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Creating VFX for Apple, Disney and Warner Bros – Meet alumni Oliver Hughes

Specialising in creature animations, Oliver has already worked on ‘Prehistoric Planet’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ and more
<p dir="ltr">Oliver Hughes graduated from BA (Hons) Animation (now <a href="">BA (Hons) Animation &amp; Games</a>) at Arts University Plymouth in 2021 and landed a role as a 3D Animator at global VFX and animation studio the Moving Picture Company (MPC). Two years on, Oliver has worked on blockbuster titles such as Apple’s ‘Prehistoric Planet’, Disney’s live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’ and Warner Bros’ ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’.</p> <p dir="ltr">We sat down to chat with 23-year-old <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Oliver Hughes</a> about what it was like fulfilling his childhood dreams of working on a David Attenborough-narrated dinosaur documentary, how his dedication to earning a job in visual effects (VFX) for the film industry shaped his decision to study at Arts University Plymouth, and how to get the most out of your time at university.<br /></p>
<p>I was around 11 years old when I decided that I wanted to work for Wētā Workshop. Ever since that day, my ambitions and my free time have been directed towards 3D animation.</p> <p dir="ltr">While I was studying A-Levels at Queen Elizabeth’s School in Dorset I looked at a number of different universities. I’d heard good things about Arts University Plymouth and when I looked more closely, decided that would be the best place to get started working towards a career in animation and VFX. I signed up and joined Arts University Plymouth in September 2018.</p> <p dir="ltr">Even while I was still at school, I was always trying to develop my skills in my free time. It’s important to say that everything I’ve achieved so far has come down to always trying to do more than was expected of me.<br /></p>
Oliver Hughes

Oliver Hughes

<p dir="ltr">The academics on my BA (Hons) Animation course at Arts University Plymouth taught me so much. When I first joined the university I was stubborn and found it hard to take criticism or notes on how to improve my work. My advice to others is that stubbornness will only slow your progress. Learn how to take notes, listen to the advice that’s being offered and remember that when an academic or technician sounds like they’re criticising your work, it’s because really they’re trying to show you how to improve.<br /></p>

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom trailer

<p dir="ltr">There were some great opportunities for networking at Arts University Plymouth, including an annual trip to <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">FMX</a> festival in Stuttgart, Germany. Sadly some of those trips were paused during the pandemic because of the lockdowns, but after my first trip to FMX I knew that I needed to make networking the focus of my time outside of my studies.<br /></p>
<p dir="ltr">From visiting industry events, it quickly became obvious that there are a lot of people competing for work in the animation industry. If I was going to stand out, it was vital that I get my name in the minds of the people with the power to employ me. </p> <p dir="ltr">Alongside my degree, I started catching the Megabus to London every month for an industry networking event where you can bring your animations and have them critiqued by people working in the industry. I started that in my first year and attended as regularly as I was able.</p> <p dir="ltr">By my final year, I secured an industry mentor through <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Access:VFX</a>. I started regularly sharing my work with them and they would send notes about what I could do to improve it. When you’re an undergraduate student showing your work to people with careers in the industry, they can really rip your animations apart and it can be hard to take, but learning to adapt based on feedback and not be protective of your work is a necessary skill for working in this industry. The sooner you get used to it, the better.</p> <p dir="ltr">During that last year at Arts University Plymouth I messaged recruiters constantly, keeping in regular contact with the people who I’d met. I managed to secure a three-month internship at Framestore, a British special effects and animation studio that has worked on films like ‘Barbie’, Disney’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ series and Netflix’s ‘ONE PIECE’.<br /></p>
Percy Jackson and the Olympians copyright Disney

Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Copyright Disney.

<p dir="ltr">Those three months at Framestore were invaluable, setting me up to work at a professional level in the animation industry. Crucially, I carried out that internship alongside the final months of my degree. I knew that I couldn’t wait until after graduating to start looking for work.</p> <p dir="ltr">After my internship at Framestore, I took a weekend off and then moved straight into a full-time role as a 3D Animator for the Moving Picture Company (MPC), a global VFX and animation studio.</p>

Prehistoric Planet trailer

<p dir="ltr">Since 2021 I’ve already worked on ‘Prehistoric Planet’ seasons one and two for Apple TV, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (2023) for Disney, ‘Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’ for Warner Brothers, and ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ for Disney.</p> <p dir="ltr">I actually took up the position at MPC because they offered me an opportunity to work on ‘Prehistoric Planet’. I was a massive fan of dinosaurs as a child and who wouldn’t jump at the chance to work on a dinosaur documentary narrated by David Attenborough?!? Being part of ‘Prehistoric Planet’ was an amazing experience.<br /></p>
<p dir="ltr">The best way to explain the work I did on ‘Prehistoric Planet’ was that I animated the movement of dinosaurs, from quadrupeds to bipeds. I specialised in realistic animal animation. Obviously animation is a team effort, but my role specifically was to take the rigged 3D dinosaur models that were given to me and animate their movements.<br /></p>
Prehistoric Planet copyright Apple

Prehistoric Planet. Copyright Apple.

<p>We used real animals for inspiration and strove for hyperrealism, which is harder than you might imagine. If you want a creature to move convincingly on screen, there’s a lot that you need to think about. Pay attention when you walk and you’ll find that every time your foot touches the floor your body shifts as you adjust your weight. Lean on your hands and you’ll see that your fingers splay, your elbows respond to the pressure that you’re putting them under. A lot of the work we do wouldn’t be obvious immediately, but you’d notice if it were missing.</p>
<p dir="ltr">After ‘Prehistoric Planet’ I joined the team working on Disney’s live-action ‘The Little Mermaid’, which was the first time I’ve contributed to such a massive blockbuster. Animating underwater scenes comes with its own challenges and because I joined near the end of our involvement I ended up contributing to scenes that my colleagues had already animated. It felt unreal to work for Disney so soon after graduating.<br /></p>

Disney's The Little Mermaid trailer

<p>I heard that MPC would be doing some work on Disney’s ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ series and immediately started petitioning to join that team. Did you have a book when you were younger that you revisited regularly, until it became a part of your childhood? For me, that was the Percy Jackson series. Working on that production was amazing and holds a special place in my heart.</p>
<p dir="ltr">There are projects I’ve worked on that I can’t speak about yet because I’m still under an NDA (non disclosure agreement). Beyond those projects, you might have heard about the recent film and television actors’ strike, as well as the Writers Guild of America screenwriters’ strike that ended in September. The result of those two strikes is that the pipeline for projects needing 3D animation, particularly the kind of VFX that I specialise in animating creatures for live-action projects, has dried up a little.</p> <p dir="ltr">With the strike resolved, the pipeline for work in 2024 is opening up again, but I’m not taking any chances. In the same way that I approached my studies during my time at Arts University Plymouth, I’m making sure that I’m constantly engaged in professional development activities while I’m between projects.</p> <p dir="ltr">Until this point I specialised in creature animation, so I’m taking the time that I have now to diversify my portfolio by learning more about animating character performances, which will enhance the skills that I already have and broaden my ability to work on fully animated feature films. I’m working with <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Lupin House</a> at the moment to do this.<br /></p>
<p dir="ltr">Whether you’re already studying animation or thinking about applying for <a href="">BA (Hons) Animation &amp; Games</a> at Arts University Plymouth, I hope that you can learn from my journey. I graduated in 2021 and have already worked on feature films that you might have seen in cinemas, but crucially, I’m still training, because there’s always more to learn.</p> <p dir="ltr">The VFX and animation industries work on showreels. The quality of work that you can present in your showreel is more important than where you studied or what grades you got at school, so make sure that you’re always developing new skills, creating showreel footage to demonstrate those skills, and listening to feedback on how to improve.<br /></p>
<p dir="ltr">Long term, my ambition is still to work at WETA, but I’m trying to consciously enjoy the journey of working until I can show them that I have the skills that they need. I managed to secure a role in one of the top VFX studios in the UK straight from studying at Arts University Plymouth and I’m aware that I’m in a privileged position, so I want to enjoy my work, keep learning and keep creating.<br /></p>