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

Part Two 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.


Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

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

This series of three articles describes the specific sequence of steps in any visual effects shot using computer graphics -- modeling, skeleton/bones/set-up, texturing, animation, lighting and compositing/rendering. You will also learn what skills are required. 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.

Last month, we talked about modeling and skeleton/bones/set-up. This month you will learn about texturing and animation, and what the studio wants to see in a portfolio and demo reel for these jobs. Next month, we'll discuss lighting and compositing/rendering.


Texture painters play a crucial role in the creative process between concept and the final rendered image by helping to define the surface qualities of an object, including colors and textures of the characters, props and environments. Some studios may call this a render artist or a look development artist.

Texture painters create the look of more complex CG elements such as principle characters. This could include painting texture maps (e.g., color maps, specular maps, displacement maps, etc.), working with TDs to enhance the look and creating lighting setups. This artist typically has previous production experience or has demonstrated exceptional skills/abilities in CGI/traditional artwork.

Skill set: Have a strong art background and expertise with digital paint programs such as Photoshop and experience with 3D paint applications. Understand CG lighting (ambient, specular, diffuse, bump, etc.). Some studios prefer familiarity with UNIX as well.

Portfolio Tips: Use good textures that are appropriate for the model. Show that you can create your own textures and have good judgment on how to use them. Your textures should add detail that otherwise would have to be modeled.


Animation is the creation of the illusion of motion. By displaying sequential images one after another in rapid succession, items drawn or recorded on the images appear to move. Character animation is animation in which objects or characters are animated to give the illusion of personality, life and character. Character animators use the computer to bring digital characters to life.

Computer character animators may have a background in traditional (hand-drawn) or stop-motion animation in addition to training in computer animation. The sensibilities and mindset of a good animator should transfer between mediums. Character animators are concerned with performance.

Skill set: Demonstrate a strong background in traditional animation and traditional character development. Character animators need to have story telling ability and acting ability. An art background in life drawing, painting or sculpting is also helpful. Training should cover anatomy, perspective and composition, including solving problems in weight, balance, movement, space, construction and proportion. Artistic sensibility in the areas of modeling, lighting and rendering is a plus. A knowledge of inverse kinematics systems, constraints and expressions is a plus, as is character animation experience with demonstrated abilities in facial animation and lip synching.

Demo Reel Tips: A video reel of animated scenes, which demonstrate digital acting and performance, is required. The reel should convey nuances of emotion and personality, show weight, balance and timing. It should include basic motions like lifting, sawing, pulling, pushing and interacting with scene elements as opposed to simply running, jumping, or walking. Work should demonstrate ability to define character personality, create fluid motion, organic movement and storytelling.

Effects animators animate the non-character aspects of the shot including vehicles, natural effects like water, dust, tornadoes, hurricanes and any other effects like lasers, explosions or bullets. Effects animators add the forces of nature to an animated film, as well as animate props, furniture, or other objects.

Skill set: Demonstrate expertise in the realistic creation of wind, rain, sunlight, mist, fog, shadows and fire, which aid in producing a believable world and setting the mood for the story. In addition to having a passion for the elements of nature, requirements for artists interested in this area of animation match those for a character animation artist.

Demo Reel Tips: A video reel showing a variety of effects is required. Show proficiency in modeling, lighting, particle systems, rendering and texturing.

Many American studios have the same basic requirements for submission: 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. The demo reel breakdown identifying your responsibility on each sequence and shot and software used (if applicable) must be included.

Demo Reel Breakdown Example: Shot 1: Laser fight -- animated the laser beams using Softimage; modeled the alien using Maya; created the textures on the alien using Photoshop. If you did everything on your reel, say so.

If you submit your materials to companies at SIGGRAPH or WAC, it may be a few months before your work is reviewed, as companies get swamped with submissions during this time. Please be patient and keep working at improving your skills.

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 SIGGRAPH ( on Thursday, August 16 at 10:15 a.m. in Room 502B.