How Junior VFX Artists Can Thrive in Production

Tips for success from a production expert

I’ve had an amazing path through visual effects these past couple of decades.  Below are some of the many mistakes I made and lessons I learned along the way.  I have also noticed they are mistakes common to many junior (new) VFX artists and T.D.s.  If you are (or are about to become) a junior working in film, animation or any other digital media field, hopefully this will be of use.  These are the five most common of many junior mistakes I see all the time.

1. Show your work now.  Don’t wait until you think it’s “finished”

High school, college and university has taught us that we never show our work until we decide it is “finished”, in other words “perfect” in our eyes.  In a production team, a task is only complete when the client approves it; almost certainly not after the artist’s first pass. If you are working on a task, like modeling a jet fighter, you can pretty much count on at least six reviews before getting a final approval.  So if you work up until delivery day to show your model for the first time, you have missed your deadline by at least a week.

Your first iteration should be a rough shape of the object, confirming the airplane model, scale, proportions and orientation are correct. This first iteration should appear in dailies as soon as possible after you start the task.  Maybe on day 2. The second pass will show refined basic shapes. This would be a couple of days later. You should put the model up for a third review after you have added intermediate detail, and a fourth review for high detail. The fifth review will show the UV snapshots and UV checkerboard texture in a turntable. If, on each of these steps, you receive one set of notes, then you are looking at 10 reviews to get the model to final.  Iterations and reviews should be frequently spaced so the client can correct any minor error you have made and prevent it from becoming a major error.

If, on the other hand, you choose to hold on to your model and not show it until you have a finished, highly detailed mesh, there is a high likelihood that you have incorporated many significant errors into your model, perhaps even catastrophic errors forcing you to start again.  What if, for example, you made a basic proportion error at the beginning? Or what if you misheard the model of jet fighter and built completely the wrong one? Now you have to go all the way back to basic shape and redo everything after that. This makes you incredibly slow and expensive. Not attractive for future projects. And by the way, everybody will notice.

2. Always ask for clarification when unsure what to do next

I wish I had a nickel for every time I asked an artist to explain why they made a particular choice only to hear the answer “because I didn’t know what to do”.  Professionals should never do “something” because they didn’t know what to do. Let’s take a car mechanic, for example. Suppose they were scheduled to work on your car, but the work order got lost.  So the mechanic, unsure what to do, simply rotated your tires and topped up your windshield wiper fluid, when the work order was to rebuild the transmission. Would you, as the client, be happy paying for this?  When put in this context, it seems absurd to do “something”, because you are unsure what to do. If you don’t know, then find out!

3. Listen to your client

Many is the time I have heard artists grumble about client notes.  They think the client is wrong, or doesn’t understand the challenges or…..it doesn’t matter what.  If I took my car to a paint shop and asked them to paint my car in a checkerboard pattern of hot pink and neon green, they would give me an estimate and then, if I chose to pay, paint my car exactly as I requested.  They would not complain, concern themselves with whether or not my aesthetic choices were right (well perhaps privately), but in the end they simply would do the job with a professional attitude.. Why? Because they are being paid to the the job, and because they are commercial painters in a service field and their job is to respond to client requests, provided the client is paying for it.  That’s how the business model works. Work for pay.

 Yet if we are talking about art instead of cars and mechanics, there seems to be a different set of expectations.  The ‘artist’ who isn’t thinking like a commercial artist thinks she has a say in what the client needs, which is almost never true.  Remember that you and your client have a fairly simple economic relationship. They pay you to do some tasks. In return for that pay, you do the tasks to the best of your ability, and with a positive attitude of support for your client.  It isn’t even rational to bellyache about it, unless they tell you they’re not paying anymore.  That would be a good reason to complain.

4. Be a team member.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Junior vfx artists often wear an invisible set of blinders that makes them believe they are just an individual at an individual workstation, working on an individual task.  They don’t take into account the fact that every decision they make regarding that task affects every other member of the team for the entire duration of the project.  It is important for the commercial artist to maintain situational awareness of what is going on in the rest of the team. If he can develop this skill, he will be able to make vastly better-informed decisions and will therefore become much faster and more cost-effective, making him a desirable pick for the next project.

5. Be cost-effective

I saved this for last because it is, by far, the most important point.  When a young artist gets her first job in animation or VFX, she may think that she is now an artist and that art takes as long as it takes.  The client can’t push them. They shouldn’t have expectations of her. She’s the ARTIST.

Reality check time.  She is not an ‘artist’.  She is a “commercial artist”.  Emphasis on “commercial”.  If she wants to do her own art, that’s cool.  But not at work. Her employer is not paying her to create her own art.  The employer is paying to have the tasks completed as requested, and according to schedule, just like a car mechanic.

Here’s the way I see it:  I am a commercial artist. I use my hard earned skills and experience to help the client realize their vision as cost-effectively as possible.   If I am always trying to be cost effective, that attitude of cost-effectiveness will inform nearly every decision I make in a very positive way. I will learn to wield my tools more expertly.  I will be sure I am clear on my notes before proceeding. I will communicate in a brief, concise and professional (without drama) manner. I will be very careful not to hold up a meeting by being late, realizing the meeting is very costly.  Here’s a little basic algebra to explain why the producer’s veins start bulging out of his forehead whenever someone is late for a meeting::

L = lost profit

p =  the number of people in the meeting

h =  the % of hour I am late

r =  the total hourly rate of the attendees

L = ph x  r

For example:  if there are 15 people in a meeting, I am 6 minutes late for the meeting, and the total hourly rate of all attendees is $1000 then:   

for p=15, h=0.1, r=$1000

L=15 x 0.1 x $1000

L=$1500

That’s a $1,500 loss when the rest of the participants are waiting for someone who is 6 minutes late.  Yes, that’s real.

Ultimately if I can always think like a commercial artist, realizing my primary responsibility is simply to be cost-effective, I will automatically become faster and more efficient, as well as a superstar in the eyes of my boss.

So if you are a vfx artist just starting out, please take these remarks to heart.  I hope they help you as you begin your own amazing path in animation or visual effects.