Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Visual Effects (VFX) Artist
2020 Update! - This free guide explains everything you need to know about becoming a visual effects artist for blockbuster films, television and more.
This guide is for absolute beginners who are trying to find a career that compliments their passion for film, technology, design, coding and digital art. You are the type of person who knows that finance and medicine really isn't your thing. You also know you never want to wear a suit to work either. However, you need some help getting started. It's also a great guide to share with your parents and guardians who are trying to understand what the hell you are rambling on about, and why you are so excited.
What you will learn in this guide
- an overview of the Visual Effects industry
- the most common jobs in the industry
- how much you could earn as a visual effects artist
- how to start learning visual effects
- how to select the best school in your area
- the Top 20 visual effects schools in the world (2020 update!)
- the best free and professional software to learn
- essential communities and blogs to start following
- top companies that employ visual effects artists
- essential reading for visual effects artists
- advice on how to get started with your own projects
Edit September 2019: This article (and more!) can be downloaded as a free ebook. Follow this link to download your copy now.
What is Visual Effects?
At its core, Visual Effects (abbreviated VFX) is the process by which digital imagery is created to manipulate or enhance real world footage that has been filmed with a video camera.
Visual effects involve the integration of video camera footage and generated imagery to create environments which look realistic, but would be dangerous, expensive, impractical, time consuming or impossible to capture on film.
Visual Effects are not just limited to big block buster films, they are commonly seen in television commercials, broadcast series, architecture, advertising and more.
Why would you want to work in Visual Effects?
Maybe because it's a career that involves the perfect mix of story telling, cutting-edge technology and creativity. It could also be because you love films and want to hang out on set surrounded by movie stars. Maybe you want a career that allows you to travel the world or even work remotely from home. Or maybe it's because you love drawing and building things with your hands and on the computer. There are so many reasons why you would want to work in Visual Effects and there are dozen of possible career paths open to you across multiple industries.
Key VFX Roles and Departments
The process of creating visual effects is long, challenging and very technical. Teams are large and very diverse which means there are opportunities for all types of people ranging from hardcore coders through to illustrators and non-artists who like managing teams. Everyone plays a crucial role in producing the final visual effects and I've listed some of the most common creative and technical roles below to help you understand where you mind fit it best.
The Art Department is responsible for translating a Directors vision and a script into visuals that can be shared with the entire team to truly understand the creative and technical challenges that lay ahead. These concept artists and illustrators create everything from storyboards to photorealistic artworks that show what the finished shot will look like.
#artistic #conceptart #illustration
Pre-visualisation Artists are responsible for creating the first 3D representation of the final visual effects shot. They use artwork and basic 3D models to create normally low-quality versions of the action sequences so the Director can start planning out camera placement and creative/technical requirements.
#technical #planning #setup
Virtual assets are need in visual effects to match real world objects or create new objects that don't exist or are too expensive to build in the real world. These are mostly created by modeling artists, texture painters, shader developers and riggers.
#creative #artistic #design #3dmodel #shaders #rig
Research and Development
Considered a very technical department, RnD artists are responsible for building new software and tools to accomplish the tasks that can't be done, or are simply too time consuming for artists to manually complete over and over again. The role requires a very strong background in computer science and a passion for problem solving.
#technical #code #computerscience
This one is pretty obvious. Basically anything that moves on film needs to be animated. It doesn't matter if it's a small prop like a chair, a huge space ship or even a hero character or creature. If it moves and has a performance, an animator will most likely be behind the controls.
#actor #keyframes #characters #performance
This is also referred to as motion tracking and without it there would be no way to incorporate 3D data into live action footage. To make digital assets appear as if they completely real, you need a virtual camera that moves exactly like the camera in the live action footage. This is where matchmove artists come to the rescue. It's their job to use the live action video footage and create a virtual camera for all departments to work with.
An FX Artist designs and creates FX animation, procedural simulation, dynamic simulation, and particle and fluid systems. They are responsible for recreating the behaviour of real world elements such as fire, water, explosions, cloth, hair and a whole lot more that most people don't even realise. Highly technical, yet creative role.
#fire #water #smoke #destruction
The lighting artist is responsible for applying all lighting effects to the digital scene. The artist takes into consideration the light sources of the live-action plate and applies virtual lighting to mimic the existing illumination within the environment. The goal is to ensure that the VFX and live-action elements blend seamlessly, as though both exist in the same environment.
#lighting #colour #illumination #mood
A matte painting is an image, created using digital or traditional painting techniques, to create a representation of a scene that would be impossible for filmmakers to deliver in real life. This might be because the landscape does not exist in the real world, it's not financially practical to travel to a location, or to extend the set outside of its filmed parameters.
#painter #mask #setextension
Rotoscoping is used to create a matte or mask for an element so it can be extracted out of place on a different background, masked out so colours can be changed or any other set of reasons. The rotoscoping artist will normally trace an object using a set of tools to create a new alpha channel for a specific part of an image sequence or video.
#mask #roto #trace #alpha
Compositing is the action of layering all the various elements in a shot – live action, mattes, multiple CG passes, 3D lighting, animation, particle effects – and blending them all seamlessly to create the photo-realistic final shot. Working throughout the production process, you’ll need to collaborate with other VFX departments to creatively and technically problem solve along the way.
#colour #grading #layering #finaltouch #composition
There are also a number of roles for people who prefer managing teams, budgets and schedules. The top production role at a studio is the VFX Producer who works closely with the VFX supervisor to project manage the entire process, defining the resources required, hiring artists and crew, managing budgets and making sure the project is delivered on schedule. Other common roles include Production Manager and Production coordinator which support the Producer by liaising with artists, flagging issues and generally tracking progress and making sure everything stays on track from a scheduling perspective.
#scheduling #management #budgets #glue
Important Skills required to become a VFX artist
There are plenty of jobs available to people in the visual effects industry. For those of you interested in the more creative and technical roles there are definitely some important skills you should focus on early in your training.
The skills I'm referring to are not related to software and technology. Those will come later when you really start digging into your training. However, a solid foundation in the following skills will help you for years to come:
- Composition and light
- Visual Aesthetics
- Sculpture & Anatomy
- Mechanics and Movement
- Passion for Film
- Real world observation
- Communication skills
How much money can I make in Visual Effects?
As in any industry there are exceptions to the rule, however the following should give you a good idea of the average salaries involved with different stages of your career. This information has been sourced from multiple government databases and various industry surveys.
* Currency Conversion completed April 2019.
Entry Level Artist
US: $22,000 - $52,000 | GBP: £17,000 - £40,000 | AUD $31,000 - $74,000
US: $67,000 - $100,000 | GBP: £52,000 - £78,000 | AUD $95,000 - $143,000
Supervisors & Management
US: $100,000 - $136,000 | GBP: £78,000 - £104,000 | AUD $143,000 - $190,000
How do I start learning Visual Effects (VFX)
Traditionally speaking, there are two main ways to start learning Visual Effects. Go to a school, or teach yourself at home. It's very easy to find persuasive case studies for both learning paths so which should you choose?
In my opinion this depends entirely on you. Some people are great at learning skills themselves and don't need help for the heavy lifting part. On the other hand, there are people who need to be surrounded by others and need strict schedules and tasks. It really is up to you, and how you like to work.
Regardless of which approach to learning vfx you take, the most important thing to do is just start. It's that simple.
Regardless of which approach to learning you take, the most important thing to do is start. It's that simple. Pick up a book, start sketching, watch and analyse a movie, watch documentaries about visual effects, attend local events. Just get started. If you don't have the passion and motivation for this, then it doesn't matter how good your education - you will never make it.
Self taught vs University - Which is better?
As mentioned, there are very strong debates for both sides of the learning process. Provided below is an overview of the most common advantages for both methods of learning.
Self taught Advantages:
- ability to set your own pace
- often a cheaper option
- no time wasted learning unnecessary skills
- accreditation will help with overseas Visa applications
- access to cutting edge facilities and software
- direct access to industry experts
- increased networking opportunities
- increased motivation being surrounded by peers and lecturers
- access to educational software licenses
Important questions to ask an Art School before you give them money
When looking for a school it's easy to get distracted by flashy advertising campaigns and glowing references from alumni. It's also a time when you could easily make a decision that you will regret because you didn't do your research. There truly are incredible schools out there, but there are also some that should not be allowed to teach at all.
Once you have narrowed down your list and you start talking with schools directly, here are a few questions to help you better understand which school is best for you.
What percentage of your teaching staff are working in the industry right now?
Be careful of schools that don't have any current or recent industry professionals. Many schools employ recent graduates that have little to no experience and just set you tasks, but are not able to help or relevant advice.
Who wrote your curriculum and what makes it better than other schools?
This will show you if they have strong internal educators or rely completely on external vendors to provide their training material.
How many of your students from last year have jobs?
This will help you understand how soon it takes for alumni to get a job and what percentage actually were employed.
Tip: Ask for names here if possible, then track them down on LinkedIn. Ask them directly if they would mind answering a few questions about their experience. Don't stalk people or be annoying. However, you will find that most people are super helpful and will share their thoughts openly.
What visual effects software will you teach me?
When you get this information, cross-check it against the list of recommended software here. Often schools will have contracts with certain companies which limits their access to industry approved software. Also make sure to ask if all their software is up-to-date.
What are the most common jobs people get after your course?
Make sure they are super specific with this one. Are graduates all working as Compositing Artists? Are graduates actually doing jobs that you want to do? Are graduates just working as Runners. This is a sure fire way to truly figure out what your employment chances are like after graduation.
Tip: Schools love to show all the films that their alumni have worked on. However, be careful with this one. Often they will use recent blockbuster films from alumni that attended 10+ years ago and were not the reason for the artists success.
Which studios do you have strong relationships?
Good schools will always work closely with leading studios. This means they will often have guest speakers, events and recruiters helping out to make sure the school is staying relevant and on track. Get the names of studios and do your own research, it will be pretty obvious.
What computer equipment and facilities do you get access to?
It's amazing how many schools don't even provide computers or even a working environment you'd want to spend time in. When studying visual effects, you are going to spend a lot of time at school, so make sure it's somewhere descent.
Top 20 Visual Effects (VFX) Schools in the World 2020
Wouldn't it be great if schools actually competed against each other to see who was the best school? This is exactly why the Rookie Awards was started back in 2010 and why their annual School of the Year rankings are so important to everyone.
The School of the Year rankings are based on the quality and performance of student work that is submitted to our judging panel each year for the Rookie Awards.
Most people feel that traditional school rankings that include peer and employer reviews, faculty to student ratio, citations and other data are not adequate when ranking the best creative schools. This might work for more traditional career paths, however when it comes to technical and creative such as Visual Effects which don't have standardised testing.
The Rookie Awards are the most important student award and ranking globally as it has a credibility that others just don’t have. It doesn’t let advertising budgets create higher school rankings, it uses industry to assess and judge student work and discounts for any school flooding the awards with entries.
Darryn Melrose, former Chief Executive of Media Design School
The official rankings for 2020 have been calculated based on the performance of students work submitted to our industry panel. Full details can be found further down the page about how we calculate and rank schools.
Recommended schools to learn Visual Effects (VFX) online
For those of you wanting to get started in visual effects without leaving your home, there are a bunch of great place to start learning online right now. Here are a few very reputable art schools to get you started on the right path.
Still haven't found the art school or college you want?
I constantly get asked for recommendations about the best schools to attend and what studios can be found in your local area which is why I created a platform to help you find the perfect school to learn visual effects.
All schools in the directory have to pass a solid level of competencies to be included, but Certified Schools are obviously the smarter choice as these schools have passed a formal accreditation that is designed to showcase and acknowledge the very best schools that provide the most up-to-date and relevant industry training and education. The accreditation also helps you identify the world's most industry focused schools that are nurturing talent of all skill levels.
Essential Communities & Blogs for VFX Artists
Starting out in Visual Effects can be pretty daunting, but the good news is that the community is super friendly and supportive. We are all super passionate about our little industry and we've all been in your position so we know what it feels like. This is just a small snapshot of the essential communities and blogs for VFX Artists that you should participate in.
Free Software Recommended for VFX Artists
These days there are plenty of free software licenses out there for you to play with. Most software companies offer educational licenses for their professional suite of tools, but nothing beats free. These are by far the best tools you can start with today without waiting.
Professional Software Recommended for VFX Artists
The following software is predominantly used by professional studios doing high profile work and you will be in a great position if you start with any of these products.
One thing to remember is that the software doesn't make the artist. Regardless of what tool you start with, you just need to start. Moving from one software to another is easy, but starting is the hard part. Sticking with it is even harder.
Top Companies that employ Visual Effects Artists
Visual effects artists are always in high demand. Films and not slowing down, Netflix is not going anywhere and advertising agencies are always trying to push the barriers of the advertising campaigns. There is also a growing need for visual effects artists in architecture firms, product design studios and tech startups. Here is just a small taste of some the bigs names that you could have on your resume.
Essential Reading for Visual Effects Artists
There are plenty of amazing books out there that will provide you with knowledge to help you improve as a visual effects artist. So take a step away from the computer, grab one of these books and be inspired.
Do you need professional advice on where to study visual effects?
Don't worry, you are not the only one. Becoming a visual effects artist takes a lot of effort and time, but it's totally worth it. One of the biggest challenges faced by aspiring visual effects artists is deciding on where to study. There are loads of great schools out there, online training resources and impressive workshops available. The problem is, most of them require a solid financial investment and making the wrong choice can completely destroy your chances.
This is why The Rookies has partnered with Mozaik Play - a student placement organization - that can assist you with: Choosing the right digital media colleges and course, full application process support, Visa application assistance and also financial payment advice. They can even help prepare your art school portfolio to make sure you get accepted with ease!
The best part is that all these services are FREE of charge - Mozaik Play are funded by colleges that have entrusted them to match the right student with the right course.Get your free consultation
Some Words for Parents and Guardians
If you have read this far, then it's clear that you care, but it also means that you are probably still a bit confused by all this and just want to make sure the right decisions are made. The Visual Effects industry is relatively new and there are so many avenues into this industry crossing creative and technical skills, so it's a lot to take in but here are some key points you should remember:
- the visual effects industry opens a lot of doors to travel around the world.
- there are plenty of opportunities out there, and it's not slowing down.
- skills learned at Visual Effects schools are not just for films. Television, Advertising, Architecture, Automotive Industry, Medical, Games, use lots of VFX and these are only set to grow over the years.
- career progression into senior management roles is quite common. There are studio executives that started as runners and junior artists.
- visual effects artists can win Oscars, help solve medical problems, visualise cities and even space. Imagination really is the only limit here these days.
- so please make sure to support your children with their own creative projects whether it's film, drawing, music, writing, technology or gaming. It all helps.
Checklist of your next steps
I hope this has given you a good overview of the Visual Effects industry and the career prospects available to you. It's really up to you now, you need to put in the hard work. You need to take the next step using the advice provided in this guide.
So do yourself a favour, grab the following list and start working though it. One step at a time. That's all it takes.
- register an account at The Rookies and start your journey
- join a discord channel and talk with other aspiring artists
- start observing the world, drawing, building things
- watch movies and show and read about how VFX were created
- download the recommended software and free training resources
- start building your first portfolio and learning the basics
- attend a local meetup and conference
- follow software companies on social media
- follow inspiring vfx artists on social media
- follow big production studios on social media
- keep learning everything you can and don't give up
Thanks for reading this guide. I plan to keep updating this often to make sure it remains relevant and helpful. Please reach out to me via the comments section with any suggestions or questions.