Meet AtmosFX: Colleen McMahon

It is not often that an employee can offer a perspective on both the creative and operational sides of a company. But Colleen McMahon, AtmosFX's production artist, certainly can. As we continue to introduce our fans to the people who make the magic happen here, we'd like you to meet someone who has done a little bit of everything at AtmosFX.

Colleen attended California College of the Arts in Oakland, California. An animator originally from upstate New York, she was drawn to the college because Pixar employees were known for teaching there.

After soaking up all she could from the best in the industry,  Colleen’s first studio introduction was as an office assistant at Telltale Games in San Rafael, Calif., the makers of the Walking Dead games. Later, she moved to Seattle and joined AtmosFX, beginning as a temporary employee in the customer service department. The role, though not an illustration gig, seemed to be a good fit: Halloween was always a big event during her youth. "My mom always threw the biggest Halloween parties," Coleen says. "We always went all-out with decorating."

Soon, Colleen was the lead of the customer service department, also doing creative jobs for the production department on the side of her day-to-day activities. As the company grew, she took over as office operations assistant, as well as logistics and fulfillment. “Odds were if you had an issue with an order in 2015-2016 you were talking to me,” she laughs. “And I would like to apologize!”

Her other roles included social media/community engagement, office manager — even a role playfully titled "morale officer," where she was tasked with an interoffice newsletter, game nights, movie nights, decorating the office and the general organizing of anything to keep the office happy. All the while creating storyboards for production.

Colleen, however, was "always in it for the storyboards." That was her goal at CCA, at Telltale Games, and here at AtmosFX. Within a year, she got her chance. After training the new customer service team, she began her shift to full-time production artist.

As a production artist, Colleen's role is to illustrate storyboards and characters for the digital decorations that will be created at AtmosFX. It is an essential and often forgotten, component of the animation process.

At AtmosFX, of course, there is a stellar team of computer animators who bring characters to life for every digital decoration. (As an example, see how the animation team created a ghost for Boo Crew, click here.) There are also the original concepts of characters from AtmosFX founder Pete Williams. Then there's everything else. Colleen is responsible for filling those gaps.

For example, Colleen might be tasked with fleshing out a character based on a design Williams envisioned. Colleen tries to illustrate all the possible attributes a given character might have: with its back turned to the viewer, when it stretches to reach for something when it smiles mischievously, and so on. She illustrates it all. Based on her work, AtmosFX's team of animators then has a consistent source they can reference as they develop any given character.

Colleen also creates more traditional storyboards for each digital decoration. They are just like the ones used in movies to keep everyone on the same creative page as the director.  Storyboards are needed to maintain consistency and to fill in the blanks that aren't specifically described in the script. “If the script says ‘the ghost is playing the drums,’ then I need to work with the directors to find out what kind of drum, how close he is to us, and what kind of music he will be playing,” Colleen says.

“By drawing those actions out, the director can see what the finished product will look like and make edits to my drawings rather than edits to, for example, a week of an animator’s hard work,” Colleen adds. “It also helps the animator with how long the shot might be and where the characters should be in the shot. If an actor needs to play the part in front of a green screen, it helps him see the idea too.” 

With all this, Colleen has a puzzle to solve — something unique to AtmosFX. Because our digital decorations are designed to be displayed on a wall or a window, that means you can't change camera angles, have close-ups, or use other techniques like you would when storyboarding for movies or TV. When Colleen is working on a digital decoration, she has to challenge herself to make each scene more engaging. "How can I fit more emotion in a shot, or move the characters around," she will ask herself, "so the decoration will still have its signature versatility, without the scene looking static or boring?"

These are the things Colleen is always thinking about as she storyboards for AtmosFX. And, to her surprise, all the roles she previously filled at AtmosFX has helped inform that work. She finds herself drawing from her earlier days in the customer service and community engagement departments, thinking about the things she has heard the community ask for. "I know what customers are looking for," Colleen says. "And I can assist in creating characters and digital decorations that meet those needs."

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Q: As an artist, what is it about the storyboarding process that you enjoy so much?

Colleen McMahon: Getting paid to draw stories. It’s incredible to me this is even a job. It’s too fun!

Q: Can you describe how your time in the customer service department or the community engagement team might have later influenced how you chose to storyboard a scene?

CM:  I think the path that I took helped me to really become intimately familiar with the previous decorations and that understanding has allowed me to often be on the same page as the directors when it comes to the final version. This is such a new and interesting medium, and they have really elevated it in terms of quality. I think everyone could benefit from spending their first year with a company in customer service! Ha ha!

Q: Are there types of characters/scenes that you particularly enjoy drawing? Is there anything you think we should create here at AtmosFX, regardless of whether or not the decoration would sell well?

CM: I will never get tired of drawing zombies.

Q: Not including Halloween, what is your favorite holiday?

CM: Second Halloween – the day after Halloween when all the candy is on sale.

Q: What is your favorite movie genre – and what are your top 5 favorite movies within that genre?

CM: I couldn’t tell you. I love A LOT of movies. It’s not a genre, but I have a deep respect for old movies. The theater of it, the practical effects involved in a time before computer editing, and the showmanship of a time way before me when theaters were super ornate and it was a big event. Technology has done wonders for the movies, but I think we lost a little bit of the magic now that they are almost treated like they are disposable and we watch them on a phone.

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