Staring at a progress bar on a computer monitor. Then occasionally the phone rings and somebody screams at you.
So picture the actual VFX artists, drawing the CG Garfield riding his skateboard. They are inputting this into software and telling it how they want Garfield to look and move. But rendering photorealistic fames of CG takes a gigantic amount of computer horsepower, so it's at this point when the render farms get busy.
Render farms are literally piles of computers gathered in some room that turn data files into images. But even with Hollywood's supercomputers doing the work, each frame often takes an hour or two, and jobs are usually a few hundred frames each.
This brings us to the Render Wrangler. His or her main job is to monitor the render farm and the projects they're rendering, 24 hours a day, and tell people when something goes wrong while the machines do their slow, painstaking computery work. So being a Render Wrangler is really the closest you can actually come to getting paid to watch paint dry.
That is, when people aren't yelling at you. Because the computers work so slowly, you have various artists sending jobs in at the same time. How the jobs are prioritized determines how long the artists have to wait, and nobody is ever happy with the prioritization except the people who get priority #1. Knowing how long the jobs take, and how much pressure is on everyone to meet deadlines, you can imagine this causes angst bordering on "killing spree" level.
All of that angst lands on the Render Wrangler. The artists call or sometimes sic their production dogs or their managers on the render wranglers, jockeying for higher priority on the farm. Unfortunately, this favor-seeking tends to involve more negative reinforcement rather than positive (yelling, cursing, threats, possibly small electric shocks).
Everyone in the industry knowing they will almost certainly be out of a job soon.
But rest assured, it's gonna happen.
So I talk a lot of shit about how VFX studios are built on the backs of these hard-working peons, but it's only fair to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Keep in mind when you have one of these jobs, you're not working for a film studio--VFX studios are just vendors who bid and work on productions at their behest. So, even the number one executive at a VFX studio is at the mercy of the film studio who hired them. And those studios are becoming increasingly merciless.
With movies needing more and more CG and more and more pressure to keep costs down, it's almost physically impossible to meet the budget and deadlines demanded without violating some human rights, and sometimes even then.
But rest assured, it's gonna happen.
There are a lot of VFX shops out there, and if one of them pleads for some kind of plausibly realistic deadlines or budget, the Hollywood film studio can easily find someone else who can work their peons harder and longer and for less pay. And if the peons don't like it, the VFX exec can just reach out the window blindly and grab a replacement.
Pictured: The right way to pick up a roto artist without damaging him.
Not that the ones who stay will be there long anyway. To win these contracts, VFX studios make promises they can't keep, which eventually leads to the whole studio going belly up when their costs wind up being more than the movie studio is paying. One studio, Meteor, went under and stiffed their employees of three months' pay.
To try to keep some kind of handle on costs, VFX studios hire most of their people project-to-project, so even great VFX workers can expect guarantees of about six months of work at a time. What happens after that? It's a surprise!
So, clearly if you didn't want to work in the VFX industry before, you do now! For the rest of you, as you're watching Tony Stark strap on a suit of CG armor this summer, take a moment to thank the peons.