Founder of VFX studio Phosphene Vivian Connolly on how she's diversifying a male-dominated industry

VFX studio Phosphene worked on Marvellous Mrs Maisel starring Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam Maisel (seen here)

Vivian Connolly began independent design and visual effects (VFX) studio Phosphene with her business partner John Bair eight years ago, on the cusp of the VFX industry boom in New York City.

Now the expanding studio works solely on shots for independent film and television, including The Greatest Showman, Hostiles, Hulu’s The Looming Tower, HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 and most recently, a new Al Pacino film Paterno – just to name a few. More importantly, Phosphene is dedicated to recruiting staff from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, gender and sexual orientation. Being the only woman in a room full of men and growing up in an income-restricted family in New York has given Vivian a unique perspective on the visual effects industry – and how it's striving to become more inclusive.

Vivian Connolly, chief executive officer and founder of Phosphene

Vivian carefully curates a diverse team at her VFX studio, not out of moral duty, but because she has a strong belief in the power of diversity. The visual effects industry – traditionally a male-dominated sector (or at least, women aren’t at the forefront, according to Charmaine Chan from ILM) – needs more leaders like her. Female VFX supervisors worked on only 5 percent of the 250 top-grossing films in 2014, and no women were nominated for the VFX Oscars award this year, despite measurable breakthrough occurring for female actors. But it’s not only females who are in the minority.

Having a strong hand in the recruiting process, Vivian visits public city and state universities (as well as private) to recruit and advertise the visual effects industry to an audience who may have never considered entering it. She’s also recruiting from a Made in New York city programme that supports young adults from underrepresented communities.

"Everybody’s at their best and behaves at their best both professionally and personally when it’s a very balanced team in the workplace," says Vivian.

"I've certainly been in a situation where it's been all men on the floor of [VFX] artists, and the vibe is different. I don't think it’s as successful as when there's a balance across gender, and not just across gender but racially and gender identity and all sexual orientation. All of it."

Before/After shots of Phosphene's work on The Looming Tower, a miniseries following the buildup to 9/11

Growing up with a single mum in an "income-restricted family", Vivan managed to attend private schools on scholarships.

"I think being able to dip into both worlds gave me a more balanced view than some people are able to get – where I knew how regular people lived, but I also got to see how other people lived. It was a very unique perspective. That's kind of been a driving force throughout my life," she says.

After tertiary education in theatre and dance, Vivian moved into post-production and became head of production at a company where she met her current business partner, John. The pair went out on their own and started Phosphene "with really small ambitions of just being able to work for ourselves", and moved into working exclusively on visual effects and independent films. Phosphene specialises in CG environments and set extensions; you'll see its attention to detail in the before/after shots in this feature.

Phosphene has recently worked on films with strong female leads. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by director George C Wolfe follows the journey of a daughter discovering that her mother's cancerous cells lead to breakthroughs that changed the face of medicine. Although this was one of Phosphene’s smaller jobs, Vivian had admired George’s work since the 90s, so meeting him "was an absolute thrill for me and the subject matter was a thrill for me", she says. The studio has also worked on Marvellous Mrs Maisel – a "bit of a darling" for Vivian. It’s a comedy series based in the late 1950s which follows a woman who takes on stand-up comedy in nightclubs and cafes.

Before/After shots of Phosphene's work on The Looming Tower

Although Vivian has never felt alienated, rejected or sexually harassed by males in her field, she’s felt her presence as a minority.

"I don't know whether it's self-imposed or put on you from other people, but there is that feeling of discomfort being the only woman in the room sometimes, that you have to overcome," she says.

"I don't know that anyone's been outwardly dismissive, but it can be an overwhelming feeling to be the only woman in the room, to feel that you have to represent women in general or to make sure that you're being assertive enough – but not too assertive.

"But as the industry has become more diverse, it certainly has felt more comfortable to me."

We all want to see ourselves in a workplace, that’s how we feel permission to enter a room sometimes, and this is human nature. People are recognising this and making efforts to make opportunities available, Vivian says.

Before/After shots of Phosphene's work on Hostiles, a film set in 1890s America

There has been an industry shift towards supporting conscientious outreach encouraging women to enter film and television, just like STEM encourages women into maths and science careers. Vivian took part in an all-female panel of visual effects supervisors (including Victoria Alonso, executive vice president in physical production at Marvel Studios) for an-all female audience curated by the School of Visual Arts in New York. The Post New York Alliance and Visual Effects Society (VES) co-sponsored this event; an encouraging step.

“The women in the room were so enthusiastic and were so comfortable to ask questions that they might not have felt as comfortable asking to a male panel. The message we kept giving was, ‘We need to hear from you’,” she says.

“Young women and girls are often scared of being too pushy or being annoying in some way. We were like, ‘No, we need to hear from you. We don't even know that you're there until you ask us.’ From that, a lot of those young women reached out to me and I'm sure to the other panelists, and that was an extremely exciting first step.”

Although Vivian couldn’t pinpoint specific online forums or monthly meet-ups dedicated to encouraging women in the industry as of yet – such as what Facebook group Punanimation provides for women in animation, for example – she recognises more organisations are providing outlets for women in a way they weren’t before. Digging into it ourselves, we found the Women in VFX YouTube series launched this year by Charmaine Chan and the women at VFX and animation studio Industrial, Light and Magic (ILM). The series focuses on making sure women in the field are recognised and have a voice.

Before/After shots of Phosphene's work on Hostiles

Women need to put less pressure on themselves to know everything prior to entering the workplace, says Vivian.

"Women will meet with me and tell me all of the things they don't know and ask me if that's okay. No employer is expecting you to know everything on your first day out of school. We're expecting and understanding that we have to help bring you along the way," she says.

"What we're looking for is simply talent, basic knowledge, and an appetite for the work we do. Don't count yourself out before you even try because we understand where you're coming from as a beginner in this field, and we're totally okay with that.

"In my experience, men have more comfort with understanding that there's room to grow and to try and fail. Women feel like if they don't know everything, they might not be welcome, and that's just not the case."

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