Foundations of VFX Course: Student review, course work, and advice

Student work: Chris Mackney

7minutes read


Chris Mackney had fifteen years of programming experience under his belt when he began to reevaluate his career path. With a love of films and filmmaking, Chris enrolled in the Foundations of VFX Course to explore and better understand some of the different roles in visual effects—Animation, 3D modeling, and FX—with the goal of getting a job in the industry. He's now working as a Dynamics FX Artist at Soho VFX! 

We asked Chris to review our Foundations of VFX Course for anyone else thinking of starting a career in visual effects.

Hi Chris! Why did you decide to enroll in Foundations of VFX?

Oh boy, this is potentially a long answer with a lifelong story behind it. The short answer is that I was looking for a shift in my career at the time. I was always passionate about film, TV, and games.

I was the type of person who almost found more joy from watching the “behind the scenes” making of the show than the show itself!

With the recent chaos of a worldwide pandemic and some other personal events in my life, I started to seriously look at a career change. I had over fifteen years of programming experience, and I thought more about my future and where I wanted to go. I decided it was time to do something that truly interested me and I was passionate about.

What was your job before studying at CGS?

Before deciding to join CG Spectrum, I was employed full-time for over ten years at a local media production company. I started in a web development role but, over time, moved more into Unreal Engine and VR development as the company transitioned.

Before that, I worked at a couple of different web application development companies after I graduated from college many moons ago.


3D model by Chris, created as part of the Foundations of VFX Course, in term one

You’re now working at SOHO VFX as a Dynamics Artist — can you tell us a bit about your new role?

So I know everyone says this, but working as a Dynamics Artist at SOHO VFX is truly a dream job. My goal from the start was always to be able to work as a VFX artist on large film and TV productions at a studio that was passionate about its work and quality. Working with SOHO VFX made this dream a reality.

My position as a Dynamics Artist is part of a team of people who are responsible for all the simulations you find in a shot or sequence of a show. This can range from things like smoke, dust, fire, explosions, liquids, cloth, and destruction — basically all the really cool stuff!

The Foundations of VFX Course helped provide me with a wide array of skills related to this field. Everything from 3D modeling and 3D animation in Maya to texturing in Substance Painter and simulation FX in Houdini. It gave me a really strong foundation (no pun intended) of the VFX workflow.

In my current position, while I generally only focus on the Houdini side of things, I think it is very important to know the entire process.

Understanding even the basics of modeling, animation, and texturing really helps when you're working in the industry and receive 3D models from the asset team and how to work with them.

Knowing how all these pieces work together really helps when producing believable effects that make it to a final shot in the pipeline. 

Term 1

This is a little animation montage from my first term in the course (Stream A).

Most of my process was trying to follow along as close as possible to the lessons and really try to get a better understanding of the mechanics behind animation.

I would spend lots of time tweaking and re-tweaking parts of the animation until I was happy. After that I would work one-on-one with my highly experienced mentor, Jorge Razon, who is a VFX Supervisor at Soho VFX. At the end of these review sessions, I would go back and refine the animations based on Jorge's feedback.

This was the first time I have ever really animated anything, so I would have to say I gained a whole set of new skills this term!

Even from the first lesson with animating a bouncing ball, I started to understand the basics of animation, such as squash and stretch, path of action, and more.

Navigating the interface in Maya and learning to keyframe and time the animation was also something I started to learn, even from day one.

I think the hardest part here was moving to things a little more advanced (beyond a bouncing ball) and starting to work with humanoid characters. You really had to pay attention to the movements a person made to get the motions and gestures to look natural and believable.

I found reference was key here, whether that was finding something online or even getting up and moving yourself to think about how you actually walked or ran.

My main takeaway from term one was reference, reference, reference!

If you want to animate something that looks real, you need to start with a reference. Don’t just start keyframing and hope for the best, or you will usually end up having to redo everything over again.

Also, always remember to start with blocking in the animation. Work with the larger movements and work your way down to the finer details. You don’t want to get carried away with adjusting something like the fingers until the rest of the larger movements are complete.

From what I remember, term one was really good for an introduction. The course was very easy to follow along.

Advice for students starting term 1

Don’t be afraid to ask questions to your mentor. If you find yourself completing the course ahead of time, try to push yourself to do some additional animations or go beyond the scope of the lesson.

Term 2

The work I want to show for term two is a bit of a cheat because it is technically from the end of term one, but I continued to work on it and go beyond the initial course submission beyond the first term. This piece really turned into my ‘learning’ piece and helped me bridge the gap between term one and term three.

After the initial modeling and texturing were complete, I knew that I wanted to animate it as well. I had always been interested in the technical side of animation and rigging, so I started to learn how to build a skeletal rig in Maya.

I also knew I wanted to create the nice flame effect at some point as well, so I kept coming back to that, trying to learn the best way to do it. I knew SideFX Houdini could most achieve the effect I was after, and I did not want to wait for term three before trying it. I began to work with Houdini to achieve the effect and learned a ton of new things along the way.

I was able to greatly increase my ability to model with Maya and texture with Substance Painter during the creation of this piece.

I also learned a lot of new skills, such as rigging, controls, and expressions within Maya as well as creating effects and rendering within Houdini for the first time. There was also a little bit of compositing I learned with Nuke to take it to the next level.

I think the most challenging part was the flame effect — rendering it to get it looking how I wanted. While getting into Houdini at this stage was new and exciting, it was also very intimidating.

Working away piece-by-piece, looking at examples, and with the support and guidance of my mentor, I was able to achieve the look that I wanted.

The biggest thing I learned from term two was just breaking down each problem and tackling it one step at a time. It can seem impossible to do and learn so much, but just focusing on one thing at a time can be really helpful.

I do recall the animation portion of this semester being a bit difficult to work with, mostly because the reference footage used in the course was not provided. While it does help to learn how to take your own reference, it did make it a bit more difficult to follow along with or find a reference that was not overly complicated.


Advice for students starting term 2

During this term, there is a lot of content to cover when you are doing both the animation and modeling streams at the same time. Remember to plan ahead and budget your time wisely so you can meet the deadlines.

Term 3

For my final term, it was too difficult to choose just one project to share, so I decided to include my entire reel, which includes all my work from term three. All of the work was done by following the tutorials provided in the Introduction to Houdini FX Course, but also coming back to many pieces and updating their final presentation.

I would work through each lesson and try to understand the core concepts as best I could. After several weeks of learning new things, I would go back to my earlier work and update it to make it look more presentable.

I would also go and find additional tutorials online and try to complete those to help improve my knowledge of the program.

This was pretty much full steam Houdini-learning the entire term. I was looking forward to it from the start and was eager to get my hands dirty. The Houdini editor is extremely intimidating at first, but I would slowly start to understand each section of it and how to work with the node editor, as well as each node’s function.

I also spent lots of time learning the Solaris Karma rendering engine of Houdini. Beyond that, I learned how to do some basic compositing and effects with Nuke as well.

The biggest challenge for me was just trying to understand how everything worked in Houdini. It is a fairly complicated but amazing piece of software that almost lets you do anything you can imagine! With that being said, there are a large number of nodes to learn and variables to change to be able to do what you want.

It was a lot of trial and error, and sometimes I had to go back and rewatch portions of the course videos to figure out what option or value I was missing.

While the course videos were well laid out and easy to follow, I found it extremely helpful to take the extra time and go through the documentation and find some additional online resources to dig into more detail or additional features.

The more aspects of Houdini that I learned, the easier it was to understand how all the pieces fit together.

Overall I think the course content for term two was really good. I think some of the videos are due to be updated for the newer versions of Houdini, as well as some quality issues with some of the videos.

Advice for students starting term 3

Really try to push yourself to go beyond the lessons. Houdini is a large and complex program that requires more than just the weekly videos to understand. You could probably spend years learning this software and keep discovering something new.

While Houdini may be intimidating at times, try to take it one step at a time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help on the Slack channel or with your highly experienced mentor.

Thanks for taking the time to review the Foundations of VFX Course, Chris!

Through hard work, applying his existing knowledge to his newly learned VFX skills, and with the support and guidance of Jorge Razon, his industry mentor, Chris created an impressive reel that showcased his passion for visual effects and helped him land a job at Soho VFX in Toronto! Chris' studies at CG Spectrum also helped him narrow down which career path he wanted to take in visual effects.

Do you want to work in visual effects but are undecided about which discipline you want to pursue?

Our Foundations of VFX Course will give you a solid foundation in 3D modeling, animation, and FX, so you can get hands-on practice with each discipline and confidently decide which area you'd like to specialize in. You’ll learn VFX industry-standard software like Maya, Substance Painter, Unreal Engine, Nuke, and Houdini, guided by an experienced VFX artist who's worked on major films and best-selling games.

Build your skills and gain valuable industry insights while you decide which exciting VFX career pathway is right for you!



[more]Read Shoshanah Wall's bio[/more]

Shoshanah has almost a decade of visual effects production experience, coordinating VFX teams in Australia and London. Her credits include Mad Max: Fury Road, Ant-Man, John Wick: Parabellum, Game of Thrones, and Christopher Robin. She now enjoys getting to write about the film and games industry.