5 tips to help you break into the VFX industry
Hey, guys! If you don’t know me, my name is Paul H. Paulino and I recently started working in the VFX industry. I am a Texture Painter/Look Development artist at Scanline VFX in Vancouver, Canada and in the past year and a half I had the opportunity to work on projects such as Independence Day: Resurgence, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Power Rangers.
Last year I began to write articles and tutorials sharing a bit of my experience and how I got here. If you have missed my past content, check the link below.
(Ps.: The images that I used in this article are only to illustrate the topics that I covered in a more funny and interesting way. I used screenshots from some of the movies that I worked at Scanline VFX but It doesn't mean that I worked on all those exact shots, okay? :) )
In this article, I want to talk about something that I’ve been questioned quite a lot, regarding finding the first job in the VFX industry. I've been studying and observing patterns for months so I could break down these tips and thoughts from my short experience at Scanline VFX and also from the experience of friends and colleagues.
If you do Google search, you will find a good amount of articles talking about how to “get a foot in the door” in this industry. I read almost all of them, and they’re all great, but I’ll try to give you something different today. I’m going to avoid things they already discussed and also common sense tips ("Be the best of the best! Be a hero! Follow your dreams! Red Bull gives you wings!) and jump straight to my personal experience, telling you what worked for me and what did not.
The purpose of this article is to share a few things that I've learned, and you shouldn't take it as definitive. Other professionals might have a different view in some parts, and it is fine. Lucky for us, there are many ways to get your first opportunity. Keep in mind that I'm writing based on the film industry and most part might not apply to other creative industries (games for example).
I know that working in the film industry is a dream for a lot of students out there and I remember being one of those students not long ago. I will never forget my first job interview, when I entered the studio and how amazed I was with the whole environment.
It was a dream coming true.
Schools vs Self-Teaching/Online Teaching
Before we jump into the five tips per se, I am going to talk a bit about VFX schools. As some of you may know, I studied VFX and animation at a small school located in North Vancouver called Think Tank Training Centre; I had a great experience and my training there was essential to my career.
There are many perks of studying in a good VFX faculty. I would like to emphasize the word “good”: Unfortunately, some schools spend too much money on advertising and forget what is important: excellence in education. But I can talk about this matter in a different article. So if you’re studying in a good school, you will have a great head start for your career, but it isn’t enough.
Based on my experience and what I’ve observed, I will let you know that not every student who enrolls in VFX schools gets a job in the industry. That is a sad truth, but it shows that in the end, it doesn't matter where you studied but how good your work is.
That being said, one of the best parts about studying in VFX schools is the easy access to information about the industry and also the number of talented people you meet there. That was the most valuable thing in my experience at Think Tank.
But if you can't afford a school, do not get demotivated. If you put enough discipline, passion and focus on your work, you will be able to achieve the same results (or even better ones) than students who went to these institutions. Like I mentioned earlier, these students will have a good head start, but in the end is their work who’s going to decide whose hireable or not.
Luckily we live in a glorious era where we have an incredible amount of free or affordable knowledge available. And the networking I mentioned above can be replaced by forums, Facebook Groups, and local meetups.
The tips I’m going to share can be put into practice by both school students and self-taught artists.
Let’s get started:
1 - The research stage
Doing research is a major step while preparing your work to get your first job. If you decided that you want to enter the industry, the first thing you should do is understand how it works.
Check these two great articles below that can give you an initial understanding of a basic VFX pipeline:
You can also check VFX breakdowns and making of; they will give you a visual understanding of the process. Below you can see a Scanline VFX breakdown, for the movie Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children.
After spending some time reading about it, you will be able to think about which part of the pipeline attracts you the most. For example, if you like hard-surface modeling, do some research and learn what the responsibilities of a modeler in a production environment are.
So at this point, you might be terrified and thinking: “So you’re telling me that I have to decide my whole future in just a few hours?! Who the hell do you think I am?”
The answer is simple: No, you shouldn’t worry too much about it in the beginning. You must trust the process. To exemplify this, let me tell you a short story about how I decided to become a texture painter.
When I went to Think Tank, I thought that I was going to become a compositor. Based on my previous experience with After Effects, Photoshop and Photography, I thought that it was going to be the path that made sense for me.
Zeus knows how wrong I was.
After discussing with some friends I realized that I didn’t like compositing at all.
I kept doing some research and only after a few months when I had the opportunity to work on my first project, Wasp, I realized what I wanted for my career. During the process of creating the artwork, I felt that texturing and look development was what I had the most amount of fun doing it. I wanted to work on that for hours, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it!
Instead of establishing in the beginning what I wanted, I trusted the process until I knew what was right for me.
But even though I chose to texture and make shaders as my specialty, I kept learning other things along the way. I believe that even for a specialist, it is important to understand other parts of the pipeline. You don’t necessarily need to be amazing on everything (if you can and want, good for you!), but just understanding each role will help you a lot in the future in a studio environment.
So after I decided to become a texture painter, I did more research to find websites of professional artists, to understand what were their responsibilities in a production environment. After Googling for a while, I found two amazing professionals who inspire me to this date and are also good friends of mine: Justin Holt & Alwyn Hunt.
After reading everything about their career and watching their showreels, I was even more certain that I wanted to become specialize in texture painting. Then the most challenging part of my journey arrived: I “just” had to find a way to create an impressive texture painting student reel that would help me get my first opportunity in the industry.
2 - Crafting a great portfolio
Without a doubt, this is the most important step of this article. Like I said before, it doesn’t matter if you studied on the most renowned VFX school in the world, have an impressive curriculum, and your portfolio isn’t good.
I am sure you’ve heard this quite a lot: “You must have a portfolio that stands out to get a job in the industry!”. Even though I totally agree with this sentence, it often sounds confusing to a lot of students when they hear it. What is a great portfolio? How do I know if my artwork is good enough to get a chance?
I’m deeply sorry to disappoint you, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to answer your question today. In fact, I think that hardly anyone can explain it with precision and here’s the reason why: there are almost infinite ways to create a good portfolio.
But don’t worry, there are a few things I’m going to list below that can help you craft a reel that might help you to get the attention of recruiters out there. Again, keep in mind that this is only my opinion about this matter. Please do not go around screaming that I gave you a magic formula to get a job in the industry, lol.
Create a DEMO reel
This step might sound obvious to some of you that are already familiar with the terms video reel or demo reel, but I’ve talked to several students in the past who didn’t know that creating a video showcasing your work and breakdowns is a must do.
When you apply for a position in a VFX studio, they will usually expect a video with your work with turntables (if you’re applying for a modeling/texturing/lookdev position, of course) and breakdowns (applicable to almost every position) so they can have a quick overview on your workflow.
Here are three great examples of distinct reels with breakdowns:
Get inspired by other students
After choosing your specialty, do more research to find reels of recent graduates who already are in the industry.
The reason to do that is so you can find a minimum standard for your work. After collecting a few reels, you’ll be able to establish the level of quality you have to achieve to become “hireable.” Indeed, many other variables come into play here. It doesn’t mean that if you get a reel with a similar quality you’ll get hired right away. This isn’t the point here, this step is vital because helps you find some direction and understand what is being considered by recruiters.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not telling you to copy other artist's work nor making a dull reel. I'm writing this step so you can understand what the standard for a student is.
Before I started working on my student demo reel, I got inspired by other students as well. Here are two amazing reels that I used as a quality reference. I knew that if I got something at least close to it, I would have more chances to get a job.
If you are unsure of where to find students reels to use as a reference, there is a great website created by my friend Alwyn Hunt that can help you out. The Rookies is an International Awards for young designers, creators, innovators, and artists. The Awards were created to discover and showcase the outstanding talent emerging from higher education facilities and help launch them into careers at the world’s top studios.
Browse to the website and discover great student work out there!
Later on, I’ll talk about the importance of networking and meeting other artists, but right now I just want to give you an insight into collaborations. Some people think that your reel can only have artworks done entirely by you. Of course, to have something on your reel, you MUST have done something (duh!); but there are many ways to make something interesting that can have the help from others.
As an example, I have a piece of my portfolio which was modeled and sculpted by my good friend Daniel S. Rodrigues. Back in school, I had this idea of texturing the Southern Cassowary, a vicious and exotic bird, but I knew that I didn’t have enough skills to model and sculpt it and since my reel was going to be focusing on texturing and look development, I asked Daniel to do it for me.
It was a good deal for him as well because he wanted a high-res to sculpt on his portfolio.
So go ahead and gather your friends to create something interesting! If you are confident that you can make everything, good for you, but if you are unsure, focus on your strengths and collaborate. And of course, don't forget to specify what you did and give the credits to your colleagues.
Here’s a great student short film showcasing the power of collaboration:
Learn to let it go
The last thing on this topic I want to talk about is something that I know that it is difficult for some people. While selecting your portfolio, be selective and only showcase your best work. Period. I promised you that I wasn’t going to go back to these common sense topics, but trust me, it is worth to talk about it again.
When editing your reel, put your best piece in the beginning and the second best in the end. This way the reviewer will be amazed on both ends.
If you are still reluctant and want to keep all the artworks in your portfolio, here’s an important message from Elsa:
Sometimes having an artwork that isn’t at the same level of your other pieces can damage your whole portfolio. So again, keep it simple. If you have ten pieces and only two are good enough, keep them and let the others go.
Less is more.
3 - Networking and Social Media
So while you’re preparing your impressive portfolio, there is another thing you should keep in mind: Networking.
Some of you might be scared of this word, right? Having to interact with people can be an issue for some artists who just want to spend their time working away. The truth is, you must, without a doubt, spend more time working than talking about your work; but if you want to get a job, you have to learn how to interact with other artists; don't forget that this is an industry which relies on team effort.
Also, learn to showcase your work. If you don’t put your work out there, nobody will do it for you. So here are a few things, in my opinion, to consider when it comes to networking and social media:
Linkedin & Glassdoor
Before I came to Vancouver, I never understood the importance of Linkedin to find a job in the industry. My profile was outdated and abandoned for years, and it wasn’t until I met a few professionals at school that I realized that I had to make a good real there.
Create your Linkedin profile with all the information you can, a decent profile picture (avoid cats and dogs, please) and if you’re not sure on how to do it, just search for artists that are in the same position you’re interested and see what did they put there. I’ve been trying to improve my profile as much as I can in the past months and if you're looking for an initial guidance you can take a look if you want:
After creating your profile, search for recruiters & HR managers from companies that you’re interested in and follow them. They will often post job opportunities on their feed before anywhere else, so you can keep up to date with it. If you want to contact recruiters, please be polite and objective. They probably receive tons of messages every day, so keep it short.
You can also use Linkedin to connect with artists and professionals from the industry and also share interesting and relevant content. Bear in mind that Linkedin isn’t Facebook, so avoid posting stuff that would not be suitable for the platform.
Glassdoor is another great website to help you find a job position. I won't consider it a "social network," but it is a platform that gives users the opportunity to rate companies anonymously and share salaries, etc.
Other Social Media
If you’re not a Social Media savvy, don’t worry too much about it; I think Linkedin is the most important one if you want to find a job, but showcasing your portfolio on Facebook Groups and other CG forums can increase the chances to have your work seen.
Many industry professionals browse through these websites and groups and I’ve heard several stories of artists who got an interview because someone saw their stuff online.
I created this image with my favorite places to share your portfolio. Don't forget to Pin it on Pinterest and share it with your friends :)
But before you start sharing your work everywhere, don’t forget that some attitudes might play against you. In my opinion, you should always be nice while sharing your stuff and be open to criticism.
Also, make sure to collaborate on these websites as much as you can. Obviously, we can’t spend all day long browsing, but please don’t be that guy that just post everywhere and never come back to answer questions nor help others.
Meetups and Events
Do some research and contact other artists in your area. If you can, join CG/VFX meetups and connect with as many people possible. It’s a great opportunity to learn from others, drink some beer and expand your social network. You might be lucky enough to meet someone who is looking for an artist with your skill set, or maybe you’ll find another artist who wants to collaborate with you.
There are also other larger events such as the Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn (THU) which has been a great opportunity for artists around the world to meet and learn. If you have the opportunity, check it out! You won't regret.
CAREFUL WITH YOUR EGO
Being honest with you, I only used this title so that I could put Kurt Russell's photo below (got it? :D); but in reality what I wanted to say is: Don’t be a dick.
Pardon my language, but that sums up pretty well.
This industry is quite small, and it is all about working as a team. If people start seeing you as unprofessional or too egocentric, you might never get an opportunity at all.
4 - Share your process
Sharing your process and tutorials can help you get attention in the online community. Not only that but if you share a useful tutorial, for example, you can be showing your future employer that you know how to make things properly.
If you finished your artwork and learned something interesting, think about spending some time creating a small tutorial. By doing that you’ll be helping a lot of students out there and you will also get noticed by artists in the industry.
Being said that, I do not encourage writing tutorials just for the sake of getting exposure. If you want to share something, be thoughtful and think about if what you want to share is worth sharing.
First, you should focus on the quality of your work and then think about sharing how you've made it.
5 - Industry timing
I mentioned earlier that many variables would come into play while getting ready to find your first job in the industry. Timing is one of them. Sometimes you may have the best portfolio out there and also hundreds of connections on Linkedin, but you’re still not getting any opportunities.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t get frustrated, it is common in our industry. We’ll have months where they are hiring a lot of people and others where they aren’t. While you wait for the best time to apply, keep polishing your portfolio and social media.
Keep an eye on Linkedin feed updates from the recruiters and if you have the opportunity, ask them when is the best time to apply again.
[BONUS TIP] VISAS AND WORK PERMITS
I want to add this step as an “extra,” and it'll serve mostly as a warning.
Work permits and Visas can be scary and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, if you are an international student and wants to work for companies in the United States, Canada and other countries, you will probably need permission from the government, which might not be easy. I’ve seen a good amount of students who have a great reel and an incredible online presence but lost opportunities because they were not residents. So do some research and keep that in mind if you plan to move and work in a different country.
If you reached the end of this article I thank you for your time and I hope you found this useful.
I want to keep in mind that these tips are particularly based on my experience, and I hope these tips gave you an understanding of what you should do to get your first foot in the door.
If you liked it, please share it with your friends who might be interested and if you still have any questions or suggestions let me know. I’ll be happy to help!
You can leave a comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out this incredible infographic done by my friends at Venngage Infographic Maker. Check out their website to create your own infographic :)
Do you have any suggestion for my next articles? Write your comment below and let me know what you are interested to learn about the VFX industry. I'll be happy to spread the knowledge!