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How I Became a Pipeline Technical Director in Toronto: Meet MDM Alumni Isabelle Alles

Apr 25, 2016 By Crissy Campbell

The transformations that happen to students and alumni in the Master of Digital Media program are always fascinating. Sometimes a computer scientist becomes an artist, or an artist becomes a UX designer. Sometimes a student from elsewhere settles into life in Vancouver and stays or a student may decide Vancouver isn’t for her and move to Germany instead. A great example of the different ways students can move through the program can be seen in these student timelines.

An alumni that has taken an interesting path is Isabelle Allès. Isa graduated from the Tec de Monterrey in Mexico with a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering. She came into the MDM program with skills in programming, 3D design and electronics and played a crucial role in connecting artists and programmers on her MDM project work.

Once Isa completed the course component of the MDM program, she was invited to New York University to spend time with NYU Computer Science professor Ken Perlin, meet his graduate students and see the various technologies his lab was developing (read Isa’s account of the trip here).

Just two years after graduating from the MDM program, Isa is working as a Technical Director in a VFX Studio in Toronto.

I spoke with Isa via email about her experiences in the MDM program, about being a woman in a male-dominated industry and how she got her current job in Toronto by volunteering at SIGGRAPH here in Vancouver.

1. Tell us about yourself.

I am an engineer by trade with an interest in arts and design. I love computer animated films and learning/knowing how they are made.

2. You did your undergraduate degree in Mexico, what made you decide to move to Canada to take the MDM program?

When I was looking for possible master degrees I was looking for curriculums that merged both arts and technology, and thus focused on "real" design problems. The MDM program eventually appeared in my searches and having visited Vancouver for a holiday the previous year and loved the city, I immediately put the CDM at the top of the list. Another aspect of the program that spiked my curiosity was its project-based curriculum that aligns with learning by doing.

3. What was the MDM program like? Do you have a favourite memory?

The MDM program was quite a journey and I would say it still is. Not only do I use what I learned on a daily basis, but I also often observe new things by having a retrospective thought on some exercise or project we did in class. Some really good memories are from the Multidisciplinary Improvisation course and its team building activities, like building a structure with Lego pieces.

4. As a female engineer, have you ever been surprised by the industry, either here in Canada or in Mexico?

Even though the industry is regarded as heavily male-dominated (which it is), I think the ratio of women in the industry is growing—and not necessarily in less tech savvy positions but actually across the board. For example, where I work we are a team of 4 Technical Directors, 2 women and 2 men.

I think the general idea of tech savvy and/or new technology research positions being mainly for men is finally becoming less common. The perception of the industry is widening, not only in Canada but in Mexico too. Having more programs—either undergrad, postgrad or diploma programs—that try to fill some of the industry’s gaps is actually, in my opinion, helping open the industry up for everyone since it is now less of ‘tinkering in your garage’ and more using some established and tested principles and improving from there.

5. What are you doing now in Toronto? What made you decide to move from Vancouver to Toronto?

I am currently a Pipeline Technical Director at Mr. X Inc, a VFX studio in Toronto. I spend most of my day programming; either scripts for a specific DCC API (Maya, Nuke, Houdini...) or a more general tool like a browser or a publisher that connects directly to our asset management system for the artists to ‘publish’ their work for dailies. I have recently started doing some crowd simulation work, for which I got my first movie credit last Fall (Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of an Argentinian award winning film).

As to why I decided to move to Toronto, I didn’t do my internship in Vancouver like most of my classmates—I went to NYU and interned with Ken Perlin where I worked on projects focused around mixed reality, most of which combined a virtual reality headset and some actuators to give some tangibleness to a virtual world—so I had to do some networking as well as touch base with the people I already knew in the city when I moved back. It seemed just as "easy" (or complicated) to also look for work outside of Vancouver. I was lucky that SIGGRAPH that year was being held in Vancouver and that I had been accepted as a student volunteer. Taking advantage of that conference I managed to get several job interviews, one of which happened to be for a position in Toronto.

6. What's next for you?

It has only been a bit over a year and a half since I moved to Toronto as a TD and still have lots to learn. I enjoy a lot being a pipeline TD since I do not get to only do one thing / stick to one software but instead have to learn a bit about the different software packages we use in order to be able to give some support to our users. What is next? Definitely learn a lot more from my colleagues and the industry.

Watch Isa talk about her experiences in the MDM program: