Heroic Adventures with VFX Coordinator, Valerie Wicks

“Black Panther was so cool, of course! And as a film to start your journey… that’s kind of amazing and unheard of.”​

When you’re making a movie you don’t really know how it’s going to be received — you’re just trying to do the best you can. But that one, even though it was my first one… there was a buzz in the air.” Valerie Wicks, Visual Effects Coordinator, detailed how she first came busting into the VFX world with Marvel’s most influential film of our time, Black Panther.

I met up with this tiny but mighty firecracker over Zoom, with a laugh that was so infectiously charming. Her gorgeous black curls dangled just above her shoulders with oversized blue headphones placed gently over her ears.​

“You look so cute!” I burst out, unable to contain my excitement upon seeing her larger-than-life smile.

“Oh thank you, so do you! People are like, ‘You have your hair done during quarantine?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if I don’t do it, then it’s completely unmanageable.’ I can’t not do it.” She laughed, lifting her shoulders with an innocent shrug.

“Girl, I feel you! If we don’t manage these curls… people don’t get it.” I said pointing at my own curls that hang over my forehead.

“As far as work goes, it’s actually been fine, because I think it’s helped with focus and I’m really zeroed in. Socially, obviously, I miss hangin’ out. I miss being able to go anywhere I want and feel safe…”

Like many around the world, Valerie has chosen to remain indoors, to self-quarantine, since the COVID-19 global outbreak hit Los Angeles back in March, 2020. “I’ve personally been through a lot and I think our nation has been through a lot… Through the ages we’ve always come out of it, so I think we’ll come out of this… one day! I’m lucky that I can say that, because a lot of people can’t say that. They’re in a lot more danger than I am, and I’ve been fortunate to work from home, fortunate to be able to keep a job… groceries — I can order groceries, but a lot of people aren’t in that position… Though most of my interactions with friends and family are digital, I still feel like I’m socializing.”​

That last sentence turned an ironic lightbulb on in my mind as I thought, “Ah, Zoom, the unlikeliest superhero to swoop in and save us all from isolation while social distancing.”

Is that dumb? I dunno… I was, after all, gabbing away with someone on the inside of the Marvel Universe — the birthplace of such extraordinary beloved heroes! Naturally, superheroes are on the brain! If humanity ever needed a masked crusader, 2020 would be the time.

“When I was in school, there were two main types of film schools. One is more production-based, and then one is more theory-based, and that’s why I really liked the Florida State Film School — because it was more production-based.” Valerie walked me through her vast experience while learning every position she could when it came to making films — from directing, to costuming, to even taking a side step out into video games, but admitted that a career in VFX was never really an idea in her mind.

“…Actually, one of my friends from FSU was the reason why I got onto Black Panther,” Valerie confessed joyfully. “They needed a PA, and I had never done VFX, and I ended up really enjoying it. Black Panther was so cool, of course! And as a film to start your journey… that’s kind of amazing and unheard of.”

I was honestly amazed by her story. She is that ‘one in a million’ we all hear about! Here she was, this tiny framed, soft-spoken, joyful soul, who upon first glance you might fear would be eaten up and spat back out by the often intense and cruel world of Hollywood’s rejection. I personally feel that what aids in Valerie’s success, aside from her obvious talent, was her lack of fear coupled with her adoring, likable charm, and willingness to just dive right in!

“If there is anything that I would love for anyone who wants to get into the entertainment industry to know, is that the common thread is, literally everyone has said it; it’s all about the connections,” I confessed.

“Yeah!” Valerie exclaimed with excitement on common ground, “Sometimes saying that can sound intimidating to people. As if they have to be these big ‘schmoozers’, but it’s more about these real relationships you build — your actual friendships. It may be someone who's more like an acquaintance, but if you have a positive, natural interaction with them, then you’re going to store those people in your mind and you remember them later…”

Marvel Comic Universe’s Black Panther was originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a bid to offer black readers a character to identify with. Over fifty years later in 2017, Twitter reported that Black Panther was one of the most-tweeted-about films with the hashtags #BlackPantherSoLit and #WelcomeToWakanda flooding social media platforms. By May 2018, Black Panther landed at a whopping $1.344 billion worldwide at the box office.

“For me particularly, it’s been interesting — normally, I’m one of a few black people, if not the only black person, in whatever project I’m working on… So it was cool to be on Black Panther, and to have a lot of other black people around me, and especially in leadership positions.”

Valerie gave this interview before we lost the King of Wakanda. She had wonderful things to say about him, “I was a PA, so I was doing office tasks, but it was great to get to go down to the sets and to watch them… Chadwick Boseman was particularly nice… I saw him and sort of froze.” She laughed, remembering her star-struck encounter. “But he made jokes to make me feel less nervous… it was so special that he took the time to make a joke and make a random person he ran into feel more comfortable. He was just very nice that way.”​

I could see the gears turning behind her eyes as she relived the experience before busting out with infectious laughter, “I wish I could remember what the joke was! So I could tell you!” That in itself made me laugh. “I only got to see Lupita Nyong’o once… but when I saw her she was like a goddess floating by, and I just froze again!” She laughed at herself, shaking her head. “She was truly stunning!”​

Valerie’s next big film adventure not only furthered her career with a promoted position in the Marvel universe but ultimately, lead her to me with kismet destiny. “I went on to be an Assistant Coordinator on AntMan and The Wasp, which is the next thing you do after PA work in VFX. That’s kind of the post-production route. There’s also the on-set route, which would be different.”

Valerie lit up with a joyful smile as we reminisced on our mutual connections in the industry, including one of Marvel’s VFX head supervisors, Stephane Ceretti. “An Assistant Coordinator is a little bit of a jack of all trades… on both Black Panther and Antman… I was only in the pre-production and the production half of the process. I didn’t go to post. During production, you’re gathering data, and the on-set team is scanning everything — all of the props, all of the costumes, the actors, the stages… You just want to make sure you gather all the information the VFX vendors are going to need later in post-production. The Director, the VFX Supervisor, and the VFX vendors are all working together to figure out the big concepts in the movie and what they’ll look like and feel like. The audience doesn’t necessarily want to see exactly, verbatim, what’s in the comic books because they’ve already seen that. So there's a little bit of, ‘What’s going to be the cinematic take on these powers, or this character?’”

Again, Valerie found herself on a larger-than-life Marvel film set, and again, she was in awe. “It’s really cool! They created this giant laboratory where a lot of the set pieces were oversized… So, you’d walk in and see a ruler or a pencil that was three times your height! The quantum device in the lab was this huge, gorgeous, light-up structure that they actually built and you could walk in it, and it was gorgeous. That was a really impressive set.”

Valerie embarked on another grand adventure by stepping away from Marvel and right into the magical world of Disney with the highly anticipated, live-action feature film adventure, Mulan.

“A lot of the VFX team on Mulan were women. I’ve been super lucky. Every team in VFX I’ve worked with has had strong female leaders, and that is a unique thing…”

“The movie is obviously beautiful… it is definitely the most grounded of the (Disney) remakes… It’s got some beautiful martial arts, it has gorgeous costumes, talented actors, and of course stunning VFX! It really gets your heart, too. It’s cool to see the strength of the character Mulan, now in live-action. The crew I got to work with was really wonderful, and we had a long post-production, longer than most… A lot of the VFX team on Mulan were women. I’ve been super lucky. Every team in VFX I’ve worked with has had strong female leaders, and that is a unique thing… I think it’s important to work with both sexes, for sure, but it’s kind of a comforting thing working with so many women.”

“I was a Coordinator for the first time and doing post-production, which was very cool and different than working on the production half of the film. I got to work with our Postvis and In House teams… In-house is like a mini VFX vendor. They’re right there in the offices with you, doing art that will end up in the movie. Whereas Postvis inserts quick effects so that the Director, Editor, and VFX Supervisor can figure out exactly what they want to do before we send the shot to the vendor to do the final effects you’ll see in the movie… I was also the VFX Marketing Coordinator for our trailers and promotional material. So, I did a little bit of everything on Mulan!”

During a routine drive over Braham Boulevard, which looks over Warner Brothers Studios, I spotted a massive billboard adverting Mulan’s new marketing plan to begin streaming on Disney+, beginning September 4th, 2020, as opposed to a traditional cinematic release. When I asked Valerie her feelings on a straight-to-streaming release, she was surprisingly optimistic. “I think they’re planning to do some cinema release, but only in select locations and countries where theaters are open. Streaming is kind of exciting because, you know, I don’t think that’s been done on a movie this size yet.”

Straight to streaming versus cinematic release has been a debatable topic in Hollywood for many years now, with creatives making valid arguments for the pros and cons of both experiences. Admittedly, I personally prefer the cinematic experience, but as history has proven, movies and how we watch them will constantly evolve.

“I feel that’s what we’re looking at, personally,” I confessed. “It’s how silent films moved into the talkies, radio turned to TV, and drive-ins were replaced with indoor cinemas.”

And now we’ve gone back to drive-in theaters! Full circle!” Valerie exclaimed.​

“I am going to ask this, and I don’t think you can really comment on it that much either, but you’re working on post-production for another Marvel Film, now, correct?” I stated.​

“Yes!” Valerie said as we both acknowledge the film. “But that’s about all I can say.”

When I asked what was next for Valerie, she admitted that she is looking forward to a long-overdue vacation, and has been working on a fictional middle-grade fantasy/adventure novel. We may be in uncertain times, but I do know this; the next time you run into Valerie Wicks, another grand, heroic adventure will be accompanying her.

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