Next up in our blog series for international women’s month is Bristol-based Pipeline TD, Catherine Hsu.  Find out how Catherine found her love for coding and the big part Catherine’s role as a pipeline TD plays in creating our extraordinary work.

Working as Pipeline TD as Axis Studios is a hugely varied role—you must always be on the ball. One minute I might be looking at assets or lighting in Houdini, the next looking into Maya issues for the animation team. The role varies so much from day to day that you kind of want not to know what the next day will bring. You'll get on well if you enjoy unexpected—and often challenging—problem-solving work. 

What's best about the role is the satisfaction of it all, thought of taking something complicated and simplifying it behind the scenes, so artists can do their jobs faster and ultimately create better work. Those moments are what make the job so rewarding.

Simplifying the complex

A bit of advice: you don’t have to be perfect at everything to be good at what you do. You never will be—and that’s OK! You just have to find that one thing you’re really passionate about and have a skill in. I realised this when I discovered what I enjoy, and I’ve been doing it ever since: coding.

Coding for me is an outlet; I do it in my freetime. I first became interested in programming while working on my A-levels. I struggled with other subjects like English, geography and science. I started doing computing by default and that’s where I discovered coding, and that I was really good at it! Coding was pure logic and made total sense to me.

My passion led me into a Computer Science degree at the University of Bath, where I became proficient with Python and C++ and contributed to various programming projects. I also learned about different industries, such as robotics and CG, animation and VFX. I was so interested in how you could manipulate things with code, like an on-screen animation. The results you could achieve mesmerised me.

After graduation, I joined Prime Focus World, where I worked as a software developer on the pipeline team. I developed a plug-in for Maya using Python, PyQt, C++ and mu commands, which could render a shot directly into a viewer RV using Arnold. Working on such projects and finding ways to automate or eradicate the kind of time-wasting tasks artists don't like doing—and in the process freeing up more time for their creative work—is what I love doing. I took this skillset to Aardman Animations and then to Axis.

At Axis, I split my time between jumping in and helping people when they need it and coding new tools I know artists will like. I play a big part in the end products we create, even if you can’t easily see my impact. Artists can point out the parts they created or the things they worked on. With RnD, IT and so on, we play a big part in making projects happen, but you can’t point to a particular section or asset we worked on. Our contribution is far more holistic. 

Although much of the final product wouldn’t happen without tech we don't get the same spotlight as artists—but that’s fine! I don't want to be in the spotlight. My main motivation is the artists; they can't do their jobs unless I do my job. I just want to support the magic they create and help them to tell amazing stories. The teams and people I work with is what I get the most out of my day to day. 

Women and coding

I came into the industry simply because it’s cool, as is the work we create and the projects we work on. Of course, as with the visual effects and animation industry, the coding sector has historically been dominated by men. In the context of my personal journey, however, I never considered coding’s male-dominated stereotype as an issue for me going into the industry, or as a barrier to doing what I want to do. I was of course mindful of a lack of women in tech, but I did not let the gender imbalance hold me back. People will always hold strong opinions of what one should be doing or how one should be—you can let it hold you back or you can choose to follow your passion regardless. Personally, I’ve never let others’ opinions affect my own decision making. And that’s a good rule for life; not just your career. People will always have opinions. Let them have them and keep doing whatever it is you want to do!

Over the years, there has of course been a significant improvement around diversity in coding. People from increasingly various backgrounds and genders are found both in the creative sector and within its technical departments. What's really great is that although there's greater diversity, what you look like is never the primary consideration. In this industry, it's all about your ability first and foremost. I genuinely don't feel like this industry is biased about who you are; it cares about your talent and what you can achieve. Such is absolutely the case at Axis, where we have an awesomely talented team who produce such great work. 

Starting out

For those just starting a career in visual effects or animation—and particularly on the coding side—my advice is to take it all as it comes. As I said at the start, coding is a highly variable role, and you'll face many problems of different shapes and sizes. Preparation is hard, so it's all about tackling issues as they arise as quickly and efficiently as you can.

Life is all about taking on whatever it throws at you. Bring that ethos into the role, and you'll do great!