When Recruiters from VFX Studio Important Looking Pirates are on the lookout for Interns, it is always with the ambition to hire that person by the end of the internship period. It takes a lot of work from the team's mentors, leads and supervisors to get someone straight out of school up and running, so it is not something they do without careful consideration. Recruiters basically need to see from your internship application, that you will be a solid hire in just a few months time.

In this article Alfred Lindahl covers the top qualities employers look for when selecting an Intern.


I work with recruitment and talent management at Important Looking Pirates. I have watched many hundreds of demo reels, done countless interviews and been involved in the recruitment of everyone from interns to VFX supervisors. In this article I will start with some general advice on how to approach your education to get into the VFX industry, and end with some pointers to create a kick-ass demo reel. Keep in mind that this is my perspective from a VFX company of about 150 people. Others will give you different advice based on the type of work that they do, the size of their team etc. Let's dive in!

Learn the Basics

In the beginning it is a good idea to try out the entire VFX pipeline. Do a bit of everything and take some projects from start to finish. This will give you an understanding of the entire process and which challenges each step brings. Even if you end up specialising in a particular area, you will need to collaborate with artists in other disciplines. Knowing a bit about what they do, and if something is easier to fix in light or comp for example, is a huge help.

Netflix - Lost In Space Season 2, ILP

Find Your Path

Trying a bit of everything may also lead you to discover one or more areas that you would like to focus on. You may find out that you are an Animator, that you love to blow things up, or that you enjoy putting the finishing touches in compositing. You may also find that you love everything and want to be involved from start to finish. There are no right or wrongs here, but it is important to understand how this affects your internship opportunities. If you really focus on one area you will likely fit better as part of a big team in a big studio. As a jack of all trades you will probably do better in a smaller studio. Both paths have their pros and cons and it can be equally rewarding to be a small part of a Hollywood production as it is to play a major role on a TV commercial.

My advice is to prioritise what you are passionate about and then figure out if you will do best in a big or small team or somewhere in between. You can always change course later when you have some more experience but when applying for your first internship, it is a good idea to do some research and apply to the studios that best match your interests. As a hardcore rotoscope artist you are probably better off sending your application to a studio with a roto department. If you do everything from directing to 3D, compositing and motion design you will probably have better luck applying to smaller studios where you are likely to help out with a bit of everything.

If you are learning by yourself at home you can just focus on what you want, but if you are in school you can try your best to stretch your assignments to include more of that thing you want to specialise in. For example, if you like rigging you can rig everything you model, even if it is “only” a modelling assignment. I would also recommend that you do your own projects outside of school to really get to focus and explore on your own terms.

Analyze Your Work

When you are learning I really recommend just doing what you enjoy and not compare yourself too much with others. But from time to time it can be good to analyze what you do and compare it to the work of other artists, to see how to improve and what to focus on next. What do you like about a certain model, scene or matte painting from your favorite artist? Can you incorporate that in your own work somehow? What is wrong with the anatomy of your sculpt? Why don’t your animated creatures have the same sense of weight as the ones in your favorite movie?

HBO - Westworld, Season 1, ILP

To compare yourself to much with others can of course be very discouraging when everyone on ArtStation is super amazing, so try to keep in mind that they all started out somewhere and that you also will gain those years of experience if you just keep at it.

Ask for Feedback

When you have figured out which path you want to take and have worked hard on that for a year or so, it is a good idea to ask for feedback on your work from someone in the industry. Most people are really helpful and love to help passionate, young artists as long as you are mindful of their time and ask relevant questions. Reach out and see what happens!

If you get some feedback, spend a few days or weeks to really understand and fix everything and then send an updated version. To show that you took their advice and managed to improve your work is a really good way to get someone's trust and show that you are serious. You might even get more feedback, mentorship or a recommendation. Just don’t expect anything.

But also don't ask for feedback from someone you don’t already know if you haven’t first analysed your own work, and know that you are on a somewhat decent level. It is almost impossible to give feedback when there are too many things to comment on. In that case it’s better to ask for general advice in school or online.

The Demo Reel

With all that out of the way you should be in a pretty good place to start thinking about your portfolio. For most artists that means a demo reel but for some it makes more sense to use an ArtStation or Rookies page instead - for example, if you are a hardcore modeller or concept artist and don’t have a lot of moving content. In this article I will mainly focus on the demo reel because it is harder to get right and the important parts will apply to an ArtStation portfolio as well.

The demo reel (or portfolio) is by far the most important part of an internship application. It is what I look at first, and only if it catches my attention do I read through the rest of the application.

The fact is, that I sometimes don’t even watch the whole reel. If it doesn’t show promise I might skip forward or scrub through it. I truly wish that I had the time to properly look through everyone's reel and get back with a personal response. Maybe even some feedback and advice. But with the amount of applications we get that would easily take up all of my time. I can’t speak for other studios but if you assume people are really busy and tailor your reel to that, you should at least be on the safe side.

Start Early

Start building your portfolio early. Even early exercises done well can fit in a demo reel. Go back and touch up old projects when you get more experience.

Show Your Passion

If you want to do a bit of everything your demo reel should show just that. If you want to be more specialised your reel should consist mostly of that discipline, e.g. compositing or animation. But it is always a good idea to show that you at least know a bit of the neighbouring areas—a lighter may show some modelling, shading and compositing as well, an animator may show some layout and rigging and so forth.

Keep it Short

One minute is usually a good duration but don’t drag things out to reach that time. If your best work only adds up to 30 seconds, leave it at 30 seconds!

Start With Your Best Work

Put your most impressive work first. You may only have a few seconds to convince a recruiter to keep watching. Which is also why you should have a…

Very short intro

2 seconds showing your name and discipline is enough. Animated intros are usually just a distraction.

Focus On Quality

If the quality varies a lot between different projects it can be hard to know your actual level and, maybe worse, to know if you can actually see the difference.

Keep your projects contained and focus on quality instead of quantity. Spend your time on creating one amazing shot instead of an entire short film. Make one photorealistic building instead of modelling an entire city that isn’t quite there. It is easy to fall for the temptation to do “finished projects” with several shots that tell a story, but that can often get overly complicated and you’ll end up spending time on things that won’t show or matter to a recruiter. What we need to know from your demo reel is whether or not you can achieve the quality we require.

Side projects

If you only have basic school assignments to show you will likely be beaten by anyone who includes some experiments and side projects as well. Show that you are passionate about what you do! If you only have group projects to show it can also be hard to tell how you stand on your own.

State what You Did

Add a text in the bottom of the video stating what you did on each project. “Modelling”, “animation of background characters” or “all aspects” if you did everything yourself. If you want to go into more detail you can write it in the video description or include a breakdown sheet with your application but you should always have the short version on the actual video as well.

References

In some cases it makes sense to include reference footage in the corner of your reel to show what you were aiming for. If you show that you can nail the look of a real explosion or the movement of an animal, you are in a pretty good place. Just be sure to make your own thing out of it—blow up something else or have the animal to do something a bit different.

Breakdowns

There is usually no need to include breakdowns in your reel unless you have very complex shots where it is hard to tell what was done. But if you want to highlight something in the process that was particularly hard or display all the elements in an FX simulation a breakdown can definitely help. Just keep it very short.

Music and Edit

Don’t over do it! In most cases I turn off the sound to be able to better focus on the visuals (animation reels are the exception because of lip sync etc). A fancy edit with a lot of quick cuts also makes it harder to evaluate the quality of your work. But remember that for a small studio it might actually make a lot of sense to see your editing and beat syncing capabilities.

Presentation

Keep it simple! Even if you have designed a fancy website I prefer a simple link to Vimeo or ArtStation. It is familiar and I get right to the content. But if you apply to a studio where web design skills can be beneficial—show ‘em what you’ve got!


Important Looking Pirates is based in Stockholm, Sweden. You can find them on Facebook and LinkedIn. ILP are also esteemed sponsors of the Rookie Awards.

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