Building your portfolio, to gain experience and knowledge of imaging software and develop your eye for composition, is essential when starting a career in visual effects (VFX) art
VFX artists create photoreal, digitally-generated imagery. The role requires the seamless integration of these effects into live action in feature films, television and, increasingly, online and console gaming.
VFX artists use the latest technology to produce computer-generated creatures, crowds and stunt doubles. There is also the growing area of digital particle effects, which includes fluid and fire, as well as object and lighting manipulation.
You need to make the viewer believe that what they are seeing is real. This could be a dragon, a fairytale castle, a rain storm, a big wave, spaceships, superheroes, alien cities or entire planets.
Types of VFX artist roles
There are a range of different job titles, which can be confusing. In terms of artist roles, the structure of the VFX process (pipeline) is split into 2D compositing and 3D creating computer-generated imagery (CGI) elements. The main titles that you might come across include:
- compositing artist
- effects (FX) technical director (TD)
- FX animator
- multimedia artist
- VFX artist
- VFX supervisor.
VFX are taken care of during post-production. As a VFX artist, you'll need to:
- create high quality, performant visuals within budgets
- be dependable and able to hit your deadlines
- conceptualise, design and create cutting-edge special effects, including particle effects, dynamic simulations and shader effects
- be able to take direction and feedback well from composite leads and VFX supervisors
- work with producer, lead artists and supervisors to track and manage the workflow through the departments
- organise dailies, rounds and meetings, taking notes and following up on information as necessary
- communicate information quickly and succinctly to crew and other departments in person as well as via email
- maintain an accurate summary of progress from the previous day's work by artists
- oversee the execution of client deliveries of all temps and finals
- manage edits along with the editorial department
- have a methodical and thorough approach to work
- be able to work with a minimum of supervision
- be able to remain calm and confident in a fast-paced environment.
The VFX industry is mainly made up of freelancers and fixed-term contracts. A common way to enter this industry, especially within film, is as a runner.
- A runner earns between £15,000 and £17,000.
- The average salary for a visual effects artists with one to three years of experience in the industry is £27,000.
- A mid-level artist with three to seven years' experience can expect to earn in the region of £38,000.
- Senior VFX artists with over seven years' experience earn an average of £54,000.
Working hours can be long, especially with looming deadlines, clients changing their requirements and unexpected problems requiring immediate attention. A typical day may start at 9am but finish anytime between 6.30pm and 4am. It's not unusual to work late or the occasional weekend as deadlines approach.
What to expect
- Most VFX studios have a fairly laid back environment. The quality of the work you produce is more important than what you wear.
- VFX tends to be a fairly social industry. There are excellent opportunities to build your network by mixing with other staff at social events. You may be invited to sports competitions, social clubs and the occasional celebration, wrap party or launch event, depending on where you work.
- You must be able to accept criticism as a request for something to be changed rather than anything personal. Use any criticism you receive as an opportunity for self-development.
- You may need to attend daily progress meetings to keep the team up to date. You will need to explain what you have done and what your plan is - just tell it like it is.
It's possible to enter this career without a degree but the majority of new entrants have studied at higher education level to achieve an HND or a degree. If you haven't studied a course which includes VFX but have studied at university or college subjects such as media, media production, media technology, graphic design or photography, it's possible to start as a runner and work your way up.
Relevant subjects include:
- art, including animation, design, illustration, painting, drawing or photography
- science, especially physics, computer science or engineering
- visual effects.
It's essential to build a portfolio or showreel. Your showreel should display quality over quantity, as recruiters will notice where shots are refined meticulously, and must be accessible through a webpage or other digital media to be considered.
You'll need to have:
- the ability to create and implement high quality VFX
- excellent visual awareness and artistic ability
- excellent interpersonal skills
- lateral thinking skills
- enthusiasm to learn and develop professionally
- knowledge of Houdini and Maya to create 3D animations
- good communication and organisational skills
- the ability to work as part of a team as well as alone
- the ability to follow production methodologies and develop creative approaches to problem solving
- an eye for details, good sense of timing, and thorough understanding of techniques and technologies relating to physical simulation in computer graphics
- a solid understanding of the compositing process
- strong understanding of Linux/Unix based computer operating systems
- ability to undertake blue/green screen extractions using Photoshop or similar
- seamless integration of live action, miniature and CGI sources
- photographic skills, including an understanding of depth of field, shutter speed, aperture, composition and framing
- the ability to interpret feedback and use your artistic eye to make improvements
- knowledge of Nuke, which is the industry standard for VFX compositing. After Effects is used in Motion Graphics and some animation compositing. Flame, Smoke and Nuke Studio are used to combine compositing with on-lining, grading and finishing for short form and adverts
- skill in matchmoving, modelling, texturing, lighting, prep, roto and basic comp
- have a good eye for composition, colour, light and shadow
- strong Photoshop editing skills for creating texture effects for use with particle systems
- proficiency with 3D graphics, physics, ribbons, shaders and post process effects
- first-class time/project management skills and ability to prioritise conflicting tasks
- good knowledge of Microsoft Office packages (including Word, Excel and Project).
Despite undergoing a period of growth, VFX is still a competitive industry to get into. Any work experience that you can gain will be very useful - the best way to do this is through side projects while at college and university, and putting these into a showreel or portfolio.
Your initial aim is to get your foot in the door of a VFX company. It's not uncommon to start as a runner or an assistant, then try things out, such as shadowing artists, networking and applying for opportunities as they come up, while you work.
You could also apply to be a VFX trainee through ScreenSkills - Trainee Finder, which gives you hands-on experience in the industry and helps you build essential contacts for finding a job.
In the UK, you'll mainly find VFX work in Cardiff, Bristol, Belfast and London. The UK VFX industry is the largest in Europe and second biggest in the world. The film industry is primarily in London, but there are smaller indie firms in smaller towns and cities around the UK if you want to work in advertising.
A growth area for VFX is architecture. Architects need computer-generated images of the buildings they design, and this is done using VFX skills. However, it's most common to find VFX artists working in the games, advertising, film and television industries. The visual effects sector is young, but growing. With Netflix, Amazon and others creating new content, the demand for visual effects in media is increasing.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Shots Directory
- Little Black Book
- My First Job in Film - for careers advice and job listings
- Amiqus - for VFX opportunities in the games industry.
It's important to continually keep your skills and knowledge up to date and be self-motivated. Keep in touch with developments through magazines, internet forums, blogs, software documentation, company websites, Youtube and Vimeo, as well as computer graphics community site SIGGRAPH. ScreenSkills also offers a professional mentoring scheme to women in the industry with over seven years' experience, helping them to progress into senior roles.
Industry magazines include:
Progression within the VFX industry is usually dependent on the amount of time you've worked in the industry, as well as the number of credits you've earned on films, television programmes, adverts or games.
As you progress higher it's not unusual for your role to become more specialised, meaning you'd probably focus on one area rather than a broad range. It's fairly common for experienced VFX technical directors (TD) to move into pipeline and research and development roles. More senior VFX TDs can go on to become VFX supervisors.