VFX involves the creation of images and sequences that are otherwise impossible to create on set. Using a combination of technical and artistic skill, alien landscapes, enormous crowd scenes, explosions or fire-breathing dragons can all be created from scratch. There lots of different roles within VFX, many of them freelance.
Skills needed to work in VFX
Each job role has its own particular skill requirements, whether that’s the ability to perform blue screen extractions, or create digital tools using a coding language. VFX artist job roles sit on a broad spectrum of skills from technical to artistic. Common skills associated with all job roles include:
- the ability to work in a team and with colleagues who have different skills to yours
- good communication and presentation skills
- understanding of the entire VFX process and how tasks and departments link
- the ability to self-manage and prioritise tasks to meet agreed deadlines
- the ability to receive feedback and respond appropriately
- problem-solving and recognising when to ask for help
Ways into the VFX industry
The routes into a career in VFX are varied. Study of or have experience in software development or computer science from another industry can be desirable, but Fine Art or Illustration backgrounds can be good too.
There are specialist degree courses in CGI, animation or VFX and candidates who have studied media, media production, media technology, graphic design, photography or similar university or college courses can find their way in, often through the runner route. New entrants coming from VFX courses with a good junior VFX showreel demonstrating skills in matchmoving, modeling, texturing, lighting, prep, roto and basic compositing can find junior roles in either roto or matchmoving departments in the larger companies. Smaller companies are likely to recruit based on the quality of your portfolio, and whether it demonstrates skills in or an aptitude for a job role they need to fill.
VFX also has two apprenticeship routes, the Assistant Technical Director Apprentice and Junior 2D Artist Apprentice. Candidates for these roles have usually completed A Levels or vocational qualifications (like a BTEC or Extended Diploma), but not a degree course. The NextGen Skills Academy offers industry-relevant courses that have been developed with games, animation and VFX employers. These courses are good preparation for VFX apprenticeships (which are Higher Apprenticeships at Level 4 - equivalent to a Foundation Degree). Apprentices’ careers can progress quickly and they can find themselves ahead of peers who take a degree route to work.
Jobs in VFX
- VFX supervisor
VFX supervisors in large studios take charge of individual departments (e.g. CG supervisor), but there is usually a single overall VFX supervisor for an entire project, either employed by the producers of a movie or TV directly or working for a VFX studio. The VFX supervisor works with the production team (e.g. directors, production designers, cinematographers) to design the VFX needed to tell the story and how they will be realised. A VFX supervisor will have many years of experience and strong artistic, technical and communication skills.
- VFX producer
The producer works closely with the VFX supervisor to project manage the entire VFX production process, defining the resources required, and hiring VFX artists and crew. A good VFX producer can stand up for themselves while listening to the concerns and needs of clients and artists. They are highly organised and have excellent people skills.
- Production coordinator
This ‘junior producer’ role involves collating data and updates on tasks and feedback to work in progress. Good project information is the foundation for decisions that the VFX producer will make an agreement with clients over delivery and changes.
- Creature or rigging technical director(TD)
Understanding the mechanics of animal movement underpins the creation of skeletal and muscle systems for CGI creatures. The creature or rigging TD makes the controls that animators use to create realistic movement. This job role combines knowledge of anatomy with the creation of digital tools.
- Effects technical director (FX TD)
FX TD's create things that are too complex to animate manually, including fire, destruction and magic. They set ‘rules’ for computer software to simulate the animation of phenomena that has massive visual complexity. To become an FX TD you need to understand how the work breaks down into rigid body simulations and fluids and cloth, fur and hair. In some companies, you’ll find hair and fur specialists are referred to as groom artists.
- Pipeline technical director (TD)
Problem-solving artistic and productivity issues across entire projects is the responsibility of the pipeline TD. They will have strong coding skills and write new or amend existing computer code. The ability to communicate well with colleagues and understand the needs of artists and projects is essential.
- Lighting artist (lighter) or lighting technical director (TD)
In the real world, lighting determines how we perceive objects and the environment around us, and the same is true of 3D objects and environments. Lighting artists adjust the colour, placement and intensity of CGI lights to create atmosphere, add realism, tone and depth. Using reference photos taken on set or location, the lighting artist matches the illumination of 3D objects to the look of the on-set production and costume design and cinematography. In some VFX companies, the role of lighting artist may be combined with that of modeling artist and texture artist, working as a 3D/CGI generalist.
- Shader development technical director (TD)
Every 3D object has a surface or texture that interacts with the virtual light of 3D software and renderers. The shader development TD writes the code that describes how 3D materials react to light (reflecting, scattering, or absorbing) in a CGI scene.
- Assistant technical director
The assistant technical director (ATD) develops and maintains tools and scripts, as well as giving technical support to artists and specialist technical directors, all while developing their coding and problem-solving skills on the job. The ATD backs up and retrieves archived data, moves digital files from one location to where they’re needed, makes QuickTime videos for review by supervisors and clients and troubleshoots problems highlighted by colleagues.
Compositing artist or 2D artist
A digital compositor, compositing artist or ‘comper’ work at the end of the VFX process to seamlessly and realistically combine CGI and digital matte paintings with live-action plate photography. The focus of the skills and career structure in VFX compositing is about developing an affinity and awareness of photography and forensic attention to detail that results in seamlessly combining CGI elements with live action footage.
- Digital preparation artist or paint/prep artist
Sometimes a visual effect may be as simple as removing a piece of modern street furniture from the location of a period set drama. Paint or prep artists remove unwanted items like camera equipment left in a shot or safety wires from a stunt performance. Prior to CGI and compositing artists working on a shot, the paint/prep artists will have “cleaned” the shot.
Match moving or camera tracking is a technique that allows the integration of CGI VFX into live action footage. Although match moving is traditionally an entry-level job into 3D VFX, it is a crucial part of the pipeline. A matchmover converts a 2D flat image sequence into a virtual 3D scene, tracks objects and bodies. Matchmoving is painstaking work and needs to be pixel perfect. Senior matchmovers can be called upon to go on set to put up tracking markers.
- Matte painter
A matte painter creates digital matte paintings (DMPs) that are virtual backgrounds to replace or embellish live action photographed plates. Matte painters work from still images, cutting, pasting, manipulating and painting using software like Photoshop to create new images and textures. The new images are often ‘projected’ on to simple geometry or cards and integrated into live action scenes using compositing software. Many matte painters take photos for use in their work and have good technical and aesthetic photography skills. In smaller boutique VFX studios, those skilled enough can work interchangeably as matte painters as well as environment TDs.
- Modeling artist
Modeling artists, modeling technical directors or modelers create 3D 'assets' that range from everyday objects to fantastical creatures. Many specialise in digital sculpture and creature work, using ZBrush or Mudbox. Equally, some are happy to make objects, props, vehicles and fixtures and fittings (hard surface modeling) as a 3D/CGI generalist. 3D models are the building blocks of VFX creation.
- Rotoscoping or roto artist
Roto artists animate mask shapes (called mattes or alpha channels) to that isolate or cut out objects or actors in a filmed scene. A matte is used to insert elements behind it, or it can be used to place an object or person in a different scene. Painstaking precision is often called for and roto is a foundation skill every compositor requires. Often VFX companies will have lead roto artists supervising a rotoscoping team.
A runner is an entry-level position. Runners are all-purpose helpers in the studio. Duties will be non-technical, but runners are usually encouraged to practice and learn relevant skills from VFX artists in the team. This can be the route in for someone without a relevant degree, but who has a portfolio that demonstrates their talent and enjoys meeting and getting on with people.
If you would like more in-depth knowledge about working in VFX click the following link to download the visual effects career map (PDF).
- Cinematography, by Blain Brown
- Filming the Fantastic: A Guide to Visual Effects Cinematography, 2nd Edition, by Mark Sawicki
- The VES Handbook of Visual Effects, 2nd Edition, by Susan Zwerman and Jeffery A Okun
- The Visual Effects Producer, by Charles Finance and Susan Zwerman
- Compositing Visual Effects, by Steve Wright
- Digital Compositing for Film and Video, by Steve Wright
- The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, Ron Brinkman
- Visual Effects and Compositing, Jon Gress
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