How do you define a successful Visual Effects (VFX) artist?
Who are the artists that thrive working in VFX? I’m talking about the ones who really love their job, solve impossible problems, stay in the industry for years, earn a great salary, support a team, and build a reputation for being nice to work with and always getting the job done. While many of us drift from day to day like satellites doing our work, these rockets shoot up towards the stars, making the work we do gain more attention and feel more exciting. Why be a satellite when you can be a rocket? It all starts with the choices you make in the beginning of your VFX career.
How can I get into the VFX industry as an artist?
Learn and become proficient with the required software? Create an amazing-looking reel? Build strong industry connections and friendships? Be in the right place at the right time (with the right work permit)? All these things certainly help, but it’s usually a combination of these plus other factors. Finding a school that specializes in career training for VFX is a great place to start.
Is it just: “Work Hard, Make an Awesome Reel, and Apply for the Job?”
No, and I’m tired of hearing this oversimplification. Working as one of the instructors at Lost Boys School of Visual Effects, I have had the privilege of witnessing the personal development of many students who went on to have successful careers after graduation. Surprisingly, the students who worked the hardest, with the strongest reels, the best-looking shots, or the most technical knowledge are NOT always the first ones to reach their goals. The graduates I’ve spoken with who do find that success I described above generally all exhibit at least 1 of these 3 character traits. This is what I’ve learned from their success.
Successful Trait #1: Take the Work Seriously
It sounds obvious (and it is) but taking the work seriously requires a great deal of self-discipline. These students prioritized their work above other things. Often they have perfect or near perfect attendance. They don’t fall asleep or zone out during lectures (one student remained standing in lectures to prevent this – very impressive). They spend more time on their computer than on their phone, and they’re not diluting their concentration with a second screen playing random online videos to distract them. The problem they’re currently working on is enough to hold their attention; they enjoy and don’t avoid complex challenges. When we have review sessions, they write everything down and make it a point to remember what was said to them. They address their shot notes right away and ask questions if the methods they’ve tried aren’t working. With all this focused and productive time, they often end up going above and beyond what is required for each project.
It’s not simply about working hard, but about working efficiently, filtering out distractions, listening to mentors, not giving up, and knowing when to ask for help. Take it seriously, because the end result will always be better than if you approach it with little motivation.
Successful Trait #2: Cultivate a Positive, Can-Do Attitude
How you choose to see yourself, your work, and others has huge significance. These students focused on gaining self-awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. They are willing to push the boundaries of their abilities and admit the limit of their knowledge in order to grow. Recognizing how negative self-talk (e.g., “I am a terrible”) does them no good, they choose to believe in their own potential. It’s hard to distinguish between the ones who are confident and overconfident, because the overly ambitious ones get themselves into trouble and then find a solution. Either way, it’s confidence earned through the success of a completed task, regardless of how much trial and error occurs in the process. They don’t consider any of their time “wasted”, if it involves trying things and learning. They are open-minded towards facing problems, because every problem contains at least one opportunity.
They see their work as an extension of themselves (which helps with taking it seriously) but not AS themselves, allowing them to sustain a positive sense of self-worth. Criticism, failure, and lack of appreciation for excellent work are inevitable if you do enough work and it’s seen by enough people. They don’t sweat the small stuff and spread that anxiety. They believe that in art and VFX, anything is possible with enough time and resources (because they’ve seen impossible goals and imagery achieved before). Their mantra could be: “There’s always a way and we’ll find it eventually“.
These students valued their instructors (seeing them as mentors who want the best for them). When a problem is pointed out in their work, they didn’t look for excuses, someone/something to blame, or ways to belittle themselves. They also never rejected a challenge, complained, or argued over feedback. They would question something if they didn’t understand or agree, but this never got in the way of completing the work.
Successful Trait #3: Think Beyond Yourself
VFX is a collaborative art form that is part of another collaborative art form: filmmaking. No single person is responsible for everything, and if they were, the result would probably look worse and take infinitely longer to complete. A few can succeed at the solo game and ride or die based on your own abilities, health, and marketing skills. Usually they do this later on in their career. But there are many advantages to joining a band/team/army and the strength in numbers. In this group/studio/company, one of the best ways to make yourself known and heard is to listen and talk. Show interest in what other people care about (their favorite movies, music, food, etc.). Make friends. Have conversations during lunchtime or breaks. You don’t need everyone to like you (and that can be difficult or impossible). But gaining a few loyal friends can be very impactful when it comes to the longevity of your career.
The students who exemplified this thinking were kind and encouraging to everyone in their class. They didn’t view them as competitors but as allies for sharing knowledge and success. They found ways to cheer up their classmates or help them de-stress. They were always happy to help others when asked and generous with their time and knowledge. They were not just focusing on their own success, but on the success of the people around them. And when they achieved goals, they often found ways to support younger artists and students. Success can be a beautiful circle of generosity, not just one lonely person at the top of a pyramid.
How you define success is as important as searching for a means to achieve it. There are probably many more successful traits besides the 3 that I have mentioned in this article, but I already have a tendency to ramble and wanted to keep things as concise as I could. These 3 traits not only help students with their learning, but also contribute to their ability as professionals to obtain multiple job offers, contract extensions, opportunities for advancement, and a general sense of satisfaction with the career they chose. In remembering to Take the Work Seriously, Cultivate a Positive, Can-Do Attitude, and Think Beyond Yourself, I hope you are able to more effectively reach your goals and continue to grow!