Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Getting a Visual Effects job

Getting a Visual Effects job

This article is primarily for professionals who are already working in the visual effects business.

If you’re just starting out make sure to read the post on Career in Visual Effects and Visual Effects Schools. Is this the right career for you, do you have a specific area you’re focused on and have you learned enough to be able to do high quality work in a reasonable amount of time without having step by step instructions?

Here are some of the positions in visual effects - Visual Effects Positions

If you’re exploring visual effects then take a look at job listings to get an idea of the different jobs and requirements. That should give you a guide for what you need to strive for if those are the types of jobs you want to work on. Also be sure to check their locations so you know where in the world the job postings are coming from. Do NOT become focused on the pay. If that’s what you’re focused on you should just move onto another career. While the pay for visual effects is good you have to normalize if you want to compare it in any meaningful way to other jobs. You will be working longer hours, may only be employed half the year and may or may not get any benefits (including health care) or overtime pay.

Companies don’t tend to hire year round. They typically hire when they have been awarded a project and need additional people to complete the project. Remember that most visual effects work tends to be project to project freelance.

The order of hiring:
1. People already working at a visual effects company are retained to work on the new project

2. People who have worked at the visual effects company in the past (and were good) who have been laid off between projects are rehired.

3. People who are professionals with experience who have been recommend by someone at the company.

4. People who are professionals with experience.

5. People who have the knowledge but still have yet to get the experience.

Occasionally companies may hire people with no knowledge of visual effects but these are likely for non-visual effects related work, production assisting or for rudimentary work when they need people quickly and are willing to bring people up to speed with just enough knowledge to do the specific task.

Basic tips for getting work

There are no secret handshakes or magic words to getting jobs in this industry.

1. Do great work. Know the principles, know your tools and be able to do your work in a timely manner. See What Makes a Good Visual Effect Artist post. This will be one of the key determinates whether the company hires you for their next projects and how likely others you meet at the company will recommend you.

2. Create a great reel.  Reels are covered in the Career post. You make a short (3-5 minutes max) DVD of your work, typically with before and afters. You also will want to post your reel somewhere on the internet where you can direct potential employers to. Note that if it’s only in Flash format then it own’t be viewable on iPads and some other devices.

I shouldn’t have to say this but do NOT put work by others on your reel and pass it off as your own. Evidently this is becoming more common. I once worked on an emergency project that required scrapping all the temp work from the previous company and doing all the shots from scratch. Months later someone came in with a reel using the shots they didn’t actually work on. Needless to say they weren’t hired.

3. Create a CV or resume listing your job title, credits (latest first) with specifics of what job did. List the software and Operating Systems you have experience with and what level you are. Do NOT put down expert if you’ve only watched a 10 minute YouTube clip. List any related skills (Python programming, rigging, etc) List information such as schooling if it relates to visual effects. Once again make sure this is accurate. Do NOT take credit for work that you did not do.

4. Be a team player. You’ll be working long hours next to your co-workers and have to interact with them, supervisors and various production people. If you do great work AND are pleasant to work with then your co-workers are likely to recommend you for future projects where they’ve been asked to provide names of people to hire.

Keep in mind that production assistant or roto artist today may be your potential boss tomorrow.

5. Network. Not schmoozing type of networking but it’s good to keep in touch with people or at least keep their phone #s and email handy. If you get hired on a project and the company asks for recommendations you can provide some. Likewise you can let others know when you’re finishing a project so they might be able to keep you in mind if they hear of anything. With things like LinkedIn, Facebook and other internet communication it’s much easier now to keep up with people. LinkedIn and Yahoo and others have various visual effects groups specific to areas, software, companies, etc. The Visual Effects Society is a potential way to network with new people as well as the various visual effects forums and websites. Keep in mind that networking won’t help if you do poor work.

6. Read the job posting in detail. Make sure you understand what they’re looking for. They may have specific requests in terms of CV or DVDs, etc. Check the requirements for submitting work or contacting them. If you can’t follow basic instructions for job submissions then they’ll worry how well you’ll follow other instructions.

If you’re in one job position now and wish to do something else then you’re going to have learn the tools on your own and create some demo material to show that you can accomplish this new job position.

How NOT to get hired (or avoided next time they hire)
1. Do the opposite of all of the above. Do mediocre work, take much longer to do the work than others, require someone to help you through every step and be irritating to everyone.

2. Constantly send email or make phone calls to companies

3. Constantly send email or make phone calls to crew members, supervisors or producers. This applies to all the social media and websites as well. If they don’t know you and have not worked with you on a project then it’s unlikely they can really recommend you. If they know you then let them know but no need to remind them every other day.

4. When there is a name actor or director in your radius (visiting the company, on stage or location, etc)  drop what you’re doing and go running through the halls screaming their name and requesting that they autograph a body part for you with your marker.

5. Ignore all the notes from the director and supervisor.

6. Post pictures, story lines and other information about the current show you’re working on.

Looking for Work
I won’t be listing all the visual effects companies here because there are a huge number of them with more opening or closing monthly. I’m sure I’d miss some anyway. The VES (Visual Effects Society) has a database of visual effects companies their forum site. If you’re a member check there.

The movies will have company credits, IMDB.com has company credits and Cinefex and other magazines will list credits of companies as well. All visual effects companies now have websites. Search through those for information about the company, projects and their job listing area. Many companies have twitter accounts so it’s worth following to see if they post new job openings.

Other areas to find visual effects jobs
There are now a number of visual effects job posting sites. Many have twitter accounts to see new postings.
Some of these include: (in no particular order)

Search the internet for others. Go ahead and post comments with links to additional sites or sources.

Sometimes people previously employed by a company or on a specific project may have newsletters, email lists or groups.

Job Fairs
The VES has a job fair every June (they just had one a couple of weeks ago in 3 different cities around the world)

SIGGRAPH is a computer graphics conference in North America. The next one is in LA in August.

There are various other animation, visual effects and computer graphics conferences around the world. Check the companies you’re interested in and see if they will be attending any near you.

Find out the companies near where you live. That’s certainly the easiest way to start.

Feel free to submit your info to multiple companies at the same time. You can submit even to companies not looking for people but some companies may simply toss the material if they’re not hiring or they may ignore it when hiring starts up.

Do some basic research on the company. Know what projects they’ve done, what they specialize in, etc. Check with any friends that may have worked there to get some idea how it works and how it is as a company. Note that some companies change a lot with changes in management or the workers currently employed so a company may become better or worse than a few years ago.
Find out what type of benefits they offer. How much overtime do they put in and do they pay overtime? What type of credit would you get on the project, if any? What is the actual pay rate and how is that computed? Which project is this for (they may not be able to tell you early on)? Be very clear with them about the actual job duties and description. There’s no locked job title definitions so you have to confirm details. There’s nothing wrong with doing composite work on 2D to 3D conversion projects but the company should be forthright about it and make that clear. Likewise animating spaceships is a different thing than animating a character.

[Update 6-20-2013
There are at least a couple of sites where workers can rate their companies. You might check there as well for research. Take any of these with a grain of salt because one person may have had a bad experience out of hundreds.

The VFXWatchers
GlassDoor      ]

Big company versus small companies
Visual effects companies vary in size from 1 man bands to over 1200 or more people.
Each company will be different so the below are just some general notes that may or may not apply.

Big companies
Tend to be more structured with more management, department heads, etc.
Tend to work on more projects at the same time.
Tend to work on larger and more tentpole type of pictures.
Tend to work on more shots at a time.
Artists are more likely specialized.
Likely has more of an R&D departments and support staff.
Larger render farms.
Have Human Resources departments
More likely to have health care and other benefits
More likely to have a training department or person.
More people working at the company means more connections.
More projects may mean more likelihood to move to another project when finished on current one.
More likely to have more skilled and experienced people that may be able to do some mentoring.

Small companies
May have minimal management
More interaction with the key personnel at the company
Will take on small projects and smaller number of shots.
May specialize in a specific area (roto, wire removal, titles, etc)
Artists may do multiple tasks on a shot
Less support team and R&D people
Smaller company means you actually know people more and are likely exposed to everyone at the company unlike a large company that may be spread over multiple building and floors and be broken into departments.

Each has their strengths and weaknesses. How fun a place is or how well organized a company is depends more on the people than the actual size of the company. Both types will lay people off between projects and both types will likely suffer from some politics and inept management at times. Cream may float to the top but management sometimes does so in reverse.

Most of the time you don’t get a choice. It's not like someone offers you all the big visual effects projects for the next year and you get a choice. There’s a job open at company X and they’re currently taking applications. If you pass it by it could be tomorrow or 6 months from now before another opening is available in the area you want for the position you want. Only you can consider the various tradeoffs. Some companies are large or more prestigious. Some may work on more interesting projects or larger and well known projects. You may like to work with smaller teams on less time driven projects. You may prefer to work in multiple areas rather than specialize. It’s your call. What projects do you want to work on? What will be better for your resume? Which do you want your name on and to say you worked on that? You may not get much of a choice but you can be as selective as you want to be as long as your money holds out.

Most visual effects companies are located in large cities but you may actually be happier working at a company outside a big city. Spending more time with the family and less commuting is certainly nice and smaller cities tend to cost less, especially for housing.

In the end make sure you get whatever the company reps say in writing. Please see the VFX Deal Memo post and certainly try to get a deal memo with the company if they’re hiring you. Best to know going in what the arrangement is. Be clear on the time commitment of the company and yourself and what the penalties are. Even if they offer a contract, many contracts are lopsided. One company may require you to sign a 3 year contract but they themselves are only committed to a year long contract. I’ve also seen large companies break contracts. As an individual can you afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight a company with full legal counsel and deep pockets?

Be very leery of internships and contractor positions. Unpaid internships for productive work is illegal in the U.S. and working as a independent contractor is illegal for most vfx positions according to the definition of the IRS. Be sure where ever you are the company and you are following the laws and regulations.

Visual effects is now a global industry and because of tax incentives work may be in a different country or state than where you currently live. The VES Business group has been putting together info on details of the various countries but I don’t know where that currently is. For now you’ll have to do your own research even if you’re simply moving to another state or city.

Before you move
Do you have a job offer already or are you simply hoping to move to an area and get hired? If you have a job offer make sure you have a clear deal memo before moving. What if they cancel the project right after you move? Do they cover any moving expenses? Travel expenses? Housing? These types of expenses can eat up most of your income if you’re not careful.

Be very careful. Obviously it’s very expensive to move and could be quite costly if things don’t go as planned. Some countries have very strict employment limits that require work visas, permits or other legal documents. Without official paperwork you may not be able to work at all or may be very limited for time. The country or state provides tax incentives to the producers that may not kick in for them unless you’re a full citizen or have lived there a certain amount of time. That means that some companies may be more reluctant to hire you if you don’t meet those qualifications in addition to the creative and technical qualifications.

- What about your family? Are you moving your family as well? Do you have to take children out of school and get them enrolled in a another school? Will your spouse have to quit their job and find a new one at the new location? Is this a ‘permanent’ or temp move?

- Whenever you move you have to consider where you want to live and how long the commute is. You might find a nice place but if the commute is 2 hrs for one way that will be too much for long days. If there’s no ‘nice’ areas around where the company is or no affordable areas you’ll have to do some research.

- Consider the cost of living and housing. The salary may sound good but if you’re moving to a place where the housing is 50% higher then that could be a problem. If you’re begin brought in at the last moment or working crazy overtime you may not have time to look for an apartment to rent. You may have to get a hotel room at a higher cost. Will you be there long enough to cover a 1 year rent? Are you sure? Or will you need to rent month by month? What about utilities, cable tv, telephone, etc? Can those be month by month? How long do they take to setup? How are you shipping or moving your belongings? Are you keeping a place where you currently live and this is a temp project?

[ Here's a handy site pointed out by a vfxsolder.com commenter Expatisian ]

- What about health care? If you’re moving to the U.S. be aware there is no national health care. As in none. And be aware we have some of the highest medical expenses in the world. If you have an emergency and have to go to the emergency room you may have to wait hours to see someone. One night in the hospital may cost over $20,000. Health insurance may range from $250 to over $2000 a month depending on preexisting conditions, family coverage, etc. Does the new job offer any health care? How long does it take to kick in? Most U.S. insurance takes at least 3 months before you’re covered so you will have to buy your own for 3 months. Once your employment stops you will likely have to go on Cobra (independent health insurance at high rates) and you’ll have to go through the waiting period again once you start at another company.

- If you’re from the U.S. moving to another country then you will have to research the health care requirements there. You may have to sign up for special health insurance. When does that start up?

- What about taxes? When you move to another state or country there will be tax changes. You may have to get a tax wavier or you may have to pay a specialized tax accountant a fair bit of money to sort out the details of working out of the country or splitting your time. Sometimes the tax kicks in after you have been there so many days so you have to either complete the project within that time or take that into account. The tax rates may be much different than you currently pay. If it’s like most things it will be higher where you’re traveling to. Keep that in mind when you consider the pay rate as well. Are there any other special taxes or other costs that will be incurred? Even moving to Los Angeles county if you’re an independent contractor or loan out company you have to submit a number of forms and potentially pay special taxes.

- What about cell phone service? What about a car? License? Registration? What about transferring money? Bank accounts? etc. All this can get very complicated very quickly so be sure to do your homework. That's why having made friends of co-workers who may now be living in the country can be very useful.

[Update: 11/6/2012 Please make sure to have HR provide you all the paperwork for your Health Care Coverage before you sign your deal memo. Check for maternity, pre-existing conditions, exclusions, vision care, disability, etc. so you understand what is included and what isn't. Check on cost of options to get more coverage if you wish.
Here's a sad example of the fine details: Lucasfilm Employee Terminated After Tending To Pregnant Wife 
More tips there from users in the comments related to working in other countries. ]

Improving yourself
Learn from any company you’re at. They likely have a different way of approaching the work. Glean the better parts. Try to learn from others at the company, especially those more experienced or experts in specific areas. Consider areas that you could learn that would make you more useful and more efficient at what you’re doing. A Nuke compositor may want to learn Python or an animator want to learn more about rigging. Keep learning. Buy books, DVDs, etc. Keep up to date on new developments. VFX Guide has podcasts and there are other sites with information. Cinefex covers visual effects as a magazine and Animation World covers animation and visual effects. There are also plenty of visual effects related links on the right side of this blog to explore.

Having multiple strengths and some variety in your background may make you more valuable to companies looking for people, especially if they can shift you to different departments or if they need another hand for a short time in another area.

If you’re working in one position for a longer period of time (you’re on staff or some equivalent) and you wish to move up make sure you’re actually qualified for the next position or other position if it’s in a different area. Make sure to let management know. Management may have no idea. Sometimes management would prefer to hire someone else from the outside for a newer, higher position if you’re doing a good job in your current position. If you’re in a job for a real length of time they should do a review with you so you should be clear about what you think you’re bringing to the company.

Be very careful about moving up. There are tradeoffs to be made. As you move up you may be paid more but may be doing much more management and meetings and much less hands on work that you may currently enjoy. Also be aware as you move higher there are less positions at your company and other companies. There’s likely just one CG supervisor on a project at the company. There’s likely just one CG department head at the company. That means if that position is currently filled you won’t be able to move up until it’s vacated or you’ve switched companies. If you’re looking for work the higher the level the less likely you’ll find a job listings. As an example a company may have 40 animators but just one animation supervisor. So what seems like an increase in salary may not mean much if you’re employed less. Companies tend to avoid people they feel may be too qualified so if you a composite supervisor and willing to work as a compositor to get work, the company may opt for someone else because you’ve had higher level experience. They may think you’d be frustrated.

This also brings up the same issue as covered in the VFX Deal Memo post. Make sure your job title and description are correct. If you’re at a large company then there will likely be quite a few potential candidates for higher level jobs within the company and so you’d have to be highly qualified. With a much smaller company you may be able to be promoted much faster but that may not be a good thing. If the company only has 3 animators they have to assign someone as the animation supervisor and that someone could be you. But if you don’t really have the experience or knowledge to be the supervisor it could be problematic there and could be a real problem if you try to get a job as an animation supervisor at a larger company.  Just be aware of the tradeoffs and make sure you consider it.

Where ever you work, take some time at least every year to re-evaluate where you are and what you're doing. Are you having fun? Is this what you want to do?  Is where you thought you'd be at this time? It's easy to get into a rut of one project after another and have a few years pass by before looking up. Look up from your desk and consider the possibilities.

Related posts:
VFX Deal Memos
Visual Effects Positions
What to do when you're laid off
Career in Visual Effects
Visual Effects Schools

On internet
How to land a job at Pixar

Friday, June 15, 2012

Visual Effects Tips 2

[Visual Effects Tips 1 post]

Time is important in visual effects. There’s never enough of it so make every attempt to minimize wasted time and simple mistakes.

Many of these examples are animation or compositing but most apply to the majority of visual effects work from texture or matte painting to lighting.

Checking materials
When starting a task or shot check the materials you’ve been provided.
Are all the materials correct?
Does the live action match the count sheet?
If there’s a match move is it correct?
If you’re composting are the supplied renders correct with correct alphas?
If there are problems flag them immediately. If you don’t check you may not know that there are problems until well into the shot, at which time trying to correct the mistakes will take longer and be more difficult.

After confirming everything is ok become familiar with the material. If it’s a greescreen take a look at the screen and potential problems extracting the mattes. If you’re going to roto the live action run the clip a few times to see what’s happening so you can plan your approach.

Note to visual effects companies: Make sure your contracts include explicit details for deliveries to your company. File formats, schedules, naming, file organization, size, etc. Sometimes it’s amazing the amount of incorrect material received from a client. On one project I worked on the editorial dept seemed to have a PA who was simply recopying everything onto hard drives and shipping them with no information and no organization. The visual effects company then would have to spend hours sifting through the material to determine what was new and what had changed. In other cases I’ve heard of some editorial departments constantly providing incorrect count sheets. By having this info in the contract the first time this happens flag it to the client and inform them that additional lapses that require rework or unplanned man hours correcting will be billed on a time and material basis. Additional costs seem to be one of the few ways to get a clients attention unfortunately but it also means that the meager profits will be less likely soaked up by these types of sloppiness or errors on the clients part.

Now that you’ve reviewed the materials take a moment to think through the task at hand and how this will be accomplished. What are the critical elements, what are the steps that will need to be done, what tasks will have to be done by other departments, etc. What are the items that will likely change or that will need special care? If this a stereo shot or will be converted to stereo after the fact then you will have to consider the implications of working in real 3D space. If you’re compositing you’ll need to think of the layering process.

Keep it simple stupid. In your plan for the task try to keep it simple. You have to anticipate the areas that will need to be controlled independently and break it up accordingly but avoid going crazy with layers or keyframes if possible. A complex shot will probably require more than simple work but don’t needlessly make the project or the work complex.

As you start thinking of the shot and the steps required keep in mind it’s likely you will have to pass the work on to someone during the course of the show. That someone could be you having to re-open the project and make changes two months after it was finalled or it could be you re-starting the shot after it was put on hold for three months. Or it could be a co-worker who has to take over the shot while you finish something else or the shot may have to be split up because of an impending deadline.

With that in mind you want to make it so no one, including yourself, has to spend hours reverse engineering what you were doing and why. (I’m not even going mention the possibility that a sequel may mean some of these files and projects are opened years later)

Start with the fundamentals. If you’re an animator then you want to make sure you have the proper poses at the correct key frames. Don’t get lost in trying to do the secondary animations, just focus on the fundamental animation. If you’re a compositor adjust the black levels and adjust the basic color of the assortment of elements you’ve been provided before throwing in all the layering atmospherics and other enhancements.

Once these are done and approved then you know you have a solid foundation to build on. It allows the supervisor or director the ability to review the work before you spend a lot of time on it. There may be radical changes that would make all the additional work worthless.

There will be times when it will be useful to do slop or rough animation, renders and composites. Frequently it’s necessary to block in an entire sequence so the director and editor can review before proceeding. Other times it may be necessary to provide shots for test screenings that were scheduled to be done in the future. Regardless you’ll get notes on the shots and the first impulse will be to take these quick and dirty versions and start making adjustments. However it’s almost always best to get back to the foundation and the basics before addressing the notes. If the black levels are off or the basic timing of animation is wrong, it will still be wrong even tweaking the other aspects of the shot. And in the end it’s likely you’ll waste a lot of time and have to scrap it to get back to where you should have started from.

You should have a To Do list for every shot you work on. With feedback from the supervisor or director you may be changing the order of priorities. Neither the director nor supervisor will want to ask multiple times for the same thing. Let them know if there is an issue accomplishing that.

If you’re reviewing yourself play the shot through and note the items that stand out to you as not in keeping with what the final shot should be. Determine the priority based on which issues truly jump out the most and which ones are fundamental issues versus getting sidetracked and spending time noodling with a few pixels in the corner. If it had to go in the movie tomorrow what are the top 5 items to be fixed or changed?

As you work on each item mark it off your To Do list so you always know how much you’ve done and how much is still to be done.

Is your monitor actually calibrated? Are you using the correct lookup table and gamma settings? Are you seeing the same results you see in dailies review and that the supervisor and director see? If not check with your company to see if your system can be calibrated or you’ll have to develop an eye to compensate for the difference. Be aware if your system or playback has limited color depth.

If you’re presenting to the director or supervisor it’s usually worthwhile having the previous version loaded and ready to review since many times it will be used for reference and comparison. If you’re showing with and without results in something like Nuke then wire up the viewer so you can quickly cycle though the different versions or variations if possible. Having to zoom out, find the areas, relink the viewer, etc are time consuming and should have already been done ahead of time.  Sometimes it’s worth putting in a switch to quickly change the composite flow. Create snapshots in After Effects or other apps.

Reviewing your work
For your own reviews crank the gamma up and down and the exposure up and down to spot any inconsistencies or level issues. Try the alternate lookup tables (make sure to return to normal once done reviewing). Will the shot hold up in the DI or once it’s transferred to video? Are areas being clipped or is there a mismatch of blacks and levels? Is there any quantizing? Check the blue channel for grain issues. Have you added the proper amount of grain and does the whole shot match?

Play it slow, fast and in reverse to see if everything is working as it should. This can sometimes show flaws in the animation or simply allow you to spot fluctuation problems.

When you’re staring at something a long time you may not spot some of the flaws that might be obvious to others. Painters sometimes look at their work in a mirror to give them a different feel for the painting. This was common in the pre-digital days with matte painters. Flopping the image in the viewer or composite will provide this same option of seeing the shot in a new light.

Be honest with yourself. If the animation or whatever you're working on isn't working consider how to fix it. Discuss with a co-worker, lead or supervisor if you know it's wrong but aren't sure how to proceed.

Do your work in an organized fashion that follows logical thinking. If your company has templates or guidelines be sure to follow those. It’s easy in some apps such as Nuke to end up with something that looks like a mess of spaghetti. This will chew up your time daily to maintain and change and it will mean that anyone else who needs to work on the composite will spend extra time digging through the composite.

Come up with some basic conventions yourself if none is provided by your company or lead. Try to be consistent about the approach and naming. Group parts of the shots as modules. This makes it easy to enable/disable sections or to switch sections. If you’re working in Photoshop you might want to put sections in folders to keep it more organized. Likewise with some roto packages and other apps there are opportunities to group related items.

It’s not always clear what your project file is doing. It may seem totally obvious to you now but to others or even yourself a few weeks from now it will likely be a totally mystery. If you’re writing software code then include comments. If it;s a complex process with multiple files consider writing a Read Me file or some basic document describing what the process is and how it works. By including some forms of documentation it will be easier and faster to keep track of what is what. Many software packages offer methods to document the work as you’re doing it. Label layers in After Effects and Photoshop. This minimizing the amount of guess that is done or the toggling of layers to determine exactly what each is doing. Label key nodes in Nuke.

Some apps allow adding comments. Nuke provides Sticky Notes so you can mark a specific area with a reminder to yourself or an explanation why you’re doing it this way. Their backdrop can be placed behind a number of nodes with text and with user defined colors making it easy to spot key areas even on a large and complex composite. Nuke also provides No Op nodes that can be labeled. Take a look at the software you’re using to determine how you can use labels and other built in documentation. If none exists consider writing up a short text file in the director with your notes.

Add slates to your rendered images and add useful comments there. These are going to become very valuable when you have to dig back through them for yourself or a client.

Save often
Many software packages have autosaving functions. Make sure these are turned on but also get in the habit of saving yourself to make sure your work is being saved where it needs to be saved.

Save versions
Save your files and projects as you go along with version or take numbers. Use the company defined file structure and naming conventions. Especially important if you’ve made major changes. It’s very frustrating when the client or supervisor likes a test or previous version you did but you didn’t save the project. Now you have to spend time trying to recreate what you already did once before.

When you work on a shot you will likely have to render quite a few takes on your machine and/or on the render farm. If for some reason your render isn’t optimized that can equate to quite a few hours of lost production time and processor time.  As you manipulate, test and review interactively an unoptimized configuration can mean the difference of trying multiple changes in a short time or become a slog of spending most of your day making a few simple changes. It may mean the difference of producing a great result on a short turnaround or a mediocre result since you didn’t have time to manipulate and render a better version.

Optimize your renders when possible. Know the application you’re working in and know what options there are when rendering. Here’s a list of optimizations for Nuke. There’s likely more than a few lists for all visual effects software packages. Avoiding things that slow down the app and doing more of the things that speed up the app may have a big impact on the day to day work. Consider using low resolution proxy models or elements when you can for working on animation or basic testing. Consider pre comps and caching when working on the top layer. Consider rendering just a frame range of the shot and combining it previously rendered frames to check the new frames in context.

For specific tasks you might turn off some of the advanced settings - motion blur, fur render, etc. as long as you know what you’re evaluating. You might be able to disable specific areas of a composite or render if that’s not what you’re working on. Just make sure to restore all of the settings for the final render and another other renders that require full reviews.

There’s no point in spending 3 days trying to shave a few seconds off the entire shot render but if your render is running much slower than it should due to simple changes, then it’s a waste of time and resources.

The other thing to consider optimizing is yourself and your approach. If you’re working a lot in one software package then get to know all the keyboard and mouse shortcuts. Configure the app keys or your Wacom to take advantage of specific and frequent tasks. Use macros or scripts as needed for repeating common tasks. In Photoshop use actions for tasks that you do a lot of.

Check your results
Check all the renders or tests you generate and consider them in terms of the request from the director or supervisor. Make sure to check your work before passing it on to others to use. Do NOT assume that its correct. If you’re an animator check the final animation for any stray keyframes or oddities. Rotoscopers should make sure the motion and coverage is correct. If you’re rendering simulations make sure they’re the required length and have correct alphas. If you’re a TD make sure there aren’t any glitches or bad frames rendered.

It’s far better to find out now and fix it rather than getting a frantic call late at night two weeks later.

Once you’ve checked the results make sure everything has been correctly entered int whatever asset database your company may be using. Make sure to prep the files for archiving if you’re finished.

Keep a log
Keep a log of the time you work and the shots and tasks you’re working on. You likely already do this for your timecard or for production but it’s worthwhile recording it as well for yourself. It can be a real eye opener to see how much actual time was spent on a shot or given task or how much linear time it took by the time the back and forth happened with the director. Use this as a reference when you’re asked to bid on a shot or when you’re asked how much time you think is required to get the version done. All of us in visual effects are eternal optimists. We assume we can whip out the next version in a couple of hours. Time after time of saying that with a client waiting and disappointing them with something two days later is a problem. It’s also a problem for the visual effects company who bids on the amount of time required and unknowingly underbids the work simply because everyone is optimistic. The company should in fact be doing their own reality check of what the typical shot requires but most companies don’t work that way. No point in budgeting 2 hours of roto per shot on a new show if the company average was 8 hours of roto per shot on the last show.

Also keep a record of the bids you provide when bidding a show. Don’t be surprised if the numbers changed quite a bit when you go to do the actual work months later. Especially problematic when they try holding you to it. The supervisor or producer may think you were pessimistic and ‘adjusted’ the amount of time much lower. Or in some cases they may have added a lot of padding.

Check the next phase
Once you’re done with your tasks and passed the files or elements on it’s usually out of your hands. And the company probably wants you to be focusing your efforts on the next task. But when possible it’s worth checking the next step, the next render or task. You can check to make sure the correct version is in fact being used of your animation. You can make sure the root elements or renders are the right ones and are being used correctly. It’s possible there’s been a mixup or confusion on the next step and by viewing the 10 second shot you can flag an error that may not be evident to others.

Check the final
If a shot you worked on in any form is finalled check it out. Its worth doing a reality check of what you did and how it was used in context of the shot and project. Did you over build details of the model that never show up given the action or smoke levels? Did texture map you painted work? Did that elaborate 30 second shot get cut down to 2 seconds? Would you have done more on a specific aspect that would have made the shot better? There may not be much you can do about some of these things but it’s worth getting the experience and understanding how things come to be. It’s also worth considering how would you approach this same task or type of shot next time. Would you change anything? Have you learned anything you can apply to the remaining shots or to future projects?

[I'll have future tips posts. Feel free to add your own tips in comments]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Visual Effects Tips 1

Here are a few tips and suggestions for visual effects artists. Some of these overlap my post on being a good visual effects artist. It takes more than just knowing how to use a visual effects software package to be good. The real key is to be able to accomplish great finished results within the constraints of the project.

I started writing up tips and found it getting rather long (and my time limited) so I've split it up a bit and will provide future postings.

Shot Objective
Be clear about what the objective of the shot is. The visual effects supervisor or director should be able to define their emphasis of the shot. Is there an action the main actor is making or a point that is being made? Then be sure not to obscure that and more than likely you might need to emphasis that. It very easy for everyone in the process to start focusing on the technical issues or on secondary issues and lose sight of what the shot is supposed to accomplish within context of the film.

Task objective
What is the specific task you’ve been asked to do on a shot? When is the first version due and when is the final due? Your visual effects producer has a number budgeted for your time. What are the parameters you’re working with and what are the elements you’re working with? What are the specs of what you’re creating? if you have any questions or aren’t clear be sure to ask.

Real versus style
Directors almost always ask for everything to be photo real. And yet they may make things very stylized by their choice of camera moves, camera speeds, looks, sets and other ingredients of the film. Very often a natural photo real look and a very stylized look are in direct conflict with each other.

It’s best if the visual effects team can be on the same page as the director and know his or her vision for the film and what the true balance is of real versus stylized looks. There’s also the choice of realism versus cinematic. As visual effects artists we tend to know what’s correct from a reality standpoint but the director may want it pushed to acheive a more interesting or exciting look.

The cinematographer may put eye lights on the actors to give them a highlight and emphasis their eyes. Those are the types of subtle cues and guides the team should be aware of and take advantage of.

Original digital visual effects were done in 8-bit log space and it was important for the cinematographer to provide color timed clips (color balanced film clips from the lab) for us to match to. Once these were locked it was important not to push them too far in any direction (darker, lighter, etc) due to the limited dynamics. These days shots are typically done in a neutral state but it is still ideal if the director and cinematographer can go into a DI (Digital Intermediate) suite and do some basic color timing of the key sequences. This indicates to the visual effects team which direction the movie is going in.

Don’t use this as an opportunity to hide sins of the shot but if in the final DI they will be turning everything sepia with a strong diffusion filter it would be good to know that early on. If you spent an extra day on each shot tweaking the color and exactly matching flesh colors, etc. for 1000 shots, that’s a lot of wasted time. The flip side is the director or the studio could change their minds in the DI session so that’s a discussion to be had.

If the project is to be stylized then the visual effects artists can likely help and take advantage of that or offer suggestions. Maybe the  animation has an extra flourish or the lighting is pushed more than it normally would be.

Learn to see
Spend time looking at your surroundings. The lighting, shadows and the look of things in the world. If you're an animator watch how people and animals move. Technical directors, lighters and compositors should be looking at how light interacts, how shadows work, etc.

Much of the time in visual effects is looking at a shot and trying to determine "what's wrong with this picture". Are there artifacts or is something making the shot look false? Do the visual effects match the live action portion of the scene? What are the standout problems?

You're going to be spending your time comparing to previous versions and to references. You should be able to do this without a supervisor having to point out everything.

Hopefully lighting references will have been shot on set by the visual effects supervisor. And these are good for technical starting points but additional references can prove to be very useful. The most important reference will likely be the live action element(s) that will be used. This will display many subtle issues the standard sphere or fisheye references do not.

If you have a creature or object try to shoot material references in the actual lighting. Feathers, fur, physical model, etc. can all be useful to shoot at the time of the other references.

Because here’s the thing, as much as you think you know exactly what something looks like you may be surprised what it actually looks like in that lighting setup with that composition. And without a good reference you and others may diverge so far from reality you may all be staring at the shot a few weeks later trying to figure out why it’s not working.

An example is a blue or greenscreen shot. Ideally you shoot the background first so you can match the lighting when shooting the foreground element. In that case make sure to shoot reference footage of a person standing in the area you expect to composite someone. This simple step is often ignored but is key to using as a reference for the cinematographer and for the compositor. It becomes clear looking at the real reference where all the lighting cues, lighting angles and contrast ratios are. The compositor looking at the reference can check how the edges work, how the light wrap works, how the final color and contrast is working for the actor in the composite. No discussions necessary, here’s the reference to match.

If an animator needs to animate a character pole vaulting then use a reference. Without that the animator, animation supervisor and director will all be having discussions about what it really should look like. What the grip is, how much flex should be in the pole, what the timing is, etc would all be endlessly discussed and debated.

Now the director may choose to make something more cinematic and to forego some or part of reality in order to make it fit into the style and storytelling task. But when starting with reality it always provides a control reference of where you’re starting from.

Paul Huston, a matte painter at ILM, had previously worked as a model builder. He frequently builds models and photographs them just to make sure he’s keeping to reality. They help provide the starting point to the painting.

Today with the internet and small digital still and video cameras there’s no real excuse for not having references. A quite internet search will likely provide plenty of images and videos of something that relates to what you’re working on. A camera, even in your phone, allows you to capture specific references, especially if it’s near by.

Accumulate references for the type of show and sequence it is. Hopefully production will have a pooled resource for all those working on the visual effects. And I would suggest continuing to gather personal references. Next time you’re walking or waiting somewhere take a look at the surroundings and see if there’s anything worth documenting. The way the light comes in the office window or the motion of tall grass may all be useful references.

Unless the project calls for it, avoid the weird or unreal. We’ve all seen bizarre clouds but if you put that in a typical matte painting it would standout and give a sense of falseness to the results, regardless of it’s basis in reality.

Friday, June 01, 2012


Even though there is a real IA visual effects union effort starting up many have decided to continue to sit on the sidelines. They are waiting for the perfect solution for the visual effects industry. They are waiting for a global organization that can guarantee paid hours (including overtime), limit overtime, provide good working conditions, healthcare, end underbidding and provide solutions to other problems that the industry faces (including elimination of tax incentives for some). It's to be a hydrid of a union (but not really) and a trade association (but not really). They want something that all workers and companies immediately sign up for. Some don't want to pay dues so it must be free. 

Unfortunately for those people, it will be a very long wait. No such organization exists and it can't materialize out of thin air. The VFX foundation was started with some of those goals but I'm not sure where it is now. To start up any large organization takes a lot of effort, time and money. To try to do something that meets all the legal requirements in all countries is a monumental task. Even for companies such as Apple they have to have special warranties and other adjustments depending on the country. In the U.S. there are specific laws regarding unions, non-profits and various types of businesses. There's differences even at the state level. And similar issues exist in other countries with specific regulations even in different regions of the same company.

Those of us who work in this industry should be happy when there are improvements to the artistry, technology and business of visual effects no matter where it occurs. If a group of workers and companies in the world make improvements for themselves without causing a reduction elsewhere, good for them. Improvements anywhere will hopefully become a guide and inspiration for others in the global view. 

One does not scale a mountain in one leap, but by taking steps. Rather than waiting endlessly for the ultimate solution (which won't occur), the best approach would be to take the small steps that are possible now. The IA effort isn't worldwide but if it did occur in the U.S. it would likely cause an indirect benefit to other workers who wish to be paid fairly for all the hours they work. The union movement in U.S. and elsewhere elevated many of the working conditions even for non-union workers. (40 hr work, weekends off, vacation, etc) I suspect the same thing would happen in this case.

I urge visual effects workers to do some research, spread the word and discuss with your coworkers. What are the problems you're facing and what are -you- going to do about them? What is the solution? Rather than sit by the sidelines or heckling, how about providing a solution or lending a hand?

There is a meeting June 3 for those in the Los Angeles area. For more info on the meeting or the IA effort: The IA Visual Effects Website