The Studio Supervisor for Lucasfilm in Singapore wants you.
    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    31 August 2010, by Barbara Robertson

    Mohen Leo is on a mission. At this point in his career as a visual effects supervisor, he believes he has found the perfect studio in the perfect location, and he’s recruiting 100 mid- to senior-level effects artists and geeks from around the world to join him.

    Five of the films Leo has worked on have received Oscar nominations for best visual effects. And Leo personally received two Visual Effects Society nominations – for best single visual effect of the year 2012 and outstanding created environment in a live action movie Poseidon.

    He was a visual effects artist on Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and technical director for The Perfect Storm and Pearl Harbor at Industrial Light & Magic. He left ILM to become technical director at ESC for The Matrix Reloaded and then became sequence lead for The Matrix Revolutions. Back to ILM where he was associate visual effects supervisor for Poseidon, then on to Digital Domain to become visual effects supervisor for Speed Racer and 2012.
    Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace © Industrial Light & Magic
    But, ask him about any of these projects and he quickly careens into his enthusiasm for his current job as studio supervisor for ILM Singapore. He believes this job embodies the best of all his previous experiences.

    “I joined ESC because I was ready for a new challenge,” he says. “What I loved most about ESC is that it was a small company we were building up. It was a start-up that had great projects.” When ESC folded, he moved back to ILM and then to Digital Domain before returning to ILM for the third time. “I have a tendency to be restless,” he says.

    Restless, maybe. But at the same time, focused.
    “I toyed with the idea of working in Asia for the last five years,” he says. “I can’t see myself planning to be in one place forever. When I look at people I think are interesting, they tend to be episodic. They do different things in different places. So, I considered Mumbai and Korea. But, I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of my work or the quality of the company. So I jumped at the opportunity to work in Asia for one of the best companies in the industry.”

    When Leo moved to ILM Singapore, that division of Lucasfilm had 55 people. Now, ILM has 110 and the overall group in Singapore, which includes LucasArts and Lucasfilm Animation (Clone Wars and an animated feature film in progress) employs around 400 people, with more joining the force every day.

    Terminator Salvation © Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. Image Courtesy Industrial Light & Magic
    “We have a start-up feel, but with the stability of ILM,” Leo says. “We have the pipeline. And, we have the interesting work.”

    At ILM Singapore, Leo straddles two worlds. As a visual effects supervisor, he oversees the creative and technical work on feature films, helping raise the quality of the work there. “We are putting the senior teams in place so that we don’t need to check with San Francisco on every call,” he says. “Only when we want feedback and for finals.”

    Already though, Iron Man 2 visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, says of the group, “On the first Iron Man, we sent lighting to Singapore. On Terminator and Transformers we pushed more through to them and built a lot of trust. Now, ILM Singapore is indistinguishable from ILM in San Francisco.”

    At the same time, as studio supervisor, Leo wears a production management hat. “I have an unholy love of spreadsheets, budgets, and schedules,” he laughs.

    And, this ability to straddle two roles gives him the means to make interesting decisions. For example, “We have the ILM San Francisco pipeline and we largely do things here in Singapore the way it’s done in San Francisco. But also, we can try to be more nimble.”

    Born and raised in Berlin, Leo nimbly avoided his family’s profession. His father and mother are both doctors as are his brother, his wife, and his brother’s wife’s parents. When Leo graduated from high school, though, he chose computer science and physics, and began coursework at the Technical University in Berlin. “In Germany, at age 19, you’re expected to know what you want to do,” he says.

    It didn’t take long for him to realize that he hadn’t chosen well. Even though he had always liked art, he didn’t see any clear application for studying fine art, so that wasn’t an answer, either. “I wanted to know whether something was right or wrong,” he says. “Not how it makes me feel. Art seemed too vague.”

    So, he dropped out anyway and considered trying an industrial design major, which had elements of art, but with a practical application. But, he never followed through.

    “My brother hassled me,” Leo says. “He said that the least I could do since I wasn’t in school was to get an internship somewhere.” Leo took the challenge and contacted 20 companies working in graphic design and advertising. One offered him an internship that changed his life.

    Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, © Industrial Light & Magic
    Growing Up: ILM Singapore Expands
    Looking for a chance to work on the next Transformers, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, or, perhaps, Gore Verbinsky’s first animated feature Rango? If you are a mid- to senior-level effects artist, with four to six years experience, Industrial Light & Magic’s doors are wide open.

    “We’re looking to fill jobs quickly,” says Steve Mair, director of talent acquisitions for LucasFilm. “We want to add 100 people over the next six to eight months. We’ve staffed up our junior talent. Now, we’re focused on finding creature TDs, compositors, lighting TDs – senior talent across all the disciplines.”

    We’re not staffing for a project,” Mair adds. “We want people who are interested in helping build a strong ILM Singapore; a studio that’s poised for the future.”

    In many ways, the Singapore division of ILM is identical to the San Francisco division, except for being a few thousand miles away. Singapore artists use the same pipeline and work on the same projects. “We’re still growing in San Francisco as well,” Mair says. “But having a studio in Singapore gives us a 24-hour production cycle. It’s as if Singapore is just down the hall from San Francisco. The studios work hand-in-hand.”

    In other ways, it’s different. For one, the artists in all the Lucasfilm divisions in Singapore – ILM, LucasArts, and Lucasfilm animation –work more closely than in California. “There’s a little bit of movement between the groups in California, but nowhere near the amount we see in Singapore,” Mair says. “In Singapore, they all sit together, which is really different from California.”
    Also, the Singapore group is more multicultural. “At last check, we had people from 41 countries represented in our studio,” Mair says. But, as in all of Singapore, English is the common language in the studio, which means, Mair notes, that people bringing families can enroll their kids in the public schools, or in American, Canadian, and British schools. Also, that a good percentage of the artists are women. “Singapore is not a third world country,” he says. “It’s clean, modern and safe.”

    A third difference, Mair points out, is more obvious: the location. “We have a community blog and you’re always seeing messages like, ‘Hey, I’m going scuba diving in Malaysia. Want to go?’ One of our recruiters had to get a new passport in six months because he had too many stamps.”

    Mair advises anyone interested in joining the group in Singapore to send a demo reel or better yet, a link to a reel on a website. “Put your best quality work first and make sure you focus on the specific job you’re applying for,” he says. “ILM Singapore is the same as ILM San Francisco. We don’t need generalists. If you’re applying for more than one job, have a specific reel for each. A lighting reel. A rigging reel. Because if we’re looking at a thousand reels and we don’t see something we like in the first minute or two, we probably won’t go further.”

    LucasFilm Recruiting posts all the jobs available here and you’ll see links there for where and how to send demo reels.

    One last piece of advice: “We’re looking to fill roles quickly,” Mair says. “If you wait until SIGGRAPH Asia in December, it might be too late. If you have a role you want, apply today.”

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  • Pearl Harbor Image courtesy: Industrial Light & Magic
    'Pearl Harbor' Image courtesy: Industrial Light & Magic
    “They had only seven people doing CG for print and some root beer commercials,” he says. “But the owner loved technical toys. He had Silicon Graphics workstations, mental ray, Flame. I only appreciated my luck later.” At that time, few schools, if any, taught visual effects – the people who entered the profession were largely self-taught or had mentors. Leo became one of the former. Computer graphics fulfilled both his artistic and geeky needs.

    The owner let him play with the tools at night after work, so the eager young artist taught himself to do animation and visual effects. When the internship ended, the owner offered Leo a job and he began creating architectural visualizations and promotional videos. He still worked on his own projects, though, and within two years, the college drop-out had a reel that was good enough to land a job at ILM. But that took a second bit of luck. Or, maybe a third. All wrapped around his laser focus and a lot of hard work.
    When the European Film Academy asked people to help with their Young Directors Workshop, Leo volunteered and showed the participants how to work with bluescreens and do rotoscoping. One of the directors there was Jan de Bont. “He was happy with what I did and asked if he could do anything for me,” Leo says. “I knew he was working on ‘Twister’ so I asked if he could introduce me to Stefen Fangmeier.”

    Two weeks later, he got a message from Fangmeier asking him to send a demo reel. So, when Leo attended SIGGRAPH that year, he had already primed the pump. Many pumps, actually.
    'Perfect Storm' © Warner Bros. Image courtesy Industrial Light & Magic
    Poseidon © Warner Bros. Image courtesy Industrial Light & Magic
    '2012' Image courtesy Digital Domain
    Each year, the Berlin studio where he worked ordered the SIGGRAPH reels and Leo would watch to find out who was creating the innovative visual effects. “I knew I had to work in the US,” he says. “In California. And, ILM was the Holy Grail. I thought if maybe I worked in the US for 10 years, I could get a job there. But, this was 1996 and ILM was ramping up. The timing was right.”

    As it is again, he points out, for people who want to work at ILM now.

    Not knowing then, of course, that he would land a job at ILM, Leo also sent his reel to 25 game developers and other visual effects studios. And then, he paid his own way to SIGGRAPH in New Orleans. Once there, he interviewed with ILM. Two weeks after the conference ended, he traveled north to San Rafael and interviewed again with ILM. And a week later, he had a job offer.

    At ILM, he worked on three films for which Fangmeier was the visual effects supervisor – Speed 2,Small Soldiers, and The Perfect Storm, starting as a digital effects artist and quickly becoming a technical director. On The Perfect Storm, and earlier on Episode I, he worked with Habib Zargarpour and counts him as one of his mentors. “He was the first to show me how cool and exciting effects simulation can be,” Leo says.

    Another mentor is Kim Libreri. Leo worked with Libreri at ESC on Matrix II and III, at ILM on Poseidon, and at Digital Domain on Speed Racer.“I owe him more than anyone else in the industry for the infinite number of things he took the time to teach me, and for the responsibilities he trusted me with when I was still pretty inexperienced,” Leo says.

    Poseidon gave Leo another chance to work on fluid simulation, this time using ILM’s new Physbam solver developed in conjunction with Stanford. Speed Racer sent him back to Berlin where he supervised the onset crew that drove cockpits equipped with driving simulations. With 2012, he smashed stuff with rigid body simulation.
    “I knew right from that start that I really wanted to work on the LA earthquake sequence,” he says. “There had been a big breakthrough around the time of Poseidon with Physbam for water simulation. And, I knew we’d be in the middle of another breakthrough in rigid body simulation and destruction.”

    “Our job is essentially to make things look cool,” he adds. “To make things that other people get excited by and that entertain them. I appreciate invisible effects and love to create them when I get the chance. But I can’t deny the lure of just blowing shit up.”

    For 2012, the crew at Digital Domain created a new rigid body system based on Bullet, an open source solver, and with it destroyed something like 20 buildings, each with thousands of parts. “We had 30,000 shattering windows, with debris, dust and smoke,” Leo says. “It was one of those movies where we didn’t have to hold back. It wasn’t like [director] Roland Emmerich would say no to another collapsing building.”

    Although the films won other awards, 2012 didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for visual effects; nor did Matrix II and III, or Speed Racer. That doesn’t bother Leo. “Early in my career, I was motivated by whether a movie was successful,” he says. “I’ve learned that when you spend a year of your life on a project that’s out of the theater in three weeks, it’s more important to work with an interesting team than if people like the movie. The way you spend the year of your life is most important.”

    And that’s one of the reasons he’s so excited about the location for his current job. “Within a couple hours, I can be in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Japan and see diverse cultures,” he says. “People here can go to Bali the way people in the states go to Las Vegas.”

    Wherever he goes when he’s not working, Leo finds himself hanging out in museums and cafes. “I’m kinda boring,” he says. “I do the same thing in other cities that I do at home. Shop and eat. And wander. Singapore is such an exciting place to be right now.”

    Related links:
    Lucasfilm Singapore
    Mohen Leo
    LucasFilm Recruiting
    Contact Singapore

    Terminator Salvation © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures
    Poseidon © Warner Bros. Image courtesy Industrial Light & Magic
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