toro), The Bear (FX on Hulu), and Black Mirror (Netflix).
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would it be and why?
It would be a dream to collaborate with Guillermo del Toro. Whether it’s storytelling, prosthetics, practical effects, stop-motion, or compositing, I find his body of work delightfully captivating.
What career and/or life advice would you give your younger self?
In terms of career advice, keep the momentum moving forward with technical and creative exploration. Artists can be so modest at heart. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and show your work. Take more risks.