Career Advice - Working as a Layout Artist for Film and TV with Thomas Baxter
Want a successful career working as a Layout Artist for Feature Films and TV Series? Thomas Baxter, a Layout Artist at Rising Sun Pictures, sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
Want a successful career working as a Layout Artist for Feature Films and TV Series? Thomas Baxter is a Layout Artist at Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), who has worked on major Feature Films and TV series from clients such as Marvel, Disney, and Amazon to name a few. He sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I currently work as a Layout Artist, a Layout Technical Director and Instructor.
My role as a Layout Artist involves a few different aspects, such as:
Camera tracking: This is when we recreate the camera movement on set into our 3D software. This is mostly done using a program called 3DEqualizer, however, some visual effects companies have their own camera solver software.
Character/Asset matchmove (also known as roto-anim): Here we recreate/animate the character or asset movements that were done on set using rigged models.
Creative layout/full CG shots: This task involves adding in any CG elements to a shot as needed. For example, we may have a plate (film) which shows a city skyline, and the client needs a blimp to fly over it. We will add a CG blimp, basic lighting and effects (if needed) to the shot and give a pre-visualisation version for the client to approve. Once they do, other departments will pick up the shot (animation will add the final animation of the asset, lighting will add the correct lighting effects etc) and ‘polish’ the shot off until we get the final product. Full CG shots are done in the same way except there is no plate/film in the shot and we create it all within our 3D software.
As a Technical Director, I code up software tools to help artists work more effectively. This can vary from building tools or shortcuts within the software we use, to save artists time from clicking through lots of menus, to resolving technical issues such as assets not importing or exporting properly to other departments. It is like an IT support and software developer role.
Finally, at Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), we work with the University of South Australia (UniSA) by offering students the opportunity to study with us in the studio. As an Instructor, I help teach our students the skills such as camera tracking, matchmove, and creative layout, which are the key skills needed to be a Layout Artist.
What type of projects is Rising Sun Pictures involved with?
It is a fantastic place to be as we get the opportunities to work on feature films and streaming shows from clients such as Marvel, Disney, and Amazon just to name a few.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
I always loved film and gaming as a child and grew up hopeful that one day I could work in one of those industries. After years of working in various jobs and traveling the world, I ended up working in IT, which led me to take up studying a Bachelor of IT at the age of 28 to further my career. It was not until after my first year of study when I got an email from my university course coordinator informing me of a visual effects industry night, that I first realised I could possibly work in the film/visual effects industry.
How did you get your first big break?
While I was studying a Bachelor of IT with UniSA, our course coordinator used to send out emails informing us of industry nights. Towards the end of 2017, he sent one out regarding a visual effects industry night and that there would be representatives from Rising Sun Pictures, Industrial Light and Magic, plus a few other visual effects companies.
Before the industry night came, I looked up Rising Sun Pictures website and researched what they had done and how to apply with them. I spent about a week preparing my application and sent in my resume as well as a cover letter/email with the thought that if I met someone from RSP on the night, I could let them know I had sent in my application.
As it turns out, they needed someone who knew how to code in python, which I had done at university, and because I already lived here in Adelaide, plus had worked professionally in IT, I got a very unexpected call a few days later to organise an interview.
I spent the next few days looking up everything I could to do with visual effects and managed to get a basic understanding of the software, as I had used similar software while I was doing game development in the past. With that little amount of knowledge, but a lot of eagerness and passion to want to do the job, during the interview I pushed hard how much I wanted to get into the industry, to learn and develop my skill set and to work my way up. This was fortunately enough to get me a job working as a Layout Technical Assistant.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
When I started at RSP, I was hired as a Layout Technical Assistant. This role mainly entailed resolving any technical issues the artists were having such as, assets not importing/exporting, setting up assets for each shot, creating software tools to help artists work more effectively as well as learning how to do layout artistic work. This included camera tracking, character/asset matchmove and creating layout/full CG shots.
As the years went by, I gradually increased my skills and proficiencies in these areas and as such, my role, although still similar, had evolved to become a Layout Artist and Technical Director. This meant that I could take on more challenging work than I was given working as a Junior Artist or Technical Assistant.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
The best thing about working in layout is that there is no typical day. Each day there is always something different to do. We could be tracking cameras, or doing character matchmoves, to working on full CG shots. Or if needed, I could spend the day coding and building software tools to help the team. Having so much variety is why I love working in layout.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
In layout, the majority of our work is done in Maya. We sometimes may need to use 3DEqulizer and Nuke, and to a lesser extent, Houdini. However, Maya is where our main source of work is done.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
Layout is unique in that most departments rely on, and work with us. As we are responsible for cameras, matchmoves and initial passes on creative layout/full CG shots, once we get approval of these assets, they are then needed by departments such as animation, lighting and effects as well as comp in order for them to pick up and finish their work on the shot.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
The introduction of Virtual Production may change our role regarding creative layout. As most shots are filmed either on set or in-front of a green/blue screen, by traditional processes, we then add all our CG elements in post-production. However, by using Virtual Production sets which display CG environments while shooting, this may allow for creative layout work to be done while filming, saving the need to do it in post-production. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Virtual Production and how it may change the way creative layout is done.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
The variety. As I mentioned, in layout we get to do a vast variety of tasks each day. On a daily basis you may go from tracking a camera to working on a shot where you are blowing up a CG building!
The variety [of work] keeps you pushing to increase your skill set both technically and creatively.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
The hours. It is the one hard part of doing something you love. It is not uncommon to work long hours especially during crunch periods, but when you get to see the final result on the big screen, it makes up for it.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
I would not say it is essential, however it will benefit and increase your chances to meet people and get your skill set to a point where you will be seen as a must have candidate for studios to employ.
As I mentioned before, at RSP we work with UniSA by offering students the opportunity to study with us. They are taught by our artists and can make connections with recruiters, not only from RSP, but other visual effects studios. This has been a gateway for many of our current staff to get into the industry with many of them now working at RSP or other major visual effects studios, both interstate and internationally.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
In layout, junior artists will be given the same tasks such as camera tracking, matchmoves and layout/full CG shots as seniors do. However, the skill set required is less than what is expected from a senior artist.
Often juniors will be taught and guided on how to approach the work by our senior artists. If they have any questions during or after the work is done, there is always someone to help, be it another junior or senior artist.
I have found that by learning as you go and trying different things on your own is a fantastic way to improve your abilities, but you should always ask questions and learn as much as you can from those who are more experienced.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
While I do not hire artists, some key points we look for are experience working or having done study within the field. Some references such as a show reel is also great to be able to look at.
One of the best qualities you can offer [an employer] is having a positive attitude while showing you can take initiative with tasks, and as I did, push hard on your willingness to improve your skill set and work your way up within the industry.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
With layout, because we need to do so many tasks, it can be hard to find artists who can do camera tracking, character/asset matchmove as well as creative layout/CG shots. Usually, artists are proficient in one or few of these areas, but not all. However, at RSP, we always encourage skill development and give artists the opportunities to be able to increase their skill set in all these areas, making them a well-rounded Layout Artist.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
For layout, an ideal reel or portfolio will be to show that you can track cameras, matchmove characters/assets and even create your own full CG shots. Keep it reasonably short, a few minutes is plenty enough.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Being so scared of having to be vulnerable or rejected that they do not actually apply for positions. I tell the students at RSP all the time to start applying for jobs and not to get discouraged if they do not get it. Take what they can from each application and build on from there because with persistence, the right position will come, and they will be ready to take it.
Also, not to lose hope if they do not get a position. There seems to be more work in our industry with streaming services creating so much content, along with movie studios continually developing films. This is fantastic as it creates more jobs and opportunities. So, just because you may miss out on one position, it just means the next one is coming.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Not to fear being vulnerable and ask as many questions as they can. I have found lots of artists seem to be cautious of asking for help or advice because they do not want to be seen as not being knowledgeable, but everyone has something new and different to teach you.
If you are asking questions, improving your skill set and having the right positive attitude towards your work and fellow artists, it will help build the best career path you can have.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
It would be to relax a lot more and enjoy doing the work. As time has gone by, I have allowed myself to make the most of each task I get given, which makes me feel like I never have to go to work. Rather, I get to spend each day doing something I love so much, and I feel very blessed to be able to do it. Especially when you get to see all your efforts on display, it is such a great feeling of accomplishment.
Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Thomas studied Information Technology, majoring in Game and Entertainment Design at the University of South Australia, before working as a Layout Artist at Rising Sun Pictures and Mill Film, where he developed his skill set in a mixture of live-action and virtual cinematography. You can find more of Thomas' work on Linkedin, Vimeo.