PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 21, Landings: Emily Skrutskie

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Austin Bunn: This is Landings. This is Austin Bunn, associate professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. And in this interview I spoke with Emily Skrutskie, class of 2015 from Cornell University, who was a PMA major with a film concentration. She's published three books of young adult fantasy fiction with a trilogy on the way. I spoke to her about arriving in Los Angeles and finding work at Framestore, a VFX company. Enjoy.

Austin Bunn: So as I mentioned before, the spirit of this podcast or these interviews is to help students who are considering moving out to Los Angeles to work in film and TV and media generally to understand better how people who've had great success landing here did it. So I thought you'd be a great guest. So let's scroll back time a little bit and talk about your first, I want to hear about your first experience out here. So you said the summer after your sophomore year, you had a first internship where was that?

Emily Skrutskie: That's correct. I was at Ant Farm, which unfortunately I think just shut down. But they were an advertising agency in Los Angeles, actually right in the Grove, which is very nice location. I was their motion graphics intern, so I actually came out with no experience of how to do any of this, was sat down in front of After Effects on my first day. Said this thing is going to E3 next week. We need you to crop this, and just started learning on the fly from there.

Austin Bunn: You taught yourself via Lynda, didn't you?

Emily Skrutskie: A little bit of Lynda. Yeah, they had a Lynda subscription and so anytime I had downtime I was just watching tutorials, figuring out how to do more stuff.

Austin Bunn: So at the time were you still a computer science major with PMA as well?

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, so I was computer science up until my senior year and then basically with two classes left in the CS major realized I did not have the time to do everything and had to drop it down to a minor in computer science and minor in game design.

Austin Bunn: Well, one of the things that makes you an interesting person for these interviews is that you have this background in technical things like computer science and engineering, and also a creative side. I know you're a writer too. We'll get to that. So what made you think that you could work, you could make a life for yourself out here. Did you have friends who had come out here or people you knew who were graduates?

Emily Skrutskie: So I actually drew a great deal of inspiration from a friend of my father's who was a technical director at Disney in the 90s. He was a Cornell grad, a college buddy of my dad's. And I found out that he had worked on Fantasia 2000 when I was a kid and I was like, oh, that was really cool, how did he do that? And it turns out he was a computer science major at Cornell. And so I was like, okay, I'll be a computer science major at Cornell.

Austin Bunn: How did you make that first summer work then? So you were out here interning. Did you live in an Airbnb?

Emily Skrutskie: Yep. Lived in an Airbnb and close enough that I could walk to work cause I'm one of those weird people in LA who doesn't have a car.

Austin Bunn: Did you like it that first summer or did you find yourself a little overwhelmed by the city?

Emily Skrutskie: I think it was a little overwhelming at the start, but by the end I was getting very used to it. And then I did one more internship out here and decided this is definitely a place I could hack it.

Austin Bunn: Talk about that second internship you, cause you did both through Cornell in Hollywood, right?

Emily Skrutskie: Yup. So the second internship, I actually didn't find out I got until after classes had wrapped and I was back home for the summer and then they just called out of nowhere like, hey, you want to come out to Santa Monica and do an internship at Threshold? And I was like, okay, yeah, sure. I'm not doing anything this summer. I didn't land anything else. So I just booked another Airbnb and came out for, it was a little bit shorter that time. It was like a month and a half, I want to say, but did a development internship at Threshold Animation.

Austin Bunn: So it's an animation company, and it was in development. So were you reading scripts? Were you looking at, I dunno, IP and that whole thing?

Emily Skrutskie: I was, yeah, I was doing a lot of research into properties and what was available. I would have, you know, the producers would say, hey, I'm interested in acquiring this. Can you find out what the status of the rights are? And I would inquire into that or just research online or they would say, hey, we're thinking about hiring these directors. Can you watch some of their work and give me a breakdown of what they're capable of?

Austin Bunn: Great. So then you go back to school, you finish your senior year and what happens?

Emily Skrutskie: Then I didn't have much luck applying for jobs during either my senior spring or in the summer after.

Austin Bunn: What kind of jobs were you applying for Emily? Did you think like a production, development job?

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, it was mostly PA jobs at animation studios specifically. I was very interested in working in feature animation and also maybe might've been a little visual effects too, more technical production, places where I thought that my technical background in addition to my film experience would meld together.

Austin Bunn: And so you had trouble finding work. It's also really hard to, I think, to find jobs from elsewhere. Right?

Emily Skrutskie: Exactly. Yeah. I didn't feel like I was capable. I remember I had a couple of phone interviews. I had an interview with ILM that I felt stalled a little bit when they started asking, okay, so when can you get out here? And I was like, well, I'll have to find a place. But, you know.

Austin Bunn: As soon as you offer me something.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, as soon as I have something to go there for, but also like, realistically ballparking, okay. I could probably book an Airbnb and be out there within two weeks, something like that. But it just didn't work as well doing it from, you know, Colorado or from Charlottesville, the places where I was living after I graduated.

Austin Bunn: This is the moment where we should start talking about your novels because at this point you are probably beginning to work on your duology slash trilogy, right?

Emily Skrutskie: Yes. I wrote the first book of that duology during my junior year at Cornell and then sold it during the fall of my senior year. It came out about a year after I graduated, so I was working on those at the time. And working on new books after those books. But it wasn't a fully fledged career. It's still very, I mean, I've just sold the biggest deal I've sold so far. It's still not enough for me to make a full-time living off of. It's something that you kind of have to build up over time. And so I knew that this, unless I became one of those people who scored like the million dollar deal, the overnight success, the film rights sell immediately, that it's something that realistically you have to build up towards over a span of many years.

Austin Bunn: So you were working, you said, at Barnes & Noble, you were working retail.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, I worked retail a little bit while I was at home after I graduated just to have enough saved up that I could move out. And then if I didn't find anything right away, it wasn't the end of the world.

Austin Bunn: Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself working at Barnes & Noble or anything that you gained from that experience or was it really just biding time?

Emily Skrutskie: I mean it was an interesting experience, especially from, you know, like as an author, having the experience of understanding what it actually looks like when people come in, what they're looking for. Understanding that this is a business and that we are selling products is something that I think really benefited me and that a lot of authors can benefit from because there is kind of, when you, when you're just viewing it as your precious creation, there is kind of this preciousness that gets locked in and you've become unwilling to change it or unwilling to see the marketability side of things and it's definitely good to have that perspective.

Austin Bunn: Great point. So then you decide to make the leap to come out to Los Angeles. You didn't have a job yet?

Emily Skrutskie: Didn't have a job. No, my idea was that I would have enough saved up that I could come out here, start applying for stuff right away, and some of the stuff that I applied for included retail positions. I found a retail position that I could work to continue to, you know, maintain the baseline moneywise and then eventually found what would become my career.

Austin Bunn: Can you talk about how young people find work in this field now? Are you using Creative COW, Mandy, Like where are these jobs posted and how did you find yours?

Emily Skrutskie: It was definitely a lot of Entertainment Careers, a lot of LinkedIn; I think the Framestore position specifically was on LinkedIn. So there's a lot of good stuff posted there, but I was definitely trying to apply as broadly as I could, going down as many avenues as I could.

Austin Bunn: What do you think made you land the job? Like, do you think there were specific things on your resume or was it really just at this point, a numbers game where you're applying to, I don't know, a hundred jobs and four or five come through?

Emily Skrutskie: So my, the job that I landed was a runner position at Framestore, which is basic studio support. It's, you know, making the coffee, fetching any food orders, doing the dishes, just keeping the studio running. But when I interviewed for it, they said that they tend to look for candidates who, you know, would want to advance within the company. So they saw on my resume that I had technical experience. I had creative experience; I had worked in a similar capacity to things that they were doing. And so I would be a valuable asset to the company beyond just doing the coffee.

Austin Bunn: Talk about your job right now. What's your title and what's the day to day like?

Emily Skrutskie: So I'm a junior pipeline technical director and my day to day is a complete hodgepodge. It could be a day of me sitting with my feet kicked up on my desk, which I did a lot for a month recently because I broke my ankle. But then it could also be utter chaos: a show is delivering and they keep on hitting these errors. Basically my role is to support the software within the studio and to write custom code that will allow us to do certain things with that software or make it easier for artists using one software to hand off their work to other artists.

Austin Bunn: You are leaning on your computer science background then.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, exactly. So I'm doing a lot. It's a lot of computer science, but it's also a lot of stuff I learned on the job. And that's one of the things that I realized pretty early on into it is that even though I definitely had the fundamentals I needed, almost everything I was doing was stuff I'd just learned on the fly. So it's very much a job that you pick up as you go.

Austin Bunn: Mmm. Do you think that's true for the technicians who might be working on the backend or people who are doing more technical stuff at the company itself?

Emily Skrutskie: So for the artists, I feel like the artists kind of, to get their foot in the door, they do have to have like demo reels. They have to have examples of work that they've done before. And so they, it's kind of like a different approach.

Austin Bunn: A portfolio approach.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah. They have to have more of a portfolio. Whereas with me it was just, you can code? Okay.

Austin Bunn: Looking back at your Cornell career, is there anything you wish you'd done differently to prepare yourself for the career you want here?

Emily Skrutskie: I feel like I don't really have many regrets about my academic career. I might have, if I'd known that I would end up in this field, pushed myself to finish the CS major a little bit more. Cause it was only like two more classes that I had to take. And in retrospect, it would be nice to be able to say, yeah, I have a degree in computer science. Well, you know, it technically is a degree in computer science. Just they're minors.

Austin Bunn: Yeah, you had two minors, you said?

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, computer science and game design was ultimately how I broke down the credits once I decided that I wasn't going to go all the way through with the CS major.

Austin Bunn: Do you think that Cornell could do a better job helping students navigate that exact transition, creative and technical skillset?

Emily Skrutskie: I feel like definitely as far as—so I know some people who went to other Ivy League schools that have CG programs in their own right. And while I studied graphics at Cornell, under the computer science masthead, there were not as many opportunities for creative work in graphics. It was more about the technical side of things and that is a very important side and it serves people very well when they go into that avenue of things. But I feel like there isn't much support for people who actually want to do, like, CG, modeling, animation, that kind of stuff.

Austin Bunn: It's challenging because the industry itself is evolving really fast. And so these things, the software that produces the stuff, the way that you use it. I mean, it's difficult for institutions like an Ivy League school to keep up.

Emily Skrutskie: Definitely. Yeah. And then there's like, just even on the nitty-gritty side, there's a whole manner of, like, licensing. How is a student going to obtain a student Maya license to work in Maya to teach themselves Maya? And there isn't really a formal way for people to learn Maya at Cornell, as far as I know.

Austin Bunn: I got the demo of Maya, just to poke around. I got schooled really quick.

Emily Skrutskie: Oh, well Maya, Maya is a hard place to start too. It's just a lot of buttons.

Austin Bunn: A lot of buttons. It was like learning Chinese in an afternoon. I thought like, no, I have to, I'll just put this aside. So these days you're working at Framestore; how do you make LA work for you? I mean, it is a city that a lot of students are curious about, but don't have a lot of experience. You said you don't have a car, you've made that work.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, for one thing. I live in a very convenient place. There are bus routes that go right by my home, so I can commute in about 45 minutes every day, which also works really well for me because I read a lot because I'm an author. I need to keep up with stuff. So that's a solid hour and a half of reading time every day.

Austin Bunn: Do you read on your Kindle? Or on your phone?

Emily Skrutskie: No, I actually get books from the library.

Austin Bunn: How refreshing.

Emily Skrutskie: So, I have one in my purse right now.

Austin Bunn: So let's talk about that. So right now you're working on a new trilogy of books. The first book is going to come out next year.

Emily Skrutskie: Next year, yeah. Hopefully in the spring.

Austin Bunn: And this is fantasy science fiction.

Emily Skrutskie: Science fiction, kind of in the vein of Star Wars. Big, galactic.

Austin Bunn: That's a big vein.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah. Big, big vein to mine. Comps very strongly to the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, which is also put out by Del Ray. So I was very excited when this book got picked up by them because they know exactly what to do with a book like that.

Austin Bunn: Congratulations. Do you imagine it's the kind of material that would make sense for a film or television show?

Emily Skrutskie: Oh, totally. Yeah. I'm also, because I have such a strong film background and that's all part, a lot of the way I think and conceptualize things. My writing, it has been described as cinematic. So I feel like my stuff would definitely translate to film or television.

Austin Bunn: That's fantastic. So thinking back, the people that will be listening to this program will probably be students who are like you who are, maybe had a computer science background, have some creative instincts, they want to move out here. What kind of advice would you give them?

Emily Skrutskie: Well, I mean I do strongly support what I did, which is coming out here to like, building a nest egg first, making sure that you're okay financially because this is a very expensive city. And you need both when you're coming out here, you need both a safety net and an escape route. So I always, you know, wanted to maintain that I would always have enough for rent the next month or the plane ticket home. So on the financial side, that's really, really important. But for people who are technical specifically, I think one thing I kind of regret and one thing I think would have made my job hunt a lot easier is if I had tailored my resume more toward the technical side when I was applying to technical positions and more toward the creative side when I was applying to creative positions because I definitely got some feedback that was like, hey, this is really confusing to look at. What do you want to be? Because I had just such different things on my resume. I had previously worked as a web designer and a research assistant and things that were related to my CS background. And I had that alongside development assistant and motion graphics artist.

Austin Bunn: You have multiple competencies, right? It's harder to sell.

Emily Skrutskie: Author. Yeah. So, it's good to be like a polymath and to just be able to do it all. But it can also confuse people when you're trying to sell them on the fact that you can do this one particular thing that they need you for.

Austin Bunn: When you look at the other people, the young people at Framestore who are maybe new to the business or getting that first job as technical people, what have they done differently than you? You mean they had a resume that was really tailored to a comp sci or a technical job? Do they have a portfolio as well?

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, so the people who come in as interns instead of coming in as a runner and then kind of discovering what they want to do tend to be people who have a very, who are able to sell themselves along that track, who have a very strong portfolio. They can show you a reel or you know, coding samples if it's a TD position. But to demonstrate that they have the knowledge that they need so that they don't get in the way, so that they can continue to grow and learn, but so that they can actually function in a production capacity too.

Austin Bunn: Looking at your own career, it sounds like these books are always going to be a part of your life. You're going to be writing now for the next few decades. What about your work though in this industry? Where do you see yourself in five years?

Emily Skrutskie: Well, that's an interesting question because I haven't really planned that far in the future with my career here.

Austin Bunn: But do you want to climb the ranks at a VFX company? Would you want to be a creative executive there?

Emily Skrutskie: I don't know if I want to be like a creative executive. I definitely really like my job and the team that I'm on right now, and I don't really have that much of a template for where this career expands to beyond like, you know, from junior pipeline TD, to pipeline TD, to lead pipeline TD, to head of pipeline, to I don't know what comes beyond the head of pipeline. Do you get a chance to be head of CG if you're not?

Austin Bunn: Well, I have a feeling somebody like you, I could imagine, a number of people have created their own VFX companies and then turned into directors or taken their own material and developed something from it.

Emily Skrutskie: Yeah, that'd be a very cool thing to do. Definitely.

Austin Bunn: Dream big. That's what this city's about. So, is there anything else you feel like is important about your transition out here that you wish you had known or that you want to, you'd like to advise students about?

Emily Skrutskie: Well, there was, I think I had a difficulty, you know, coming out of Cornell and the big promises of an institution like that and then going to working in retail. I think that that, like, adapting to the level of humility that took was a difficult transition for me. I definitely did not take it well at the beginning. So I feel like, being open to that kind of work is something that I wish I had, you know, embraced more from the start because that kind of humility serves you very well.

Austin Bunn: Serves you very well, I think in any field. And it's a credit to you that you were able to say to yourself like, I need to have some income. It's something, it's a structure that I can live inside and also teaches me something about the work I want to make.

Emily Skrutskie: And ultimately that, I mean, that level of humility and that willingness to take on that kind of work made me a really good runner and made me, you know, I was willing to go and weed the plants out front or clean out some really nasty stuff that got caught in the sinks. So, like that and being the person who did that in turn made the people around me notice, oh, hey, okay. So she's working really hard, what has she got going on, what can she do for me?

Austin Bunn: So that students can find your work, tell us some of the titles, Emily.

Emily Skrutskie: So my first series starts with The Abyss Surrounds Us. That came out from Flux in 2016. I also have a standalone novel called Hull Metal Girls that came out last summer. And my next series starts off with Bonds of Brass. I'm not sure if, they haven't told me that that's not going to be the title, so at this point it's Bonds of Brass, but that comes out in spring of 2020. Oh boy.

Austin Bunn: What's the premise? Can you at least tease us a little bit about what it's about?

Emily Skrutskie: So it's about a young pilot who is at this academy with, let's see, let's cycle back. So it's about a young pilot and his best friend who are training in this young officer corps. And one day they're doing this flight exercise and everybody turns on his best friend. And he discovers that his best friend is in fact the heir to the empire. The prince who has been shadowed at this academy to learn about the common people to kind of get some leadership experience and it has all gone sideways. And so he basically tucks this guy under his arm and starts running in the other direction. And it's about their misadventures trying to get him on the throne after it all goes to hell.

Austin Bunn: Interesting. And you're, so you're writing from the male point of view?

Emily Skrutskie: I am. Yeah.

Austin Bunn: How hard is that?

Emily Skrutskie: My first boy.

Austin Bunn: Was it hard at all? Did you find yourself thinking like, oh, I don't know if this really works from a guy's perspective?

Emily Skrutskie: I don't know. It's not something that I was very…and maybe I don't think that the male perspective and the female perspective are all that different, ultimately. I feel like as people, the basic human functioning brain operates along a path that's pretty easy to understand from all perspectives.

Austin Bunn: Great.

Emily Skrutskie: It was, it was definitely, it did have like a bit of a different feel to it than my past girls.

Austin Bunn: Sounds exciting. And it's going to be a trilogy.

Emily Skrutskie: It's gonna be a trilogy, yeah.

Austin Bunn: So we'll have to wait till 2022 to figure out how it all ends.

Emily Skrutskie: Oh yeah. And I'm going to have to wait till then to get it all done.

Austin Bunn: Emily, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been the PMA podcast. I'm provisionally calling the show Landings, so this has been Landings.

Emily Skrutskie: Thank you for having me.