Career Advice: Working as a Terrain Artist in Visual Effects

Career Advice: Working as a Terrain Artist in Visual Effects

UTS ALA graduate Samantha Sheppard shares her path from 3D Modeling studies to becoming a Terrain Artist at Wētā FX, offering advice for budding artists aiming to excel in the world of VFX.

Main Image Courtesy of Wētā FX

Did you know you that you could work as a Terrain Artist in VFX? Join us in conversation with UTS Animal Logic Academy alumna Samantha Sheppard as she talk about her journey from 3D Modeling studies to thriving as a Terrain Artist at Wētā FX. In this article, Samantha shares her insights for budding artists aspiring to work at award-winning VFX companies.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

My current position is a Terrain Artist. My role involves modelling different types of interior and exterior environments, assets and props, depending on the sequences in a show. I create Terrain, which provides the 3D geometry of what’s shot on set for animation, lighting, and FX.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are you involved in?

I work at Wētā FX, an Academy Award-winning VFX company. Wētā works on a wide range of different projects, from episodics to blockbuster films for studios including Marvel, DC, and Disney.

I recently had the chance to work on parts of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and TV series The Last of Us. Currently, I am working on several film projects, but can’t share which ones.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

When I first saw Finding Nemo as a young girl, I was inspired by the behind the scenes technical footage of how the animation was made, and the team work that delivered this ground-breaking animation. I would watch it over and over again. It made me think ‘I want to do that when I grow up!’ I’ve had that dream since I was six years old and have never wavered. Throughout my life, I found that my hobbies of Lego building, creating pots on the clay wheel, and acting have all led me down the path of working in this creative industry.

How did you get your first big break?

During my studies, which included a Bachelor's degree, Masters, and mentorship, I improved my modelling skills and techniques by working on a number of student projects with different styles, as well as working through multiple iterations on this 1960’s Volkswagen Beetle. I was able to practise hard surface modelling with rounded edges for the frame of the car, as well as organic seats, belts and other unique shapes in the interior of the car.

I also completed several still life projects, where I matched 1:1 with references – this reinforced my skills in modelling, texturing, lighting and grading. In my first still life, I was able to model four vases and pinecones, which included emulating the lighting from the reference by manipulating lights in Maya.

Personal Work by Samantha Sheppard
I got my big break by never giving up and persevering to improve my skills with the opportunities available to me. I helped out on multiple projects, enhanced my skills through mentoring, attended industry conferences, networked, and worked hard to achieve my dream.

From the start, I’ve had a desire to stay up-to-date with industry trends. I attended many festivals and networking events. I also began to reach out and talk to some Environmental Modellers (a role that I am passionate about) on LinkedIn and met with a few artists at Method studios, now Framestore (Melbourne). This meant when the chance came to interview at Wētā, I felt prepared and ready to begin confidently when they offered me the Terrain Artist role. Thank you Wētā!

Personal Work by Samantha Sheppard

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

I studied a Bachelor of Animation at Swinburne University of Technology, which provided me with an expansive knowledge of the skills required in the animation industry. I learned about 2D animation, sound design, design principles, film genres, stop motion, life drawing, character design, as well as how an animated story is formed. We also learnt about production, which taught us techniques like scheduling and the importance of planning and organising a project. I also took on Minors in visual effects and 3D modelling, so was able to gain in-depth knowledge in programs such as Maya, Nuke, Photoshop and After Effects.

At Swinburne University of Technology, I also elected to undertake a graphics design internship, allowing me to learn more about this other pathway into the creative industries. I gained experience in work practices such as meeting with supervisors, scheduling and completing individual assigned tasks, as well as collaborating with others to create final artwork.

Once I had finished the undergraduate course at Swinburne University of Technology, I wanted to pursue my passion of 3D modelling and gain further experience in this area. I decided to do the Masters of Animation and Visualisation at University Technology Sydney Animal Logic Academy (UTS ALA). Luckily, I passed their showreel and interview process!

I had an amazing year at UTS ALA, learning about and practising many parts of the production pipeline, including collaborating with others to pitch story ideas, then splitting into departments to create the film our cohort had come up with at the start of the year.

As a modeller, I would be assigned tasks in Shotgun by the production coordinator, block out my assets, and have them approved in Dailies. Once our assets were approved, we would subdivide with bevels and UV unwrap our assets so they were ready to be textured, while paying close attention to where the pivot of the asset should be when published for the rigging department.

Day in the life

Describe a typical work day for you?

I start the day by checking my tasks and messages from the production coordinator in New Zealand, and begin the day with the highest priority work. The specific task might involve modelling props or environments from a Lidar scan, or moving and aligning geometry to fit the plate for a shot.

I regularly communicate with the New Zealand crew to work out what is specifically needed for tasks, as well as troubleshooting any technological issues we might encounter. Working in the Melbourne hub and sitting with the Melbourne assets team means I have many colleagues I can problem solve with. There is a special sense of camaraderie in the office.

As a Terrain Artist, I also take on technical feedback, implement the changes needed, submit my work for further review and obtain final approval. I then publish my assets and shots for use by downstream departments such as Layout and Texturing.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use?

In my Role as a Terrain Artist, I mostly use Autodesk Maya for modelling and UV unwrapping, as well as ZBrush for sculpting and projection of organic assets. There are also specific Wētā tools available to speed up our modelling workflows.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

I work with the Asset or Models Department Project Manager for each show, and interact with the Lead Modeller who reviews my work and provides feedback and advice. I also work closely with the Layout and Texturing departments.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

I wouldn’t want to change anything about my job. I love my job as a Terrain Artist. I get to create such a vast variety of models, from props to environments. I often have the chance to jump from one project to the next, allowing me to experience how different projects are handled and the variety of work that might be required.

As an artist at Wētā FX, we’re always learning and supported to grow. Senior or Lead Modellers run video workshops to demonstrate the wide variety of tools in different modelling workflows, such as characters, hair, or wardrobes. Wētā FX has also given me the opportunity to learn more about Unreal Engine 5, including Virtual Production.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

There are many ways now to learn about the skills required to be a successful 3D artist, and there are so many great tutorials online where people show you how to do specific parts of 3D modelling. However, I believe online learning can be too focused, so a formal education is essential for collaboration, learning to work with others and from the peers around you.

In my studies, I gained a broad understanding of animation and VFX techniques. I was also able to learn about emerging technologies and trends in the animation industry, as well as extra events / festivals, such as CG Futures and Lightbox. During my formal education, I was able to complete several projects where I could experience various pipeline techniques as well as develop my critical eye.

A mix of online and formal education is key to being a self-directed learner as well as having the ability to work under the guidance of a supervisor, mentor, or teacher.

It is important to learn new skills not taught in class and keep practising at home by watching and completing tutorials to learn new skills that could be useful for individual or group projects. Having the skills to complete the job, but more importantly being a team player, and someone who is easy to work with, is imperative to a studio environment.

What are some of the transferable competencies or skills you have developed on the job?

Some transferable skills I have learnt working as a Terrain artist include expanding my knowledge of tools like Maya or ZBrush, as well as collaboration and communication with seniors, other departments, and colleagues in the office.

Another transferable skill is communication: I communicate daily with the Production Manager and Lead to find out what is specifically needed for a task, receiving feedback and updating them on my task status. I ask seniors or other artists about better ways to complete a specific task and learn new efficient workflows, which helps me with future tasks.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

This industry can be daunting and highly competitive, so trust in yourself and try not to compare yourself to others. Enjoy the journey by working on projects that you want to, and learn at your own rate. Everyone will gain different skills at different times and just because you don’t know how to do what person X can do now, does not mean that you cannot learn it later down the track.

Where do you get your inspiration from, and how do you implement it into your work?

My inspiration comes from good design, observation of beautiful natural environments and characterful structures seen on holidays, as well as childhood memories.

In my own personal work, I decided to create a 1960’s Volkswagen bug car because of a life-long love of these cars presented in films such as Herbie and the more recent film Bumblebee. Visiting the beautiful Itsukushima shrine, the ‘floating’ torii gate in Hiroshima, Japan, inspired me to recreate this environment. I was also interested to learn about creating water and cloud simulations in Maya through this environment project.

Personal Work by Samantha Sheppard

For my still life projects, I looked through quite a few images on Pinterest to find photos I could recreate of elegant compositions of furniture and aesthetic lighting.

I recently completed the modelling stage of this Bronx house. I chose the specific house as it had a lot of character with beautiful window decorations, including lots of extensions from the main house with a balcony, eaves, and an attic.

Personal Work by Samantha Sheppard

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

I would recommend that 3D modellers create a portfolio / showreel that includes some still lifes, a vehicle and or mechanical object, some stylised and realistic props, an organic asset and / or a potential character, as well as work from a group project. This is of course more a guide than anything – overall, a showreel should be a short introduction to you and your unique work!

Put your best foot forward with a showreel of around one minute, tailor to the role you are applying for, and be sure to capture the recruiter’s attention with the first asset on your reel.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

I can tell you what my mentor told me which does seem to ring true. Aspiring artists should create simple but well done work instead of setting out to achieve something too ambitious. Learn more about being a generalist in Andrew Silke’s course on YouTube, as well at his website.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

I would say to always keep at it and have a desire to learn through every opportunity available to you, whether it be an online tutorial, competition, festival or a networking event. Hone your passion and dedication through projects that you enjoy creating and spending time on.

The journey of becoming an artist is on-going and doesn’t have an endpoint. We can continuously learn through personal and or group projects. Setbacks along the journey can be challenging and add to our sense of impostor syndrome, but remember that everyone learns at a different pace. The ‘mastery’ curve is not constant, but requires a plateau before a burst in our skill level. So with practice, patience, persistence, and determination we will get to where we want to be in the end.

Ask questions of mentors or supervisors, stay curious and open minded.

Do what you love and success will follow. Passion is the fuel behind a successful career.
Meg Whitmen

You can reach out to Samantha via LinkedIn and her Website.