Why ‘Inception’ Visual Effects Supervisor May Leung Is a Rare Gem

Jazz Tangcay

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For some unfortunate reasons, May Leung is an anomaly in the world of visual effects supervision.

While there are plenty of women in the world of VFX at large, Leung is part of the only 5% of them who make it to the top role of supervisor. Her work has been featured in 38 films, including “Inception,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

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But Leung, who is now CG supervisor at the London-based DNEG, didn’t always dream of a career in VFX. She grew up watching Disney movies and wanted to work in animation. “I went to school for fine arts and I wanted to be a cartoonist,” she says.

With that in mind, Leung looked at schools specializing in 3D animation. Based on her traditional portfolio and not her 3D one, she was soon hired to work on animating contrails (condensed water trails from planes).

She went to work on “Arrival II” and “Stargate SG-1,” working on storyboards in both animation and commercials, and when her supervisor at the time moved to Vancouver. “I followed him there,” she confesses.

Building up over ten years of experience in VFX and having worked on films that included “The Dark Knight Rises,” Leung says a typical day for her centers on reviewing dailies and her artist’s work before sending them out to clients. All this is done, as Leung points out, without knowing the context of the movie.

In fact, when working on Christopher Nolan’s 2009 hit “Inception,” “The only information provided to me was — using Houdini software — to look into latest destruction tools for an exploding cafe scenario,” she says. Without any visuals, but knowing the setting was in “a Paris Cafe,” Leung modeled a proxy (simplified geometry) cafe scenario and simulated several events, which were then presented to the VFX supervisor, Paul Franklin.

By that point, Leung had already worked on several movies with destruction and particle effects, but none with such a complex setup, featuring multiple destruction events happening in real-time before moving to slow-motion.

Bohemian Rhapsody” was a different challenge. With the assistance of Ted Waine from DNEG’s research and development department, a six-camera array system was developed to shoot the individual crowd sprites needed to fill Wembley Stadium with 72,000 concertgoers during the iconic Live Aid sequence.

“A separate tent was set up just for the VFX sprite shoot,” she says. “Individual extras from the main unit were selected to dance in front of the six-camera array system to a 20-minute edit of the Live Aid songs by Queen.”

Leung and the VFX team ended up delivering a total of 600 shots covering Queen concerts around the world.

As a trailblazer in the field of VFX, Leung points out that while DNEG has women on the team, she advocates for more women to get into the field. “They shouldn’t be afraid to move to the next level,” she says. “If you work hard, you should be recognized. There are women out here and more would be better.”

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