Meet the Speakers 2020: Sonja Christoph

Meet the Speakers 2020: Sonja Christoph
February 6, 2020 CG Futures


Sonja Christoph is a Senior Environment Artist and Matte Painter working in the film and game industry. She started her career working at large VFX houses such as Rhythm & Hues, The Mill, and Industrial Light & Magic. During her four years at Industrial Light & Magic, she also worked on several VR projects with ILMxLab, one of which (Carne Y Arena) won the rare Special Awards Oscar. Sonja has worked on film, TV, commercials, theme park rides, VR and most recently AAA game projects.

Q: Can you briefly walk me through your story – how did you get your start in the industry? What’s your current role like?

A: I started my professional career working in Hollywood, actually. I was a Production Assistant, then Assistant Director Trainee, and eventually a full-fledged Assistant Director. It wasn’t until the writer’s strike in 2008, when I saw a presentation about the VFX on 2012 that made me curious about VFX. I signed up for a couple of classes at Gnomon, and I loved it so much that at age 29 I decided to go back to school full-time and change my career.

At Gnomon, I decided I wanted to become a Matte Painter, but there wasn’t a Matte Painting track so I opted for the Generalist track instead and tried to include as many matte paintings as I could into all my other homework assignments. I also took additional classes outside of Gnomon and participated in matte painting competitions. During my last term at Gnomon, I got my first Matte Painting job at one of my dream studios at the time, Rhythm and Hues. Unfortunately, just a few months later RnH filed for bankruptcy. Welcome to the industry! 🙂

I then worked at the Mill and Stargate Studios for a short while until I got a call from Industrial Light and Magic, asking me if I was interested in their Generalist Apprenticeship program. I was of course, and before I knew it, I moved to San Francisco. The apprenticeship program was a great experience and I was beyond excited when I was asked to stay on afterwards.

At ILM I got to work on everything from movies like Dr. Strange and Tomorrowland, to TV shows like Agent Carter, and even Theme Park Rides. Every project presented new challenges and I learned a lot- not just about VFX, but also myself.

It was also during my time at ILM that I became interested and curious about game engines. I took an online class about Unreal and shortly after, I was able to join ILMxLab for Carne Y Arena, a VR experience directed by Alejandro Inarritu, which won us a Special Awards Oscar.

Then in 2017, my mom decided she wanted to move back to Germany (we’re originally from there). She had been diagnosed with cancer and even though she was in remission, the doctors said it would only be a matter of time before it would come back, so I looked for jobs in Europe.

I had really enjoyed working with the Unreal engine and was curious about what it would be like to work on a AAA game, so I looked for jobs in games as well.

I’m currently a Senior Environment Artist, working in AAA games. I have created environments for the Division 2, and soon I will be creating environments at IOInteractive.

Q: Tell us about your work. What are you most proud of?

A: I’m a 3D Generalist and a Matte Painter with a focus on creating environments. I have worked in Film, TV, Commercials, Theme Park rides, VR and now AAA games.

I’m naturally curious and am constantly looking to learn new things, whether that is a new software, technique, or how to knit. 🙂 I love a good challenge and even when I don’t exactly know how to best approach a task at first, I’ll figure it out. Figuring out how to most efficiently approach a shot or environment is like solving a puzzle and it’s something I could do all day. I really enjoy it.

I feel very lucky in the fact that I’ve been able to work on so many different types of projects. Every project had different challenges and I’m proud of all of them.

Three projects I like to think of as a highlight in my career though were Carne Y Arena, a VR experience directed by Alejandro Inarritu about illegal mexican immigrants crossing the border, Dr.Strange, and Smuggler’s Run, the Millennium Falcon ride in Disneyland.

Carne Y Arena was special because it was a passion project for not just for the filmmakers, but for us as well. We were telling real people’s stories and we wanted to do them justice as best as we could- while working in VR- which means substantial technical limitations. It was a great challenge but seeing the response from Alejandro and the audience was incredible, it also went on to win a Special Awards Oscar.

Dr. Strange and Smuggler’s Run are both highlights, first and foremost, because of the team I was working with. Richard Bluff, who had originally recruited me for the apprenticeship program, was the VFX Supervisor on both projects, and he put together an incredible team. We did amazing things together and I have to admit, I miss them quite a bit.

Q: Has it been a smooth road? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way? Any advice for others?

A: Definitely not, lol more like a rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs.
First, there was the writer’s strike in 2008, that caused me to be unemployed for several months, which started me on my path to VFX. Then, Rhythm and Hues, my first job in the industry, filed for bankruptcy just a few months after I had started there. My personal life was not doing much better – my family suffered several losses including my dad to cancer. My mom was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter, but thankfully she’s been in remission for almost four years now.

For as many downs there were, I also experienced some amazing ups during that time. I went back to school full time at the age of 29 and successfully changed my career. I not only landed one dream job but two, at RnH and ILM. I met my fiancé at ILM and I’ve been able to travel the world- doing what I love.

Life can be full of unexpected twists and turns, some will be incredible and some not so much but it’s all part of the ride and this ride can take you to some amazing places, places you never expected to be.

When things go wrong- and they will go wrong- remind yourself that it will be ok, just focus on doing what you love to do and keep moving forward. Things will get better again.

Have a safety net – enough savings to last you six months – just in case you lose your job, or you decide it’s time for a change. That will give you peace of mind and the chance to focus on your next steps.

When things are great, you may have to learn to say no to the one or the other opportunity and that can be harder than you might expect.

Whatever life may throw at you, focus on doing what you love to do and remember to enjoy the ride.

Q: How do you stay inspired and keep from burning out?

A: My inspiration comes from what drives me, and that is my desire to live a full life, a life with little regret. It causes me to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone, try things I never thought I could do, take a chance. I may not always succeed, but when I do, it’s the best feeling in the world and that motivates me to keep going, keep learning, seeing new places, meeting new people and collecting new stories to tell. 🙂

Burnout is an interesting topic, because it can happen to any of us at any time, and it can be caused by many different things, which makes it so difficult to prepare for and try to prevent. I personally think the best thing you can do is to be aware of the symptoms and try to recognize them early in yourself or your friends so you can make steps to get better as soon as possible.

Q: What’s one random fact that people would be surprised to know about you?

A: Despite my very American accent, I’m actually German. I was born and raised on a small island in the North of Germany until we emigrated to the US when I was sixteen

Q: Any final words of advice?

  1. Be easy to get along with. The entertainment industry is a collaborative industry. When people like you, they will recommend you for that next job you may want.
  2. Do tailor your portfolio to the company you are applying for. Want to work at Blizzard? Show off your awesome hand painted textures. Want to work at ILM? Show off your beautiful photo real scenes.
  3. Quality over Quantity. Only show your best work.
  4. Keep learning. We work in a technology driven field that constantly evolves. It’s imperative for you to evolve with it.
  5. Know yourself. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Know we all have them.
  6. Remember you are not the only one getting interviewed at a job interview. You are also interviewing the company.
  7. Lastly, grow a thick skin. You will make mistakes. You will experience failure. It’s ok, brush it off, learn from it and continue.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: People ask me a lot about how I manage my work life balance. How do you keep learning when you have the pot on the stove and the laundry piling up in the corner?

My answer is you don’t. You keep an eye on the pot on the stove before you set your house on fire.

Achieving a work life balance to me is something I try for every day – some days I succeed more than others and I’m ok with those times I don’t succeed. I’m not perfect and sometimes I get so wrapped up in something that I forget all the other hundred little things I was supposed to do. It’s ok. It happens. I will do them the next day. Making lists helps, setting priorities helps but sometimes it’s ok and even fun to veer off course a bit. Make your own rules. Do what works for you.

Follow Sonja on Instagram, Linkedin and Artstation



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