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Doing the job

The VFX pipeline

A pipeline, as the name suggests is the process that VFX work flows through to get from being an idea to a finished reality. Many people might be involved at each stage.

Pipelines can vary in complexity, but the important thing for beginners is to realise where they fit in and who might be impacted later by your work. Tiny problems can get amplified as a flaw travels through, so it’s often good to know who your neighbours are and talk to them if you have any issues.  

The image below illustrates the relationship between all the different processes in the usual VFX pipeline, from pre-production to print.

Pipeline snap

Image Credit: Jahirul Amin, Double Negative 3D trainer

Behaviours and attributes

Creative Skillset has released The Core Skills of VFX Student Primer, which is a useful checklist of the behaviours and attributes needed to thrive in the industry. It’s a good idea to read the 25 points and relate them to what you are doing as you learn VFX skills and knowledge. They are written based on the experience of industry professionals.

Work routine

In common with much of the creative industries, VFX isn’t an industry of 9am–5pm regularity. Work is often project based and getting it done to the client's specification and satisfaction is crucial. Sometimes this means a level of unpredictability and late nights, so it’s best to be flexible and enjoy the work.

However the industry has got better over the years at establishing work routines and methodologies and planning ahead, especially as experienced people have choices about who to work for and, as they grow up, their priorities move to work/life balance and families.

Skills and abilities

We can talk of competencies along the lines of the function set of either art, production and technical roles. Each of these three can be split into a further three groupings:

  • Core operational skills
  • Creative problem solving abilities
  • Level of interface and interaction within a team or across the pipeline

It’s useful to think of your strengths in these areas. Let’s examine what these mean. Click the titles below to for more information:

Core operational skills

The creativity in VFX is technology-driven. You’ll need a deep knowledge of a particular software and its appropriate application within VFX production. This could be compositing and 2D image editing such as Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, Nuke or particular rotoscoping or tracking software; or 3D CGI software such as Maya, 3DS Max, Cinema 4D.

In production this might be scheduling or database software and in more technical pipeline roles you may even write your own software. Knowing software is not enough though – you’ll use Photoshop in a different context to how a graphic designer might. So this operational knowledge needs to be complemented by knowledge of VFX processes, for instance using Photoshop to develop mattes or textures at the correct resolution.

You can read about these kind of competencies in the VFX Student Primer, specifically:

  • VFX: where efficiency and creativity meet
  • Taking pictures
  • VFX and the photoreal: is your dragon real enough?
  • Learn the VFX ABC
  • VFX is cinema, art and maths
  • Know your tool: the computer
  • The art of the edit
  • Optics

Creative problem-solving abilities

This is a highly valued attribute in both art roles and technical/programming roles. You’ll always be faced with unique challenges on every project as things rarely follow the same path while clients demand more and more and are influenced by other VFX work they’ve seen. This creative problem solving needs to be utilised at all levels and is a highly prized aptitude, since there is always unpredictability in any creative process.

As an example, an artist might need to find a way to hide an errant shadow or boom mic within a shot when they were only expecting to replace a sky. A technical director might need to find a way to make a crowd or thousands appear in a shot while keeping rendering time to half what was planned and a producer might need to marshal resources and budgets to a different part of the show on a director’s whim.

You can read about these kinds of competencies in the Student Primer, specifically:

  • Patience, young Skywalker...
  • Criticism is a request for change
  • Explain yourself
  • Look before you leap
  • Don't wait to be taught
  • You're surrounded by experts
  • Now surprise us

Interface and interaction within a team or across the pipeline 

Unless you’re making a film on your own, the things you do often have an impact on others and both errors and successful actions ripple out through a production. Many new entrants find it hard to adapt to teamwork and the attention to what you need to pass on to others, or how to communicate clearly to others involved. Different jobs have differing levels of interface with others. New entrants have often a smaller amount of interaction with others – they start completing tasks handed to them by their senior but as they progress and get more responsibility they may find a great interaction with other departments or teams apart from their own.

You can read about these kind of competencies in the Student Primer, specifically:

  • Where do you fit in the VFX spectrum: specialist or generalist?
  • VFX is a team sport
  • It's not just about you, it's about the pipeline too
  • Somewhere, there is a client
  • Learn the VFX ABC
  • Remember to have fun!

These three competency groupings are present in different blends in all VFX roles.

Core operational skills

  • Create storyboards, animatics or other preparatory visualisations
  • Create 3D animation
  • Manage and market yourself as a freelancer
  • Develop budgets in the creative industries
  • Manage budgets in the creative industries
  • Capture data for use in visual effects
  • Evolve the look for computer generated assets
  • Model or texture characters, creatures, props or environments
  • Create animation rigs
  • Create effects
  • Recreate live action camera movements in 3D
  • Set up lighting for visual effects

Creative problem solving abilities

  • Determine the brief for visual effects
  • Ensure the quality of visual effects outputs

Interface and interaction within a team or across the pipeline

  • Work effectively with colleagues, partners and suppliers in the creative industries
  • Work effectively with clients of customers in the creative industries

National Occupational Standards are not designed to tell you how to get skills or give you any level of detail around work context in any particular situation. They are like floodlights illuminating particular areas of VFX, as opposed to focused narrow spotlights. Fortunately Creative Skillset and leading professionals in the VFX industry got together to write The Core Skills of VFX in 2011.

The Core Skills of VFX Repository

Originally designed as a series of ‘modules’ for universities to adopt, The Core Skills of VFX has been updated and refashioned to give solid examples of the topics an individual needs to know, with a sliding scale (intro level to advanced level) for that topic.

Here are the topics in the Core Skills of VFX Repository:

001: Acquisition for VFX
002: Introduction to CGI for VFX
003: VFX Compositing Foundation
004: The Matte
005: VFX Paint and Rig removal
006: 3D Matchmoving for VFX
007: Matte Painting and Environments for VFX
008: Rigging and Creature Effects for VFX
009: Digital Sculpture for VFX
010: CGI Animation Foundation for VFX
011: Effects Animation for VFX
012: CGI Lighting and Look Development for VFX

While the core skills of VFX is essentially for those teaching or designing courses, it contains useful information for those who are being taught, or who want to learn. Each topic lists the job roles that might be taken by learning that topic. It lists ‘outline content’ – the material that might be learned – in a way that National Occupational Standards (NOS) cannot and also lists further reading and suggested learning activities.

Now updated, The Core Skills of VFX Repository is named as such since it is proposed that it becomes a living, constantly updating and future-proofed online document in the years to come.

By consulting The Core Skills of VFX Repository and the Student Primer you can understand the creative standards the VFX industry demands for a range of job roles. 

Download The Core Skills of VFX Repository (PDF 2.3 MB)

Download The Core Skills of VFX Student Primer (PDF 739 KB)

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