In honour of international women's month, all month we will be sharing profiles, stories and inspirations from some of our talented colleagues from across our studios. First up is Head of Characters, Amy Ash.
No two days are the same in my role as Head of Characters. Every day I work with a genuinely talented, amazing team. It’s a joy to create the characters with them. I’m responsible for the team’s line management, so I’m regularly communicating with the artists and doing what I can to support them in their work. Sometimes I’ll be more hands-on on a project, which means directly leading artists, giving feedback, and liaising with production and the rest of the project team. Other times I’ll be preparing for upcoming projects or focusing on the department’s longer-term goals, including searching for new talent or helping to identify workflow improvements. I’ve become used to expecting anything to happen during the course of the day, so I try to remain flexible and put myself where I’m most useful.
From illustrator to Head of Characters
I started out as an illustrator with no digital/3D experience; I'd set my sights on a career creating book artwork or in advertising. I discovered Photoshop mid-way through my degree course, and it changed everything.
After graduating from art college I was hired at Realtime UK as an illustrator and texture artist. I started learning 3D on the job, which became the first step in a 20-year career—16 years as a generalist with a specialism in characters, then a year in freelance as a character artist and three years at Axis!
I've held pretty much every role in CG: as Lead Artist at Flipbook in Manchester, I was doing everything from lighting, animation, character modelling, concept painting and everything in between. Tight deadlines helped me hone my skills and develop an eye for making things look good, fast. My big career turning point came in my mid-thirties. I'd experienced a difficult few years in which I struggled with mental health. I decided I needed a jolt, so I quit a secure job and launched into freelance character modelling. The move felt so risky, but it was just what I needed. In just the first year I contributed at studios like Nexus Studios, Aardman Animation and Passion Pictures. I learned so much and met many wonderful people.
After a satisfying year of freelance, I landed a job at Axis. Within a year I was promoted to Lead Character Artist and two years after to Head of Characters.
Diversity in character creation
I find excitement and interest in all the projects I work on at Axis; no matter the style or subject matter there’s always some area where you can try something new or push your abilities. I was the lead character artist on the DEATHLOOP E3 2019 reveal trailer for Bethesda and the Tales of Runeterra shorts for Riot Games' League of Legends. I'm really proud of the work the team and I delivered for these projects. The character department has worked on so many other outstanding cinematics that I wasn't directly involved in, such as the KDA More music video for Riot which stands at 77 million views and counting on YouTube. A lot of my work hasn’t been released yet; there’s a running joke on the character team that the projects I work on are cursed to never be seen! Some of those are proof of concept projects that clients have commissioned, where we’ve had the opportunity to push the quality or try a new technique. Others are soon to be released; there’s one particular project and character I’m quite proud of that will make an appearance later this year.
Representing diverse identities, genders and ethnicities is extremely important in the characters we create. Firstly, there is a validating aspect of seeing a character on-screen one can identify with—this is immeasurably valuable for the many people who have so little representation in the films they watch or the games they play. Inclusion and diversity integrate people into the community and shift the perspectives and attitudes of culture at large, so I think considering representation during character creation is essential.
Furthermore, the games industry and wider media are places for imagination, creativity and expression—we shouldn’t keep telling the same stories through an unchanging cultural lens. Imagination thrives when we give voices to people with diverse experience. When I create characters at Axis, I always question myself about their story: where does the character live; what day-to-day challenges do they face; how would this impact how they look or dress, even down to details such as the wear and tear on their clothes? If we draw from a larger ranger of stories, the answers take on more life and humanity.
Speaking on women's representation, I'd love to see more stories promoting a broader spectrum of femininity. I loved The Last of Us Part II and The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC for the advances they made in this area. Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn's matriarchal society was similarly refreshing after playing as so many gruff, emotionally stunted leading men. Smaller studios also make many games with complex and interesting female characters, such as Her Story, Gone Home, Night in the Woods and Tell Me Why. Admittedly, many of these female characters are predominantly white and western. I look forward to seeing more racial diversity in future.
What we've improved, and what we can do better
I believe diversifying representation in the entertainment industry could also motivate more women to join the animation and visual effects industry.
Fewer women work in animation and VFX than men, but I think the balance has changed massively over the last ten years and will continue to do so. The industry has historically been male-dominated and I’m not sure exactly why; probably a combination of overly masculine culture, a lack of encouragement or role models for young women entering the industry and institutionalised sexism. But I think as training has become more accessible, tools have developed and freed artists to focus on creativity, and gaming has become a more diverse and mainstream pursuit, we’ve seen more and more women coming into the CG world.
In many ways, the CG industry is leading the way in workforce diversity over other sectors. Our teams are often multinational and young, and we maintain a reasonably stable gender balance. In doing so, we invite a healthy diversity of experience and culture. This is essential in fresh, open, exploratory creativity.
We shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet, though; much work remains. For one thing, we must continue to improve at creating safe workspaces—there are still far too many stories of boys' club sexism within major creative studios. People are certainly more willing to call out sexism or bigotry, but intolerance remains an issue. At least the problem is now spoken about—back when I started it wasn't even included in the conversation.
Another major problem across the sector is the lack of women in senior roles. We need more women in senior positions to build a more inclusive culture, act as role models and steer creative decision making toward a broader audience.
How can people in my position help address gender disparity? I believe we have a duty to actively encourage an inclusive team culture, nurture a welcoming work environment and be vigilant around any factors preventing these things from happening. We must make it continually clear that young women can have a successful career in CG with no limitations on what they can accomplish.
Every day I'm surrounded by the inspiring women at Axis who have made it in the industry. In the spirit of International Women's day, I would like to namecheck all the women currently working (or having recently worked in) the character department. These women comprise an incredible and inspiring group who've modelled warriors, groomed monsters, textured demons, and sculpted dragons. They are, in no particular order: Femke Schaars, Elena Distefano, Dulce Segerra Lopez, Ekaterina Pushkarova, Julia Pishtar, Linda Dussine, Lucile Thyrard, Camille Fourniols, Clemence Bellier, Maria Panfilova, Veronika Vajdova, Sofia Hannson, Amy Sharpe, Bhavika Bajpal, Sophie Blayrat, Stephanie Fong, Izabela Poznanska, Elina Karamova and Eva De Prado. You're all awesome!
My advice to those of you thinking about joining the industry is simple: work hard, be friendly and have confidence in your ability. Art is mostly about graft and putting in the hours to level up. Part of this process is recognising your strengths and maximising them while being aware of your weaknesses and doing your best to address them. Look at current industry trends, see where you fit in and tailor your portfolio around what you love doing the most. And always remember: those around you who seem intimidating or beyond reach were once in the same situation!
I’ll sign off with the following: don't ever let anyone limit you. You can do anything and go anywhere if you have the skills. No female leads in your studio? You can be the first—and when you get there, you'll have earned it. Animation and visual effects is increasingly an industry where you can be yourself, make incredible friends and do work you are passionate about. You have every right to be there.