Ask the Artist with Barbra Ho, Digital Paint & Roto Artist

January 3, 2022

Barbra Ho is a digital paint and roto artist who has worked at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand and currently works at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) based in Sydney, Australia. She has worked on over 20 visual effects feature films and television series including, Alita: Battle Angel, Black Widow, Eternals, and, most recently, The Book of Boba Fett series for the streaming service Disney+.

She uses Boris FX Silhouette and Mocha Pro along with Foundry Nuke and Autodesk Maya. Check out her Vimeo channel.

Barbra Ho at her workstation

Where are you from and how did you get your start in the industry?

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to New Zealand in my late teens so nowadays I feel a connection to both places. I always had a huge passion for films and filmmaking, but I originally set out to become a pilot. When that dream fell through, I found myself doing Mechanical Engineering at University instead. During a gap year, I discovered I had a keen interest in the field of motion design and visual effects. So I altered my career path, choosing to study those subjects instead when I returned to academia. After I graduated, I entered the media industry as a freelancer working on a variety of projects such as commercials, television series, and the occasional mograph installation for events. This eventually led to a role at Weta Digital as a rotoscope artist for a few years, where I gained a lot of new skills and experience whilst there. I have now been working at ILM for the past year and have transitioned into being a paint and roto artist.


What are your go-to Boris FX plugins, and which effect/features do you rely on most?

Silhouette and Mocha Pro are the tools I predominantly use. The main feature I use frequently in Silhouette while I roto and paint is probably the built-in Mocha Pro tracking tool, I find it quite handy to get a good basic/rough track to get me started on a shot. Another technique I use often is acquiring new point tracks from a shape that is well established. This trick is very helpful and time-saving. In addition, I really enjoy the overall hand painting process in Silhouette. I find that the interface and various tools it features are intuitive to use, and when combining this with my Wacom pen and tablet, it helps me to achieve organic complex tasks efficiently and to a superb level.


What project are you most proud of and why?

Alita: Battle Angel is the project I am most proud of, mainly because it was my very first feature, and being a stereo show, I learned a lot about roto and gained so many skills from the experience. Most of all I am very pleased with the end result of the film and how the visuals turned out. Another notable mention is The Book of Boba Fett, as it is a dream come true to work on and be part of the Star Wars universe, and I feel fortunate to have gained skill sets over the past few years that allowed me to contribute towards such a brilliant show and outcome.


How do you prep before a big project?

I like to familiarise myself with any technical aspects and requirements of each show. If I’m on a particular show long enough, I feel it is also helpful to get to know the basic storyline and characters during certain sequences, and how the shots I might be working on fit into the bigger picture.

What’s a keyboard shortcut you can’t live without?

Ctrl + s is probably the most classic one I can’t live without. It is in my muscle memory to save my project (ctrl + s) every minute, and it has saved my bacon on many occasions. I also use “1” and “2” a lot when I paint as I am checking my paint against the source plate constantly. And I use “z” and “x” to navigate frames back and forth while I’m working on a shot.

How do you keep yourself fueled/your favorite snack when you’re in an epic session?

Water, water, and more water! Keeping yourself hydrated is very important. I also really enjoy the odd savoury snacks like roasted seaweed snack, fried garlic peas, or salted pretzels. Notable mention is having a refreshing grapefruit flavoured Korean soju towards the end of a stressful workday.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration?

I enjoy music and even like to dabble in learning how to play musical instruments from piano to the ukulele! Being able to speak and understand Cantonese, English, and some Mandarin and Japanese already, I also enjoy learning new languages on the down-low with French, Italian, and a little bit of Korean being my most recent focus. Being a film buff, one of the advantages I find with learning other languages is that it helps me appreciate and understand the dialogue when watching foreign films or TV shows.

What do you do when you start feeling creative burnout?

Listening to good music or a fun podcast series keeps me sane whenever I’m working on a detailed shot that is going to be time-consuming and requires a lot of concentration and perseverance to see completed. Away from the computer, I may go for a short walk around the park nearby (and take photos along the way) and I also seek out the latest exhibitions at art museums to see what other creative minds are coming up with outside of my own VFX/film-centric bubble.

What’s your favorite film and/or TV series?

I have a lot of favourites as I am quite the film and TV geek, but off the top of my head I’d say Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones films, Arrival, Call Me by Your Name, The Crown, The Americans, Succession, Westworld, anything made by Studio Ghibli — especially Spirited Away — and anything from Wes Anderson’s filmography. TV series or films that involve a good murder mystery will often get my seal of approval as well, so recently that would include Knives Out, and Only Murders in the Building.

If you could collaborate with any director/producer/editor/artist (living or dead), who would it be and why?

There are so many directors or artists I would love to collaborate with. At the top are probably Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, Spike Jonze, and Wong Kar Wai (and many more.) I think the collective reason I would like to collaborate with any of the directors I’ve mentioned is that I am a big fan of their films’ visual stylings and narrative sensibilities. I think it would be fascinating to learn about their creative process and watch them work and absorb their brilliance.

What career and/or life advice would you give your younger self?

Be fearless and have confidence in yourself. Never give up, never surrender.

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