Job Titles in 3D Animation & Visual Effects, And What They Actually Mean
Many (many) moons ago, as a recent graduate, looking to get into VFX and Animation, applying for a job was fairly easy - a 3D generalist could get the job done, and then some.
Fast forward twenty years, and things have changed as the industry has required artists specialise and become experts in a specific component of the 2D and 3D elements of the final product.
In many cases, especially in bigger studios, the roles required are quite specific, and as a new recruit in the industry, your reel needs to showcase the particular skills required, or you might not even get a look in.
If you're not sure what role to pitch for, below you will find a list of job titles and nuances explained. The list isn't exhaustive, but it's a pretty good place to start!
Every production needs, well, Producers! So, let's start there.
The production team can either be project based, or department based. However the teams are structured, every project will have a Producer. The Producer is essentially responsible for the budget; the bottom line. A project that is on budget (pipe dreams!) or close to it, is one that is run efficiently.
That means, that the crew scheduled to work on it, have what they need to get their jobs done. The Producer has the huge task of ensuring the right crew, is doing the right thing, for the right amount of time, at the right time. They won't be able to ascertain this on their own, and that's where the supervisory team comes in (see below).
In smaller studios a Producer can potentially manage the clients, the budget, and the resources, however on bigger productions, a Producer would need more production support.
On some projects, you may hear this title. The Line Producer is key to the daily goings on of the production and acts as a Producers right hand person and in many cases has direct communication with a films Director. The Line Producer may be responsible for portions of the projects budget.
Production Managers and Supervisors are usually responsible for a department or discipline on a project; the titles used interchangeably. You will also find this title used for the people responsible for more than just a department. You might find a Production Manager who looks after either the front or back end departments - story, layout, assets in the front end, and animation, lighting and compositing in the back end.
They are responsible for the schedule and budget, as well as understanding global project needs in order to disseminate priorities and tasks to the rest of the team. Production Supervisors will take their directives from the Production Managers in the case above and, are in A LOT of meetings!
Coordinators will assist Production Managers and Supervisors, whether in a department or on a project. A coordinator is usually responsible for some of the scheduling - ensuring artists are on track, having the deliverables they need from other departments, and are delivering to other departments on time and problem solving with other members of the global team, to get the best result for the project overall.
The Coordinator is the right hand of the Production Supervisor, having a firm understanding of the status of any given asset or shot when asked to give a report, as this person is usually representing for their team in all department, supervisory and client reviews. This person is in the trenches - you will find them "on the floor" working very closely with the crew.
This role is crucial to either a department or project. The Production Assistant supports the Production Managers as well as Producers. Production Assistant may be responsible for digital delivery of assets and shots to a Studio's story and editing team. The Production Assistant is also someone who is responsible for data entry (those bidding documents don't populate themselves!), organising travel, events, etc.
I class this title under production, as the runner is an integral support system to the production team, and the studio at large. A runner is found at bigger studios - 200+ people and usually in more client facing studios like those working primarily in marketing and advertising. This is an entry level position and will require someone to take on some of the necessary tasks that could include "running" for lunches, making purchases for supplies or other reference, organising accomodation or travel, for clients or people of interest. A runner will also get the opportunity to practice their craft in down times, as most runners will eventually be promoted to an artist position (if qualified) within their first or second year at the company.
This role, along with that of the Producer, is held by the more experienced players at a studio - they have been around the block and back again. In the film industry, the VFX Supervisor of the post-production studio, is quite experienced with on-set filming, and will work closely with the vendor's Director and VFX Supervisor (if they employ their own) to ensure the CG compliments the on-set footage. The VFX Supervisor is responsible for breaking out the project's technical requirements and will direct the visual effects and internally approve EVERYTHING before presented to a Director or client. The VFX Supervisor traditionally spends most of his or her time in Compositing, especially as the project comes to that end of the pipeline.
The CG Supervisor works alongside the VFX Supervisor, and can stand in place of the VFX Supe if need be; the two need to be very much in sync. The CG Supervisor will contribute primarily to the planning for, and ensuring that, the technical aspects of the visual effects are executed properly; working closely with the R&D, FX, Lighting/Shading teams. On an animated feature, you may find a CG Supervisor in place of a VFX Supervisor.
On most projects, a lead from all departments will be nominated to communicate the brief to the rest of the team, as well as being responsible for the quality of work produced by the team. The Lead will liaise directly with other leads, the CG and VFX Supervisors and Production. A Lead should have enough experience to be technically and artistically confident, as well as being production savvy - many leads will help set the discipline schedules with their production team.
...as a new recruit in the industry, your reel needs to showcase the particular skills required, or you might not even get a look in.
Artist roles - Story Based
The Concept Artist in an Animation studio, is assigned at the very start of a project, working closely with a Director, to dream up the intended look and feel of the characters and environments in a film, in 2D form. On VFX projects, the Concept Artist, may also do some of the matte-painting of final shots too. When the concept artwork is approved, modelling can begin - concept artwork is what Modellers work from to start bringing the characters and environments into 3D. Someone taking on this role, would need to be an excellent illustrator, as well as being proficient in software like Zbrush and possibly even Maya too.
Storyboards are more traditionally used for Feature Animation projects. A Storyboard artists will create key frame sketches which convey the camera angles, environments and rough animation that should be referenced by the relevant departments in a given pipeline.
Previs Artist (Previsualisation)
Storyboards may not be done for VFX projects, however you may come across "Previs". Previs Artists create rough, most times greyscale 3D models and environments, to place in a scene in order to map out the general camera angles, layout and animation for a scene. On bigger more complex productions, Previs is a key step in order to get a proof of concept of the planned CG, approved by the Director/Vendor.
Artist roles - Asset Based
A Modeller is someone who is proficient in modelling software like Maya, ZBrush, Mudbox and in some cases, Substance (3D Artists in Games, for example). A modeller creates 3D 'assets': characters, props or environments. A Modeller can be a generalist, however he or she can also specialise in "organic" or "character" modelling, whilst others focus more on "hard surface modelling" - the modelling of objects and environments.
You may also hear someone who specialises in hard surface modelling, called an Environment Artist or Environment TD. The Environment Artist is found primarily in the games industry, and he or she is responsible for the layout of props and background elements and optimisation of those assets within a scene.
A texture artist brings flat colour and texture to a prop, character or environment. Some artists may specialise in character work, and others in texturing the hard surface models. A Texture artist needs to understand how a model has been made and UV'd in order to plan for how best to achieve the look they are after. A Texture Artist can diversify by learning about lighting fundamentals and how shaders work, to also take on "Look-dev" and "Shading" tasks, depending on how a given department is setup. Software like Substance, Mari and Adobe Photoshop are most commonly used.
A rigging TD has the responsibility of creating, the backbone of a character, literally. The role requires someone to have an understanding of performance, human anatomy as well as a firm grasp of coding languages. The Rigger is one of the more technical players in the pipeline, and is essentially tasked with ensuring the 3D models are (warning: made up word ahead!) "animateable" and then ready for Animators to work with. TD is an acronym for "Technical Director", and is a title you will find used for more technical, and less artistic roles.
On bigger productions a dedicated Cloth TD works closely with the Modeller to create the cloth simulations on characters as well any prop that needs a similar dynamic. FX TDs (see more below) will also be able to execute the sims needed, and in some cases a Rigging TD or Technical Animator will also get the job done.
RnD / Pipeline TD
I've added the RnD / Pipeline TD here, but to be honest, they are everywhere! They are essentially the problem solvers on the project. The Pipeline TD is tasked with creating new tools and processes for the rest of the departments within the pipeline, in order to execute the artistic vision and brief for the CG, in a cost effective and time saving way. A Pipeline TD needs to be proficient in most, if not all, relevant coding languages and and have a good understanding of most of the software used by all the disciplines on a project.
...things have changed as the industry has required artists specialise and become experts in a specific component of the 2D and 3D elements of the final product.
Artist roles - Shot Based
Matchmoving or camera tracking is traditionally an entry level job, however it is one of the more crucial roles in the pipeline. The Matchmover has the important job of converting 2D raw footage into 3D so that the CGI can be integrated. It is in Matchmove that shots and cameras are created.
On an animated feature project, the Layout department is equivalent to Matchmove in VFX. The Layout Artist will use storyboards as reference to create camera angles for a scene, as well as placing or 'laying out' the props and environments made by the Modelling department. With the help of editing, that scene will then be broken down into shots. Animators, Lighters and Compositors will work on those shots through the cameras set by the Layout Artist.
Animators are story driven. An Animator breathes life into a modelled character by making it move, talk, and express emotions. The animation team will usually have reviews with the studio's Animation Director and the Director of the film: both ensuring the performance and narrative, are true to script. The most common software used to animate is Maya, but others like Blender, 3Ds Max, and Cinema 4D are widely used too.
A Crowd TD is specialised in an area of FX - A mass of digi doubles is essentially, a simulation. Digi doubles or crowds are populated in a scene and by shot. The animation is usually done first by an Animator and then randomised by a Crowd TD.
A Matte Painter creates 2.5D elements for shots. He or she might create an asset like a sky, which is added to a sequence of shots and then potentially tweaked or painted on, at the shot level, to break up any repetition. The Matte Painter will also draw all landscapes and background elements to be placed in a shot. A good Matte Painter has strengths in traditional art techniques, as well as a grasp of 3D texturing.
Traditionally considered a very technical role, the Lighting TD or Lighter, also needs to have an eye for colour, tone, atmosphere and composition -understanding how light reflecting on objects in nature and the real, world determines how we perceive them. A Lighting TD on a VFX project will use on set reference to replicate the lighting on set so that the CGI integrates seamlessly. On an animated feature, a Lighting TD is setting the lighting and atmosphere for an entire sequence - usually starting with a 'key' shot, and replicating to similar shots. The lighting TD replaces compositing in VFX studios, and is the person building the final shot and delivering to the editing department.
The Rotoscope artist is part of the Compositing team in a VFX Studio. This entry level job is a pathway into a Compositing role. The Rotoscope Artist creates mattes to isolate objects, to either warp the object or to create elements to place around it. Software to know: Nuke, After Effects.
A Prep Artist or a Junior Compositor is tasked with clean up of primarily 2D shots, cleaning up unwanted objects from a shot. So, for example, if a stunt person's wires are visible in shot, a Prep Artist would be tasked with the removal of the wires. A Prep Artist should be proficient in software like Photoshop, Nuke or After Effects.
Need to blow something up?? Call and FX TD/Artist! They are usually involved in the pre-production planning of a project as they will require a lot of research and development time if the special effects are complex. An FX TD will create simulations of elements like water, fire explosions, smoke, dust particles (although, those can be done in Compositing too), which are added in shot and handed over to Compositing. FX TDs also work at an asset level, creating hair grooms and cloth too. Software to know: Houdini, Real Flow, Nuke, Fusion, to name a few.
The Compositor could also be called, "The Finisher". The buck stops at Compositing - a film's Director will approve shots coming out of this department, that will make up the final edit. A Compositor are responsible for assembling the final shot by combining final layers/renders from other departments. Although it is primarily a 2D role, compositing is interesting in that it requires someone to have an artistic eye, as well as a good knowledge of the CG process, cinematography and storytelling. The most common software used in Compositing is Nuke.