Animation Vertigo CEO Marla Rausch on Motion Capture, Work-Life Balance, and Aquaman
12:30 pm, July 2nd | by Colette McIntyre
Marla Rausch is the founder and CEO of Animation Vertigo, a leading motion capture company that specializes in tracking, editing, and animation outsourcing. Since its launch in 2004, Animation Vertigo has worked with some of the biggest names in video games, television, and film, including Call of Duty and God of War. Recently, the Jane Dough had the pleasure to talk with Rausch about thriving in a male-dominated field, women in technology, and the trials and tribulations of being a working mother.
Motion capture isn’t necessarily something I imagine a little kid would rattle out to their parents after being asked what they want to be when they grow up. How you did you end up in the field?
My husband introduced me to the whole thing. He is also involved in the same industry. He was working on motion capture data one night, I was waiting for him to go home, and it just happened. I looked over and I was like, “What are you doing?” I looked at it and it was very interesting. And he said, “Would you want to learn about it?” So I started learning from him.
The way the industry used to work was that companies would need to have freelancers come to do some motion capture data clean-up. People would tell me that they would spend a lot of time training freelancers and then they would have to let them go; when the project was done, they couldn’t keep all the freelancers. Then, for the next project, if they found that their former freelancers were no longer in the area, they would retrain people, hire them again. It was the constant process of hiring and firing people that kind of made me think, ” Hey, if we just had a pool of people who knew the work, who were trained…that’s the quality that companies are looking for.” That’s how Animation Vertigo was formed.
Previous to you work in animation, you were a financial adviser, right?
Yes; we had moved from LA to San Diego and while we were in San Diego, we needed financial advice. It’s interesting..that’s also a male-dominated field, right? (Laughs) It’s not that I intentionally go there and say, “Oh, that’s male-dominated? Hey, I should be there!” but that was something that I was interested in. I was doing financial planning for my family, preparing for the future, paying down debt, knowing what to pay, so I got into it.
I think it’s great that you listened to your own natural inclination, that you saw what you were interested in doing in the home, in your free time, and turned that into a career. I wonder, do you think most women don’t listen or pay attention to these natural inclinations? And they don’t place value behind certain things that they do in the home?
Absolutely, I think so. Because if you think about it, a lot of women — wives, mothers and stuff — when they’re at home, they take care of the bills, the groceries, and the kids. They know how much money they’re going to need for summer. They know how much money is needed for groceries per month. They know how much money you need for rent, utilities and all these things. If you understand all that, as the person who takes care of paying the bills and stuff, you also understand the fact of, well, how much money can we save for the home and how much money do we put aside. It’s a natural thing, almost, for women to take that role because they’re responsible for the day-to-day. So its almost one of those things where if they tap into that strength of theirs… that’s exactly what a financial planner does.
[Animation Vertigo] is a motion capture production. It’s like solving a puzzle, it’s like trying to make sure the scene looks the way its supposed to when you capture it on stage. But this is almost like another household. How much money do I need to start a business? How much money do I need to make sure the income keeps coming so I can keep the doors open? What am I looking at in terms of maintaining my employees and make sure they’re going to be taken care of, happy at their work, help the people stay for a long time. It’s almost a natural thing for women to undertake.
You discovered this career path, which turned out to be your calling, so late in life. I’m sure schools could have fostered this interested earlier on, helped you discover it. Do you think that you didn’t find technology or even finance earlier just because of certain biases or stereotypes that are already out there, guiding people’s education?
There some truth to that, absolutely, When I was studying, there was a more inclination for people — when you talk about engineering or technology or IT, it’s almost one of those things where you go, “Oh, I’m not going to go into that because there’s too much math or there’s too much whatever.” And it’s not like women don’t like that, it’s just, I don’t know what it is, it’s just dominated by men. And even in school, civil engineering, electrical engineering, men are applying for those courses and stuff. Did it influence me? It certainly didn’t make me think about going into it. I sort of drifted to mass communications; I majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer and I felt that writing was more of my calling.
In general, I feel like there still are … “female roles.” Some of my female friends went into psychology, business, hotel and restaurant management, things like that. But my male friends, they went into engineering, sciences, you know. I do wonder sometimes if that really is a cultural thing. I studied college in the Philippines and I was 16, 17-years-old in my first year of college. Very young. You’re still molded by your parents. That was years ago and intentional or not, I’m sure the push was very “boys go here…”
I didn’t know that you majored in communications! The women I’ve spoken to, all the women who are entrepreneurs and have founded their own companies, all majored in something in the humanities. Do you think there is much communication between your different experiences: writing, financial planning, and now what you do at Vertigo? Do you think having a humanities background has helped in founding your own company?
I mean, it’s really funny. Yes, I majored in journalism; later on in my life, I decided I was going to try to be a lawyer, so I started picking up all these Political Science classes. I minored in political science, went into law school, went there for 2-3 years, decided, no, law is really not my thing. Especially if I wanted to be a criminal lawyer, which was most interesting to me. To actually be in court and argue… it wasn’t what you see on TV.
It’s important to realize that you can go into different fields to find out what you want to do. Pursue it and sure, you might realize that it’s not where you want to go. But just take advantage of what you’ve learned, take it with you, and bring it to the next place, I think its fortunate that I did go through all that I went through because. especially in business, I’m not afraid to read a contract. I understand reading contracts — I actually enjoy reading contracts because its finite, it’s solid, it’s definite. It’s all right there. There is no fear of this document in front of me with all these legal terms. Correspondence, talking to people, explaining things — definitely a journalistic thing. Asking questions, you know. When I deal with my clients, we’re very into relationships. Having the quality is something that a lot of other people may be able to beat you at but if you have the relationships with the client, it pushes you. I’m happy that the clients I have, I consider colleagues and friends.
That’s an important lesson: you weren’t afraid to try out some of your interests and pursue them and then you weren’t afraid or hesitant to admit, “Oh you know what, maybe this isn’t for me.” I think as women we tend to overemphasize our lack of experience. I think what you were saying about taking everything with you and drawing upon your experiences in whatever you do pursue, for whatever career you do land in, I think that I such a vital thing for women to, particularly young women. We have to learn to be more flexible. Certainly more confident.
Absolutely, I think that there’s nothing wrong with deciding that something’s not for you. Especially when they’re so young, there’s plenty of opportunities for taking and just grab it and see how far they can take it. “I’m going to get passionate here, this is where I’m going to find a calling for me.” Just run at it, see how far you can go, and if it’s not there, figure out what can you do, where can you go, what can you bring with you, what can you do next? I think when you’re young there’s just more opportunities to figure things out and make mistakes, rather than when you’re older and you have a family or whatever.
Tell me about Animation Vertigo. You definitely reshaped the way work is contracted in the field. I find it so funny that for you, it wasn’t enough to reinvent a process; you had to found your own company.
Yeah. [Laughs] Well it makes sense, I guess. You see a need, you can fill the need, you see what’s going on. I had experience working in working with people in the Philippines … especially in animation. I know them, I’m familiar with them. I thought, “what if I reach back and give people the opportunity to work in places they would never have the opportunity to work in, you know? Hollywood-style film entertainment industry? What if we can do that?”And its kind of that “What If” that pushes me. It makes so much sense. There’s a need and I fill it, I know I can do this. I can fill it and make it happen, and it did and it was just one of those moments when everything has fell into place. It was like any other business: you’re confronted with a variety of things but you know what you want at the end. You want to make sure you’ve got a great team, a cohesive team that’s amazing, and they love what they do. Then introducing that team to a group of clients who are trying to do just the most sophisticated and most technologically-advanced animation for people out there, it’s just great. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Hardest part about building a company from the ground up?
Trust is a hard thing to gain. At the start of it, you think everybody who’s knowledgeable and you get along with you can trust. That’s not always going to be the truth. You have to have some level of caution that you put in relationships, especially in dealing with people who are so far away. For example, if its in the Philippines, you have to be able to monitor it on a close basis so you know exactly what’s going on. So that’s a tough lesson to learn.
When clients or potential partners or vendors meet me, it’s always interesting because they first assume, “Oh, she’s probably in the sales or marketing side of the company” because I’m a woman. They don’t assume I’m the one in charge. I see the initial reaction of “oh, she probably doesn’t know any of the technical stuff. Oh, she’s probably not the person my technical guys should be talking to.” But as you progress, you understand things. You don’t get offended by it because, you know, in some places, that’s the way the world works. And so you learn to get over it because
at some point in your conversation, one point in your relationship, it’s going to hit them: “Oh wait, she is the one to talk to. She knows the technical side and the numbers side. This is the one person I should talk to who knows the whole thing.” It’s always nice to see the clarity in their eyes. “Oh! You’re the one I talk to!” It’s like, “Yes, hi. I actually know what I’m talking about.”
So you’re in charge of this company but you also have a family. How do you find the balance? At the JD, we talk about work-life balance, but not just in terms of women with families but also with smart phones and how plugged in we all are all the time. With how accessible we are, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find balance. How do you ensure that you’re getting your time off?
I think this is a decision I had to make. Early on you can’t give 100% to both sides, both the family and the business, because you can’t give 200% to anything. However, I did learn that you could prioritize and make sure you’re there for the family for all the important events, make sure that when it’s vacation time, it’s vacation time, and you’re not going to let work interfere. I’m working from 8-5, even if my children are around; it’s 5:00, Mommy’s off. It’s clear to them that when it’s 5:00 or 6:00, I need to stop.
It’s not easy. Last week I was going to do a live radio interview and. with just fifteen minutes to the interview, I get a call from my daughter asking when I was coming home because I needed to do her hair for her recital rehearsal. I was in LA. We live in Irvine. There was no way — even if I could leave the radio station — there was no way I was going to be able to get there in time. Did it bother me? Absolutely. There are some moments when it’s just like, “Oh man,” because she’s 12 years old and you know that those days are important for her. She’t not going to look for her mom to fix her hair forever. But I talked to her and I told her exactly what I was doing and where I was, that if I could go there I would, but I had 15 minutes before I had a live interview, and we could have her babysitter comb her hair, fix her hair, etc. Made it a point to leave once we were done, made it a point to leave early so I could get home so I could let her know that she was very important to me.
I think the coolest thing she’s ever said to me after something like that, which is hard on a mother, is “You know, when I grow up, mom, I want to be like you.” And I thought, “hey, maybe I’m still doing something right here.”
It’s not all heartbreak and undone hairstyles. I think it’s important to hear women in your position say that, you know, you can’t be 100% in each place. In the rhetoric of work-life balance and working mothers, there is a sort of underlying expectation that if you do have children and you work, it’s your duty to figure it out. That you have to be perfect. Women are guilt-prone and I think our guilt drives us to reach for perfection be hard on ourselves, and not allow for the fact that certain societal things are in our way, keeping this from being easy.
The important thing is having a great support system around you. My husband is amazing for being there when I’m working. We make sure that we are both there for our children and when the other’s not, we’re there to make sure, you know, our children know that the person who’s not there loves them very much and the reason they have to work so hard is because of them. I visit my client’s studios, so that means I travel a lot and leave the family a lot. I think there’s a lot of making sure that despite all the travel, you’re maintaining a routine and a steadiness in the family life. They know bedtime is this time, you do homework this time, that sort of thing. I find that giving them boundaries, having that routine, gives them a sense of stability, of being sheltered, of knowing what’s going to happen. They feel safe in that, even if one parent isn’t around. They feel okay.
What is a big project that you’re working on right now?
I can tell you that there’s a couple out there that we’re excited about. Some of them are about to be announced but until that point, I can’t say anything. Please know that I want to. I will say that Injustice is a really great game, a really amazing game. There’s some Marvel characters in there and it was the first time I really thought that Aquaman was a superhero. Aquaman’s name is just like, he’s just in the water. I don’t get it! So he can talk to fish? But definitely check out Aquaman vs. Cyborg. That’s the first time I ever went, “Yeah, Aquaman’s a superhero and a badass.” He doesn’t just talk to dolphins and big fish.
Any last thoughts?
I like the idea that as women, we have so many opportunities. We can reach for anything as long as we firmly believe that we can do it. I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of young women, who have reasons to believe that they can’t do it. And I think that is the worst thing ever because they can reach for the stars. The only person who can stop them is themselves. If they can break through that and see how special, great, and amazing they are, there’s nothing stopping them.