Alex Golovchenko graduated from National Aviation University in Ukraine, 2004. There was just one problem: His real dream was to work in the movies, in an industry that was on the other side of the world. He had no formal training or education in that field. Ten years later, he is now a senior visual effects artist who has worked on big productions like Godzilla, Maleficient, and Game of Thrones.
At the age of 17, Alex was faced with a big decision. In Ukraine, 18 year old men who were not in post-secondary at the time were required to enter military service. He applied and was accepted into the National Aviation University, but still longed to do creative work. In 3rd year he taught himself Photoshop and After Effects, at a time where resources and tutorials were scarce. He and his friend would do a lot of creative freelance work. Eventually, he came across mattepainting.org, a community forum for artists. He became a regular contributor, not knowing that years later this would be the key that would bring him overseas to work in the film industry.
The Ups and Downs
Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Although scientists have since disputed this number, there’s no question that to be good at something you need to put in the work. For Alex, it was all self-taught experience. His work soon attracted the attention of Inter TV Channel in Ukraine, where he was offered a position to do motion graphics and visual effects. This helped to develop his initial showreel. Eventually he moved on to work at SignalRed, in a very small team within a department that hadn’t really existed before.
A: “We started doing this with no idea how to do it, we had about 5 people on our production team.“
His big “break” seemed to come in the form of Expendables 2, after a friend sent him a link to a DMP (Digital Matte Painter) Supervisor at WWFX who was looking for artists to work on the feature. Alex sent in his work and the response was immediate: “Yeah, yeah your stuff looks good.” His contract began soon after in nearby Bulgaria, three months of intensive environmental work with a small team.
After the contract ended, Alex’s visa was expired as well so he found himself back in Ukraine doing TV work again and applying to FX companies in Canada and the US. “The biggest problem was visas, because the companies need people immediately. They need someone for Monday, but it would take a month to get a visa.” Every job lead ended with the same result, stonewalled by visa requirements.
Opportunities, when you don’t expect it
Fast forward a few months later and Alex was contacted by a member from mattepainting.org, the community that he had joined many years ago. He was offered a position to work for MPC in Vancouver. In a month Alex found himself in Canada, working on films like Seventh Son, Percy Jackson, Into The Storm, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He describes the scene in Vancouver to be fairly integrated, in the sense that different FX studios would be working on different scenes in the same feature.
“In Godzilla we would be doing a certain part, and other studios would do other scenes like the Japan section. Our team worked on the San Francisco night scene, re-creating the downtown area with the aerial shots. At some point we had forty people in the matte painting department, because of Godzilla and Maleficient.”
When production on Fast and Furious 6 halted, Alex’s studio was temporarily at a standstill and he was advised to look for other work. The reality of a project-based environment meant that between projects you have the option of looking for work elsewhere or going for a long vacation. Alex is currently at Rocket Science VFX in Toronto, with recent projects that include NBC’s critically acclaimed Hannibal. For now, one of his greatest wishes is to obtain permanent residency status in Canada. The chances appear slim for people working in the creative industry, Canada only approves about two hundred people a year. At Alex’s workplace alone, there are already seventy people who are vying for a spot.
“Unfortunately there is no plan B. For US it’s even harder to get in, lots of people in California are looking for jobs in VFX and most companies have moved to Vancouver. I guess plan B would be somewhere in Europe, but I would like to stay here (in Canada).”
Alex remains optimistic about his future in Canada, and he has faced worse odds before.
For more of Alex’s work, check out his portfolio: http://cargocollective.com/oleksiy