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Anwei Chen

Photo by: Rod Searcey

Unreal World

Anwei Chen ’08

Anwei Chen has traveled around the actual world and creates virtual worlds—on film. Instead of being in front of the cameras, though, Chen works behind the lens in animation and visual effects.

Her film credits include Fruitvale Station, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, for which Chen headed a team that produced sophisticated visual effects. The movie was nominated for best picture and three other Academy Awards.

On both Fruitvale and Beasts, Chen was responsible for post-production, which means coordinating and managing artists and their shots and schedules. Chen oversaw a team of 33 people responsible for 81 of the 120 visual effects shots on Beasts. She also communicated directly with the directors on both films.

“When you’re a kid you want to be an actress or a ballerina,” Chen said. “Even in college I really wanted to be an actress.”

After working as an extra on a couple of films, she realized that wasn’t what she wanted to do. Instead, with the help of mentors and some key opportunities, she found that her talents lay in managing the complex shots that make films visually interesting.

“My job involves a lot of planning,” Chen said. “After editing, we are in synch with sound and music. We’re at the very end of the food chain.”

Chen also has worked in animation. She has been involved in the animated shorts Sidekick and Take Me Home, and the intro to Karma. Chen also is an artist who paints in acrylic on canvas and works in chiaroscuro—the relationship between dark and light.

Even as an undergrad, Chen possessed some of the most important qualities for success, said Ryan McPherson, a lecturer in the Department of Communication.

“She demonstrated a genuine and deep curiosity in her ability to ask the right questions, a great will to work and the best attitude,” he explained.

Receiving advice from Seok Kang, assistant professor in the Department of Communication, was a turning point for Chen.

“Visual effects production was one of my suggestions during our conversations,” Kang said. “She had the clear goal and pursued it without hesitation. It made today’s Anwei, I think.”

After graduating from UTSA, Chen went on to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. That’s where she learned how to become an animator, and her path was set.

Chen got her big break working as the visual effects production manager for Beasts of the Southern Wild as part of a school assignment. She worked with professional artists as well as students on the picture and remembers putting in long hours.

“I didn’t have a life,” she recalled. But the hard work paid off when the film received a slew of accolades, including the Oscar nominations.

On Fruitvale Station, Chen worked on the pre-, production, and post-production phases of the film and again managed a team working on the visual effects shots.

Two days after the film premiered in January at Sundance, The Weinstein Company acquired it for $2.5 million. It was released in July 2013.

When Chen went to Fruitvale’s screening, she watched closely for flaws.

“The whole time I was looking for the mistakes,” she said. The average viewer likely wouldn’t notice them, but “I know every shot,” Chen explained.

So what’s next for Chen?

“In the foreseeable future, I do want to stay in visual effects,” she said. As a freelancer, she can work on a variety of projects.

It may look glamorous to outsiders, but film can be a difficult industry, she added.

“People don’t tell you that. Producers are brutal in this industry,” she said. “You have to work really hard at it. But if you really like it and you’re very good at it, people will be out hunting you down.”

–Kathryn Jones

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