Industry Advise for Junior FX Artists
So I’ve been looking back on when I entered the VFX industry. It’s been almost 4 years of making mistakes, learning from them, and overall trying to work around them.
So here are some basic tips and tricks for junior FX artists entering a VFX studio for the first time. As well as navigating the industry. I will be trying to keep pipeline specific things out of these tips, as the first rule of being in VFX is don’t break your NDA, and try to be respectful to the studio you are currently working at. No matter the scenario.
What Will I Be Working On?
So let’s say you are straight out of school, and have only ever worked with Houdini in college. And have never been on a full production. This is something you might expect in your first year in the industry.
I find that every junior artist is different on how they approach problems or build effects. Some adjust to the VFX industry faster, and depending on the studio you are in, that might take awhile.
There will always be a few months at the start of your career where you will be given easy effects to test your skill level. That's ok. It not only allows for your department managers to see how you can best help the team, but also gives you time for you to adjust to the pipeline.
Even though it would be awesome to work on complex shots straight away, it also won’t be fair to yourself. Think about it. You are in a new working environment where you are trying to fit in as much as possible. Both socially, and talent wise. Would it be easier to fully demonstrate your skill level once you’ve fully settled in, or in a stressful learn everything all-at-once scenario?
After 3-4 months in a studio is when you will more or less be fully adjusted to the pipeline. The pipeline contains all the custom in-house tools for a studio. As well as custom publishing methods, and steps for pushing a production through. It’s the most complex part of working in a studio, but it’s the most important thing to learn.
Some tasks you might be asked to do in your first year of being an FX artist is:
- Small RBD sims
- Populate effects that are created from lead artists in shots
- Work with premade builds
- Small scale Pyro simulations
- Atmospheric effects
- Cartoon Effects
- Minor vellum effects
Should I Still Be Studying Houdini Now That I Have a Job?
Yes. Yes. Yes. The biggest thing I’ve learned from being a junior is:
------------ Never stop learning.
The other life lesson I’ve learned on this Earth is:
-----You’ll always become a better person if you are learning.
If you want to become a better artist and keep up to date with the latest tools, then you need to keep learning the software. As well as any other techniques you might need in VFX. The unfortunate thing about our industry is that it is always changing. There are always new methods of creating and visualizing art. As artists we always need to be aware of the changing landscape of the world, and where we can fit in.
It’s also great to keep pace with the current versions of Houdini to better understand the shortcuts in tools. Latest SOPs, and improvements to simulation and lighting integration.
Watching tutorials and masterclasses always helps. You don’t have to watch them everyday after work. But I find studying 1-5 tutorials a month in your first 3 years of the industry really helps. It keeps your skill level up with tools you might not have had the chance to use yet at work, and lets you choose what you’d like to build.
A lot of studios(as of 2022) are using Houdini in their workflows. Whether that is in lighting, layout, assets, or FX. So if you need to keep, or find a place on your team, Houdini might be the best tool to look into.
You can’t learn everything at work. Also it’s not healthy for you to. You need a break. You need to learn something beyond your day job. Hobby, working out, really anything. You don’t want your entire personality to become VFX. If you really want to grow as a person, find something weird that interests you, and bring that experience into the office. (Please keep it PG) For example, I know a person who collects alien figurines, and another who likes to go on random camping adventures. I like hiding historical plaques across Ontario and plants. (More on that first one in the future) It’s great to have on the job experience to use the knowledge you have learned, but you also have to gain knowledge that will help you keep your focus inside of work.
Every studio has different methods and resources for training artists. Some are better than others. Ask about them. It’s always great to participate in the training events your company has. These not only help you learn more about other departments, your own skill level, but also help you build bonds with other people in the office. 70% of your job is going to be working with assets from other departments. So learning about them is always a plus.
If you need to learn to problem solve fast, befriend a lighting artist. They fix everything.
How Should I Ask For Harder Work? I Need a Challenge…
If you reach this point, great work!
But yes, depending on where you work, this might be a difficult ask.
If you’ve reached the point where you have been creating the same effect for awhile, and need something new: ask for it. Best way to fix this is to talk to your department manager. Explain the situation politely, but also calmly explain what you would like to do next.
Don’t ask for hugely complex shots that might have multiple elements in. Ask for something reasonable. For example, if you have been working on rain simulations for the past 4 months, maybe ask for something that doesn’t involve particles. So you can level up your experience with a different set of solvers and tools. Try and ask for small effects that will give you access to experiment with every simulation type in Houdini. Then when you feel confident, level up from there.
Depending on the size of the studio, you might not have a HOD or department manager. So you might have to reach out to your production manager on your show instead. They will have a good idea on the level of work that is coming into the pipeline, and what you might be able to help out with.
Since you are a junior, production will most likely be unsure of what to give you. This confusion will mostly come from the fact that the majority of them might not have any Houdini knowledge. So if they assign you a shot that is over or under your skill level, just explain the situation to them.
The Render Farm….How to Not(?) Make Friends
Speaking from experience, the render farm being slow is the one thing all departments can agree on. They all fight for space to get their work rendered, cached, or published through it. Which can lead to many major hold ups in production.
When I was a junior, I was working at a studio where they ended up making the mistake of teaching the juniors on how to boost renders on the farm. This doesn’t sound like a major issue on paper, but just imagine this. A bunch of juniors who are 0-2 years deep in the industry, who are still learning what VFX is, still learning how to optimize their builds, and have god-level access over the most important tool in the building. Things happened that I’m still not proud of. But I also didn’t know better. This is how you don’t make friends.
Moral of the story: If you need something to render faster, let production know, and they will prioritize your tasks for you.
The render farm will be your biggest hold up as an effects artist. Depending on the workload of the studio, some things might take forever to finish. There are some small things you can do to make your outputs happen faster.
#1: If you are working with high resolution volumes…rendering half res is the best way to go.
#2: Delete any attributes you don’t need. As well as groups on your simulation before you submit the render.
#3: Cache everything out to disk before rendering.
#4: Optimize your render settings. If you are not rendering volumes, then you can turn off your volume quality settings.
#5: Render everything separately.
#6: Use mattes and hold outs if you need them, or if you can.
You will always have to fix something that's finished as a junior. 60% of the publishes you make as a junior won’t be right unless you are paying attention to what lighting needs.
Publishes are the alembics or vdbs you will send over to the lighting department to render. As an FX artist, the department you will interact the most with is lighting. After that, it will probably be compositing. If you publish something wrong to lighting, most likely they will contact you directly, or reach out to your production manager.
So these are the tips and tricks to keep lighting at bay:
- Don’t delete your Uv attributes. Otherwise none of the texture will work.
- Don’t delete your path attributes. Otherwise you will have the same issue listed above.
- Delete any attributes you don’t need. Some attributes Houdini generates conflict with attributes your lighting department has to render. So generally, only keep your velocity, uv, mat, path, id, and alpha attributes unless otherwise stated.
- Delete any groups you aren’t using anymore. If lighting and compositing don’t need it, then you don’t either.
Generally, just keep in touch with your lighting department. If you talk to them, you will learn things. The more communication you have with them, the better publishing tools and methods will be developed.
The best part about publishing something wrong, is learning how to fix it. The more problems you can isolate, locate, solve, and understand, the more likely you’ll be able to flag pipeline problems. Which in turn helps the entire department, and increases your value on the team.
Am I Being Paid Well?
This is another question artists ask themselves throughout their careers.
When you are entering the industry, it is more common to be offered lower rates. There are a few different reasons for this. There are a LOT of internal VFX political reasons for this. But I don’t feel like exploring them at the risk of someone reading this wrong. So I’ll leave it to you to find that out.
But here is a helpful chart that might help you when asking for your first set salary, and the range you should ask for. Now this chat was given to me a few years ago by a supervisor. So it does not account for the current inflation issues. So if you were to increase the ranges on an average to 10-15k , I don’t think that would be much of an issue.
These are also estimates for working in Canada for someone in FX.
Sr: 80k-120k ; (120+ in B.C)
Lead: 80k-120k (120+ in B.C)
Sup: 100k+ ( Sups don’t have a limit )
Hopefully this gives you a better idea for what to ask for as an FX artist!
Also…because there is a bit of a gender pay gap in our industry…I’mma leave this here.
This accounts for the average pay gap in the UK. Not the US or other countries. But if you feel like you might be being underpaid, or need to ask for more. Feel free to use it!
Also there is this great thread on Reddit if you need an average salary range:
Now let’s say you wait to ask for a raise. What should you do?
Well the first thing to do is to approach your department manager, and ask for a one-on-one meeting. Let them know the topic of the conversation, and then prepare what you’d like to say beforehand.
I find if you can come up with a bullet point form list of all the topics you wish to talk about or mention, you’ll be able to say exactly what you need to say. So think about the topics you need to say, and start listing everything you should say next to prove your points.
This site here has some amazing tips for negotiation: http://www.animstate.com/negotiation-tips/
In summary remember these things:
- Depending on the size of your studio, they may have less to offer. Keep that in mind if they are really trying their best to give you something.
- Figure out a salary range that will cover your expenses, rent, loans, debts, future plans for the year, and if you possibly get sick.
- What would be the amount you could live at and have the best of both worlds when it comes to the cost of living and having a social life?
- What are your strengths you bring to the team? What would be missing if you were to leave?
- Some people use offers they get from other companies as leverage. This really shouldn’t be the preferred route. But it helps sometimes.
- Remember to stand up for what you are worth!
Also remember to factor in income tax!
Here is also a great collection of salaries here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1hLki-RUHJXgYj_RJKWlwUXfrWUWEi9yIcyLzEifxYrY/edit#gid=143902278
This is one of the hardest aspects of your VFX career. It will happen and here are some warning signs.
Speaking from experience, burnout will feel a constant form of anxiety. You’ll have anxiety spikes for no reason, or when you open up projects outside of work. You also might avoid doing certain tasks because they are too mentally exhausting. You might also start to get moody when having to interact with people, or start to have a lack of patience when it comes to social situations.
It’s super hard to learn when to walk away. But you have to do it, otherwise you’ll stop loving your job.
The easiest way to make sure you have a few weekends to yourself, and have a break from VFX, is to use the vacation time your work gives you. This sounds like a very basic thing, a lot of artists like to save it for a “super long vacation I’ll totally take in the future.” Some artists do follow through with that, but others don’t. I find if you use your vacation days to make sure you have one long weekend a month (plus more if there is a holiday), you can look forward to something every month.
This method really helps if you know that your year will be back to back with important productions and you can afford to take a long vacation. Plus if you have a partener, and you schedule a day off per month, you can use that as your personal time with them.
My second tip regarding burnout, is don’t have more than 1-3 personal projects going on outside of work. If you have more than that, it’s almost unsustainable. You can probably last a few months with more, but after a while you’ll be super exhausted.
Now let’s say you NEED to have a break. Totally ok to step away from everything. There is a reason why it is a bit hard in our industry to find artists who’ve been working for over 5+ years. It’s intense. I personally have had friends who have 2 + months off before finding a new job. The main thing you need to focus on is that your mental health comes first.
You don't OWE a company anything. They may have given you your first job in the industry, they may have given you awesome shots for your show reel, and they might have given you free food for OT. But by the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself. Companies can look after themselves just fine, but you have less opportunities as an individual to put time aside for yourself.
If you need time to process a bad experience, or time to relax from a great one, that matters the most. Think about it: First impressions matter. So if you aren't in the best state of mind before entering a new workspace, you aren’t going to make the best impression. Take that time to process your experiences.
When and How to Leave:
When working at a studio there is always a moment where you will reach your peak of learning new information. Or you might start to get typecast for certain effects or shots. If this happens, you might start to become bored and frustrated. This happens to every artist in every stage of their career.
The best thing you can do here is talk to your HOD or Production manager to see if you can get harder shots, and explain what you would like to try next. If the work continues to be something you are not looking for: it’s time to go. It’s better to leave on a good note, rather to be bitchy and complain how you could be better.
However, you might be on the fence depending where you are in production. That’s totally ok. It’s always ideal to leave after a production has wrapped. But sometimes artists try to time their exits when most of their show shots will be released to them. Sometimes it takes a few months before studios and production companies allow for artists to receive their work.
Now, let’s say for whatever reason, you aren’t in a safe space, and need to get out fast. That happens. I’ve been at a few places myself where it was more or less an unhealthy boys club. Looking back, it also wasn’t just the women being affected by that environment. These environments I would say are becoming less and less frequent with every passing year, but some are very hidden. Then you enter them, and: Boom….You didn’t know what you were getting into.
If this is the case, I recommend leaving when you know you have at least 2-5 shots approved for final. So you’ll have something to show. Even if you have to wait for those shots in the future, you’ll have the security to know they are waiting for you. Then quietly in the meantime, look around for other places. Don’t be loud and proud about it. You don’t want to set off too many alarm bells, or rub people the wrong way. Worst thing you can do is enter a studio, tell them to suck it, and leave.
Some artists if they are exhausted, leave when a production wraps, then take a month and half off afterwards to recharge. This gives them the vacation time they wait, as well as a month or so for the shots to be released for their showreel. Then they are in the best form and state of mind to start a new gig.
Now on your way out the door, don’t be afraid to do these two things. Say thank you to the people who matter, and the ones who have helped you. As well as ask for an exit interview.
Saying thank you matters. VFX artists don’t get a lot of credit or thank yous throughout their careers. So telling someone they really did a fantastic job, really makes them feel more secure that their work did matter. Plus, it's a great way to maintain the connections you just made.
Exit interviews……The reason I mention this is that feedback is important. As well as the fact that some companies make them optional. Or just assume that artists will ask for them on their way out. I recommend that you always make sure you have one. It’s always the last chance to bring forward an issue, keep in contact with their HR company that might want you back in the future, or help bring to light issues on the team.
No one can fix a problem that they aren’t aware of. So by making sure you have the chance to double check that everyone is aware of the ongoing problems, or why artists might be leaving is always good. Communication is always the best tool to document and work with problems that might be devastating to a studio.