Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Visual Effects Innovation


David Cohen made some interesting observations in his article 'Deadly dull vfx undermine the biz'.

It does seem odd for visual effects to be considered as a secondary player by Hollywood yet at the same time the entire success of movies is supposedly resting on our shoulders to innovate.

Visual Effects artists have always been innovators no matter what the technology. Crude cameras didn't stop Melies from creating incredible imagery. Visual effects artists were the first in the film business to embrace digital technologies and we've been working with them for over 25 years now.

As with any change in technology the first phase highlights the most visible advances. Visual effects artists continue to innovate, refine and develop their skills and tools. Visual effects are now more than capable of creating anything. The impossible is now possible.

It is said that 'necessity is the mother of invention'.  In the film world a great story with the need for compelling visuals is the mother of visual effects invention. Most of the 'Wow' visual effects that have been seen were driven by this need on specific projects. Great stories well told make the best use of visual effects and it is the thing that drives the wow factor. Technology and visual effects innovations alone can not carry a film.

We have removed the visual barriers to stories that can be told. Now the only limit for directors, writers, producers and the key creatives is their imaginations. Visual effects have incredible potential that has yet to be fully tapped. Visual effects artists, with their active imaginations and their knowledge, look forward to being creative collaborators with all filmmakers to help them bring their stories to the screen in the most powerful way possible.



I do agree with David regarding what's wrong with U.S. Businesses.

Here's another response:
Van Ling and Colin Campbell comment on Variety article

[Update: Had meant to include this link as well:
Mike Seymour wrote an Open letter response to David Cohen, Variety  ]

There have been a few other key postings the last couple of weeks on the internet that are based on ignorance of what we as visual effects artists do and what we achieve. I'll try to write up notes when time permits.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

What to do when you're laid off


@saldivar_vfx  on Twitter suggested a blog post on What do you do when your company closes

Being laid off is similar whether planned or not planned so I'll cover that here. I'll probably be doing another post regarding DD and some of the other recent closures in the near future.

Most jobs in the visual effects industry are project to project. That means there's a good chance you will be laid off after completing the current project. Many companies of course try to get projects in but it's difficult to get awarded projects, let alone projects that conform to a schedule.

Even staff positions, management and support positions may disappear without much notice. Please don't think you're immune from this because you've worked there x years or they're nice people. As we've seen many companies have closed or had to lay off hundreds of people due to a number of reasons.


If you're working for a reputable and established visual effects company they will usually give you an idea at the start how long you'll be needed. Usually they can give you a reasonable assessment of when they expect you'll be working till (i.e. April of next year). Schedules for visual effects tend to fluctuate a bit so they should be keeping you informed. If not, you need to be responsible and request an update from someone reliable in management as your deadline approaches.

The first task when you're winding down or hear that there will be layoffs is to confirm with someone from management. Rumors, gossip and pure assumptions is not something to base your status on.  In some cases you may be asked to stay longer to work on a new sequence or further changes. Best to be certain before jumping ship. A good company should tell you when something is up but many times management is overly optimistic and expect a big project or in some cases they have the rug pulled from them by production. Take info from management with a grain of salt and use your gut instincts as well.

If this is not a company closing then they may expect a new project in a few months time. Perhaps they actually have been awarded a project that won't start for several months. You'll have to determine how valid any of that is. Ultimately though you probably can't count too much on it for planning you're future.

Avoid burning bridges with the company and people there if it continues to operate. You may need to work there again in the future or someone there may become your new boss in the future.

Check to see if and when you will be getting your last payment. Once again if this is a reputable company with a standard layoff this shouldn't be a  problem. If this is a company closing that's another issue. Employees are the last in the line of creditors so if the company has filed for bankruptcy you may never see any moneys owed.

Hopefully you haven't continued to work at a company that has already missed paying the previous week or two. If the company you work for doesn't pay everyone one week then all of you need to go to management as a group and get it straightened out and get your payment now. If they miss a payment someone at the company messed up and you're taking the brunt of it and may find you're financing their company yourself. If you continue to work there for future promised money don't be surprised if it never happens. A union would prevent that type of thing. For more on this see my posting VFX Artists don't need to be taken advantage of

Check to see when your health care stops. (Assuming of course the the place you work for has health care) There may be a ramp down period or it may simply stop immediately. Previous to the new health care plan, Affordable Health Care Act, in the US you had 60 days to become enrolled in another health care program. After that it became much, much more difficult to get coverage. Yes, health insurance is expensive but not having health care is even more expensive. You could have an accident or medical problem with no warning so be sure to get coverage for you and your family as quickly as possible. Another issue that a union helps to resolve is getting continuous health care and pension.  If you worked as a union person for enough hours at a union company you would be covered by health insurance and that health insurance coverage would just continue at a new union shop. This avoids the issue of 3 months gap in insurance while you re-qualify at another company. Union health care also banks your hours so if you work a lot you'll have an even larger buffer of coverage time.

Talk to your friends at your current place of employment. They may have leads on jobs. They may already be scheduled on another project elsewhere. The flip side is they're likely to be scrambling as well and worried that there are only so many openings so may view you as competition.

If your company was closed or the layoffs were unplanned there there may be quite a few people at the same time looking for jobs so it's important to start immediately getting the word out and checking for jobs. If you're being laid off after a long, hard project then you may want to consider taking a short time off if possible but better to start the process even if you don't want to work immediately.

Update your resume if necessary. Update your reel if necessary (and time permits).

Ideally your resume and reel would be available online as well in hard copy forms. Consider having a simple website with your resume and video (links) and contact info. Having any or all of these online allows companies to check out your work quickly. Include IMDB links.

Evaluate your situation. Are you willing and able to move to another city? State? Country? For how long? Do you have a house, spouse, family, etc? No point in submitting to a company half way around the world if you wouldn't be willing to work on a project there.

Send out emails to your friends in the business. Just let them know you're available or will be available after x date. If this is a planned layoff let  them know a few weeks in advance. Remember if you've been good at what you do and work well with others they will likely remember and feel good about suggesting you to the company or project they're on. In many cases companies check first with their crews to see if they know people before putting the word out. And if you're being recommended by good people working there you're in a better position than a random resume coming in.

Go to visual effects company websites and check their job listings. You can get listings from the Visual Effects Society website if you're a member, IMDB, Cinefex, Google search, etc. Read the listings carefully and see if you qualify.  You can apply even if you don't match 100% of their criterial but realize it's less likely the further you are from their listing. Get all the information regarding where and who to contact, what format they want your information, etc.

Check the various visual effects job sites for potential jobs that match your position and qualifications.


VFXJobs
VFXJobHunt
VFX-Recruit
Smooth Devil
Creative Planet
Creative Heads
Creative Cow
Motionographer
LinkedIn

Keep track of all of the ones you're interested in with details. Note specific person who you might be in contact with, date you contacted them, how you contacted them, etc. This will avoid confusion later so you don't miss a company or send duplicate information.

Prioritize the jobs based on matches, location, company name, project types, length of project, wages, overtime coverage, etc.  Send out to any and all that fall within your acceptance criteria. Don't be too picky at this stage. Send out a batch of inquires based on the specifics of each job posting. Simultaneous submitting to multiple companies is fine.

Send word out via social media that you're available with link to your website or info. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, VES Forums, etc. are all possible avenues. Don't be ashamed since most jobs are project to project.

Most job postings are a 'we'll call you if needed' so you don't need to follow up to see if they got your email.

Get your information out there but don't pester people via email, twitter, Facebook, etc. by repeatedly sending the same message through the same channel.

Hopefully you'll get some responses and some interviews. Gather info about the company with a clear understanding of the types of projects and work they do.  They're looking for people who are good at what they do and eager to work on the company projects. Let them sell you on why you should work there and you need to sell yourself to them,  why they should hire you. This is a careful line so go easy on the hype. Don't  hurt yourself patting yourself on the back but also don't be afraid to mention what you've accomplished on the last project(s) and your strengths. Keep it factual. They don't want to hire a BS Artist, they want a visual effects artist.

Have a list of questions for them in any interview.  Confirm the basics as outlined in the job postings such as title and duties. You'll want to inquire regarding the wage rate, benefits, overtime situation (how much expected, is there overtime pay, etc) Is this a staff position or project position? When will this job start and when will it last until? How locked is the project they're discussing? It's not unusual for companies to be working on contracts well into the project. You have to determine how solid the company is.

If it requires moving then consider the housing and other costs associated with living there. Can you get the required visa or work permits (if in another country) and does the company handle that? Do they cover any moving expenses? Do they cover any travel or housing expenses? What are the tax implications? (You'll need to research on your own probably). Make sure you won't be losing money when it's all said and done.

Is there a guaranteed amount of work? If you're going to incur a number of expenses (such as to moving a long distance) or turning down other work you want some type of minimum amount of paid work guarantee if at all possible. Usually measured in weeks or months or some type of cancelation fee if the work never happens or is shorter than expected.

How many other visual effects companies are in the same city? If this is the only company in the area then you will have to expect moving when you're laid off.

Don't expect a response from all companies and don't expect that they'll respond quickly. They may have hundreds of applications to sift through. Most likely you will only hear from them if they're interested. (It would be nice if HR departments had their acts together and sent out notices once they made an evaluation.)

If you get a job offer you will have to evaluate it.   When a job offer comes in you have no way of knowing if this is the only one you'll be getting for a year. Or you may accept it only to get a better offer tomorrow from another company. Since you don't know it's best with any response to see when they need a response from you of yes or no. Ideally you'd be able to sleep on it to consider the details or longer to see if other options might be available. If possible you want to avoid grabbing the first one and then canceling right before you're to start or quitting soon after starting. You can quit if there is a real issue as  contract dictates but avoid burning bridges if possible. You never know who or where your jobs may come from.

A valid job offer is worth more than a promised 'sometime in the future' job offer.

Get all of this (details of employment, rate, guarantees, etc) in writing. See my post on Deal memos. Without a legal document from the company you have no official offer and could find yourself without an actual job. Feel free to take another job offer if the first company is unwilling to put it all in writing. Don't be suckered into 'potential' projects coming in. If the company has done their work correctly they too will have some type of memo of understanding if not a full contract with a studio and they should have a minimum requirement. You don't have to take the brunt of a companies poor negotiation or contract skills.  If a project you're hired for never materializes at the company that's not your fault.

Do not become distressed about being unable to get a response or offer right away. There are quite a few criteria that companies use to judge applicants and frequently choices are made out of your control.

Keep trying. The number of visual effects jobs available fluctuate quite a bit since there's a cycle when large projects are worked on and when   different types of positions are hired. So continue to check job availability and postings at least weekly. Sign up for twitter feeds from companies and visual effects job sites so you can be up to date on new jobs.

Consider reviewing your own criteria if prospects don't look good. You may have to widen the range of companies you're interested in working for, the locations you're willing to work at or be willing to step down a notch in positions for the next project. As you move higher and higher up visual effects positions there are less jobs available. Moving down a level may increase the number of jobs you could take.

Use the down time to improve yourself. Review the various job postings you've seen. Are there certain skills or software packages listed related to your position that you don't have? Would those improve your abilities of doing your job? If so it's likely it will also improve your chances of getting a job or help you to stand out from a stack of other resumes.  You may want to consider expanding your horizons to another position so you can work in multiple positions.
Most vendors have trial versions of their software and there may be online tutorials (free and paid) and books to learn from.

You may or may not qualify for unemployment benefits depending on the details of your employment and the various government agencies when you live and work.

When a company fails it emphasizes just how fragile the visual effects eco system is. It also shows just how little control an individual worker has. Even with a signed contract a company that folds may never live up to their obligations to an individual.
A union can't stop a company from going out of business but it can provide the workers at least some protections they don't have as individuals.

When you're hard at work on a visual effects project you are very focused on it to the exclusion of many other things. Use the down time to become reacquainted with your family.

Also use this time to consider your future and get educated on what's happening both in the industry and world. Is visual effects still a viable choice for you? Is there anything you can do to help the situation? Things like the Affordable Health Care Act, pension plans and corporate responsibility are many of the items being discussed here in the US. Be sure to vote in the national election or you may be in for a rude awaking the next time you're laid off.

[Update: Bank in Port St. Lucie is helping DD workers there after their quick closure. Not sure if outsiders can contribute. ]

Reference posts:
VFX Artists don't need to be taken advantage of 
VFX Deal Memo

Related posts:
Getting a Visual Effects job
What makes a good visual effects artist?
Visual Effects Union, Take 2

Other resources:
Check the right side of this blog under VFX Industry State of the Industry
vfxsoldier blog
vfx union

[Update: VFX union points out what the union could do in a situation like DD workers in florida were left stranded when they closed their doors. ]

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Visual Effects Positions


There are no standards for visual effects titles and positions. The VES has a long list of titles (available in the VES Handbook and on their website) but have no definitions currently.

I'll be listing some of the default practices but these will vary with companies and locations. Depending on the company structure and size they may be combining some of these roles and some may split them even finer.

The titles as laid out here are for feature film visual effects. Most apply to television and commercials as well. Animation companies tend to use some of these titles a bit differently. These also overlap the game industry as well although they will have somewhat different needs and titles.

There are a number of support people who are not unique to visual effects such as the IT department, mail department and other areas which exist at visual effects companies but I won’t be listing them here.

Before becoming too enamored with visual effects as a career please see this post regarding a career in visual effects.

A few general guidelines:
Some of these titles may have Junior or Senior designations added. Junior (i.e. Junior compositor) tends to imply someone still gaining experience in their area and senior tends to describe someone with experience who may be over seeing many others.

Associate is another term used to indicate involvement in the role but not necessarily the lead. Associate producer, associate supervisor, etc.

Assistant can apply to some of the titles as well.

The term 'Lead' is usually designated as someone who is overseeing a team of people involved in a specific aspect. Examples:  Lead Animator for the Horse Chase Sequence, Lead modeler for the Rocs, etc.  In the credits the specifics are usually dropped and just the Lead designation remains.

Supervisor is appended to some positions to designate supervision of that specific area and management of a crew or team of people. CG Supervisor, Composite Supervisor, etc. There are also Sequence Supervisors which relates to the Lead designation at some companies.

Generalist - Term sometimes used for visual effects person who covers a wide range of visual effects. Knowledgeable and experienced with different positions. Able to fill in for a number of positions as need be. This may also mean that the level of experience and talent isn’t as deep in a specific area. All depends on the usage.

Digital Artist or Digital Effects Artist – These are fairly generic titles and could mean anything. Sometimes used when companies want to clump a number of people together in credits or avoid conflicts.

There can be very defined departments with department managers. In a small company the department manager may also be a lead, hands on worker or supervisor. At some larger companies the department manager may strictly be a manager of their department and overseeing the general aspects of the artists in the department.

Some of the same positions may be filled in different departments. Example: Production Assistant for production, Production Assistant for motion capture, etc.

There can be many more positions than these (in many cases I've only listed the key position in the department but most departments are made up of a group of people doing a range of tasks) and there can be people who overlap or cover a range of these positions. It's all dependent on the project and company.

Companies may employ a number of people in many of these roles.  You could have 30+ animators on a project and a large company might be working on 3-6 projects at a time. And some of the positions are unique so there may only be one or a handful of people in that position at the company.

Tools
I'll list some of the basic training and software tools but this varies a lot as well. There's no standard to entry and many companies employ a mix of tools. There are number of software packages for most of these tasks so don’t take the tools I list as the only tools. I certainly don’t know what the units sold for each package. These aren't endorsements and software packages come and go over time. Some companies use software that has been discontinued. Some companies also employ there own proprietary in-house software that only exists at those companies.

Training
Some of the best training for most visual effects positions includes basic art and photography. For most of the jobs you don't have to be an expert artist in drawing and painting but should understand artistic principles and at least be able to make rough sketches to convey an idea. Understanding light and lighting are important and know the basics of filmmaking useful (camera motion, editing, etc).

Most of these jobs involve thinking visually. You need to develop your eye to judge images. You should be able to visualize the finished image and should be able to mentally run a scene back and forth in slow motion in your head. If you’re not a visual person then a visual effects career may not be the best match for you.

Most larger companies work on Linux or a Unix based systems but there are still a number of Windows and Mac based areas so some familiarity with all of these is helpful.

Some programming and computer science knowledge is very useful (Python, C, C++, Perl, etc) primarily for the more technical roles but this can be certainly of value to those even in the non-technical roles. Same with math.

Today you can gain a lot of hands on experience and knowledge on your own. Most software packages offer free trial versions (and/or low cost educational version). Video cameras and still cameras that shoot video are relatively inexpensive. The internet is full of tutorials from the vendors and others. There are quite a few books on visual effects including step by step tutorials. And there are a few visual effects schools online with classes for a fee.

Try to get exposure and some education in a number of positions. Example: Even if you’re planning to be a Technical Director, hands on roto and paint work is very useful to get perspective. Animation, compositing, lighting, rendering, etc are all areas as well that should be explored by all visual effects artists early in their training. It's possible you may find an area that is a better match for you.

Be very careful with for profit schools since their emphasis can be much more on their profits than your education.

Most job postings require a college education. How critical that requirement is dependent on the specific company and HR department at the company. Certainly the key aspects of knowledge can be obtained without a college degree but a college degree is likely to provide a broader knowledge base.


Be aware that some companies have their own proprietary software. As stated elsewhere on this blog you want to focus first in understanding the principles of the position you're focused on and then learn the software since the software will change overtime and from company to company. Knowing what menu item to select is much less useful than knowing what it’s doing. Learning the basic functions of a software package is relatively easy and fast but knowing what and why take much longer.

TIP: Do not under estimate how important actual experience is to learning the ins and outs of these positions. Although you’ve learned the basics of a program somewhere, the real process and pressure can be daunting. Even experienced people learn on each project and the field continues to change regarding both technology and creativity. It’s likely there will be new and different challenges on each project and you’ll be working with a wider variety of people. That’s why you see the x years of experience requirement listed on many visual effects job postings.

TIP: For any one interesting in a career in visual effects please read the job postings by the visual effects companies, especially the ones you would like to target. Every company now has a web site with job postings. There are also websites that specialize in job postings. Most job postings will go into more detail than I have here and provide more specifics. They'll indicate the specific software required at that company and the amount of experience required. That will help you determine what to focus on for your education. Realize that software and requirements change frequently so be sure to keep abreast of new postings from time to time. It's likely you will have to learn multiple apps that do the same thing if you wish to have a broader range of companies to apply to.

Wages
I won't be covering wages with these positions because there are no standards for these either. If wages are your main concern you should consider a different career. Wages tend to be good but your major driving force should be the work because you're going to spend so much time doing it.  Wage rates tend to be based on how much training, knowledge, skill, experience and talent is required for the particular job. How many others could do what you’ll be doing? How much responsibility and how many people will you be in charge further defines the wage issue.

Company Structure
Even this varies with companies. For most artists there is a lead who is providing guidance.  In some cases it may be the department head or a form of supervisor who will be guiding you. The visual effects supervisor reviews the shots in progress in dailies . CG Supervisor, Compositor Supervisor, etc. may be reviewing in dailies as well with the visual effects supervisor or may be doing incremental reviews. There may be separate dailies for animators with the animation supervisor.

Company Management
The positions listed are the hands on workers and artists. At any company there will be some management. In some companies there may be several layers of management. Those in management may or may not have hands on experience in visual effects and may or may not have business training. The quality of management varies as much or more than the quality of the artists.

CG is the abbreviation for Computer Graphics. CGI not used much within visual effects since image is redundant after graphics.

Positions

Visual Effects Production Department
The production department is required to bid and budget the work, oversee the production and make sure it's completed on time and on budget. This department will likely exist on the production side and also at each visual effects company.

Visual Effects Supervisor
Oversees the creative and technical aspects of visual effects for a film either working for the production or for a visual effects company. If they are working for a production then they will be reviewing most of the inprogress and all final submissions from the various companies along with the director.

The visual effects supervisor at a company will be reviewing the dailies at the company for the specific film project and will be dealing with the details, including interacting directly with most of the artists on the project at that company.

Training:  Great eye to determine what looks good and what looks real. Years of experience with most aspects of visual effects and wide knowledge of the different tasks and tradeoffs of the different methodologies. Ideally will have worked at a number of positions and have a lot of on set experience. Good management and people skills. Solid art and photography knowledge.

Tools: Laptop, notebook, measuring tape, inclinometer, tracking markers, etc.

Works with:  Director, cinematographer, production designer and other key creatives on the production in addition to most of the visual effects crew.

Visual Effects Producer
The visual effects producer is in charge of bidding, budgeting, scheduling, allocating resources and making sure the work gets done. This role is typically filled on the actual production and per project at visual effects companies. They manage the entire crew from a production standpoint. The production visual effects producer will be the one to send out and get bids from the companies.

The visual effects producer at the company will be dealing with creating the company bid and dealing with the specifics of the company schedule and resources.

Most large studios also have a visual effects producer/executive who oversees multiple films with visual effects. They hire the independent visual effects producer and visual effects supervisor for the productions and are key to selecting the companies that will get awarded the work.

Training:  Usually moves from Production assistant to Production coordinator to associate producer to producer but that varies. Experience is key here. Knowledge of the various steps and processes involved in visual effects. Requires a firm understanding of business and management. Does not require MBA but any business or management knowledge is useful.

Tools:  Word, Excel, Filemaker, Tactic, Shotgun, etc.

Works with:  Visual effects supervisor, Production coordinators, Production Assistants.

Production coordinator 
Handling secondary duties for the visual effects producer. Helping to gather information and making sure tasks are being completed by the various crew members. Takes notes at dailies and at meetings.

Training:  Usually started as a PA, gaining experience and knowledge of how the business operates.

Tools:  Word, Excel, Filemaker, Tactic, Shotgun, etc.

Works with:  Producer, visual effects supervisor, Production coordinators.  May be coordinator for specific department.

Production Asst  (PA)
Running errands, driving to pickup supplies, putting up storyboards, making copies of documents, getting status updates from crew members, misc work that needs to be done.

In the UK they have a position of Runner that overlaps this to some extent.

Can move into more creative and technical roles but only if they have the skills and knowledge to do so. Can be more likely to move up to coordinator.

Training:  Most training on the job and from experience. Common sense. Possibly car and driver license. Hard worker.

Tools:  Word, Excel, Filemaker, etc.

Works with:  Production coordinators, producer, visual effects supervisor. May be PA for specific department

Art Department

Art Director
Some visual effects companies have their own art departments. If they do then it’s likely an art director will be assigned per film. This person oversees the other artists and the development of the artwork.

Training:  Art school/classes. Active imagination. Very visually oriented. People skills.

Tools:  Photoshop, Painter, SketchUp, etc.

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor, production designer, animation supervisor  

Concept artists
Design, sketch, paint concepts based on the script and conversations with the director, visual effects supervisor, production designer and other key creative’s. This allows the director to refine their vision and provide images to use for communication and final design.

Usually hired directly by production (through art department) but may be supplied by visual effects company.

Frequently there are specialists - weapons, creatures, vehicles, landscapes, etc.

Training:  Art school/classes. Active imagination. Very visually oriented. Knowledgeable about specific area and able to draw from a number of inspirations.

Tools:  Photoshop, Painter, SketchUp, etc.

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor, production designer, animation supervisor (for creatures), makeup artist (for creatures)

Storyboard artist
Works with director to illustrate sequences for the film. Usually more complex scenes with stunts, special effects, visual effects but can be used to flesh out concepts or to help sell the studio. May be used as a starting point for the previs artists.

Training:   Art school/classes. Figure drawing a must. Cinematography (lens choice, composition, camera moves, etc), editing. 

Tools:  Pencil, pen, paper usually. Photoshop, scanner, etc.

Works with:  Director. Also likely to work with cinematographer, stunt coordinator, visual effects supervisor and 2nd unit director.

Previs department
Works with the director to create preliminary or concept 3D version of sequences, especially complex sequences with stunts, practical effects and visual effects. These help to provide better communication of the what the final sequence should be like. Previs is also used at times to help sell a movie concept to the studio (pitchvis) and to do quick mockups in post of new ideas (postvis)

Critical to make the previs relate to the real world it will be filmed in. (i.e. accurate modeling of the set and camera, avoiding flying the CG camera 10 feet into the ground since the real camera can’t, etc)

Previs may be done by a Previs company hired by production, a team of freelance previs artists or a department at a visual effects company.

Previs Artist
Training:  3D software, animation, cinematography (lens choice, composition, camera moves, etc), editing. Compositing also good.

Tools:  Maya, 3D Studio Max, MotionBuilder, Softimage XSI, Lightwave, etc.


Works with:  Director and ideally the cinematographer, visual effects supervisor, stunt coordinator and other key creative’s.

Plate supervisor
Oversees the filming of visual effects shots and makes sure they are shot correctly along with obtaining the necessary info. A visual effects supervisor usually handles this but schedules and volume of work may require a plate supervisor. Plate supervisor is usually a visual effects supervisor hired for a limited role of overseeing some of the live action photography.

Training:  Visual effects supervisor, on set experience, data collecting

Tools:  Laptop, notebook, measuring tape, inclinometer, tracking markers, etc.

Works with:  Visual effects supervisor, director, cinematographer,

Data collector
Usually 1-4 people assigned to a visual effects crew involved in the live action. A data collector records as much information as possible during the filming related to visual effects. Camera settings, lens settings, lighting information, measuring the sets and camera placement.

Additional tasks may include holding lighting references, shooting HDR images, shooting reference photos, running a transit, running a video camera for a witness camera (frequently 2 or more cameras used to film from other angles to provide animation reference).

Training:   Understanding of 3D very useful. Photography, record keeping. Frequently a member of the match move department.

Tools:  Measuring tape, inclinometer, notepad, still camera, video camera, surveyor transit

Works with: Visual effects supervisor, match move department

Visual Effects Director of photography 
Cinematographer who focuses specifically on visual effects. Knowledge of shooting miniatures, motion control, elements and greenscreens among other types of image capture.

Training: Photography, cinematography, lighting, color, compositing useful

Tools: Range of film/video cameras, lenses, lighting equipment, etc.

Works with: Director, visual effects supervisor

Scanning operator
In charge of scanning and digitizing film. These days much of this work is now done at labs or other companies besides the visual effects company. The amount of film being shot has diminished since digital effects first evolved. Has to adjust, calibrate and operate scanning system using the count sheets and color references.

Training:   Computer graphics, photography, understanding of film and scanning theory

Tools:  Specialized scanning software

Works with:  Cinematographer, visual effects supervisor, visual effects editor

Roto Department
Rotoscoping is the process of hand tracing an object or shape in a shot. This may be done frame by frame but these days the computer is usually able to do many of the in-between frames. Usually used to create mattes so the background may be replaced. This position existed even in pre-digital days but is used much more frequently these days because of the tools.

Roto and similar object isolation methods are also used extensively for 2D to 3D conversion. There are companies that specialize in this type of work.

For some people this is the starter position that allows a person with minimal visual effects training to start at a visual effects company and work their way up. If you’re trained in another role of visual effects (compositing, animation, etc) you don’t have to start in roto. (Although it’s still a useful process to have done)

Because of the labor and time aspects of this job and the fairly low learning curve required, these positions are being outsourced more to locations with lower costs of living and related lower wages.

Rotoscoper  
Person who does the roto or rotoscoping work.

Training:  Much of this training is done at the various visual effects companies but it's easy enough to get some basic self-training using trial software and free movie clips found online. You can get some sense for it using Photoshop or Gimp (free) using the pen tool but working with moving images is a magnitude more difficult and demanding. Note: This can be tedious work for many but some find it interesting.

Tools: Specialized tools - Mocha, Silhouette.  Compositing tools with roto- Nuke, After Effects,  Fusion, etc. Wacom tablet.

Works with: Compositors and technical directors

Paint Department 
There is a need to do a certain amount of hand paintwork even in this day and age. This paintwork is done using digital tools and at times requires frame-by-frame painting.  If there’s a rendering glitch or a problem spot on the edge of a composite, then those may be hand touched up. If an actor or prop is suspended by wires then those need to be painted out. If there’s a rig of some sort in the scene (for stunts or special effects) these will have to be painted out. Anything in the scene that shouldn’t be there (television dishes in a period film will have to be painted out. If a clean plate (no actors) is required then the actors will have to be painted out. An example of this is a stand-in actor for a CG creature that doesn’t cover the entire actor. When doing 2D to 3D conversion many areas of an image will need to be ‘cut out and offset’ to create the 3D look. The areas where the images were moved will show gaps of nothing that will need to be painted in.

Note that there are some basic tools to help with wire removal but much of this work requires a real eye of tedious frame-by-frame painting. These holes in the image need to be filled seamlessly without calling attention to themselves when moving. Sometimes these can be filled with images of the surrounding area (cloning) and sometimes they can be filled using some of the previous or forward frames where the hole had the correct image. And other times there may be no real source of image and the hole will have to be painted with care from scratch.

Consider a group of people walking toward camera and a vertical rod in the foreground that needs to be removed. A still is hard enough in Photoshop but now consider all of those faces and bodies moving and changing 24 time a second.

The paint and roto departments can be all one department.

Dustbuster
Someone who paints out dust on scanned film or glitches in digital capture footage. They typically clone from an adjacent frame or area next to the spot.

Training:  Good eye and basic understanding of painting out spots from other sources.

Tools:  Compositing systems with frame-by-frame paint tools such as Nuke, After Effects, etc. Wacom tablet.

Works with:  Paint department

Painter
There are various titles for this position depending of the specialty being done. Wire removal, rig removal, etc.

Training:  Good eye and attention to detail. Art school/classes certainly useful even for this level.

Tools:  Compositing systems with frame-by-frame paint tools such as Nuke, After Effects, etc. Wacom tablet.

Works with:  Compositors

Modeling Department
Creation of every set and object within the computer. Most of the time these are built from scratch based on blueprints or other reference materials. Sometimes built from scans or a pre-existing model. Can also refer to physical model shop, the type used primarily pre-digital but still useful. Most visual effects companies no longer have physical model shops so they will sub-contract this work when required.

Model Supervisor 
Oversee the creation of CG (or physical) models.
Manages the modelers involved in the production and keeps the quality level and detail consistent.

Training: Experienced modeler

Tools: for CG -  Maya, XSI, Cyslice, ZBrush, Mudbox, etc.

Works with: Modelers, visual effects supervisor

CG Modeler
Builds computer graphics models from scratch or modifies from 3D scans. Usually sub-divided into non-organic (hard surface) modelers (spaceships, sets, etc) and organic (soft body, creature) modelers since each of these has slightly different requirements and approaches.

Training:   Computer graphics training, understanding of architecture, reading blueprints, mechanical drawings all useful. Nurbs and other modeling methods.

Tools:  Maya, XSI, Cyslice, ZBrush, Mudbox, etc.

Works with:  Riggers, Texture painters, visual effects supervisor, modeling supervisor

Physical Modeler
Builds physical (real) miniatures and models from scratch or from a combination of parts.  Usually a small team of people with both general and specific talents. Sculptors, painters, mold makers and other specialists exist.

Training:   Art school/class, hands on model building, machining, wood working, sculpting, using different materials
Tools: Wood shop, machine shop, plaster, plastic, silicon, etc.

Works with:  Visual effects camera crew, visual effects supervisor, director, art department

Rigger
Rigger is the person who constructs and 'rigs' the CG animation skeleton to a CG creature, digital double or any other type of sub-animation required. This can be a complex task since it requires placing the right type of pivots in the correct place and setting the range of motion and setting the animation points for the animators.

Training:   Computer graphics training, understanding of animation,

Tools:  Maya, Mel

Works with:  Modelers and animators

Texture Artist / Painter
Responsible for painting textures for any computer graphics model, object, creature or set. Some may involved pure paint in Photoshop or a 3D paint program and some may involve collecting and selectively combining multiple photos to create the final texture. Uses scanning photos and other materials to paint a CG actor or prop. Frequently paints other layers (specularity, dirt, etc) to be used for specific purposes.

Training:   Art school/classes, photography, CG classes

Tools: Body Paint, Deep Paint, Photoshop, Mari, Maya, etc.

Works with:  CG Modeler, CG supervisor, visual effects supervisor, technical director

Skinning
There are different methods to ‘skin’ CG creatures.  Something like a dragon may have very hard and non-moving areas of the skin and other areas such as the face that will be very flexible or include certain types of folds.

Training:   Computer graphics training, understanding of modeling, texture painting and rigging all useful

Tools:  Maya, Mel, proprietary tools, etc

Works with:  Modelers, Technical directors and animators

Animation Department
Responsible for moving characters (adding life to them) and objects.  Animation can be computer graphic characters, computer graphic spaceships and mechanisms or stop motion (physical characters and objects moved by hand)

Animation supervisor 
Experience Animator who oversees all the animation on the film project. Combination of technical trouble shooting, creative input and management. Helps to cast the animators for specific characters or creatures. Usually one of the right hand person to the visual effects supervisor. If it's a project with a lot of animation then typical works along side the visual effects supervisor.  

Training:  Experienced animator. Animation school or classes. 

Tools: Maya, 3D Studio Max, Softimage XSI, etc.

Works with: Director, visual effects supervisor

Animator 
Person who does the animation. These could be broken down into 2D (cel animation for cartoons or older Disney style animation) and 3D (Computer graphics 3D animation such as Pixar films or in visual effects such as dragons) categories as well. I'll be focused on 3D animation.

This may be further broken down into:

Character Animator 
Animator for characters that speak and react.

Training: Animation school or classes. Studying footage of people. 2D animation a great start to understand animation and characters.

Tools: Maya, 3D Studio Max, Softimage XSI, etc.

Animal or Creature Animator  
Animator of real and imaginary creatures (i.e. horses, alien reptiles)

Training: Animation school or classes. Studying footage of animals. 2D animation a great start to understand animation.

Tools: Maya, 3D Studio Max, Softimage XSI, etc.

Technical Animator   
Animator for precision (i.e. Mars spaceship animation for NASA)

Training: Animation school or classes. Understanding of physics, math and programming useful.

Tools: Maya, 3D Studio Max, Softimage XSI, etc.

Stop Motion Animator 
Animator who hand moves a physical stop motion puppet

Training: Animation school or classes. Studying footage of people, animals.

Model building experience a plus including machining.

Tools: Still and video cameras. Various software packages specifically for recording stop motion and checking frames. Surface gauges and other means of checking placement of puppet.

Computer Graphics (CG) Department
Dealing with all the issues of rendering the CG models or scenes.

CG Supervisor 
Experience Technical Director who oversees all the technical directing on the film project. Combination of technical trouble shooting, creative input and management. Determining and advising on key methodologies, software and pipeline. Usually one of the right hand person to the visual effects supervisor.

Training:  Technical director. Computer graphics training, ideally knowledge of photography,

Tools:  Maya, Renderman, VRay, etc.  Nuke, scripting, shader writing, Mel scripting, etc all useful as well.

Works with:  Animators, compositors, vfx supervisor, match movers

Technical Director (TD)
Technical director is an all around CG position that usually focuses on lighting and rendering to turn a CG model or animation into a final render.  They also cover some of the more technical details of computer graphics in addition to the creative task of lighting. Closest to a Director of photography role. This title is sometimes appended to the end of a specific task. Lighting Technical Director, Pipeline TD, Cloth TD, etc.  

The Directors Guild controls film credits so any credit with director in the title needs their approval. So this position is frequently listed as digital artist or something different.

Training:  Computer graphics training, ideally knowledge of photography,

Tools:  Maya, Renderman, VRay, etc.  Nuke, scripting, shader writing etc all useful as well.

Works with:  Animators, compositors, vfx supervisor, match movers, leads

Lighter / Lighting TD
Lighter focuses on the lighting of a computer graphics scene. Used interchangeably with technical director at some companies.

Training:    Computer graphics training, ideally knowledge of photography and practical lighting.

Tools:  Maya, Renderman, VRay, etc.  Nuke, scripting, etc all useful as well

Works with:  Animators, compositors, vfx supervisor, match movers, leads
  
Look developer (Look Dev)
Works on creating a specific look or visual aesthetic.  This look may be for a given sequence, background,  creature, ray gun, force field, etc. May be a task provided to a technical director or compositor to flesh out the look and techniques required to get a specific look based on concept art or other references.

Training:   Computer graphics, art, photography and animation all useful training

Tools:  Maya, Nuke, Houdini, Photoshop, etc.

Works with: CG supervisor, visual effects supervisor

Pipeline TD or Developer
This can cover a few different people with different specialties. A visual effects the pipeline amounts to the workflow process. With as much data, elements and shots being moved from artist to artist the idea is to make sure make it as efficient and error free as possible. This can involve concept design of how the work will flow and what software will be required to developing specific software to make this possible. Software can be scripts, databases, plugins and custom apps.

Training:   Computer programming

Tools:  Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac, scripting languages, C, C++, SQL, etc.

Works with:  CG Supervisor

Shader Writer 
This person writes specialized programs to handle the look of materials on the CG objects. Shaders can be used also to create specialty looks such as wet or cartoon style.

Training:   Technical director, computer science, computer graphics

Tools:  Renderman and other rendering software, OpenGL

Works with:  Technical Director, Texture painter

FX Technical Director 
Focused on running dynamic simulations to usually recreate real world physics. Creating sparks, smoke, fire, water

Training:  Computer programming, physics, computer graphics, Maya Mel and other APIs and scripts for programs

Tools: Maya, Houdini, specialized particle plugins and systems, etc.

Works with: Technical directors, compositor

Render Wangler 
Person who monitors the computers and render farm rendering CG images and digital composites. They also are involved in calculating the number of procs (processor unit time) available.

Training:  Knowledge of various rendering farm management software. Databases. 3D software and compositing software knowledge.

Tools:  Various render farm management programs and scripts

Works with:  Visual effects supervisor, producer, CG supervisor

Compositing Department
Compositing is the process of combining multiple images of live action, computer graphics and other images.

Compositing Supervisor 
Experienced Compositor who oversees all the compositing on the film project. Combination of technical trouble shooting, creative input and management. Determining and advising on key methodologies, software and pipeline. Usually one of the right hand person to the visual effects supervisor.

Training:  Computer graphics, Visual effects training, Photoshop compositing, understanding of photography, light

Tools:  Nuke, Fusion, After Effects, Fusion, etc.

Works with:  Technical Director, Visual effects supervisor, Lead, CG Supervisor
  
Compositor
Combines multiple images and elements of live action, computer graphics, etc to make the final image shot seen in the movie. Finesses and adjusts to make the final composite seamless.


Note: Compositing is also used in 2D to 3D conversion. Although it uses many of the same tools and skills, it’s a different task, pipeline and different goals. Compositors can work on standard visual effects shots or conversion but will more likely need some initial guidance when switching from one to the other to learn the pipeline and additional tasks.

Companies should be clear of the type of compositing they are looking for and job seekers need to confirm what type of compositing they will be doing.



Training:  Computer graphics, Visual effects training, Photoshop compositing, understanding of photography, light

Tools:  Nuke, Fusion, After Effects, Fusion, etc.

Works with:  Technical Director, Visual effects supervisor, Lead, CG Supervisor

Flame operator / Inferno operator
These artists operate high end visual effects packages which include high speed hardware, drives and special software to enable interactive compositing and image manipulation. These fast setups are used frequently on Commercials where fast interactive turnaround with a client is desired. They also fill a role in television and feature films where their cost and interaction makes sense.

Training:  Art school/classes, visual effects, computer graphics

Tools:  Flame, Inferno

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor

Matchmove Department
Take original footage and creates a CG camera that matches the live action camera motion and places CG model sets to match corresponding live action sets. In some cases they or animator may do matchamation or rotomation where the motion they are tracking is a moving human. 

Matchmover  
Match CG camera to live action camera. Use of both automated tools and manual alignment.

Training:   Computer graphics, 

Tools:  Maya, PFtrack, 3D Equalizer, Bijou, etc.

Works with:  Technical director, animator

Layout Artist
In animation these are the people who may place the camera, adjust framing and adjust items in the scene. For visual effects this overlaps with match moving.

Training:   Art classes, cinematography

Tools:  Maya, etc

Works with: Technical director, animator

Motion Capture Group
Team of people who work with actors, stunt people and others record their movements. Usually requires specialized cameras, costumes with some type of markers and specialized infrared light sources. Usually setup at a permanent location at a company or at a company that specializes in motion capture for the companies that don't have motion capture. There are a range of people involved in this.

Training:    Computer graphics training, animation understanding, ideally understanding of both human motion and data capture theory.

Tools:  There are a number of off the shelf motion capture systems so the specific system will vary with the company.

Works with:  Directors, actors, stunt people, vfx supervisors, animation supervisors

Matte Painting Department
Creating paintings to complete the scene. These may be entire backgrounds or may be extending the top of a set.

Matte Painters
Person who does the painting. In pre-digital days this person would have to paint from scratch. Digital tools like Photoshop allow duplicating areas and re-using patches of other photographs. Today matte paintings utilize 3D software to create at least 2 1/2D images so matte paintings are more than just pure static images.

Training:   Art School/Classes, knowledge of architecture, perspective, color, light, understanding of compositing and 3D software also useful

Tools:  Photoshop, Nuke

Works with:  Compositors, visual effects supervisor

Color Grader / Color Timer 
Adjust color in shots to keep a consistent look for the sequence.

Training:   Art, photography, color theory.  Note color blindness would be a problem.

Tools:  Avid, FCP, DaVinci, specialized color tools

Works with:  Director, cinematographer

3D Stereo supervisor
Oversees the 3D stereo aspects of visual effects whether created in stereo or involved in the 2D to 3D conversion. Helps to set consistent depth amounts along with the convergence and IA settings when possible.

Training: Knowledgeable about stereo

Tools:  Nuke, Occula, Mystica, etc.

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor, CG supervisor

Motion Control Group
Motion controlled camera is a camera that is motorized to produce very controlled and repeatable motions using motorized pan, tile and dolly among other axis. Can be used with motion control model or object movers. Motion control is used for specialized purposes. Filming where an exact match of live action is required such as twins. Can be used for stop motion or time lapse photography. Used extensively pre-computer graphics for filming physical models. Still used for some model photography. Most visual effects companies hire 3rd party motion control companies when required these days.

Motion Control camera operator 
Runs motion control system. Creates the moves using joysticks and numerical input.

Training:   Understanding of camera motion. Frequently a cameraperson who has shifted into technical specialties.

Tools:  Specialized hardware and software systems.

Works with:  Cinematographer and visual effects supervisor

Visual Effects Editor 
On the production side this is the person working with the main editor to prep the materials (media, count sheets, etc) for the visual effects companies and interact with them. At a visual effects company this person works with production editing to make sure the correct media and information is provided and sent. They also keep an edited version of sequences up to date and edit in the in progress visual effects shots for review.

Training:   Filmmaking school, editing, visual effects knowledge

Tools:  Avid, FCP, etc.   

Works with:  Director, Editor, visual effects supervisor
  
Research & Development Department
Develop software tools to achieve new looks, improve speed and provide new tools to artists 

R & D Developer
Designs and writes specialized code to help with the production of visual effects. These may be full applications, plugins or scripts. (i.e. specialized hair tool, etc)

Training:   Computer science, computer programming, math, 3D graphics programming, image processing, C, C++, Python, etc  

Tools:  Compilers, SDK and APIs from various software vendors (such as MEL for Maya and C++ API for Nuke)

Works with:  Departments in need of specialized software development.

Special Effects Crew
Special effects is the team hired by production to do on set effects such as explosions, breaking glass and wire work. They work closely with visual effects and some of the larger visual effects companies may employ special effects people but most are hired by production these days. Good for creating practical effects elements for use in visual effects shots - torches, explosions, etc.

Training:   Hands on apprenticeship, pyro licensing and other safety certifications as needed. Understanding of practical mechanisms and explosives.

Tools:  Machine shop, wood shop, explosives, candy glass, etc.

Works with:  Director, Visual effects supervisor, Production Designer, Cinematographer

Related posts:
Visual Effects Producer - Audio
VFX Management
 PostProduction

Feel free to add comments with other positions, tools, and information.