Sarah Mihalec Maloney ’01
Majored in media studies; minored in psychology
Producer at Institution Post, Burbank, California
SCRIPPS COLLEGE: Scripps College: You create digital animation and visual effects for film and television. Tell us about your career path—how did you land in Hollywood?
SARAH MIHALEC MALONEY: I graduated into a challenging time; after 9/11, many studios put a freeze on all new hires. I jumped into an industry—video games—I knew nothing about. I wasn’t even allowed to play video games as a kid! I learned quickly that not every job is going to be your favorite, but it’s important to figure out what you can learn, what you can take away, and what you want to leave behind.
Almost every job since then has been a leap of faith into something I’ve never done before, from video games to animation to traditional visual effects to 3-D to health and beauty. I took a bit of a detour, but it was all an experiment and a chance to test my skills in new industries.
Now I run a post-production company that services the entertainment industry. The company works in both film and television, providing services such as color correction, picture mastering, and visual effects. My day-to-day is looking at a sea of balls hanging in the air and knowing which ones need to be poked, spun, taken down, or just left alone. No two projects are the same, and there is a huge amount of information to keep track of for each. Most days I’m problem solving—schedules, budgets, last-minute studio requests. The key has always been to remember that nothing is really on fire, and most of the time if you talk through a situation there is a logical and doable solution that won’t keep your crew up until midnight.
I enjoy the challenges and the personalities, and watching a filmmaker view their final product for the first time is one of my favorite parts of the job—the moment they come out of the color suite (the control room for color grading video in a post-production environment), and their film has just come to life in a way they didn’t realize was possible.
SC: What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
SMM: It sounds corny, but I really try to learn something from every project, so it’s hard to have a favorite. Alice in Wonderland (2010) was a huge learning experience for me. I was fortunate to work with a computer-generated imagery (CGI) supervisor who was generous with his technical knowledge and taught me terms and tricks I had never seen before. The TV show Drunk History is incredibly entertaining—to work on a show that brings history together with grown-up fun makes work not feel like work.
SC: What are some of the ways Scripps helped prepare you for work in the entertainment industry?
SMM: When I was at Scripps, the emphasis was on the conceptual and theoretical aspects of film studies, and the practical, hands-on focus was several years off. I think my biggest takeaway was analytical thinking and concept breakdown. A lot of my work centers on putting budgets together for projects with hundreds of shots and sometimes hundreds of individual effects elements. Knowing who is responsible for each item, how much it will cost, how it is being used, and where we can reuse items ensures a level of accuracy in my work and often saves my clients money. I took away a sense of problem solving and never settling for the first answer from my time at Scripps. And while sometimes a project doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would or you think your idea would have been the better solution, I’m not afraid to ask questions and come up with alternative ways of doing things.
SC: You graduated in 2001, so you’ve worked in Hollywood for more than a decade. Have animation and visual-effects technologies changed much during that time?
SMM: One of the biggest changes was the 3-D revolution that happened in 2009–10. I had been working at Sony on Alice in Wonderland and got a call from the 3-D conversion company Prime Focus. They were converting Clash of the Titans into 3-D in just 10 weeks and asked me to come lead one of the teams. A project of that scale and time frame had never been done before, and to be a part of it was pretty amazing. When there is no path to follow, you find yourself not just scouting the path, but building the road as you go.
There are always innovations happening, and each one adds to the effects artist’s vocabulary and creates another building block to use. Global illumination technology, improved fluid simulations, and increased render speeds are just a few things that have changed since I started—I used to hear stories about artists sending a shot to render at 2:00 a.m., going to sleep under their desks, and waking up hours later when the processing had completed. But while speeds have increased, the complexity of the visual effects has also increased. So you still have renders that take days to do, but the effects being rendered are much more elaborate.
I think no matter how good technology gets, we have to remember that there are people using that technology, and ultimately it is a tool to help in the process. I was fortunate at DreamWorks to work with many fine artists—I don’t just mean they were amazing colleagues, I mean they were highly trained professional painters and sculptors. Anyone can learn a program or hit some keys and make something appear on-screen, but the ability and talent to know about composition, color work, and balance are not answered in sequences of ones and zeros. People want to make it all about the artist or all about the technology, but the reality is that, as with most things, it’s a partnership.
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