Life in the VFX lane: Breaking in

Breaking in to the VFX industry (or the games industry for that matter) seems like an impossible feat. 98% of the job offers ask for at least 1 year experience, but how do you get that experience if no one ever gives you your first chance? For me it was a long and winding road. I was 30 when I got my first job working on a movie. I had been working as a 3D artist on and off for about 6 years, but never in a big studio and never on a movie. For my background story (studies and career up until I decided to finally pursue my dream job) please see my previous post. Now let’s pick up where I left off…

Although I didn’t work at Pixelux anymore, I still had very good relationships with the managing directors (..and still do!). So, even though it wasn’t public news yet, I knew that MPC was really interested in DMM and  was talking about integrating it in both its Vancouver and London studios. For me that was it: the perfect opportunity, my foot in the door. DMM wasn’t widely available yet and few artists knew how to use the technology. Maybe MPC would be interested by my profile even though I lacked production experience and my reel only had R&D demos on it. So I contacted them… several times. I wrote emails and sent letters. I also tried to meet them in Paris during one of their recruitment road shows. No success. Finally I managed to see them at the View conference in Torino in November. The feedback I got there was pretty positive, but still, I didn’t hear back from them…

Thanks to several professionals at tradeshows who were kind enough to critique my reel, I knew my main weakness was that none of my work was actual production work. So I decided to try and acquire more experience in small commercial companies. I had forgotten about  MPC and was working at boutiq ag in Zurich when I got an email from their recruiting team in February asking me if I could do a phone interview with the Head of the FX Department. I was over the moon… and sooo stressed! On D day, I had a massive flu and didn’t feel I was at the top of my game. I thought the interview didn’t go too well. I was so depressed. But a couple of days later I got an offer to start as a Junior FX TD in London… 6 months later in August! I was in!

So what made it happen for me?  I would say work and persistence did help, but also quite a bit of luck and good timing. What advice would I give to the new starters out there?

First of all be sure this is what you want to do. It’s not an easy career. The industry is unstable. You never know when you will be out of work. When you have a job, you often work long hours and week-ends. When you don’t, you can’t really relax and unwind from all the crazy work because you have to look for your next gig.  The schedules are unpredictable so it’s hard to make any kind of plans. You might need to relocate several times to follow the job market. All of this can be quite a strain on your personal life. Also, you will not always get recognition for your hard work and you will definitely not make loads of money.

That being said, I love my job and hope to be able to do it for years to come… For me it’s all about the passion.  My childhood dream was to be a ballerina. Everyone would tell me that it’s  a gruesome career: it is very hard on your body, most of the time you are in some kind of physical pain, the majority of dancers never become soloist and spend their whole career in the shadows of the corps de ballet, you usually retire around 40, the pay isn’t good, etc. But I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to do, no matter what. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about VFX. The conditions aren’t ideal, but I am willing to put up with them to do what I love. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have an easier work environment and if there is anything I can do to help make it happen I will. But right now these are the circumstances and if you want to get into this industry, you have to be aware of them and be prepared to make do.

Once you are sure you are ready for this, be persistent. It might not work right away, but don’t give up, just continue building your skills and try again later. Also, get some honest advice. Knowing where you stand and what you have to improve is very important. Don’t be too shy. I have a hard time showing my work, I never think it’s good enough, but getting criticism is the only way to improve. You can post your work on forums like cgtalk, but the best is getting advice from professionals. If you don’t know any, go to tradeshows and meet people. I found that if you ask them nicely and they aren’t too busy, most artists are happy to give you feedback.

Finally one factor I really underestimated is timing. At the end of the day, studios have work and need you or they don’t. You can be the greatest, most talented artist out there, if there is no work, there is no work! VFX is a very irregular industry: one day the studios are bringing in artists from everywhere to handle the massive workload and the next they are letting everyone go because a production has been pushed back. So try to know what’s happening in the industry: where the work is, who is hiring, who is firing, who just landed the next big project. The news on the studios’ websites aren’t necessarily up to date but I find social networks, LinkedIn and twitter to be very effective.

I hope these humble tidbits will help a few of you out there. Don’t hesitate to ask if there is another subject you would like me to talk about. My next post will probably be about my first days at MPC and life in a big studio.

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Life in the VFX lane: Background

I was going to start this series with my breaking in story, but realized I should probably give a bit more information about my background and studies first. My career hasn’t really been straight forward. I only landed my first job working on a movie at the ripe old age of 30. In some ways I think that is a blessing. You really have to be sure this is what you want to survive in this industry. It is harsh. If you are just out of school, get a job and think it’s going to be a walk in the park, you might be disappointed.

But lets start at the beginning. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland and my childhood dream was to be a ballerina. That dream didn’t come true but it taught me a few things. One of them is that you have to be persistent. You have to be sure of what you want and be willing to make sacrifices to get there. As you may have guessed, the film industry in Switzerland is very small. When I graduated from high school and stopped dancing, I was a bit lost. The only other thing I was passionate about was movies and in particular what had to do with the look of a movie: production design, cinematography and most of all special effects. I wanted to build models, create sets, imagine new worlds. On the other hand, I also wanted a university degree, some kind of paper I could rely on. It seemed impossible to get both. At the same time, I was lucky enough to meet people who introduced me to computer graphics and digital visual effects. Since I wasn’t a big fan of computers, I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I wanted to try it out: it might be the answer I was looking for. So I spent my savings and enrolled in the NYU summer course: Introduction to Computer Animation and Visual Effects. I fell in love immediately. I had so much fun playing around in Maya and Shake, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living.

But I still didn’t know how to get there. What should I study? Where should I go? There were very few animation schools at the time and the ones I checked out were all very expensive. I finally enrolled at the Geneva University in… IT! This might seem like a stretch but there were a few good reasons for my choice. First education in Switzerland is really cheap (I only paid about 500$ per semester… yeah we are very lucky). Second, a computer graphics research lab (MIRALab) was part of the faculty so we would be getting a few courses on computer graphics, 3D animation etc. and I would be able to do my thesis in that field. Finally, I wasn’t ready to leave my family, friends, and boyfriend behind to go to some far away school. So I crammed through network, programming and data base courses for 3 and a half years and did my thesis on garment simulation for children. After graduation I considered packing my things and leaving, but once again, personally, the timing was bad. I decided to further my education and do a Master of Advanced Studies in Computer Graphics at the Polytechnic School of Lausanne. It consisted in a year of courses about graphics, programming, computer vision, virtual worlds etc. and 6 extra months working on a thesis (my subject was: Virtual Mirror: Real-time motion capture for virtual-try-on).

During my studies, I also got a job at MIRALab. At first I was just an administrative auxiliary (I made digital copies of old movies, archived press releases, organised documents etc.) but as my CG skills improved, they started trusting me with a few easy tasks. I was particularly interested in motion capture: the lab had a Vicon optical capture system and I would grab every chance I could to work with it. Eventually my work paid off and I got promoted to research assistant. I worked with the PhD students and researchers to create demos showcasing their work and by the time I left, I was responsible for the recording and post-processing of all the motion capture data.

After graduating, I took 9 months off to see the world. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, but that is another story… When I came back, I wanted to stay a few months with my friends and family. I was planning on doing some web design work and then leaving to pursue my dream of working in the film industry. Meanwhile, one of the former PhD students from MIRALab told me that a small startup was looking for a 3D artist and that’s how I landed a job at Pixelux Entertainment, the company who invented DMM (digital molecular matter). DMM is a Finite Element Analysis based simulation system that has been used in major video games and movies (for more info check out this fxguide article). When I started, the plug-in for Maya was still in development and the first major game including DMM (Star War the Force Unleashed) hadn’t been released yet. As the only 3D artist in the company, my job was pretty diverse. I tested the software, worked with the programmers to identify problems or develop new tools, created demos, went to trade shows, gave DMM courses, wrote tutorials, and even helped develop game prototypes. It was a great experience and I loved my job. Unfortunately about 2 years later, Pixelux underwent a massive restructuring and laid off all the 3D artists. Around the same time, MPC started to test DMM in their Vancouver pipeline. So I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for me to finally try and break into the VFX industry… and how that happened will be in my next post…

Life in the VFX lane

It took me a long time to break into the industry and before I did, I always wondered what it was like to work in a big VFX studio. You hear horror stories about long hours and crazy schedules but everyone still wants to get in. You want to be part of these amazing projects, create beautiful imagery, see how those movies you admire are made. So I decided to start a series of posts about my experience.  A few disclaimers: these are only my personal ramblings and I haven’t been in this industry long enough to know how it works elsewhere. Also there are certain things I won’t be able to talk about because of NDAs. But I hope some people will find this helpful. If you would like me to write about a certain aspect or subject, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will try to address it. Stay tuned: first episode about breaking in will be posted soon.