/News 02.04.24

Behind the Screens: Tales from the Animation Pipeline’s “Fix-It Guy Gal”

In our line of work there is an endless list of unsung heroes that help bring superheroes to the big screen. Every studio has dozens of departments toiling away on their own project pieces, where in the end every one of those pieces come together to form a delicate masterpiece. One department in particular ensures this entire process runs not only smoothly, but gives the whole team a cutting edge with software ingenuity – the Pipeline.

Our spotlight shines on Xanthe Sheppard – the Pipeline Technical Director specializing in Unreal Engine at Plastic Wax. Scouted from an AIE Open Day in 2019 while demonstrating her final assessment, she began working with Plastic Wax just one week after graduating and has been there since, moving up the ranks from Unreal, to FX, and eventually Pipeline. This transition came from a natural fascination with tech and the ambition to be part of something bigger. For International Women’s Day we wanted to highlight this remarkable individual’s growth and success, demonstrating why thinking outside the box is a win-win advantage in our field of work.

So where did your love for animation and tech come from?

My dad was a big influence on getting me into tech. He was an electrical engineer so he was always interested in computers, wanting to know how things worked.

He used to collect second-hand computers in batches – we’d pull them apart and rebuild them.

The artistic side came from my grandmother – she taught me how to use Photoshop when I was ten years old. From there I just fell in love with the power of photography and digital art, and how I could create and manipulate things through Photoshop. I also did a 3D Modeling and Animation course through TAFE in high school, before studying at AIE. With my love for art combined with fascination for tech, I had found my calling.

What made you realize that Pipeline was the right role for you?

I started to realize I liked more of the technical jobs that came with being an artist, preferring to be in the background and having my work help others. My brain is definitely built for what I’m doing – it loves solving problems and fixing things, even those grinding and mundane tasks I still can find enjoyment in, so having a brain that thrives on that is an advantage.

Seeing how people appreciate my work also makes me proud to be in Pipeline. I love walking past peoples’ desks and seeing them use Unreal just that little bit easier because I fixed a bug or released a tool, or hearing that I saved the mocap team days of processing with a new tool I rushed out for them. When you have those really tough assignments, getting to hear that it worked makes all the challenges worth it. Seeing how our work from the background makes a huge impact on the studio overall makes me proud. It’s a privilege to make that impact.

What’s one thing you want to let people know about Pipeline and its importance?

Pipeline is the backbone of the entire company. Without us, you have all these departments that are working on their own, with their own different ideas and needs, it isn’t very efficient. We create a uniform system that brings everyone together, while also automating as much of the mundane stuff as possible. To put it simply – we’re there to help with problems and help make the team’s work easier.

You’re a pioneer in Unreal Engine – what are your thoughts on its impact and evolution in animation?

Back when I started people would always say “Unreal is just a trend”, but evidently it’s not going anywhere. Its role is continuing to grow and adapt in industry. I’ll be the first to say that Unreal has places where it is better suited, but it is continuing to to grow and evolve and blur the lines between realtime and traditional render workflows. It’s an incredible and adaptable tool that I think we’re not only going to see more of in film, but in TV and mini-series like what we did for We Will Be Monsters and Battle Kitty.

Virtual production is also going to continue to evolve with it in all different scopes. We’ve got so much that’s rapidly evolving in both hardware and software. At Plastic Wax we have such an incredible knowledge of Unreal, specifically around these emerging areas, that we have developed through years of use to yield better and better results. As the industry continues to develop more collective knowledge and skills around using it, I think Unreal will continue to grow and find its own place in pipelines, not just as a specialist tool but a foundational one.

Outside of work, what do you do in your free time?

I train and compete in powerlifting and I also love cross stitch, which I find is a nice break from the norm! I also like to do a bit of game dev as a hobby, art and programming (us programmers, man, I feel we never stop!)

I firmly believe you need to have something outside of work to keep you motivated and sane.

If I’ve had a frustrating day full of bugs and broken code and endless meetings and task juggling… I’ll go do some deadlifts to decompress and help me disconnect. Other days I might find something like cross-stitching does the trick. Having that variety helps keep me balanced.

What are your hopes for the future of the animation industry?

It’s important that we continue to eliminate unconscious bias and foster diversity. Gender, race, culture, education, neurology, you name it – a naturally diverse team is always going to be better. We’re an artistic and creative industry with a unique technical side that represents all walks of life in our work. Having a natural kaleidoscope of a team is only going to amplify our work

I think we also need to be more open about mental health. Let’s be real – if you haven’t struggled with it, then you know someone who has. We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to speak up when we need help! Every industry is affected by it, and in an industry as stressful and as complicated as ours I think we do need to talk about it more openly to benefit everyone.

What do you love about the team at Plastic Wax?

Everyone brings something special, and because of that we create amazing things. We’re so accommodating in adopting people’s variety of skills and diversity of knowledge. The team we have is so supportive of one another – we’re all in different departments doing different things but we come together to create amazing things!

We’re so proud of Xanthe, and all the other women at Plastic Wax – past, present, and future – who have contributed to this industry’s success. We look forward to their futures with great excitement and anticipation.

If you would like to discuss any collaborative opportunities with Plastic Wax, please email at [email protected]