After trying to break into VFX for so long, imagine going to the studio screening of your first VFX / animation film. In the darkness of the theatre, as the movie comes to an end, the credits roll.
You scan the long list of alphabetically sorted names, making sure not to miss any one.
Finally, you spot it. Your name nestled amongst a list other highly talented artists. You feel a lump in the back of your throat as you hear the sounds of loud cheering in the theatre.
You’ve made it — your first screen credit.
I distinctly remember my first screen credit and I shared that moment with my then girlfriend(who is now my wife). It was also our first movie together.
It was magical. After all that hard work and determination to pursue a career in VFX. I finally made it. My first credit.
Hurdles to break into VFX / CG
For you, it may be a game credit or an animation film credit. Or perhaps something more intangible than a credit – seeing the work you have created being enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Seeing their emotional response to your work.
Regardless, the first time your work goes public is a major milestone in your CG career and you’ll never forget it.
However, before you get there, you must cross the hurdle of breaking into VFX / CG first.
“How do I create an amazing demo reel?”
“I am so discouraged and overwhelmed when I see these amazing demo reels online. Will I ever be that good?”
I get asked these questions all the time by aspiring VFX and games talent.
At every CG conference, there is inevitably a panel giving demo reel feedback. There’s a lot out there to help you create an amazing demo reel. But there isn’t anything addressing the reality for most people — if you are starting out, you don’t have outstanding material for a demo reel.
So how do you get a job in the industry without a great demo reel? Let’s be real. Let’s talk solutions to problems you and countless others face.
Not another “10 tips to create an amazing demo reel” or “19 mistakes why your demo reel isn’t getting you a job.”
Got NO Demo Reel?
What if I told you, “You DO NOT need a demo reel to work in VFX, animation, games or CG“?
Okay, you got my attention. But that sounds controversial and flies against common internet forum wisdom.
Demo reels are a critical component if you are looking at the problem one way. But there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat.
Before you decide to close your browser and move along. Consider this.
My first job in the CG industry was with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic. I was credited on movies such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol before I had a demo reel. In fact, it was not until almost a decade after I began my CG career, that I cut a demo reel.
So how did I do it? And more importantly, can you replicate this for yourself? Read on if you want to find out. (While I write specifically about VFX and animation, this article could easily apply to games as well.)
Take the Road Less Travelled
Which came first? The impressive demo reel that will get you a job or the job that will get you an impressive demo reel?
Questions like this drove me nuts when I started. I was told by everyone I spoke to in the industry that half the battle was getting into the industry. I didn’t have access to schools that taught game development or visual effects. That was way too niche back then for colleges.
So how did I get in? I took the road less travelled.
What do I mean?
Ever tried to get a dinner reservation, a box of chocolates and some roses on February 14th? You’ll quickly realise that it gets expensive real quick and you don’t have many choices.
In fact, with a limited budget, you should count yourself fortunate to get a table at just about any restaurant that evening and settle on a stalk of rose instead of a dozen. Never mind that you are paying 3-5x the price you would normally pay for what is basically the same quality of food or that your rose looks like it is half wilting.
Sounds like a bad deal? Exactly.
I never want to take the road travelled by most. Especially, where opportunities are limited.
Do not follow the crowd, if you want to stand out.Nelson lim
I decided during college that I was going to do an internship in a CG company. Internships were not popular in my college because students just had a general disinterest towards internships in my college.
By a stroke of blessing, a last minute internship announcement came through the school’s inbox. It was for a software engineering role with Lucasfilm Animation Singapore’s software department.
I didn’t know anything about animation. I was only interested in game development. But I knew they had a small Lucasarts division working on the NDS Clone Wars game.
The ‘problem’ was that it was going to be delay my graduation by a semester. Oh and the intern wasn’t going to be working on any games.
The delay in graduation probably cut the number of applicants interested. Followed by the fact that the intern was not going to be working on any games or animation projects. Just developing some pretty ‘boring’ software.
Good for me.
I didn’t care that I was developing ‘boring’ software. I figured if I was even near enough to smell a game developer, I would get closer to my goal by osmosis. So I applied.
I eventually got my start at Lucasfilm as a software developer. I developed web applications for the studio and support every department from training, games, animation to visual effects. That was my start in the industry.
I was working at the company which made everything from Star Wars to Jurassic Park. Never-mind that it was the same company that pioneered digital film and incubated PIXAR.
What a dream, but all because I took the road less travelled back then. I took the ‘boring’ internship that was going to delay my graduation.
So, how can you apply that to your situation?
If everyone is trying to get into the CG industry via demo reels and portfolios and everyone is trying to apply to the Pixars of CG, what can you do that is different?
Firstly, consider that a CG company is like most other companies. They need receptionists, IT people, software developers, operational people who manage the facility, HR, marketing, finance, recruiters, runners and production assistants.
What else are you good at? What other road can you take? Are you good an excel spreadsheets? Do you love to organise events and keep things in order? You could be a great candidate for a runner or production assistant.
Are you good at programming and computers? Perhaps you could be a coder or IT support staff.
If you are awesome at instagram, facebook or twitter, perhaps you can help out with social media marketing.
There are many different entry-level roles you could apply for in a large CG company.
For most aspiring artists and technologists, I would recommend looking into the roles of software developer, IT support, production assistants, runners, technical assistants, facilities coordinator, render wranglers and resource assistants. These are great starting points in your career.
They are all entry-level positions that would give you a great amount of exposure to the day to day operations of a production studio. Providing you unprecedented access to talented artists who are extremely generous with sharing their knowledge.
Is it still possible for your first job to be in a top-tier CG studio? Definitely possible, and hundreds of people like myself have done the same. But not as a production artist on day one.
While my first job was at Lucasfilm, you may not want to do that. If you want to work as a production artist from day one, should consider smaller studios. Start at any CG studio even non-traditional ones.
Did you know Apple hires CG artists? And so does the military, oil and gas, medical and other tech industries that are getting into the content world. Those are just a few examples. They are still going to want to see your demo reel, but there is a higher chance that your demo reel is going to be sufficient to get you to work as an artist.
Once again, do not follow the crowd if you want to stand out.
Get on the Road
If you want to work in CG, you have to first get on the road.
Getting a job in the CG industry is going to be the most critical part of your journey and it is going to be the hardest obstacle you overcome at the start.
Why is that so?
Most aspiring CG artists do not have the experience or skills to work in high-end CG production. Sorry to burst your bubble. I promise to be helpful and sometimes the most helpful thing to do is to be truthful.
Plenty of aspiring CG artists do not know what they want. They do not understand the CG production process or industry. They don’t know how to present themselves or where they fit in. High-end CG production involves highly compartmentalised and specialised roles and skill sets. But most graduate reels are just all over the place. Many feel that they have checked the box and that they have arrived in the quality bar. That cannot be further away from the truth.
I had many peers who wanted to work in games and CG after graduation, who never did. There are a few that I could count with one hand who had a non-CG related job as their first job but eventually made it back into the CG industry. Actually, one finger. So at least, anecdotally, the odds are against you if you don’t break into VFX / CG as your first job.
Here’s how I looked at the problem. The problem was how to get a foot in the industry. Now, just find any way to wedge myself in. It did not matter what I did. Once I got in, I was going to make sure that I did the best job I could to stay in.
I did my best as a software engineering intern. I was proactive in asking clients if the latest features worked for them. I asked how they used the software platforms and tried to understand what problems they faced and how to solve them. I took on jobs that I saw needed to be done at some point, but no one had the time to do it. I stayed late on deployment days or weekends.
I also travelled 3 hours each day on public transport to get to work and home. I spent those times learning skills that I needed at work — Python, Oracle, AJAX, JQuery, etc.
I treated the internship like a staff position.
My earnestness got me an outstanding performance review for the internship. But I didn’t care for the report.
Put yourself in the position of a manager. It’s a gamble to hire someone you hardly know based off 2-3 interviews and perhaps a portfolio. There’s a siginificant risk that they may not work out as well as their resume looked or the way they carried themselves in an interview. It’s like trying to get married to someone after a blind date.
But now my boss knew I could do the work, that I worked great with the team and I went above and beyond to deliver on my responsibilities.
When it came time to graduate, he was very generous and worked tirelessly to get me a job in the studio any way he could.
He eventually got me in as a Pipeline Technical Director at Industrial Light & Magic, the division of Lucasfilm that created visual effects for films. The deal involved a 6 month stint through the San Francisco office working on Transformers: Dark of the Moon. While we never spoke formally about it, he was and still in many ways remains a mentor to me.
Here’s another reason why you need to get your foot in the door, no matter what.
If you are great at what you do, passionate about it and willing to sacrifice to do it, you will find great mentors. Great mentors will guide you, they will inspire you to be more than you think you can be, and they will straighten some paths for you and take bets on you. They are your greatest friends and accelerators in your career.
But, you are unlikely to find mentors without first getting your foot in.
Be Awesome & Know Yourself
I want to be a VFX/animation artist. I want to work on shots!
Okay, I hear you. I wanted that too.
(Now if you are absolutely sure you know what role you want in a CG studio, feel free to skip to the next section. However, I think you will benefit if you read on.)
Remember when I said most aspiring CG artists don’t know what they want? I didn’t — even though I thought I did.
I was so sure I wanted to be a game developer from the age of 14. I read everything about it from the internet. I learnt to code. I studied computer science and graphics so I could be a game developer. I interned at Lucasfilm, so I could be close to game devs. But during that time, I discovered my other love — visual effects! So you never know what you will discover about yourself and the industry that you thought you knew.
This is a great time in your career. You are getting paid to work in an environment that allows you to understand and explore your interests. You are now inside the CG industry — not trying to get in. I would take a moment to celebrate. It is no simple feat.
After a quick celebration, you need to focus on a the below 2 things.
Be Absolutely Great at your Job
Don’t just be okay. Be absolutely great! Don’t be the guy who looks disinterested in your job– because you want some other job.
Your current job performance is the best evidence if you will be awesome at the next task given to you. Plus, no one will give you more responsibilities if you can’t even do what is required of you.
Within a year of starting in ILM, I was working with the Digital Production Supervisor(DPS)of the studio directly. The DPS was overall in charge of technology on all ILM shows in the studio. I worked with him and helped him to run the team of 5-6 pipeline technical directors across multiple shows. Many of the members in the team had been there longer than myself.
So again how did I do it? I wasn’t smarter or more talented than the others. Far from it. I just decided I would be pro-active about the way I did things.
While I didn’t use the exact same format I recommend below, I did something similar.
This isn’t anything new. I call this the 3 goals in 3 months technique of managing up. Or simply the 3-3 technique. Sit down with your immediate supervisor soon after you begin and ask these questions.
- Can you tell me a bit about the issues and problems you and the department face?
- In the next 3 months, what are the 2-3 most important goals I can achieve for you?
- Can I setup a brief 15 min meeting with you every 1-2 weeks, just to keep you updated on my progress?
Make sure you clarify the goals so that they are SMART goals. If you don’t know what is a SMART goal, it is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound goals.
Here’s an example of a lousy goal.
Learn as much as I can about how the department works.
Here’s an example of a SMART goal.
XYZ system is really taking valuable R&D time from our engineers. In 3 months, I need to be familiar enough with it, that I can service over 90% of maintenance/support requests on it, so it frees our other engineers to do more R&D tasks.
After the meeting, follow up with an email within 24 hours. In the email, thank your supervisor and restate the 3 SMART goals discussed.
Here’s what you just did.
- You made your boss know that you are interested in helping him/her solve their problems.
- You are willing to make yourself accountable for your work.
Now it is time to move on to ensure that you do everything you can to achieve these goals and have something to report every 1-2 weeks.
Measure and track your progress meticulously, so you have exact tangible metrics to report every check-in.
Repeat the process of setting these goals with your manager every 3 months and you will be well on your way to being a star player.
Explore your Interests
Okay, now the fun part. You get to explore.
I often recommend aspiring CG artists and technologist to consider this route into CG because of the below reason.
Many aspiring CG talent know the general direction they want to move towards such as games, animation or visual effects. But it is hard to know if you want to rig, light or animate for a career if you haven’t done much of it.
Even if you went through art school, a lot of the exposure you get is limited and aimed at giving you the broadest range of exposure possible in an academic environment. When you work in a CG studio, you might find your prior assumptions challenged.
While you love lighting and photography in school because you loved outdoors and sunlight, you realise the irony of how a professional lighter works in darkness 9-10 hours a day. Suddenly, that sounds like a rather depressing notion to you.
Take the time to learn the entire production pipeline by speaking to people working in it.
Develop a system. Resolve to speak to someone from a different production department every 2 days. Resist the urge to only speak to departments you are familiar with.
Attend talks given by other creatives or technologists.
Ask when dailies are and if you could attend some dailies sessions whenever you have a bit of down time. If people ask why, just say, “Research. I want to know the industry and people I am serving.”
Not sure how to talk to strangers? I felt awkward too.
Don’t worry, I got you. Let me give you a couple of scripts I used to get any conversation started and going without sounding awkward.
“Hi, I’m insert your first name. I am new and I work in the insert your department. I am really interested to know more about visual effects/games/animation. Would you mind if I asked, what you are working on?”
“What do you enjoy the most about what you do? What are some things that you find most challenging about your work? How and why did you get into CG?”
Most times, you are going to encounter people who are very generous with their time and knowledge and will be happy to speak with you at length about their work.
Take mental notes. Can you imagine yourself doing what they are doing? Does it sound personally interesting and satisfying to you? Does the role appeal to your strengths?
If the person is too busy to talk to you, don’t take it personally. Production schedules can be brutal and sometimes even though we love talking about what we do, it can be hard during crunch time.
Just politely thank them for their time and asked if there is a better time in the future you could come by and say “Hi” again.
I cannot recommend more that you should make it a point to attend dailies on a regular basis. As someone new to the industry, your eye needs to be trained.
The best way is to listen in on the notes and comments that supervisors give on shots during dailies. You’ll get a sense of what they are looking for and what makes a shot good or bad.
Attending dailies is also invaluable to observing the progression of shots across the departments and becoming aware of the time it takes, the order of operations and the problem solving approaches applied onto challenging shots.
This is a practice you want to keep in some form even after you become a CG artist.
Do that for a bit and you should get a pretty clear picture of how you see yourself contributing in production. I recommend 6 months.
Make the Pivot.
Now you know where you fit in CG production. How do you get there? Let me show you how to pivot.
First, understand that this is a process. You won’t make the transition overnight and it could take 6 months to a few years before you fully make that transition.
But here are a few strategies that will help you out.
Connect with the Supervisor of the Department.
Hopefully, by now you already know the lead and supervisor of the department you are trying to get into. If you don’t, employ the script that I provided earlier to start a conversation with them.
You want them to know who you are and that you are interested in the type of work they do.
The supervisor and the lead are the people who decide on who gets hired onto the team after recruiters filter through the hundreds of applications.
The next time they have an opening to fill, a problem they need to solve or an easy shot that they need an extra pair of hands on, you want them to think of you first.
Acquire Demonstrable Knowledge.
If your role can directly support the department in some way, you should do everything you can to help the supervisor, leads and artists in that department.
I was blessed to be working in pipeline. That meant I wrote and supported the tools and plugins within the studio(I highly recommend folks who are interested in rigging, creature FX, lighting, FX and compositing to consider starting out in pipeline).
By then, I knew I wanted to work on FX. So I did everything I could to support the FX department. Every support request from the FX department was met enthusiastically by me. There was a lot of departments to support, so the pipeline team was happy to let me ‘monopolise’ the support in that area.
I spent an additional 1-2 hours before or after work, pouring through internal documentation and online tutorials to learn FX.
I knew nothing about how to create FX before then. By testing tools I supported on shots, I acquired a hands-on understanding of how they were used.
I soon gained a good knowledge of the tools and softwares used by the FX department as well as the setups.
I brought my work-in-progress stuff casually to the artists, leads and supervisors to get feedback. My first simulations and renders were really bad. I thought that sparks were a great place to start as an FX TD. Turns out that making production level sparks isn’t that straight forward after all, but I got a lot of help and tips on techniques from really talented TDs.
Because of my interest in FX, my DPS came to me one day and said that ILM was introducing a new FX tool and if I was interested in writing the pipeline for it? It’s no surprise that I said, “Yes.”. That tool, by the way, was Houdini.
If you choose to be a production runner, you can always volunteer to help run dailies for the department or take notes for reviews. Regardless, you can still work your way through documentation outside of your normal work hours and bring your work-in-progress results for feedback from the leads and supervisor.
Remember you want to show demonstrable knowledge, so pick shots to replicate where possible. You’ll have the benefit of the production shot as reference and also the ability to pick the brains of the artist who worked on it when you are stuck.
Even if you choose to take an online course or tutorial, you are going to get some good recommendations on where to spend your time on and you’ll have sources of excellent feedback for your course work within the studio.
I honestly don’t know a better way to learn. You will be learning the actual tools used in production and be able to work on actual shot data. You’ll get critic and feedback from the same amazing artists working on these projects that you want to eventually work on.
Be Ready for Any Opportunity.
Opportunity tends to show up when you least expect it. You want to be sure that you are ready to capitalise on it when it comes.
And it will come, because productions are fraught with problems to solve, help that is needed, new tools to learn and all kinds of change. Each of these is an opportunity.
During Pacific Rim, it was decided that the show needed underwater schools of tuna swimming with the giant robots called Jaegers to give an extra element of scale. These robots were as tall as skyscrapers. The studio didn’t have a suitable crowd solution for it at the time.
I had just given a PyCon talk about Python in Houdini and I implemented a basic crowd flocking solver in python to provide an interesting example for the talk.
So I showed the FX Supervisor what I had done for the talk. He spoke to the VFX supervisor and I got an opportunity to implement a production level tuna crowd tool for the show with a bunch of other very talented FX TDs.
I put in extra hours to get it done, because I still had my day job of supporting the FX artists and tools. But that eventually opened the door for me to work on more FX elements on the show, as I was already familiar with Houdini and the other proprietary tools used in the department. The rest is history.
So you need to keep at it. Learning, trying out new things, showing your work, getting feedback and improving, leveraging your existing strengths and saying yes to the things that people don’t want to do that will get you closer to your goals. It is a very laser focused, action oriented approach to your goal of becoming a CG artist.
When you are eventually given a chance, you need to be prepared to put in the time and effort required to show that you can do it.
Summary and Take Aways
While this isn’t a path for everyone, I hope I have made a case that there is a lot of value in choosing this path — regardless of whether you went to art school or not.
- You’re getting paid while you learn.
- You have unprecedented backdoor/behind-the-scenes access to the tools, processes and people that make some of your favourite CG.
- You get to know yourself and your strengths. How do you best align your interests and your strengths to contribute to a CG production?
Remember that lady luck favours the one who tries. There’s a bunch of actionable tips for any aspiring CG artist and technologist here. Let me distill some for you.
- List down your strengths and apply for all the entry-level positions you qualify for in the studios are interested in. Apply for at least 10-20 positions. Make sure you apply within the country, because you are not likely to get work visa for an entry-level position. If you aren’t ready for a job, make a note the responsibilities and requirements. See if you are a fit or if you need to pick up some other skills.
- Start learning Python today. This isn’t for everybody, but if you are a beginner and you don’t mind coding, the best skill you can learn to leverage on to get into the industry is coding skills. A pipeline TD is an excellent start to eventually make the transition.
- If you are already in at studio, make a list of people you want to talk to and schedule time 2-3x times in your week where you’ll spend 30 mins to go talk to people or organise lunch meetings.
- If you are clear about your career direction, go strike up a casual conversation with the supervisor or the lead of the department. Don’t ask for a job. Ask them how they got into the industry? What do they enjoy most about their work? Tell them that you are working on some tutorials and if they would be willing to give you some feedback whenever you are ready. Most leads and supervisors will be willing do that for you.
I hope I have shown you that there isn’t one approach to be a CG artist. There exists other ways that have worked for others and may be a better option for you.
I wanted to write this to support the aspiring CG talent. The journey can be hard and I want to help.
Leave me a comment on what you are doing or struggling with on breaking into the industry.
And if you liked this post, please share it on social media. Thanks!