Want to Break into Visual Effects? 9 Tips from Pioneering VFX Artists

The VFX industry has exploded over the past few decades -- going from a very specialized, somewhat obscure, corner of the filmmaking industry to one of its most important high-profile sectors.  It seems like every movie and tv show these days requires VFX of some kind.  Are you one of those folks looking to bring fantastic never before seen screen characters/worlds/sequences to life?  Well, here's some advice from the folks behind some of the great pioneering VFX in recent film history -- from Star Wars to Terminator 2: Judgment Day to Jurassic Park and AvatarDennis Muren, Phil Tippett and John Rosengrant have watched the industry transform more than once, and here's what they advise anyone looking to break into visual effects today:

For the full tips, check out the entire Movieline article here.  One of the tips that struck me:

1. Learn about the filmmaking process from a director's perspective. This means make your own movies!

Muren: "Study art, photography, nature because you want to have ideas for full shots in your head. Not parts of shots but the whole finished thing, even though you may not be [responsible] for all of that.You want to understand to the filmmaking process from the point of view of the director -- even if you want to do special effects."

Tippett: "I would encourage that -- an art and film history background. And there's no excuse for not making your own movie. You'll learn so much if you just come up with a little story that has a beginning, middle and an end. If you commit to doing it, you'll learn so much more by doing that than most people going to school."

One of the great things about wanting to get involved with movies today is that anyone, regardless of their interests, can pick up easily available equipment and make a short movie.  You can get a taste for each part of the movie making process, learning how it all comes together while getting a better sense of which roles suit you best.  More importantly, beyond the nuts and bolts of movie-making, by trying your hand at a short film you will understand the importance of story, and how everything you do either adds or subtracts from the story.

I also found it interesting that the tips don't focus on any given technology, software or tool -- these guys have been around long enough to know that these are all transient things.  It's pretty much summed up in tip #9 ("Get ready to continually adapt.").  What's important is your ability to know how those tools can enhance the project you're working on.

Are you looking to break into VFX?  Which tips strike you?  What seems to be the most daunting aspect about that industry?

[via FilmmakerIQ]

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Most daunting for me would be actually achieving the effect.

You have to learn how to use a program, then plugins inside that program, then have a sound knowledge of the settings inside that plugin - from there things go downhill. Render settings confuse everyone, as does lighting, motion tracking, modelling and animating.

But mainly I'm talking about 3D software. An explosion would take an hour for someone to achieve, even with a fairly decent knowledge of the programs basic functions.

After-effects on the other hand is a bit less complex. If you know how to use masks, manipulate video layers and use plugins/effects you can really do a lot in it.

June 16, 2012 at 5:10PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think anyone managing an explosion from scratch with 3D CGI in an hour would be very pleased with themselves, even if they happen to be an expert!

With 3D, you basically have to accept that it's hard, that there's a lot to learn, and the learning curve is steep. The terminology is unfamiliar and often different from the compositing world. But one thing I will say -- it's huge fun and extremely satisfying when your shot works.

June 17, 2012 at 8:44AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

You voted '+1'.

That 1) point is key. In the Peter Jackson, a Filmmaker's Journey, when he's finishing off his first film in his parents garage and an artist friend is helping him prepare a cracked skull prop for tomorrow's shooting, he stopped his friend who was doing a detailed, meticulous job of painting and just did a couple of broad strokes himself, explaining that the shot wouldn't require more detail than that.

Visual effects is a magic trick; you don't create reality, you create the appearance of reality. Look closely at the Dinos in Jurassic Park, or T1000. The more you scrutinise them the farther from reality they actually seem, but because those images hit you hard with the semblance of reality and perfectly suit the story, it doesn't matter. And that is because, in the words of the immortal Stan Winston: 'art never dies'.

I was watching The Labyrinth on a big beautiful rep house screen yesterday and all that stuff holds up because the artistry is of the highest caliber, even though the technology is completely superseded. It just works.

June 16, 2012 at 7:21PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I have always been a bigger fan of practical effects. Along with the marriage of other said visual effects. I 'm not sure other than $$ why more practical effects aren't used. On smaller levels to larger levels. CGI blood still looks beyond dumb in most cases. I saw a scene in a movie the other day where they had CGI blood on a bed. What the Hell?? Just dump some syrup on that shizzz man. my God, probably took 2 times the amount of Time and $$.

June 17, 2012 at 7:54AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Thats because directors and producers are often too lazy and they end up paying for it later. I know this too well.. there is so much poor management and mis-spending in the film industry when mega bucks are concerned.

June 18, 2012 at 3:24AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I work in more technical role for a major visual effects company for the past 7 years. I think "the most daunting aspect" of the industry is that it's seemingly a race to the bottom. The "Hollywood" jobs are all moving to Vancouver, England, Oz and India. And at a much lower rate. We have seen shows in the past that have attempted to create and disband small teams focused on VFX for that specific show's use. It's not there yet, however in the future I see VFX being handled by a half dozen or dozen well paid nerds that are on contract for a year. Then they're on to the next thing.

Re: seth and Dom's post, it's not so much that they're lazy. It's just nice to have options later. It's funny how often shows will operate on the "we'll fix it in post" mentality. As an indie filmmaker I find it astonishing that you can start a film without having a completed script. I guess it works... in that they still make money. It's my personal impression that we're seeing higher quality films in the form of animated movies because of the slower, consistent production schedule. Maybe us practical filmmakers should take a cue from the animation workflow and go back to actually focusing on the script (what really matters) and do a little storyboarding. But I digress.

June 19, 2012 at 11:42AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This is just one tip where are the others? would be great if I can get some reference books for beginners who have just started working on visual effects

June 21, 2012 at 10:16PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM