Are you a 3D graduate fresh out of school, with plenty of talent and ideas but no real work experience? The question most likely at the top of your mind: What's the quickest way to get my foot in the door of the visual effects industry? We asked James Stone, the Asset Supervisor for Cinesite – the studio responsible for some of the awesome post production in Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man & The Wasp.
James Stone is ideally situated to answer that question since a big chunk of his job involves interviewing prospective hires and watching countless hours of showreels. More than that, we spoke with him shortly after he presented at effects MTL (the largest North American conference for the VFX and animation industries) on – you guessed it! – how to land a job in the VFX industry.
Traditionally, says James, there have been two central career paths to becoming a VFX artist, especially where the larger VFX studios are concerned: either you start off as a runner, doing anything and everything, from answering phones to going for coffee, or you apprentice yourself as a junior to a specific team and start learning the ins and outs of, say, modeling or compositing. While some grads go the route of select internship programs, such as Framestore’s Launchpad, most end up working as a runner or a junior, so we had James break down the pros and cons of each position to better understand which role may be the better fit for you.
The pros and cons of being a Junior
Pro – You work on films right away
Unlike runners, who will spend anywhere from a few months to a year or more making coffee, running errands or answering phones, juniors get to jump right into the actual VFX process. “You’re working on films straight away,” says James, “which is really good and important to a lot of people because that’s ultimately what they want to do.”
Pro – The pay is better
It’s no secret that juniors are paid better than runners, and if that’s a priority to you, this is the entry-level VFX job for you.
Con – You have to specialize
Juniors are apprenticed to particular teams or departments, meaning they have to decide early on what aspect of their job they’d like to specialize in. For some people, this isn’t a problem; they already have a good idea of what they’re good at and what they’d like to be doing. But for many – and perhaps most people – they’re fairly uncertain, and making a late-stage transition is difficult. “If someone starts in modeling and they want to go into compositing,” James says, “that jump if you’re in a junior model position is probably not going to be very easy or probably not going to happen.”
Unlike runners, who will spend anywhere from a few months to a year or more making coffee, running errands or answering phones, juniors get to jump right into the actual VFX process.
The pros and cons of being a Runner
Pro – It’s easier to get work
Yes, if you start out as a runner, you’ll be doing odd jobs for less pay than your knowledge should be worth, but that also means that the requirements are lower, and the competition less fierce. If for whatever reason, your CV isn’t all you’d want it to be, but you’re still set on working for a specific company, you’ll have a much better shot if you apply as a runner. And if you’re hard-working and talented, you’ll get the chance to showcase your skills and quickly earn your way up the ranks.
Pro – Networking
According to James, this is the single most significant advantage of being a runner: you will meet and speak with everyone in the company. If you’re an outgoing person, you can transform those short interactions into valuable networking time. “I was making coffee for the CEO every day, and getting to talk to him and other members of the directing team,” James said. “They saw that I was working hard and they wanted to see me succeed. Even five years later when I was working as a senior artist, I could still talk to them whenever I wanted to.” The other advantage to this kind of broad experience is that you get to see how every department within the studio operates, which means you’ll have better insight into which jobs suit you, or who can help you with whatever problems you inevitably run into. “When I graduated to being a junior after nine months of running, from my first day, if I had any questions or didn’t know something, I knew exactly who to ask.”
This is the single most significant advantage of being a runner: you will meet and speak with everyone in the company.
Con – You’re not gaining direct VFX experience
Runners are a vital part of every studio, working a variety of jobs, but picking up lunch or passing notes between team leaders isn’t exactly the hands-on experience you need to progress in your career. If you’re industrious and outgoing, you can quickly make a name for yourself and be rewarded, but if you have trouble standing out, you might get caught in limbo. “I know people who ran for three months,” James told us, “and I know people who ran for two years.”
If you are a runner looking to move up, you need to be working hard, proving to everyone how vital your contribution can be, and taking advantage of all of the face time you’re getting with the higher-ups. “We have Cheeky Beers here, where once a month we have a beer upstairs, and everyone gets together. If you have that kind of event, try chatting with people who are doing a job that you want to do in the future and make sure they know that you're interested in it.”
James, once a runner himself, has hired and promoted runners many times, and his advice to them boils down to this: “'Keep your head down and work hard.”
What to know more about what it takes to be a visual effects artist? Stay tuned to Life in 3D to get advice from the pros.