Before making her mark as a visual effects producer on “Stranger Things” and “Tales from the Loop,” Andrea Knoll was a multi-faceted actress, director, producer and writer whose credits include “The Boss Baby” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”
Knoll spoke with Variety about her start in the world of VFX and addressed the issues and barriers women within the world of VFX face. “A woman has to spend years proving herself to earn an opportunity,” she says. But having faced roadblocks herself, Knoll talks about how she hopes to help pave the way for future generations.
Was there a show or a movie that got you excited in the world of VFX and something that stood out for you?
“Jurassic Park” is one of my favorite films. It’s a great example of blending practical special effects with visual effects.
What I love so much about the original film is how lifelike the dinosaurs appear. And it’s because they built animatronic dinosaurs. They looked real and contributed to the actor’s performances since they were interacting with physical dinosaurs. It was early days for CGI and the visual effects work was beautiful, very cutting edge at the time – and it still holds up.
I had the pleasure of working with Alan Scott (Special Effects Supervisor Legacy Effects) on “Tales from the Loop” and he had worked on those original dinosaurs, so it was this beautiful full-circle moment.
What’s so great about that film is how it still holds up.
They achieved so much with very little. They didn’t have these big dramatic movements and the crazy activity of the dinosaurs. Instead, they had close-up shots and it made it feel so very real.
How did you get into working in the business of visual effects?
I’ve always been obsessed with film and television since I was a kid. My mom exposed me to so many classic films at an early age and didn’t limit what I could watch. Film always provided an escape. I always wanted to help others and what better way than to provide the same escapism for others through film and television?
I graduated from Boston University with a film production degree, and I worked my way up in production until I became a producer.
As an overall producer at Dreamworks and Sony Pictures, I was exposed to visual effects and worked closely with all departments. I had over a decade of experience in production when I started on “Stranger Things,” and that’s when I took on a role with visual effects specifically.
What were some obstacles you faced in your career?
To be honest, most of the obstacles I’ve faced came from the previous generation of women who weren’t very supportive and I felt held back. When I first started out I was told by a female producer “You are too ambitious.” I remember thinking, “Isn’t this a good thing?” I’ve turned this into a positive by making it a point as I moved forward with my career to mentor as many women as I can which has been very rewarding. In 2020 women are still not supportive of each other and that needs to drastically change for there to be an actual substantial change in the industry.
That’s interesting, especially as Martin gave Thelma Schoonmaker this amazing opportunity in the ‘70s and she has said he’s been her biggest champion, never holding her back.
They have a great working relationship but the point is a man gave her that opportunity. Why aren’t women doing that for each other? There’s a lot of talk about it, but it needs to be something that people are practicing every day.
What is the biggest misconception about visual effects?
I think when people think about visual effects, they think explosions – noticeable CG work and there’s less of an understanding that it can be subtle, artistic, and can be really an extension of production design and cinematography. When visual effects are done right, you can’t tell that anything was done – if the project calls for it, like
“Tales from the Loop,” it should be photorealistic, subtle, enhancing what is already there, to some extent. That’s what we aimed to do on this show, and we were successful.
There are women in VFX but not many VFX producers, what would you say to that point?
There aren’t a lot of women specializing in visual effects across the board, whether it be as visual effects producers, supervisors, compositors because they’re not given the opportunity. We’re still behind in this industry in terms of how we treat women – especially women in roles behind the camera – A woman has to spend years proving herself to “earn” an opportunity, she has to have experience under her belt to be hired as a department head or as a director, for example. But for a man, if he says he wants to try something, he will be given that opportunity. If someone has intelligence, leadership skills, creative talent, they will excel in any situation and women should be treated with the same trust and respect as men – and, in my experience, we’re not.
With “Tales from the Loop,” how did you approach the visual look of the series in terms of VFX?
Since it’s based on paintings, our goal was to maintain a painterly quality. We treated every shot and frame like a painting to preserve that look throughout. When you watch it, it’s not obvious whether something was accomplished practically in production design or through cinematography or special effects or if it was enhanced or done entirely by visual effects. It
was a true team effort and a combination of approaches working hand in hand with Legacy FX and their outstanding puppeteers and to create a hybrid of sorts, and to marry the best of both worlds – practical and cg.