Female Disruptors: A Conversation With The Woman Who Made The Visual Effects For Battlestar Galactica and Independence Day, Kristen Branan

I’d like to inspire a movement called Align.Adapt.Achieve...

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I’d like to inspire a movement called Align.Adapt.Achieve. It would educate school-aged kids about career possibilities beyond their immediate awareness of possibilities. The movement “Aligns” kids with adults in all industries and invites them to come spend a day doing a job the kids want to explore. “Adapt” informs the kids what they have to do, or study, in order to breakthrough into that field. “Achieve” is helping kids set these goals and get them on their way with a bigger picture of what life has to offer. I always felt that when I was in school, I didn’t know enough about the world to know what I wanted to choose as a career. When you’re a kid your world is very small, so this is a movement to give greater global guidance.

I had the pleasure to interview Kristen Branan. Kristen is the Senior Vice President of Global Productions at Emmy-winning VFX company Zoic Studios. Bringing over 15 years of experience in post production, she oversees 400 employees and tens of millions in revenue across three global locations. She has worked on thousands of entertainment properties at the forefront of digital innovation, earning an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Visual Effects for a Series” for “Firefly” in 2002 and two Visual Effects Society Awards for the same series in 2002 and “Battlestar Galactica” in 2004. Branan is also the founder of purpose-driven clothing startup Adaptive Life Company that creates high-quality, easy to wear, adaptive clothing and products that you can trust.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I graduated from university majoring in film and television and was working on-set in film production. My “break” into producing came purely by happenstance. I bumped into a friend of a friend at dinner and he was looking to hire a visual effects producer. At the time I didn’t know what “visual effects” technology was, but it was exposure to a new branch of filmmaking and an ability to learn something cutting edge.

I started at his company and found myself producing visual effects for the TV series “Star Trek Deep Space Nine” and the movie Independence Day. There was an immediate, strong learning curve, but I embraced the challenge and put in every minute it took to wrap my head around this fast-paced, complicated world of visual effects. It was the beginning for my love of creative visual storytelling. There’s never a dull moment in this industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began working in a leading role at your company?

I think it’s always interesting when I’m traveling for events, or when we’re shooting on location, how people love to approach us and talk about Hollywood in the “symbolic” sense. Across the globe, the word immediately evokes a passionate spark and excitement for creativity. People are eager to share their dreams, ambitions, talents, and imagination in many ways. My experience in a leadership role with extensive travel has shown me that in every culture people relate most to each other through a shared passion for art, music, entertainment and storytelling. Everyone has a “Hollywood” dream, idea or talent to share and it’s the best part of the job because it brings people together and we immediately have something in common. When you find a shared passion or interest, it pushes away any preconceived notion and is universally uplifting. A bonding experience. Right now, our company is on 75 active television, films, commercials and live action projects. So, there’s always a lot to talk about with people we meet, and it gives us something creative to share and enjoy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We should write a book about the situation that happens behind the scenes on a daily basis, as it gets crazy. Now we are a more well-oiled machine so probably most of the funny start-up moments are behind us. We were a small can-do team and made the most using very little. We used to sit on lawn chairs and use cardboard boxes as desks, we plugged into the one fax machine to get internet access and were always in triage power mode, as we quickly grew in size. At one point, we were throwing tennis balls with cables duct taped to them off the roof of the studio and across the street to tap into someone else’s server. For a long while, the work-clock stopped at 7pm for video game nights and along the way we discovered artists using our computers to mine crypto currency and linking computers at night in search of aliens. We’ve seen it all and I’ve learned to have an exceptionally cool head.

As far as what mistakes have been learned through the years, most of it boils down to being transparent with technical breakdowns that inevitably occur when you work in a technology and equipment-based industry. When computers, ethernet or power goes down, then creatively we’re down too. And the mistakes begin to happen when you don’t communicate directly and honestly to the crew and clients down the pipe, as to what’s going on. When extreme pressure is on to deliver a project, and everyone is on edge and waiting, it can be hard to give people bad news that there is a delay. It’s very expensive. The natural tendency is to just say “we’re fine it’s coming soon” but that can snowball out of control. I tell people the truth even if it’s an ugly situation and not what they want to hear. Ultimately, people appreciate honesty and transparency and are more apt to work in tandem for a resolution to mitigate costs and scheduling impacts.

The lesson learned is to take things as they come. Take ownership of the process, the problems, the solutions, the needs. Lay out the time it’s going to take to adjust and fix so they can pivot on their end too.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are visual storytellers and we’re here to push the envelope both in terms of creativity and technology. If the creativity isn’t driving the story forward, it’s not time well spent. We have an amazing team that specializes in on-set production, artwork, visual effects, writing, editing, post production and budgeting. Our core team has been together for 20 years, since the days of the TV series “Firefly,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Angel.” We are thought leaders in design and execution, and our relationship and commitment to the process is as strong as ever.

Our schedule of projects usually has us working for 25 different clients at the same time. We like to mix up genres and have something being produced daily for a variety of media platforms: online streaming, cable television, network TV, theatrical content, and even music and graphics for live shows and concerts. If you were to follow me around at work, it’d be like living in a real-life “fun house”. Open door #1 and see digital artists creating CGI animals, super heroes using their powers, or an astronaut floating in space; Behind door #2 you’ll see writers, producers, and directors pitching and creating the next big movie or TV show; Behind door #3 you’ll see a live shoot in progress with greenscreen, actors on wires, fake blood spraying from a prop and a virtual monster hidden under a bed. Tomorrow it will be something completely different. You never really know what you’ll find daily behind each door.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Amongst all our year-round, production-based shows, I have a personal project that I manage to devote time to on the side. It’s called, and I created the company to offer clothing for kids with a dexterity or range of motion limitation, although any kids can wear and enjoy them. Our mission is to make it easier for kids with this challenge to maintain self-care and self-expression by being able to dress themselves. It’s incredible to me, that with one billion people on the planet having some form of a physical disability, that the basic construction of garments hasn’t changed through the years, despite an ongoing need for re-design options. Our first offerings, which are a line of cozy flannel jackets, are constructed with patented magnetic buttons hidden in the lining of the garment. So, the clothing looks like any other jacket or shirt, which is important for kids, but it’s easier to get on, opened and closed. The clothing is made in the USA and we use the money to sponsor adaptive sports camps and charities.

We get this one chance to live a life that’s impactful and meaningful. How great would it be to leave something behind that can inspire and improve lives beyond just our own? That would feel very rewarding. So please everyone, buy your child one of our jackets to support our mission of inclusion!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I’m sure the advice would be the same whether it’s a female or a male, but I think it’s first essential to understand that there is a huge difference between being a “boss” and being a “leader” tasked to make your company thrive. I think to be a leader, you’re most successful when engaging on a level to nurture, listen, and understand in order to help employees thrive. People don’t automatically know everything about the specific job from day one, or the culture of the company, or the overall expectation. To help employees prosper, it’s vital to be thoughtful about their individual strengths and weakness in order to set them up for success. Focus and encourage your team by providing mentorship opportunities within the office. Take the time to train people, get them included and integrated into the system and with their office peers. Recognize that people in the company who aren’t normally in a training role have a lot they can teach others, and in my experience, enjoy sharing that knowledge.

When opportunities to learn are scheduled properly along with a constructed agenda, it promotes a collaborative team environment and fosters a support network for everyone involved. People excel in a positive environment and the results speak for themselves. This kind of constructed plan is another way which senior management can provide outward value to their company. We have female leaders in every level of our company and I think they do this very well.

Take the time to know who your team members are, no matter how big your company is. Set aside time to meet with employees you don’t normally interact with about topics that affect entry-level positions. A lot of managers move beyond “inspecting what they expect” and ensuring the foundation of the company they’re running remains strong. Also, don’t let bad people ruin the vibe or efficiency of the office. If someone is doing a poor job or has a bad attitude and doesn’t improve despite being offered measured help, then cut bait. It’s important to show everyone that doing well in their jobs does indeed matter.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Know that being a leader doesn’t mean you’re the smartest person in the room. It means you’re an effective communicator, maintaining a clear visual goal, and able to move people, products and projects forward in the best possible way. Be extra prepared before meetings and events. Arrive with a thought-out agenda and if there’s a side bar issue, then follow up on it afterwards but don’t derail the meeting because of it. Don’t passively show up and wing it, wasting people’s time. Employees are smarter than that and won’t appreciate you for the thought leader you are. Ask for help or advice on new topics that are relevant to your industry. Read the news. Dig deep into your organization for differing viewpoints to better understand challenging topics. Initiate conversation so you can be fully informed.

I oversee a large production team across multiple cities and countries. We use a pyramid system, whereby my right hands communicate to their leads, who communicate to their teams, etc. I provide a platform for regular communication via pre-scheduled touch base meetings along with action item agendas. When we discuss the challenges of production, I don’t want to hear about what’s going right, I need to hear about the challenges and their ideas for solutions. And then I need to hear the follow-through to completion before I take it off my list. It’s key to never assume something was taken care of.

Personally, I love my digital notebook because writing down lists helps me to remember what we’re doing on each show and move faster to check things off. With four hundred employees and thousands of hours of content being produced, my to-do lists and calendars keep me centered and on track. And by extension it keeps the teams on track.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Honestly, the list of people I credit my success to is endless. All my own mentors and bosses throughout the years have influenced the person I am today, and the person I strive to be in the future. I either work with them currently or I’m in touch with them regularly. I’m also someone who’s influenced and touched by experiences while traveling or meeting new people. I pull from those moments when I need it the most to remind myself about what’s important and where the company is heading. These things trigger lasting impressions and steer me in a better direction, for which I’m grateful. All these life moments that collectively add up and shows me that the life you lead does indeed matter and the decisions you make now have a knock-on effect that can improve many lives around you.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Never lie. Because it’s not necessary. People can handle the truth. You need to be trusted.

2. Own both the good and the bad things that happen. Step up and take responsibility for your actions and decisions so you can fix what’s breaking and keep the overall vision of the company strong.

3. Ask for help on new topics, advances, and seek out differing opinions. Listen. Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re the smartest. Don’t close yourself off to opposing sides. You need well-rounded information in order to make the best decision possible.

4. Be nice to people. It doesn’t mean be weak, it doesn’t mean be passively grateful. It means be a leader by example. Tell people they are doing a good job, celebrate accomplishments with the team, give them credit and share in the achievements. Otherwise you’re just a boss and that’s different.

5. Be the calm, positive, driving voice. When things are difficult, get ahead of it, and positively fix it. Keep the energy up high and don’t let people bring undo negativity into the situation which drives the team down.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d call the movement Align.Adapt.Achieve. and it would be to educate school-aged kids about career possibilities beyond their immediate awareness of possibilities. The movement “Aligns” kids with adults in all industries and invites them to come spend a day doing a job the kids want to explore. “Adapt” informs the kids what they have to do, or study, in order to breakthrough into that field. “Achieve” is helping kids set these goals and get them on their way with a bigger picture of what life has to offer.

I always felt that when I was in school, I didn’t know enough about the world to know what I wanted to choose as a career. When you’re a kid your world is very small, so this is a movement to give greater global guidance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I like a lot of quotes but right now the two that I think of are:

“Success isn’t owned it’s leased. And rent is due every day.” — by JJ Watt.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” — I love this quote by Anthony Bourdain because his description of the word “travel” includes meanings for me owning to career, relationships, motivation, self-improvement.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Does any list like this get made without including a dream meeting the Oprah Winfrey? I would love to meet her because I think she’s an incredibly positive influencer, a doer of good things, and has a sense of humor. I’d like to sit in a quiet place with her and talk for hours. And I would also love to meet Post Malone because he’s everywhere, and seems like a fun, down to earth person. And lastly, I would love to meet up with a company or an investor that wants to help take my side business to the next-level. Get ahold of me people!! Seeing the potential out there for this need and being able to partner up to design lifestyle clothing for kids and adults who truly need adaptive options, it will improve so many lives and will literally change the world!

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