How to become a VFX artist

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Students sitting at computers

Imagine if your day at work involved a trip into space, a journey to the time of the dinosaurs or a flight with a dragon. VFX artists create digital creatures, worlds and objects, bringing imaginary realms and ideas to life on screens big and small.

In this article, we look at the varied and exciting VFX jobs you can do and explore how you can get there.

‘Imagination is the only limit for VFX artists, who bring fantastic beasts and new worlds to life.’

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First of all, check out this video from VFX artist Mark Weingärtner, who has worked on films like Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight:

What is a VFX artist?

VFX artists work in the Publishing & Media Career Zone and come in all shapes and sizes. Actually, the field is made up of lots of different professionals with all sorts of specialisms. This means that VFX jobs are wide-ranging and varied. Here are just a few of the VFX jobs you could choose from:

  • Roto artist – cuts out moving actors so that they can be placed in another environment
  • Paint/prep artist – erases unnecessary objects from footage e.g. a harness holding Superman up as he flies through a scene
  • Compositing artist – places computer-generated images into the live-action frame
  • Modelling artist – makes digital images move
  • Texturing artist – gives digital objects their rough, real-world texture
  • Lighting artist – makes sure that light effects appear lifelike
  • Environment artist – ensures that the environment of the film is seamless between set and studio
  • Concept artist – comes up with ideas which other artists base their work around
  • Animator – makes digital characters and objects move
  • Look development artist – ensures digital creations look lifelike in all shots and conditions
  • Creature technical director – makes sure everything about digital creatures is authentic and that they appear lifelike when the animators make them move
  • Effects technical director – creates weather effects, explosions and other special effects
  • Matte painter/artist – design backgrounds by splicing together real and digital images

There are many other VFX jobs in supporting and production roles such as producer, runner, researcher and bug fixer.

This picture from Screen Skills' Careers in Visual Effects guide shows how the different roles connect up (right click / tap and hold and select "View image in new tab" to see full size):

Diagram of VFX jobs
Right click and select "View image in new tab" to see full size

Who will I work for?

VFX artists work for specialised VFX studios which provide services to clients. Clients are generally the production team who shoot the footage or the TV or film studio, the driving force behind the movie or programme.

Production teams also employ some staff in a VFX role, such as runners and editors to operate as a go-between connecting them with the VFX studio.

What do VFX artists do?

VFX artist at their PC

VFX make sure that digital elements are indistinguishable from

reality

As you can see from the sheer number of VFX jobs, VFX artists do quite a lot! Essentially, people working in this field create digital landscapes and characters and make sure that they are indistinguishable from reality when seen on screen. Creating reality inside a computer is no mean feat and it requires both imagination and technical expertise.

In the bigger studios, VFX jobs are quite compartmentalised, meaning they are broken down into small chunks and the process is approached like a production line. In this environment, you might move between roles or progress up the ladder into a supervisory or production role.

In smaller studios, you might find yourself working in more of a generalist capacity, working on various parts of the process instead of focusing on one specific area.

What skills do I need?

You need a range of technical and creative skills as well as imagination.

Much, if not all, of the work is computer-based in most VFX jobs. Even though you will use special software, an element of coding will be helpful. A background in computer science will help with this.

Making digital objects act as if they are real also requires a grasp of the laws of physics, so a STEM background is recommended. Technical director roles in particular require a background in a subject such as maths or physics.

You will need to be able to take and incorporate feedback on your work without viewing it as personal criticism. You will work with clients whose requirements will change and who will have a very specific outcome in mind.

Other skills that will be required include:

  • Attention-to-detail
  • Patience
  • A logical, methodical approach
  • Problem-solving

What qualifications are required for VFX jobs?

To apply successfully for most VFX jobs, you will need to have a showreel which demonstrates your skills and ability. This is the VFX artist’s equivalent of an artist’s portfolio. If your formal qualifications do not allow you to produce a showreel then you will need to create one in your spare time.

Close up of person's hand as they draw

You'll need a mixture of skills from STEM subjects and more

"arty" ones

At school or college, you should aim for a mix of creative subjects such as art and design and STEM subjects, particularly computer science, which is useful across the whole range of jobs. Maths and physics are particularly useful for technical director-type roles. They also provide a good underpinning for other VFX roles as physics especially helps you understand how objects interact within the physical world.

Most VFX artists have a degree. Specialist degree courses allow you to develop the skills studios look for in specific areas, combining creative and STEM-based learning. Many studios hire straight off these degree courses.

Nowadays there are alternatives to going to university. You could take a level 4 apprenticeship as a junior 2D artist or assistant technical director. These apprenticeships are equivalent to a foundation degree (i.e. the first two years of an undergraduate degree). On such a apprenticeship, you will specialise in developing skills employers say are particularly valuable and useful within VFX jobs.

What work experience can I gain?

Work experience in VFX jobs is not generally advertised. This means you will need to contact studios directly and proactively to ask if they are able to offer you a shadowing opportunity (where you sit with a member of staff). At university you could also contact studios about summer internships and the bigger studios may offer opportunities on their websites.

Bigger studios include Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), who worked on the Star Wars movies, Double Negative, who worked on Interstellar and Inception, and Milk, who worked on Kinsgman and The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What can I expect to earn?

This depends on the job and how far you progress but in a junior role you can expect to earn between £20,000 and £30,000. The average salary across the industry is £45,000.

How can I progress?

As you improve and gain experience, you may progress to a mid-level artist and on to a senior artist role within seven years. You will be responsible for training junior artists and taking more of a creative lead in the studio.

Find out what a career in visual effects is really like in this interview with a VFX apprentice.

Image credits

Lead image by Karen Roe via Flickr, VFX artist at PC by Vancouver Film School via Flickr, Hand close-up via Wikimedia Commons

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