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GirlGeek of the Week
Feb 2003

Cyndi Webb

Ellen Poon

Ellen first became interested in technology when she saw that images could be drawn with a computer. This discovery came to her at a very young CG Department at the University College London, where she shared painting software ideas with fine art majors. There she applied her mathematics background and a deep appreciation for the arts into computer-generated imagery, beginning a career in the Visual Effects industry that has spanned more than 16 years.

Ellen Poon is a familiar face to Girlgeeks. We previously had the chance to talk to Ellen when she was the Visual Effects Supervisor at George Lucas' Industrial, Light + Magic (ILM) working on epic sequences for films like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park, The Green Mile and Men In Black. Back then, she spoke to us about technology, filmmaking and being a woman in a male-dominated industry. (See our Best of Chat with Ellen Poon)

Years later, we continue this discussion with Ellen, now the CEO and Founder of her own visual effects house, called Dfreedom Zone based in San Francisco. Aptly named, the company has given her more opportunities to pursue visual-effects projects in other areas of the media industry such as commercial and music video production and "pre-viz" software development.

Besides running her own company, she still works on visual-effects for feature films. Perhaps one of her much-anticipated achievements this year is her visual collaboration with famed film director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou) in his new epic movie, HERO, due out this Spring. Poon acted as the Visual Effects Supervisor for the movie, designing and overseeing over 250 2D and 3D computer-generated visual effects shots which required management of several production houses.

With her dedication to art and technology, it comes as no surprise that we once named her one of our Girl Geek Inspiring Women. Now, as our current Girl Geek of the Week, Ellen shares with us her experiences of starting her own business, her departure from a 10-year partnership with ILM, creative freedom in Hollywood, and the possible changing attitudes toward women in the field.

We were fortunate to talk to you a couple years ago when you were a Visual Effects Supervisor for ILM. Back then, you said that you were met with resistance being a woman in the field. Now as a CEO of your own visual effects house, DFreedomZone, do you still encounter obstacles being a woman in the industry?

I have met with resistance in the film business as a woman in the past. To be honest, I think we always will. This is not a perfect world and we all have our weaknesses. Its knowing how to resolve those frustrations and turn them into something positive that counts. So I guess what I am saying is that I feel like the resistance is less now, but its probably because I know how to deal with them better.

Why did you decide to launch your own company?

I wanted to explore the creative communities in a different way. The desire to work in a smaller group is another reason. Also the film " Hero" is a perfect project to start a company for.

What advice can you give to other women who want to start their own business? What should they expect? And how should they prepare themselves?

Talk to other women who have done it before is the key. It's not easy; in fact it's damn hard. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that one really needs to do a lot of homework in order to be successful. Don't rush into it, take your time to find out if you can afford the time and personal costs that come with building a business from scratch before diving into it.

How have your experiences at ILM and other previous positions shaped the way you run your own company?

It allows me to supervise people better and more equipped with the vocabularies and confidence to project my ideas to potential clients and business partners.

You've worked on the visual effects for "The Phantom Menace", "Jurassic Park" and "Men In Black". What is the process like working on such big-budget films? How much collaboration do you have with the director? Is there any opportunity for creative freedom in such cases?

It varies. Sometimes I have one on one time with directors like Frank Darabont, Woody Allen and Joe Dante. For some other projects, because of the scope there are more layers of communications. Luckily the production teams I worked with have been so good and the right information almost always got to the right people.

As for creative freedom, I definitely think so. The important thing is to voice your opinion at the right time within the right forum. If the idea is good, most people will listen to it.

Do you feel that you have more creative freedom and control now that you run your own company especially working with a more diverse group of clients?

Yes, certainly. Clients come to you normally expecting your input for the whole project, from start to finish.

What other advantages or disadvantages have you discovered in having your own company?

The good things are you get to do everything, from design to execution of a commercial or sequence as well as knowing how a business is run.

The down side is there is not enough time in the day to get all these things done. Trying not to bring the stress home is difficult.

How did you get involved with the movie, HERO? How much input did the director, Zhang Yimou have with the visual effects?

The producer of "Hero" Mr. Bill Kong who also produced "Crouching Tiger & Hidden Dragon" called me and invited me to work on the film. He wanted to have a collection of the best talents who would understand Asian sensibilities to come together and do the best work for this production which we did.

As for working with Zhang Yimou, I went through the script with him and discussed which part of the movie would need visual effects and animation. After that I would do storyboards and concept art to see if he liked them. His input would be to determine whether the design fitted into his vision of the film. There were however room for discussion as to the style of CG work, some of the decisions could only be made once we started production. So a lot of the decisions were made once we started shooting the movie and during post production.

We're starting to see many feature films incorporating computer-enhanced visual sequences and characters. Do you think technology has finally caught up with the vision of today's filmmakers? Or do you find that there are still limitations in visual effects processes or technologies?

The sky is the limit these days with CG visual effects and characters. I do think in the past year we have seen some of the best work ever done using CG. Not only that the work was done well, but they also supported the stories.

The technologies are growing so fast that people can really think of any crazy ideas and have them brought to fruition. I always say, "With time and money, you can do anything". This is certainly true for the visual effects business.

In your opinion, which movies do you think have the greatest visual effects sequences?

Matrix, Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, Bladerunner, the very first Star Wars film (New Hope).

Did you have a mentor in the field or anyone who inspired you to use technology in your work?

Dennis Murren is very inspiring for me. He is just brilliant. I don't have a mentor as such but I suppose I look at different people and tried to learn from them all. They could be my friends, my colleagues, my clients or my family. I almost always gain some knowledge by talking to people.

What do you do when you are not working or thinking about the next project?

Living dangerously most likely such as exploring underground cultures and meeting interesting people. Also I do a lot of travelling, seek out cool scuba diving spots in the world, read a good book or watching my favourite operas.

Any future projects?

Yes, they are in the works.

Any favorite websites, tech tools or cool devices to recommend?

Website: -'cause I travel a lot. Know enough to speak to most people but not enough to know how to write them - I am a news junkie, - wonderful for keeping up with latest and the greatest commercial spots that are done here and other countries.
Tech tools: Final Cut Pro (the costs make it easier for people to edit their own film at home)
Cool devices: TIVO, Cannon DV camcorder XL1s, night vision goggles!

Do you consider yourself a Geek?

I do not see myself as a geek, I just have an appreciation of things artistic and technical.


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