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.


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.

Christmas project

Started a new project tonight. I hope to be finished before Christmas and send it out as a “happy holiday greeting email/movie/card”. I have been trying to learn more about maya fluids lately, so we’ll see if I can get something  working… But for today it’s just simple modeling and first texture tests.

View Day 2: Wednesday 27.10.10

Ironman 2: Monaco Sequence Paul Davies,  Animation Supervisor, Double Negative

They shot this on location just before the actual Grand Prix. All the cars are fully CG as well as most of the set for the fight sequence.

The Ironman suitcase scene is a very special scene. A separate team was assigned to it and it was dealt with outside of the usual pipeline. They built custom rigging tools and even used Mental Ray for the rendering because the artist felt more comfortable using it rather than Renderman. The design and look of the suit also was special.  You only see this suit  in this particular scene. As it has to fit in a suitcase, it’s not the same design as the suit modelled by ILM. But even though it is different,  it still has to feel like Ironman.

I must say I am a big fan of this scene: totally love it. Apparently the team really sweated over this one… but man did they deliver! It looks AMAZING!   My most heartfelt congratulations to everyone who contributed to this scene.

For the fight sequence, they had to test out lots of choreography and animation ideas. They ended up using motion capture to be able to iterate faster. They also learned a valuable lesson: you should show a shot as filled in as possible. Never show block animation, add as many FX as possible and animate the props. For example,  just adding the whip changed everything for the director. He couldn’t “read” the animation properly without it.


Why animation rocks Tim Johnson, Director / Producer, PDI Dreamworks

It was very interesting to listen to Tim Johnson going over his amazing career and the different experiences and projects he contributed to.

1980 – 1985 Cel animation

1985 – 1988 Alias

1988 Pacific Data Images

1992 Pilsbury Doughboy This was a TV commercial and one of the first CG animated character to go on-screen.

1995 Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror VI”

1995 Dreamworks

1995 – 1998 Antz (Director)

2001 – 2003 Sinbad (Director)

2002 – 2006 Over the Hedge (Director)

2006 – 2010 How to Train Your Dragon (Executive producer)

2010 Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special (Director)

On a side note: we were lucky enough to see the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special in 3D as a world premiere. Unfortunately it was in italian… Po isn’t quite the same when not voiced by Jack Black…  But still… nice stuff!


The Visual Effects of Avatar Bruce Holcomb, Digital Modeling Supervisor, ILM

ILM was brought rather late onto the project. Everything had already been decided: the look, the design, the models, the shots etc. They had very little wriggle room. Most of the assets had already been built by Weta, but as ILM have their own proprietary pipeline, they couldn’t just reuse them. They had to rebuild exact copies within their pipeline.

Lots of FX were involved in the shots they created. A few notable facts:

They used cloth sims to  make the grass move around when the helicopters land. Cameron was so specific about everything that he would actually come in with numbers for the force field values!

Even though Cameron wanted to go all CG, there is one practical effect in one of the ILM shots. When Jake first arrives on Pandora the big ship he lands in causes particles to swirl on the ground. These were  created by using a hose and blowing around different substances (walnut dust, baking powder, etc.) After several tests, they finally got the perfect effect and used it in the final shot.

View Day 1: Tuesday 26.10.10

Opening Talk “The Lighting of Toy Story 3” Kim White, Director of Photography, Pixar

Great talk by Kim White about different aspects of lighting in Toy Story 3: the challenges they faced, how they used the lights to serve the story and direct the viewer’s eye, the different color themes etc.

One of the challenges was to keep the Toy Story feel but still take advantage of all the advances in technology. Now they have  new tools at their disposal like occlusion, irradiance and reflection but they also had to stay true to the original Toy Story world. So what defines that world? There are lots of colors. Everything is very saturated. In the first two movies they even tinted the shadows to give more color. In Toy Story 3 they wanted to go for a slightly more realistic feel so they left that out. They also used a lot of indirect lighting: the character’s face isn’t always lit by the brightest light but by secondary bounce lights.

Now for the colors:
Blue=Andy and safety
Green=Bonnie. They also used alot of dappled lighting (lighting coming through trees) for these scenes.
Yellow and Red=Lotso. Bad and frightening.

She then went through a couple of scenes from the movie and showed us how these techniques were used and how the lighting enhanced the scene and what was happening in it.

One especially interesting scene is “Lotso’s backstory”. At the beginning everything is yellowish except for Lotso. He is lit separately and is very saturated and pink… until he gets replaced. He then is lit like the rest of the scene. This totally highlights the feeling that he was very special and unique. Oh and on a side note: they looked at Amelie Poulain for inspiration on this sequence…


Realflow Workshop Gustavo Sanchez Perez, Senior FX TD, Next Limit Florian Koebisch, FX TD, Pictorion das Werk
Seems like an interesting software to try out… Lots of cool features. I especially liked Hybrido which allows you to combine two different solvers: one grid based (for the base) and one particle based (for the details). So if aou are simulating an ocean crashing into rocks for axample. You can have the ocean base and then add particles to simulate the splashes and mist and foam. I’ll have to try it out!


“10 Obvious secrets in Animation” Craig Caldwell, USTAR Senior Research Professor, Digital Media University of Utah
Very interesting talk with lots of great references and examples. So here are the secrets!

  1. Basic skills that are transferable. not just learning the tools
  2. Weight
  3. Psychological gestures. Body language is the most important. Expressions and noth shapes will only work if you get the gestures right first.
  4. Thinking. If you can see the character think, this is what will lead you to no5
  5. Emotion
  6. Reference. Use all kinds of reference to get the animation right. (live action, other animation, yourself, etc)
  7. Audience ahead or behind. You should never loose your audience nor be too foreseeable.
  8. The gap. There has to be something unusual to make the story/character interesting
  9. Stereotypes. The gap works well with stereotypes.
  10. Change. The hero’s journey. The character has to undergo some kind of change during the story.


“The development of Nuke and Ocula in Support of Stereo 3D VFX Post-production” Simon Robinson, Chief Scientist, The Foundry

Wow I never thought S3d (stereo 3D) brought up so many challenges.  Just the rigs to be able to film with two cameras are really impressive. Then you have all the distortions and color corrections to deal with. The main problems the Foundry focused on when adapting NUKE for s3d were the following:

  • Color matching: With the rigs used to film with two cameras, one eye is filmed through a lens (polarized) and the other is not. You have to correct the color disparitied this will introduce.
  • Horizontal alignement: The cameras are never perfectly aligned. This has to be corrected or the audience will have a headache!
  • Rotoscoping: Automatic tools to transfer the rotoscoping that has been done for one eye to the other eye. Right now this tool doesn’t work very well yet.
  • Other lens issues: mismatched focal, focus, distortion etc.


“Career Realities for VFX” Pam Hogarth, Director of Marketing, Look Effects

Lots of great advice.

What does it take  to have a great career in VFX?
Of course: artistic ability, knowing the right tools, having the right degree and experience
But that is only half of it….
Collaboration, dedication, passion, communication, problem solving, flexibility, sense of humor, willingness to travel, willingness to learn, self motivation
are all very important and will take your career to the next level.

So what must you do?
Learn what you must, prepare your marketing package, network, market yourself, check your ego at the door and remember: it’s not YOUR vision.


“Enabling Wonderland: Technologies And Tools Developed For Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Parag Havaldar, Software R&D Supervisor, Sony Picture Imageworks

Lots of tools had to be developped to help the production of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. CG and live action were totally intertwined in this movie. Some characters were totally CG, some only half CG, some had a few features distorted by CG and scale went totally crazy during the whole with Alice getting bigger and smaller all the time.

  • Onset visualization
    With all this going on, they had to find a way to help the director get an idea of what the final result would look like. They used green screen live composition. They could triangulate the camera’s position and comp in the CG backgrounds on set so the director could immediately have an idea of where the characters were.
  • Pre composition for the Red Queen
    To get the big head effect, every scene was shot twice so they could get a very quick precomposition of the head of one shot (very high resolution) onto the body of the other.
  • Capturing performances
    They couldn’t use traditional motion capture as it was not set friendly. So they used inertial motion capture and developped a tool using a few optical markers to solve the root drifting problem you get with this technology.
  • Motion rig
    This was used for the scene during which Alice rides on the Mad Hatter’s hat for example. Alice had to experience the actual forces from the movement of the hat. To fake that, they built a big green motion rigged hat. They shot Johnny Depp’s performance and analyzed the movement of his hat. They then transfered that movement to the motion rig and shot Alice reacting to it.
  • Stereo
    Alice in Wonderland was not shot in S3D, it was converted in post. So they had to develop a pipleine to compute the second eye. (More about that in Parag’s second talk…


MPC Recruitment Presentation
Great prersentation. Totally made me want to work there even more… Fingers crossed!