Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What makes a good visual effects artist?

For those just starting out:
VFX Career
VFX Schools
Visual Effects Positions
Getting a Visual Effects Job

First off of course are all the standard things that any good worker would be doing (being on time for work, etc)

The following are some characteristics that are useful for the visual effects artist.  Many of these overlap and at times some may seem to be at odds with one another. The type of project, the company you work for and your supervisor/producer will tend to determine the correct balance.

Knowledge and attitude are two key areas.  When a supervisor or lead turns over a task to an artist they want it to be done well in a reasonable amount of time without a lot of hand holding or drama.

Visual effects time is precious.  Saving time and avoiding wasting time can mean a profitable and more enjoyable project.  Obviously we can’t control things outside our control but the artist can play a role in doing it as efficiently as possible.  Avoiding common errors is a big time saver and allows you to focus on the true needs of the shot.

Art of Seeing
Visual effects deals with visuals so learning to look at things and study them is a basic requirement. Study paintings, photographs and movies. Take photographs. Shoot video. See how composition works. See how light and color affects the mood and provides the sense of dimension. How timing of action and editing present the story. Study the look of reality. Study silent movies to see how the visual language works.  See how a single photograph can tell a story.  If you’re in school consider a basic art class.  Not only should this help you see but also being able to sketch a visual concept becomes very useful to help communicate ideas.

If you’re a roto artists this may seem a bit much but there’s still an art to seeing even with rotoscoping.  What frame is the most complex? Are the shapes moving smoothly? What areas should be grouped and segmented? Where should the points be placed? And if you shift into other areas of visual effects all of this will be of value to you.

Artistic Principles
Understand the artist principles of the areas you’re working in. If you’re an animator you should understand follow through, how to provide a sense of weight and character emotion with simple movement.  If you’re a compositor you should know color adjustments, how light wraps around an object, how much of a mist element to add to set the background in the distance. If you’re a lighter you should know light ratios, how to set mood and dramatic effect with lighting.

Technical Principles
Understanding the technical principles to the area you’re working in helps to accomplish the artistic principles. A compositor should know what linear color space is all about and what premult and unmult do. A lighter should understand the different types of CG lights and how different basic shaders work and look.  These fundamentals will be of value no matter what software you use and will allow you to get the most out of your software package.  They will also help you problem solve.

Know your tools
These days there are a lot of complex software tools.  Most artists learn and use multiple software tools over time.  Understanding the technical principles should have made this easier because you don’t want to become trapped into thinking “I have to click this and then that” in a particular package.  You want to know how to quickly setup a shot or project and what the tradeoffs are between different feature sets.  What are the different ways you can do the task at hand?  There may be multiple approaches even within the same software. Many times artists are only exposed to a limited range of software features due to the work at hand, tight schedules and new features. As time permits explore the other areas of the software so you don’t feel like you have to always fall back on the same approach. If you get an unusual shot or something isn’t working you’ll have other tool options that might work.

Speed itself isn’t of value if you don’t produce the correct results.  However as they say, time is money.  In visual effects, time is frequently worth even more than money; it’s worth time. Given limited schedules and hard deadlines it’s the thing you can’t get back and it’s very difficult to make up for any loss.  If you’re consistently slower than your co-workers at the same tasks then take a look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.  If you’re just starting out it may be a matter of experience but it’s worth seeing how others are doing the same thing. It’s not unusual to observe a wide range of time required to do the same task.  One artist may do something in a day and another artist takes a week to do the same thing.  Do you understand the task? Do you know the tools well enough? Are you making the task more complicated than it needs to be? Are you manipulating pixels beyond the point that’s necessary?  Know the quality level being targeted and what’s important to achieve.  Start with the broad strokes and refine t more and more detail. Finishing shots is a balancing act of time and quality.  At some point you have diminishing returns of what will show up on the screen

Take notes
When you go into dailies or meetings bring a notebook and pen (or laptop, ipad, etc)
Many people think they’ll remember what the supervisor covered in dailies but by the time you’re back at your desk dealing with multiple shots and an avalanche of emails it’s easy to forget the specifics of what was requested.  It’s like when a waitress takes orders without notes and then serves the wrong food and gets the special requests wrong.  If you do get something wrong because you forgot it then you’ve lost something even more valuable.  You’ve lost the overnight render and the chance for a real review in dailies.

Don’t rely on others to take notes and email them to you.  The time you lost waiting for those notes to arrive could have already been spent on the shot.

Keep notes at your desk of things you see that need to be done on your shots.  Once again these are things that could be easily forgotten or overlooked when you get that point.

In dailies it’s best to point out what you’ve done and what you’re still expecting to do, this allows the supervisor to know where you are on the shot.  Dailies are for discussing the work still to be done and how it might be done.  Getting constructive criticism is the point of dailies, it’s not meant as a personal attack on you.

Shot changes
If a change is requested by the director or supervisor then make a real change and certainly make it a visible change.  Changing a shot parameter so minutely that it’s impossible to see without a split screen is always a waste of time unless specifically requested.

Ask questions
If you have a turnover meeting or are in dailies, ask questions if you don’t understand what’s you’re being asked to do. Don’t go back to your workstations and guess. Make sure you’re clear at the turnover what you’re to do and what is being provided.  You should also find out what the schedule is for the shot and when you’re expected to show a first take.

Problem solving
Much of what a visual effects artist does involves problem solving of artistic or technical issues.  If you understand the artistic and technical fundamentals and know your tools you should be able to solve many of your own shot problems.  You should be somewhat self-sufficient. However, if there is a problem that doesn’t seem to be easily solved then consider talking to your lead or supervisor. Don’t spend a week trying to fix something that just required clarification or that might require a different task by a different artist.

When I ran an animation camera it was critical to have a checklist to make sure each frame was shot correctly. Were all the required cels in place, was the exposure set correct, were xy table setting correct, was the right filter in place? If you’re doing something that requires a number of steps then it’s worth considering having a checklist to make sure you didn’t forget something.  If you’re repeating the same steps a lot it’s very easy to miss a step, especially as time pressures mount. Did you actually do the step or are you just remembering doing it from a previous shot? A checklist will help avoid common errors.

Double-check your work. Before hitting the render button, especially for a long render, double-check your work. Before submitting the shot to your client, supervisor or passing an element on take a moment to play it back and review it.  Are you using the correct versions and takes? Are all the elements in and the parameters set correctly? If you’re doing match moving and missed something the shot may go through multiple hands and weeks before a critical detail is noticed. By then animation may have lost a lot of time and have to redo their work simply because you didn’t take the time to do a check of your own work.

Checking materials
When you start on a shot check the materials you’ve been provided.  Do they match the information you have?  Do the count sheets and the elements match in length?  If you were supposed to get a roto element and it’s not there, then please flag it to production.  Don’t sit at your desk waiting for it or the other approach of doing the roto yourself or requesting a different person in roto to do it.  By flagging it as missing production can follow up on what the issue is and determine what needs to be done. You may find it was already done and just hadn’t been copied to the directory yet.    Avoid losing time.

Try to keep your shot organized.  Build the shot in a logical and structured way.  This makes it easier if someone has to take it over at some point or if you yourself have to revisit a shot weeks or months later. Don’t forego that later by rushing in a lot of patches and work arounds.

Self review
It’s easy to get so focused on the details that you don’t take a moment to step back and look at the shot itself.  Is it heading in the right direction?  Are the basics of the shot working? Do all the shadows match in color, density and angle?  Are you so focused on getting the matte edges of the leaves working correctly that you’ve overlooked the alignment issues of the key elements?  Have you focused on a small secondary action when the creature is supposed to have already moved across the room?  Make sure you don’t overlook the obvious.

The objective is to build and hone what you’ve already been working on but sometimes you have to back up a bit to achieve what’s necessary. Don’t simply keep tossing in smoke and dust elements or adding more key frames if that’s going to make it more of a muddled mess..  You may have to rebuild part of the shot or have to remove other elements that may be working at cross-purposes.  Don’t add a grade node that darkens the shot and then follow that with a node that brightens the shot.   If you’re having problems ask for help from a co-worker, lead or supervisor.  You may not be seeing the forest through the trees. Sometimes a second eye is what’s needed.  What’s working about the shot? What’s not working?

Shot in context
It’s important to understand how the shot you’re working on fits in the sequence.  It’s also necessary to understand how the full shot works, both creatively and technically.  There may be an issue or there may be opportunity that could be addressed.  You may be able to leverage off of what’s already been learned for the sequence.

Keep it simple
Try to accomplish the shot as simply as possible.  There’s no prize for having the most key frames or the most layers.  Given the visual complexity of shots keeping it simple isn’t easy but avoid making it more complex and difficult than it needs to be.

When you start on a shot take a moment to plan how you will be approaching it.  What’s the best method? What will provide the best control and flexibility? What will provide the best results the quickest?

Taking changes in stride is a requirement in visual effects and has been before digital existed.  There may be a creative change from the director that results in the finaled shot you spent weeks working on being omitted or require it to be redone from scratch.  There may be technical issues that require a different pipeline structure or software to be used. The vfx company may require shuffling your desk to somewhere else.  You have to be able to roll with these changes.  If any and every change is going to make you angry then vfx is not for you.  Flexibility is the operative word.

Team Work
As with most of filmmaking, visual effects requires teamwork. Many artists work by themselves for hours at their desk but they each play a role with a whole team of people. You may be working on just one aspect of a shot while people are working on other aspects.  You may be getting prep work from someone and then passing your work on to someone else as the shot makes it’s way to being a final shot.  All of this interaction means you have to play and work well with others. The work itself is hard enough without someone in the process making it difficult for everyone.  Don’t be a co-worker that others avoid being paired with.

Artists should be somewhat self-sufficient (and still team members). How much freedom you have and how far you take it is dependent on the vfx company and the situation.  If you need a simple still garbage matte then it’s probably better to just go ahead and create it yourself. That’s more efficient than having to request it from the roto department and then waiting for it. If you need a dozen detailed rotos though it’s best to check with production since that will take a fair amount of your time or someone in roto to spend the time to do.  Having someone who rotos all the time will probably produce better results in less time. Your time may be better spent on other shots.

If you see the need to add a smoke element or put in a secondary animation move then it may be worth doing, especially if it’s not time consuming and will make the shot better. On the other hand you shouldn’t take the shot through completion without having a dailies review.  More than likely a work in progress has to be reviewed by the supervisor and director.  It’s usually very helpful for the director to cut in a work in progress.  There’s little point in polishing and finishing the shot if the director discovers it’s not working in the sequence for some reason or requires a major change.

Should you run out of work or find yourself waiting for other material flag production.  They can probably put you on another shot or they may have to try to expedient whatever you’re waiting on.  They certainly won’t be happy to learn that you’ve been sitting idle for 3 days without letting them know.

Don’t constantly complain
When a shot is first turned over you can voice your concern about the difficulty or about how it might have been shot but don’t bring this up at every single review. The elements are what they are at that point.  Chances are the live action plates were the best that could be shot under the circumstances.  If you have some real solutions to offer then voice those but simply complaining on and on does nothing to help the situation. It only makes it more annoying to others.  See the note about teamwork.

Now if you actually need help or feel the difficulty is beyond your current abilities then simply state that to your lead or supervisor. Flailing away at the shot without knowing how to do it doesn’t help you or the production. “Fake it tell you make it’ is a not phrase you want to use in visual effects.

Know the workflow of your position at the company you’re at. What’s the process?  Know the pipeline, directory structure and naming conventions.  Ignoring these and trying to blaze new paths is unlikely to be useful for anyone.  Know the lines of authority.  What types of problems should you bring up to the vfx producer? Does everything go through your lead? Are you to go to another department directly if you have something that needs to be done or is the smallest thing supposed to go through production?  These boundaries will vary depending on the company and the project.

Communication is a major tool to avoid waste.  You need to be able to be clear and straightforward with issues as they develop. You may require the supervisor to come to your desk to show a problem or question.  Make sure to prep so you can show the problem clearly and quickly. At times you may need to run a test example or to capture a still.  Since we’re dealing with visuals all of these help the communication process and if you can do simple sketches so much the better.

Learn from each shot you work on. Learn from your mistakes.  If you’ve done a similar shot recently then take that opportunity to know how to approach this new shot.  If a co-worker or lead shows you a tip or how to do something, write it down and learn from it.  Don’t simply treat each shot as a whole new thing that requires you to relearn from scratch.

If your company offers training in areas of interest or value to you then see about taking them if time permits.  Even if it’s not directly related to what you’re currently doing, expanding your horizons is likely to help both you and the company in the future.

Take pride in the work you do. You and the others working on a shot are creating various visuals that will need to be combined and blended to accomplish what is required for a film, tv series or commercial. This takes both creative and technical talent. If you do the job correctly and with the amount of care required you’ll be able to take pride in what you’ve accomplished.  Your name may be in the credits and the work itself may be viewable for years so know that you’ve done your best with what you had in the time provided.  If your approach is to shove through as much work as possible without quality, visual effects is not for you.

Many steps in visual effects take time and focus. Time to set key frames. Time to roto. Time to render. Time for feedback. You want to work efficiently and try to work on something else if your waiting for a render. But in then end you need to have patience to do time consuming detail work and at times you will have to wait. If you're an impatient person then visual effects may not be right for you.

Don't blame your tools (or elements)
One old saying is a "It's a poor worker who blames his tools." In this day and age it's certainly possible there is a software bug or other issue that causes a problem. But before jumping to that conclusion and using that as an excuse for any and all problems, make sure it's not your own fault. It's certainly easy to forget that a blur filter had been added at one point and to blame the original element for being soft or to not render the right frames with the right settings. It can be difficult to admit that it was a mistake but the sooner you pinpoint the actual problem and resolve to avoid in the future the better. This relates to the double check and problem solving points.

Sense of humor
Given the amount of pressure at times and complexities of the work having a sense of humor is a must.  There will be times the absurdity of a situation could be overwhelming if you don’t have the ability to shake your head and laugh.

[Update 12/5/2012 Here's a guide for compositors. There are probably similar things on the internet for other areas ]

For those just starting out:
VFX Career
VFX Schools
Visual Effects Positions
Getting a Visual Effects Job

Here's a PDF from someone else to give a broader perspective CG101


  1. Reading this blog is almost depressing in a way - had I been taught these principles in film school back in '99, I would have been much better primed for the industry. Instead, I was thrown to the lions and had to learn through my countless mistakes.

    You sir, need to start a film school!

  2. Great post Scott. Even for veterans it is a veritable checklist of the 'right things', it will definitely make you a 'good' visual effects artists.

    Unfortunately though if you want to be one of the 'best' you'll need spades of talent, something that doesn't grow on trees or can be learned. Remember that we are in a creative craft and raw creativity sets apart the good competent artists from the brilliant talented ones.

  3. Great post. useful information.

  4. This knowledge and workflow mentioned in here can be easily applied to other disciplines as well. were the end product is intensive in visual.

    Great article.
    Tagged to delicious.com

  5. what a great post.... and everything is true...

  6. Thank Q for this post a good one it will help me when i start learning vfx and if u have time pls tell the easy way to learn vfx or simple things which will help me in my learning

  7. I already work in Post (Broadcast rather than Film) - but your clear enthusiasm, spot-on recommendations and "too-true" observations has given me a welcome boost to be the best I can be in this field. Thank you. Like Dennis mentioned - I wish I'd had this kind of advice in the 1990's.

  8. Hi Scott,

    I am very impressed by the thought & time you put in to your detailed posts! Impressive!

    I was wondering if you could check out my friend's VFX video & tell me your thoughts on it? The good & bad things you have to say about it.


    Thank you so much! Blessings! :)

  9. Great article !
    Thank you so much!

  10. I pondered to myself recently what were the most important things in my life. The answer seems to be clear that art was up there in importance. Why? Frankly, I don't really know. May be someone here can enlighten me?
    As was my wont w
    hen I have some free time, I browsed the marvelous site, wahooart.com, where they keep thousands of digital images for customers to select to have printed into handsome canvas prints for their homes.
    This image jumped out to jolt my reveries: Still life with bread, by the Cubist Georges Braque. Is art like this picture, as essential as bread and water, or should I say bread and wine?

  11. Sir, I can clearly see that you are very experienced in This Field. I'm an Indian and i'm currently in my 12th grade. I always wanted to grow up into a VFX artist. I ahve a lot of passion for it and already know li'l Vegas, after effects and photoshop. I'm ready to work long hours.I wanna know how it pays (like the minimum wager) and what is the best school to opt to get employed by very good companies that do VFX. I dream of being in the film industry (Hollywood) doing VFX. I just wanna know which school to apply to (I'm ready to go out of India to USA or UK). I just wanna do what i love to do and get paid decently. Please do provide me with good answers. If the enrolling fee is too expensive and won't pay much in the end, I'll have to be satisfied being somebody else. P Lease do let me know if ether are scholarships too.

    Thanks in Advance.


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