How I Became a Visual Effects Artist


How I Became a Visual Effects Artist

In the late 1990's I started dabbling in 3DS Max under the guidance of a man named Gary Dominguez. I was hesitant to take the class at first, but at the end of the first day I asked him a serious question. "How do I do this for the rest of my life". He fobbed me off with a short "work hard, kid", and so I did. I took very quickly to the CG world and found that I advanced very quickly since all of it just made sense. Before the end of the semester my work was being used as the class examples, and Gary began to take an interest in my abilities.

I continued to study in 3DS Max and began making a few cartoons for myself, doing all of the work from scratch. For me, the CG realm was the perfect creative environment, since I hated getting dirty in charcoal drawing, sculpture and oil painting, but loved having a creative outlet. It was also an outlet for my scientific and technological endeavors, since it offered my unorthadox math skills a place to thrive and grow where it couldn't in a traditional math class. 3DS Max also gave me the ability to turn the programs I had been writing since I was a kid into a tangible thing I could see and animate.

Before long I found myself doing minor commercial work. Some of it was still imagery, ads, illustrations and corporate art (I had been doing 2D graphic art for almost six years by this time), and some of it was more fun things like movie titles, music videos and more cartoons. Some of my cartoons started ending up in local film festivals, and I even landed myself on an animation panel that I was far too green to be sitting on.

As I began trying to find more professional gigs in the 3D world, I began stumbling upon recruiter after recruiter looking for people with Bachelors Degrees in Computer Science and Animation. Thus, I decided to go back to college to study Animation. I moved to Phoenix Arizona to attend UAT because they specialized in three main subjects: Game Design, Network Security and CG Animation. While there, my attention shifted from animation and moved into Visual Effects. One of my early cartoons had blended live footage with CG characters, and thus VFX became attractive because it essentially broadened the scope of interests I was already engaged in. Once again, I took to it like a fish in water.

It was in Phoenix that I began really began working in the entertainment industry. I started out working as a PA on a film called "Take Out", and soon began getting gigs as a sound many on other films. My experience in music gave me a familiarity with mics and recording equipment that many of my colleagues didn't have, and thus I got hired a lot for everything from commercial work to features and television. This often gave me the in for also doing their Visual Effects, and I began to trickle in those jobs in between other film gigs. Eventually, these connections led me to work at THQ / Rainbow Studios in their Motion Capture department. I spent a year working on the camera team for an 18 Camera Motion Analysis Eagle system on "Smackdown vs. Raw 2008". I started working there in 2005, so it was a few years before the game was released. While I was there, they had me put together a series of promo videos for THQ that gave me a change to use my CG experience once again in the professional arena.

Somewhere in time between sound gigs and working at THQ, someone asked me if I would consider being an editor. They felt my musical experience gave me a sense of timing that would benefit me in the land of the editors. I had cut a few things together already, and had begun learning Avid to up the game in my own videos. Once again, I took to editing really quickly, and shortly after I left THQ, I got a job at Arizona's first full HD studio, SNT Video. I was originally hired as a Final Cut editor, but before long they realized that I had a few other talents as well, and so I became part of the production team as well as the post production team. This usually meant that I worked on set as the sound man, but occasionally they would put me behind a camera, or make me a live-switch TD for multi-camera productions. Then, when I got back to the studio, I would work as the editor, the sound mixer, and of course, the visual effects artist. I ran everything through Max, Combustion and Shake.

I got bored of being an editor. I didn't get the satisfaction that I wanted, and visual effects was all I was interested in. Thus, I quit SNT and swore that from here on out, I would only make my living as a Visual Effects artist. No more editing, no more sound gigs, and no more production work with its ridiculous early call times. Only VFX from here on out... and perhaps running a music recording studio, but that's another story. In 2007 I went full freelance and dedicated all of my efforts into the CG world.

I started switching from 3DS Max to Maya in 2006. I had been using Max for over 7 years at that point, and was a die-hard Max fan... that is, until I really buckled down and learned Maya. Once I really started understanding Maya it became my go-to 3D program for everything, and I've been using it ever since. I also began switching my compositing package from Shake and Combustion (with a little Toxik in there too) to NukeX, which ended up becoming my compositing package of choice.

From about 2008 on about half of my clients were in LA, and I spent a fair amount of time either working remotely, or driving back and forth to LA to meet with my clients. That got old pretty quickly, and so after eight years in Phoenix I packed up my gear and moved to LA in March of 2010.

To my own ultimate surprise, my extensive experience working in production and working in an environment that required that I do everything myself, I found that I was significantly over-qualified for most of the first jobs I took in LA. I was promoted to CG Supervisor in my first LA gig when it turned out that I had more knowledge and experience than the "seasoned pro" that had been trying to do the job when I got there. In fact, they had me whip an entire department into shape. The whole experience was interestingly intimidating, since I came there with just enough confidence to hope that I could keep up with the pros. I had not expected to become their leader.

The trend of quick advancement has continued throughout my career. I have been asked by five different VFX supervisors at different studios if they could (and I quote) "clone" me; a flattering question to say the least. I have been given CG supervisor positions over 10 times, and have applied for the positions none of those times. I have always gotten it on merit. I am very proud of that. I have gained the reputation of being a premiere problem solver, a CG guru and the "guy who seems to know everything". I have always worked hard to be the best that I can be. I have been shown by the people who have given me great opportunites that my efforts have not been in vein.

These days, I am continuing to improve my skill set in the realm of visual effects. At this moment in time I am equally comfortable running maya completely from a command line as I am in the UI. I program a whole host of artists tools, and administrative tools, not only for Maya, but for Nuke, Houdini, Photoshop and entire pipelines as well. If you are looking for someone who really knows the CG world inside and out, then I'm your man.