What is Visual Effects?
At its core, Visual Effects (abbreviated VFX) is the process by which digital imagery is created to manipulate or enhance real world footage that has been filmed with a video camera.
Visual effects involve the integration of video camera footage and generated imagery to create environments which look realistic, but would be dangerous, expensive, impractical, time consuming or impossible to capture on film.
Visual Effects are not just limited to big block buster films, they are commonly seen in television commercials, broadcast series, architecture, advertising and more.
Why would you want to work in Visual Effects?
Maybe because it’s a career that involves the perfect mix of story telling, cutting-edge technology and creativity. It could also be because you love films and want to hang out on set surrounded by movie stars. Maybe you want a career that allows you to travel the world or even work remotely from home. Or maybe it’s because you love drawing and building things with your hands and on the computer. There are so many reasons why you would want to work in Visual Effects and there are dozen of possible career paths open to you across multiple industries.
Key VFX Roles and Departments
The process of creating visual effects is long, challenging and very technical. Teams are large and very diverse which means there are opportunities for all types of people ranging from hardcore coders through to illustrators and non-artists who like managing teams. Everyone plays a crucial role in producing the final visual effects and I’ve listed some of the most common creative and technical roles below to help you understand where you mind fit it best.
The Art Department is responsible for translating a Directors vision and a script into visuals that can be shared with the entire team to truly understand the creative and technical challenges that lay ahead. These concept artists and illustrators create everything from storyboards to photorealistic artworks that show what the finished shot will look like.
Pre-visualisation Artists are responsible for creating the first 3D representation of the final visual effects shot. They use artwork and basic 3D models to create normally low-quality versions of the action sequences so the Director can start planning out camera placement and creative/technical requirements.
Virtual assets are need in visual effects to match real world objects or create new objects that don’t exist or are too expensive to build in the real world. These are mostly created by modeling artists, texture painters, shader developers and riggers.
Research and Development
Considered a very technical department, RnD artists are responsible for building new software and tools to accomplish the tasks that can’t be done, or are simply too time consuming for artists to manually complete over and over again. The role requires a very strong background in computer science and a passion for problem solving.
This one is pretty obvious. Basically anything that moves on film needs to be animated. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small prop like a chair, a huge space ship or even a hero character or creature. If it moves and has a performance, an animator will most likely be behind the controls.
This is also referred to as motion tracking and without it there would be no way to incorporate 3D data into live action footage. To make digital assets appear as if they completely real, you need a virtual camera that moves exactly like the camera in the live action footage. This is where matchmove artists come to the rescue. It’s their job to use the live action video footage and create a virtual camera for all departments to work with.
An FX Artist designs and creates FX animation, procedural simulation, dynamic simulation, and particle and fluid systems. They are responsible for recreating the behaviour of real world elements such as fire, water, explosions, cloth, hair and a whole lot more that most people don’t even realise. Highly technical, yet creative role.
The lighting artist is responsible for applying all lighting effects to the digital scene. The artist takes into consideration the light sources of the live-action plate and applies virtual lighting to mimic the existing illumination within the environment. The goal is to ensure that the VFX and live-action elements blend seamlessly, as though both exist in the same environment.
A matte painting is an image, created using digital or traditional painting techniques, to create a representation of a scene that would be impossible for filmmakers to deliver in real life. This might be because the landscape does not exist in the real world, it’s not financially practical to travel to a location, or to extend the set outside of its filmed parameters.
Rotoscoping is used to create a matte or mask for an element so it can be extracted out of place on a different background, masked out so colours can be changed or any other set of reasons. The rotoscoping artist will normally trace an object using a set of tools to create a new alpha channel for a specific part of an image sequence or video.
Compositing is the action of layering all the various elements in a shot – live action, mattes, multiple CG passes, 3D lighting, animation, particle effects – and blending them all seamlessly to create the photo-realistic final shot. Working throughout the production process, you’ll need to collaborate with other VFX departments to creatively and technically problem solve along the way.
There are also a number of roles for people who prefer managing teams, budgets and schedules. The top production role at a studio is the VFX Producer who works closely with the VFX supervisor to project manage the entire process, defining the resources required, hiring artists and crew, managing budgets and making sure the project is delivered on schedule. Other common roles include Production Manager and Production coordinator which support the Producer by liaising with artists, flagging issues and generally tracking progress and making sure everything stays on track from a scheduling perspective.
Important Skills required to become a VFX artist
There are plenty of jobs available to people in the visual effects industry. For those of you interested in the more creative and technical roles there are definitely some important skills you should focus on early in your training.
The skills I’m referring to are not related to software and technology. Those will come later when you really start digging into your training. However, a solid foundation in the following skills will help you for years to come:
- Composition and light
- Visual Aesthetics
- Sculpture & Anatomy
- Mechanics and Movement
- Passion for Film
- Real world observation
- Communication skills
How do I start learning Visual Effects (VFX)
Traditionally speaking, there are two main ways to start learning Visual Effects. Go to a school, or teach yourself at home. It’s very easy to find persuasive case studies for both learning paths so which should you choose?
In my opinion this depends entirely on you. Some people are great at learning skills themselves and don’t need help for the heavy lifting part. On the other hand, there are people who need to be surrounded by others and need strict schedules and tasks. It really is up to you, and how you like to work.
Regardless of which approach to learning vfx you take, the most important thing to do is just start. It’s that simple.
Regardless of which approach to learning you take, the most important thing to do is start. It’s that simple. Pick up a book, start sketching, watch and analyse a movie, watch documentaries about visual effects, attend local events. Just get started. If you don’t have the passion and motivation for this, then it doesn’t matter how good your education – you will never make it.