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Volunteers are Everything: Sarah McGrail on the Importance of Community in Visual Effects

By Alyssa Heater

Sarah McGrail is a powerhouse in visual effects, with over twenty years of experience working in nearly every role within this subsection of the M&E industry. From her start as a VFX artist and production manager, to producing film and episodic projects and business development, McGrail is a lifelong learner with zero limitations on exploring and growing her professional toolset.

We chatted with McGrail to learn more about her career path in visual effects and role within the HPA Awards committee, as well as her take on the current state of VFX and where she sees it evolving in the next few years.

Tell me about yourself and your career path in the entertainment industry.

I began my career in post-production and visual effects at Lowry Digital, the restoration house that worked on Star Wars, Bambi, Roshomon and James Bond films. Its founder, John Lowry, worked on the moon landing and was always an inspiration. He’d always say “Every Monday is just another chance to get it right!” Over several years I got to do everything from scanning nitrate film to running proprietary  image processing software, working as a restoration and QC artist, and eventually heading up artist training and production.  I found I loved working with clients and having control over the schedule and budget, in addition to working on a box to make things look great.

In 2010, I moved to Encore/Deluxe to become a VFX Producer, working on series like Big Love, Magic City, Sense8 and Under the Dome. At that time, the industry was undergoing several big changes: We were coming out of a strike and switching from film to digital workflows. For VFX, this meant going from having 10 or 20 shots due in a few weeks, to having hundreds of shots due in extremely tight timelines, while also learning what this meant for budgets and schedules. What emerged at this time was unexpected, and people started to see what VFX was truly capable of doing, leading to tremendous growth in visual effects across TV, film, and games. Those departments started blowing up everywhere and it was a very busy time.

In 2016, I joined what started as Picture Shop VFX and grew into the global Ghost VFX. Along with our President Tom Kendall and Senior VFX Supervisor Adam Avitabile, we had this incredibly exciting opportunity to build a department from the ground up. I’ve always loved seeing a small company grow and define itself, and we focused on finding the best talent and supporting their ability to do their best work on projects like Picard, Wednesday, The Walking Dead universe, and the Emmy-winning Star Trek Discovery.  I served as Supervising VFX Producer, managing production and operations, and then  incorporated business development and strategy in my role as VP and Executive Producer of VFX.

About a year ago I left to join Assembly as SVP and Executive Producer of VFX, which gave me the  opportunity to again work with a small-but-mighty team on a mix of episodic, feature and commercial projects, including Mr & Mrs Smith, Ripley, and Crowded Room. Starting up in the pandemic, we had a native, AWS cloud-based workflow designed to use the latest AI/ML pipeline tools. And it was really freeing not to have to worry about a fixed number of render nodes or Isilon storage.

VFX has always needed to be at the bleeding edge of technology, adapting what stories creatives want to tell, and how studios want to make them. Having been in this industry for over 20 years, I’m not afraid of change; I’m excited to be exploring what’s next for my own career and the industry as a whole.

What led you to join the HPA Awards committee? And from your perspective, what is the value of volunteering for the HPA, VES, and any other nonprofit industry organizations?

I love people, especially VFX & post people! When I joined around 2010, I was excited there was an industry organization that recognizes the hard work and achievements of such a wide range of talent – from colorists, editors, and engineers to sound, restoration, and VFX artists. All of these teams work collaboratively, but usually we’re siloed in our dark rooms, and we may not get to see each other. It’s nice to be able to network, learn from each other, and celebrate each other’s work.

What is your role within the HPA Awards committee?

The HPA Awards Committee works together on each year’s category rules and procedures, entry submission technology, vetting and judging. And there’s the planning that goes into putting on a spectacular show that our members and honorees look forward to celebrating every year. My focus is on visual effects, so I lend expertise in keeping up with the industry in changes to categories, vetting procedures, and submission deadlines.

What are some of the most exciting developments you’re seeing in VFX and where do you see it evolving in the coming years?

Visual effects will always be about storytelling and immersing audiences. There is no world or character that is too imaginative; VFX will find a way to bring it to life. There is constant change in visual effects, and we’re certainly feeling it at the moment. The industry is never going to go back to “normal.” AI and machine learning are already being used in pipelines and artist tools, and look development and visualization that help creatives dial in their look, and artists iterate faster.

There are very valid concerns about respecting artists’ creative output and how AI/ML is trained. AI is best used though when it supports artists. Real-time game engines and performance capture have been invaluable for the industry. Virtual Art Departments and Visualization allow VFX Supervisors to be part of a production with Directors and DPs from the very beginning. We’re all hoping to hear “fix it in post” a lot less as that shift happens.

Why do you feel that VFX is so critical in storytelling?

It’s this ability to give storytellers the freedom to be as imaginative as they want to be. VFX can create worlds and characters on the screen, in an immersive environment, in commercials, games. I grew up wondering if I’d live to see the first Holodeck, and we’re almost there! It’s a wonderful thing to make-believe at any age, and an honor to get to do that professionally.

Anything you’re particularly excited to see at this year’s HPA Awards?

Knowing that our industry is in a challenging time, it’s even more important that we have these opportunities to come together to celebrate our work, stay connected, and keep our spirits up. Everything’s cyclical. As hard a time as it is right now, I do believe it will bring new opportunities. I’ve seen VFX colleagues adventuring into new countries, new roles in production, or new fields in AI and immersive technology. It’s easier to try something new with friends and trusted colleagues  supporting you. And we can all benefit from organizations like HPA, and industry events as we grow our network and education, and find those support pillars in our lives.

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Volunteers are our lifeblood! Interested in becoming involved in the HPA’s many events and committees. Learn more by visiting https://hpaonline.com/about/get-involved/

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