Filmmaker U recently spoke with Visual Effects Artist Debra Khoo-Jeffrey. In this chat we spoke with Debra about immigrating to New York from Malaysia, working remotely and her various projects she at HBO.
Debra Khoo is a visual effects artist at HBO Hudson Yards, NY with nearly 20 years of experience in motion graphics, animation, compositing and rotoscoping. She works mainly in After Effects, Cinema 4D, and Boris FX Mocha Pro. Her credits include "From The Earth to the Moon" (Limited Series), "Game of Thrones: The Last Watch," "First Cow" (movie), and handling many promos for HBO, HBO Latino, and HBO Sports.
Gordon Burkell (GB) - Welcome to Filmmaker U! At filmmakerU.com we bring the top people in the film industry to discuss their craft and how they approach working in the industry. This week, we have Debra Khoo-Jeffrey. Thanks for coming to the show!
Debra Khoo - Jeffrey (DKJ) - Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you.
GB - It's great to meet you. You're currently living in the U.S, but where did you get your start in the industry?
DKJ - After graduating from RMIT in Melbourne, in 2000, I took up computer arts. At that time Pixar was just starting with Luxo Jr, that was that little creature who kept hopping on Pixar. So instead of hand drawn traditional art where you use markers and paper, I used the computer. So that's what I chose to study.
GB - Where did you come from originally?
DKJ - I came from Malaysia. Currency wise, it's not as strong as most countries. So getting Adobe software and Flame Autodesk, it was quite an expensive field to take on. My first job was at one of the top five post-production boutiques facilities called the HQ Pose. They specialize in TV commercials, and at that time, Dunhill cigarette ads were big. Motion graphic designers did not really exist and it was at its birthing stage. From then on, I learned mounting storyboards, Photoshop, printing it out, and then started to do style frames. Then began to do text graphics elements for online compositors which at that time it was Henry. So that was fun! I got exposed to Flame and I was like, "Why is everyone calling smoke flame? Then after 13 years, I think in 2014 I migrated to the states.
GB - You're now in a new country, how do you start to rebuild that career from the ground up?
DKJ - It was tough. I mean, not knowing anyone, I had no network. I knew that LinkedIn was very popular in the states. So I started there and then got my reel up on Vimeo and that was actually a good move on my part because people started to hire me. I started at a recruitment company called Creative Circle because if you go straight to knocking on doors by yourself, you're gonna get ignored. Competitive level for freelancers in New York is way up there. There's going to be hundreds of emails a company will have to sift through and it's hard to stand out.
GB - So they saw your reel on Vimeo and you got brought into that world?
DKJ - I made my reel as colorful as I could, making sure I included a variety of different projects. I actually did some pro bono work. Looking at Kickstarter, I met two women who were producing an animated short. They started a company called Traceback Studios and I did 3D compositing for them just to get a sense of how it works in America. Even the frame rate in the whole world was 29.97, but in America is 23.98. Even that was different! It was a great experience.
GB - I saw that you've done some work for HBO. How did you make that transition from the Kickstarter projects to HBO?
DKJ - After freelancing with a couple of companies, HBO I would say, was a stroke of luck, because it was the right time. Someone was leaving HBO, and they had a couple of emergency jobs that needed done. Last minute overnighters and they were looking frantically for compositor/motion graphics artists to paint out some "Baller" promos. I got to paint out stuff such as NFL branding, because they aren't allowed to show those on on air. At that time, there were not many people they could pull in. I got lucky. I was competing against two other freelancers at that time and I got hired.
GB - You were talking about Flame and Smoke. I remember Combustion was around back in the early 2000s. What are the tools you're using now?
DKJ - I tried a little bit of combustion. I'm not so much of a node based artist yet and my next goal is to transition from Adobe software's to Nuke. A lot of companies are using Nuke now. But hands down, I think there's still a future with Adobe After Effects. Boris FX has a lot of new plugins to accommodate and improve compositing for After Effects users. The work I'm doing with HBO is full on Adobe. I did some freelance for AKA NYC the Broadway agency in New York. They did "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Matilda," and "Harry Potter."
GB - What would you say is the most challenging thing in the 3D world or in the VFX world for you right now from a creative perspective?
DKJ - Juggling between jobs can be very challenging. I am doing a lot of high end, high quality, high demanding projects. At the same time, there's so many tutorials and training every day, there's a lot of skills I’ve got to keep up with. So the biggest challenge is trying to be a hybrid, I would say, you can't just be an animator anymore. You can't be too niche. You have to be a jack of all trades. You’ve got to know a bit of everything. I fear for the college graduates who are gonna have a hell of a time trying to keep up!
GB - What have you done during COVID? Were you able to work from home?
DKJ - We didn't miss a beat! Actually, we were anticipating this work from home situation. There were engineers already testing working off site. So once that happened, we were told to just take our laptops home. We started setting up our own computers and was able to somehow tap into the machines at the office on site from off-site.
GB - That's interesting. So you're actually working on software at the office from home?
DKJ - Yes. We have this little device called the 10ZiG.
GB - 10ZiG?
DKJ - Yeah, it's a device that routes from the internet and into our machines at the office. There is no external CPU. I just bought monitors, keyboard and that little device called the 10ZiG. It's super fast, doesn't feel like anything lags at all.
GB - Have you seen with the streaming channels any major differences in workflow?
DKJ - Oh, volume wise it's 200% more. Warner Media just got bought by AT&T, and they demand 60% more content.
GB - How do you tackle that? Because that's one thing I've heard from a lot of VFX artists. That there's this constant pressure to work around the clock and get things done, for your own mental well being, how do you tackle that?
DKJ - And I just recently gave birth, and I'm a mom, too. So that's like so many boxes. One mini box and one big box!
GB - Congratulations on that! That's really exciting!
DKJ - Thank-you! After 20 years of doing this, you know how to juggle life and work balance.
GB - You mentioned wanting to learn Nuke, so where is it that you want to evolve into as a creative? Is there a particular area in the VFX industry you want to work in?
DKJ - I want to be a really, really strong compositor. I started off as a designer, and I've done promos, and commercials, I learned how to trim particles. I think the next level for me would be to create something realistic and believable. There's not many people who are really professional in this field yet. So you could still be in high demand in terms of creating lifelike, realistic good layouts.
GB - Now, I have one last question that I'd like to ask everyone I interview. What would you suggest people watch on Netflix or HBO Max or something that you saw and you were like, "Oh, that was really good."
DKJ - I'm currently really into "Love Craft Country." I was watching "The Boys" as well on Amazon. I watched a bit of "Enola Holmes" on Netflix. I like to watch a bit of everything. I wouldn't say there's a favorite. VFX wise I'm looking forward to "His Dark Materials" because the CG there is spectacular. It looks really good. Of course I'm biased towards HBO so I would say watch HBO Max, but you’ve got to keep your scope wide. You’ve got to keep learning from everyone. You never know who's your next boss.
GB -Okay. Well, thank you so much for letting us interview you!
DKJ - Thank you.
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