Ask the Artist: Portia McLean, Digital Paint Artist

December 1, 2020
tags: Silhouette

Portia McLean is a digital paint artist for Weta Digital and a visual artist based in Wellington, NZ. Over the years, she’s put her mark on both The Hobbit and Planet Of The Apes trilogies, Alita: Battle Angel, and most recently, Game of Thrones (Season 8).

Portia McLean at her Weta workstation

Where are you from and how did you get your start in the industry? I knew I wanted to be a professional artist as I worked my way through school, but was unsure about the reality of achieving that in the traditional sphere. Luckily, being a native New Zealander, and having Weta Digital nearby, I managed to slide my foot in the door of the feature film industry. I made a successful application for an entry-level rotoscoping job with some drawings and a couple of homemade stop-motion films to show for myself. I’ve now spent 7 years here, and am a painter.

What project are you most proud of and why? The Planet of the Apes trilogy and Alita: Battle Angel felt like major visual effects feats, so I was pleased to have been involved with them! But I’d have to say I was most excited by Game of Thrones (Season 8) — as a fan myself, helping out with making the pop-culture phenomenon has been a great source of pride.

(Game of Thrones, photo: Courtesy of HBO)

How do you prep before a big project? All year round, every year, is go! Making sure I get a good holiday, would be my answer! An annual end-of-year pilgrimage with my partner generally resets me and prepares me for the year to come. Going somewhere beautiful and serene within New Zealand has become a tradition.

What are your go-to Boris FX products and which effect/features do you rely on most? Silhouette and Mocha Pro. I predominantly ‘hand paint’ at work which involves frame by frame rebuilding of organic and quite often complex elements within shots. The speed at which I can achieve in Silhouette makes the job much less painful — and genuinely satisfying. And for more procedural tasks, you can’t beat Mocha as a tracker.

What’s a keyboard shortcut you can’t live without? My answer to this is not a very controversial one. Ctrl-Z. As a traditional artist also, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve held a pencil in my hand and after making an unintentional mark, mentally tried to ‘Ctrl-Z’ the blunder.

How do you keep yourself fueled/your favorite snack when you’re in an epic session? Usually, if I am racing the clock, just a flat white with a dash of cinnamon does the trick for me!

Where do you turn for creative inspiration? Listening to music gives me staying power at my desk!

What do you do when you start feeling creative burnout? I am lucky to say that my job doesn’t burn me out creatively. Sometimes the work can be detailed and tedious, but digital paint is satisfying.

What’s your favorite film and/or TV series? Game of Thrones, The Dark Crystal, anything Aardman - especially Wallace & Gromit. I love anything stop-motion, surreal, or absurd.

If you could collaborate with any director/producer/editor living or dead, who would it be and why? Everybody involved in TOOL’s music videos. I’m a lover of the music, imagery, and stop motion. Growing up watching those videos really inspired me.

What career and/or life advice would you give your younger self? Have more confidence in your ability. Everybody at one stage or another pretends that they know what they’re doing.


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