Part 1 - Getting into the VFX industry

What would you recommend to a student who has studied film and graphic design and wants to get into a career in VFX?

Well, I suppose to be quite blunt, I would say you should try and learn some VFX programs. It depends on whether you want to go 2D or 3D.

If you want to go 2D then it's important for you to learn Nuke and if you want to go down the 3D route, then you should really start looking at the VFX courses that we do here at ESCAPE so the kind of intensive courses.

I think that your background is probably quite typical in the sense that we get lots of people at ESCAPE who have done something related to film or design or graphics, even animation or visual effects at university, but they want to specialize. So I would say doing a VFX course at ESCAPE would be really good for someone like you. And then all of the knowledge and skills that you've got from doing your degree will, of course, be useful, but if you definitely want to go into VFX then I think you need to have those specialist software skills as well.

I'm a second year visual effect student and I really want to get a taste of the industry. I have the opportunity to do a placement year between my studies and am looking at working in London. Do you have any tips for someone who has very little experience, but a lot of passion for the industry?

This is quite a common question and I think that you have to be persistent and organized really. It's really not as easy as it used to be to get a placement or an internship, the competition is really high. I think that obviously you need to try and line something up as early as you can and another major factor is that you need to think about how much is going to cost you to live in London as well. 

If you're staying at home, if you're living in London or close by that's going to make things easier, but if you don't, you're going to have to start to think about renting somewhere and it's going to cost you a lot of money. And you've got to think about travel and the chance that if you're in an internship you might not get paid, so that's a massive obstacle in many ways.

It might not be that you can do a whole year in one company, maybe you line up lots of smaller work experience weeks here and there with different companies. I think you might find it quite a hard to do a full year on a placement, but of course, it's worth finding out. Writing in to all of these post houses and explaining what you want to do but I think you really need to be persistent.

How easy is it to switch from the film industry to the video games industry?

It's not an easy transition to make since the way things are done in video games the pipeline is quite different, it's very different to what's done in a film as far as I know. I've never worked in video games, but people that I do know who’ve worked in video games tell me that it's not the same system.

A lot of it is to do with the level of realism, the number of polys that you use in things, the textures, the lighting, etcetera. I would say that you chose one industry or the other.

How bad is it if someone applies for more than one position in the same VFX Studio? For example, for a Roto artist position and a Compositor, or Matchmover?

The simple answer to that is if you have the skills, if you can rotate to a high level, and if you can composite to the level they're looking for and if you can Matchmove to the level they're looking for, then there is no reason why you can't apply for any of those positions or all of them.

I think it's a simple as that, but really I don't think it's worth applying to do a job if you don't feel confident that you've already got the skills and to hit the ground running.

At Escape we run VFX courses in Compositing and Rotoscoping as well as advanced VFX courses that cover Matchmoving

Outside of London, where else in the UK has a decent VFX presence?

London is the epicentre of the VFX industry in the UK, but there are outposts in different cities in different areas of the UK. It's becoming a bit more popular for post houses to open up in the regions and other cities outside of London because they can benefit from tax breaks.

So, for example, recently Milk has gone to Cardiff and I know a few VFX houses that are looking to open outposts in Scotland, in Glasgow, for example, and again, this is mainly because they can take advantage of tax breaks.

I think that you'll probably find small post houses in lots of the biggest cities in the UK, but I would imagine that they would generally be working on smaller projects and the probably not working on film projects as much as the ones in London. They do exist, but in reality the main collection of Post houses is in London really.

In the industry, are you paid by the week or day by day?

The answer to that is that it depends. You may just be hired on a day by day basis for a particular job. Your contract might be for a week or two weeks or a few months or it might be for twelve months, so it depends, but what we do to advise people is to have an idea what their day rate would be.

So, for example, the junior artist may sort of charge between £80 to £100, £120 pounds a day, as you get more experienced you will be working up to towards say £150, £175. £300 is kind of top level I would say really, maybe £350. 

So obviously you just extrapolate at your day rate. So if you're on a five-day job for a week then that's how you get paid. You only get paid at the end of the week or at the end of the month depending on who you're working for. It's quite common that you have to invoice in those situations so actually you may have to wait up to a month before you get paid!

But I suppose to answer your question it's important for you to have an idea of what your day rate would be, and then you would just times that day rate by the amount of days that you've done for that particular contract.

Is it viable for people to live off a runner’s salary renting a room in London?

It depends on exactly how much you’re getting paid. A runner’s salary is going to be in the region of £17k, £18k a year.

A room in a flat share is going to be somewhere around £500 a month, plus your travel, food and other expenses then it’s going to be really tight.

It’s probably possible but you’re not going to have much spare cash at the end of the month.

It’s much easier if you’ve got friends and family you can stay with. Some people share rooms. It’s quite brutal. It’s not an easy city to live in in that sense. It’s possible but you’d have to do your sums and work out exactly what you’d need to spend each month to get by.

What’s the average age of someone entering the VFX industry?

Anecdotally, I would imagine that it’s somewhere in the early to mid-twenties. But that doesn’t mean that some people don’t enter it at a later age, or even some people at a slightly earlier age.

You probably will have gone to university or done something like a VFX related course or something slightly different. And that’s going to take you into your early twenties. It might be that you’ve worked in another industry for a couple of years. Or you may have come to somewhere like Escape Studios and done a course.

Looking around our studios, the average age of the students is early to mid-twenties. But it’s not unheard of for people to enter the industry in their 30s or 40s.

But if you have a passion for something I wouldn’t let your age put you off. I wouldn’t get hung up on how old you think other people are or whether you’ve left it too late.

If you’ve got the skills and the application and the desire and the passion to do it, then it shouldn’t really matter too much.

Part 2 - Software and applications for VFX

Do you recommend any other compositing application to learn other than Nuke?

I think if you want to work in film then Nuke is obviously the most important one and you should probably concentrate on that and make sure that your skills are to a high level in Nuke.

There are other compositing applications out there. Digital Fusion is an option and you can also composite and do quite a lot of compositing techniques in After Effects.

But, again, if you can use these programs that is great, but really I would say focus on Nuke and try to get as high a standard as possible.

Our 3D for visual effects short course provides a lot of training for people that are new to Nuke. But if you already know how to use it then you’re best placed to study our integrated masters in the art of visual effects which covers advanced skills in compositing and 3D.

I want a career as a 3D artist, but as of now, I don't have the money to afford software like ZBrush or Mudbox for sculpting. Will learning the sculpting skills in a program like Blender be useful or does the program need to be industry standard to be hired in the film industry?

Ideally you want to be using the software that is being used in the industry.

Different post houses will favour different software and you may find that some places do actually use Blender.

It's a difficult question in many ways because it's not a completely standardized industry so not everybody uses the same software to do exactly the same thing. 

I think that, of course, it's helpful for you to practise and to learn as much as you can in Blender, and if you can get a copy of ZBrush or a copy of Mudbox then try and do it in that as well it's more strings to your bow as it were.

You're saying that you can't afford the software at the moment so it might be worth getting in touch with the manufacturers of those and see if they're doing student deals or if you can get temporary licenses or a trial licenses, and then try and do it like that.

I would say that, of course, learning to sculpt in any program is better than not doing in anything at all.

What is the best matchmove software to learn? 3d equalizer or pf track?

In the past we’ve taught 3D Equalizer and we’ve taught PF Track. At the moment, on our 3d for visual effects course we are teaching 3D Equalizer.

The software packages often do very similar jobs and it’s just a case of what’s being used most commonly in the industry at that time. And that’s the one that we tend to pick to use to teach our students.

I know a lot of people who consider themselves tracking artists will learn as many different tracking softwares as possible. I think once you can track in one and you understand the principles of how to perform the operation then to learn a new software is not too difficult.

It’s debatable which one is best.

Which is better - Maya or Houdini for VFX?

I think it’s horses for courses. Maya is the most used 3D package in the VFX industry. It’s a massive package and it has lots of different things you can do in there from modelling to animating, to creating particle simulations etc.

I know some of our tutors here like the particle sims they can do in Houdini. It’s quite a difficult interface. It’s quite hard to teach it to yourself. But it’s definitely becoming more popular in the industry and if it’s something that you’ve got in your armoury then so much the better.

But you might find you prefer Maya for some things and Houdini for other things. It’s just a question of finding the best tool for the job, whatever the job happens to be.

Part 3 - Creating a showreel and demonstrating your skills

When putting together a showreel how many different shots do companies expect to see?

The person that recently won our little competition at Escape Studios for a show reel actually only had one shot on his reel so you could say that you really only need one very good shot.

And if that's all you have that's all you should put on.

We always try to tell students as Escape not to put too much unfinished work or work that is not completely satisfactory on a show reel because it's often the case that you'll be judged on the worst shot on your reel.

The answer to that question is don't put any film that you're not happy with completely and that isn't completely finished. If that is just one shot, then so be it, one shot. And obviously as you get more specialized or more experienced then you can demonstrate other skills that you have as well.

What elements should a good show reel for a generalist job contain?

Well, the first thing to consider that is, whether you're a 2D generalist or a 3D generalist or even perhaps an all around visual effects generalist so if you can do 2D or 3D as well.

I think the simple answer to that is that you would basically want to show that you can go through the entire pipelines. Say for example, if you're a 3D artist you want to show that you can model, that you can texture, that you can light, that you can render, and if you're a 2D artist you want to show that you can do Roto and paint and clean-up work and that you can actually composite 3D elements into a live action plate. 

If you do all three and if you want to be 2D and 3D then I guess you want to show that you can do all of that, but the reality is that even as generalist you may favor one particular discipline over the other. It might be that you can model but you really don't enjoy modelling.

You can leave things out that you don't really enjoy doing that much so I think essentially you just want to put your strongest skills onto the show reel and show what you can do. The more skills you've got the better. That's the simple answer really.

We spend a lot of time at Escape Studios helping our students to put together their showreels. We’ve worked in the industry, we’ve recruited and we know most of what the houses are looking for in a show reel. One of the major benefits of our courses is the level of industry insight that you can get from actually studying with Escape rather than studying from distance or on your own.

How complex should models be to demonstrate modelling skills?

You want your models to be as complex as they need to be to actually replicate what you're trying to show. In other words, you don't want to make things over complicated, but you don't want things to work too simple. So it's just a question of modelling something according to what's going to be used for. How big is it going to be in the shot? How is it going to be used in the scene? Is it something that needs to be broken apart or is it going to be a static object? It's not really about how complex things are it’s whether they’re fit for purpose or not. There’s no point in doing something incredibly complex that’s got millions of polys in it if it’s going to be half a centimetre high at the back of the frame and on camera for 10 seconds. It’s not worth doing a really intricate model.

What you’re tasked with doing as a VFX modeller is doing the best possible job in the shortest amount of time while maintaining a quality that allows the viewer to be fooled by what you’ve made. It’s not really a question of how complex things are or how amazing your models are, it’s whether they’re fit for purpose.
If you can make really intricate models then that’s fantastic and it’s going to demonstrate your skills, but you don’t need to make things harder for yourself.

Do you have to refresh your showreel yearly? And what is the ideal length for a showreel?

It’s good to be continually doing new stuff and putting it on your reel. If you’re applying for a job at a post house that you’ve already sent your showreel to in the past, then there’s not that much point in sending in that reel again for them to consider because they’ll already have it on file.

Refreshing your showreel and putting new work on there – especially if it shows a progressions of skills – is a very good excuse for you to send it out to a company again and say “hey, look at what I’ve done recently, what do you think of this?”

You want as much new stuff on your reel as you can but you have to maintain the quality.

The ideal time length for the showreel is a minute and half, two minutes max. Again, it depends on the quality of what you’ve got and the skills that you want to show.

You want to keep it as short and sweet as possible and you’re just tantalizing people and showing them a quick insight into the skills that you’ve got.

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