FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

People often ask me about getting a job doing visual effects as a career.
Rather than continually respond to people's questions via e-mail, I wrote up this message as a FAQ for "career guidance".

First of all, these are *my* experiences, and are not universal or 100% accurate. My experiences are mainly with computer generated imagery and digital editing. Although many of my impressions may be applicable to model and makeup work as well.

If you have no experience whatsoever, and want to do visual effects, there are two paths available. One is to go to school, and the other is to train yourself. I highly recommend college as a character builder. Specialized schools give you quick proficiency in CGI software. If you are going to a 4 year school, make sure their software is up to date with industry standards. What I realized upon graduation was that I had gained valuable skills, but they were not valid in the current job market, so I had to re-train myself anyhow. This is why I see self training as a reasonable option. A good home PC, Mac, or low-end SGI with the proper software can be just as useful as a college degree if you spend the time to use it to it's maximum potential.

This leads into my next topic, how to get a job with all those skills you have developed. There are two things that can get you a job. First is specialized proficiency in an obscure software package. This includes rare skills such as being able to hack into existing software packages and/or program your own software. If your skills are rare, you can get hired. The second tool to getting hired is your demo reel or portfolio. This should have an entire page to itself. What I see all the time is reels with software tutorials on them, or all CGI environments. They tend to look remarkably similar after a while. Not that they aren't good. These type of reels show true software proficiency. The problem is that this industry turns over people at a high rate. So there are a lot of people who are out of work who have experience, and who are submitting reels with feature film quality work on them. An aspiring artist with no work experience has to not equal, but *exceed* the level of quality and excitement present in features. I would recommend short, exciting editing. No 5 minute animations. 100 three second animations of different kinds holds someone's attention much better. Knowing that the work has to be great should give people something to strive for. The more you try to meet the high standards of the work you appreciate, the better your own work will become. I would also recommend shooting backgrounds on video, digitizing them, and using them as a backdrop for CG animation. This is how real work is done, and you will run into many new challenges in attempting to composite and track the two together. To do so successfully is a huge step towards high quality work. Trying to "re-create" a scene you enjoy from a film is a good idea as well. If you can duplicate a scene from a high-end effects movie perfectly, you will probably get hired in no time. When I first started, T2 had just come out, and I tried to re-create the nuclear blast scene. 

Another tactic to gaining skills is to get in the door at a facility with high-end computers and software in some other capacity. Most companies do not mind employees trying to gain new skills. Most people are unwilling to stay beyond their 8 hours to train themselves. I have seen many people get jobs at big movie studios as a PA or Coordinator, with the idea that they will be asked to move to another department, or somehow be offered a position. But that rarely happens, unless you can show a sincere willingness to learn the new skills and prove yourself capable.

As a closing comment, I would say that all the skills that you need to do this type of work can be learned. It may take 10 years of dedicated work as a sideline to an existing job before your skills get you hired, but if you keep your goals in sight, and work persistently to achieve it, you will have a great chance of reaching your goals.

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