An Interview with Professional Artist, Mary Poplin (Part One)
I love a fun interview, where you get more out of it than originally intended. And, my recent interview with Mary Poplin is no exception. You may know Mary as the Product Specialist expertly touting the capabilities of mocha Pro for Imagineer Systems/Boris FX, and for her engaging mocha Pro tutorials and webinars. But, there are many facets to Mary's artistry, and many hats she wears in her postproduction work. I was very happy to have this opportunity to interview Mary about her work, past and present, learn about her fun personal projects and hobbies, and gain some insight into the industry of filmmaking.
Artist, illustrator, matte painter, postproduction generalist, actress, costume designer, and fervent LARPer - this is Mary Poplin.
Mary Poplin demoing mocha Pro
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic background? When did you realize your passion for art?
I have always been interested in art; for as long as I can remember I have been making things. I make costumes, props, paintings, drawings, and of course, I have extensive VFX experience. I started out with a love of the basics: drawing, painting, and sculpting. The creative gene runs in my family and they have supported all of my explorations into the art world. I firmly believe that VFX is just another medium to create in, and that if you have the basics of line, color, light, and form you can create anything. Everything else is just a toolset.
Starting out in illustration and design, how did you end up in post-production work?
Well, illustration didn't have a nine-to-five avenue for me to explore, so when I graduated college I wanted to be able to have a work/life balance. I didn't have the client base for illustration to pay the bills, so I got into creating marketing work for a movie called "Barnyard." Once it was seen that I could paint, that job led to matte paintings and color keys for the film to help our Art Director, Phil Cruden, get concepts out the door. And ultimately, I ended up creating rotopaint fixes for the entire film when our one rotopaint artist left the company. I just kept filling the jobs that needed to be done. I think helpfulness and willingness to work creates a career path for you. The key is finding a need and filling it. Ultimately, I moved on to more matte paintings and compositing work because rotopaint is not my favorite task, no matter how pretty and invisible the results are. I am also pretty fast at learning new software, and am self-taught, which has helped me tremendously.
Mary Poplin...again demoing mocha Pro
As you have been involved with every aspect of a film project, might you say your skills complement each other?
I definitely would say that. Being in front of and behind the camera gives you an appreciation for how the tools all work together, and they give you an idea of how to face the challenges your colleagues face and find solutions for those problems. Ultimately, I am able to plan shots better and work on a shoestring budget on my personal projects because of the knowledge I have from wearing different hats.
Do you enjoy being a 'generalist'? If you were forced to pick one area, what would it be?
I do enjoy being a generalist because even though I am a type A personality, I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. If I had to pick something though, it would probably be matte paintings. I love creating a new world, creating something that can't be caught in camera.
What inspires you? Are there any particular artists/filmmakers that have influenced how you work?
I am inspired by a lot of things, like movies, audio books, and role playing games, but I prefer visually impressive works and fantasy-driven concepts more than individual filmmakers. My favorite fine artist is William-Adolphe Bouguereau. But, for film... I think all great films are the product of teamwork, and I focus more on the work than the individual people behind them. That being said, I get a lot of inspiration from the incredible teams at Dreamworks, Disney, Lucas Films, Pixar, and Weta. These teams are the gold standard in visualization to me. I don't try to copy what they do, and they don't influence my style so much as they wow me with everything they put out. However, there are some small houses doing incredible work that wows me every day, on a personal level. People like Freddie Wong and Felicia Day are my role models.
If I could be anyone when I grow up, it would be Felicia Day.
The Imagineer Systems team: Ross, JP, Mary, Daryl
As you have worked on everything from commercials, to TV shows and feature films, are there big differences between them in terms of the workflow?
Well, feature films to me are juggernauts where pipeline is key and you have to work seamlessly with 100+ artists in a space designed for half that many people. Films are long hours, but rewarding, too. They require people skills and a killer work ethic, but you have more time to create artistic shots. TV shows and commercials are similar to me - they're lean and fast houses with fast turnaround times and tight-knit teams. Depending on the TV show or commercial, some effects are just as good as anything you'd see in a feature film. Ultimately, I use the same techniques and tools for all of them, with mocha Pro, Nuke, After Effects, and Photoshop being my main staples. But, sometimes I have more time to tweak the art aspect of shots when the project didn't have to be out the door yesterday.
Tell us a little about your acting experience. And, do you find that performance experience helps in how you approach post-production work?
My acting experience isn't much to talk about. I am a member of SAGAFTRA, but honestly don't work much anymore. I've stuck to local commercials and short films, and some plays and even musicals, though I am not a skilled singer by any stretch of the imagination. Acting experience gives me great ideas for correcting faces, being aware of how bodies move, and understanding how to combine or enhance performances; but, I wouldn't say it's a vital part of the toolset, just a fun one.
How much creative freedom do you normally get in your freelance work?
A lot. I am usually a freelance black box. Shots come into my office with a problem that needs to be addressed, and the folks that hire me trust that I will give them what they want based on what we discussed initially and the work that they have seen of mine. If we need a round of notes, that's a normal part of the process, but I have been doing work for so long that I usually know what someone is looking for with their project.
Mary Poplin with husband, Sheldon Morley, at the Sci-Tech Oscars, 2013
What other software/equipment do you use most in your work?
I mostly stick to AE, Nuke, Photoshop, and mocha Pro. I have a canon 5D mark ii camera that I love, and a simple light kit. I can't say enough good things about the Zoom recorder either.
What has been your most difficult project? Is there a memorable moment where things really went awry and you pulled it through exceptionally?
I had to completely paint out Bruce Lee fighting three guys in a basement once, for a concept project. There was a pool in the scene throwing caustics on the walls, lots of motion blur, and lots of shadows. I had to rebuild the whole shot. I thought it would take me three or four days, it needed to be delivered in two, and it took me one and a half. It was one of those "mocha Pro remove module to the rescue" moments I have had in my life. I knew how to use interpolated illumination modeling in the remove module to cut down on the amount of work I needed to hand paint. It looked perfect. We were able to rebuild the shot the way we needed to based on my paint work, and the client was thrilled.
Nick C. Sorbin
"For every breath, for every day of living, this is my Thanksgiving."