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How to be a Successful VFX Artist: Be Cost Effective

Be Cost Effective

Be cost effective.  This is, or should be, the core philosophy driving any employee in any company.  When employees are cost-effective, in other words when they do something of value as cheaply or quickly as possible, the company’s profit margins rise.  If the profit margins rise, the company can expand. When the company needs to expand, it will promote the most valuable employees who are, by the way, those who have been most cost effective.  It will have discretionary money for things like bonuses. Who will get the most bonuses, do you think?

Every decision you make during your day affects your cost-effectiveness.  Therefore, every decision you make should be driven by a cost-benefit analysis.  In a cost-benefit analysis, we weigh the cost of doing something against its benefits.  If I am 3D modeling a steel beam with rivets, do I need to model the holes and rivet shafts inside the beam that we will never see beneath the rivet heads?  Should I texture the underside of a parked, background car that is being used in static shot? Of course not. That’s all cost and no benefit. Choosing to arrive five minutes early or five minutes late for a meeting affects your personal cost effectiveness.  Using a mouse or a tablet does as well, as does getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and paying attention to your desk ergonomics. Although each of these represent tiny efficiency changes, you can be sure they accumulate over time into large efficiency changes.  And you are just one of many employees at your company.

They key responsibility of any commercial artist is to be cost effective, or rather to approach every problem with cost-effectiveness in mind.   Certainly, if we are asked to build a dynamics effect to simulate a grenade explosion, we certainly could, instead, create a tool that generates every type of explosion known to humankind, however that would not be a cost-effective decision.  We must consciously limit ourselves to the brief. That’s one way of staying cost-effective.

A Few Strategies for Cost-Effectiveness:

1. Learn your keyboard shortcuts

Sure, a keyboard shortcut only saves you one second or two over a menu click.  But how many times do you click a menu item daily? Hundreds? Thousands? How many other crew members are there clicking menus hundreds or thousands of times per day.  You see, time saving is cumulative. In a company with just 100 digital media artists, keyboard shortcuts instead of menu clicks can easily save the company $100K. Apply this philosophy to everything.  Learn to move smoothly, not quickly. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

2. Continually learn to use your tools better

Our tools are pretty deep.  There is usually more in a single DCC than any one person can learn.  But the more you know the better and faster you will become, and the better, faster ideas you will be able to contribute.  This job isn’t something we learn and then do. It’s a continual learning process.

3. Stop at “good enough”.  Yes, good enough is good enough.

There is a tendency for artists to avoid showing some work until they deem it “finished”.  On the surface, this tendency seems to make sense. After all, we have been trained our whole lives in school not to “hand something in” until it is “done”.  This is a bizarre academic habit that has little use in the real world. In a commercial, collaborative, creative workflow, it doesn’t make sense. Every contributor is expected to show every asset at every stage, whether it is a thumbnail sketch, a blocky model for proportions a roughed in pose-to-pose animation or a final composite.

Do not hold on to your work. Don’t be embarrassed about showing work in progress or WIP (there is no need to be, everybody does it), share it as soon as possible. Work is made great through collaboration. Drop the ego and work with your team. Decades of production have shown us that the most successful contributors are those whose goal is to get as many reviews as possible, as quickly as possible.  Don’t even think of holding on to a task until you deem it to be “finished”. Finished isn’t your decision. And you may be way off base if you haven’t shown your work in 6 weeks. That said, your cost-effectiveness goal is to get to, or close to, the “good enough” mark. If you are way past “good enough”, two things will happen. First, your client will start expecting that level of quality for everything, which will anger your producer, whose job is to keep costs under control.  Secondly, it will mean you have spent way too much time on your task without showing anyone, which will also anger your producer for the same reason. Understand that you are part of a collective workflow. Keep the communication open.

  • Iterate frequently.
  • Show your work.
  • Don’t hide it.

4. Don’t give yourself notes.

One thing that keeps artists and TDs at work late is this myth that they have to go beyond what the client wants to prove themselves and become admired by their peers and employer.  This is crap. The only thing this myth does is keep artists way after hours trying to outdo themselves by making a shot better than was asked for and annoy the producer. STOP IT. Just do your bloody notes, precisely as given, and submit it for review as soon as possible.  Remember the simple economic relationship employees have with their employers: Employee does the things Employer asks, and in return Employer pays Employee. Employee does not always have to do what Employer asks. But on the other hand, Employer does not then have to pay Employee.  Get my drift?

Imagine, if you will, an automotive garage where a mechanic, tasked with an oil change, new spark plugs and a windshield wiper fluid fill-up just decides on her own to also rotate the tires and do a complete brake job.  She wants to go above and beyond, make the client happy, prove to her boss that she can do a brake job and show that she chooses to go the extra mile. What do you think the client will say when they come to pick up the car?  They’ll be delighted. They, of course, will not pay for the extra work, as they have not asked for, nor approved it. They will tell all their friends to go there, and all their friends will show up, next time they need some service, expecting the same treatment.

What do you think the garage owner will say to the mechanic, learning that she has wildly overspent on the service and that the company has therefore lost money on the job?

Exactly.  So why should we expect it be any different in VFX?  This is a puzzling question. Some of the weirdest answers I’ve received include “I wasn’t thinking”, “I’m an artist”, “I wanted it to be better”, “I had the time”.  Notice how those answers all start with “I”? This is the answer of a person who does not seem themselves as part of a collective. They don’t realize that the task belongs to others and that they are just one link in a long chain that is ultimately owned by the client.  The hubris is astonishing. Whenever answering a question as to why something was done, try starting the answer with “We”. If you can’t start it that way, it’s probably not something you should have done.

5. Learn Python

Computers are really good at two things:  Reducing human error and repetitive tasks.  Coincidentally, this fits right in with our VFX tasks.  Your tools are made to assist with these things, but there are tasks that you could just get done in 1/100th the time by whipping up a few lines of script.  Python script. Which, by the way, is supported by every major digital content creation tool you use.

Learning Python is easy.  Seriously, it is dirt simple.  If you are smart enough to be working in VFX already, you are, without a doubt, smart enough to learn python.  Once you wrap your head around the basics, you will wonder why you didn’t take the trouble to learn this years ago and you will start telling others how easy it is.  Python is for those who are SERIOUS about being cost effective. (That should be everyone)

Imagine if, rather than whipping up a few lines of code to speed up your current task, you were able to quickly cobble together a script that speeds up everyone in the team.  Now you’re not just speeding up you, you’re speeding up everybody. That’s pure gold!

6. Always work big to small

No matter what your task is, you should generally work on the biggest, ugliest problems first.  For example, if you are tasked with modeling a 1967 Thunderbird, you do not first model a highly detailed headlamp.  You get your reference and research together and build a bounding box the right scale and dimension, pointing up the Z axis.

Why?  Because these are the most general needs of any human-scale vehicle. Next, you slice in some basic proportions, the hood, trunk and wheel-wells.  Maybe shape the roof and hood slightly, and insert cylinders to place-hold for what will become tires and wheels. Then render a turntable and send it to dailies with your reference to double check that what you are building is actually what they want.  There is always a chance that you’re building the wrong car. You want to know this immediately. Once this is approved, move onto intermediate level detail. Don’t go too long without showing it.

Once the intermediate detail is approved, move into fine detail.  If you start with fine detail, spend a few days modeling a headlamp, then you will have nothing to show, or you will do a bunch of detail work, then find out you wrote down, or someone misspoke, the wrong car model. These problems can all be avoided if your attitude and goal is to iterate early and often…to get as many reviews as possible as quickly as possible.

There are many more cost-effectiveness strategies.  The opportunities to be smoother, faster, better appear all day, every day, with every decision you have to make.  Be successful. Make good, cost-effective decisions.

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