The Nice Shoes VFX artist tells Addison Capper about the importance of artistic perspective on top of technical knowhow and how a chance encounter in a pop-up ramen shop peaked her interest in VFX
One thing that’s always good to ask people in advertising is how they got into this hellraiser of an industry in the first place. Was it always the plan or more of a happy accident? For Kayako Ono, it was a bit of both.
As a kid she had little interest in film or moving image, her loyalties lying more with the stage as a theatre actress and dancer. However a relationship with film came later as her love of writing tempted her to enrol in film school to pursue screenwriting. The accidental part came next.
In 2017 Kayako graduated from Boston University for Film and Television, where she focused mostly on post production and cinematography. She knew she wanted to work in post- production - the planned part of this story - but had her sights set on life as an editor. She had never spared any time to think about becoming a VFX artist, the role she currently holds at Nice Shoes in New York. That was until a chance encounter at a friend’s pop-up ramen shop where she was filming a personal project. “One of the customers that came in happened to be an industry person who used to work in Lustre and Flame,” she tells me. “We got to talking and he got me interested in Flame.”
These days Kayako, who was born in Japan but grew up in New York, plies her trade as a VFX artist, spending much of her day on Flame, the piece of software widely used in the post production industry. Prior to settling down at Nice Shoes, Kayako’s career took her to Tokyo, Auckland and Boston. “My multicultural identity gives me a wide perspective on everything and keeps me open minded,” she says of the work experiences she’s picked up since graduation.
Kayako’s first job out of school was as a flame assistant at The Artery in New York. She had, in her own words, pretty much zero experience when she landed that gig. There’d been a stint at Cutters in Tokyo and a couple of experiences as post studios in New Zealand but Artery proved to be “a crash course learning experience,” she says. “The senior flame artist there taught me everything, and I owe him a lot for shaping me into the artist I am now. I’ve worked with a ton of freelancers as well who have all shared tips and tricks with me that I still use, and I’m so grateful for that. Since coming to Nice Shoes, I’ve picked up even more skills from the artists here as well. I’m always learning!”
One of the first projects that Kayako worked on was the VFX for Ocean’s 8, somewhat a baptism of fire given the scale and level of publicity for such a project. “ I was so impressed and mind blown with what the Flame artists were doing,” she says. Since progressing into a fully-fledged VFX artist in her own right, Kayako has grown to enjoy how her creative tendencies seamlessly intertwine with the technical skills required for the job. She was an art history minor in school and it's an experience that she believes has served her well in her career in VFX. “That paired with [a focus on] cinematography has definitely helped me understand visual language better and have an artistic perspective on top of technical skills,” she says.
That also plays into a part of the business that Kayako finds particularly enjoying - the art of the retouch, an often overlooked gem of the VFX practice due to its understated, hidden nature compared to big scale, more in-your-face style work. “I really enjoy doing beauty retouch,” she says/ “There’s so much nuance and subtlety that goes into it and getting the perfect natural look is rewarding. As a woman it’s important for me to be a positive part of retouching because it can be a sensitive process.
As entrancing as she finds the details and the subtleties of the work, she also loves the aspects of her job that bring together different ideas and personalities, and getting sociable. “My favourite part is the collaboration,” she says. “I’m constantly working with and learning from other artists who have different approaches and techniques that often will achieve the same result. It comes down to an artist’s personal style, the needs of the job, but I appreciate that I’m able to pick and choose while adding my own spin to techniques, and I love broadening my knowledge that way.”
Thanks to Covid-19 the act of collaboration is trickier than it once was. Kayako is currently working out of her Brooklyn home but says that the transition to working from home was, pandemic anxiety and fears aside, seamless thanks to the Nice Shoes engineering team. “Working from home has been a surprisingly pleasant time, especially with more time to cook every meal. Although I definitely miss being around my co-workers… I cook a lot,” she adds. “Especially when I want to relax. It makes me super happy to put on some music and cook all day long, and even better when it’s for friends and family.”
She’s also a big fan of music videos. “I love music videos,” she says. “Recently I’ve been really into ones directed by Sarah Bahbah. She’s so good at evoking femininity and vulnerability, and her captioning format makes you feel like you’re reading someone’s diary. Her work for Kygo’s ‘Not Okay’ was what got me into her - I love how so many different women’s inner thoughts are explored and it’s not just a one-dimensional narrative.”
Looking to the future, Kayako is excited for a side project that she’s been working on to see the light of day. She’s just wrapped on a short screenplay that’ll be featured in a magazine called Slant’d, whose mission is to cultivate a creative community for Asian Americans. “I haven’t done much writing since college, and it was really refreshing to work on a creative project outside of work.”
At Nice Shoes and in her role as a VFX artist, she’s set to continue building on her reel and leaning into the lessons that she’s learned in these early stages of her career. “Never be afraid to ask for help, but also be confident in your abilities,” she lives by. “I found that it was really important to know your worth and let people know that, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own to prove it.”