My job explained: Visual effects artist

Dave Lieberman reveals the solid skills you need to conjure up illusions on the silver screen...

Can you tell us a bit about your job?
I work as a 2D visual effects artist at Prime Focus Film London. Specifically my role is that of a compositor but in this job I primarily work as a stereo conversion artist. This involves converting films which were shot with one camera (2D) into stereoscopic films (with 3D glasses) in post production. 
Can you describe a typical working day?
A typical working day can start around 9.30-10am and end any time between 6.30pm and as late as 4am sometimes. Film work is organized but can be unpredictable due to faults, issues, clients changing their minds.
Why did you choose to go into visual effects?
I always had a love for the moving image and used to mess around on Photoshop with digital photos as early as 14. It’s only later on that I realized there is a role (compositing) which comprises of both technical and artistic elements which suits my style and abilities.

The visual effects industry is also extremely laid back. You are not judged by how you are dressed and what you’re into - you are simply judged on your ability to finish a shot in time and well. Bosses speak to you on a level and although you sometimes have to work very long hours you work hard and play hard.
What qualifications do you have?
I did a two year HND in Multimedia. This gave me the option to complete a BA in the third year but by then I knew I want to get into a more specific animation role so I joined a Digital Animation BA and was allowed to jump straight onto the second year due to the fact I had my HND. I didn’t find the degree teaching to be industry standard and was left doing a completely unrelated job for a year after I graduated. After a year of being slightly disillusioned I joined Escape Studios to do a three month intensive programme in Digital Compositing. There is no qualification but qualifications aren’t particularly important in our industry - if you’re 18 and can do the job better than a 30 year old with a BA and Masters you will most likely get the job instead of him. Escape Studios was expensive but gave me the latest industry standard teachings from highly experienced artists who have worked in all the biggest visual effects houses. They also sent me straight to work literally a day after completing the course as they are affiliated with all the large post houses in the UK and abroad.
What other skills do you need?
Language, communication and managerial skills help if you want to move up the ladder quickly and eventually supervise.
What’s the best bit of your job?
The laid back atmosphere at work.
What’s the most challenging bit of your job?
Keeping up with new technology and the competition. Young people are joining the industry in an alarming rate and its becoming easier and easier to learn the material at home rather than study or move up the ranks at work. There are now online schools, free tutorials, and software is easily attainable.
Was it hard to get your first job?
My first long term contract was very hard to get and I was lucky. Most people in visual effects freelance from project to project so I am extremely lucky to be in a permanent position with a staff contract at Prime Focus.
What advice would you have for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
The best advice for someone who is already familiar with the VFX world or even just have basic skills with Photoshop would be to join a professional school or studio to learn the material. I don’t believe many universities have the adequate technology and staff to be teaching you industry standard visual effects. This industry moves, changes and develops extremely quickly and universities just can’t keep up. Gnomon in America is great and Escape Studios in London is excellent but there are many other private studios, just do your research and always check with people who have experience on forums such as VFXTALK.

Your other option is to join any large studio in Soho such as Prime Focus, The Mill, MPC, Dneg, or Framestore as a runner. Many of the top artists in Soho today started off as runners and being a runner allows you to understand the workings of the company from the bottom up. If you are a good communicator and a fun person you will make friends in no time, and certain artists and supervisors will let you do some free work after your shift. Do that for a few months and you’ll see that first low pay offer come in. From that point onwards you will just get more work, more pay, and more experience.
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