Niki Wakefield is a Senior Lecturer in Compositing and Visual Effects (VFX) within the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries. After working for 12 years in the high-end VFX industry as a 2D Compositor, she recently joined the School of Creative Technologies.
Before teaching on the BSc (Hons) Computer Animation & Visual Effects (CAVE) course, Niki worked for Cinesite, MillFilm, Moving Picture Company (MPC) and Double Negative (DNeg), creating VFX for high-end motion pictures. She has worked on many notable films such as Children of Men, The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter I-IV, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001, 2003), Mission Impossible II and Space Jam.
Coming to Portsmouth and falling in love with the City “where the sun shines”, she teaches VFX from the first year of the undergraduate course right through to the Masters. Her speciality is a lesser-known area, namely compositing, which is the art of blending layers of 3D computer-generated imagery (CGI), green/bluescreens and matte paintings into footage, creating a photorealistic and seamless composition. Compositors have a key role in creating visual effects that are invisible to the audience, making them believe everything was shot in-camera.
Niki became a CGI Compositor after studying Visual History with Film Theory at university, followed by a graduate job at Cinesite where her career took off. She was one of only a few women on the team so when she became a supervisor it was an important moment.
“Women are underrepresented in senior roles in this field and said to be intimidated by the technology, but it’s just a tool to create the artistic results you want to achieve. Compositing is exciting – every project is different and new challenges always come up, so it’s never boring!”
In the first film she worked on at Pinewood, she created a two-minute long intro sequence of footage with a miniature model of a spaceship filmed with a motion control camera. This was a unique experience for her because she composited different passes of the same plate, rather than blending live-action with CGI elements. Later, Niki was an on-set Compositing Supervisor with her own team of trainee artists on the film Entrapment where she worked with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“It was set on the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and we had a lot of tricky green screens and difficult reflections, so I was there to minimalise the compositing issues we would have in post-production”.
The aspect she enjoys most about teaching is when students explain their problems then realise the solution as they describe the issue. Within an industry of ever-changing technology, there are areas within VFX where many students discover new aspects they can specialise in, whilst becoming resilient and adaptable to change at the same time.
“It’s a great moment when students work it out for themselves and it suddenly ‘clicks’, giving them a confidence boost. There is no perfect way to use VFX, it’s a visual art and it doesn’t always have to be technically flawless. It’s great seeing the students get excited and really learn how to experiment”.
Niki is developing industry projects, work placements and employment opportunities for the CAVE students. Currently collaborating with Portsmouth-based VFX company, Dark Cosmos Creative, she hopes to build more connections with the VFX industry, in order to provide client briefs for the undergraduates so that they can gain industry experience, make connections and expand their portfolios and showreels.
“The hard part of compositing is ‘developing an eye’, being able to see what doesn’t look real. This is only 10% of the work but it is the hardest and most important part. The VFX industry is looking for people who can problem solve and have a good balance between technical skill, including coding, and artistic ability.”
When asked about her creative practice, Niki finds it easier to show rather than describe, for example, the flying car sequence in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) which she composited along with the Moving Picture team. This was a complex process of blending the CG car and smoke and even a CGI version of Daniel Radcliffe hanging out of the car, with live-action plates of the train shot in Scotland. Back in those days a few seconds of screen time would take a month to composite and render using the processing power of computers at the time.
The industry is changing, going back to a more practical way of creating visual effects which helps the cast interact with the environment better, but embedding new filmmaking technology in the workflow at the same time. This helps the cast interact with the environment better. LED screens are being introduced as an alternative to green screens, so virtual production brings the crew together to define a film’s final look by blending analogue and digital. VFX compositors are now involved alongside everyone in the production team: filmmakers, lighting gaffers, gamers and coders working together on set, being part of the creative process for the final outcome.
Niki believes this advancement is important as it opens up a lot of room for creativity and human interaction, especially for VFX artists. This goes hand in hand with what the CAVE degree offers students where they can adapt to the needs of every project. Emulating the working environment is something Portsmouth staff create by encouraging interdisciplinary projects with the BA (Hons) Film Production course, an exciting new development that will reflect the innovative developments in the industry.