Karin Johnson: a picture of fort(nite)itude
The producer behind your favourite titles
Canadian producer Karin Johnson said, “It’s pretty rewarding to be able to say that I worked on Club Penguin, or Fortnite, or this movie or that TV show, and getting to see someone light up with excitement or disbelief.”
Following her high school graduation in Nelson, BC, Johnson continued her education in Kelowna, BC. It was there that she received two diplomas: Computer Information Systems and Graphic and Digital Media Design. Only two weeks later, she was hired by Disney.
“I got to work closely with Lane Merrifield for several years at Disney. He was one of the founders of Club Penguin and now is one of the dragons on Dragon’s Den,” said Johnson. “I often thought, what would five-year old Karin say if she knew I’d be working at Disney one day. The nostalgia never wore off, even after nine years.”
As a producer at Club Penguin, Johnson managed teams of highly skilled “artists, designers, developers, writers, animators, and testers,” to ensure that they met the expectations of the executive management. Johnson was the mobilizer, “pushing [the team] through ideation, design, development, testing and release.” Additionally, her team would provide weekly progress reports to the executives and, “company meetings [were] to celebrate accomplishments and learnings,” said Johnson.
While Club Penguin was a positive game for a number of reasons, Club Penguin also donated 1 million dollars to real charities focusing on “building schools, providing clean water, or protecting endangered species,” said Johnson. The kids who played the game were given the opportunity to donate their virtual coins and make a real difference in the world – “tens of BILLIONS of coins” were donated. For Johnson, her time at Club Penguin was something special, something “wholesome.”
Johnson even shared some “secretive” details about Disney Imagineers. What is it? According to Johnson, it is a “nondescript warehouse… [that is] incredibly secretive.” Why? “It’s where all the innovative and inventive work happens for animatronics that go into the parks” said Johnson. This would not be the only secret place she visited during her work.
Johnson describes having to “punch in a specific code” in Walt’s office that would lead to a “secret room hidden behind a large wall.” This would lead to a “tiny” private lounge with a “robot that served you beer – he would even tease you if your beer pour resulted in too much foam. It was called the Server Room.”
Spending a tremendous amount of time flying back and forth between different cities for several projects, one of Johnson’s most memorable experiences was when she flew down to the Pixar Headquarters in Emeryville, California and pitched an idea to the Co-Director of the film, “Inside Out.” The presentation was a success as “he approved it on the spot,” said Johnson.
For the shooting of The Man in the High Castle, a series on Amazon Prime, Johnson was the VFX Producer. “So I spent my days reading scripts and identifying where VFX would be required and then building a budget for what it may cost, depending on how they shot it” said Johnson, “On that job I could go to the set and watch the shoot, and actors would be hanging around the lunch areas quite often.”
But what was Johnson’s first project working in Visual Effects? Captain America: Civil War. “I was running Animation and Creature Dev – Creature Dev teams simulate the movement of hair, clothing, and skin” noted Johnson, “so in this film we would simulate the movements of capes, Spiderman and Black Panther’s costumes (because a Marvel exec decided he didn’t like the look of the six-figure practical costumes they shot the whole scene in), Spiderman’s web, etc.”
Rigid simulations also took place, meaning buildings and vehicles were actually destroyed for the making of the film, and Johnson’s department was heading these efforts. Johnson says, “when Scarlet Witch was pulling the cars out of the parkade and smashing them on the ground, or when Ant-Man ripped the wing off the plane and threw it at Iron Man, that was all us.” It is hard to imagine just how awesome these experiences must have been but Johnson sums it up: “watching these scenes evolve from Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland running around a tarmac in Atlanta in green pyjamas, to flying and swinging around a fully CGI airport throwing cars and planes at each other was an incredibly cool thing to experience.”
Whenever I tell my friends for the first time that my cousin currently works for Fortnite and was a producer working in some Marvel films, they immediately respond with, “what’s his name?” Nothing against them, but this reality is evident in our expectations. The industry is not always fair, nor on the side of women.
When I asked Johnson about being a woman in the industry, she responded:
Being a woman in this industry definitely comes with its challenges. Sometimes it can feel like you need to work significantly harder to get the same recognition as your male counterparts. It largely depends on the person on the other side of the table at any given time. There are great people who genuinely encourage and promote more women being successful in this industry and champion you for what you bring to the table professionally. I have had many people like this in my life who have majorly contributed to my success. But there are also people who will exploit their position of power to take advantage of ambitious women wanting to make an impact or make a name for themselves. Sexual harassment is a very real issue in these industries and I’ve dealt with it in varying degrees of severity throughout my entire career. It can also be common to see competitive or unsupportive nature between women moving up in leadership positions as well. So you always need to have your guard up, at least a little bit, being a woman in this type of work environment.
Currently living in Raleigh, North Carolina, near the Epic Games headquarters, Johnson is dedicated to the company and operates as the producer, which she says in this context is more like being a, “project management position.” Nonetheless, she is passionate about her current role.
So what drives her success?
“The old saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ definitely has its validity, but after that door is opened for you, it’s all in your hands from there” Johnson said, “I’ve always been driven by the next big thing that I haven’t tried yet.”