Interview by Kritika Gupta

Prime Focus Academy

Mr. Stephen Mascarehanas is currently the Sr. VP Operations and Academic Director at Prime Focus Academy. He leads Pan-India Operations for the Prime Focus Stereo Conversion Division & Prime Focus Academy, including oversight of HR, Talent Acquisition & Training Departments, as well as being the link point for Production & for all the Operational and System needs. He works closely with his counterparts in the United Kingdom and North America to ensure that all international projects are successfully executed and delivered.

Stephen has been an integral part of the stereo conversion division & its phenomenal growth in India since its inception.

From his first project, delivering 1,700 shots for Clash of the Titans (2010), managing artists across Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa, Mohali & Hyderabad, Stephen has never looked back, delivering over 60 3D conversion movies in the past few years, including The Martian (Advanced Imaging Society winner), Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy (International 3D Society winner), Transformers: Age of Extinction, Star Wars: Episodes I-III and Gravity (International 3D Society winner).

In 2015, when Prime Focus acquired stereo conversion company Gener8, Stephen played an important role in setting up a new Indian facility for the company and putting together the processes and procedures for the new studio.

Prior to his current role, Stephen was Head of Film VFX Production for Prime Focus in India, working on some of the biggest blockbusters in Bollywood.

This included Paa (2009), Blue (2009), and Chandni Chowk to China (2009), having already proven himself following stints as Executive Assistant to the CEO and latterly as Operations Manager.

A people’s person with an interesting background, before joining Prime Focus Stephen has been a trainee chef at Ambassador Sky Chef, a prolific theatrical actor, a basketball coach, a teacher, a voice-over artist and a sports commentator at ESPN Star Sports in Singapore.

Including vocational studies in academics

The education industry is growing leaps and bounds. There are so many changes happening academically. I think where all of us are laying stress on is to include some form of vocational study in the academics and integrate that. So, when students come out of an academic institution, they also have some skill and they can find some jobs which are worthy of that skill. Right now, that’s a challenge with a lot of institutions. Nobody has changed the pattern, they are trying to change but haven’t been successful because there are so many regulations they need to follow.

This is where we have come in as an academy where we provide the vocational part of the study. We train people on actual skills, we train them for the VFX industry. They actually learn and move into the industry as industrial trainees. From there, they can find jobs. So, it’s not just about something academic, it’s less of theory/academic studies but more hands-on working practical skills and the skills that they need to know to be a part of an ever-growing media entertainment VFX industry.

Mr. Stephen’s philosophy of leadership

All my team members know the kind of leader I am. I leave my tag aside, the tag is only meant for corporate structure but when I work with the people I work with, I let them lead from the front. I would just be mentoring them to make sure that they are doing the right things the right way. There is a lot of freedom given to thought, to expression, to ideas, and that’s where we become heroes along with them.

So, it’s not just about a leader there and commanding everything, it’s just got to be that the whole team has to feel that they are leaders of their own responsibilities and make sure they have the authority that they need to fulfill the responsibilities to the fullest. So, I would rather have everyone else around me lead and me just mentoring them than being called a leader.

Significant challenges for the Sr. Vice President or Academic Director of Prime Focus Academy

Every day is a challenge because every day is a new thought and we overcome these challenges as we go along. It’s the team that does so much of research. While we do all that, it’s not just me, it’s my entire team that runs around and they get all the information first-hand and that’s where we actually have to figure out solutions to the problems. There are problems galore, especially when it’s academics so you have to be in a structured manner. There’s a lot of things we need to know because none of us are from an academic background.

We have all been in production, we have been part of studio production work for the longest time, for the last 15 odd years. Now, getting back to an academic structure is a little difficult but not impossible. At the same time, our work is more professional, getting people professionally trained so that they can pick up a profession after they finish a course. Yes, it has an academic touch but it is more for hands-on vocational training and practical training more than theory.

An updated curriculum ensuring best practice of industry

That’s the most important part of what we do as a training academy. Since this is hands-on, it’s all current because we have been in the industry for good 15-18 years, we know what’s been happening over the years, the kind of changes there are and since we have a huge studio that backs us up constantly, we have information on what’s happening on the ground. Since I have been a part of production myself, I have managed an entire facility, I have managed teams of 3000-4000 employees across India because that’s what I was doing in my position as the Senior VP, Production, Production Operations, focusing on operations as well. I have been part of start-ups. There is a lot that we bring to the table in terms of knowledge and experience that we have of actually being a part of the industry for so many years.

All that knowledge is now being put together to make sure that the students who are trained, get the actual learning experience of what he is going to be doing post that learning. All our programs are typically 4 months of classroom and 6 months of industrial training. When you are part of the industry, you actually get hands-on latest updated software technology that is available, all the artists that are there, they have worked on some of the big projects like the Marvel Series, DC Comics, etc.

They are able to share that experience with new students who have just learned in the academy and are there in the industry now. It’s like a buddy system, where you buddy-up one of experienced guys and you get a good experience of what’s happening on the floor. I don’t know what more current can happen beyond that. We make people go there, work on the floor, be a part of it for 5-6 months, get the hang of what’s happening and then you can find jobs somewhere or be employed with the same company.

Staying updated with the changes in the Education Industry

One of the things that I have experienced is when I’ve been talking to institutions, colleges, universities since the UGC guidelines are so strict to make any changes, there is a whole long process. By the time the change comes into play, technology changes. We are the technology people, there is something new coming every day. We will have to create a system which is malleable, where you can add something and make it more current rather than the students learning things which are still primitive now.

In today’s day and date, there’s so much of development happening, there are so many new things happening, if you are not current with the times, it becomes difficult to catch up. You’ve got to figure out ways and means to make it possible for the youngsters to get to this current period. Academics, for me, has just become a tag for being a graduate. Beyond that, I’ve seen that there are so many graduates floating around, they come to us for jobs but unfortunately, they don’t fit the requirement that we have, which is where we tell them to learn some vocational skills.

Even if they are in Management, I have had a lot of MBAs coming to me and work as managers but they have never worked anywhere, so what would know what to manage? It’s not just about getting an MBA degree, it’s about actually practically learning from the ground up on what happens. You just can’t get there and start managing a team from Day 1, you need to start working at a normal executive level and then you start growing slowly in the system. If you have the leadership and managerial skills, automatically people will spot you and take you up.

Being available for the students

I am available all the time of them. I have a very open-door policy. They can walk into my office anytime. Whether I’m having a meeting or not, it doesn’t matter - the students are more important. I have been like this since I was in production because the artist was the most important person on the ground. If that artist had a problem, I would just put aside everything I was doing, just to make sure that I attend to these guys. Because it’s there within me to make time for these guys, so whenever they are there, I’ll make sure to say ‘Hi, Hello’ and at least acknowledge their presence more than they acknowledging mine.

I’m there making sure that everybody sees that I’m there and if they want to speak to me, they can always come to me for a conversation. I’ve been as open as that and everybody knows me for that, they can just say that I’ve something to talk, whatever I’m doing I’ll make sure that they are addressed. I try and maximize whatever time I have to be able to interact with my people, whether they are my staff, students, etc.

The senior VP tag is for the corporate structure, the Director is for the corporate structure but I’m still the same Stephen. So, when it comes to meeting people and interact, I just allow them and give them all the time that they need.

Goals to achieve in the next few years

One of the major projects that I’m really pushing hard on is the inclusion part of including people with disabilities into our industry. With that mission and vision, we actually tried and experiment with 20 hearing and speech impaired kids. We trained them on rotoscopy, they did well, they learned well. Then I went on and told them that we need 20 more guys like yourselves, so they went and brought the people. They went and talked to people in canvas and told them this is what we have learned, this is what we have achieved and this is what we have got and it is something you can have as well.

They brought me a list of 20 people, we on-boarded them as well and now we got these guys to train those guys. I want to try this now with different kind of abilities. I see that they have a lot of focus, a lot of talent, it’s just that it’s buried somewhere and we have to bring it out so that they can do well and find a great future. It’s one of my missions for the academy. We want to be the ones who will train for the industries. Not just for Prime Focus, but it is for the industry. It is something that we want to give back to the industry. In terms of the standard of work that we want to churn out of India, that has to get on to a much higher level. That is where you need people with good talent and expertise to actually work on Hollywood projects so that we can bring more and more Hollywood projects to India.

Suggestions for today’s youth

The simplest message is: If you have a will, the patience and the passion, VFX is the place to be. It’s an ever-growing industry. Not only VFX, anything in media entertainment, now there are a lot of platforms to perform. We need more and more talented individuals with newer ideas, newer concepts. Youngsters who write, who are thoughtful, who write stories and want to create episodes or tell the world about the stories that they have so they can make those into movies or series. There are so many opportunities now. I’m sure there are many youngsters who don’t want a day job, they want to do something of their own, who aspire to be there. But I would only advise that you work for some time, find your specialty and then you jump to that and make a career there.

The will to do something should be there. You need to have the patience for sure, it takes time for you to actually move forward in life. You can’t have overnight success, it only happens in the movies. There might be a one-off person who gets a lottery who may have made it big overnight, but in the real world, that’s not true. It takes time, it takes a lot of effort and hard work, and all that eventually pays off because then there is somebody who is actually wanting you to be with them. If you want to really make a difference, you need to be passionate about what you do as well.