July 6, 2017

Getting Started as a VFX Artist

VFX can be a tricky and scary thing to get into.  This goes for both cg and video games.  But because most of my experience is in games, I'm going to focus on that for this series.  Hopefully after reading this, you'll have a better idea of what to expect if you want to get your career started as a vfx artist.

"Where do I start?!"

I get asked quite frequently from either folks in the industry, game dev students or just randos politely pretending to be interested in my job - "what do I need to learn to get into vfx?". Well, the short and long of it is this - a little bit of everything.

Now, don't be scared.  That may sound intimidating, but it's really not that bad.  Normally when you start off, you'll be given easier tasks and learn a lot of what that gig will require you to know along the way.  At least for unique tools.  But having a general knowledge of making games as a whole makes it that much easier to move forward.  In fact, I would say that at some point early enough in your career, it's vital.  Knowing how a game is made will really help you be smarter about how you make you effects.

"Ok fine. So what skills should I learn?"

If I were to give you a little breakdown of what you should know and in what order, it would be this -

    - Particle editors (try as many different engines that you can your hands on)
    - 3D Modeling (pick your favourite 3d modeler. This is not as important. I use Maya / 3DS Max)
    - Texture illustration (Photoshop skills are a must)
    - Basic rigging & animation (once again - in your favourite game engine)
    - Basic scripting (any coding skills are a massive plus)
    - Think "reuse" first

That's a very high level list. The focus of this post is on getting into VFX. In later posts, I'll talk about more advanced skills like fluid simulation, creating animated texture sheets, shader writing, tools development, profiling, optimization, etc. 

Particle Editors
Learn them.  Learn them all!  Get as many free games engines as you can get your hands on and create the same effect in each one.  To start, make an explosion.  Find a reference on youtube or whatever and break down the different elements within it.  Or just use this - 

3D Modeling
This is important because you'll very often need to create some basic models for your effects where you'll be modifying the shapes, vertex colours and UVs.  This is especially true if you're working on a project with magic-type effects.  As far as apps go, I would stick to the standards - Maya & 3DS Max.

Texture creation
Working in Photoshop will take up a massive chunk of your time at the start of your project.  Illustration skills are a massive plus and painting your textures is up to you, but you'll definitely have to either do that or edit imagery to get the images and masks you need for your effects.

Basic rigging and animation
This goes hand-in-hand with modeling skills but it's lower on the priority list because I've worked on games in my career where no rigging and animation was needed.  But it's still very important to learn.

Basic Scripting
If you really want to get the best out of your effects, it will greatly benefit you to learn scripting flow and writing.  Some engines make this much easier, for example, Unreal has a system called Blueprints  which lets you create logic without necessarily knowing how to code.  Scripting logic into your effects will really take them to the next level. 

The last thing, but arguably most important part of being a VFX artist, is learning to optimize.  Don't put logic where it's not needed, reusing textures as much as possible and learning to profile data within your engine.  With this frame of mind, your effects will be assembled in a much more efficient manner.  The other things is that one day when you end up on a project on your own, you'll thank yourself for being super efficient.

Later in this series, I'll have an effect breakdown where you'll see this all in action.  We'll start with finding a simple reference, break down the elements, simulate our textures along with assembling them into a texture sheet then hopping into Unreal (because I prefer it over the other options) and putting it all together.

That will be the end of the beginner series and then we'll move on bigger and badder projects.  Have fun!

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