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How Do I Get Into Feature Film Visual Effects?

“How do I get into Feature Film Visual Effects?”

This is one of the questions I hear most often from potential students. Why wouldn’t they ask that question? Without a doubt feature: film vfx is the coolest, most glamorous and most challenging of all the digital arts. You get to make creatures, vehicles, worlds and characters limited only by the imagination. You take part in the magic that transports millions of movie-goers to other planets, other times or even other realities. If you’re good at it the pay can be pretty good too. But most people aim lower than film vfx because they seem to believe:

1) that it is hard to enter the job market because you can’t get the skills to work in vfx until you work in vfx;

2) that it is closed to outsiders;

3) that you need to know someone to get in.


In fact none of these is true, so let’s have a look at each one.

First, is it hard to enter the feature film VFX job market? Not if you are well trained. Not if someone has taught you to develop a great eye, and certainly not if you have the software skills to match it. Can you only acquire the necessary skills by working in the industry? Moving from a junior position into leadership or supervisory roles necessarily requires real production experience, however you CAN find training that will position you for entry level jobs in visual effects, provided the school knows how to deliver it to you.

Second, is VFX closed to outsiders? No, absolutely not. There’s no special club, no society, no Facebook page you have to be a part of. Nobody cares about that. Feature VFX is a results-oriented business. If you can make great pictures, you’re going to get a job. It really is as simple as that.

Third, do you have to know someone to get in? Again, the answer is “no way”. Your key to the door is the quality of your demo reel. A good recruiter will recognize quality work immediately. Once again, if you can make great pictures, you’re going to get in.

So instead of asking why it’s hard to get into film VFX, the real question should be “Is it hard to get well trained?” Sadly the answer to that question is a resounding “YES!” It is really hard to find training adequate to put a graduate into the film visual effects job market. Most schools will train their students in basic software skills and then provide introductory training in the major disciplines. Beyond this, students are generally expected to work on their demo reel with little faculty support. They are expected to “figure out” how to make stunning images. The net result is that most graduate reels are good for scraping ice off the windshield and little more. A very few are good enough for low level jobs in games or low-budget animation. Sometimes young artists are able to work their way up over many years; most of the time they are not. The really lucky ones find themselves in the right place at the right time when a studio is just desperate to put a crew together so they hire anyone who is breathing. This is one way in, but it sure isn’t a make good one, and definitely should not be part of a career plan.

From my point of view; that is, the point of view of someone who has been through dozens of recruiting cycles and reviewed thousands of reels, the current, worldwide approach to VFX training is pretty absurd. How can a young artist who is just learning complex software also be expected to know how to make images that are good enough? They can’t. That’s a pretty sad statement considering the average digital arts education goes for about $45,000.00.

Now when you go seeking a school, you will hear some of them tell you about their recent award as “most amazing animation school in the universe”. Others will tell you that their placement (the number of graduates they have placed into industry jobs) is 95%. This is, all propaganda; carefully spun information to shine the best possible light on the school while completely ignoring any negatives. Research carefully and be cautious. If you find yourself getting emotionally swept away by the pitch, back off and think it through before you make a decision.

Evaluate the curriculum. Ask the recruiters if it will get you the job placement you want. If you are going for a film career, ask them how many of the 95% enjoy fulltime contract work as a feature film visual effects artist. If you want to get into games, ask how many of the 95% are currently employed as fulltime or contract game artists. Also scour the web looking for the remarks of past students. Ignore the ones on the school website. Again, that is sales propaganda. See if you can talk to the instructors before you commit. If the instructors haven’t worked in feature visual effects, they can’t teach you feature visual effects. Let me say that again. If the instructors haven’t worked in feature visual effects, they can’t teach you feature visual effects.

Once you have been through this process with all potential schools in your area (or abroad if you are thinking about studying abroad) trust your gut. And really, seriously trust past students who post remarks about their experiences provided those remarks are not on the school website or forums which are moderated and carefully pruned.

You are making a big investment in your future. You need to be sure you are not wasting it. Take the time to make a good decision.

I hope you will add CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX to your list of potentials. And I hope you will ask us all the hard questions.