ELLEN POON HAS spun her magic on many Hollywood blockbusters. But despite her prowess behind the scenes, the Hong Kong-born visual effects guru is often regarded as an underling. Her treatment, she believes, owes much to working in a field dominated by men. 'It's a very manly world,' the 40-year-old says. 'Sometimes when I am on a set with a male assistant, people think I am the assistant and the guy is in charge. They are shocked I'm the one in charge and you can see that in their eyes.' Such attitudes have only served to make Poon more determined to be a success. Before setting up her own animation company, DFreedomZone, in San Francisco in August, she was the visual effects supervisor at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) for 10 years. She was the first woman to hold the position at the director's Hollywood production house, overseeing films such as Jurassic Park (1993), Men In Black (1996), Star Wars: Episode I (1999) and The Green Mile (1999). Now Poon made her first foray into China, applying her technological know-how to Zhang Yimou's Hero. In one scene her magic touch gives Jet Li the appearance of moving at breakneck speed - by slowing down a shot of moving water against which he is juxtaposed. In another - a fight sequence between Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Zhang Ziyi set in a forest - Poon puts her post-production wizardry to work by adding in and animating leaves so they circle the women in angry flurries as they are engaged in battle. During a recent trip to Hong Kong, she describes the martial arts epic as the most physically demanding movie she has worked on, citing not only the heat during filming but also the constant jet lag as a result of frequent travelling. Still, she says, she had a great time working with the 'down-to-Earth and approachable' Zhang. Her experience on the Hero set appears to be in contrast to her 10 years in Hollywood, where she says sexual discrimination is commonplace. Since moving to Tinseltown from London, Poon says she has been rubbing shoulders with 'egotistic figures', and fighting her way up the career ladder despite them. 'Hollywood is like that,' she says. 'It's not like Chinese culture. You have to be egotistic. They [Hollywood players] think they are dominating [the scene]. They think, 'I'm the Hollywood big cheese; I rule the world'. Many of them are big-headed.' Do they include Lucas? 'Oh, yeah,' she says, shrugging her shoulders. One of Poon's worst moments occurred while working with 'a world No 1' television commercial director, whom she declines to identify. When Poon made a suggestion during the shoot, the director retorted: 'Why don't you just go home and knit? This is not your place.' Struggling to control her anger, Poon continued to explain her idea, but the director refused to hear her out and stormed off the set. 'I was mad as hell but I had to keep calm,' she says. 'I never lost my cool at work,' she adds, because then 'people would think you can't deal with problems. It's not fair because men can lose their temper, but I can't.' Poon looks the way she speaks: no-nonsense and self-assured. But should anyone accuse her of trying to get ahead in a man's world by flexing muscles, she says simply: 'I am a girl and I want to be feminine.' She is equally matter-of-fact when she talks about her work and her life. A mathematics whizz, she left Hong Kong at 17 to study computer science at Essex University in England. Having an interest in computer graphics and a love of movies, she decided to concentrate on film technology. Poon spent five years at London's most renowned post-production houses, Rushes Post Production and Moving Picture Company, before joining ILM. Despite her impressive credentials, however, she says there were people who found it strange she was Lucas' visual effects supervisor. 'I don't think they've seen many Asian women doing the stuff I do,' she says. 'Sometimes the men only talk to other men for advice, even though they know I'm in charge. They just don't want to consult a woman.' Poon says she has been so frustrated by the discrimination she has broken down in tears - but only outside work. 'When I had a boyfriend, I would take my fury out on him and I would feel better,' she admits. 'At work, you just have to take things graciously and be diplomatic. It's kind of like walking a tightrope because you have to take care of other issues that do not come with the job.' Although the special effects expert paints a picture of a harsh working environment, she says she enjoys the challenges, especially now she is at the helm of a company that employs 15 people. DFreedomZone specialises in 3-D animation for movies and advertising. Seeing a demand for her skills in Hong Kong, Poon hopes to expand her business to the SAR, though plans are still in their infancy. 'There is more talent and opportunity in Hong Kong today than in the past when we had to go overseas to carve out a career,' she says. 'And there are plenty of new ideas in Asia. I hope one day Hollywood will copy things from Asia rather than the other way round.' Poon says her next goal is to win an Oscar, but adds having a career isn't everything. In fact, she says work is responsible for the recent break-up with her boyfriend. 'I travelled a lot, which took its toll on my relationship,' she says. 'In retrospect, I think I've asked too much from boyfriends.' So which would she rather have, if winning at the Academy Awards and having a partner were mutually exclusive? 'I think I'd choose a boyfriend,' she says, after a pause. 'I've learned that life is not just about money and fame, but how to be a better person, and to give and to take.'