When you're just starting out as an FX artist, there are a lot of new things to learn, and we're not just talking about the complexities of SideFX Houdini! Navigating the ins and outs of VFX studio life can be tricky at first.
When CG Spectrum Mentor and FX Artist at Spin VFX Kate Xagoraris first entered the VFX industry, she noticed this too. So she decided to write a comprehensive blog post on her website filled with excellent advice for junior FX artists just starting out.
In her article, Kate covers the types of FX tasks a junior should expect to be working on, managing burnout, negotiating salary and raises, render farm etiquette, the importance of teamwork, moving on from a studio, and more!
Industry advice for junior FX artists
I’ve been reflecting on when I first entered the VFX industry. It’s been almost four years of making mistakes and learning valuable lessons from them.
Here are some basic tips and tricks for junior FX artists entering a VFX studio for the first time. As well as navigating the industry, I will be trying to keep pipeline-specific things aside because the first rule of the VFX industry is don’t break your NDA and be respectful towards the studio you are currently working at.
What FX tasks will I be working on as a junior artist?
I find that every junior FX artist is different in how they approach problems or build effects. Some adjust to the VFX industry faster while some take a bit longer to settle in. (This can also depend on the studio you are in.)
There will always be a few months at the start of your career where you will be given an easy FX task to test your skill level. This is standard procedure. It not only allows your department managers to see how you can best help the team but also gives you time to adjust to the pipeline.
Even though it would be awesome to work on complex shots straight away, it’s not practical. Think about it—you are in a new and unfamiliar working environment, trying to fit in as much as possible, both socially and work-wise. Would it be easier to properly demonstrate your skill level once you’ve fully settled in, or in a stressful learn-everything-all-at-once scenario?
It takes roughly 3-4 months to fully adjust to a studio’s VFX pipeline.
A studio's VFX pipeline contains all their custom in-house tools and publishing methods, and steps for pushing a production through each department. It’s the most complex part of working in a studio and is vital to learn.
Typical first-year tasks of a junior FX artist:
Dust, particles, and debris
Small RBD sims
Populate effects that are created by lead artists in shots
Work with premade builds
Small-scale pyro simulations
Minor vellum effects
Should I continue learning Houdini now that I have a job?
The answer is a resounding YES. If you want to become a better artist and keep up to date with the latest tools, then you need to keep learning to evolve along with relevant software and techniques.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from being a junior is to never stop learning.
The exciting (but challenging) part of the VFX industry is how dynamic it is—always producing new methods of creating and visualizing art. As artists, we need to remain aware of the changing landscape of the world and look for ways we can fit in.
Keep on top of Houdini updates Keeping up-to-date with the latest versions of Houdini will help you better understand the tool shortcuts and the latest SOPs and improvements to simulation and lighting integration.
Avalanche FX by Houdini FX Course grad Ivan B
Watching tutorials and masterclasses always helps. You don’t have to watch them every day but I find studying a few (1-5) tutorials a month in your first three years of the industry really helps.
Learning outside of the studio helps keeps your skill levels up with some of the tools you might not have had the chance to use at work yet, and lets you choose what you’d like to build.
A lot of studios are using Houdini in their workflows and not just for FX. Houdini is also used by lighting artists, layout artists, and 3D modelers. So if you need to keep or find a place on your team, Houdini might be the best tool to look into.
Find and nurture interests outside of work You cannot, and should not, learn everything at work. You need to learn and grow beyond your day job—hobbies, exercise, really anything! You don’t want your entire personality to become “VFX”.
If you really want to grow as a person, find something weird that interests you, and bring that experience into the office (but please keep it PG!). For example, I know a person who collects alien figurines and another who likes to go on random camping adventures. Outside interests help you take a break from work. Often, the knowledge you gain from outside activities and interests can actually end up being useful in your work.
Participate in company training events Every studio has different methods and resources for training artists; some are better than others.
Ask about training opportunities—they will not only aid you in learning more about other departments and your own skill level but will also help you build bonds with your team members.
70% of your job is going to be working with assets from other departments, so learning about them is always a plus. And if you need to learn to problem solve fast, befriend a lighting artist—they are great problem solvers.
I need a challenge…how should I ask for harder work?
If you reach a point where you’re looking for a challenge, great work!
What FX tasks to ask for If you feel like you've been creating the same effect for a while and need something new, ask for it. Talk to your department manager and explain the situation politely, making suggestions on what you’d like to do next. For example, if you have been working on rain simulations for the past four months, request a task that doesn’t involve particles so you can level up your experience with a different set of solvers and tools.
Try and ask for small effects that will give you access to experiment with every simulation type in Houdini. And remember to be reasonable with your request; don’t ask for hugely complex shots with multiple elements.
Who to ask for harder FX tasks Depending on the size of the studio, you might not have a HOD (head of department) or department manager, so you might have to reach out to your production manager or coordinator on your show instead. As they oversee the schedule and every artist’s tasks, they will have a good idea of the level of work that is coming down the pipeline and what you might be able to help out with.
Since you are a junior, production may be unsure of what tasks to assign you because they don’t usually have detailed Houdini knowledge. If they assign you a shot that is over or under your skill level, just explain the situation to them.
Falling teleportation FX by CGS Houdini FX course graduate Taras S
Render farm etiquette (and how to be a team player)
Speaking from experience, the render farm being slow is the one thing all departments can agree on. Everyone fights for space to get their work rendered, cached, or published through it, which can lead to major hold-ups in a project.
The render farm will be one of your biggest roadblocks as an FX artist. When I was a junior, I was working at a studio where they made the mistake of teaching juniors how to boost renders on the farm. This doesn’t sound like a major issue on paper but just imagine this: a bunch of inexperienced juniors still learning what VFX is, still learning how to optimize their builds, who suddenly have god-level access over the most important tool in the building. Things happened that I’m still not proud of. But I also didn’t know better. This is how you don’t make friends.
Moral of the story: If you need something to render faster, let production know, and they will prioritize your tasks for you when required.
Render farm tips for FX artists to make your outputs happen faster:
If you are working with high-resolution volumes, render half-resolution.
Delete any attributes and groups on your simulation that you don’t need before submitting your render.
Cache everything out to disk before rendering.
Optimize your render settings. If you are not rendering volumes, turn off your volume quality settings.
Render everything as separate passes.
Use mattes and holdouts if possible.
Over half of the publishes you make as a junior will require some fixes unless you are paying close attention to what lighting needs.
Publishes are the alembics or VDBs you send over to the lighting department to render. As an FX artist, you will interact with lighting artists the most. After that, it will probably be compositors. If you publish something wrong to lighting, they will most likely contact you directly or reach out to your production manager or coordinator.
Publishing advice to keep the lighting department happy:
Don’t delete your UV attributes. Otherwise, none of the textures will work.
Don’t delete your path attributes. Otherwise, you will have the same issue listed above.
Delete any attributes you don’t need. Some attributes Houdini generates conflict with attributes your lighting department has to render. So generally, only keep your velocity, UV, mat, path, ID, and alpha attributes unless otherwise stated.
Delete any groups you aren’t using anymore. If lighting and compositing don’t need it, then you don’t either.
Maintain constant communication with the lighting department. If you talk to them, you will learn things. The more communication between departments, the better the publishing tools and methods that will be developed.
The best part about publishing something wrong is learning how to fix it.
The more issues you can isolate, locate, solve, and understand, the more likely you’ll be able to flag pipeline problems, which helps the entire department and increases your value on the team.
How much does an FX artist earn?
Am I being paid enough? is a common question artists ask themselves throughout their careers. Below is a list of average salary ranges for FX artists working in Canada that might help you when negotiating your first salary.
Junior: $45k-65K Intermediate: $65k-80k Senior: $80k-120k ; (120+ in B.C) Lead: $80k-120k (120+ in B.C) Supervisor: $100k+ (supervisors don’t have a limit)
Keep in mind that these figures were given to me a few years ago by a supervisor, so it does not account for inflation. If you were to increase the ranges on an average to $10-15K, I don’t think that would be much of an issue.
For more salary information, check out the Salty Animators spreadsheet, where VFX artists anonymously submit what they earn to help create a more transparent industry, there is also a great thread on Reddit about VFX salaries. For those who identify as female or non-binary, keep in mind there is a gender pay gap in our industry. (The link provided accounts for the average pay gap in the UK but still contains useful information no matter where you’re located.)
Asking for a raise as an FX artist If you think you deserve a raise, the first thing to do is to approach your department manager and request a one-on-one meeting. Let them know the topic of the conversation, and then prepare what you’d like to say beforehand.
I find if you can come up with a bullet point list of all the topics you wish to talk about, you’ll be able to say exactly what you need to say. Next to these bullet points, include everything you need to say to prove your points. For more tips on negotiation, check out the Animstate website.
Sea giant water sim FX by CGS Houdini FX course grad Urko G
Some important points to remember about salaries as an FX artist:
Depending on their size and scope of work, not all studios have huge budgets. Keep that in mind if they are really trying their best to give you something.
Figure out a salary range that will cover your expenses, rent, loans, debts, future plans for the year, and if you possibly get sick.
What would be the amount you could live on and have the best of both worlds when it comes to the cost of living and having a social life?
Consider the strengths you bring to the team. What would be missing if you left?
Some people use offers they get from other companies as leverage. This shouldn’t be the preferred route, but can sometimes help.
Burnout is one of the hardest aspects of a VFX artist's career and is, unfortunately, a reasonably common occurrence.
How to recognize burnout Speaking from experience, burnout will feel like a constant form of anxiety. You’ll have anxiety spikes for little or no reason, and when you open up projects outside of work. You might start avoiding certain tasks because they seem too mentally exhausting, and you also may become moody or impatient in social situations. It’s super hard to learn when to walk away, but you have to do it. Otherwise, you’ll stop loving your job.
Tackling burnout The easiest way to make sure you don't get burnt out is to ensure you have some time to yourself. Use your allocated vacation time to take a proper break from VFX. This sounds like a very basic thing but it needs to be said. A lot of artists like to save it for a “super long vacation I’ll totally take in the future.” Some artists do follow through with that, but many don’t.
One suggestion to avoid burnout is to use your vacation days so that you have one long weekend every month. This way, you have something to look forward to on a monthly basis!
This method really helps if you know that your year will be back to back with important productions and you can’t afford to take a long vacation. Plus, if you have a partner, you can schedule your day off with them.
My second tip regarding burnout is to not have more than three personal projects going on outside of work because it’s mostly unsustainable. You can probably last a few months with more, but after a while, you’ll be super exhausted.
Now let’s say you need to have a break. It’s totally ok to step away from everything. There is a reason why it can be difficult to find industry artists who’ve been working for five or more years—VFX can be intense. I personally know friends who have taken two or more months off before finding a new job. The main thing you need to keep in mind is that your mental health comes first.
Remember: you don't owe a company anything. They may have given you your first job in the industry, they may have given you awesome shots for your showreel, and they might have given you free food for OT (overtime), but they need good artists to be a successful company, which is why they hired you. At the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself first. Studios can look after themselves just fine, so make sure you do the same.
Taking time out between jobs If you are moving to a new studio, it’s important to take some time to process any bad experiences (or take time to relax from any great ones!).
First impressions matter, so if you aren't in the best state of mind when entering a new workspace, you aren’t going to make the best impression.
Some artists, if they’re exhausted, will leave soon after a production wraps and take a month and a half off to recharge. This gives them vacation time while they wait for their shots to be released for their showreel. Then they are in the best form and state of mind to start a new gig.
Kate Xagoraris' impressive FX showreel
When and how to leave a VFX studio
Throughout different stages of your career, you may feel like you’ve reached your peak of learning new information, or perhaps you feel you've become typecast for certain effects or shots. Boredom and frustration will commonly follow.
Talking to management The best thing to do is to talk to your HOD (head of department) or production manager to see if you can be assigned harder shots and explain what you would like to try next. If the work continues to be something you are not looking for, it might be time to move on. It’s better to leave on a good note rather than being sour and complaining about how things could be better.
When is the best time to leave a studio? Ideally, it’s better to leave after a production has wrapped. Sometimes, artists time their exits when most of their show shots will be released to them (to add to their showreels). Keep in mind it takes a few months before studios and production companies allow artists to receive their work.
Leaving before a show has wrapped Now, let’s say, for whatever reason, you aren’t in a safe space and need to get out fast. Unfortunately, this can happen. I’ve been at a few places myself where it was more or less an unhealthy “boys club,” and, looking back, it also wasn’t just the women who were impacted. Although becoming less common, some bad work environments still exist, and when you enter one, it can be difficult to know how to navigate them.
If this is the case, I recommend leaving when you know you have around 2-5 shots approved for final, so you’ll work to add to your reel. Even if you have to wait for those shots in the future, you’ll have the security to know they are waiting for you. In the meantime, discretely look around for other jobs (don’t be loud and proud about it).
When leaving a VFX studio, don’t be afraid to do these two things:
Thank the people who matter and those who have helped you. Saying thank you matters. VFX artists don’t get a lot of credit or thank-yous throughout their careers. Telling someone that they did a fantastic job really makes them feel more secure that their work did matter. Plus, it's a great way to maintain the connections you just made.
Request an exit interview. Feedback is important. Some companies make exit interviews optional or just assume artists will ask for them on their way out. I recommend that you always make sure you have one. No one can fix a problem that they aren’t aware of. It’s your last chance to bring forward an issue and keep in contact with the HR team that might want you back in the future.
Communication is always the best tool to document and work with problems that might be devastating to a studio and to help make your time at work more enjoyable as a junior FX artist.
For more helpful VFX advice from Kate, watch The CG Spectrum Podcast episode featuring Kate (above), check out her website, and follow her on LinkedIn.
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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.