Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Visual Effects Positions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assistant can apply to some of the titles as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tools:  Word, Excel, Filemaker, etc.

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

Art Department

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

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

Tools:  Photoshop, Painter, SketchUp, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

Tools:  Photoshop, Painter, SketchUp, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works with:  Visual effects supervisor, director, cinematographer,

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

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

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

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

Works with: Visual effects supervisor, match move department

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

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

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

Works with: Director, visual effects supervisor

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

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

Tools:  Specialized scanning software

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

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

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

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

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

Person who does the roto or rotoscoping work.

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

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

Works with: Compositors and technical directors

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

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

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

The paint and roto departments can be all one department.

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

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

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

Works with:  Paint department

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

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

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

Works with:  Compositors

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

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

Training: Experienced modeler

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

Works with: Modelers, visual effects supervisor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training:   Computer graphics training, understanding of animation,

Tools:  Maya, Mel

Works with:  Modelers and animators

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

Training:   Art school/classes, photography, CG classes

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

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

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

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

Tools:  Maya, Mel, proprietary tools, etc

Works with:  Modelers, Technical directors and animators

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

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

Training:  Experienced animator. Animation school or classes. 

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

Works with: Director, visual effects supervisor

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

This may be further broken down into:

Character Animator 
Animator for characters that speak and react.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Model building experience a plus including machining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training:  Computer graphics training, ideally knowledge of photography,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works with: CG supervisor, visual effects supervisor

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

Training:   Computer programming

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

Works with:  CG Supervisor

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

Training:   Technical director, computer science, computer graphics

Tools:  Renderman and other rendering software, OpenGL

Works with:  Technical Director, Texture painter

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

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

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

Works with: Technical directors, compositor

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

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

Tools:  Various render farm management programs and scripts

Works with:  Visual effects supervisor, producer, CG supervisor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tools:  Flame, Inferno

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor

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

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

Training:   Computer graphics, 

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

Works with:  Technical director, animator

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

Training:   Art classes, cinematography

Tools:  Maya, etc

Works with: Technical director, animator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tools:  Photoshop, Nuke

Works with:  Compositors, visual effects supervisor

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

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

Tools:  Avid, FCP, DaVinci, specialized color tools

Works with:  Director, cinematographer

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

Training: Knowledgeable about stereo

Tools:  Nuke, Occula, Mystica, etc.

Works with:  Director, visual effects supervisor, CG supervisor

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

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

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

Tools:  Specialized hardware and software systems.

Works with:  Cinematographer and visual effects supervisor

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

Training:   Filmmaking school, editing, visual effects knowledge

Tools:  Avid, FCP, etc.   

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

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

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

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

Works with:  Departments in need of specialized software development.

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

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

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

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

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.

Related posts:
Visual Effects Producer - Audio
VFX Management

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


  1. Thank you!
    Really Great article,
    One more position i want to know about Prep compositor/Prep Artist.

  2. Prep Compositor / Prep Artist -

    For standard compositing there's usually not a lot of prepping required beyond the obvious rig removal. There can be some batch processing ahead of time like lens corrections or other types of work that will minimize the time to re-composite. If the footage is in an odd format or requires specialized color correction it may be worth processing. in some cases if it's a very long take and you're only using part of it, prepping is a matter of loading only the required frames and some places have a tendency to renumber the frames.

    The times I've seen this title used is with 2D to 3D conversion. In those cases the Prep artists is typically making a clean plate using paint tools and possibly some composite tools themselves. (See paint section above)

    In 2D to 3D conversion just about every object in the scene ends up being 'cutout' and shifted. This leaves gaps on the right or left of varying sizes. Some systems simply smear or blur to fill these gaps which can work for very small offsets but any larger gaps require some type of replacement filler. By having a clean plate made, the converted image can simply be composted over the clean plate and any gaps showing are filled with the correct imagery.

    Production seldom allow clean plates to be shot and certainly don't for conversions even though it could save them time and money. Moving camera makes it difficult to shoot clean plates if you don't have a motion control.

    Note that if there is a lot of clean plates to make such as always removing a stand in actor to be replaced by CG it's possible they may call that prep work as well. Typically we just called it paint work.

    Sometimes for 2D to 3D work rather than making an entire clean plate only the side edges of the actors and objects are restored to the amount required for the gaps. This saves the time to clean everything but provides enough to do the composite.

    In addition to clean plate creation, prep work can also refer to things like removal of lens flares, reflections and other difficult items to deal with in 2D to 3D conversion. Since these have to be put in dimension as well but are partially transparent they have to exist at 2 depths or more. So any lens flares, reflections, and atmospheric (smoke) are extracted so you end with an element with those removed (restoration) and you also end up with the element itself such as lens flare on black. This is done through a combination of paint and compositing. This is very demanding and difficult work.

    This allows the final depth setting and compositing work to be simplified.

  3. Clear Explanation,Thank you Scott!

  4. Awesome list and description Scott! Many thanks.

  5. Thanks for this. It would have been useful when I was just figuring out what I was best suited for in VFX! Question, in an artistic role, say, involving Maya-can you give an example of a time when you required programming skills and math? Also which advanced math studies would best support an artist? Finally, which programming language is most sought after? In games, it seems to be migrating to C#, but that is for Windows platforms, so is it more likely to be C++ or Java for Linux-based artists? Or is scripting generally all they need like PyMEL or Maxscript? Thanks!

  6. Artist's math and programming knowledge - Some basic knowledge may allow you to be more independent such as when you work at a smaller company without a full staff of people to do scripts, etc. It also gives you a firmer basis of understanding of some of the processes (match moving, lighting, etc) and know what can be possible. Do you animate that thing flying around the creature or would that be better done as a programmed function. This also relates to simulations. Do you need to animate the dangling bits on a character or should those be simmed? If you know Mel script or other things specific to Maya then you have a larger toolbox to work with. You don't have to be an expert but if you have some understanding you can at least consider and talk to the support team regarding your ideas.

    The additional ability to communicate reasonably with the tech people also comes in handy and allows you see other potential improvements that could be made.

    Note that I consider most vfx jobs to be artistic with varying degrees of tech. Nuke compositor has to work by eye and animate values as well. In their case learning Python can be very helpful and let them extend their toolbox of options and techniques.

    Programming - First level would be just an intro to what programming is and the concepts related to it may be enough for some people. Next step would be to learn some computer languages. C++ probably dominant for actually programming plugins or extensions for various programs. Python and other scripting style languages are good to automate task or make special calculator apps, etc.

    Maya has MeEL language. If you're already working at a company you can ask some of the people you're working with in the tech areas what scripting environments they're using.

    Math - Simple logic. Problem solving. Understanding formulas so you can use a calculator when need be. Trig and geometry come in handy at times.

  7. Very interesting reading. I wonder for how long these positions will exist as processes and technology evolve. I'm quite sure it will look very differently in 10 years from now.

    Btw, CGI = Computer-generated imagery

  8. Yes some of these positions will fall by the wayside as new technology and processes happen BUT most involve some type of artistry and creativity. A painter today may use much different tools than 1000 years ago but you still need to visualize and develop skills with your tools, be they oil paints or Photoshop, to do it well. Small inexpensive digital cameras may make some things easier but you still have to have an eye for composition and for those making films you still have to paint with light if you wish to make truly great looking images. While image processing and advanced graphics and vision routines may simplify or automate certain tasks it can't replace the human involvement for everything creative and hopefully never will.

    And new positions will be opening up. There were no feature computer graphics to speak of over 30 years ago. We had people hand match moving everything in the early days of computer graphics and much of that has now been replaced. But we now have motion capture and virtual production, neither of which existed at that time. In the future with more true virtual production we'll be seeing additional positions being created. Visual effects, especially in the digital age is rapidly evolving. Anyone in now or in the future will have to adapt. But most are already doing that continuously getting educated about new tools and technologies.

    CGI- actually it has been used for both terms over the years. In the end CG is the most succinct way to describe it. Computer graphics - everyone understands it's being generated from the computer.

  9. Hey, is there any sort of job that would be creating a design that would go on the green screen, and also making that happen place, also somewhere in a set design area and special effects plus breakaway props. any job with these??

  10. >job that would be creating a design that would go on the green screen

    There are production designers that oversee production design for the full picture. They typically hire some concept designers that specialize in different areas (as a science fiction example: aliens, weapons, vehicles, etc)

    What goes into a greenscreen is designed as part of shot. The film is storyboarded for at least vfx scenes. The director needs something to happen in each scene. Based on the storyboard the vfx supervisor works with the director, DP, production designer to discuss how to achieve that shot. It may simply be shooting the actor on location or in front of a set. It may require shooting live action backgrounds in one place and then shoot the actor greenscreen to place him/her in front of that background. The background could all be CG. All very dependent on the shot requirements, time, budget and other factors.

    >somewhere in a set design area and special effects plus breakaway props.

    (Note that I haven't worked in the production dept so structure may vary)
    Set design is handled by the production designer. Underneath them is the art director and a whole department of people handling specific tasks. There's a set dresser who obtains and places all the props in the scene. Special Effects dept (not visual effects) handles any breakaway or special props. They typically work with the director, production designer and set dresser to define what is required. It could be a special prop gun, breakable vase, breakable window, prop that catches on fire, breaking chair, etc. That's defined in pre-production since they will likely have to build what ever is required.

    Sounds like you likely want a job in the art department. In that case of course art training is important. Work on both the craftsmenship and the design. These days being able to model or build from a blueprint on the computer is a very useful skill. Consider working at a local theater where they need sets designed and built to get some local experience.

    1. Thanks this was really helpful, really appreciate it :)


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