FX artist and CG Spectrum Mentor of the Houdini FX courses Kate Xagoraris (Nightmare Alley, The Witcher, Raised by Wolves, Vikings: Valhalla, The Boys) knows that advancing in your career can be challenging. Drawing from personal experience, she shares some excellent advice on how to move up from a junior FX artist to a mid-level FX artist and provides a handy checklist to keep track of how you're progressing in the VFX industry. Read her tips below!
Making the jump from a junior to an intermediate FX artist doesn't happen overnight; you have to prove to yourself and everyone else that you're ready. The following advice is not just for FX artists but also for others in visual effects wishing to move forward to an intermediate level.
How do I know I'm ready to become a mid-level FX artist?
I’ll be honest, most employers will only consider you for an intermediate role if you’ve had at least 3-5 years of CG or visual effects experience. Don’t expect one year of industry experience to go by and a promotion to be offered automatically. So, how do you know when you're ready?
You're on your way from a junior to a mid-level FX artist if you:
Possess a good understanding of VEX. Mids can look at someone else’s code and understand which sections of the code do what. They can diagnose errors in the code and add to it if changes are required.
Have a beginner to intermediate understanding of Python. Around this time, most mid-level FX artists figure out if they want to head into TD work, lead roles, or pipeline work. Mid-level artists also build a lot of HDAs, and Python can come in handy.
Submit work like a pro. When a mid-level FX artist builds an effect, they are expected to include contact sheets of the various layers (labeled correctly) and, if necessary, also submit turntables.
Can problem-solve on your own. Mid-FX artists will be asked to do difficult tasks and be placed on certain bigger builds that are usually assigned to leads but that a lead may not have time to deal with within a certain timeframe. Can work effectively with juniors. Intermediate FX artists often act as the buffers between the lead and the rest of the team. When the lead cannot answer a junior's questions, a mid can help out. So, having a good level of communication helps.
Have been at a VFX studio for over a year. This policy doesn’t apply to all studios. Some studios hire a lot of their mid-level artists externally. But, generally, if a junior has been at a studio longer than a year, they have a stronger chance of being considered an intermediate.
Know the VFX pipeline! Juniors will only move up in a company if they know the visual effects pipeline. It's vital for all artists to be able to successfully and correctly pass their work down to the next stage of production.
What types of effects do intermediate FX artists work on?
Mid-level FX artists get to work on key shots and start to land the bigger effect-centric scenes. They might make any effects that surround the main point of interest in the scene or create character-oriented effects such as Nightcrawler's teleportation effect in X-Men.
X-Men character Nightcrawler's teleportation effect.
A mid-level Fx artist's tasks may also include:
Large-scale water and FLIP simulations.
Large-scale pyro simulations.
Interaction effects between characters and objects in the scene.
Design builds that the junior artists can use in minor shots.
Work with the lead to make sure their builds are consistent with other effects in the scene.
They are often the “buddies” of artists joining the studio. They will help them learn the pipeline and answer any questions.
What might be holding me back from moving up as an FX artist?
If you are asking yourself, "Why haven’t I been promoted yet?" this section might be for you.
I find that the main thing companies look at when promoting people is how they fit into their team. Being a good team player is important.
You can think of having the mid-level title as “assistant to the lead,” “lead in training,” or even “TD in training” because this is what the role should be. When you are an Intermediate artist, you must demonstrate that you know the basics, and you need to start specializing. If you don’t know the basics of FX or CG in general, you will really suffer in this role.
You also need to be able to communicate effectively with other departments along with your HOD, FX supervisor and leads. If your communication isn’t up to par, then you might be overlooked to move up from a junior position.
If you want to improve your communication, it can be helpful to review your past emails and messages to your teammates and senior team members to see how you could improve.
VFX studios need artists that can follow creative direction and stick to a theme. They need artists who are reliable and will be able to match their client’s vision correctly.
If you want to practice and get better at following different themes before moving up to a mid, you might have to create some side projects for yourself. I recommend Googling a few images, or generating some from Midjourney and then start building an effect based on that image.
A common trait among junior artists is that they tend to make a lot of versions of their work — re-dailying their work every time they make a change to it. This can create an overwhelming amount of slap-comps and renders for the leads and HODs to review. Not only that, but most of the work gets sent back because more changes to it need to be made.
Creating lots of dailies wastes everyone's time. If you want to get out of this process, you need to slow down your approach to things. Review your work more, ask for more feedback on box (on your computer, before dailying it) from people on your team, or even ask for more reference for your effect.
Kate has worked on some impressive FX on some big titles as a mid-level FX artist.
Do age and gender impact whether or not I get promoted?
I had someone quite close to me suggest that my gender and age would not be in my favor if I wanted to move up the ladder — that people would assume my level of experience based on how old I was.
I found this generalization a bit offensive at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they might have a point. For example, if you are like me, and the school crossing guard outside your work regularly mistakes you for a high school girl, maybe that would impact my chances of a promotion. The question is: is being younger going to help or hinder your career progression?
So I researched the heck out of this, and the findings were pretty interesting. (None of the studies I found were specific to VFX, but I think they give a pretty good baseline of what can happen.)
Studies suggest that younger employees experience shorter promotion times than older workers. What this means is that most employers want to promote younger workers, seeing them as a longer-term investment and that they have the ability to learn tasks quickly. On average, employers will overlook older workers for promotions, seeing them as “old-school” and less flexible in their lives. Or they might cost more.
In a 2017 paper, researchers also noticed a difference in how women were treated past the age of 40 in the workplace. They found out that employers often viewed them as less energetic and/or lacking ambition.
These generalizations are incorrect. Companies that hire older workers actually have a greater chance of creating a better work environment. There are a lot of studies out there to suggest that older employees are the most productive and have the highest levels of commitment and loyalty to their jobs. There is also no evidence to suggest they cannot be trained in new ideas and methods.
In a 2008-2009 study, researchers found out that regardless of age, if you can maintain a self-relevant positive image, it improves your promotion chances.
There are several studios I’ve worked at where 90 percent of the workers in the FX department were under the age of 40. It’s pretty much an open secret in VFX that you don’t see a lot of people in the industry over the five-year experience mark. Burnout strikes fast, and the older you are, the less likely you are to tolerate it. We need better inclusion tactics in VFX for our experienced VFX veterans and to look after the mental health of VFX artists in general.
Also for this article, I wanted to see if ageism was also applicable to People of Color when it came to promotions. However, the lack of research out there was very disappointing.
Men are promoted more often than women. Women also have shorter survival times to promotion than men. Wondering what “survival time” means? Basically, it means that women have a shorter window of opportunity for being promoted than men, based on their age. This could be because the older a woman is, the greater the assumption she has kids or will want to have them in the near future. There are also assumptions that women will have to take more time off than men health-wise.
For the same reasons, women who receive promotions tend to be younger. The opposite is true for men, which is also because women are commonly underrepresented in senior roles.
This is why career equity matters! Without career equity, we can’t all get equal pay.
How to support more diversity in VFX
There are some methods to help combat ageism in your VFX studio. The first step to a more equitable industry is education and keeping an open mind.
The next is that companies have to create better levels of age, gender, and ethnicity diversity through their ranks. Companies also need to allow for better flexible working options (remote working since COVID-19 has helped with this).
What happens if I don't get the FX promotion?
Unfortunately, you won't always get that promotion. Maybe you're not ready, or perhaps the timing isn't right (e.g., the studio already just externally hired some new mid-level FX artists or budgeting issues).
The first thing you should do is to ask for feedback on how you can improve as an FX artist and what skills you should focus on to allow you to move up to an intermediate level at some point down the track.
Then take that feedback on board and give it your all!
If you still feel confident you are ready for a promotion but find yourself overlooked for promotions multiple times, it might be time to leave that studio. Leaving can be hard, especially when you've forged good relationships with your team, but sometimes it's the best way to gain more experience. And if they like you, you can always come back.
Junior to mid-level FX artist checklist
When should you move up the ladder? It can be sometimes hard to judge yourself when you are surrounded by more senior artists in your studio or in a fast-paced environment.
Here's a checklist to help check how you're tracking as an FX artist:
When you start on a complex build, do you reach for Wrangles over VOPs?
Does diving into multiple directories to access correct file paths bother you?
Have you started to make cheat ways of remembering builds and reusing files?
Are you starting to be asked to build HDAs?
Are you gaining an interest in the VFX pipeline?
Are basic particle and pyro effects starting to be too easy?
Can you communicate effectively with other artists on your team — both giving and receiving information?
Do you feel like you are creating more interesting effects? Can you pinpoint the ways in which that creativity improving?
Have more of your effects in the past year been designed by you rather than coming from a build of another artist?
Do you take feedback on board and handle constructive criticism well?
Are you willing to put time aside to build more complex shots and diagnose issues?
Are you finding more difficult tasks easier (and perhaps even enjoyable!) to problem-solve?
Is your motivation to move up more based on wanting to improve as an artist and push yourself further over getting a bigger paycheque?
Can you use Nuke to create slap-comps correctly?
How is your communication with the lighting department? How many publishes this past year have you had to redo because of an error?
The more times you answered "yes" to the above questions, the more likely you're ready to move up to a mid-level FX artist!
Chat with your HOD, production manager, or department overseer to discuss your career options. And remember, make sure you come prepared for the conversation. You should be able to provide them with sound reasons as to why you believe you're ready to move up in the ranks as an FX artist.
Led by FX experts with studio experience (like Kate!) who understand the challenges of breaking into and moving up in a competitive industry first-hand, our career-focused Houdini FX courses teach you the soft and hard skills VFX studios are hiring for while also including portfolio support and additional career services.
Gain the skills and confidence to move up from a junior to a mid-level FX artist with CG Spectrum.
Kate Xagoraris is an FX artist working for a visual effects company in Canada called SPIN VFX. She's worked on projects including Nightmare Alley, The Witcher, Raised by Wolves, Vikings: Valhalla, and The Boys. She also runs a popular science and visual effects site called More VFX Help.
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