Alumni Profile: Andrea Anwei-Chen
By Rudy Arispe
While most people who chase a career in the film industry aspire to appear on the silver screen, Andrea Anwei Chen is content to work behind the scenes. To put it more precisely, Chen, in her role as a post-production visual effects manager, helps create the scenes themselves, and her work to date has been far from going unnoticed. Last year, she worked on Beasts of the Southern Wild, which garnered Oscar nods for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
During her work for the critically acclaimed feature film, Chen oversaw a team of 30 artists responsible for 81 visual effects shots, an experience she characterized as a “beast” in itself.
“It’s hard work. I’ve gone days without sleeping,” said Chen, 25, by phone from her home in San Francisco. “It took us four months to complete the film [for the Sundance Film Festival] and then we were asked to fix a couple of shots after Fox Searchlight Pictures picked it up for distribution.”
“After scenes are filmed, it goes to editing and then it goes to sound and visual effects,” she explained. “You get to see the final result of the film. You’re one of the last people to see the shots before they were altered.”
One example of Chen’s work involved removing a baby that Wink, portrayed by actor Dwight Henry, carries in his arm during a boat scene with child actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who delivers a captivating performance as Hushpuppy.
After viewing the film following its national release, Chen never would have guessed the film was to become a box-office hit.
“I saw the first cut and was not entirely sure what the focus was or what the director was trying to convey,” she said. “After its huge success at Sundance, I was very intrigued and really wanted to see it again to see what the hype was all about.”
“I got an invitation to Skywalker Ranch [the headquarters of director George Lucas’ production company] to see the film and attend a Q&A with the director and the two main actors. It was amazing to see all that hard work up on the big screen.”
Chen’s journey to filmmaking was not a direct one. After graduating in 2008 from UTSA with a bachelor’s degree in communication, she moved to China to work as a journalist. During her six months in the country, she edited for the Guangzhou Morning Post and wrote English-language articles from the perspective of a visiting Chinese American.
After China, Chen headed for San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University. While her original goal was to become a 3D animator, she was immediately drawn to visual effects and enrolled in a compositing for production class. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Prior to completing her program Chen was given the opportunity to work as a visual effects artist on a feature film, and thus began her association with Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Since the film’s release Chen has continued to build an impressive resume. She has done post-production work for the short film Cicada Princess, which illustrates the final moments of a cicada’s life, as well as for the feature film Fruitvale Station, which chronicles the true story of the shooting of San Francisco Bay Area resident Oscar Grant. She has also worked on the sci-fi thriller Recoil and created effects for the Thor 2 trailer. “I got to work with a lot of people from Marvel, which was cool,” she said of that latest experience.
One of the unexpected rewards of Chen’s hard work is the excitement of seeing her name in the credits.
“It’s always very surreal. I never imagined my name would be up there,” she said. “For Beasts I actually missed seeing my credit the first time I watched the film because I was busy making sure everyone else’s name was spelled correctly, and I was still very much overwhelmed at the fact that the film was so successful. I had to go watch it a second time when it premiered in San Francisco.”
Chen is currently working as a full-time production assistant at eMotion Studios in Sausalito, California. The studio does production and post-production work for Adobe, GAP, and Hewelett-Packard commercials, among others.
Although she keeps busy behind the camera, there are moments when Chen ponders being on the other side of it.
“I’m very camera shy, but once in awhile I’ll try to get in front of the camera when I’m asked to,” she said. “I worked on a jcmatch.com commercial when I was at UTSA, and I’m in a Hewlett-Packard ‘how to’ video which hasn’t been released yet.”
ANDREA ANWEI CHEN ON HER EXPERIENCE AT UTSA
My experience at UTSA was a memorable one. There are things I don’t think I could’ve done at another school if it weren’t for the experiences I gained. The communication department has helped me a lot in my success, especially thanks to the influential professors and mentors that helped me along the way. They are part of the reason why I chose the paths I did and why I think the way I do.
One of my very first professors was Ryan McPherson. He encouraged everyone to think outside the box and to experience things with an open mind, because one never knows what adventures are ahead. He’s the reason why I decided to study abroad in Spain during one of my summers at UTSA.
Professor Sara DeTurk was the first to bring communication journal publications to my attention. She would talk about her experiences writing these journals and how there are always limitations to our work, how we shouldn’t be biased, and how there’s always room for improvement.
This led to my thesis-writing quest, which lasted almost two years, with Professor Viviana Rojas. Towards the end, Professor Juyan Zhang helped me with the international aspects of my thesis because I was writing about China. It was definitely a giant learning experience about myself and about the area I was researching. This was the reason I decided to go to China: to learn Chinese, travel, and see more so I could write about my experiences.
During my last few semesters at UTSA, Professor Seok Kang introduced me to a number of software programs. I became experienced with applications like Dreamweaver, InDesign, Photoshop, and AfterEffects. He’s one of the reasons why I decided to pick up everything and move to San Francisco to learn how to become an animator. Of course, this didn’t go quite as planned because I became more interested in production, but I still use what I learned from him to this day.