In a recent study of 40 cities conducted by tech company Kisi, Singapore was ranked second after Tokyo for the most overworked city and among the bottom ten cities for work-life balance. The study showed that employees in Singapore worked an average of 44.6 hours per week which is among the highest in the world. According to experts, working long hours and being mentally occupied with work lead to spending less quality time with your family.
For the sake of a more wholesome education for her son and her work-life balance, 38-year-old Nurul Arif made a decision to move to Australia in 2019. She had been working in the visual effects (VFX) and advertising industries where she had to travel a lot for work and faced constant deadlines. She realised that she had been missing out on many important milestones of her son’s growing years.
Nurul shares her experiences working in the VFX industry and finding work-life balance in Australia with the Karyawan team.
Q: Could you tell us more about yourself and your family?
Nurul: I have been living in Adelaide for almost a year with my 6½ -year-old son, while my husband is still working and living in Singapore. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is unable to join us until Australia opens up their international borders.
Q: Why did you choose to move to Australia?
Nurul: In an attempt to get a fresh start and to allow my son to grow to his full potential without the stressors of the Singapore education system, my husband and I decided to apply for residency in Australia. In 2018, we were granted a skilled migration visa which allows us to work and live in the state of South Australia. Seeing how my son has grown, and how involved and present I am now in his life more than before, I feel that we made the right choice.
Q: What motivated you to join the film industry and how long have you been a VFX coordinator?
Nurul: I have always been fascinated with storytelling and film. While in university, I took a few courses in film studies and filmmaking, even though I graduated with a business degree. My stumble into the VFX industry happened by chance about 15 years ago, when Lucasfilm opened a studio in Singapore. I first started as a training programme coordinator before joining the visual effects department as a production assistant, and then as a coordinator. However, after being at Lucasfilm and DNEG in Singapore for almost seven years, I decided to venture into filmmaking through commercial work. I produced TV commercials for a couple of years before working as a project manager at an advertising firm, Ogilvy, where I did various forms of advertising work. Now I am back to being a VFX coordinator with Rising Sun Pictures after 14 years, so it has somewhat come full circle.
I have a total of almost eight years of experience in VFX, yet I am still learning new things every day. The industry is constantly evolving, with new tools available today that allow for real-time computer rendering. But what remains the same is the passionate people I meet along the way.
Q: What are the challenges working in a male-dominated industry and how do you overcome them?
Nurul: There are so many similarities between the advertising and VFX industries with both being very male-dominated. I find that most of the time women need to work doubly hard to prove their skills. I have seen women trying very hard to overcompensate and fit in, which I feel is more apparent in agencies that are predominantly headed by men. However, I realised that a woman has the upper hand when it comes to emotional intelligence – to be able to read the room, understand the nuances that go into the work, and manage people. So I use this to my advantage. There is only so much that hard knowledge can do for you, but not everyone has the skills to manage people, to read them and be able to positively influence them. This is where I feel being a woman, we hold the trump card in what is seemingly a male-dominated industry.
Q: What does your job entail and what is your typical work day during a film production?
Nurul: Film production and post- production are quite different. Production refers to the work you do on set; basically, work related to the shooting of a film. For post-production work such as visual effects, it usually involves working on a timeline with a team that works like a production line. Each department is responsible for various computer graphics that transform what was captured on film to what you finally see on the movie screen. This encompasses 3D modeling and layout, effects, look development, lighting and compositing. Typically, a coordinator will work within any of these disciplines while ensuring that the VFX artists are given briefs and work towards their targets, while prepping the work for internal or client approval before it goes to the next department for further refinements. There is never a dull day in the world of VFX as it straddles between creativity and technology.
Q: How different is the working culture in Australia compared to Singapore?
Nurul: In Singapore, I have worked in multinational corporations that exposed me to people from all over the world so I would say that the working culture here doesn’t come as a shock. However, I had been so used to a fast-paced environment in Singapore that I felt like I had to put on the brakes here, which sometimes can be frustrating. But then I realised that things are slower here because of the work-life balance. Basically, work will never end in a day, and it will still be there tomorrow.
Q: It isn’t easy to maintain a healthy work-life balance. How do you find the balance and how do you spend your free time?
Nurul: I am quite task-oriented so while at work, I try to focus 100 percent on work and be as efficient and productive as I can. So by the time the day ends, I can then shift my focus to the main purpose of why I am here in the first place – my family. Adelaide has amazing outdoors. We live right next to the Torrens River so every weekend, my son and I will cycle along the river, stopping for picnics, drawing, chatting and kicking the ball around. Occasionally, we will meet his best buddies from school and have play dates at the park. I am truly happy and blessed for being able to spend more time with him now that we are here.
Q: What were some of the challenges you’ve faced with living and working overseas? Have you had any experience living overseas that may have helped with settling down in Australia?
Nurul: The work-life balance here in Australia makes it easier for me to juggle between working full-time and being a mom – doing the necessary school drop-offs and pick-ups, preparing meals and helping with homework. Since it is just me and my son here, I constantly worry about falling sick and who would take care of my son should that happen. But I am thankful as I have a couple of really good and reliable friends here whom I can call family. They have been helpful since the first day I arrived in Adelaide. Living overseas can sound scary with the different system and policies, but one should take it as an opportunity to learn. Read up, do your research, don’t be afraid to talk to people, ask questions no matter how silly they sound and raise your hands for help. This is how friendships are forged, with you feeling less lonely and like you are part of a larger and supportive community. I lived in Boston for five years while attending university and what I learned is to have tenacity and determination. I can’t stress enough for anyone considering to move overseas to do their research. The more you know, the more confident you will be in embarking on a new life in a different country.
Q: More Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, are choosing to work and live abroad. What are your thoughts on this?
Nurul: Spread your wings and see what is outside of Singapore. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. What makes it different is your purpose of working and living abroad. There are pros and cons – the cons are you may lose familiarity to culture, routine, and geography but the pros will be apparent when you are able to synchronise your purpose or goal to the desire to live and work abroad. That purpose or goal can be career-oriented, or a personal one (like in my case). As long as you have youth on your side and a yearning to see the world, don’t let go of an opportunity to work and live abroad.
Q: Do you have any advice for those who want to pursue a career in the film industry?
Nurul: Film industry is not very lucrative in Singapore, unless you are Eric Khoo. There are people I know in Singapore who ended up working in commercials to fund their films. The film industry in general, given the current pandemic, is not doing too well. If you are considering pursuing a career in film, pick up skills that are transferable. For instance, if you are interested in set or prop design, perhaps you can also channel that to working in theatre. Most importantly, depending on what you would like to do in film, be sure to get the proper training. While in training or in school, make contacts as these people will be your peers when you join the real world. And never let go of an opportunity, be it an internship or being a runner on set. In an industry where your reputation is important, always be positive, have an inquisitive mind, be tenacious and respect the people you work with regardless of their ranks. You never know who will be interviewing you for your next job.
Q: What have been the highlights of your career or fulfilling achievements to date?
Nurul: I think being able to see my name on the credits of a movie was quite exciting. But in all honesty, that was something I used to care about. Now I think what I would consider a fulfilling achievement is being present for my child.
Q: What are your future plans? Do you plan to stay in this industry or continue working abroad?
Nurul: I would like to head back to school to learn more about machine learning and user experience. I foresee that in the future, there will be more automation that will improve the way we work. We have already started to see this in the VFX industry, but the future of content and user experience will be customised in real time across many different touchpoints. Hopefully, I can make the crossover to product development and work closely with developers to create useful products that can improve people’s lives, particularly the lives of our aging population and those living in poverty. In a nutshell, I would like to evolve my career along this path. And being here in Australia, I do believe it provides me with this opportunity.
1 SINGAPORE RANKS 32 OUT OF 40 FOR WORK-LIFE BALANCE, SECOND MOST OVERWORKED CITY. CNA. UPDATED 2019, 7 AUGUST. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/SINGAPORE/SINGAPORE-BOTTOM-RANKS-WORK-LIFE-BALANCE-SECOND-MOST-OVERWORKED-11789264
Nur Diyana Jalil is currently an Executive at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) who manages its social media, events and publication. She loves to read, travel and write occasionally.
This interview was also published in Karyawan, October 2020, Volume 15, Issue 4.
Photo credit : Ms Nurul Arif