What to Expect on Your First VFX Job

Zach and Steve. And some Daleks.

You've got the reel, you've been through the interviews, you've landed the job, and now you're getting ready to start your first day at a VFX studio. This is the dream job you've been working so hard toward, and you desperately want to not screw up. You go through the usual H.R. rigamarole: W-4's, I-9's, here's the break room, have some candy, report to this or that producer. All of that is easy, just like every other job.

Now comes the hard part, the part that is unlike any job you've had before. You sit down at your workstation and log in. Or you try to. Inevitably, something goes wrong when you sign on. Your password hasn't been set, or the software is not installed or misconfigured. Maybe you get all the way into the first shot you're supposed to be working on and get some arcane error message.

Don't panic!

The first lesson is this: You will almost certainly have to call in I.T. for some reason on your first day. Expect to repeat that ritual at every new company you work for. You've already been introduced to a producer or coordinator; that person's job is to make sure you can do yours. Don't feel embarrassed about having to ask them for help; that's what they're there for! Gather what information you can about the problem—write down the error message, do a little troubleshooting on your own (no more than 10 minutes or so) to figure out what might be wrong, and take that information to the producer. They'll find out who can fix the problem and make sure it happens.

At this point, you're expecting to be fired at any moment because you've been there for four hours and haven't even started the work you were assigned. Relax!

The next hurdle again has nothing to do with actually doing the work: You've got to figure out how to use the project management system. At most places, that's going to be Shotgun. I'd love to tell you that once you've learned how to use Shotgun, you're set at every studio you set foot in. Unfortunately, there are a billion ways to configure Shotgun, and every single place I've worked at has had custom applications that interface with it in different fashions. On your first day, though, you don't know that, and you might feel like everyone expects you to already know how to use Shotgun. It's the industry standard, after all!

These are the things you need to know right now:

  • How to find out what you're supposed to do.
  • Where to look for notes on what you've already done.
  • How to let everyone else know that you're done with a task.
  • How to report the time you spent.

Most Shotgun configurations make the first two parts pretty easy. Your dashboard will show you all of the tasks you've been assigned and their current status. Setting a task to "Review," or whatever the status your company is using, will let the coordinators know that you're done, but it won't necessarily alert any artists that are waiting on your work. Make sure to find out how to publish your finished asset, and it's not a bad idea to also find out who's going to be using it.


This is Rodrigo, my first supervising compositor. Super-scary, isn't he?

The senior artists who use your asset can be your greatest allies. If they are happy with your work and find you pleasant to deal with, they're likely to ask you to do more. And as long as you're doing more, you get to keep working and learning! A good supervising artist will make it a point to give you constructive feedback. In the moment they say it, and probably for several days after, it's going to feel like the harshest criticism. "You're a complete fraud and shouldn't be working in this industry! Don't you know you should key the opacity on your rotoshape instead of moving it off-screen!? Look at the huge mess this motion blur is making!" True story. That's exactly how I felt when I got my first professional feedback. I think what he actually said was something to the effect of, "When you're done using a shape, instead of moving it off-screen, just turn it off by keying 21962686the opacity. That way the motion blur won't streak on the shape's last frame." You'll go back to your desk, bemoaning the six hours you just wasted, while the compositor is calmly adding a couple of keyframes and moving on, perfectly happy with your work.

Trust me: if it's wrong, they'll tell you so and ask you to fix it.

Hopefully, you'll be so excited to finally be working in visual effects that the first-day jitters that magnify your every mistake into an epic end-of-the-world screw-up will fade rapidly into dim memory. I know they did for me. I was super-stoked to be working for my #1 choice of studio my very first time at-bat (Zoic, if you're wondering), sitting right next to a piece of the set from Serenity:

This door, or one like it, was donated to Zoic by the production in thanks for their work on Serenity. It is installed between two of the artists' bays.
This door was donated to Zoic by the production in thanks for their work on Serenity. It is installed between two of the artists' bays. Wish I'd gotten a picture of it while I was working there.

The job only lasted a couple of weeks, and, to be honest, the next few gigs were very rocky (thank God for my ex-wife, whose stable, though not glamorous, graphic design job paid the bills for a while.) What I took away from those first few days, though, has made all the difference in the rest of my career.

Now, chances are that your first few jobs are going to be just as short as mine were. You're not going to get time to learn the ins-and-outs on a leisurely schedule. The work will be done, and they'll give you a pat on the back and a promise that the check will be mailed in 30 – 90 days (seriously, if you're 1099, put a late-fee clause on your invoice. NET 30 means payment is due upon receipt with fees beginning after 30 days, not "wait 30 days before you even open this invoice.") So as soon as you start working, take notes on which shots you want to request for your demo reel. This is your first job, so you'll probably want all of them. Find out from your producer how to request the shots, and be fast about asking for them. You might not have the opportunity to come in after your contract is over to pick up a disc. Bring a USB drive with you, ready to receive the data. The machine room operator, or vfx editor, or whoever is responsible for preparing those clips for you is probably the busiest person in the facility, so respect their time, do exactly what they tell you, and be friendly about it!

I could probably write reams more on this topic, but I'll let it go for now. Great job on getting as far as you have! Now be the person you'd love to have sitting next to you, and you'll go far. Remember: all the skill and talent in the world don't mean squat if nobody wants to work with you!

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