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Who Are These Artists? A Guide for VFX Recruiting

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a recruiter. He gave me some great feedback on an article I wrote last year. As well as how it helped him learn more when in his approach to finding specific talent. So this one is for him and all the other VFX hires in the film industry.

This guide is also for anyone who is curious on the VFX roles in a studio and what they do.

Intro:

The Roles: What are They?

***These are not all the roles that exist in VFX, but here is a general list.
Production:

EP/ Executive Producer:

Eps help will project 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 co-owner, or have worked for the company for several years.

Producer:

The producers of the studios deal with 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 urgently needs.

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Department Production Manager:

Production Managers help oversee departments or entire shows. If they oversee 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 ensure that artists have tasks, are onboarded correctly, and stay busy. If they are assigned to a show, they do 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 and know the pipeline well. They also work with the HODs(Heads of Departments) per artist role, ensuring each department works smoothly.

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Production Coordinator:

The official description of this job is vague. They 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. They are the first person most artists will talk to regarding shots, and it is their responsibility to ensure everyone knows what that artist is up to. They also take daily notes, communicate to the rest of production the status of each task, and ensure things are being completed on time.

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Production Assistant:

The VFX Production Assistant works closely with the Producer and Production Coordinator to manage all incoming media and outgoing deliveries. Duties include organizing files, updating databases, performing deliveries, and other production and administrative duties.

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Runner:

A runner is an entry-level position. In some studios, being a runner is a route into VFX artist roles and provides learning opportunities about those positions. In other studios, runners are seen as the entry point into production management. Some companies might assign runners a mentor and give them training tasks.

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Artist Side:

Modeler/Asset Artist:

From a production perspective, you might hear the assets department mentioned a lot. Assets are 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.

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Animator:

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.

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Tracking:/Lookdev/Layout:

Depending on your studio's size, this department might be seen as one large one or separated into three smaller departments. Lookdev is also sometimes done in assets. However, the layout does a lot of it as well.

Layout/Tracking Artist:

Without layout and tracking, nothing in a studio would be completed. The 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 on the plate. This roto-animation can then be passed to animators, lighting, FX, and other departments.

Lookdev Artist:

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 sell the shot further. (Thanks for the corrections all) It’s how the asset will look on finishing. It’s basically the last step before any asset moved further in the pipeline. Their job is to bring together all the textures and tweak them if needed to create the right shader and look needed in the giving light rig (as most shows have their own light rigs).

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Lighting:

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 pass that on to the other lighters when the lighting setup gets approved. Light rigs are a technical name for a group of lights bundled together. They are helpful in the sense that 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.

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FX 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. We work with animation and layout to create secondary simulations in the scene to integrate everything better. As well as AOVs, breakdowns, and other intriguing elements to the scene.

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Groom/CFX:

Depending on the size of the studio, these two departments might be merged together or separated. These two things are separate in the studio I work, 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.

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Compositors:

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, and prep the plates for other departments. The list goes on.

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Rigger:

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. When built, the rig needs to stay inside the model, work with any skin or muscle shapes on a character, and work with asset updates. Sometimes the rig won’t work, and it is up to the rigging artists to fix it.

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Environment Artist:

From Mountains framing a background of an abandoned building, — all the modular pieces that make up the world of a film or game are the responsibility of an environment artist.

They are also commonly responsible for texturing and shading the environment assets they create and, when completed, laying them out in the scene. Before building anything, environment artists must research and collate real-world references to map out the different aspects of a game’s geography.

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3D Generalist:

A 3D Generalist is someone who has a broad range of skills and knowledge in various aspects of 3D computer graphics. They are responsible for creating 3D models, animating them, and integrating them into various projects.

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DMP/Matte Painting:

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, matte paintings are done digitally in modern productions. This means an artist combines many images 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.

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The Big Bois:

VFX Supervisor:

VFX supervisors are in charge of the whole VFX project. They manage the VFX pipeline, including all of the VFX artists that work in this process. They have ultimate responsibility for all of the VFX elements produced for a project by their company or studio.

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CG Supervisor:

The CG Supervisor works closely with the VFX Supervisor to oversee every aspect of production for an animated feature film. The CG supervisor collaborates with the various department supervisors.

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Head of CG:

The head of CG is responsible for leading projects to delivery on time and specification and is expected to be involved across the entire CG/3D department. They have the best of the best generalist skills and complementary communication skills.

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Compositing Supervisor:

Compositing supervisors are in charge of the department that puts together all the different elements of the visual effects (VFX) shots. They manage the compositors who do this work and check it for quality. They are also responsible for ensuring the continuity of color between shots.

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Animation Supervisor:

The Animation Supervisor is responsible for the supervision of the animation team. In collaboration with the Director and VFX Supervisor, the Animation Supervisor is responsible for directing and maintaining the continuity of performance of all objects, digital characters, or creatures.

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Editors:

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 deliveries from the vendors. They keep track of the director's notes, sometimes visit the production on set, and flag anything that could be better. They also combine all the shots so the director can view them and see what the final product might look like when the VFX is added.

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Head of Editorial:

Head of the nonexistent complaint department. Omitter of profound mistakes.Head therapist, dailies driver cheerleader, and resident lord or lady of the VFX studio. There are various names of the head of the editorial. They organize the editorial department and oversee everything getting sent to the client.

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The Colorist:

The colorist creates looks/LUTS in collaboration with the DOP and applies them using the appropriate tools in color grading. She or he serves as the central contact for the DOP, director, VFX and production operatives. Colorists are specialists in color design and the manipulation of motion pictures in post-production.

The term “color grading” describes the process of color image manipulation of moving images. Colors, their hue and brightness, as well as image contrast can be altered in great detail for the whole image or selected parts in order to create a consistent, creative look for the whole motion picture. Different cameras and aspect ratios can be matched and issues during shooting, like changing weather conditions or different white balances can be solved or smoothed out.

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Pipeline and Support:

Pipeline TD:

Pipeline TDs ensure a VFX project runs smoothly by identifying and fixing problems as they arise. They ensure each department has the software tools they need to complete their part of the project to the best standard possible.

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Animation TD:

Animation TDs work with the animation software, developing and testing tools, custom features, and add-ons, ensuring it does the best job for the animators and layout artists.

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Rigging TD:

Rigging technical directors create digital skeletons for 3D computer-generated (CG) models. They program these 'rigs' or puppets so that they move in a realistic way. Animators then use this underlying skeleton as the basis for their movements.

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FX TD:

FX TDs work under the management of a VFX supervisor. They lead a team of VFX artists. They also work closely with other TDs responsible for lighting and rendering, including lighting TDs. They create tools to integrate FX tools and software with the pipeline.

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Systems/IT:

Have you tried turning it on and off again? They look after the infrastructure of the studio: all the computers and everything associated with them.

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How To Tell a Junior, Intermediate, and Senior Artist Apart

*Note for readers. I am a FX artist, and we’ll use FX artists as an example for this article simply because I don’t want to speak on any other department's behalf.

The trick to telling a junior, intermediate, and senior apart by their resumes is by first looking at their LinkedIn. Then compare their answers to any questions you ask them on their Linkedin. Linkedin is a massively helpful resource for anyone hiring or looking for a job. It’s the best publicly available resume resource that you can have at your fingertips.

Junior artists are easy to pick out. They might have their LinkedIn page missing contact information, their job title might be incorrect, and they might only have one or two job experiences on their profile. If you are planning to hire a junior, make sure the company has the proper support systems to have that junior succeed. Otherwise, your new hire will disappear fast, and the company will be hunting for a new one soon. Juniors are cheap, but they have not gathered the skills to work successfully on their own. They might have the skills to build exciting things but have yet to gather pipeline, personal, and social cues in the industry. Juniors might also have a mix of personal and industry work in their showreel.

A junior showreel will be a mix of secondary shots, personal work, freelancing projects, or master's/thesis projects. If they are an FX artist, they will have a low to mid-level understanding of VEX and Python and shots that include basic simulations of debris, particles, pyro, and other simulation types.

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Intermediates are artists who might have worked at 2-4 different companies, have accurate descriptions in their job list of the tasks they achieved, have a fleshed-out IMDB, can work independently, and only need minor assistance on difficult tasks. They can follow a lead’s direction and modify setups successfully to complete shots. They might also have more impressive “key” shots in their showreel. These are shots that are fewer closeups, and that showcase the action better.

An intermediate FX artist will also have higher coding skills, problem-solving ability, and independent focus than a junior. They can work closely with a lead to ensure their work matches a sequence's continuity. They also can provide more information on your workflow and shot progress than a junior. Half the battle of becoming an intermediate is learning to communicate with production.

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Leads and seniors lead the conversation. They are organized, they have a competent focus, and they have enough knowledge about the production department that they can work with them to adjust the schedule. Senior artists also know how to read and maximize their resources regarding render farms and shot setups. Leads also need communication skills and the personality to work and guide younger artists.

Seniors own the show. They have been through interviews a dozen times. They should have the perfect skill level between speed and quality. They can quickly produce stylized effects, models, and breakdowns of their work. They also can present the work in a satisfying way. They have mid to advanced skills for coding and can update pipeline tools as well.

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Here is a general guide of industry years to FX artist experience levels. (IMO):

Juniors: 0-3 years of experience *Depending on the company
Intermediate: 4-10 of experience *Depending on the company
Seniors/Leads: 7-” Please don’t ask how long I’ve been in this industry” of experience *Depending on the company

Smaller companies often have longer level-up periods for artists. The smaller the studio, the fewer opportunities there are for artists to become intermediates and seniors. They also will have higher standards for the people they hire. Small studios might not have the training resources and documentation that larger studios have—or even onboarding buddies for juniors.

FX Artists are also defined by their rates. Here is a rough chart of salaries per year in CAD. (Based on what I have personally experienced and also what I’ve heard through the grapevine.) Feel free to account for inflation.

Junior: 55-75k
Mid-Intermediate: 75-95k
Senior/Lead: 95-150k.
Supervisors: 150k- Supervisors do not have a limit.

Freelancing rates are also different too depending on an artist’s skill level. (Once again, drawing these numbers from personal experience and in CAD.)

Junior: $45/per hour or more
Mid-intermediate: $65/per hour or more
Senior: $75/per hour or more

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Author Notes: Most artists are always looking for feedback if they screw up on an interview, or get declined for a job. Keep that communication going post interview.

Understanding Artist Lingo

An excellent way to scout out the level of an artist's skill level is to listen to them speak. People who will communicate with a team will do it out of respect for their fellow artists and speak up when their level of self-awareness tells them to do so. Artists who have learned to communicate properly in a studio environment will respond to questions differently than a junior or someone entering the industry. You can use a few easy generic questions to test an artist’s confidence level. For example, let’s take the question: “Tell me about your career so far, can you describe it to me?”

Now this question will lead to the usual results where juniors probably won’t have much or little to no experience in their professional career. So their answer might be short. Mid to Intermediate artists will probably take longer to answer this question and give a brief summary of everywhere they have worked. Seniors might grumble when asked the question and proceed with a walk down memory lane.

A confident artist might also take this time to describe what they learned along the way when answering this question. They might name a few productions they worked on per studio or the people they worked with. However, no matter their experience level, a great artist might mention the tools and pipelines they've worked with (provided they can). Or even the techniques they have learned while designing shots and troubleshooting stories.

A confident junior might say, “Well, I am applying for my first job in the industry. But I can talk about my time in college/University. In my final year, I was working on “This specific area of study,” and I’ve been participating in “Industry events” to explore this area of study better fully. Juniors might also mention their industry-related side projects or hustles, or other digital media experiences they have participated in. The more involved the junior is in the VFX community, the better. Any socialization a junior has with industry professionals before they start their first VFX job is a plus.

Depending on how much technical detail the artist mentions and what they focus on when asking this question, you can narrow down how they might fit into the team. A common frustration for intermediates is that they are often mistaken for juniors during hiring. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they could not get all their best work from their previous employer. They might have the skill level of a senior but the attitude of a junior, or they might not have the confidence to speak up for themselves during the interview process. These are common issues for intermediates. Sometimes it takes them a few years to understand these career setbacks. It’s good to give Mid level artists feedback while they are in the developing stage of their careers. If they don’t figure out these problems now, they will carry them through the senior stages of their career. Which in turn might affect more than just their career paths.

Seniors will have many references for the job and are always in huge demand at studios. However, they probably will be asking you questions. They might ask about the social life at the studio, the pipeline for their department, what type of situation they might be walking into, and much more about what the studio is looking for in an artist, even though they are more expensive than other artists, a great senior can make up for five juniors on a bad day.

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Attitude

Some artists are happy and bubbly in interviews, but the moment they step into a studio, it's a different story. So how can you pick out the bad apples if they don’t show their red flags over a Zoom call? Maybe ask them how they would deal with certain situations in an office setting. These situations don’t have to include how to complete a certain shot but also what they would due if they were presented with a deadline that they couldn’t meet or were given something beyond their skill level.

A humble artist might pause for a second and think about how they would problem solve the situation. A cocky artist might not even question their own skill level, and perhaps suggest that they would look for someone else to deal with the issue or blame it on another department or production. You don’t need an artist who is going to start a blame game in the office. You need one who will accept responsibility for their actions and sit down and finish the work.

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References:

https://discover.therookies.co/2019/05/06/beginners-guide-to-becoming-a-visual-effects-vfx-artist/
https://certifieddigitalartist.com/guides/beginners-guide-to-visual-effects-industry/
https://www.cgspectrum.com/blog/the-visual-effects-pipeline
https://www.katexagoraris.com/misc-7/a-guide-for-production%3A-for-beginners-
https://www.cgspectrum.com/career-pathways/environment-artist
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/production-management/runner-visual-effects-vfx/#:~:text=A%20runner%20is%20an%20entry,and%20give%20them%20training%20tasks.
https://www.raynault.com/careers/vfx-production-assistant/#:~:text=The%20VFX%20Production%20Assistant%20works,other%20production%20and%20administrative%20duties.
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/on-set/vfx-supervisor/#:~:text=VFX%20supervisors%20are%20in%20charge,by%20their%20company%20or%20studio.
https://vfx-montreal.com/job/cg-supervisor/
https://industrialbrothers.applytojobs.ca/tech/16516#:~:text=You%20will%20be%20responsible%20for,team%2C%20both%20technically%20and%20artistically.
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/compositing/compositing-supervisor/#:~:text=Compositing%20supervisors%20are%20in%20charge,continuity%20of%20colour%20between%20shots.
https://www.careersinscreen.ie/role/animation-supervisor/
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/technical/pipeline-technical-director-td/#:~:text=What%20does%20a%20pipeline%20technical,to%20the%20best%20standard%20possible.
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/technical/rigging-technical-director-td/#:~:text=What%20does%20a%20rigging%20TD,the%20basis%20for%20their%20movements.
https://www.screenskills.com/job-profiles/browse/visual-effects-vfx/technical/effects-technical-director-fx-td-visual-effects-vfx/
https://coloristsociety.com/role-of-the-colorist

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