February 9, 2017

SCA Alumni Stories: Ruth Vasquez

By Eileen Kwon

Self-named the “Mary Poppins of visual effects,” SCA alumna Ruth Vasquez recently discussed her career as one of the industry’s top render managers. Vasquez shared about the underappreciated yet vital nature of data management and offered advice to students who have yet to find their passions.

What exactly is rendering? First of all, no one actively pursues rendering. You can’t get a degree in rendering. It’s actually considered an entry-level job in visual effects, which is ironic because I always tell people that if I don’t do my job as a render manager, the entire facility would come to a grinding halt. Basically, you’re watching numbers and it’s such a crucial part because you as the render manager are depended on by not only the artists but also production.

The artists do their work and then at the end of the day they submit it all so that it can be rendered. Whatever they submit is compiled and rendered. There’s a farm made up of a number of machines called render nodes. And someone has to watch it all render. I manage all those renders. I see all the submissions coming in and I see all the submissions coming out.

I function more as a senior production coordinator, but my work is more technical.

What compelled you to pursue rendering? I got into data management completely by accident. While I was going to school at USC, I started out as a development intern at Lightstorm Entertainment, which is James Cameron’s production company.

And one day, as I was skimming the Hollywood Reporter, I saw an ad for a company called Cinesite. They were just looking for every position available. So I sent them my resume, got the interview, and was hired. I came in knowing absolutely nothing about visual effects. They taught me everything.

I was hired specifically for Space Jam.  I was a tape operator, but the fancy term was digital operations technician. That’s how I got into the industry and I’ve been in data management ever since.

What are your thoughts on the underappreciated nature of data management? Many people don’t understand data management and so they don’t understand how valuable it is. I always say that people don’t understand how important it is until they don’t have good data managers. I’m the person who knows where all the shots are. Data management isn’t about pushing pixels, it’s about knowing where all the pieces of the puzzle are and making them work. And that’s what I do every day.

What does a day-to-day look like as a render manager? What do you like most about being a render manager? I’m like the Mary Poppins of visual effects. I take care of the chaos, then the wind changes, the project ends and then I move on.

Usually the render manager sits with the artist. You want to be as close to the artist as you can. I always call us “the forgotten people.” When you’re in render management, you’re most likely going to be on the night shift. Because everybody else works during the day and submits their work at the end of the day, so all the submissions are rendering at night. By nature, I’m a night owl so I like working at night.

Some people think it’s tedious but I don’t think it is. As a child I loved puzzles and I still love them today. So for me to look at a render farm and see all the submissions, it’s like a giant puzzle. The goal is to empty the farm, that’s how I solve the puzzle.

Over the past 20 years, technology in your field has changed dramatically, how have you adapted? When I first started there were no scripts. You actually had to figure out how to get a tape and how to get the shot that you needed. You had to make sure that everything was right and you had to do it all manually.

As technology advanced, and people wrote scripts and pipeline departments were created, I can now just push a button and all the tape gets backed up. But if that script breaks, that’s when my old school skills come in. I know how to push and pull data from one machine to another the old-fashioned way, which is valuable when the technology breaks.

What advice do you have for any students unsure about their future and are in the process of discovering where their passions lie? Be open. I never thought that I would get into data management or visual effects. I didn’t really know anything about visual effects when I first started. For a long time, I didn’t want to do it and then one day I had an epiphany. The lightbulb went off and I realized that data management is the future. And once I embraced it, I loved it.

Things may not be ideal and you might just get a job because you need a paycheck, but you never know where it’s going to lead you. So be open.