We discussed with Digital Artist and Compositor Jessica Laszlo her Hungarian origins, how did she become a VFX-expert and what was her duty in different Star Wars movies.
– When we chatted about a possible interview, you mentioned that it isn’t a coincidence that your name is sounding like so Hungarian. You said your father was born in Budapest but left Hungary and flew to the US. Could you tell us more about your father and the Hungarian part of your family?
– My father left Hungary with his parents and brothers in the 1960s when he was a teenager. They settled in the Napa Valley, about an hour north of San Francisco. Both my Hungarian grandparents passed away when I was just a baby, so, unfortunately, I didn’t know them.
– How did the Hungarian language and culture pop up in your family’s life? Did your relatives told stories about the country, did they teach you some Hungarian expressions?
– My dad met my mother when he was in college, studying engineering at UC Berkeley. She is a native of the Bay Area, born in San Francisco.
Even though she is American, she loves cooking and discovering delicious recipes from all traditions, and we have a few Hungarian family favourites.
Lecsó and Húsgombóc Paprikás Mártásban are two off the top of my head. I also love to cook, and during our pandemic quarantine, I have had a lot of time to experiment in the kitchen. I recently made the Paprikás Mártás sauce with vegetarian meatballs.
– Do you know some words in Hungarian? Were you in Hungary in your life? What does Hungary mean to you?
– I can’t speak Hungarian, but I know a very random selection of words that would make you laugh: chicken, dog, gold, cucumber, passport. I can count to 3! I also know one or two expressions that would not be appropriate to publish on your website. If we are lucky enough to meet in real life one day, I will tell you. 🙂
My parents once took our family on vacation to Hungary, but I was quite young, ten or eleven years old. I hope to visit one day as an adult.
I have studied wine for many years and would like to taste Hungarian wines and see where they are made. Perhaps you know this, but Tokaji is the first wine appellation that was ever designated, many years before Port wine and over one hundred years before the regions of Bordeaux.
– How did you become a visual effects expert?
– I studied Computer Science when I attended university at MIT. I enjoyed learning about software and hardware but also loved artistic pursuits: painting, drawing, music. Later in my college studies, I got more interested in computer graphics. This was around the time that the second Toy Story was in production. An artist from Pixar visited MIT and gave a presentation on the concept art and the behind-the-scenes development of the new Toy Story movie. I thought it sounded like an incredible and exciting career and decided then that I wanted to pursue it.
After I graduated from MIT, I moved back home to California and applied for jobs at visual effects studios all over the Bay Area. I was offered an entry-level job at Industrial Light & Magic. My first job was in technical support, monitoring the overnight rendering. But during those first years, I learned about the different computer graphics jobs and had opportunities to train as a compositor.
During Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, my task was to help set up shots for animators to do their animation work for the final arena battle.
After preparing hundreds of shots for other artists, my supervisor assigned me a few of my own. Those were my first shots in a movie!
– You worked as a digital compositor before, but as I see on your IMDb page, you worked as a digital artist from 2016. What is the difference, what does a digital artist do?
– It takes a lot of different types of digital artists to bring the effects of Star Wars and other VFX-rich movies to the screen. Some of your readers may be unfamiliar with what compositing is. Here is a short featurette from a shot I composited on a very NON-Star Wars-related movie: Oz the Great and Powerful.
It does an excellent job of explaining how complex a computer-graphics shot can be, how many different types of artists work on a shot, and the number of layers it takes to make an environment look convincing. My job as compositor is the last stage in the pipeline, combining all the layers – backgrounds, animated creatures, blue screen elements and many others – into a cohesive, beautiful, believable visual effects shot.
Sometimes instead of a Compositor, I am credited as a Digital Artist – which is accurate but more general because more names can fit under one category. Movie producers want to make sure that as many people as possible get their names in the credits.
– Are you a Star Wars fan? Why?
– I am a fan of the Original Trilogy. But I have always loved science fiction, and am a fan of many universes such as Star Trek, and Marvel worlds.
– There were five Star Wars movies since Disney bought Lucasfilm, and according to your IMDb page, you worked as a Digital Artist in the middle three (Rogue One, The Last Jedi, Solo). How did this happen? Why didn’t you work on every Star Wars movie?
– It can be challenging to predict what movies I will work on. Movie production schedules change all the time, and I have joined projects that were supposed to be short (six weeks) that turned into six-month assignments.
As a result, I have worked on many movies at different studios all over the world, and also a few other Star Wars projects that aren’t on your list. When the Disneyland ride “Star Tours” was updated after The Force Awakens was released, I was on the team that did the visual effects work for the new version of the ride.
Last summer, I worked on Season 1 of The Mandalorian, and when that finished, I joined the crew of The Rise of Skywalker to help out finishing the project for a month or two.
– Sounds great! What was your task during your work on Rogue One?
– I composited a few shots in the final space battle for Rogue One.
– What did you do in The Last Jedi?
– I worked on shots in the sequence when Rey goes to find Luke where he has exiled himself as she trains to become a Jedi.
– Where can we see your work in Solo?
– Solo was one of the more fun projects I have ever done. I moved to Singapore to work on it, which was an amazing adventure on its own: exploring a new city, making new friends, tasting new foods… I worked on the sequences when Han Solo first meets Chewbacca on Mimban, and they make their escape. Some of those shots are on my reel, along with highlights from other movies I have worked on throughout my career – YOU CAN WATCH IT HERE.
– How can you summarize your experience of working on Star Wars movies?
– Working on a big-budget movie with a large crew is always exciting. You have a shared experience with potentially hundreds of other people, sometimes working in many different countries. The visual effects shots can be complicated, and I get to work closely and collaborate with many artists at the same time.
Star Wars projects are unique because of how many people in the world have an emotional investment. People have grown up with these movies and have strong opinions about the characters, their motivations, and the worlds they inhabit. It is unusual (and very special) to be a part of something that millions of people around the world will see and care strongly about.
– What do you think about the sequel trilogy of Star Wars? Did it fulfil your expectations (if you had)?
– The Original Trilogy has been watched, loved, hated, and critiqued for 40 years. With that kind of legacy, no sequels could ever live up to even modest expectations.
But I thought the movies introduced great characters with compelling stories. And I hope we haven’t seen the last of Kylo Ren.
– What do you think, will you work on future Star Wars movies?
– It is impossible to guess. Coronavirus has already had a huge impact on movie releases, and it is hard to know what the next couple of years will have in store for movies in general, and Star Wars in particular.
– Do you have anything else to add?
– The Mandalorian is a fun watch if you haven’t checked it out yet. (Has Disney+ been released in Hungary yet?)
– Not yet but hopefully, it will be available at the end of this year, or in the first quarter of 2021. Do you have any message to the Hungarian readers?
– I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe!
Cover image: Admiral Raddus and the Imperial Star Destroyers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A screenshot from Jessica Laszlo’s Compositing Reel (Vimeo)