January 2020: Katie Hecker Scheid '86

The 1998 film Sliding Doors follows the parallel lives of a woman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, which hinge on the small circumstance of catching a train or not. Katie Hecker Scheid ’86 describes it as the movie that best represents her life due to the chance meetings that have set her on her life path. She “love[s] the sheer chance of life and the mystery of what might happen next” and credits her time at Laurel and a liberal arts education for instilling confidence to seize new opportunities as they come! From playing in bands and working in the European music industry to a long career in visual effects for films such as The Big Lebowski and The Lord of the Rings, Katie is always up for a new adventure. Her biggest adventure these days is raising her daughter in New Zealand! Read on to follow Katie on her journey from Lyman Circle and around the world.

Did your Laurel student days help set you on the path for your life today and if so, how?
My Laurel days were a huge factor in setting me on my life path. I think that at an all-girls school I had a blindness to the concept of things women “could” or “couldn’t” do. I was just aware of being a student in a class of individuals who all had different talents and dreams.
Laurel also sparked my interest in the world. I loved reading and learning about geography and art and language and by the time I graduated I had so many ideas of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do.
 
What attracted you to the Fashion Institute of Technology? And what led you to the New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts?
Throughout my teenage years I was interested in music, fashion and the arts, and I wanted to move to New York City to be in the middle of everything. I started off at Ohio State University but spent a lot of time reading Interview magazine and dreaming of New York so I changed my plan from a four-year liberal arts degree to a vocational two-year associate’s degree in fashion advertising from the Fashion Institute of Technology. I graduated but realized that I wasn’t that excited about the fashion industry.
After playing in bands during my Laurel years, I had always been interested in music and took a job at a recording studio and signed up for an internship with a music booking agency. This led me to London where I worked for music booking agencies and saw live music every night.
I returned to the United States to resume my studies and earn my B.A. from the Eugene Lang College of The New School in New York. After a few years of working, I suddenly appreciated what a privilege it was to be able to devote my time to exploring ideas! Eugene Lang offered a wonderful seminar style classroom format that reminded me of Laurel and I really loved studying there. I earned my B.A. in Art, Culture and Society/Literature.
 
Tell us about landing for your first job in the film industry. And how has your liberal arts degree helped you in your film career? 
After college I moved back to London and started working in music again. This time I was playing in bands, touring Europe, and recording, as well as working for a small record label and helping book bands to play at the Camden Falcon—a pub where aspiring bands often got their start.
After a few years I started thinking about applying for an M.A. program in film and was talking to one of the regulars at the Falcon who told me not to do that but instead go to work to be trained on visual effects for film. It really was that much of a coincidence. I didn’t even know what visual effects were—but I went along with it and thought it was all really interesting and signed on to be a night operator. I would work through the night, outputting digital images onto film through an amazing device made of a laser tube and a film camera from the 1920s. I went to the Kodak facilities to learn how to handle film and would run film canisters through London Soho in the early hours of the morning to be developed. Then I’d receive them in the morning ready to hand over to be reviewed. It was a great start in the industry and my career developed from there!
There can be some disadvantages to having a broad liberal arts degree. I sometimes wish I could point to a piece of paper that said I was specifically qualified to do something in particular. But, on the other hand, I developed a great curiosity about the world and the confidence to walk through any doors that happen to open.
 
You’ve worked as a compositor since the late 1990s. What exactly does that mean?  And now as a freelance compositor, what skills are required to be a successful freelancer?
A compositor is a person who puts different elements together to make a finished shot. It’s a little like photoshop with animation. For example, for Charlotte’s Web I would receive a computer-generated spider and web, film of a real barn and of an actor shot against a green-screen. Then it would be my job to integrate them so that it all looked real. I’ve done my job when you don’t notice a compositor was involved in the shot.
I’ve enjoyed freelancing as it has taken me around the world. I’ve worked in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berlin, Sydney, Adelaide, Wellington and Auckland. It definitely helps to be ready to move to where work is happening and to be willing to work long hours to deliver on tight schedules.
 
What movie or project are you most proud to have worked on?
In terms of working on something fairly monumental, being a Senior Compositor on The Lord of the Rings trilogy feels like a big accomplishment. But, the movie I’m most proud of being involved with is, without a doubt, The Big Lebowski. I love that it’s become a cult classic.
 
What is the biggest misconception people might have about those who work in the movie industry, especially in your area of expertise, or about movie making in general?
I think the biggest misconception people have about the film industry, or at least the visual effects corner of it, is that it’s all glamorous. It mostly involves long hours sitting in windowless rooms on computers.
 
Did your experience working on The Lord of Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring inspire you to move to New Zealand?
I moved to New Zealand in 2000 after being offered a job on The Lord of the Rings. I interviewed in Los Angeles and didn’t think I’d get the job as I confessed to never having read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. But, I was offered the job anyway and moved to Wellington. I didn’t know much about New Zealand but was ready for a new adventure. I ended up loving the country and through its immigration points system was able to get residence in New Zealand. I now have dual American and New Zealand citizenship.
 
What advice would you give to others who are interested in living abroad?
I would say, “Just do it!” I sometimes think my life would have been easier if I hadn’t moved around so much—but then I would have missed out on the experiences I’ve had and the friends I’ve made. I think it’s important to give a country time to reveal itself to you. It’s easy, particularly in an English-speaking country, to arrive and see so many similarities to what you know. But it’s the time you take getting to know people and finding out how they see the world that helps you to understand differences, to get new perspectives on life and to really live somewhere.
 
You took a five-year parental leave from your professional career when your daughter was born. Can you share with us a little about that decision—it’s joys and challenges—and what it was like returning to the workforce?
Before my daughter was born I was in a fairly senior role and enjoyed getting to do more supervision. While I was pregnant, my husband and I moved back to Wellington from Australia and I interviewed nannies so that I would be able to go back to work. However, after she was born, all I wanted to do was spend as much time with her as possible. We sold our house in the city and bought a little one-bedroom cottage by the sea about 45 minutes up the coast. I loved getting to spend my daughter’s first years with her and feel so lucky to have had the chance. I was 40 when she was born and after so many adventures and long hours at work, I really looked at motherhood and family life as something new and wonderful.
I went back to work after we left New Zealand for Germany. My husband is German and we wanted to spend some time there. When my daughter started school in Berlin, I started working again. It was a huge challenge! First of all, I was speaking German. I had studied German while at Laurel (cross registering with University School) but I spent my first year in Germany doing full-time language courses. Beyond the language challenges, I found that my compositor skills were a bit rusty. Five years is a long time to be away in a technology! While we were in Germany I worked on a project basis and only did a few jobs over our eight years there.
Now, we’re back in New Zealand and I’ve started back towards full-time work. It’s definitely a challenge balancing work and home life!

Do you  have any other hobbies or interests you are passionate about?
My main hobby these days is looking out to sea. We live in a house with a wonderful view of the sea and I never get tired watching the light, waves and weather. I have an Instagram account full of shots of water and sky and I use an app that lets me identify the ships sailing into harbor. I find shipping strangely fascinating. Maybe it's one of those things that starts to be appealing as one gets older!
I also love baking. Since returning to New Zealand, I have joined a volunteer organization that bakes and delivers home-baked goods to various organizations helping people in need.
 
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
I’ve come to realize over the years how special it was to go to a girls’ school with a strong sense of tradition. While I was there I enjoyed pushing the boundaries of the uniform but, looking back, it was great to have such established boundaries to push back against. I was able to feel like an individual but also felt supported and that I had my place in the long history of the school. It’s special to have a shared experience with so many amazing women who attended Laurel before me as well as those who have attended since. I’m so happy that since we moved back to New Zealand our daughter goes to a single-sex school that just celebrated its centenary. Just the other day she was singing her school song to me. I sang the Laurel Alma Mater back to her and even though Laurel is on the other side of the world, it was a reminder of how a school can stay part of you for life. I feel lucky to have had my time at Laurel and would choose exactly the same for my daughter.
 
What movie best describes your life?
Great question! The 1998 film Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow comes to mind. It’s about a woman whose life hinges on the small circumstance of catching a train or not. It shows in parallel how her life develops in different directions. I often think about the role that tiny chance meetings have had in my life and where I’ve followed them. I wonder what other lives I might have lived if I hadn’t met someone in the pub who suggested I go work at his company, or if I hadn’t accepted the job in Australia and met my husband. Sometimes I think I’m the Gwyneth who made the train and everything worked out really well and sometimes I think I’m the Gwyneth who missed it and things have gone a bit off the rails. But no matter which Gwyneth I feel like at the time, I love the sheer chance of life and the mystery of what might happen next.
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