This article is primarily for professionals who are already working in the visual effects business.
If you’re just starting out make sure to read the post on Career in Visual Effects and Visual Effects Schools. Is this the right career for you, do you have a specific area you’re focused on and have you learned enough to be able to do high quality work in a reasonable amount of time without having step by step instructions?
Here are some of the positions in visual effects - Visual Effects Positions
If you’re exploring visual effects then take a look at job listings to get an idea of the different jobs and requirements. That should give you a guide for what you need to strive for if those are the types of jobs you want to work on. Also be sure to check their locations so you know where in the world the job postings are coming from. Do NOT become focused on the pay. If that’s what you’re focused on you should just move onto another career. While the pay for visual effects is good you have to normalize if you want to compare it in any meaningful way to other jobs. You will be working longer hours, may only be employed half the year and may or may not get any benefits (including health care) or overtime pay.
Companies don’t tend to hire year round. They typically hire when they have been awarded a project and need additional people to complete the project. Remember that most visual effects work tends to be project to project freelance.
The order of hiring:
1. People already working at a visual effects company are retained to work on the new project
2. People who have worked at the visual effects company in the past (and were good) who have been laid off between projects are rehired.
3. People who are professionals with experience who have been recommend by someone at the company.
4. People who are professionals with experience.
5. People who have the knowledge but still have yet to get the experience.
Occasionally companies may hire people with no knowledge of visual effects but these are likely for non-visual effects related work, production assisting or for rudimentary work when they need people quickly and are willing to bring people up to speed with just enough knowledge to do the specific task.
Basic tips for getting work
There are no secret handshakes or magic words to getting jobs in this industry.
1. Do great work. Know the principles, know your tools and be able to do your work in a timely manner. See What Makes a Good Visual Effect Artist post. This will be one of the key determinates whether the company hires you for their next projects and how likely others you meet at the company will recommend you.
2. Create a great reel. Reels are covered in the Career post. You make a short (3-5 minutes max) DVD of your work, typically with before and afters. You also will want to post your reel somewhere on the internet where you can direct potential employers to. Note that if it’s only in Flash format then it own’t be viewable on iPads and some other devices.
I shouldn’t have to say this but do NOT put work by others on your reel and pass it off as your own. Evidently this is becoming more common. I once worked on an emergency project that required scrapping all the temp work from the previous company and doing all the shots from scratch. Months later someone came in with a reel using the shots they didn’t actually work on. Needless to say they weren’t hired.
3. Create a CV or resume listing your job title, credits (latest first) with specifics of what job did. List the software and Operating Systems you have experience with and what level you are. Do NOT put down expert if you’ve only watched a 10 minute YouTube clip. List any related skills (Python programming, rigging, etc) List information such as schooling if it relates to visual effects. Once again make sure this is accurate. Do NOT take credit for work that you did not do.
4. Be a team player. You’ll be working long hours next to your co-workers and have to interact with them, supervisors and various production people. If you do great work AND are pleasant to work with then your co-workers are likely to recommend you for future projects where they’ve been asked to provide names of people to hire.
Keep in mind that production assistant or roto artist today may be your potential boss tomorrow.
5. Network. Not schmoozing type of networking but it’s good to keep in touch with people or at least keep their phone #s and email handy. If you get hired on a project and the company asks for recommendations you can provide some. Likewise you can let others know when you’re finishing a project so they might be able to keep you in mind if they hear of anything. With things like LinkedIn, Facebook and other internet communication it’s much easier now to keep up with people. LinkedIn and Yahoo and others have various visual effects groups specific to areas, software, companies, etc. The Visual Effects Society is a potential way to network with new people as well as the various visual effects forums and websites. Keep in mind that networking won’t help if you do poor work.
6. Read the job posting in detail. Make sure you understand what they’re looking for. They may have specific requests in terms of CV or DVDs, etc. Check the requirements for submitting work or contacting them. If you can’t follow basic instructions for job submissions then they’ll worry how well you’ll follow other instructions.
If you’re in one job position now and wish to do something else then you’re going to have learn the tools on your own and create some demo material to show that you can accomplish this new job position.
How NOT to get hired (or avoided next time they hire)
1. Do the opposite of all of the above. Do mediocre work, take much longer to do the work than others, require someone to help you through every step and be irritating to everyone.
2. Constantly send email or make phone calls to companies
3. Constantly send email or make phone calls to crew members, supervisors or producers. This applies to all the social media and websites as well. If they don’t know you and have not worked with you on a project then it’s unlikely they can really recommend you. If they know you then let them know but no need to remind them every other day.
4. When there is a name actor or director in your radius (visiting the company, on stage or location, etc) drop what you’re doing and go running through the halls screaming their name and requesting that they autograph a body part for you with your marker.
5. Ignore all the notes from the director and supervisor.
6. Post pictures, story lines and other information about the current show you’re working on.
Looking for Work
I won’t be listing all the visual effects companies here because there are a huge number of them with more opening or closing monthly. I’m sure I’d miss some anyway. The VES (Visual Effects Society) has a database of visual effects companies their forum site. If you’re a member check there.
The movies will have company credits, IMDB.com has company credits and Cinefex and other magazines will list credits of companies as well. All visual effects companies now have websites. Search through those for information about the company, projects and their job listing area. Many companies have twitter accounts so it’s worth following to see if they post new job openings.
Other areas to find visual effects jobs
There are now a number of visual effects job posting sites. Many have twitter accounts to see new postings.
Some of these include: (in no particular order)
Search the internet for others. Go ahead and post comments with links to additional sites or sources.
Sometimes people previously employed by a company or on a specific project may have newsletters, email lists or groups.
The VES has a job fair every June (they just had one a couple of weeks ago in 3 different cities around the world)
SIGGRAPH is a computer graphics conference in North America. The next one is in LA in August.
There are various other animation, visual effects and computer graphics conferences around the world. Check the companies you’re interested in and see if they will be attending any near you.
Find out the companies near where you live. That’s certainly the easiest way to start.
Feel free to submit your info to multiple companies at the same time. You can submit even to companies not looking for people but some companies may simply toss the material if they’re not hiring or they may ignore it when hiring starts up.
Do some basic research on the company. Know what projects they’ve done, what they specialize in, etc. Check with any friends that may have worked there to get some idea how it works and how it is as a company. Note that some companies change a lot with changes in management or the workers currently employed so a company may become better or worse than a few years ago.
Find out what type of benefits they offer. How much overtime do they put in and do they pay overtime? What type of credit would you get on the project, if any? What is the actual pay rate and how is that computed? Which project is this for (they may not be able to tell you early on)? Be very clear with them about the actual job duties and description. There’s no locked job title definitions so you have to confirm details. There’s nothing wrong with doing composite work on 2D to 3D conversion projects but the company should be forthright about it and make that clear. Likewise animating spaceships is a different thing than animating a character.
There are at least a couple of sites where workers can rate their companies. You might check there as well for research. Take any of these with a grain of salt because one person may have had a bad experience out of hundreds.
Tend to be more structured with more management, department heads, etc.
Tend to work on more projects at the same time.
Tend to work on larger and more tentpole type of pictures.
Tend to work on more shots at a time.
Artists are more likely specialized.
Likely has more of an R&D departments and support staff.
Larger render farms.
Have Human Resources departments
More likely to have health care and other benefits
More likely to have a training department or person.
More people working at the company means more connections.
More projects may mean more likelihood to move to another project when finished on current one.
More likely to have more skilled and experienced people that may be able to do some mentoring.
May have minimal management
More interaction with the key personnel at the company
Will take on small projects and smaller number of shots.
May specialize in a specific area (roto, wire removal, titles, etc)
Artists may do multiple tasks on a shot
Less support team and R&D people
Smaller company means you actually know people more and are likely exposed to everyone at the company unlike a large company that may be spread over multiple building and floors and be broken into departments.
Each has their strengths and weaknesses. How fun a place is or how well organized a company is depends more on the people than the actual size of the company. Both types will lay people off between projects and both types will likely suffer from some politics and inept management at times. Cream may float to the top but management sometimes does so in reverse.
Most of the time you don’t get a choice. It's not like someone offers you all the big visual effects projects for the next year and you get a choice. There’s a job open at company X and they’re currently taking applications. If you pass it by it could be tomorrow or 6 months from now before another opening is available in the area you want for the position you want. Only you can consider the various tradeoffs. Some companies are large or more prestigious. Some may work on more interesting projects or larger and well known projects. You may like to work with smaller teams on less time driven projects. You may prefer to work in multiple areas rather than specialize. It’s your call. What projects do you want to work on? What will be better for your resume? Which do you want your name on and to say you worked on that? You may not get much of a choice but you can be as selective as you want to be as long as your money holds out.
Most visual effects companies are located in large cities but you may actually be happier working at a company outside a big city. Spending more time with the family and less commuting is certainly nice and smaller cities tend to cost less, especially for housing.
In the end make sure you get whatever the company reps say in writing. Please see the VFX Deal Memo post and certainly try to get a deal memo with the company if they’re hiring you. Best to know going in what the arrangement is. Be clear on the time commitment of the company and yourself and what the penalties are. Even if they offer a contract, many contracts are lopsided. One company may require you to sign a 3 year contract but they themselves are only committed to a year long contract. I’ve also seen large companies break contracts. As an individual can you afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight a company with full legal counsel and deep pockets?
Be very leery of internships and contractor positions. Unpaid internships for productive work is illegal in the U.S. and working as a independent contractor is illegal for most vfx positions according to the definition of the IRS. Be sure where ever you are the company and you are following the laws and regulations.
Visual effects is now a global industry and because of tax incentives work may be in a different country or state than where you currently live. The VES Business group has been putting together info on details of the various countries but I don’t know where that currently is. For now you’ll have to do your own research even if you’re simply moving to another state or city.
Before you move
Do you have a job offer already or are you simply hoping to move to an area and get hired? If you have a job offer make sure you have a clear deal memo before moving. What if they cancel the project right after you move? Do they cover any moving expenses? Travel expenses? Housing? These types of expenses can eat up most of your income if you’re not careful.
Be very careful. Obviously it’s very expensive to move and could be quite costly if things don’t go as planned. Some countries have very strict employment limits that require work visas, permits or other legal documents. Without official paperwork you may not be able to work at all or may be very limited for time. The country or state provides tax incentives to the producers that may not kick in for them unless you’re a full citizen or have lived there a certain amount of time. That means that some companies may be more reluctant to hire you if you don’t meet those qualifications in addition to the creative and technical qualifications.
- What about your family? Are you moving your family as well? Do you have to take children out of school and get them enrolled in a another school? Will your spouse have to quit their job and find a new one at the new location? Is this a ‘permanent’ or temp move?
- Whenever you move you have to consider where you want to live and how long the commute is. You might find a nice place but if the commute is 2 hrs for one way that will be too much for long days. If there’s no ‘nice’ areas around where the company is or no affordable areas you’ll have to do some research.
- Consider the cost of living and housing. The salary may sound good but if you’re moving to a place where the housing is 50% higher then that could be a problem. If you’re begin brought in at the last moment or working crazy overtime you may not have time to look for an apartment to rent. You may have to get a hotel room at a higher cost. Will you be there long enough to cover a 1 year rent? Are you sure? Or will you need to rent month by month? What about utilities, cable tv, telephone, etc? Can those be month by month? How long do they take to setup? How are you shipping or moving your belongings? Are you keeping a place where you currently live and this is a temp project?
[ Here's a handy site pointed out by a vfxsolder.com commenter Expatisian ]
- What about health care? If you’re moving to the U.S. be aware there is no national health care. As in none. And be aware we have some of the highest medical expenses in the world. If you have an emergency and have to go to the emergency room you may have to wait hours to see someone. One night in the hospital may cost over $20,000. Health insurance may range from $250 to over $2000 a month depending on preexisting conditions, family coverage, etc. Does the new job offer any health care? How long does it take to kick in? Most U.S. insurance takes at least 3 months before you’re covered so you will have to buy your own for 3 months. Once your employment stops you will likely have to go on Cobra (independent health insurance at high rates) and you’ll have to go through the waiting period again once you start at another company.
- If you’re from the U.S. moving to another country then you will have to research the health care requirements there. You may have to sign up for special health insurance. When does that start up?
- What about taxes? When you move to another state or country there will be tax changes. You may have to get a tax wavier or you may have to pay a specialized tax accountant a fair bit of money to sort out the details of working out of the country or splitting your time. Sometimes the tax kicks in after you have been there so many days so you have to either complete the project within that time or take that into account. The tax rates may be much different than you currently pay. If it’s like most things it will be higher where you’re traveling to. Keep that in mind when you consider the pay rate as well. Are there any other special taxes or other costs that will be incurred? Even moving to Los Angeles county if you’re an independent contractor or loan out company you have to submit a number of forms and potentially pay special taxes.
- What about cell phone service? What about a car? License? Registration? What about transferring money? Bank accounts? etc. All this can get very complicated very quickly so be sure to do your homework. That's why having made friends of co-workers who may now be living in the country can be very useful.
[Update: 11/6/2012 Please make sure to have HR provide you all the paperwork for your Health Care Coverage before you sign your deal memo. Check for maternity, pre-existing conditions, exclusions, vision care, disability, etc. so you understand what is included and what isn't. Check on cost of options to get more coverage if you wish.
Here's a sad example of the fine details: Lucasfilm Employee Terminated After Tending To Pregnant Wife
More tips there from users in the comments related to working in other countries. ]
Learn from any company you’re at. They likely have a different way of approaching the work. Glean the better parts. Try to learn from others at the company, especially those more experienced or experts in specific areas. Consider areas that you could learn that would make you more useful and more efficient at what you’re doing. A Nuke compositor may want to learn Python or an animator want to learn more about rigging. Keep learning. Buy books, DVDs, etc. Keep up to date on new developments. VFX Guide has podcasts and there are other sites with information. Cinefex covers visual effects as a magazine and Animation World covers animation and visual effects. There are also plenty of visual effects related links on the right side of this blog to explore.
Having multiple strengths and some variety in your background may make you more valuable to companies looking for people, especially if they can shift you to different departments or if they need another hand for a short time in another area.
If you’re working in one position for a longer period of time (you’re on staff or some equivalent) and you wish to move up make sure you’re actually qualified for the next position or other position if it’s in a different area. Make sure to let management know. Management may have no idea. Sometimes management would prefer to hire someone else from the outside for a newer, higher position if you’re doing a good job in your current position. If you’re in a job for a real length of time they should do a review with you so you should be clear about what you think you’re bringing to the company.
Be very careful about moving up. There are tradeoffs to be made. As you move up you may be paid more but may be doing much more management and meetings and much less hands on work that you may currently enjoy. Also be aware as you move higher there are less positions at your company and other companies. There’s likely just one CG supervisor on a project at the company. There’s likely just one CG department head at the company. That means if that position is currently filled you won’t be able to move up until it’s vacated or you’ve switched companies. If you’re looking for work the higher the level the less likely you’ll find a job listings. As an example a company may have 40 animators but just one animation supervisor. So what seems like an increase in salary may not mean much if you’re employed less. Companies tend to avoid people they feel may be too qualified so if you a composite supervisor and willing to work as a compositor to get work, the company may opt for someone else because you’ve had higher level experience. They may think you’d be frustrated.
This also brings up the same issue as covered in the VFX Deal Memo post. Make sure your job title and description are correct. If you’re at a large company then there will likely be quite a few potential candidates for higher level jobs within the company and so you’d have to be highly qualified. With a much smaller company you may be able to be promoted much faster but that may not be a good thing. If the company only has 3 animators they have to assign someone as the animation supervisor and that someone could be you. But if you don’t really have the experience or knowledge to be the supervisor it could be problematic there and could be a real problem if you try to get a job as an animation supervisor at a larger company. Just be aware of the tradeoffs and make sure you consider it.
Where ever you work, take some time at least every year to re-evaluate where you are and what you're doing. Are you having fun? Is this what you want to do? Is where you thought you'd be at this time? It's easy to get into a rut of one project after another and have a few years pass by before looking up. Look up from your desk and consider the possibilities.
VFX Deal Memos
Visual Effects Positions
What to do when you're laid off
Career in Visual Effects
Visual Effects Schools
How to land a job at Pixar