How the industry works
It’s sometimes useful to think of the VFX industry – whether film, TV or other media, as having different sectors that need different skill sets. You can see this on the VFX Careers Map, which is divided into art, technical and production. This means people with different skill sets can find entry routes into VFX.
Technicians, scientists, creatives, organisers
Those with maths, physics or IT and programming backgrounds may find a TD (or Technical Director) route suits them, while those with an arts background may find their drawing and creative skills suit an artist route into a company. Those who have great organisational acumen and enjoy budgets and planning may find their skills fit as a production assistant.
Once you have the science, you then need to take an artistic eye to it. While the equation borrowed from physics may accurately describe how the water moves, it is not perfect and needs a subjective and creative decision made about what ‘feels’ right... you still need the artistic flair of a cinematographer or a painter to make it look great. At every turn, the VFX artist is combining maths, physics, computer science and art to create”.
Alex Hope, Managing Director of Double Negative (one of the largest VFX companies in the world)
Think of it this way: great VFX is a mixture of innovative software and innovative art, so it needs technical people to write new code, build and maintain fit-for-purpose computer networks and create new technical pipelines and it equally needs artists who can bring to life the visions of storytellers and clients using exciting mixtures of computer-generated imagery and lens-originated footage.
These technical and art functions are supported and organised by producers who ensure everything and everybody fits together to achieve the project on time and to specification.
If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future ….you need to bring art and science back together.”
Eric Schmidt, Chair of Google, likewise exclaimed in his now famous MacTaggart Lecture speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2011
Generalists and specialists
You can see these three functions (art, technical and production) at work in the Creative Skillset Visual Effects Careers Map. In the VFX industry, there are now established career paths that new entrants can consider, but as with any creative industry that uses a high degree of freelancers, many opportunities might present themselves that mean changing course, or moving to a different kind of company. So, these three areas are porous – people might move around.
Another way to think of how work is segmented in VFX is to think of the level of generalism or specialism within a role. As with any industry, bigger companies tend to specialise and have a division of labour, whereas small companies can have an approach where a person's role is more flexible as different kinds of projects are worked on through time.
It’s often suggested that smaller companies, who have a faster turnaround on projects such as TV idents, tend to prefer generalists (this is not a pejorative term!) – those who can turn their hand to different roles and tasks. For example, someone may work as a 3D modeller on one project while simultaneously working as an animator on a second.
Larger companies, such as MPC and Double Negative tend to have larger pipelines and therefore look for specialists – people who are likely to excel in one role. It is often suggested these two approaches (and this is not a cut and dry delineation) should be taken into account when people are deciding on the kinds of company they’d like to work in and they should audit their own skills. It’s something to think about as you start out in VFX.