Creative Lives — Breaking down barriers: DNEG’s digital compositor Laraib Atta on becoming a VFX artist at 19
When she was starting out, Laraib Atta gained a reputation for being one of the youngest female VFX artists in her field. Having grown up between Pakistan and the UK, she graduated from specialist VFX school Escape Studio in 2006, and was working professionally at just 19 years old. Gaining experience with companies such as The Mill, Framestore, MPC, BBC and Sky, she went on to join the team at Aardman, before landing her current job at DNEG (or Double Negative) in 2016 – whose Oscar and BAFTA-winning work includes effects for Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, Inception and for the Harry Potter franchise. Looking back, Laraib cites her first viewing of Toy Story as a major turning point; “I fell in love. I was intrigued by the animation, storyline and characters,” she says, “I didn’t know I wanted to get into VFX, but I knew I was interested in combining art and technology.” Overcoming multiple personal challenges along the way, Laraib has since shared her story in the hopes that it will encourage others to fight for their passions, and inspire the next generation of women and diverse talent to join the industry.
Digital Compositor, DNEG (2016–present)
Digital Compositor, Aardman Animation (2015)Digital Compositor, Glassworks Barcelona (2012–2013)
Freelance work as a Digital Compositor and VFX Artist for Mainframe, Imasblue, Post 23, Sky, Prime Focus, The Mill, BBC (2008–2015)
VFX Artist, MPC (2007–2008)
Sweeny Todd, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Chronicles of Narnia, Godzilla, 10,000 BC, Where the Wild Things Are
VFX Course, Escape Studios (Graduated 2006)
How would you describe your job?
As a compositor, I am at the last step of the process and bring all the elements of visual effects together to its final result. We have to make sure we are constantly communicating with the other departments, whether that is 3D or Roto/Paint.
Big VFX houses are known for the constant overtime and burnt-out staff, but DNEG’s TV department has been so positive. It has a very friendly culture to the tight-knit team and a strict 9-to-6 rule. As a full-time working mother, it’s something I really appreciate. On other days and due to the love for my job, I don’t mind staying extra time and making sure the work is at a level I want it to be before I present it to the supervisors.
What does a typical working day look like?
VFX work is very office-based, therefore most of my day is spent in front of the computer. My working day consists mainly of working on the different shots assigned to me as an artist.Usually in the morning, production coordinators and supervisors will come in to check on the progress of the work. Later in the day we have review sessions in the screening room, commonly named ‘dailies’, where the supervisors will give feedback. Once the shot is internally approved, it is submitted to the client for their feedback, and goes through a tech-checking process to make sure it will not present any issues in the editing room.
On some projects I am involved at the development stage. At this point we are able to suggest a looks and creative approaches to a client. It can be time consuming, but it’s our job to send out several versions. I enjoy collaborating creatively with supervisors to propose ideas and address feedback.
“Big VFX houses are known for the constant overtime and burnt-out staff, but DNEG has a very friendly culture and a strict 9-to-6 rule.”
What do you like about working in London?
I started out in the VFX industry in London. I studied at Escape Studios, before starting as a Roto and Paint artist at MPC on Hollywood film projects. Since then I have worked for several London-based companies including Framestore, The Mill, BBC, Prime Focus, Sky and now DNEG. I have also had the opportunity to work at Glassworks in Barcelona.
I have always loved working in London because of the different support networks we have. With London being the hub of VFX, all the companies are close by. It is great for networking and people in this industry are so open-minded and supportive. You always come across people from different backgrounds. For me, London will always be my top place for work.
How did you land your current job?
I started at the age of 19, but was never working consistently. Due to some personal problems, I had to give up a lot of projects and a job I was offered. I got married when I was 24, became a mother and moved to Barcelona. I easily had a 4 to 5 year gap in my career, which could be seen as an obstacle.
When I moved back to London, I struggled to get back into the industry. I would be on Linkedin all day, messaging people from different houses and at different levels – from recruitment agents to producers to artists. One day, I saw a post about the NextGen Aspiring Women course from NextGen Skills Academy and knew I had to apply. I was fortunate enough to get in and found out about Animated Women UK (AWUK) where I met Louise Hussey, executive producer for TV at DNEG at that time.
I asked Louise if they were recruiting and explained my situation to her. She gave me her contact details and asked me to send her my showreel and CV. Just a few days later I was called for a job interview, and have now been here for over two years.
How collaborative is your role?
Although you can spend most of the day in front of the screen working quietly, communication is a key skill. We have to collaborate with the supervisors and sequence leads to make sure we are on the right track with our shots. Also, we have to engage with the the production team and make sure we are up-to-date with deadlines and feedback from clients.
“I got married when I was 24, became a mother and moved to Barcelona. I easily had a 4 to 5 year gap in my career, which could be seen as an obstacle.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect is when we are in full swing with a project in terms of work flow. When the work is constantly coming through and we are busy creating. And of course watching it on big screens and television gives you a great sense of accomplishment.
Downtime can be very difficult to deal with when we are just waiting for upcoming projects to be confirmed. Life-work balance can be difficult for many but I am very lucky in that I have a good support system. However, I know for many it can be hard and could be improved generally in this industry.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
One of my recent projects was Netflix’s Altered Carbon, which was nominated for an Emmy earlier this year. The VFX supervisor was Steve Moncur, with producers Christine Lemon and Paul Jones. The show itself looks fantastic, and I was given the opportunity to help set the development for some big shots. This was one of the biggest and most challenging shows for DNEG TV and it was thanks to everyone’s joint effort and hard work that made is incredibly easy going and a fun project to work on.
What skills are essential to your job?
Having a creative and keen eye, as well as technical knowledge of all the VFX software. Each project and each VFX house will have a different workflow, so you need to be able to adapt. Also, because VFX is a multidisciplinary art, you need to be able to collaborate well and communicate with all the departments. I also believe that having a positive outlook and strong work ethic takes you a long way. The industry can be tough, so a level of resilience is necessary.
Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
On a few occasions, I have collaborated on short films; it’s great to see the other side of filmmaking. Apart from that I am a motivational speaker. Being the only Pakistani woman to start at such a young age in this industry, I am able to inspire and guide others. My main aim is to inspire the younger generation, women and people from diverse backgrounds to join the industry. I have previously had the opportunity to talk at TEDx, as well as taking part in panels at conferences in Pakistan as well as local schools in London. The next one I have lined up is in conjunction with Access VFX.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My main day-to-day tools are Nuke for digital composting and Mocha for tracking. But VFX has a very big pool of softwares that can be used to achieve the same results.
“The industry can be tough, so a level of resilience is necessary.”
An example of Laraib’s work with DNEG
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I watched Toy Story and fell in love. I was intrigued by the animation, storyline and characters and wanted to know how it was made. I never knew at that point I wanted to get into VFX, but I knew I was interested in combining art and technology.
What influence has your upbringing/background had on your work?
I am originally from Pakistan and came to London when I was 14. My parents are both artists: my father is a traditional Pakistani singer and my mother used to be an actress, but it was a very conservative family. My father had strict rules and I used to be extremely shy and reserved.
I was so quiet that people used to call me ‘mute’. My older brother has always been a key figure in my life, and recognised my interest in art and technology. He suggested I studied VFX and work alongside him on his music videos. I started looking for courses and enrolled at Escape Studios. All in all, I’ve been able to make it this far with my family’s full support for my passion, and guidance from my brother.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
The VFX course at Escape studios played the most important role in getting me into the industry. It was very intense and I learnt with professionals. I originally got a place at university studying architectural engineering, but I decided to make VFX my path.
An interview with Laraib on BBC Asian Network that received a huge amount of attention
The great thing about Escape is that they involve their existing students with well-established companies. I stood out as I was the youngest and only Pakistani girl, but I was determined, committed and the recruitment manager at Escape gave me the opportunity to intern at smaller companies with a junior position, while I was studying. After graduating, I got hired by MPC and my career took off.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Every project comes with different challenges. But I can happily say that my personal challenges are the toughest to overcome. I have always struggled to be outspoken and communicative with others. Due to my personality and culture growing up, I was used to being quiet and figuring things out on my own. But since joining the VFX industry, I can see how important communication is. In addition, being one of the very few women, I knew that I have been given an opportunity here and I needed to step up my game. It took me time to get out of my shell, but when I see an opportunity I push myself out of my comfort zone.
What would you like to do next?
I would love to step up and lead a team of digital compositors. The natural progression would be to become a lead and then supervisor. I always find there is always something you can learn, no matter what position you are in. It is all about being patient, listening and putting in the work. I also really enjoy inspiring others to challenge themselves and push beyond their own boundaries and mindset.
“Due to my personality and culture growing up, I was used to being quiet and figuring things out on my own. But since joining the VFX industry, I see how important communication is.”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give an emerging creative wanting to get into VFX?
Keeping your head down and working hard gets you far. With a humble and positive attitude, you will progress quickly. Also, make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t think about how you will do something, but why you are doing it.
Networking is also essential for opportunities – you should get out there and make contacts. However, don’t let anyone dictate your future, get all the guidance you need, but at the end of the day it's your career and you should have the final say.