Search form

The Career Coach: Jobs In A Visual Effects House -- Defined

Part One of a three-part series that describes the steps involved in different specialties of visual effects production, the specific skills required for each specialty as well as what the studios are looking for in a portfolio and demo reel.

pam.gif Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

There are two major conferences for animation happening next month: The World Animation Celebration (August 7-12) in Hollywood and SIGGRAPH (August 12-17) at the Los Angeles Convention Center.Visual effects companies will be recruiting at these conferences. You may want a job at one of these companies, but you have no idea what the jobs are.

The next three articles in Career Coach will describe the specific sequence of steps in any visual effects shot using computer graphics--modeling, skeleton/bones/set-up, texturing, animation, lighting, and compositing/rendering. If you are skilled or talented in three or more of these areas you may want to consider a job with a smaller company that uses generalists. You'll have an opportunity to do many different jobs. If you are a specialist, you'll probably be happier at a larger company where you will do one specific job and develop a specific skill set that you do well.

These articles will show you what is involved in each of these steps, along with the corresponding skills required. You will also find out what the studio wants to see in a portfolio and demo reel from CG applicants for each specialty.

If you are planning to attend either WAC or SIGGRAPH or both, check out the Websites to find out which companies will be recruiting at the conferences. It's a good idea to send your materials to these companies as soon as possible, before the shows, as companies get swamped with applicants during the conferences. They will have more time to review your work before the show. If they like what they see, you may be given an opportunity to interview with company representatives at the show.

Many American studios have the same basic requirements for submissions: a reel in VHS NTSC format, a resume, a cover letter specifying your area of interest, samples of traditional work and a demo reel breakdown. A demo reel breakdown identifying your responsibility on each sequence and shot, along with the software used (if applicable), must be included.

Demo Reel Breakdown Example: Shot 1: Witch Melting -- animated the witch melting using Softimage; modeled the witch and the scarecrow using Maya; created the textures on the scarecrow using Photoshop.

This month you will learn about modeling and skeleton/bones/set-up.


In 2D animation, the first step in the process is prop, character and background design. In 3D computer animation this is called modeling. A model is a virtual object that is created, colored, textured and animated using computer graphicsModelers are responsible for creating complex, organic models needed for character animation, prop elements for effects, and virtual sets for layout. Modelers must build models that are high quality, efficient to render, and easy to animate.

The model begins as a series of lines called a wireframe that outlines the shape of the object. These wireframes communicate just the basics about the 3D object to come. While incomplete, these transitional illustrations have the benefits of being easy and quick for the computer to calculate and manipulate. The elementary shapes of 3D objects can be quickly rotated in space and viewed from different angles.

Skill set: Know how to sculpt--how to model things in the real world. Know how to draw.A background in art, design, architecture or film is a plus. Some general animation skills are needed for character modeling and testing.

Portfolio tips: Reality is key. If it is a horse it should look like a horse. Show a sense of proportion and detail unless you're going for a stylized cartoon look. Wireframes of models show how efficient you are as a modeler. Include low-poly work if you want to get into games. Include a hard copy or video output of digital models, photographs of traditional sculptures or models, a drawing portfolio of model designs and sketches and life drawing. Your portfolio should show you understand modeling methods, know how to build true shapes and forms, and how to use shaders and textures to add detail. An ability to paint textures is a plus.


After the character model is created as a wireframe, the model must be given a skeleton or bones. Once the skeleton is established, the scope or limitations of movement must be specified by selecting the locations and types of joints. These selections are known as "controls." Controls define the way a character's limbs or an object's parts can move. This work is done by an animation or character set-up technical director (TD), (which is also sometimes called a character engineer or motion technical director). Character set-up TDs work directly with character animators and modelers to define and create the controls that will help the animator create a realistic, convincing performance. This job requires an understanding of animation principles and strong technical problem-solving skills.

The character set-up TD will also optimize repeatable processes through scripts and macros and assist in developing custom set-ups for a job based on studio production standards. Character set-up TDS also program or set-up deformation tools to create the muscle movement that happens when joints flex.

Skill set: Know how the body moves and works and know where and how the joints rotate. Know the many types of joints: ball and socket, hinge, saddle, ellipsoid, pivot and gliding. Understand deformation issues such as how muscles properly animate. Some companies prefer you to have experience with motion capture or motion control and data conversion experience.

Demo Reel Tips: Examples of work showing computer animation and organic modeling are important in a portfolio for this area. Show your solid understanding of anatomy and skeletal issues and your expertise in computer animation and character design.

In the next two months you will learn about the other steps in any visual effects shot using computer graphics--texturing, animation, lighting, and compositing/rendering.

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a career coach/mentor for hire/recruiter and management consultant.She produced the world-famous Career Boot Camp for computer animation and is a frequent speaker at trade shows, seminars, and colleges. She will be speaking at the World Animation Celebration ( on Wednesday, August 8 at the Career Seminar at 10:45 am and at SIGGRAPH ( on Thursday, August 16 at 10:15 am in Room 502B.