Meet the Alumni: Chris McKenna (Six-Month Digital Animation & VFX)
By Danny Kelly
21 May 2021
From the reimagining of Disney classics to epic dramas such as Ad Astra and 1917, the international film industry continues to innovate with its use of visual effects; crafting awe-inspiring environments and characters to capture the imagination of audiences. To better understand what a career in this exciting, ever-changing side of filmmaking looks like, we caught up with Six-Month Digital Animation & VFX alumni, Chris McKenna, to discuss his role as Head of Animation & Technical Animation at MPC (Moving Picture Company).
With teams collaborating between studios around the world, MPC has most recently worked on anticipated titles such as Top Gun: Maverick and West Side Story, as well as eye-catching promotional content for a variety of global brands
Here’s what Chris McKenna had to tell us about finding his career in digital animation and VFX…
Where did your interest in digital animation first start?
I’ve always loved storytelling – I remember as a child repeatedly watching the classic Tom & Jerry short The Cat Concerto. Home computers came along, more capable of working with video, then adding effects and animation. The idea that I could create my own character and bring that to life inside a computer was far too appealing. Alongside my interest in computers and all things technical, I was always going to end up working in VFX and animation.
Did you have much experience of the craft before starting the course?
I didn’t have a huge amount of experience before starting the course. However, I’d been working on some freelance projects within the VFX industry, so I had some insight into the process and workflows. I took this course at MetFilm School, among other reasons, to expand my employability and to gain an insight into the workflows of a production studio.
What do you feel is the benefit of film school over self-directed learning?
One massive benefit is that you’re in a position to be steered in the right direction! It’s so easy to get lost in the vast capabilities of modern software & techniques. You really need the tried and tested experience from your tutors, and support from your peers at the film school. The VFX/Animation industry is all about being able to work in a team; you learn so much from the people around you. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people as soon as possible plays such a big part in your development. Whilst on the course, our tutors gave us the knowledge of how to get into the industry but also, just as important, the confidence to try!
Fast forward to the present, how do you describe your role at MPC?
As Head of Animation & Technical Animation at MPC, I have the privilege of working alongside some of the most creative, technically gifted and passionate people in the industry. We face new and exciting challenges on every project which really keeps us on top of our game. For this reason, we’re constantly developing our skills across all disciplines. Whilst on the front line of filmmaking, you always take time to remind yourself of the fundamentals that you learned at film school.
You’ve worked on some big projects, from Ad Astra to The Lion King – what for you makes a production exciting and fun to work on?
We’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in filmmaking, which makes every project unique, challenging and very fulfilling. Along with this, it’s ultimately the people I work with. Being able to share a passion, pick their brains, and be surrounded by some of the most talented artists in the industry, makes every project exciting. From the initial meetings to discuss our approach on a particular project to the screenings when we get together and cheer when our team’s credits start appearing – it’s so rewarding seeing your hard work on the big screen!
Are there certain skills and qualities you feel animators need to succeed?
Anyone who works with computers, in any industry, will understand the need to be a good problem solver. If you can combine that with passion for the craft and the patience to achieve then you’ve got a winning combination. Also, it’s vital that you never stop learning – that’s key to becoming a successful artist.
With technology always advancing, how do you keep up-to-date?
We never stop learning and developing our technology – that’s a big part of what makes our industry so fun. Our software and systems department works really hard to ensure that everything is ready for artists to work with globally, but also that any new technology is properly tested and pipeline ready. This ensures we’re able to use it efficiently and successfully on any given project.
What’s something you know now about working in VFX & animation that you wish you’d known before?
The VFX/Animation pipeline is vast! You won’t be able to learn all of it, especially at the exciting rate at which technology advances. The real key is to make sure you’re learning efficiently. For an extreme example, don’t spend all your time learning one Maya node! We make a real effort at MPC to ensure that training is provided for all of our artists at every level. If there’s an area of the pipeline or a tool which you’ve not got round to learning, don’t panic! You’re not expected to know everything.
What advice would you give to a digital creative trying to land their first industry role?
Make sure you connect with the industry. As I mentioned previously, this industry is all about teamwork, so working with people and making good communication is vital. Oh, and good communication doesn’t mean bombarding senior artists with questions – you’ll need to manage your time effectively. At one stage, we were all looking for our first role in the industry… enjoy the adventure, challenge and excitement of filmmaking!
Chris McKenna is Head of Animation & Technical Animation at MPC and studied MetFilm School London’s Six-Month Digital Animation & VFX in 2013.