Visual effects (VFX)

Layout technical director (TD)

Also known as: Layout artist, Senior layout artist

Layout technical director (TD)

What does a layout TD do?

Layout technical directors (TDs) determine the position of the virtual camera and ‘block’ the characters for computer generated image (CG) shots of a VFX sequence. To ‘block’ the characters, means to choreograph where the characters are positioned and where they will move to over the course of a shot.

Layout TDs consider a shot’s framing, composition, camera angle, camera path and movement, and the rough lighting of each key scene. They keep a consistent scale of the elements within the frame. The work that layout TDs do enables other VFX artists to have a basis for shot construction later in the VFX production pipeline.

They communicate with the director to work out what virtual camera ‘language’ to use; how they want the animation to be framed and look on screen. On larger-scale projects, such as certain feature films, layout TDs will produce several versions of virtual camera shots of a scene, as well as its composition. This is so that the director and editors have options when ‘cutting’ the film together in post-production.

Layout TDs can work as full-time employees of major VFX companies or studios. They can also work as freelancers on a project-by-project basis.

It is critical to understand the story and emotion of the sequence before placing cameras into the scene. Without this, a camera is only a spectator in the scene, not a storyteller

Arem Kim, 3dtotal

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What’s a layout TD good at?

  • Art: have a good eye for movement and scene layout to best convey mood and plot
  • Photography: have an eye for composition, know how to tell a story through a shot, understand camera and lighting techniques, know how to use them to affect emotions
  • Knowledge of VFX programs: be adept at using relevant programs such as Adobe After Effects, Blender, Cinema 4D, Houdini, Maya, Nuke, RenderMan and 3ds Max
  • Programming and coding skills: have knowledge of programming in C++ and Python with a high level of technical ability
  • Collaboration and communication: be able to work with other VFX artists, use each other’s resources effectively and efficiently

Who does a layout TD work with?

TDs work under the management of a VFX supervisor. They regularly communicate with the production department and VFX supervisor about schedules and deadlines.

Layout TDs work closely with the director to decide on the virtual camera ‘language’ of the project; how they want the animation to be framed and look on screen. Layout TDs work with environment artists to create realistic 3D environment layouts in VFX programs. The work that layout TDs do to position the character models in the frames of the scenes gives the animators a starting point from which to work.

How do I become a layout TD?

You need to have a few years’ worth of experience working as a VFX artist in order to become a TD, as it is a more senior role.

A good route into this role is to gain experience working as an environment artist, modelling artist or texturing artist first. You might start off as a runner in a VFX company.

To be a layout TD knowledge of scripting languages such as Python and C++ is essential. You need to have some experience and competency in using VFX software, such as Adobe After Effects, Blender, Houdini, Maya or Nuke. Having an understanding of editing programs (such as Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premier, Final Cut and Lightworks) is also useful in order to become a layout TD, but is far less essential than with the scripting languages and VFX software.

There are degree courses available in computer programming, computer science or animation, which would all provide you with useful experience and knowledge towards becoming a layout TD.

At school or college:
You can take A-levels or Highers in art, art and design, architecture, photography, graphic design, graphic communication, computing or computer science, maths or physics. Or you might want to take the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:

  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Computing

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • Aim Awards Diploma/Extended Diploma in Games Animation and VFX
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Visual Effects
  • BTEC National Diploma in 3D Design & Crafts
  • BTEC National Diploma in Graphics
  • BTEC National Diploma in Photography
  • BTEC National Diploma in Computing for Creative Industries
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (3D Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Photography)
  • OCR Technical Diploma in Digital Media (Moving Image and Audio Production)
  • AQA Technical Level IT: Programming
  • OCR Technical Diploma in IT (Digital Software Practitioner)

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. NextGen Skills Academy offers VFX apprenticeships  for school leavers. These involve a lot of learning on the job working in a VFX company.

If you can’t find an apprenticeship with a VFX company, it might be worth getting an apprenticeship in a related industry, which could give you the experience you need to find your way into VFX at a later point.

These are the relevant apprenticeships that might be available throughout the UK:

You might even find degree apprenticeships:

  • Digital Degree Apprenticeship (Level 6, Wales)

In Scotland, you might be able to find degree-level apprenticeships through the following frameworks:

  • IT and Software Development (SCQF Level 10, Scotland)

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region or approach companies directly.

Build a portfolio:
If you intend to get into this role through being a VFX artist, you will need to create a portfolio. Learn how to use, and then experiment with, VFX programs and create a showreel that you can show to admissions tutors or employers. Go to build your VFX portfolio to learn how. Watch ScreenSkills’ advice on VFX showreels. It’s really important to develop your appreciation for VFX. Make sure you’re familiar with what’s out there.

Get a degree:
A degree in computer graphics or computer science, or a related discipline such as mathematics, physics or information technology is relevant to this job. Or you might want to have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in VFX. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the VFX industry.

Network:
Get to know people in VFX by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest and knowledge in the sector. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.

Search for jobs:
Research VFX companies that you’d like to work for. Go to their websites and check if they are advertising for junior artist or technical roles. You could also contact companies to see if you can do a work experience placement with them. Search job sites for listings. ArtStation is a good example of a site that includes job listings in animation, games and VFX (remember to filter its job listings by country). ScreenSkills offers some advice from professionals on how to approach animation and VFX employers.

You might also be interested in…

Being a creature TD, effects TD, lighting TD, pipeline TD or rigging TD. Or being a layout artist, background designer or artist, or being a storyboard artist in the animation industry. You might also be interested in working in the games industry for a development studio in a similar capacity as a layout TD, but for games cinematics. You could also look at being a technical artist, graphics programmer or another kind of programmer in the games industry.