Thursday, March 31, 2011

Global VFX Workers - next step

Not long ago I posted  about a possible global VFX worker guideline or seal of approval.
Please read it if you haven't already.

I received some good responses directly from people.

So if we had a chance to take this to the next step, what is on your working conditions wish list?
Required turn around time?
Safer worker environments?
Paid overtime?

What are your top issues?

I know most people don't post comments on this blog. Usually I get one posting for several thousand reads. Well now here's your chance to stand up and be counted. Put your wish list solutions / complaints in a place that might actually make a difference in the future.


Monday, March 28, 2011

VFX Deal Memo

When starting a project you should see about getting a document detailing your work agreement. This is sometimes called a deal memo.  Sometimes it’s a full contract. This is so you and the visual effects company have the same understanding and neither assumes something else.  It’s better to find out before you get your first paycheck. These are the items that should be discussed in any final interviews. Even if you’re currently employed you may want to read through this.

Update 8-3-2014
The deal memo may be one of the most important documents you need. It will likely be worth tens of thousands of dollars as a minimum and months or years of your life. Do not take it lightly. And it should be as inclusive as possible to cover not only the expected actions but the unlikely or unexpected issues that might arise. Think of your insurance policies. They are very clear about things and when not specific they have a boilerplate statement that covers those areas.

Be sure to get it taken care of BEFORE incurring major expenses or starting the project.

This helps to avoid any misunderstanding and may provide some clarification if the situation or management changes. This agreement should be updated if you’re shifted to another type of job that has different duties or pay.

If the company is large they likely have a Human Resources (HR) Department.  If the company is small you may be dealing with one of the co-owners or the manager.

If you’re a vfx supervisor or other high end vfx person you may have an agent.  They will make sure there is a contract and these issues are reviewed but it’s best to double check what’s being agreed to.

For most vfx artists the vfx company becomes your manager. How good or bad your deal is, your title and credits are in their hands and only you will be able to negotiate what you think is fair.

Below I cover a wide range of issues but not all of these will be covered in a memo or basic agreement.  In some cases there may be other documentation or the company may not provide any paperwork.  You’ll have to determine what are the key issues you want to have in writing.  Please make sure you actually read your deal memo or contract since it relates to you and has specific clauses that could be very important to you.

If there were a VFX Union then many of these would be more consistent.

(I'm still not a lawyer so take this simply as some advice.  If you need legal advice please seek a qualified lawyer. This is also US centric and even then many employment requirements vary by state. But I hope it provides some guidance no matter where you're located.)

Key items:

VFX Company
Are they the ones actually hiring you?
Is there a holding company that actually hires you?
Is the studio or a production company hiring you directly?
Is the vfx company a subcontractor to another vfx company?

What is the project you were hired for? Are you working on a specific project or will you be working on anything and everything?

If you’re expecting to work on project X but they’re putting you on project Y it would be good to know ahead of time.

Be careful here that the job title actually matches what you do and matches what you’re told the job is.  Since there is no VFX Union there are no standard titles and descriptions.  The Visual Effects Society has a list of titles but no specifics. There are some defacto titles that experienced vfx artists use and that better companies follow but new, smaller companies or especially those on the fringes of vfx may use titles in a much different manner.  This can hurt your future employment if it’s not accurate.  Also note that this should be used as your credit title but may not. (See credits later)

At some non-vfx companies titles are handed out like candy.  Vice President of the Front Office (receptionist), Vice Present of Environmental Cleanup (janitor), etc.  The reason this happens and can happen at vfx companies is many people are obsessed with titles. From a companies perspective if they can make you happy with a fancy title and pay you $10 less an hour, so much the better. At some vfx companies everyone is a lead artist.  So in that sense is anyone there an actual lead artist?

A small company that specializes in dirt and scratch removal may call everyone working there a vfx supervisor.  There’s nothing to prevent them from doing so.  But is that truly what you’re doing?  Could you step on a stage of live action and supervise the shoot, work with the director and DP, and then manage 100 vfx artists from a number of disciplines?

If you’re a supervisor of any type, producer or a lead artist you may be considered management.  In some cases that may mean just managing one other person. Be aware that if you’re considered ‘management’ then you may be considered a salaried employee without some of the state/federal protection afforded hourly employees. This means no over time. Now you can see why the company may be eager to consider you part of management and is willing to bestow a corresponding title.

In some cases you may be given a title below what you’re actually doing.  This may happen because you were moved up or over during the course of production and your official documents didn’t get updated. Or this may happen because the company wanted to start you at a lower pay rate than someone in that actual title.  You could be given the title Assistant Animator “just for now”.  Unfortunately if you’re actually a full animator that’s not good for you, especially if the deal memo isn’t updated.

The job title should be specific if it needs to be specific.  An Animator could be a character animator, an effects animator, a simulation animator, etc. A modeler could be a hard surface modeler. If the type of company is unique (game development, web based, etc)  it may be worth putting that aspect in front of the title to make it clear looking at your list credits what you actually did on the project.

If the title doesn’t match what you were doing then it’s tough when you go to interview for your next job.

Interviewer: “I see on your resume (or IMDB) you’re a Production Assistant.” 
“Actually I’m an animator and did extensive work with the main character on my last film. They just didn’t update my title.”
Interviewer: ??  “Well if we have any openings for a PA we will call you.

The opposite is also a problem.
Interviewer: “I see on your resume (or IMDB) you were a Senior Compositing Supervisor.”
Interviewer: “So were using Nuke or another compositing package?”
“I was using Mocha”
Interviewer:  ???? “So how many people were you managing?”
“I just worked on my own.”
Interviewer: “Well we’ll call you if we need you”.

Now some people try to bluff their way through but if you’re hired for a job you don’t have the experience, knowledge or skill set to do, you’ll be out the door very quickly.  (Never to return there).

You can volunteer that the title was incorrect and that you actually did something else but that is certainly awkward and confusing to all future employers.

You can see why having an accurate title is necessary.

The key test is if you were to leave the company today, what title would the company use in the job posting to get someone to do the job you were doing?  Would people coming in with your present job title expect to be doing what you were doing there?  When you go to look for your next job will it be using the title you were given at your previous company?

Update 8-3-2014
I've now seen a few job postings with Supervisor in the title (CG Supervisor, Production Supervisor, etc) and then discover that some of these are considered Coordinator level positions, even though the posting implies supervising people. I find this very confusing and it may be strictly to get these people classified as management to avoid paying overtime.

To be clear - a supervisor position is just that, supervising others in terms of assigning tasks, overseeing the work, guiding them, etc. They need to know the creative and technical aspects of the area they're covering and should know as much more or more than those they are supervising.

A coordinator typically is one who gathers and dispenses information at the request of a producer, supervisor or others. Their role is to help coordinate or sync different people and departments to make things run smoothly. They work with others but do not typically manage others (possible production assistants) And they should not be considered supervisors.

Job description or job duties
This is where the company states in a sentence or two what you are to do.  If this doesn’t match the title or it doesn’t match your understanding then that’s a problem.  You don’t want to be hired as a compositor and find out part of the job duties are to get coffee for the executive.  Since there’s no standard it’s best to have this included so you’re clear what the title they’ve given you means to the company.

Start date
When are you to start at the company?

Expected end date
When do they expect you to complete the project? Or is this a staff position?  This should be spelled out.

Are you considered an employee or a contractor?
Be aware that as a contactor you have to pay additional taxes, have minimal state/federal protection, have no company benefits and likely will get no overtime.  A contractor may not get any crew gifts or invite to the Christmas party.  Every company is different with regard to how contractors are treated, even if you're requested to do the same exact work as a regular employee. Also be aware that by federal law there are very strict rules about what qualifies you as an independent contractor.  Most independent contractors hired in vfx  should not be classified as an independent contractor.

[Update 11/19/2012  Employee vs Independent Contractor ]

Work hours
What’s a normal workday? Do they start at 8am and go to 8pm? Are they expecting you to work a night shift?

Work day/week
What days are you expected to work? Monday-Friday? Saturday?
How many hours will you be expected to work? 40? 50? 60? 72? 90?
What’s typical? What do they expect as worse case? How long will that be?

Hourly rate
What is your hourly rate?  Is that in local currency?

Or are you on a flat?  And if so, are there any caps? (i.e. 5 day flat, 14 hrs days, 60 hrs, etc)  Note that with a flat there is no overtime within the coverage period and there may be none, ever. There may be minimum state/federal protection for those who work on a flat rate deal.  It's not unusual for a vfx supervisor and/or producer to be on a flat, especially if they're freelance.

How are the number of hours recorded? Do you have a time card and time clock? Do you logon and log off special software?  The company should certainly be tracking your hours.  If they don’t you should so you have a record of the hours you put in.  Remember, the only hours the company will use for any calculations will be the hours they record. See Credits for another area where recorded hours can become an issue.

In some areas, such as Canada, there are some classifications (such as technician) that may affect your overtime and other deal memo points.
[Update 11/19/2012  VFX Artists are not High Tech Employees  ]

Do you get overtime?
When does it kick in? After 8 hrs?
What are the rates? 1 ½x after 8 hrs and 2x after 12 hours?
What about the 6th day? The 7th day? Does the clock reset every Monday in regard to overtime?
Note that state/federal regulations cover some of this.  Is the company offering you less than mandated by law?

Even if you won't be paid overtime you need to consider it when trying to determine your rate. A 60 hour week is equivalent to 70 hours of pay if you assume time and half for over 8 hours.
Here's a video that illustrates how this works.

If you aren't paid overtime (you're management, on a flat, etc) then the more you work the lower your average hourly rate actually becomes.  It's not unusual for those around you to be making more money during the time you're putting in the most hours.

If the company is planning to ‘exchange’ overtime or extra days for time off then that needs to be clearly spelled out and there needs to be a means to monitor it. This type of approach seldom works in vfx. Toward the end of production you may be putting in a lot of extra time.  Your only option is taking the time after the project is over.  Once the project is over, unless you truly are a staff person and they plan to retain you, then the company may simply say the projects over and they can’t pay for any additional time.  Or the vfx producer on the project has wrapped and they have no knowledge of any arrangements.

[Update 8/18/12]
In the US working overtime and being compensated with days off is called Comp Time. In the UK and other places it's called Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) (An apt acronym)  Does this apply to only weekend days or does this apply to actual overtime during the week as well? (time over 40 hrs)  As noted make sure you get this is writing as part of your legal document with someone in charge at the company signing the document. Otherwise you'll never see any comp time. 

Keep in mind comp time and similar arrangements doesn't provide any incentives for the companies to do a better job avoiding massive overtime. It's only in the companies interest. They can take a 6 month project and turn it into a 3 month project with no added cost incurred to them or their clients. But the artists putting in 16 hrs days are certainly incurring a cost to their health, well being and impact on their families. One of the reasons for increased overtime pay is to truly compensate workers and to make it less rewarding for companies to simply work fewer people very long hours.

[Update 11/19.2012  Must read for those in US - Got Overtime? ]

Update 8-3-2014
Some places that use Time Off In Lieu (TOIL) instead of actually paying overtime, simply reduce your contract by the amount of in Lieu you've accumulated. So even though you have a 6 month contract you may find that the company has trimmed your contract with or without your knowledge.
As always, get in writing how overtime works and and how contract extensions or reductions work. Do they need to get your approval to change contract lengths? What if you want to cut it short?

Report to and direction
Who will you be reporting to? Who provides you direction?  If you have multiple people telling you what to do, you want a clear understanding of who your main manager is.

Who approves overtime?
At most companies if you don’t get approval ahead of time then you likely won’t be paid it.  Who can authorize your overtime requirements? Your lead? Your manager? The VFX Producer?  The company manager? Any of these?  You don’t want to work a weekend only to find someone else determines that they won’t pay you for the time you worked after the lead requested you stay and finish a shot.

What type of benefits does the company provide if any? Health benefits? Does it cover dental or eye?  Does it cover your family? What are the details? How much do you pay out of your paycheck? How much do you pay for medications, doctor visits or emergency room? Do you need clearance before you go to an emergency room?
When do health care benefits kick in?  If you’re hired for 2 months but it takes 3 months to qualify then you have no health benefits.
Are there any other benefits beside health?
What if you have a disability or become disabled during the project?
What if you get pregnant?

Holidays, Vacation, Pension 
Ha - I just put this in here to see if you were paying attention.  These are covered under union agreements but unless you’re considered full staff at a vfx company you may not see any of these at most places.

Is there a required termination notice?  Projects change and what was entered as your end date may be pushed back or pushed forward.  Do they have to provide any type of advanced warning or can they simply tell you you’re off the project at the end of today?
Can they terminate your agreement without penalty before you even start?   Is there a minimum number of weeks they are required to pay? Let’s suppose you moved across the city/state/country to work on the project.  You’ve rented an apartment, bought a car, etc based on being employed for 9 months as outlined in the agreement.
The day before you start you get a call the project has been canceled.
Three weeks into the project it’s canceled.  The project is delayed and they tell you it will start any day.  2 months go by without a call.
What happens in any of these cases? Is this covered or are you out of luck? 

Likewise what are the requirements for you to give notice?  Do you need to give a 2 weeks notice? What if you get an offer for a better project for more money before the project starts? Halfway through the project? What are you legal responsibilities? What are your moral responsibilities?

Time Off
If you have something planned where you will need time off, bring it up as soon as possible. If you know you'll need specific time off before the interview you should bring it up and discuss it.

Are you to manage anyone?
If so, how many people?

Do you expect to incur expenses for the company?  Picking up supplies, etc. What’s the process to do that?

If you need to travel for the job how is that handled?
Local car mileage reimbursement if you have to travel across town or to another town on business?
Do you get per diem or do you have to keep all receipts and turn them in? Is the per diem based on the location you’re going to?
Do they arrange for flights, rental cars and hotels?
If you’re flying is there a minimum flying class? (i.e. will you be traveling by air for 18 hrs in coach?)

[Added 11/9/2012
Are you moving to a new location/state/country to do the project?
Is any of this covered in your employment agreement? Does the company pay to relocate you? What are the terms? Do they require x amount of time or subtract it from your salary?
Be sure to consider the cost of moving and cost of living if you are moving.
See Expatisian to compare expenses. ]

[Update 8-3-2014
Is your visa or other paperwork all taken care of? What are the costs and who handles that? What if there's an unexpected problem? (You can't get it, you need to leave the country before the project ends, etc)

The VES has a Travel and Relocation links that should be checked.

Also don't forget to check with the local labor laws to make sure the deal memo is legal and that you know what is/isn't considered correct where you work.

Items to check - classification (employee, contractor), legal protections, maximum hours, Overtime pay, health and safety regulations, time off, minimum wages, etc.
(The below links are simply a starting point. Please do your own research as necessary.)

BC Labor Laws
Ontario Labor Laws
Quebec Labor Laws
UK Labor Laws (EU)
UK Labor Laws
UK Employment Laws 
NZ Labor Laws
NZ Minimum Labor Rights
California Labor Laws
US Labor Laws
US Labor Laws 2 
State Labor Laws
U.S. vs. U.K. Employment Law: What's the Difference?

Are you expected to supply any of your own equipment?
If so, is there any extra fee for that or are you expected to provide it as part of your standard rate? If you have to bring in your own computer or other gear you have to consider your expense, upkeep, software licenses and replacement costs that the company doesn’t have to.
Will it be covered by their insurance or do you need to cover it?
Check your homeowners insurance for business use.

Not everyone who works on a movie or television project will get a credit on it. Typically the studios mandate the number of credits a company may have based on the amount of work the company is doing on the project and how important they consider the work.  If you’re company #14 of 14 you may get 5 credits or only a company credit.  All of that is worked out in the contract between the company and the studio.  If your company is a subcontractor to another vfx company then the chances of getting many credits is likely further reduced.  The studios do not like to give out credits and use them as part of their contract bartering system.

And yet official credits on a film, resume and IMDB (Internet Movie Database) are important to the artist  to get work.

I’ve seen people forgotten from the credit lists and people being assigned a credit to a project that they didn’t work on simply because the company couldn’t get them credit on the project they spent a year working on.  I’ve seen a supervisor who didn’t work on a show be co-listed on a project for marketing reasons.  I’ve also seen people who worked through Christmas vacation to make the vfx for a film possible and then be dropped off the credits because the owner didn’t want any staff listed.

If a company does a fair amount of work on a project then they will usually be provided a number of credit slots.  Typically the key personel on the project will get credit (supervisors, producers, key leads, etc). At some companies the owners or main management may be given credits regardless of how much they were involved once the project starts. Support staff (IT, R&D, etc) at many of the large vfx companies are cycled through so they  are listed on a feature a year. Now comes the tricky part of deciding who get’s credit on a film or not since it’s almost impossible to list every single person who worked on a project.  The vfx producer, vfx supervisor and company management may go through the list of names and try to make selections based on the artist’s contributions to the project. They may want to make sure some are selected from each department.  The list of names includes job title and the number of hours worked.

Whether contractor’s are treated differently than employees for credits will depend on the company.

Hopefully your agreement states your true title and not a lower one that you might have been hired under (if that’s changed).  If not, you may be over looked or be placed lower on the list.

If your title is actually above your true position then the vfx producer may reduce it for the real credits or the vfx producer at the studio may trim them back to make them more inline with the other companies.

When it comes down to filling out the last few spots they may refer to the number of hours each person put in on the project.  They’d rather give it to someone who worked 6 months than someone who filled in for a week to help out during the crunch period.  Remember those times you worked longer hours for free to try to help your department head?  Not only did you not get paid for that time but it’s likely your lack of documented hours bumps you off the credit list. Bazinga.

Demo reel
Are you allowed to use material for your demo reel?  Many studios obviously don’t allow any material out before the release of the movie. What if the movie is shelved after you worked on it? Will you ever be able to show anything? Can you use in progress material to show before and after to make it clear what you did?  Do you have to wait for the DVD to come out (possibly a year or more after you worked on it) and rip it to create your demo reel or can you get materials from the vfx company?

Many companies will require an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement).  The studios tend to enforce mandates to prevent the release of photos or information regarding the project.  Do not cross this line by posting or sharing photos, videos, scripts, etc.  If you do so you may not only be fired but there will be a legal action against you with likely heavy fines.  Check the FBI warning at the start of a DVD. $250,000 They’re not kidding.  Is your job and future worth it to be ‘cool’ by posting something?  Here’s a story from years past: On STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, the night animation cameraman called into a radio station to make a request. Of course he was asked what he was doing at that hour.  The cameraman asked if this was off the record and when he was assured it was he proceeded to discuss the project.  When the head of the studio was going to work that morning he was listening to the radio when they proceeded to play back the entire recording.  He was not happy.  Luckily the cameraman was only given a warning and continues to work.  Today I doubt if he’d be as lucky.

The company may also have NDA’s for proprietary info related to the company and the processes there.  Check to make sure they don’t go overboard.  In some cases they may state they own all your ideas or any information learned unless you list the items that you already know.

Non-compete clauses
Some non-vfx companies have do not compete clauses to prevent key employees from starting a competing company or going to a competitor.  No vfx company should have this in their agreements unless it’s an extreme and unusual situation.  VFX artist by their very nature are freelance so this type of thing would prevent you from working elsewhere. As always, double-check any paperwork you have been provided.

What if you develop something at the company?  A new methodology? A new technique? Software? (Assuming you have not been hired specifically for these tasks).  Do you own any of this? Does the company have an exclusive to it?

Trial Probation
Is there a trial or probation period for new employees?
If so, what does that mean?
(Don’t let a company tell you that you need to work for free so they can see if they want to hire you.)

Employee handbook
Larger companies will likely have some type of employee handbook, which may cover some of the items here.  They’ll likely cover the items their insurance requires for liability reasons or the government such as inappropriate behavior, etc.

Job Reviews
Is there a job review process?  For a short-term project you might not get a job review but if you’re on staff or on a long project they may have job reviews.  What’s the actual process, who will be reviewing you and what are you being judged on?

If any benefits or extras were discussed during the interview process they should be listed in this document.  A promise from a company is only as good as the signed document it is on.  If they made promises during the interview to do or give you xyz and it’s not in writing then it doesn’t exist. Sometimes people interviewing you will regale you with all of these enticing things that they have no power to actually provide. (Potential things like credits) You don’t want to take the job only to find out all of that was fictional.

The document should be signed and dated by you and an official rep for the company to give the document some validity.

[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
Here's another article on it: Lucasfilm Faces New Accusation of Pregnancy Discrimination ]

Update 8-3-2014
So what does the deal memo say if there's a snag?
As mentioned what is your start date and what if that project is delayed or canceled before you start but you have already accumulated expenses or quit your other job?
What if you're to move to another country and there's some type of visa or paperwork hangup or if you don't qualify for some reason? Who covers expenses incurred?

Some of these things are happening more and more and should be included in the deal memo.
The only person looking after your interest is you. The company will be focused on their interest and as such the deal memo language will almost always be in their favor and will likely take little responsibility if you have expenses or a snag that's not spelled out.

As mentioned the deal memo is like an insurance policy in that it should cover the not only the expected issues but also the unexpected issues. Don't let the company simply wave away any questions or issues as 'no worries'. You could be the one paying dearly.

Getting a Visual Effects Job 
Visual Effects Positions

Related elsewhere
Workplace issues - vfxlaw
Deal Memo Example form  - vfxlaw

Saturday, March 26, 2011

VFX Interactions

Most visual effects are designed to integrate with live action images. Whether you're creating a cg creature, cg background, physical model addition or even 2 live action elements, the intent is to match these elements together so they look as if they were photographed together. That means matching lighting, camera angles, color and other aspects.

But visual effects are more than still images. To help the illusion of integration even more you should look to create interactions whenever it's appropriate and possible.

Interaction and the special effects crew
Special Effects are the things done in front of camera such as fire, break away glass, etc. They're sometimes refered to as practical effects or mechanical effects. Interaction should be planned in pre-production as the shots are being designed (storyboards, previs).  The vfx supervisor will work with the special effects supervisor to determine how interaction can be done during filming. In some cases it may be as simple as a fishing line (monofilament) used to move a hat that a cg creature is supposed to pickup.  Or a gust of wind from a fan on set. In other cases special effects or props may have to build something elaborate which will require time.  This is why it's best to discuss in pre-production rather than waiting until you're on the set.  There will be times when you will have to throw something together on the set but preplanning provides the most options and most likelihood of success.

Any rig or setup should be tested ahead of time with enough time to make corrections if necessary. If it doesn’t work on the day of shooting for whatever reason you'll be stuck with it or will have to abandon it.

Keep in mind what you're trying to simulate and how that should look. Reviewing related references ahead of time is always good. On TIME MACHINE we had a morlock who was supposed to crash into a stand of bamboo trees.  The special effects team had rigged some of the trees to simulate it the way they thought it should work. The bamboo trees had been pre-scored (partially cut) and then fell over, cut in mid section. Not exactly what a large creature crashing into them would do to the trees. There was another test with cables to each tree but we worked with them and they build a simple metal plow that would be pulled by a winch that literally crashed into and through the bamboo.  Now we had something that would match what the animation would require. We would have to paint out the rig where the creature didn't cover it but that was much better for the overall look of the shot.

Always keep an eye on the interaction and imagine the final results. If the on set action is wrong (it's at the wrong height, it's moving too quickly, the rig is shaking, etc) then you need to correct it then and there.  Trying to force an animated character into contortions simply to match what was shot will not make a good shot. If there are major problems you may have to skip the interaction or may have to do it all as post effects.

For DRAGONHEART we had a number special effects rigs for interaction. Special effects rigged up multiple air canons to spray the water when the dragon bursts through the waterfall. This is when your prep work in pre-production comes in handy because you can provide them with the size and placement necessary of the creature or virtual set to be added. For the shot of the dragon tail going into waterfall we had special effects build a full size black version of the tail. This was pulled through and once the cg tail was added later the water traced the contour and provided the interaction to help place the dragon into the world on screen.

For the scene at the end where the dragon is in chains we had special effects build a pipe rig that acted like a teeter-totter. Chains were draped accordingly over one end of the rig, which was sized to match the dragon’s horns. A special effects crewmember used the other end to move it slightly while Dennis Quaid removed the chains. Other chains on the dragon were cg.  By doing this we not only got the correct motion and look of the foreground chain, we also gave the actor an opportunity to act with his missing cg actor.

For the end of the film we see a spirit flowing by a group of people. In this case wanted to get interactive light on the face of the villagers. The camera and lighting crews worked with the special effects crew to build a translucent box with colored changing lights suspended on wires and moved by the crew.  We removed the light box in post and added a particle spirit to complete the scene.  Now the glowing cg image seemed to be illuminating the actors and provided the illusion it was really there.

There are many other examples on that film including requesting the special effects crew lay in the tall grass and make snow angels (move their arms and legs while laying down) to move the grass when the dragon lands. Special effects welded 3- 55 gallon drums together and we had this dropped from a helicopter to simulate the dragon diving into the lake.

In all of these types of cases you end up with the correct interaction, the correct lighting, correct camera match since it's all happening in the shot. This also makes it easier for the director and the rest of the crew since they can see the action on set. In post this provides the editor with a better sense of the action.

As soon as multiple things start happening you need to work out the timing. First this happens and then 1 second later this happens and then 2 seconds later this other thing happens. If previs exists it will provide a good reference but there’s almost always adjustments to be made on set. If the action is related to something close to human size  the vfx supervisor may pantomime the action on set so the director, actors, camera operator and special effects crew get a sense for the timing. If there are a number of these types of shots then production may hire an actor to play the role on the set.  Ideally after the run through the shot would be done without the standin actor (to avoid a lot paint removal) but in many cases it's worth having them in the scene. This provides a moving reference for everyone.  The director and the asst director will try to get through these shots as quickly as possible but you should push to shoot 2-3 takes if possible to have different timings.  Invariably there are new ideas later or the creature or type of action is refined.

Note that in many cases it's not recommend to paint the rig or outfit the person in green or blue.  In many cases you won't be able to easily pull a matte anyway and more than likely you'll have colored bounce light that will need to be removed.

While filming keep notes of the various bits and pieces of additional elements that will be required for the finished shots. Flames for torches, smoke from the house, water splashes, etc. In some productions you can shoot these elements with the special effects crew at the end of production.  For DRAGONHEART special effects built essentially a waterproof wood frame probably 20 x 20 feet and 1-2 foot deep. This was used to shoot additional splash elements.  At ILM we had special effects and camera crews available so we would plan an element shoot such as the flames to match the top of the coach in VAN HELSING or blowing leaves or dust hits to match the motion of creature foot steps.

Many of these types of elements (smoke, fire, dust, water splashes, rain, etc) can be shot against black.  Only use a colored screen if you're shooting something that is multiple colors. Use video and or stills images from the original footage to get basic framing. Shoot wider to make sure you don't clip the element off. You can blowup a bit in the comp but if the smoke or fire hits the edge you can't reduce it or reposition it.  Lighting for rain and splashes is usually best done as cross back lighting. Backlit smoke also works well. These days you can actually do a quick comp on your laptop depending on your camera system (if it's digitial of course).  Depending on the relative size of the element action compared to it's finished size it may need to be shot at a higher frame rate.  You can slow down in post but if you have the option to shoot at a faster frame rate, do it.

For those who only have experience with computer graphics they will likely try to solve all of these elements with computer graphics. The problem is cg simulations tend to take a long time to look correct. It’s can be very efficient to shoot elements if you're prepared and know what you're doing and the results have all the nuances of reality. You won’t be spending days debating whether it looks real or not.  It is.  The key advantage to cg is you can sometimes tweak it to a fine degree but that takes time.  In some cases the scale of the effects elements may make it impossible to shoot elements for.  You may also shoot elements and then modify, retime and distort as necessary to fit the particular needs of the shot. The vfx company should always try to keep the elements they shoot based on their contracts.  There are some elements that require very specific alignment but many are likely to be useful in an element library where you can simple re-use elements from previous productions.  These end up being used a lot and come in very handy when you need to stick in a small smoke element here or there.  In some cases a vfx company decide to spend a day shooting generic elements to have on hand.

In post-production you may have to help the director and editor determine which take works best for the animation to be added, especially if there's not a clear performance issue of the actors in the scene.  In some cases I’d take the video versions of the takes and do quick mockups to check for timing and position.

ArtBeats and I suspect a few other companies offer elements that could be used in smaller productions.

For more info check out the VES Handbook
which has articles on shooting elements and providing references for the actors eye lines.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Canada's IATSE local 891 VFX survey

Canada's IATSE local 891 VFX union has done a survey of VFX artists that's worth checking out.

VES handbook thoughts?

Now that the VES visual effects handbook has been out several months it would be great to get some specific feedback. Sometime in the next 2-3 years it will likely be updated slightly.

Keep in mind the idea of the handbook was to cover the full range of visual effects from pre-production to post-production. Most people working in vfx are primarily focused in post-production but we felt it was necessary to encompass the full range. If you're already an expert in any one area we still hope it provides some useful tips or info in that area. More importantly the hope is it allows vfx artists to see the entire process, grow into other areas if they wish and to understand others facets of the process.

The idea was to provide reasonably detailed information by experts but we had a limit of 700 pages (and ended up with almost 1000 as is was). So while many of these articles could have turned into full books we wanted to provide a good base for the specific topic. We also wanted to try to balance the tone of the writing so there was a constancy even though we had 89 writers.

We tried to minimize specific software and hardware details since this was to provide the fundamentals no matter what you were using (and would avoid being out of date the moment it was released.)

So this is an opportunity to provide some feedback on the handbook. What did you like abount the handbook? Not like about it? What areas didn't we cover or cover enough? Are there particular areas that could be expanded or you felt were too long? What would make it more useful to you? It would also be good to have an idea of your experience level and specific area of interest if you're so inclined.

If the VES were to do other books in the future what would you like to see?

Emailing me would be best but you can post here if you wish.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Unions, VFX working hours and environments

If you have a safe working environment today then you likely have a union to thank for it.

100 Years ago was the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

This info graphic shows some of the safety improvements after the  International Ladies Garment Workers Union pushed for improvements.

Now I know many people are wondering how this relates to VFX.

The first point being that many companies do not put welfare and safety of their workers high on the list.  This includes not only some developing nations but the U.S. as well. Watch the Triangle video through for examples.  The reason why there are now laws and why companies are being pushed into doing this is because workers organized.   And now companies are pushing back and lobbying state and federal politicians to reduce worker welfare, increase hours children can work and reducing water quality regulations among other things.  You as an individual have little say in how a company will operate unless you own the company or unless you are part of a group that can push for change.

The second point being that in VFX it is not unusual to work a lot of long hour days.

A few years ago, Brent Hershman, a camera assistant, died by falling asleep while driving home after yet another 19 hour day. That resulted in Academy Award winning Cinematographer Haskell Wexler making the film Who Needs Sleep.

(Please watch this trailer.  I think you'll see some overlap)
It also resulted in a push to cap hours to 14 hours maximum.

[Update 1/11/2014 Full film available online: Who Needs Sleep ]
Video:  TRIANGLE'S ECHOES: The Unfinished Struggle for Worker Protection, Safety and Health

What the Triangle Shirtwaist fire means for workers now

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Union update

Today the union had an info meeting in Burbank and Vancouver.

If you have not attended an IATSE Union info meeting yet I would strongly suggest you contact the point person directly to get the details.  Jimmy Goodman can be contacted at
Just drop him an email to get your questions answered directly.  How does this work, what are the advantages, will this drive away production, how do the union benefits compare to your current benefits, etc.  Believe me, these are important issues even if you're just starting out.

They promise to have a website up in April with more info.  In the meantime check out the Animation Guild or VFX Soldier websites for more.  You can also check out other Union related postings on this blog.

I did get clarification as I thought that the IATSE is restricted to the US and Canada.

With a union you get health insurance coverage that covers multiple employers so when your project finishes and you start another one with another company all your health benefits continue (Assuming they're another union company).  You don't have to sign up for a new health insurance company that you may not even qualify to cover you in the time you're there.  Currently health benefits vary widely between companies. Some offer none and some offer reasonable deals but those are strictly if the company keeps you employed (difficult given the nature of much of vfx) and if you choose to stay there.  Some times these benefits are referred to as golden handcuffs since they tend to entice an employee to stay put rather than lose their benefits.  There will be times where you'll have to make that decision or if the company doesn't have work then it will be made for you.

Other things you get as a union employee are vacation time, sick days and pension.  Some or all of these may be offered by your company but only as long as you're employed there.  (Any 401k should be transferable)

Of interest if you were a 1099 contract employee that had real experience and job level where you were making over $100,000 it is costing you an additional $8,000 in taxes simply because the company chose to hire you as an independent contractor.  And as pointed out on vfx soldier, being an independent contractor means it's much more difficult to get a mortgage for a house.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Global VFX Workers

Paddy Eason from the U.K asked in a previous posting about the possibility of a global union for vfx workers.

The following are some notes I wrote this last weekend.  Some this refers back to a previous posting I had made.  I’m just tossing out some possible ideas to get people thinking about options.

Unfortunately various government laws and varying health care options make having a traditional union be global a difficult proposition. IATSE (union of camera crews and most of the crafts people working in motion pictures) covers the US and has parallel labor agreements in Canada.  How far they can move beyond Canada would be worth a discussion with them.  (For those in LA there's a union picnic this Burbank on Sunday afternoon.  You can also contact them via email

As a union employee if I go to another country and the company paying me is a union company, I would continue to work under those terms but that’s not the same as being a global union.

Before there was the real prospect of a true vfx union here in the U.S. I posted about establishing a Code of Standards for vfx companies.  Should the union efforts fail it might be worth considering.  And certainly may be worth considering in areas with a number of vfx or related companies that aren’t covered by a union.

The idea would be to have a group of vfx workers draft a list of working conditions requirements.  I would suggest using some of the existing union documents as a starting point.  Some of the possible issues could be: weekly payments (paid on time), if payment is not made worker has right to leave, clean work environment, safe work environment, ergonomical working setup, food break every 6 hours, 15 minute break every 4 hours, 12 hr minimum turnaround time (time you clock out until you’re required back at work), and might include such things as:  limit of x hrs in a day, limit of x hrs a week, limit of x days without a day off, double time after x hrs, double time starting on 6th day and beyond, etc.  Now the real unions do include some of these things such as food breaks, turnaround time, over time rates, etc but they don’t include any caps on amount of hours or days worked to my knowledge but I know that’s an issue with a lot of vfx workers who are tired of working 90-120 hr weeks.

So the issue would be for a group to come up with reasonable guidelines for both workers and companies.  All of these things would need to be feasible throughout the world.  The idea is to set a minimum level working environment. I should point out most medium to large vfx shops already provide reasonable environments so that portion shouldn’t be an issue.

This document probably wouldn’t cover such things as actual minimum rates for different types of positions but they could if it was desired.  There is cost of living that already known and calculated for all major cities in the world.  When I worked in London I had a given per diem that would qualify under the US tax code.  This would mean it’s possible to say a roto person would be paid at least x % of the cost of living index in that city.  A Compositor would be paid a minimum of y %.  So if you worked in London and moved to New York or China you’d have some idea for what the minimum would be. Note that these are minimums, just like the union does.  You can certainly negotiate higher rates depending on your experience, skill, etc.

Once a guideline was drafted then the idea would be to discuss it with the different companies. Now many vfx do have reasonable working conditions so the biggest sticking points with them would be the caps on time worked or if the overtime was higher than they’re currently paying.  Of course those factors would also encourage them and the studios to do more planning and to avoid getting into situations that workers are squeezed.

This guideline may not touch on benefits or it’s possible that may only be in U.S. version.  Many US companies have some types of benefits so this would merely list the minimum benefits in order to get the seal of approval as it were.

So what would be in it for the vfx companies?
Assuming the guidelines are not unreasonable most companies probably qualify now.  (With exceptions of caps as noted) If a company signs then they are listed on the group website with the seal of approval of the vfx workers.  Now when vfx workers finish up a project or are considering working elsewhere the seal of approval would be part of their decision process of where they’d want to work.  If all other things were equal most would tend to opt to go to a company that was willing to commit to signing the guidelines. Because you’d know if the company was unwilling to signup then it’s likely not up to the same working standards or that it could easily drop those working standards when they choose.  Key info about the company could also be posted such as benefits packages, etc.  Signed companies could possibly run job postings on the site.

Studios would also be aware which companies provided reasonable working conditions.  Now that might not have much influence but again if all things were equal the studio would know the company is serious about getting the best workers and less likely to cause a problem.  It would also help separate the fly by night companies from the companies who are in it for real.  This last part would depend on what requirements and vetting would be required. The hope would be if both workers and studios leaned toward companies with the seal of approval, more companies would be interested in signing and maintaining those working conditions.

I’ve thought of these as largely non-legal and non-binding documents.  It could go the other way and these could be made to have more teeth but just getting the thing rolling would be the biggest step.  With today’s communication it would be then easy to monitor the companies.  Any verified infractions of the guidelines would be listed on the web page so if a company didn’t live up to the guidelines that would be noted (possibly with worker ratings) and if it was bad enough then they’d be removed.

Let’s suppose a company doesn’t pay their workers on a given week.  The workers would contact the global vfx group handling all of this. They contact the vfx company and suggests the workers should be paid in 24 hrs.  If that doesn’t happen the workers can quit, the group tweets and a big red x is put over the company name on the website (so workers now avoid that place like the plague) and the group sends a note to Variety and related outlets that this specific vfx company didn’t pay their workers this last week even though they’re working on such and such movie or tv show.  Imagine a director, producer or studio with current work at this company or those considering bringing a project to this company.  I suspect there would be a few phone calls happening with the owner’s of the vfx company.  As I covered in another post, don’t be taken advantage of. Act as a group if there is a major problem at the company you work for.  It’s the only way to have some control over the situation.  Quit if you’re not paid.

So the good news you could conceivably have some type of consistent seal of approval and at least have some minimum working conditions.  Now most of this is similar to a union but a union is already setup for this type of thing and they have true contracts with the companies. In most areas of the US if the majority of a workers at a company want to unionize they can do so.  At that point it’s not optional for the company. And a union is united with other unions so there’s even more strength in numbers. A union also provides transferable benefits between companies that this does not.

Trade organization
The other part of all of this is a potential trade organization. There have been a few meetings and what started as a US centric group has potentially expanded to more of a global organization.  I say potential since even though there have been some meetings there has been very little activity.

There are a number of trade organizations that cover a wide range of services and products all over the world.  They’re tailor fit for their common good.

A trade organization would help to standardize bidding (similar to AICP commercial bids) and other things.  As a group it could allow sub-groups to lobby for tax breaks or advertise as a group.  Companies couldn’t have collusion (setting the same bids) but I believe they could set a minimum (i.e. no less than the actual cost of the work).  This would prevent a race to the bottom.

Trade organizations tend to be thought of in a very stereotypical fashion, just as unions are.  There would be concern if each sub-group was lobbying that there would conflict between sub-groups.  Here’s the thing, you’re building a group from scratch so it can be what you want it to be.  (A vfx union from scratch could also has a certain amount of flexibility of structure)  Organize and cover the things that are similar. Build on that.  If there are non-overlapping areas or areas that are at odds, then that’s probably not covered by the group.

A trade organization could actually do many of the things listed above (Seal of Approval) and if they took it a step further it’s likely they could provide some mechanism for providing benefits that traveled at least for workers within that country to other companies in the trade organization.  The problem though is all power and control is in their hands and if they chose tomorrow to stop benefits there would be nothing to prevent them.  That’s why in many industries there is a worker’s group (or union) and the companies to balance the power just as some governments have multiple branches to allow a balance of power.

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

Sunday, March 06, 2011

IATSE VFX has public meeting March 13 in Burbank

IATSE is holding another Public VFX Meeting to try to answer questions about a potential visual effects union.

"we will be holding another picnic on Sunday March 13 at 1:00 pm at Johnny Carson Park in Burbank. The park is located on Bob Hope Drive; equidistant between Alameda and Riverside Drive; just to the east of NBC."

Details on the VFX Meeting