A Guide for Production: For Beginners
So over the past four years in VFX, and working as a teacher, I’ve been noticing some trends. From the artist side, and from the production side. I’ve had a few friends make the jump to production in the past two years, and it was not quite what they thought it was.
I’ve also had a few students come out of VFX programs and have their first job as a VFX production coordinator and panic. Or not quite understand how all the departments work, or how everyone talks to each other.
I’ve also noticed a fair amount of people in production who graduate from other areas of education that don’t really teach VFX. Such as digital marketing, law, digital media, and graphic design. As great as these programs are, sometimes it's a bit of a shock to jump from that into film.
So this article is for you. Here are some breakdowns of departments you might interact with in production, but because I work as an FX artist, this will be very FX centric. There will also be some tips and tricks that I’ll share that artists love in production.
Keep in mind I am writing this from an artist perspective, so any CC or comments would be greatly appreciated. I’ll try and aim this towards production people just entering the industry. So just a basic breakdown of what your average day in the studio might look like.
And no it’s not Shotgrid…It’s Shotgun. Change my Mind.
What Do The Departments Do?
A quick guide on who does what, and why things happen.
Let’s start with the general list of departments you’ll see in a studio. Listing them in order of how things progress loosely through the pipeline.
Starting with you. Production. Production deals with the organization of the entire studio, and any production we work on. You make sure things stay organized, take notes, communicate with departments, keep artists on track, and document show issues. Without you, we can’t stay employed, complete tasks, or wrap up a show.
Depending on what your role is in production, you might also be asked to communicate with the client, talk to other vendors, and visit on-set productions. You are the first people our clients see and think about when they visit the studio or interact with it.
Depending on how big your studio is, and how busy it is, production artists might be assigned to certain shows. This means you only do tasks within that certain production.
There are a few different job titles in Production:
The Production Co-ordinator:
The official description of this job is a bit vague. You help move assets through the pipeline and keep all the tasks organized.
This sounds pretty easy, until you understand how many different pieces and people go into making one shot of a film. You are the first first most artists will talk to regarding shots, and it is your responsibility to make sure everyone knows what that artist is up to.
You will also take notes in daily's, communicate to the rest of production what the status of each task is, and make sure things are being completed on time.
The Production Manager:
Production Managers help oversee departments, or entire shows. If they are overseeing a department, they will schedule weekly meetings to check in with the entire team, and alert them to new projects. As well as deal with pay, internal issues, and help renegotiate contracts. They also make sure that artists have tasks, are onboarded correctly, and stay busy. If they are assigned to a show, then they do some different things.
The PM keeps the production coordinators on the show organized, and checks in with them daily. They most likely have worked in production for several years prior, and know the pipeline pretty well.
They also work with the HODs(Heads of Departments) per artist role, and make sure each department is working smoothly.
The producers of the studios deal with the studio-client relations. They oversee the final products being produced by the studio, make sure deliveries go through on time, check in on the final edits, and make sure the client is happy.
They rarely interact with artists unless the production is small, or something is needed quite urgently.
The Executive Producer:
Eps help will projects for the studio. They do a lot of client and studio relations, and work closely with the VFX producer to get things done.
They can be involved in the marketing aspects of the company, be a co-owner, or have worked for the company for several years.
The Assets Department
From a production perspective you might hear the assets department mentioned a lot. Assets is the department that created models that we use in production. For example, let’s say a shot needs a spaceship descending through the clouds. Assets will create that spaceship model.
They also are responsible for showcasing different designs on how something might look, matching models and assets to the concept art. As well as showing early renders or rotations of the model.
If something goes wrong here, most likely everything down the road will be a little bit hectic.
Assets need to publish everything in one location per shot, and make sure everyone is aware when they are updating a model. They also need to keep names of assets the same, and if those assets are referencing a certain directory, keep the paths the same. They also need to adapt to any quick fixes that will be needed to made down the road.
Editorial (The department that needs to be paid more)
Editorial is a special department. They would say: “Fire, fire, everything's on fire, and more fire.” As one of the many descriptions of their department. I’ve also heard one say: “We’re the resident therapists for the VFX supervisors.” I’d also argue they are the department that does the most overtime.
However, Editorial is the department that helps put together the final cut of the sequence of shots the VFX vendor is working on, or the final product. Generally, there are two main types of VFX editors. Client Side and In House.
The In House Editor will deliver the shots in sequence to the client side of the production, and make sure all the cuts are up to date. They will also omit shots on the vendor side if there is a change in the update cut. They will also make frame length updates to shots that the artists are working on.
They make sure the plates come into the studio, and lay down a rough template on how the shots should progress throughout the studio.
Client Side Editors are the editors who send things out to the many VFX vendors working on the production. They also receive the deliveries from the vendors. They keep track of the directors notes, sometimes visit the production on set, and flag anything that could be better.
They also bring all the shots together so the director can view it, and see what the final product might look like when the VFX is added.
Rigging is a super technical department. They are responsible for making characters and other animated objects move.
They make the skeleton underneath the model that assets make. Animators use this skeleton to model the model over a period of time.
Creating this “skeleton” is a bit tricky. This skeleton is known as a rig. The rig when built needs to stay inside the model, work with any skin or muscle shapes on a character, and work with any asset updates. Sometimes the rig won’t work, and it is up to the rigging artists to fix it.
This is where the animators hang out. They place the movements on the characters, add emotion, and animate assets the FX/CFX department might need to make an effect work.
Animators in VFX complete different tasks than would regularly be seen if they were working in cartoons. They still take character models and animate them. However, part of their job in VFX is to work with motion capture data, fix any roto-animation, and match their character’s movements to the plates.
As a production person you might get a lot of requests from FX/Lighting/CFX for animation. This is because those departments can’t start on a shot unless they have animated models.
Depending on how big your studio is, this department might be seen as one large one, or might be separated into three smaller departments. Lookdev is also sometimes done in assets. However, layout does a lot of it as well.
Without layout and tracking nothing in a studio would be completed. Layout is the core of almost every shot in VFX, and most of the time they don’t get a lot of praise for it. Their job is to recreate the scene as seen in the plate in 3D space. They also do their best to recreate the camera movements in the plate in 3D space.
They take any assets that the assets department makes and track them to the plate per shot. They also create ground planes for the shots, which is very important for effects work.
They also help create the roto-anim for characters based off the plate. This roto-animation can then be passed to animators, lighting, FX, and other departments.
Lookdev wise they do basic previs of how a shot might progress. They will take the 3D models they just tracked to the plate, and overlay different 2D elements over them. They can even add basic lighting, and effects to further sell the shot.
DMP stands for Digital Matte Painting. Matte Painting is one of the oldest professions in FX. Perhaps the oldest. If you have ever seen The Wizard of Oz, you know the iconic scene where Dorothy and her friends walk down the yellow brick road with the castle of Oz in front of them.
- That castle is a matte painting.
Most of the time in modern productions matte paintings are done digitally. This means an artist puts a bunch of images together in photoshop, and layers them to create a unique background. This image is then placed in the background of a shot, and the artist rotates, tracks, and tests to see how the image would fit in the sequence. They use a combination of Nuke with Photoshop to achieve this. Sometimes they also use 3D elements as well.
Depending on the size of the studio, these two departments might be merged together, or are separate. In the studio I work at, these two things are separate, but we still share the same PM and HOD.
CFX and FX are not the same. CFX stands for character effects. This means anything to do with fur, clothes, animals, drool, bodily interactions, or muscles and skin is what they work with. They groom fur, and simulate fur. Sometimes there is a separate artist who just grooms the fur or hair on a character, and another artist simulates it. If you have ever seen The live action Lion King, the fur on the animals was done by CFX artists.
FX does all the other types of simulations. We create clouds, interaction effects between characters and their surroundings, magic effects, ocean simulations, mattes for comp, and much more.
As a production artist you might find that FX/CFX takes a long time for tasks to be completed. That's ok and normal. In order to start our jobs we rely on all the other departments to complete their work before we start on a shot. Often we start working with incomplete assets, and then update our simulations accordingly as the shots progress.
Lighting is pretty straightforward. They take everything and light it. This involves matching their 3D lighting to the plates of the shot sequence. They make everything look like it belongs together.
A lead lighter will most likely create light rigs for a shot sequence, publish a series of frames for production to comment on, and when the lighting setup gets approved, pass that on to the other lighters.
Light rigs is a technical name for a group of lights bundled together. They are useful in the sense where lighters don’t have to create the same lights over and over again for every single shot.
After lighting the different elements, they will render everything out, and pass it to comp.
Comp (Another department that also should be paid more)
A compositor creates the final image.
They take everything from every department and make it look great. They add color corrections to renders, warp images, add lens flares, and much more. They are usually the last people to stop working on a show because they have to wait for everyone to produce their final results before they can finish.
They also do a lot of technical stuff as well. They create any 2D effects that might be needed in the shot, use effect libraries to layer over plates, prep the plates for other departments, the list goes on.
What can go wrong will go wrong. Buy your TD a cookie.
Pipeline. You might hear that word mentioned in a different context than most things in the studio. The pipeline keeps everything organized from a technical perspective. It also makes sure every department has information and resources they can use. It also involves the publishing options for artists, makes sure all artists are saving things in the correct directory, and makes sure there are backups of everything.
You can think of it as the computer version of production if you need a quick idea of what it is.
Things can go wrong in the pipeline, and that happens from time to time. When this happens it impedes artist workflows and causes things to be delayed.
Let’s use this scenario for example. An artist was supposed to publish their simulation to lighting, and the publishers are failing on the farm. The artist has checked for user errors, and made sure nothing they are doing is causing the problem. They find out that something in the system is refusing for them to place their finished asset where it needs to be, and needs help. This is a pipeline issue.
Then the TDs(Technical Directors) enter the picture. Their job is to fix any issue that prevents everything from moving forward in a timely manner.
There are many different types of TDs. Some are department specific, and we’ll cover those a bit later.
A Pipeline TD makes sure everyone has the correct software tools to complete their job. They code things into the system to make sure work is streamlined and so productivity can continue. They also design and test new software to make sure it fits into the current pipeline.
The other types of TDs are as follows:
- FX TD
- Lighting TD
- Character TD
- Shading TD
(Additional others depending on department needs)
FX TDs make sure FX/CFX artists can use their tools correctly. They work with the HODs to fix and diagnose problems. Often they will ask artists in the department to test things, and make sure that the tools they are designing are working. Often the FX TD will be working with Houdini and Maya to make sure the assets being brought in and out of those two softwares are successful.
Lighting TDs really depend on the company you are working at. Sometimes the name Lighting artist and Lighting TD can mean the same thing. Sometimes it refers to the people who are pipeline developers embedded within lighting teams. Or just the people who light the scenes.
Character TDs are the people responsible for working with characters and problem solving any issues they might have. Once again it varies from studio to studio. They work closely with the rigging department to make sure characters can move correctly and successfully. They create any in house tools that might be needed for this, and work mostly in Maya.
Shading TDs are responsible for creation, updates, maintenance and support of the shaders for the various assets. They work in tandem with assets and lookdev to make sure everything works the way it should.
So as you can see a good pipeline has good support.
You might also have some questions when it comes to where everything fits inside the pipeline. Generally the workflow of the studio goes something like this:
Concept art > Assets > Lookdev/Tracking/Layout > Rigging > Animation > CFX/FX > Lighting > Rendering > Compositing.
These aspects overlap quite frequently, and some steps happen at the same time, or in different orders.
The Dos and Don’t
How To Become The Favorite Production Person
Working in production can be very confusing and overwhelming. But here are some quick dos and don’t if you are working in production.
Assigning and Reassigning Shots
This is an important task for production to do. Without assigning artists to a shot or task, they won’t have the resources to find what they are supposed to do. As a production artist, you’ll most likely use something called shotgun to assign artists to shots, and check the status of the shot on shotgun. If you can learn the complexities of shotgun, and how to document everything there, you will soon become a pro.
Make sure you also list if you can the task the FX/or other artist needs to complete on shotgun for the shot. This sounds like a fairly simple thing to do, but if the production is involving 100+ shots it can get a pick trick to label everything. But labeling does help a lot. Listing a description of the task on the shot page for the artist saves the artist from @’ing the supervisors and asking what they are supposed to do. So by just making sure it's there, you can stop a tirade of messages from artists asking what they should be doing.
Also a lot of artists don’t have the same skill level. Most teams have a lot of junior artists, some intermediates, and a few leads. Leads are the pros. More often than not they are doing the most complex shots. Juniors do the basics. Intermediates are somewhere in between. Analyzing who can take on which task is necessary for shots to be completed. You can’t give a junior artist a giant scene where Godillza smashes an entire city. Sends a laser beam through King Kong, and falls into a massive ocean. But you can get them to various pieces of it. Such as dust, debris, and smaller secondary simulations. Or assets in the scene. Otherwise, they’ll never complete it on time.
If you’ve had the luxury of working on a production with an artist before, you might already know their skill level and workflow. But if you haven’t, ask their HOD or PM. Or check their status in the system. It should say their position there.
Now if an artist is falling behind, there could be a lot of reasons for this. Some companies have artists work on multiple shows, and that means the artist is being thrown multiple shots at once. This can be a bit overwhelming. If this is the case, ask the artist which shots they have started, and which ones they haven’t. Then they can give you a list of shots to reassign to other artists who need them.
Some shots might not have been started because the assets (models , animation, etc) have not been built yet. If that is the case, then you’ll have to push the start date of the shot. Or have the artist work on something else in the meantime. Lack of assets doesn’t mean you have to take away a shot.
Checking in with an artist on the status of a shot is always important. Don’t check in 13+ times a day and ask where something is. You’re not going to have a lot of friends at beer Fridays if you do that. Checking in once at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day works, especially if it's crunch time for a show.
If an artist is struggling, then this is the moment where you might have to get them to contact their lead for assistance, or start to reassign things. No one likes when a shot is reassigned. It feels like defeat, but sometimes it has to be done. Just make sure you give the artist some notice beforehand if possible.
Communication is everything.
Dailies and Note Taking
This will be the most important thing you do in production. Feedback is one of the most useful things in VFX, and without it translated correctly, everything can go wrong. Production Coordinators will do this task constantly in dallies, and it's very easy to miss details. Usually during a daily, the supervisors, leads, and producers will give feedback on shots that artists are working on. Usually their answers will be very specific and difficult to understand if you are new to VFX. So learning what all the different terminologies mean can really help you understand what is going on.
For example, let’s take this scenario where a supervisor is giving feedback on a collapsing building an artist has made.
The supervisor says: “The building seems to be falling very slow, there is no momentum. The motion blur seems unrealistic and too long on the smaller pieces of debris. There needs to be more of an impact force when the building starts to fall. There is no emotion here. The aspect ratio of the image seems wrong. And something is making the pieces clip into the surrounding objects.”
You can write that down as a note on a shotgun, and everyone will be happy. You did a perfect job. But you might be at a total loss at what has been said here. Which might translate into how you take down the notes. So let’s break it down.
“The building seems to be falling, there is no momentum.” This might mean that the artist needs to increase the velocity or speed at which the object is falling. They also might need more gravity forces.”
“The motion blur seems unrealistic and too long on the smaller pieces of debris.”
- This means that something is off with the velocity of the objects. The artist has to now figure out how fast the objects are moving, and how they should tell their piece of software to calculate the movement.
“There needs to be more of an impact force when the building starts to fall. There is no emotion here.”
- This might mean that the effect is not translating in the shot well. The effect needs more emphasis, and motion overall. The effect might not be translating the sequence of action into something worthwhile seeing.
“The aspect ratio of the image seems wrong.”
- This might mean that the artist has rendered the image at the wrong resolution. They might have also used the wrong camera.
“And something is making the pieces clip into the surrounding objects.”
- This means that objects are intersecting with each other. They might be overlapping in the scene, or not colliding with each other correctly. The artist will have to fix this. The supervisor could also be referring to any polygons breaking or popping through objects. Polygons are shapes that make up 3D images/structures.
Communicating and remembering the communication between supervisors and artists in the dallies is important. The artist might point out an error, or make a suggestion about the shot the supervisor might agree with. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to write it down. Supervisors also like to change their minds, or need additional feedback from other supervisors on the project or producers. So make sure everyone who was mentioned and associated
with that conversation in dallies is aware of the notes.
It’s going to be hard to take notes for everyone who comes to a meeting, so figuring out a shorthand writing style for yourself helps a lot. Always have something you can write in with you in the studio. Don’t be afraid to clarify with the supervisors or artists if you think you’ve missed something. It’s better to ask than to presume something.
Here are some further tips for notes.
Backgrounds: Don’t refer to plates or environment models as backgrounds. This can easily be confused in a note. For example, supervisors will analyze an effect on how it interacts in the background, midground, or foreground of a shot. Artists might see the word “background”, and assume that something is wrong in the background. When in actuality there might be a plate issue. Or perhaps an asset issue. Try and use correct terminology when you can.
Try to include frame ranges if the effect or motion is supposed to be corrected within a certain frame range. Artists might forget specific numbers when referencing the notes later on.
If you are unfamiliar with VFX terms, I recommend checking the Visual Effects Glossary here: http://www.rebelalliance.eu/visual-effects-glossary.html
Keeping a team on track is hard. Productions require huge amounts of time and energy from several different people. Often artists leave, join, or swap to different projects within a studio, and it's very hard to keep track of where they all are. Having weekly scrums and calls with team members is often quite useful for keeping track of who is doing what. As well as double checking artist workloads. You’ll be able to better understand who is too overwhelmed, and who could be doing more.
Shotgun is incredibly useful for this task as well. It can give you statistical overviews of projects and artist submissions. As well as updates on which tasks are completed.
Staying organized is also a great way to improve your communication skills. Studios often have their own internal databases for tips and tricks for problems in the studio. As well as databases for artists to store builds or assets they might need in the future. Making sure these resources stay organized and in one place can help with overall problem solving. Keeping track of overall project issues and their statuses can also help catch pipeline issues early, and other production matters.
There might be points along the production process where shot start and end dates might have to be changed. Shots might be omitted, placed on hold, or the dreaded: CBB.
Every week or so, you’ll probably get a cut update from editorial. Which will let you know the status of shot sequences, or if any of the shots have been omitted. You’ll probably be asked to update these in a shotgun, and this will then let everyone know the progress of the work. This in turn will affect the rest of the production.
There is also something called hit lists. These are lists of shots that are high priority, or that need to be finished soon. Usually, they are sent out on an email list for all the artists on the production to follow. The hit lists are great organizational tools to remind people when work is due.