Industry Advise for Junior FX Artists

Intro:

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:
- Dust
- Particles
- Debris
- 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fixing Publishes

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.