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

The final part 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

The last 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.

You want a job in visual effects but you have no idea what the jobs are and what you would be best at?

My recent three-part series 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. If you are skilled or talented in three or more of these areas you may want to consider a job with a small 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.

The previous two articles discussed modeling, skeleton/bones/set-up, texturing and animation. This article, the third and final article in the series, will cover lighting and compositing/rendering. I'll show you what is involved in each of these steps and the skills required. You will also find out what the studio wants to see in a portfolio and demo reel.


Lighting artists work in the 3-D environment creating the look of individual elements and entire scenes. This can include the creation of textures or the subtle use of virtual lights to enhance the mood and tone of a scene.

Skill set: Be able to light sets. Understand color, contrast and lighting design, and be familiar with 3-D lighting. Know how lighting can be used to increase efficiency by reducing the number of elements that need to be built in a scene.

Demo Tips: The most overlooked aspect of a demo, lighting should create a mood or atmosphere. Don't have over-lit scenes just to show off models. Lighting should add excitement and depth to a scene. A portfolio showing video examples of 3-D lighting or traditional work, including painting, drawing or photography, is appropriate.


The final step where the computer animated character is combined with the real actors and live-action plate is called compositing. The compositor is responsible for integrating multiple independent elements, which could include green screen elements, 3D elements and background plates, into the final image.

It all comes together in rendering. As Terrence Masson states in his book CG 101, "Rendering is the cinematography of computer graphics." Rendering is the creation of images in the computer from the modeling, lighting, texturing and animation information.

Skill set: Have a thorough understanding of color, light, film and traditional photographic techniques. Understand color difference matting. Have a strong visual sense and the ability to distinguish subtle differences that affect the matching of elements created in multiple mediums. Have an eye for color and scene match.

Demo Reel Tips: Show skill in compositing moving footage, preferably film footage, animation and live-action. Include before-and-after shots. Other examples of work in computer graphics or traditional art mediums are also encouraged.

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: Pumpkin becomes Coach -- animated the pumpkin morphing into coach using Softimage; modeled the fairy godmother using Maya; created the textures on the pumpkin using Photoshop. If you did everything on your reel, say so.

If you are submitting your work to a company who attended SIGGRAPH or WAC (the World Animation Celebration) in August, it may be a few months before you hear anything as many of them are swamped with submissions received during those conferences. The best time to submit work is in the early part of the calendar year, though companies accept submissions year round. Check the company Website to find out what their specific portfolio requirements might be for the areas that interest you.

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a career coach/mentor for hire/recruiter and management consultant. She is a frequent speaker at colleges and universities.