Reflections on the Aspiring Women programme with Laraib Atta, Digital Compositor, DNEG

Aspiring Women was a 6-month personal development programme hosted by NextGen and Screenskills, aimed at women working within the games, animation and VFX industries. Here, Laraib Atta, Digital Compositor at DNEG, shares her inspirational story from first being inspired by Toy Story, through getting started in the industry, being a working mum, her experience of the Aspiring Women programme, and using her platform to inspire others and promote diversity.

Introduction to VFX

I was born in Lahore, Pakistan. My parents are both artists, my father is a traditional Pakistani singer and my mother used to be an actress before she got married and had children. However, I come from a very conservative family background. My father had strict rules and I used to be extremely shy and reserved, I was so quiet that people used to call me “mute” but that didn’t really affect me, I just preferred staying in my space/comfort zone and not interacting much with others.

As I was young I loved to draw, read books and watch animated features. This was where I discovered my passion for art and design. One day I watched Toy Story and I fell absolutely in love with the film. I was so intrigued by the characters, animation and the storyline that it inspired me to think about how it was made. I didn’t know back then if I wanted to do VFX, but I always knew I wanted to do something with art and technology.

I moved to London when I was 14, taking my GCSE’s and A-levels here. After finishing A-levels I took a gap year as I already had a place at City University for Civil Engineering and Architecture. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to do engineering, therefore, I took a gap year. As my brother is a singer/musician, he suggested I do VFX as he could see my passion for art and technology. Also, he suggested I could help him with his music videos.

Starting out

Once I knew I wanted to study VFX I started looking for schools and courses.  I came across Escape studios and knew straight away that I had to get into that institute, I applied and was accepted. When I joined the course I was the only girl, the youngest and the only Pakistani. It was a full-time intense course where I was taught both 2D and 3D software including Maya, Shake (old compositing package), Boujou, PF Track, and Silhouette.

Once I finished the 6-month course at Escape Studios, the recruiting manager, who worked at Escape studios, approached me as she saw my skills and determination. She told me that they were looking to send freelance artists to companies for short-term work and asked me if I was interested. I was keen to start working professionally and I started off working for commercials as a junior artist. Some of my first projects were Disney commercials and album promos for George Michael and The Rolling Stones.

Shortly after that, I was offered to work for film projects at MPC Film, all at a very young age of around 19. Some of the projects I worked on included Sweeney Todd, Chronicles of Narnia and 10.000 B.C. I also gained experience and worked on projects for studios such as Framestore, the Mill, Aardman Animation, BBC, Sky and Prime Focus.

The Aspiring Women programme

So although my career took off after the course I wasn’t able to work consistently. There were many downtimes and, due to personal and family problems, I wasn’t able to continue working and had to turn down many job opportunities. Later, I also got married quite young, I then became a mother and had moved to Barcelona for a few years. I easily had a gap of 4-5 years in my career. However, I didn’t want to stop there, I was determined to get back into VFX.

I moved back to London and started looking for work again which was a real struggle. I would be on LinkedIn day and night adding artists, recruiters, coordinators, producers and everyone from the industry. I would message them all. I was applying to all the big and small companies. Then one day someone posted about the Aspiring Women programme on LinkedIn. So, I started researching it and knew I had to apply as it was aiming to help and support women in the animation and VFX medium. I knew I had to meet people in person and get back into the network.

The programme was focused on helping women develop skills in managing their careers with in-depth information and exercises on how to be successful in job interviews, dealing with problems at work, negotiating pay and other issues that women, in general, would face. It created a group of talented women where we could help and support each other by sharing our stories and struggles. It was a great platform for networking and making links, so we could reach out to others if anyone is looking for work. The programme also provided us with mentors which I believed was essential for us all to move forward in our careers.

Therefore, the course structure helped me a lot in getting back into the industry network. It gave me some confidence, which I had lost during the gap of my career as my CV and showreel was outdated and it was hard to find work.

The Aspiring Women programme at the end gave me all the important tools and the push I needed to get back into the industry. It provided us with the great support system that we need in this industry since it can be tough, even for people who have been working consistently and face challenges in their everyday life.

Following Aspiring Women

Through the programme, I heard about Animated Women UK (AWUK), which was carrying out a networking event while I was on this programme and which I attended.

At the AWUK event, I met Louise Hussey who was the line producer at DNEG TV at that time. I went up to her straight away and asked her if they were recruiting at DNEG and explained her my situation and how I was struggling to find work after the gap. That is when she gave me her contact details and asked me to send her all my information and she would see what she could do. After a few days, I was called for the job interview and got accepted. I have now been at DNEGTV for almost 3 years and for me it has been one of the best experiences of my career to be part of such a company.

Since I have been at DNEG TV, I have been part of some of their biggest shows including, Altered Carbon, Black Mirror, Krypton and Mission Impossible: Fallout. We are also working on another big show at present.

Inspiring others and promoting diversity

In addition my work at DNEG, I have been involved in public and motivational speaking. I had the opportunity to do a TEDx Talk as I became the youngest (when I started working) and the only woman from Pakistan to work as a VFX artist at such a professional level in this industry.

I have been a guest speaker at several conferences, including ones in Pakistan (one of the biggest design events), Toronto - VES Women in VFX, and I attended another event at the beginning of November 2018 in San Francisco - Silicon Valley representing women in tech and VFX and also representing minorities which was held at Netflix headquarters. I have also mentored students in London through Access: VFX and other sources.

I am now part of a podcast for representing and promoting diversity and people of color in the creative industries. I am also working for empowering women in Pakistan and other parts of the world. My next event in December - which is being held in Pakistan - is a collaboration with UN Women for empowering women and gender equality.

For those starting out  

I would tell those studying or starting out in the industry to keep your head down and work hard - it is the work you do which speaks miles and will get you further. With a humble and positive attitude, you will progress quickly. Also, make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. Networking is essential and you should get out there and make contacts. Opportunities come from that and there are also good lessons to be learnt. However, don’t let anyone dictate your future, get all the guidance you need but at the end of the day it is your career and you should have the final say.

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