How I Got Here: Mark Millena, Digital Compositor
Posted on: Jan 11, 2023
Before he was a digital compositor for productions like Amazon’s The Rig and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Mark Millena was running errands and washing dishes for award-winning creative studio Framestore, hoping to get a foot in the door. Millena sat down with Staff Me Up to tell us about how he became a digital compositor, from his education through his current work on big-budget film and TV productions.
Can you tell us a bit about you and how you came to be a digital compositor?
I’m a freelance digital compositor and I’ve been in the industry for about 11 ½ years. Essentially, a digital compositor puts moving images together. I layer multiple images together so it looks like they were all shot on one camera.
I’ve jumped around all the big companies, picked up how things work, and then four years ago I went to a startup and started the compositing team. I helped build the 2D pipeline from ground up, making sure that this software was able to talk to that software, and vice versa. Making sure that the departments all work together – It’s a lot of startup vibes!
What studying or training path did you take?
I went to the University of Kent and did a degree called Multimedia Technology and Design. This was quite a broad degree because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after school. I just knew I needed to work with computers and maybe become a video editor or make websites because that’s the kind of stuff I was doing as a teenager.
So I went into a degree that [covered] post-production, production, visual effects, programming, website design, etc. – it was a creative degree. When I left uni, I wanted to become an editor, knowing that I had visual effects skills. But it was impossible to get an editing role – even as a runner.
What was your first job? What did you do?
I started as a runner at Framestore [in London]. I had a showreel, I kind of knew what they needed, but I was trying to forge my way in, because I knew they had an editing department but there was no way of getting in there through a runner position.
I was literally running around Soho taking old school film reels from our studio to another, I was also washing dishes and moving [stuff] around the buildings. The shifts were either very early or started in the afternoon so you’d end up going home quite late. I sometimes did these back-to-back just to get some extra money. It was tiring! When I first arrived I thought “I’m going to give myself six months before I try out another studio.”
But then I realized you really need to jump on it so after a couple of weeks I started training in the paint roto department and networked whilst washing dishes in the kitchens.
About four months after being a runner, I moved up into the paint roto department. This is where you would remove things from a shot that the director may not want to see. You create masks. Let’s say a green screen isn’t working, you would create a mask to pull the object out and give it to the compositor. So that was my role there for another three and a half years.
Is there anything valuable you learned while running that helped you later?
Absolutely – it was networking. Networking is actually how I’ve got most of my jobs.
Do you have any tips for people who find it difficult to network?
For me, the reason I started doing it well is because I was running and washing dishes and thinking, “I don’t want to be doing this forever.” So there was a goal in my head of “I just need to do this to make sure I talk to people, make sure I’m seen.” In a way, it was more of a fight or flight.
Definitely [have] goals, they can be simple goals, but it sets you up for where you want to be. If you have something in the back of your mind, it pushes you subconsciously, I think.
What are some key skills needed to do your job?
Definitely being willing to learn and adapt constantly. Visual effects is all about technology and it changes so fast that you just have to adapt. For example, I’m working on one production where there’s a very new color space and it has proven quite problematic for both the vendor and the client. So it’s just making sure you see the problem and you keep at it.
Ask questions. I know people are shy but no questions are stupid questions and if you get an answer, then you’ll know for next time.
Be able to take feedback because that is going to happen a lot and you might not like it, but you have to take it. You can challenge it, but not aggressively. If you know that what you’ve done actually makes technical sense, say it – but be able to take feedback and not take it personally, because it is never really personal.
Move around to other companies in order to understand different pipelines and ways of working. I think it’s good that I can take the learning from one company and adapt to another one. This is what I’ve done with Worldwide FX, who I’m working for. When we were setting up, I had all these ideas that I’ve taken from a range of companies and implemented them.
It also means that you’re ready to work anywhere. If you wanted to become a freelancer, for example, it’s actually imperative that you pick up these things. Because if you only ever work at one company, and let’s say you get made redundant, you might feel like you’re drowning at a new company because you’re like, “they don’t have this tool. How do I get this to work?” Whereas if you’ve made your rounds at different places, you build your confidence. Aside from getting more money, you build up your skills and your confidence as well. And I think that’s super important for personal ambitions as well.
What’s your experience been like working freelance or on contract-based projects?
I was at Framestore for six years. Then for eight years, I have been mostly on project-based contracts.
Let’s say you have a film that’s going to be in the company for three months, they’ll employ you for that duration and then they’ll extend your contract for X months. So they’re all fixed-term contracts, but they’re not freelance roles.
I made the decision to move into the freelance role in about 2018. Firstly, I wanted to go freelance and see, just see what it was like, see if it would suit me. And it has because it’s allowed companies to hire me easier and also gives me flexibility. I definitely feel like I can say no to things now.
Mark Millena at work in his home office. Photo courtesy of Mark Millena.
What does an average day at work look like for you?
As a compositor, if it’s a very busy project then we’ll have dailies multiple times a day. We start the day with a morning call, do our compositing and then have dailies, which is where you get to see everyone’s work in front of the supervisor. The supervisor and the comp supervisor or CG supervisor will give you feedback. We’ll take the notes then do the work and keep improving it until it’s ready to send to the clients.
If we run into a systems or pipeline issue, I’m usually the first one to jump on a call so that the studio can continue running.
In your daily work, how involved are you with directors and producers; and in the wider production, who do you work with?
I’m also a client-side QC Supervisor on Paramount’s TV series 1923. My job is to set up the QC pipeline and carry out technical checks on all the shots that come in from the vendors so that there are no anomalies when they appear on screen.
I’m in daily calls with the VFX supervisors and production to understand the status of the show and also with the vendors to help with any pipeline issues or feedback notes that need clarification.
Occasionally I will have calls with the grading company to ensure that they are also receiving the files correctly which is a very important step as they are the last stop before the final image gets released for your viewing pleasure.
Which do you prefer working on TV or film?
Loads of TV productions [have] started becoming really high quality to the point where, for example, ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] have merged TV and film now. You can be in film or be working on a TV series, the quality is so high that it doesn’t matter.
I don’t mind working on either, I just need good people to work with.
What would you do differently on set versus what you’re doing at home or in the studio?
[On set] I’d help oversee parts of the shoot, to make sure that everything’s in place. Making sure you get the data off the cameras and off the surroundings, taking reference pictures to use in the VFX world.
I might have to do some comping on set as well, but it’s more for quick turnover just to see what something would look like.
What do you love most about your work?
Seeing my name in credits. When I was watching Jurassic Park [as a kid], I’d be like, “Ah!”. Decades later I worked on Jurassic World and I see my name is in the credits, so that’s cool.
The problem is sometimes it doesn’t happen, even if you’ve worked on it for a very long time. There are films which I put so much work into and my name didn’t come up and as a young artist, I was devastated.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to become a compositor?
Look at mentoring networks. There’s one called Prospela VFX. I don’t know how they accept students, but they basically put you in contact with professional VFX artists and they’ll guide you. I’ve worked with students who are aspiring to get into the field and I’ve helped mentor them.
I’m also a mentor on Creative Mentor Network, which helps young creatives with their social capital, life and career experience.
I would definitely get into opening up software and playing around. Play with After Effects, Blender or even get a Nuke on a non-commercial license.
You can have a look at Escape Studios. They’re not cheap, but it gives you an understanding and practical knowledge of visual effects and a particular route into what you want to do. Honestly, with the prices of university, if you can skip university, I’d skip it.
If you’re near a VFX festival or have the time and money to travel to one in another country, go to it and meet the studio spokesperson and others who are in the industry or trying to break in. You make connections and I think that’s what’s important from the beginning.
Create a short showreel once you have something [to show]. It’s an evolving role but if you can, start off editing because editing is the base of most of this. That might not be true for some, but for me it was definitely how I started understanding timelines and stuff. It’s useful.
What’s next for you?
I’m hoping to do some on-set work because I miss being around people and standing up. I’ll probably regret that because I know on set you stand up for maybe 12 hours or more!
Being back on set will be exciting and perhaps being able to travel the world will be great. But yeah, the plan is to do six months on set, six months off doing what I do because I want to give my eyes a bit of a rest. I feel like I’m getting old!
Where can we see your work? What have you worked on?
My first film was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two. It’s funny because I didn’t actually watch the Harry Potter films before, but then I did and I was like, “Oh, they’re quite good actually”.
Then Johnny English, Warhorse, Sherlock Holmes – that was a cool film. These are my prep days. Gravity was a big one because Framestore took the Oscar for that and they brought the Oscar in and we all held it and took pictures.
The pivotal ones in my career, my milestones, are my first composing shots: Guardians of the Galaxy. Planet of the Apes, because that was Wētā FX. Jurassic World, because it was ILM, well, not just because of ILM, but because when Jurassic Park came out, I was five and I remember watching it and loving it.
[For] TV productions: Inhumans, Altered Carbon, and The Young Pope.
You can watch Mark Millena’s showreel on Vimeo.
Mark Millena’s career timeline:
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
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