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VFX jobs and what they do

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The movie has ended. You stay seated, watching everyone else walk out. The couple down the row stare you down as they climb over you on their way to the exit. You’re not a weirdo; you’re just a VFX artist (or want to be one). So, what are you waiting in the theater for? The credits. Past all of the actors, directors, producers, key grips, dolly grips, even caterers the actual “heroes” of the movie humbly begin their slow scrawl up the screen en mass. The “visual effects” section of the credits is usually the point where the white text on the black screen suddenly becomes a literal wall of letters. That’s because of the enormous numbers of talented CG, 3D, VFX artists and supervisors it takes to make a typical movie today. The placement of VFX artist at the end of a film’s credits is a hotly debated topic that we can visit in another article, but for now let’s look at what all of those credit titles mean. You might appreciate the work that goes into creating VFX for a film, but do you know what a “FX TD” does? or stands for? The list of jobs can quickly become a bowl of acronym soup that’s hard to decipher. While there’s way too many jobs in the VFX industry to list every single one here, if you’ve ever wanted to work in movies you’ll need to know where you fit into the puzzle. Here is a list and description of the key jobs within VFX studios that will help you understand what each one does and what you’ll need to know to get hired on at a studio to help create the magic too.

Previsualization

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In a nutshell, you can think of “previs” as 3D animatics, or a 3D animated version of the storyboards. Although you’ll need experience in 3D software, you’ll really need to be able to deliver the director’s vision for the film into your sequences.

To do this, you’ll essentially need to be a generalist that can do everything from modeling to rendering, along with video editing and some compositing skills in After Effects. Instead of trying to get everything polished, though, you’ll be focusing on things like camera animation and shot timing.

What you should learn…
After Effects
Maya

Peek into how a professional does it with Creating a Narrative Previs Concept in Maya and After Effects

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Layout TD


Although layout TDs (technical directors) are often called on to do previsualization, a lot of studios separate these two key pre-production positions. Just like a previs artist, when you’re a layout TD you’ll need a thorough understanding of the overall 3D pipeline. For that reason, a lot of studios look for generalists to fill these jobs.

One big difference between a layout TD and a 3D generalist, though, is in your ability to look at the shots from a director’s perspective.

Most layout TDs have experience with physical cameras and are well versed in the fundamentals of image composition and how to achieve good continuity across a shot sequence. Anything you create is going to be passed on to the CG departments as a foundation for their shots.

Software you should know…
After Effects
Maya
Python
NUKE

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Concept Artist

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If you want to be a concept artist, you’ll need to be able to take a brief (usually prepared by the client or VFX supervisor) and turn that into a beautiful piece of artwork. The purpose of concept art is to guide the rest of the pipeline artists as they create the movie’s settings and characters.

A concept artist’s job is incredibly important. They must pay strict attention to details because artists down the pipeline will rely heavily on these details to create their own work.

You’ll need a solid understanding of image composition, lighting and color. Even though most concept art ends up being a still 2D image, a lot of concept artists are called on to use 3D software to help speed up their workflows.

Software you should know…
Photoshop
Maya
ZBrush

Peek into how a professional does it with Rapid Concept Illustration for AAA Productions in Photoshop

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Modeler

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As a modeler, your job is to create objects in 3D. It could be anything from a character to a whole environment. Some studios break up character artists and environment artists, while others stick to a more generic modeler job to capture all modeling duties.

Since you could be modeling just about anything, you’ll need to flexible in your knowledge and skills. This means knowing modeling techniques for a wide range of objects and being able to figure out how to model just about anything with good topology.

You’ll need to have a thorough understanding of any industry standard modeling software, and a willingness to learn new ways to troubleshoot problems in your models.

What you should learn…
Maya (and/or 3ds Max)
MODO
Mudbox
ZBrush

Peek into how a professional does it with Techniques for Sculpting Like the Masters in ZBrush

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Texture Artist

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Once models have been created, your job as a texture artist is to apply shaders to the mesh. Some studios combine modeling and texturing into one job, while others separate them. For example, if you’re a Character Artist you’ll probably create both the models and textures for your character.

You may want Ptex to catch on so UVs can become a thing of the past, but when you’re working as a texture artist, you’ll need to have a thorough understanding of building good UV layouts. You’ll usually be expected to work closely with the modeler to determine what they’d recommend for the UV layout before you begin.

A huge part of texturing for films is making sure they look good in the final render. Depending on your studio, don’t be surprised if you spend a lot of time communicating with look dev, lighting and rendering teams to make sure your textures look great.

Software you should know…
MARI
Photoshop
BodyPaint 3D
Mudbox
UVLayout

Peek into how a professional does it with Taking Skin Textures from Good to Great in MARI

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Rigging TD

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Being a rigging TD means you’ll need to take a model (usually a character of some sort) and build the skeleton so it can be animated. You’ll need to know how your characters should move and deform so you can build the system to make them move in believable ways.

For example, you’ll often be creating custom scripts and tools for the animator who will be using your rigs. Animators need to be able to create believable animation without having to worry about the technical aspects. That’s where riggers are most effective.

Oh yeah, and this position will probably require a lot of math. So be prepared for that.

As a rigger you usually won’t be asked to do any modeling or animating; however, you will be the bridge between the two and working closely with modeler and animators. This aspect of the job is a lot like technical support for the character. If something doesn’t move right or is a pain point for the animator, they’ll often ask you to fix it for them.

For this reason, you need to be able to communicate very well with others and have a positive attitude when an animator comes back to you saying the rig is broken or needs something added or fixed.

What you should learn…
Maya (and/or 3ds Max)
Python
C++

Peek into how a professional does it with Transforming Robot Production Pipeline Volume 6: Rigging

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Animator

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Once something is rigged, it’s ready to be brought to life! That’s where your job as an animator comes in. Your primary responsibilities will be taking a motionless 3D character (or object) and making it seem as if it’s alive.

This is a lot harder than it sounds.

Some studios spread out the types of animation across different jobs. For example, if you’re a technical animator you won’t be focusing on the performance of a character as much as animating things like cloth on a character.

Regardless of what you’re animating, you’ll need to have a deep understanding of how things move as well as the 12 Principles of Animation. You’ll also be expected to work closely with any rigging artists or rigging TDs to make sure the characters are able to move as they should.

What you should learn…
Maya (and/or 3ds Max)
MotionBuilder
Python

Peek into how a professional does it with Animating a Dialogue Scene in Maya

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FX TD

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If you’re an FX TD, you’ll be in charge of designing and creating any effects such as explosions, fire, smoke, water, dust, clouds, debris and so on. Some of the more popular software used for FX today are Houdini and/or RealFlow, so you’ll need extensive knowledge of these programs.

As an FX artist, you’ll probably be asked to work closely with the lighting and rendering teams to make sure your FX will look correct in any reflections, shadows and so on. Regardless, you’ll be expected to be able to interpret and recreate what your team lead asks (which is usually an FX lead or VFX supervisor) and troubleshoot any issues.

What you should learn…
Maya
Houdini
RealFlow

Peek at how a professional does it withControlling Your Fractures in Houdini

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Lighting TD

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When you’re working as a lighting TD, being able to replicate real-world lighting is critical. Even if you’re working on a stylized project, you’ll need a thorough understanding of how light works.

It’s an added bonus if you have experience in some sort of look dev. The process of look dev is essentially being able to match the look of 3D objects and environments to real footage. So even though traditional look dev involves a lot of texturing, lighting, rendering and compositing, some studios may roll look dev and lighting into a single job.

Because lighting is such a complex challenge to master, you’ll often be expected to script custom shaders as necessary for the project. As with just about any position, communication with other team members in the pipeline is important. In this case, you’ll probably find yourself interacting with either look dev TDs or rendering TDs.

What you should learn…
Maya
Your studio’s renderer. For example:
RenderMan
V-Ray
Maxwell Render
Arnold

Peek at how a professional does it withLook Development, Lighting and Compositing a Noir Scene in RenderMan RIS

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Rendering TD

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If you’re wanting to be a rendering TD, you’ll need to have many of the same skills as a lighting TD. In fact, a lot of studios merge lighting and rendering into a single position. As a dedicated rendering TD, you’ll have to work closely with your studio’s lighting team to make sure the final renders look the way they were intended.

Since rendering is the act of computing everything, you’ll need to be able to optimize the renders and troubleshoot issues when the computer isn’t giving you the results you expect. Simply put, rendering TDs are the super smart nerds that make sure all of the hard work gets calculated accurately by the computer. This means you’ll need to be superb at math, programming custom shaders and most studios prefer physics thrown in there as well.

What you should learn…
Maya
Your studio’s renderer. For example:
RenderMan
V-Ray
Maxwell Render
Arnold

Peek at how a professional does it with Photorealistic Soap Bubble Shader Development in RenderMan for Maya

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Compositor

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Working as a compositor, you’ll be expected to seamlessly integrate elements of a shot. Those elements are most commonly merging CG elements into live-action footage. This requires a good eye for detail and being able to spot when things look out of place.

A thorough understanding of color, practical lighting, real-world photography and, of course, image composition will help you be a successful compositor. Being a compositor also means a lot of figuring out solutions to get multiple elements to work together. Since every project is new, you’ll get to be the one to figure out how to make it all look good.

What you should learn…
NUKE
Photoshop
Maya

Peek into how a professional does it with Creating a Futuristic Set Extension in NUKE

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Roto Artist

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Being a roto artist is one of those jobs that no one really likes to do, but it’s essential to the pipeline. It’s a lot of monotonous work, but done well it can make or break a shot. For that reason, you’ll need to be OK with meticulous work while maintaining a close eye for detail at all times.

You’ll work closely with the compositors to create the mattes they need to composite better. A similar knowledge of color, composition and photography is helpful.

In fact, a lot of compositors start off as roto artists. With this in mind, it’s a very good idea to be proactive and look for ways to advance yourself to a compositor’s job when you’re working as a roto artist. Find ways to help the team, and go above and beyond to do so.

What you should learn…
NUKE


Peek into how a professional does it with 
Advanced Rotoscope and Keying Techniques in mocha and NUKE

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Matchmover

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Matchmovers are essentially the bridge between 2D and 3D, so you’ll need a knowledge of both. You’ll also need an advanced understanding of how trackers work and how you can troubleshoot when a track isn’t giving you the results expected.

An eye for detail is essential because you’re laying the foundation for how CG elements will lay on top of the live action plate. If something isn’t lining up quite right or the CG elements aren’t moving as you’d expect, it’s up to you to fix it. Expect a lot of feedback and critiques of your work, since this foundation is crucial to the success of the whole shot.

What you should learn…
Maya
NUKE
mocha
PFTrack
3DEqualizer

Peek into how a professional does it with Advancing Your Matchmoving Techniques in PFTrack and Maya

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Matte Painter

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When you’re working as a matte painter, you can expect to spend a majority of your time in Photoshop. You’ll be doing everything from digital painting, image manipulation and, of course, compositing.

In most cases, you’ll be asked to work from a concept artist’s work (or a photo reference) and create photorealistic environments. There’s an emphasis on the photorealistic because your environments will serve as the backdrop for actual footage, so it needs to integrate seamlessly.

Because the integration needs to be seamless, a lot of studios will ask you to be fluent in software such as Maya, NUKE and Vue to help build out your environments quickly.

What you should learn…
Maya
NUKE
Photoshop
Vue

Peek into how a professional does it with Compositing a Live-Action Matte Painting in NUKE and Photoshop

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Pipeline TD


Being a pipeline TD is all about helping your team be successful. In this position, you’ll lead the charge on designing and developing custom tools to help everyone else get their work done faster and better.

As you can probably guess, being a pipeline TD means you need extensive knowledge about how pipelines work from beginning to end. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to tell when a pipeline isn’t running smoothly and work to figure out what sort of tools you can create to keep the pipeline running.

Since there’re a lot of people in a typical pipeline, you’ll often be expected to interact and interpret the needs of various artists along the pipeline.

What you should learn…
Python
C++
APIs for your studio’s tools (e.g., Maya, NUKE, etc.)

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VFX Producer


When your VFX studio is working on a big budget film, it’s producers expect someone to be on set on a daily basis—someone who can interact with and manage the progress of the shots. That’s where your job as a VFX producer comes in.

When you’re a VFX producer, you’ll typically be the one handling all of the client relationships for the shots you’re working on. This means you’ll be working very closely with the VFX supervisor to make sure the shots are created to the client’s expectations.

You’ll typically be doing a lot of project management, communications with your own studio’s team and clients while using whatever pipeline software your studio uses – like Shotgun. Since this role makes you the face of your studio to the client, you’ll be expected to be both professional and diplomatic. In other words, keep the client happy.

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CG Producer


As a CG producer, you’ll work closely with the VFX producer (and CG/VFX sups) to ensure your client is happy with all of the 3D in the project. Think of this job as being an instance of the VFX producer role, except for the CG aspects of the project.

When you’re a CG producer, you’ll be in charge of all things CG so you should have an incredibly deep understanding of CG pipelines, techniques and workflows.

Some studios will ask you to help the CG supervisor to build the teams, as well as help them manage aspects of the project along the way.

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CG Supervisor


A CG supervisor is in charge of everything 3D. You’ll lead a team (or teams) of artists from modeling through rendering as well as being the one ultimately held accountable for the quality of their work.

As you might imagine, this means you’ll have your plate full as you work with your artists and/or the team leads who report to you. From an artistic side, it’s common for CG supervisors to handle reviews to make sure your team’s work meets the client’s visual targets and quality requirements.

Since you’re in charge of the overall quality of the CG work your team, you’ll also need to make sure your team is trained up and stays on top of their game. This can mean anything from working with the team leads who report to you to come up with a plan or doing one-on-one training with artists.

Because you’ll need to work closely with your team leads and artists, you should be an expert in whatever 3D software your studio uses.

Read about how a CG Supervisor and a VFX Supervisor put together ‘The Book of Life’ with From Imagination to Pixel: Behind the Scenes of The Book of Life

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VFX Supervisor


Just as being a CG supervisor is held accountable for the CG in the project, being a VFX supervisor makes you responsible for all things VFX in your project. This often means everything from helping to build out the teams, making sure the quality work is upheld as well as making sure they’re on top of their game throughout the project.

For most major films these days, you won’t find a single studio working on a project. That means you’ll often need to work with VFX sups from other studios to make sure all of the shots are continuous and flow well together to meet the director’s vision.

Read about how a CG Supervisor and a VFX Supervisor put together ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ with Behind the VFX: The Trixters of Age of Ultron

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This doesn’t include the look dev artists, crowd TDs, editors, prep artists and so on. It’s just scratching the surface of the jobs required to make today’s blockbuster movies. If you’ve noticed, a lot of these jobs even vary depending on the studio. While one studio may have separate modeling and texturing artists, another studio may merge them into a single job.

If there are jobs you don’t see here that you’re interested in learning more about, a great way to find out what that particular job does is to look on studio websites for their job postings. This will not only give you insight into what they do, but it’ll help you know what that particular studio expects from the job.

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