Posted Aug 13

‘Ad Astra’ VFX producer shares what it means to be an ‘obstacle remover’

by Jane Bracher
‘Ad Astra’ VFX producer shares what it means to be an ‘obstacle remover’ by Jane Bracher

Samantha Banack’s road to VFX is marked by obstacles, and she has either found her way around or through them. It then only seems fitting that as a VFX producer now for MR. X, with many years of experience and show credits to her name, that her biggest asset is her ability to solve problems in production. So much so that she considers herself an “obstacle remover”.

“Anything anyone is unsure of how to proceed on – I figure out the next steps – or at least get everyone to agree on what the best steps will be,” Banack told The Focus.

Banack, who knew early on she wanted a career in film, has worked on a variety of shows throughout her VFX career, including Ad Astra, Shazam!, American Gods, and Bates Motel for MR. X, as well as The Revenant and The Finest Hours for MPC Film previously.

As a VFX producer, Banack serves as the conduit between the client and the team.

“I work with the client to figure out the work required and budget, and then with the VFX Supervisor internally, as well as the production team, to figure out how we are going to achieve the outcome the client wants,” she explained. “Once the ball is rolling, my job is really defined by how it’s all going.”

That’s where being an obstacle remover comes into play. It’s a constant challenge, she said, of anticipating what roadblocks may emerge, clearing those away, and ensuring a smooth ride for the VFX team. But it also means no two days are created equal.

Her years going through the obstacle course of her career prepared her for the rigours of her role as a VFX producer.

Communication is crucial

Banack’s role hinges on constant communication. She learned the importance of it early in her career, though she did not understand it until about six years later.

Banack first worked as a production assistant on set, an assistant in the development office of a pay TV channel focusing on Canadian film and TV, and then had a long stint at the Toronto International Film Festival. At some point she felt burnt out and ached for a change. After applying for “a million jobs” she landed a role as PA to a VFX supervisor and producer on an animated feature, effectively kickstarting her VFX career.

“Through that project I learned the basics of the CG pipeline on a large scale, and then worked in a really small studio, so I learned how a pipeline built for hundreds of people scales down to just one or two artists,” she said.

At that point she interviewed at MR. X in a bid to take the next step in her VFX career. But she did not hear back, so she let it go and made the decision to chance it in the UK.

“When I moved to London on a whim to take advantage of a youth visa, I figured I would be a waitress or something,” she recalled, “but Harry Potter built a VFX Empire there, so London ended up being an opportunity for me to take everything I had learned and apply it.”

In the next six years she honed her skills at The Mill’s advertising studio in London and then at MPC for film projects. She only returned to Toronto after she had secured a job at MR. X, and finally understood her lesson in communication and interview etiquette.

“I was asked about why I didn't join them earlier. Turns out there was an email chain from after my first application saying, ‘let’s hire this girl’, and nothing after. So, it seems something was lost somewhere in the communication chain and I never got an offer,” she explained.

“Just goes to show you, a little proactive follow-up after an interview could shortcut you to the job you always wanted! Never hesitate to ask that question!”

Over the years Banack has learned to put a premium on good communication as part of managing a VFX team.

“The road to where I am was paved with a million lessons about communication! It is taking me a whole career to figure out the best way to get to the goal, and make sure no one gets left behind,” she said.

“Leading does not mean being the bossiest, or the most in charge, but creating an environment where everyone feels like they have a part to play, and that they get to own a little piece of our collective accomplishment.

“Figuring out how to make that happen and still get to where we need to be at the end of the day is always a struggle because you have to adjust for every personality on your team. But it’s also one of the most gratifying things I have been able to take away from my work. It’s a lesson I think I will continue learning every day I show up to work,” she added.

Changing landscape for women

But there are some obstacles in VFX that will take more time and work to overcome.

Although she’s carved a place for herself and has been able to work with both “real strong, super smart” women and men she learns from in production, Banack still gets her share of “double standards” as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“As I have moved further into my career and been responsible for more direct reports, I have found that there can be some double standards in how a woman is seen as a manager,” she shared. “Some things are not as ‘acceptable’ coming from a woman as they would be from a man.”

And yet, she also sees cracks spreading across the glass ceiling – another obstacle she is helping clear away, this time for the next generation, by virtue of doing what she does and doing it well.

“I think that landscape is changing, and that change is accelerating – so that by the time any PA (or hopeful PA) reading this moves to where I am it will be a thing of the past. Or at least that is my hope!” –

Orci varius natoque penatibus et magnis dis parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.