Meet Clair Bellens, RnD engineer

Clair Bellens

Name: Clair Bellens
Title: RnD Engineer II (Crowds)
Education: Bachelor [Digital Arts and Entertainment]( – major Game Development

Book(s): Wheel of Time.
Movie(s): She’s the man.
Tv show(s): The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

Today’s interview is slightly different from our member spotlight series. With Belgians Abroad we literally are putting the spotlight on Belgian women who code that are working and living abroad.

Meet Clair, a fellow geeky engineer with love for cocktails, board games, escape rooms and who’s occasionally pulling pranks on friends and coworkers. For the past 7 years she has been living in London and worked her way up to become an RnD engineer at one of the most well known companies in the VFX industry.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I am a bit of a geek with a weird sense of humor (thank you dad). I’m an avid book reader (anything fantasy/science fiction/detective) and series watcher (similar taste as books).

When I graduated high school I joined the army (like my dad), but I soon learned it was not for me. After that I went to uni to study (civil) engineering, but I was bored during all of the classes except anything programming related. I liked it and turned out I was decent at it.

I switched courses and went for a Bachelor in Informatics (aka programming). I wanted to do something with games, and in particular artificial intelligence. But at that point there was no study in my country that catered for this, so I went for a Masters in Mathematical Informatics (which was more or less AI).

During my last Masters year I learned about a game development Bachelor that had started up in another uni in Belgium and I started studying there.

Once I graduated I joined a little VFX/Animation company in Brussels called Walking the Dog. About 1.5 year later, once the project was done, I moved to London and joined MPC (The Moving Picture Company). In 2016 I left MPC and joined ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) where I currently still work.

What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?

I think it’s probably best that I start by explaining how animation/VFX works.. If you think of a cartoon animation movie (like Frozen/Moana/…) there’s a lot of work involved.

First someone needs to come up with the story idea (storyboarders) and roughly how things will look (concept artists). Once that is settled the modelers will take those ideas and recreate/sculpt them in 3D.

Now you have a static 3D model, but things will need to move to get an interesting movie. 🙂 That’s where the riggers (they construct how things will move) and the animators (they do the actual moving of our character) come in. In the meantime you have other artists (layout artists and/or generalists) that will create your environment.

So we’ve got a moving character and some landscape to place it in. Lighting artists (as the name says), will now take over and add a bunch of lights to our scene so you can actually see something and make it bright, or sunset or anything you want.

Great, our 3D scene is ready and will be rendered into 2D images. After that compositing artists will do their magic and touch up and fix your 2D images to a final image (a bit like your photo filters on your phone, only better).

That’s in a nutshell (and really simplified) how VFX/animation work. This whole process has a lot of moving parts and different pieces of software that are used. That’s where our software developers come in. They will help debug technical issues and come up with solutions. Or create new ways of doing things.

The work involved really varies from person to person and from job title to job title. With smaller companies you tend to take care of a lot of different phases of this pipeline. In bigger companies things are more specialised (as in one or more people take care of one portion of the pipeline).

So where do I fit in?

Currently, my part of the pipeline is working with the crowd department. Remember that character we just animated? Add several thousands more in your scene, one animator cannot animate/move them all. We have people on our team who are specialised in creating big groups of people like that.

My focus in particular is automating existing workflows (or creating new ones) so that the artists and/or supervisors can focus more on the artistic side of their work.

What my day usually looks like

On average I start my day going through my mails and any tickets/issues that might have been reported overnight. We’re a global company with offices in San Francisco, Vancouver, London, Singapore and Sydney, so we’re pretty much operating 24hrs a day. Depending on what issues were reported I need either switch focus and help out with some particular issues, or I continue working on my roadmap items. During the day other things might pop up that require me to shift my attention to something else.

It sounds chaotic and it is up to a certain degree, but a lot of this is determined by the developer. We have people that need a fixed list of things to work on each morning and are rather not disturbed. Or the opposite, people that don’t mind the attention shifting and can deal with interruptions. I’m more in the last group and it’s also why I don’t really have an average day.

What inspired you to get a job in the VFX industry?

Well, I got into this industry by accident. I really wanted to become a game developer (dream company would’ve been Blizzard). But after I graduated a friend of mine worked in a VFX company and said they needed help for a few months. I thought: it’s close to what I wanted to do, I’ll do those few months and look for a job after. I started, liked it and I never left the industry.

What do you like the most about your current job?

The variation, it’s always something new. From a high level it’s roughly the same projects you work on, but there are always changes and different requirements.

My favourite project so far, it’s a tough choice. It would be either Jungle Book (2016) or Ready Player One (2018). Both were really big and challenging projects. It was hard work and at times the hours were long, but the company was great and the project itself was interesting to work on.

How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

I mentioned a few earlier, but I’m also captain of a softball team (think baseball, but slightly different rules). In London there’s a big softball league (about 70 something teams) for advertisement/VFX companies to participate.

The company where I currently work has a team participating (we’re in the top division of our league). We usually play once a week from April till mid August in one of the parks in London. In the winter we play indoor softball with a team that’s composed out of players from the different VFX companies. That’s about every other Saturday from September till March.

Clair's softball team

What or who got you initially interested in coding?

As a kid I often played computer games with my dad and cousins and I always wanted to know how things worked and how I could make more. One of my boyfriends in high school was following a coding course and I remember at one time I was looking with him and one of his classmates at a program they were writing for school. I was telling them that they had a mistake in their code, which they insisted was not the case. Until they got their results back from their school project and the teacher pointed out the same bug I saw. That taught me I could do it and it got me interested more.

If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?

Unit tests are horrible, but they save your butt more often than not, they are worth it even if it’s a pain. Same thing for documenting stuff.

Are there any particular women in the industry who have inspired you?

That would be my previous boss in MPC. She was not a coder, but had enough technical knowledge to know when people were selling her bullshit or when they were being real. She took a chance on me when she didn’t need to and it panned out. She’s a really good friend of mine now and we still see each other once in a while even though we’re not working at the same company anymore.

Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?

To be honest, not really. I’m more of a ‘stackoverflow to the rescue’ kind of coder 😁

How could the industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?

It’s a difficult question, to be honest I’ve never really seen VFX not be inclusive of anyone, but I know that other people have other experiences.

In general I would say to try and get women more interested from an earlier age. Like go to job and study fairs for schools, both primary and high schools. Show them that these jobs exist and that there are women in these roles.

What kind of coding jobs are there in VFX?

It really depends from company to company. In each company the same role/job can be called differently. Here you really need to go based on the description rather than the title.

We have roles that are more scripting based and more focused on bug fixing, full on RnD roles that will come up and work on creating a new solver/algorithm for doing things. And any level in between.

If you can learn Python and/or C++, the VFX/animation industry is mostly built on those languages.

Get active on social media/forums where there’s a VFX presence and/or apply for some mentorship programs. Within the industry it often happens when new roles open up that a company will first ask it’s employees if they can recommend someone.

This industry is very project driven, so it could be that for a while a company is not looking for anyone, but suddenly needs to ramp up and they look for all kinds of roles. It really depends on what projects the companies get in and when they start/deliver.

Summers tend to be a bit more difficult for getting hired (again depends on the projects) because people are on holidays and because of the students graduating from the different universities.

We hope you enjoyed Clair Bellens's story, feel free to share this article with your network. ❤️

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