This interview is part of Magma Math’s Risk Takers Series, where we explore the stories of people who have leveraged math in unique ways to unfold bold career paths.
Chung Liu joined me for a chat about being a risk taker in the math field. Chung has a background in both the fine arts and math, which he has leveraged in balance to work as an FX TD at Scanline VFX.
"It always comes down to being able to adapt, to learn on the job. Don’t stick to the same old way, just keep improving. You need to have the will to learn and to have that curiosity."
Katherine Bazley: What is the job of an FX TD?
Chung Liu: In movies, whenever there's something that moves on the screen, but not a character, like an explosion, destruction, magic, flashy stuff, that’s the kind of work I do. What I do on a daily basis is applying what I learned in math because basically everything in 3D is just a vector space. I do simple programming to make things move and look realistic. I need to know how to make the computer do it. It’s not really calculating math, but rather understanding how to apply the math concepts.
KB: That's not the typical firefighter, lawyer, or doctor job that kids think about when they're young. When you were growing up, did you always like math and science and engineering?
CL: Yeah, I did. I grew up in Hong Kong where education is quite different from here. My parents were very focused early on. My parents never had a chance for higher education. They graduated from high school and then they started working. They always wanted to make sure this generation had a better education. So since I was a kid, they tried to push me to learn a lot of different stuff, but math and science are definitely subjects that they were focused on making sure that I had good grades in. And I was always curious about learning stuff.
So math and technology and science, I always liked those things. But I also liked to draw. I wanted to be an artist. As I grew older, I found out 3D was booming. I had gotten a degree in fine arts in painting and drawing. Actually in university, I studied math as an extracurricular.
After that I ran a Kumon center for a couple of years. They hired me because I was a student and I worked there for a couple of years teaching.
So I don’t have a traditional education background for what I do in a sense. I don’t have a bachelor or a masters degree in engineering. But I always learned and read on the side, you know? After running Kumon for a couple of years, I decided I really wanted to go into something that involved art. I found out that special effects is actually a very good combination of both art and math.
KB: There aren’t many jobs that include both an artistic and technical side. When you were younger, did you know anything about this industry? At what age did you start to become aware that this was like a career path that you found feasible?
CL: This is such a new industry. Where I work, there are a couple of people who actually made the first Terminators and Jurassic Park. Those people are only in their fifties. So basically, they started the whole industry and it's only been about 30 years. So it's really new. I only found out about it when I was in high school.
It took a little convincing to my parents for me to go into this industry. Mostly because there was no school for it back in those days. That's why I went into fine arts and got a degree and hoped that learning the art side might get me a job, which wasn't the case. I went back to school in my thirties, to get into animation and then change my career afterwards.
KB: You took a risk with studying fine arts, and even though it didn’t work out initially, you have a successful career as an FX TD. Do you feel that risk paid off?
CL: I wouldn't call myself successful, but I would say that it's very enjoyable what I do. I'm happy.
KB: Outside of STEM, what skills do you feel students need to have going into an industry like yours, where maybe the jobs don’t even exist yet?
CL: This is one of the biggest issues that I think exists in every industry. They need a person that's willing to learn and is not afraid of new things.
It always comes down to being able to adapt, to learn on the job. Don’t stick to the same old way, just keep improving. You need to have the will to learn and to have that curiosity.
KB: That's a growth mindset. It’s knowing like your mistakes are going to end up helping you. It's okay to not get it right the first time. If you could give advice to a student that doesn’t know what they want to do career wise, what would you say to help them figure it out?
CL: It's so easy to learn what you might want to do. There's so many different ways to find out. For example, a simple Google search. Listen to someone on YouTube that talks about their job. It's so easy. The only advice I would give is just don't be lazy and find the information that’s out there. It's not hard to find, it’s very accessible.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Follow Chung on LinkedIn.
About the Author
Katherine Bazley (@katherinebazley) is a K-12 EdTech teacher ambassador at Magma Math where she contributes Special Education expertise and 7 years of and classroom experience. Reach her on LinkedIn or at email@example.com