After 20 years in the industry, VFX Supervisor Jorge Razon has hired countless visual effects artists. In this article he shares exactly what you should include in your demo reel when applying for VFX jobs.
You'll find some of the most practical VFX demo reel tips out there, plus advice on how to prepare for job interviews and really impress employers in 2021.
Tips for creating an outstanding VFX demo reel:
Even if you are still in school, it’s a good idea to plan ahead. If you've already graduated, then it’s a matter of creating quality content and showing the right material for the VFX jobs you want.
Keep your reels short! It’s OK to have a 45 second to one minute reel when you are starting out. As long as it is good work, it will be noticed.
Have an industry professional look over your reel for feedback. Hand it to one of your instructors to advise on how it looks or what you can do to improve. Shots you may love or have worked hard on may not necessarily be wise to include.
Jorge originally shared the following tips on his website, and they are definitely worth repeating!
For VFX jobs, here's what he believes a perfect junior level reel should include:
If you are a student, keep your reel under 1 minute.
If you have 1 - 2 years experience, keep the reel under 2 minutes.
Include production experience if you have any.
Breakdowns are good, don’t drag it out. 3-4 quick wipes is all you need.
Include breakdown descriptions where applicable.
Use Vimeo, video quality is better than YouTube.
Everything in your reel should be 10/10, do not put mediocre work to fill time.
Keep the music fairly conservative, nobody listens to it anyway.
Watch your reel a lot of times, look for comp, edit, frame or spelling errors.
Get feedback from at least 3 instructors or industry pros before releasing online.
Show reference footage when applicable.
Share your reel with the world via LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.
Almost all schools train students to become generalists. If you are applying for VFX jobs at a small studio with less than 30 artists, they will most likely want generalists. Larger studios will have separate departments.
If you are applying for a specialized position, and want to really impress employers, here's a departmentalized guide for what should be in your reel based on the type of VFX job you're applying for.
Animation demo reel tips:
If you are going for animation positions showcase examples of biped and quadruped creatures along with props in your reel. For props either a car flipping or articulated swords, etc. are good to include. Tailor your reel to the type of studio you’re applying to (i.e. do they specialize in 2D, 3D, live action, etc.?)
The main objective is for your reel to show your understanding of the 12 Principles of Animation (these are taught in the foundations of 3D animation course). Showcase your ability to work with different rigs by showing animation with and without controllers.
Most animation for VFX will involve animating props, not characters. Make sure some of your work is integrated with live action footage (even if it’s not rendered).
In typical VFX shots, animated props are mostly foreground “hero” objects. We choose to animate them in order to get precise object placement, motion and composition.
An ideal animation demo reel should include the following:
Technical and prop animation (animate props being affected or interacting with live action footage)
Character animation (walk cycles, action movements, facial animation and lip sync)
Previz and Camera (shot composition, realistic camera motion)
Mocap cleanup and rotomation (Rotomate live action footage, cleanup and enhance mocap)
This is the one department where it’s ok to show unrendered work in your demo reel. Of course rendered animation always helps sell a shot.
The last 2 items in the list are optional, but they will help your reel stand out when applying for VFX jobs. The most important for an animation reel is showing your ability to animate both characters and props with realistic motions.
The requirement for animators will highly depend on the type of project the studio is working on. SOHO VFX generally keeps at least 5 on staff, and the numbers could easily double if a project requires a lot of animation. Turn over for animation in VFX is fairly low, but there’s always room for that extraordinary animator.
FX / dynamics reel tips:
Students are notorious for posting Houdini tutorials and shelf generated tools in their reels; this has to stop.
Placing a carbon copy of a tutorial in your reel does not prove that you understand the fundamentals of the lesson.
Learn a few tutorials and repurpose them for your own needs. Make sure your work is different from what everyone else is showing.
This is the most common Dynamics / FX work that shows up in feature films:
Procedural effects and instancing - volumes, complex fracturing, geometry scattering, noise driven animation, geometry, growth patterns & other unnatural phenomena (leaves, trees, buildings, snow, bacteria, lightning, force fields, clouds, fog)
Demo reels for VFX jobs should feature some of your effects integrated into live action plates – avoid submitting all effects over black. Maybe you can include a water simulation on black and call it a test, but ensure it is rendered.
When presenting Houdini work make sure you include a breakdown of the work to show you understand the process.
You will get noticed if you include the procedural workflow in Houdini as not many reels have these and they will impress your recruiter with your knowledge of the procedure.
There's a lot to learn in Houdini and you are certainly not expected to know all of it. It’s better to focus on good quality basic simulations than having a lot of mediocre examples.
Simplify and keep your effect subtle. Not everything has to be an epic explosion.
“Research & Development” (R&D) is optional, this can demonstrate your ability to problem-solve and learn on your own. It’s OK to show R&D renders over black. Just ensure you are not simply copying a tutorial.
Make sure you include footage of the live action reference you are matching to such as fire, smoke, snow, dust, destruction etc. Knowing how to light and shade your FX work will help showcase the motion better. Aim to have some of the FX integrated on a live action plate.
Most TV shows and films have plenty of effects ranging from simple dust particles to complex water simulations. The availability for FX artists greatly varies depending on the size of the studio.
Many students and artists are attracted to these kinds of VFX jobs, so expect a lot of competition entering the job market. FX artists that truly understand the fundamentals of procedural thinking / problem solving are still difficult to find.
Matte painting / environment / 2.5D reel tips:
Matte painting is best fitted for an individual with traditional art background and photography.
A good matte painter can save hundreds of hours by photobashing and painting an entire background instead of CG.
In addition, matte painters should also have thorough knowledge in Nuke, modeling and some lighting.
An ideal matte painting reel should include:
Photo real environment and extensions
Compositing and projection mapping
CG paint over
Experience with practical painting and drawing
Matte painters are a vital role in the VFX team. Studios don’t typically have more than a dozen matte painters. The turnover and demand for this role is relatively low.
Compositing reel tips:
The finaling stage of a VFX shot happens in comp. A compositing artist is responsible for many types of integration tasks and they tend to carry the burden of correcting any imperfections coming from other departments.
In order to be an employable compositor, make sure your reel can show a wide array of your skill sets.
The list below shows the most typical work a Nuke compositor might do on a project:
Blue / green screen (hair detail, motion blur, zoomed in picture-in-picture)
Various rotoscope examples (focus change and motion blurred objects, roto layers)
Paint, clean plate and rebuild (wireframe, object / set removal)
Practical element integration & 2d tracking
Projection mapping (eg. signs, buildings, ground)
Sky replacement / matte painting integration
Day for night
Retime to slow motion
The last four in the list in bold are common 2d tasks that almost never show up in demo reels. You don’t need a separate shot for each example, some of these tasks can be merged into one shot.
An essential compositor skill is the ability to pay very close attention to detail. Check all your comps for technical imperfections and zoom into the pixels to make sure everything is integrated properly.
An experienced compositor, supervisor or recruiter can easily spot errors even on compressed online video formats.
When applying specifically for compositing positions, some recruiters may ask how you QC (quality control) your work, so be prepared for this question as it will show your process. Include invisible effects, paint work, removals, wire removals, etc.
Compositing reel example:
Rigging demo reel tips:
There's a lot of responsibility being a rigger for a VFX studio. Riggers are responsible for connecting the supply chain of geometry for every other department in 3d. Riggers typically have ways of scripting repetitive procedures and generally have a technical mind set.
Since the responsibility is steep in this role, most rigging positions are offered to artists with a few years of experience.
A good rigger should have some experience animating, modeling and building a variety of rigs. Most studios are still using Maya for animation rigs.
A rigging reel should include some animation and modeling along with some examples showcasing the list below:
Quadruped and multi-legged rig
Scripting / procedural rigging
The turnover is extremely low for this position.
Lighting reel tips:
Entering a VFX studio will be a bit tough as a junior lighter. Many studios generally keep a small and efficient lighting team.
Most lighting setups for sequences can be propagated and a small team can deal with the entire show. In the last 4 years, Jorge only interviewed a handful of lighters and only hired one. Larger studios with 200+ artists are more likely to hire straight out of school.
Ideal material to have in your lighting reel includes:
Full CG scene
CG integrated with live action
Volumetric / fur / dynamics
Model / texture / shading turntables
There are a lot of different rendering engines. Some of the common ones being used are Arnold, Redshift ,Mantra and 3delight. Pick one and roll with it, you don’t need to know all of them.
These days most lighting uses a combination of HDRI & PBR (Physically Based Rendering). A well integrated CG shot will go a long way, once again focus on quality v.s. quantity. Include a simple breakdown.
Tracking / match move reel tips:
You need to show your ability to track motion from different types of cameras and props. Always include proxy geometry either in wireframe or semi-transparent.
Your tracking / match move reel should have examples of:
Nodal camera motion (rotation only)
Steady camera motion
Handheld / jittery camera
Rigid object tracking
Deforming object tracking
Object tracking and rotomation can be a difficult and time-consuming task. It’s not an absolute requirement but it will help you stand out.
Some large studios are outsourcing tracking and roto, but they still keep a small team in North America. There is still very little competition when it comes to applying for a match-move / tracking position.
Tracking reel example:
Asset developer / model / texture / shading reel tips:
Building 3d assets is the closest task to being a generalist in the 3d department. Most studios will hire one “asset artist” to deal with modeling, texturing and shading.
A few studios still keep those departments separated. Your reel will need to show all a large variety of skills that are now considered the standard for “asset artists”.
Your 3d modeling reel should have examples of:
Realistic props with reference for comparison
Hard surface modeling (eg. props, buildings, vehicles, mechanical parts, weapons)
Mari and Substance Painter workflow (UDIMS & procedural texturing)
Various shading examples (subsurface, translucent, reflective, refractive, weathered)
Turntables from production quality renderer (Renderman / 3delight, Redshift, Arnold)
Set dressing with props (eg. trees, plants, leaves, garbage, low res buildings, rocks, terrain)
There’s a long list of requirements for an asset artist since the scope of work is quite broad. You don’t have to have everything in the list above. The most important part is to show a few “photo real” props with real life picture-in-picture reference.
Don’t get caught up with building extremely complex models such as battleships, boats, cars, trains, and cities. These types of props have many parts and will take too long to model. Most of these types of models are often purchased from a model library anyway. It’s better to focus your time on showing skills that are relevant for production work.
Since modeling is one the first skills students learn, it tends to become the favorite for many as well. Be prepared to compete with a large number of junior artists applying for this position.
If you want your reel to impress the viewer and stand out, include varying materials in your render. Most students tend to forget that objects in the real world have a large variation in shading properties.
In summary, the top demo reel advice for VFX jobs is:
Keep it short
Include your best work and/or technical examples
Get your reel evaluated by a professional (someone who works in the industry and knows what studios are looking for)
Consider making a individual reels for gaming/modeling/texturing
COMPOSITING: QC your own work, include typical comp work (non hero shots)
ANIMATION: Include Biped, Quadruped, Prop, consider the studio (live action or full 3D)
VFX: Integrate on live action, show breakdown of FX and procedural workflow
VFX resume tips
Do you need a resume? Yes!
When applying for VFX jobs, many students and junior artists will just send a link for their reel, says Jorge, who is the VFX Supervisor at SOHO VFX.
Although this is important for showcasing your work, you must also include a resume when applying for VFX jobs. The company will need this for administration purposes to register all your contact details. Also include your location as some companies only hire locally.
VFX artist resumes need to be presented in PDF format as this allows for links to your email, reel, website, etc. Please make sure the links work!
Avoid writing long cover letters, these need to be introductory only. You can refer to work you have done that may relate specifically to the job to make your cover letter stand out, but keep it brief.
Resume tips for visual effects artists:
Send both your resume and reel
Submit your resume as a PDF - not a JPEG or image
Include live links (to your email, reel, website etc) in your resume, and make sure they work!
Include your location: city and province/state
Avoid long cover letters
Some production experience is better than none
For junior positions, include your school/training
Only include jobs outside of the industry if they include transferable or related skills
VFX interview tips
Your demo reel scored you an interview at a VFX studio, great! Now what?
Many interviews are done via video calls (especially since COVID), so make sure you are technically prepared beforehand. Ensure you have the correct software/hardware for the call and test it prior to the interview. It is wise to invest in a webcam and microphone, as you will need these anyway.
Test your equipment and ensure your interview room is well lit. Art direct the space to present yourself in the best way possible.
Do some research on the VFX jobs you are applying for and know what your annual and hourly rate should be (explore job roles and average salaries on our career pathways page).
Be aware that studios and projects all have set budgets, so be flexible and don’t price yourself out of the market.
Job interview tip summary:
Video calls are the most popular now
Get a webcam and microphone - you’ll need them anyway
Ask if interview is on Skype, Zoom, MS Teams (if not clear in the invite), and prep in advance by downloading the latest version and testing it
Test your equipment to ensure everything looks/sounds good: sound, video, lighting
Know what you want both in annual and hourly rate
And finally, good luck!
For more tips on applying for VFX jobs, and to see what it's like to be a VFX Supervisor, check out our webinar with Jorge where he shares breakdowns from shows like Game of Thrones, Umbrella Academy and The Boys.
Need the skills and demo reel to get your dream VFX job?
When not working on hit shows at SOHO FX, Jorge uses his real world experience to get aspiring VFX artists studio-ready faster. Learn more about CG Spectrum's Visual Effects courses course or chat with us about having an industry mentor like Jorge to help launch your career with a polished portfolio and practical job skills.