My Advice for becoming a VFX artist

Since starting this blog, I’m emailed a couple times a week by people asking for advice about the VFX industry. I’m usually asked:

  • How do I get started in the VFX industry?
  • How can I become really good at VFX?
  • What goes on my resume/reel? Will you look at it?
  • Everyone says I have to learn Maya/Nuke/Houdini, is that true?
  • Do I need a degree?
  • Can I learn online?
  • Where can I get started learning Blender/Nuke/Natron?

I thought I’d finally make a post answering all these questions, so instead of replying the same thing over and over when people ask, I can just point them to this post. And if you were thinking of emailing me to ask any of those questions, look at that! I predicted the future, and here is your answer!

Keep in mind that everyone has their own path into the industry.

And also, THIS IS ALL JUST MY OWN OPINION.

Most Important

The things that matter the most are your demo reel, your experience, and you.

Chances are, if you’re needing advice on getting into the industry, you don’t have much experience yet, which means your demo reel is that much more important.

Your Demo Reel

I can give no better advice on demo reels than what is already on www.beforesandafters.com , the website of Ian Failes, the most prominent VFX journalist. He’s collected advice from the professionals who do the hiring, and even has an interview with an artist who recently broke into the industry.

What to include in your reel

What to put in your resume

After you’ve sent your reel in, then what?

An artist’s journey into VFX

To the advice in those links, I would add:

  • Absolutely do not put everything you’ve ever done on your reel. Trim things out. Get feedback from other artists about what they think are your strongest shots and remove the ones that aren’t, even if they were your favorite to work on. Try and stick to 1-2 minutes.
  • Music doesn’t matter. People love adding music to make them super cool and exciting to watch, but from what I understand, employers don’t usually have the volume turned on when reviewing reels. Was that mentioned in those articles already? Probably.
  • Do NOT, under any circumstances, put in shots that are direct copies of online tutorials. If you made BlenderGuru’s donut, great, I hope you learned something, now don’t EVER put that on a reel. If you followed some super cool shattering logo tutorial from Video Copilot, everyone in the industry has also seen it. Putting it on a reel demonstrates nothing other than you can follow a set of instructions. I can bake cookies from the recipe on a chocolate chip package, that doesn’t make me a pastry chef. If you put those shots on your reel, you can bet hundreds of other people did, as well. Take the skills you learned following those tutorials and do something new and different with it. This goes for my tutorials, too! If you learned something here at OpenVisualFX, shoot your own footage of the same type of thing, do the same type of effect, and put that version on your reel. No one has seen that version yet.

Before I got into digital vfx, I used to do practical fx, creatures, costumes, and animatronics. One of the creature studios, The Character Shop, has a great FAQ, and while it’s tailored for that industry, it’s very candid and blunt and has the same information that would apply to VFX jobs. Might be worth a read. Check it out HERE.

And just for the heck of it, one more interview with a junior VFX artist about how they got in, right HERE.

Getting Better at VFX

Ok, so what if you don’t have the skills to make a killer reel yet? How do you get good? You can learn so much nowadays from Youtube, and if you’re passionate about this, you’ve probably already been doing that. If you want to take it to the next level, in my opinion, the best thing you can do (for VFX, at least) is to get involved in a real project. Not a major studio movie, but just some local short film or independent project. Find some local filmmakers and team up with them. Check out local colleges and see if they have a film program, and if so, put up fliers on the school’s bulletin boards (or post online) advertising your VFX services for the student films. Someone in your town is probably making a movie, even if it’s just using their cell phone cameras. Get involved! If you really can’t find anyone near you making any kind of movie, go online. Get on some filmmaking forums and offer your services there. Getting paid is good, but if not, that’s okay, too (ONLY while you are learning!). Right now you just need experience, and there’s no better experience than the real world!

It will be scary, for sure. You may even have to agree to do some VFX that you don’t even know how to do yet. I used to do that all the time, then I would hurry and try to learn what they needed. This is the time to do this, not later when it’s some massive Marvel movie and there’s millions of dollars (and your career) on the line. Go to the set if you can. You’ll be able to give them advice on how to shoot the VFX shots to make it easier on yourself later, plus you’ll get to start learning how things operate on a set. And while you’re there, they will hit you with a bunch more VFX stuff. They’ll be seeing cables in the corner of the frame and ask you if you can remove that later. Yep, you sure can! Or they’ll forget where some set piece was during shooting yesterday and can you fix that later on? Yep, you sure can! Or they’re having some costume or practical FX malfunction, and can you help out with that in post? Yep, you sure can! Seriously, just by being on set while things go wrong (and they always do), you’re going to quadruple your VFX work. And when you’re just starting out, this is a good thing. These unexpected small things are exactly what junior artists spend their first year or two doing in big studios. So learn to love them!

To summarize, being on a real production will provide real world problems for you to solve, and that is much better than just sitting at home doing tutorials.

What Software Should You Know

Maybe you’ve been learning Blender, but to be taken seriously in the industry, you heard you have to use Maya. Or maybe you’re working in some older cracked version of After Effects, but to get a real job, you heard you absolutely have to know Nuke. Well, this is kind of true, kind of false. Even if a recruiter at SIGGRAPH told you right to your face that you have to master Maya and Nuke, it’s still not really 100% true.

Let me explain. For every single job I have been hired for in the VFX industry, I did NOT know the software they hired me to work in. I am not exaggerating at all. Literally. Every. Single. Job.

Rhythm & Hues Studios compositing program Icy

I detailed this in a longer blog post a few years ago over at RenderStreet, but I’ll summarize here. My first real VFX job was on Austin Powers: Goldmember in 2001. I was hired because a coworker at the practical FX shop I was working at heard I was trying to learn After Effects in my free time after work. I didn’t really know how to use it yet. I could do a basic roto and I knew how to set position and opacity keyframes. That’s about it. They really needed people, so they said they’d teach me. So I was hired barely knowing the program. When I left that job a few years later to go work on Sin City, CafeFX was using Fusion for compositing. I’d never opened it before, and didn’t understand node compositing at all. But I showed them that I understood all the main concepts of compositing – rotoscoping, tracking, color matching, black levels, etc. Because I understood all these core fundamentals, they knew they could teach me quickly where the buttons were in Fusion. When I left that studio to go to Rhythm & Hues, I found R&H used their own compositing program, called Icy, which they had written from scratch. It wasn’t even possible to have had a chance to look at the program without working there. Again, I was hired for understanding the fundamentals. And in 2015, when I was hired at CoSA VFX, I was asked if I knew Nuke, which was the industry standard by then, and I had to admit that I did not. I’d been using R&H’s software for the last 7+ years and didn’t get a chance to learn it. Yet again, through my reel and my interview, I demonstrated that I knew compositing inside and out, and the program didn’t matter. They hired me and let me learn Nuke on the job, and even let me use After Effects when we needed something in a rush before I was comfortable enough to work quickly in Nuke.

So if you can’t afford the industry standard programs (Maya, Nuke, Zbrush, and Houdini), don’t worry about it too much, no matter what someone tells you. Once you understand the core techniques and fundamental concepts of whatever discipline you’re interested in, and show that you can do quality work in whatever your chosen program is, chances are the studio will have faith in you and give you a week or two to learn where the buttons are in the software they use. So work on that – make amazing things! Blow people away and don’t even tell them what software you used unless they ask!

All that being said, there are a lot of people out there who do know the commercial software already, and you’ll be competing with them for jobs. So if you do happen to know Maya, Nuke, or whatever commercial program they need you to work in, it will be a benefit for sure. It will save them time and money since they don’t have to give you that learning time. So it’s a benefit, not a necessity. A good studio will realize it’s the artist, not the software, that does amazing work.

And anyway, it’s always nice to know more than one program. And Blender, being as well rounded as it is, is a great program to know very well!

Do You Need a Degree?

Nope. School is certainly good, but what a studio will want to see is your work, not a piece of paper saying you attended classes for two or four years. School gives you the chance to learn software, do structured projects, work in teams, and hit deadlines, so it’s absolutely beneficial. However, you can also do all that at home with Youtube courses and local short film projects.

Often I’ve found that the artists coming out of the schools don’t have the drive or willingness to learn techniques other than what they learned at school. They think the way they learned it is the only way. Please try not to have this mindset. Every artist has their own way of doing something, and there’s so much you can pick up by knowing their technique. There is always more to learn, don’t ever stop learning. I still watch tutorials almost every day.

Learning Online for Beginners

It is absolutely possible to learn all of this stuff online today. Just search! That’s what I did. There are entire courses in almost every single program or discipline you want to learn, both commercial and open source. Many cost something, either a flat price or a monthly subscription, but they are usually worth it. I’ll list my favorites below (for the open source stuff, anyway).

Try to find tutorials for the discipline of VFX that you want to work in, whether it’s tracking and matchmoving, rotoscoping, compositing, sculpting and modeling, animation, or whatever. Stay focused, and make sure you master the basics before moving on to the complex stuff. I see people making compositing tutorials all the time about how to use each and every render layer a 3D program can put out, how to recombine the passes to recreate the beauty render, etc. For most artists breaking into the industry, you’re not going to need to know that for a while. It’s much more useful to learn how to remove anything from a shot, or how to track a CG object on to something real, like a bullet wound on a shirt. We do that stuff every single day.

Don’t forget to watch tutorials for other software sometimes, too. It’s a great way to learn how other artists work, and almost everything will be translatable to the software you’re currently using.

Blender
CG Cookie
Blender Cloud
CG Geek – Steve Lund
CG Boost – Zach Reinhardt
Gleb Alexandrov & Aidy Burrows

Natron
OpenVisualFX (shameless plug!)
Indie Rebel
Youtube

Fusion
Blackmagic training

And Finally, You

So that’s all the technical stuff, but there’s still one other thing that may actually turn out to be the most important thing of all. You. Your personality. VFX is team driven. So, you know, be nice. Have fun! Make friends. Don’t complain too much. Or rather, turn your complaining into a bonding experience by all going out for lunch or drinks to complain together.

Oh, another thing to keep in mind. This is one of my own personal thoughts, which I’ve never actually spoken about to anyone. Something I think is kind of important is to not disagree with notes from supervisors. When you’re submitting a shot for review, the way things typically work is that leads and supervisors will give you note after note after note after note. It will feel endless, and most of the time, they’ll keep doing it right up until the shot is due to be delivered to the client. Sometimes you won’t agree with their notes, and you will want to defend the choices you made while working on the shot. Keep in mind this project is not your project. It’s the vision of the director, the producer, and the studio, and as a VFX artist working on it, you are only there to serve their vision. So just go along with it and do what they want. Yep, it’ll be frustrating a lot of the time. But if you want to have full creative control, make a movie on your own time.

And once you make it into a VFX studio, avoid getting taken advantage of. Do NOT work for free for a company or on a project that is making money. You can work for free if it benefits you and you are learning, before you’re hired by a studio, but do NOT keep coming into a real studio job that has stopped paying you and tells you they’ll catch up on all the back pay later. That’s stupidity. Would you do that at any other job on earth?

And that’s it, that’s all the advice I can give! Hope it’s helpful!

4 comments

Leave a Reply to whatever Cancel reply