How to get started in VFX

How to start when you don't know where to start.

My Break into VFX Live Stream is now available as a recording on YouTube. Here is a link.

In the live stream I answered questions that are similar to what I hear quite frequently so I thought I’d address some of the same concepts in this post and expand on them with more actionable advice.

The number one struggle I see with students who are just getting started with VFX and animation is that they often don’t know where to even start. This frequently takes the form of questions like “What school should I go to?”, “What software should I learn?” or even just “Where do I start?”

These are the wrong questions to ask until you have worked out some other answers. 

As with any journey you must first identify where exactly it is you are trying to get to. As I like to say, if you don't know where you are going, you are guaranteed to get there. Likewise, once you decide on where you are going, you can start to take concrete steps towards making efficient progress toward that destination. Part of the journey includes figuring out where you are starting from also of course. Going to a particular school or trying to learn a particular piece of software is too unspecific a starting place. You need to figure out where you are starting and where you want to go to figure out what you need to learn. It will inform what school you need (or don’t need) to reach your goal. You will need the information of what destination you are trying to reach regardless of what route you go for education or which pieces of software and hard skills you ultimately focus on. In the end, you are the one responsible for your education so you should take control of it as early as possible. Guidance counselors and mentors are all good but at the end of the day, YOU have to take ownership. Starting with an idea board where you write down your basic high level goals is a good starting place. It will focus your ideas or reveal if you really don’t even know what you want yet. It will force you to think about it. Turn off the TV. Turn off any screens. Just sit down with just yourself, a pen and some paper and try to get it out in front yourself. Once you have those high level goals out in front of yourself you can start breaking them down into action items. (You might have to revisit the ideas based on what we discuss next but at least you have that out in front of yourself now) It’s OK to be very specific and even dare I say ambitious. In fact I encourage it. I’m not just talking about what job you want, but also what specific level you want to work at. Do you have ambitions of becoming a lead or a supervisor some day? What specific role do you want?   I’ve spoken to far too many students who imply they would be happy with “any job” in VFX or whatever. While it’s true you might have to take whatever job comes along at first, that’s no way to plan your preparation for the job or, for getting to your ultimate goal. In fact, not preparing for a more specific role in the industry is a great recipe for getting a job you don’t actually want. Why would you do that? Figure out the specialty you want to do and focus unwavering attention towards getting good at it. If you aspire to be a supervisor some day, you will need to study a bit about supervising people also (which is a discipline completely unrelated to learning about C.G. and VFX)  I’m speaking from experience when I advise you to plot out your course. I wasted a lot of years not really thinking about what my next steps were going to be. However, every time I had some kind of plan regarding the next goals I wanted to achieve, I was able to achieve them. I’ve observed the same outcomes in the people I’ve mentored so I can tell you having a plan works.

The most simple and useful approach to goal creation is the “SMART” framework. SMART is an acronym for  Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based. (More on SMART Goal concepts in general  here ) SMART Goals are an excellent way to approach just about any road map you set for yourself. I’ll give some specific examples of how you can use SMART goals for learning VFX and C.G. momentarily. First we need to talk about what “Specific” means as it relates to learning C.G. and animation.  

First, consider which specific market segment you want to work in. Do you want to work in Visual Effects, Animation, Video Games, Broadcast or Print? Perhaps you want to do more “serious” work like visualization for the scientific, automotive or aerospace industries. Try to be as specific as possible. Each one of these markets has potential subsets that could be your focus. For example, in video games you could target working in either the real-time game engine side of things or an cinematics team, which is pretty much like working at an animation studio. On the real-time side of things you could work in any number of specialties including FX, modeling and asset prep, animation or level design, TD, to name a few. Visual Effects can be similarly segmented by specialty like modeler, texture artists, a look-dev, rigger, FX artist, hair/fur/cloth sim, match move, layout, animator, compositor, Matte Painter, paint / roto, Pipeline TD, Resource TD / PST. Animation has similar specialties.

Why is figuring out precisely what you want to specialize in important? It’s because it is what will inform what you put on your demo reel. It will inform what your SMART goals need to be to efficiently build the skills you need to work professionally.

You will need to learn some amount of “generalist” skills to simply be able to operate; however, you should focus on honing your skills around a specific specialty as early as possible (or two, or more of you are particularly motivated). Even as a generalist, you MUST be very skilled in at least one specialty or you will find it difficult to get work. Might as well specialize instead.

How do you know what specialty you will enjoy? What if you don’t even know what all the possible specialties are? This sounds like a good opportunity to use SMART goals to create “assignments” for yourself!

Example SMART goals for “Figuring out an area of C.G. focus”. We start with one high level goal focused on just learning what we don’t know.

Initial Goal: Over the next month, I will give myself a 10,000 foot overview of the various techniques and specialties in VFX/Animation/Games. (As this is more of a VFX oriented channel, I will provide some specific examples for resources for learning high-level VFX concepts)

Read or view the following:

Once that’s done, you’ll be better informed about  the various tasks involved in creating VFX and the possible jobs you COULD do. But you probably still wont really have a feel for what it’s like doing those jobs. Let’s create another set of SMART goals to help figure out what you might enjoy doing. They could look like this.

Action Goal: Over the next 6 months, I will complete simple C.G. assignments that touch on several specialties to see what I enjoy the most.

Break it down into actionable steps.

Month 1: I will model two simple objects, one moderately complex object and one simple character.

Month 2: I will texture and look-dev my models. I’ll experiment with importing my models into a game engine.

Month 3: I will rig my character model. I will do two FX simulation tutorials.

Month 4: I will camera track a plate. I will  animate my character model or some other object to my match moved plate.

Month 5: I will render and composite my animation on the match moved plate

Month 6:  I will do a digital matte painting and composite a shot with a green/blue screen plate.

Wow. That all seems like simultaneously a lot of stuff and not a lot of stuff to do over 6 months. But you’ll notice that the first step was to get a clear idea of WHAT to actually do. Only after that was figured out do you go into actually making stuff.  If you were doing it full time, it would not be a lot of tasks to get done in 6 months. If you were only doing these things part time on evenings and weekends, it might feel like a lot to get done. If you find that your SMART Goals are not achievable in the time you have specified for them, you should adjust them. If tasks take much LESS time and you are breezing through everything, tighten up the schedule on your next set of goals to give yourself a bit less time. 

Whatever you do, hold yourself accountable. This is where the Measurable and Time-Based aspect of SMART comes into play. Don’t just make a list of things to do, put each task on a calendar with deadlines. Tell a friend or family member your plans (but keep in mind, you are still going to have to be your own taskmaster. Don’t expect someone else to be. That’s too much of an ask.)  If you want to really hold yourself to account, consider tracking your SMART goal tasks the way we track tasks in production. Create a Gantt chart that plots out each task and its time allowance and track your progress day to day. That way you will know pretty early if you are slipping, keeping up or going faster than your initial estimate. There are several free Gannt chart templates available online for Google Sheets, LibreOffice and Excel you can use to build your task tracker.  

You don’t need to use the Gannt chart style of timeline specifically but you must have deadlines. If you don’t have deadlines, you don't have a schedule. Use whatever system makes sense to you but whatever you do, make deadlines for your SMART goals.

In the process of upskilling in the area you have chosen to specialize in you should start building a demo reel. The demo reel projects will help you stay focused on more ambitious goals in terms of your output. You should feel like you are really stretching and growing with each project. Avoid putting recognizable tutorials on your reel. Instead, make your own projects.

In summary, how to get started is to… just do it. Just start and …

  1. Get a 10,000 ft. academic overview of all the tasks involved in doing VFX.

  2. Try out each type of task hands-on to see if you enjoy one over the others.

  3. Select an area to specialize in.

  4. Focus on getting as skilled as possible in that specialty.

  5. Build a demo reel.

Use SMART Goals to stay on track with each phase of this journey.