The 5 Miserable VFX Jobs That Make Movies Possible
So I am a visual effects (VFX) artist, putting fake things into movies with computers (often referred to as CG effects). You think you know me? You don't know me! You know that CG makes things like Gollum and dinosaurs and pretty much everything in Avatar, but most of the CG you've seen in your life, you didn't know was CG at all.
For instance, did you know that there was only one real helicopter in Black Hawk Down? Or that most movie sports stadiums are filmed completely empty, or that no buildings were harmed in the filming of the Bourne trilogy? If not, then we know we did it right. If you ever find yourself saying, "That's a pretty cool CG effect there!", that means we fucked it up.
Everyone assumes VFX happen in an office that looks something like Mythbusters except with excited artistic types gathering around computers, talking about what kind of dinosaurs they want to make today. And for the top ranking people, the ones who get to talk on the DVD special features, it might be.
But several steps down the ladder from those guys, you have an army of peons whose job descriptions seem to have been created as part of some cruel psychological experiment. If you dream of a career making super heroes fly, these jobs are where you'll start, and you may never leave.
So, as you watch some $200 million VFX-filled blockbuster this summer that has CG in basically every frame, remember to say a prayer for the...
Rotoscoping is a fancy word for "tracing." Specifically, tediously tracing around hairs on an actor's head, over and over and over until you long for the sweet release of insanity.
If you've ever tried to, say, use Photoshop to put some celebrity's head onto a naked fat man, you know just how fun it is to painstakingly trim out the background around a guy's head with your mouse. Roto is basically that, all day long.
Rotoscope artists look at film frame by frame, 24 frames in each second of film, carefully tracing around individual hairs or hoodie cords so that someone else can have the satisfaction of putting the actor or object behind or in front of explosions or dinosaurs or Jar Jar Binks. For the rest of their lives, roto artists are thus instinctively drawn to people who wear tight clothing and have short slicked-back hair, so there's a pro tip if you're looking to date one.
Why would someone want to trace Brad Pitt's head for ten hours a day? Well, it's a stepping stone to the cooler jobs (like Compositor, the guy who gets the satisfaction of actually pasting different elements together into a frame that actually looks like something). Roto is an initiation stage, like a fraternity pledge or a knight's squire, only if most pledges and squires never got promoted.
The second reason you'd want to do roto is if you live in India. A lot of this grunt work gets outsourced these days, because it looks pretty good if your only alternative is to have your eyes put out by a red hot poker and sing for your money, which is what I gathered about Indian career options from Slumdog Millionaire.
Doing whatever has to be done that no one else wants to do.
The duties of Production Assistants (also known as runners, or gofers, or peons, or self-moving ottomans) can range from relatively respectable tasks, like getting coffee, to slightly demeaning tasks, like holding coats for visiting Hollywood execs or being set on fire so the FX artists can have a reference for their fire effects.
When I was new to the field, the concept of working with PA's was pretty unnerving to me because they were basically like servants, waiting on you hand and foot. Over the years, though, I've gotten used to gently resting my feet on an obliging PA's back as I leaned back to think about a rendering problem or calling several PAs to form a bridge across a puddle on a particularly rainy day.
Why would someone willingly submit to this treatment? Well, it's the Hollywood dazzle. When someone has the chance to be in a movie or participate in any task slightly related to a movie, the judgment centers of their brain go dead. Being a PA is like buying a lottery ticket to the Hollywood production big time. The chances of winning are laughable, but at least you have a ticket.
And even more tempting, a PA applicant often doesn't have to demonstrate any actual skills. They truly are looking for enthusiastic go-getters that will learn on the job and don't have a leg to stand on in salary negotiations. It also helps to look good, because, you know, Hollywood.
Unfortunately, to get a promotion, PAs do have to demonstrate some kind of skill, even if it's just being "well-organized" or finding very good delis to get catered sandwiches from. There is a production ladder they can work their way up, each step as unlikely as the first, truly a churning whirlpool of cutthroat competition. Along the way they will gain more responsibilities, like managing schedules, communicating artists' needs between departments, and filling out a lot of forms.
If they manage to make it all the way up, they might become a producer, in charge of budget and schedule, with a pretty firm grip on the balls of all the artists on their project. It's basically like a pawn crossing the chessboard to become a queen. And then some country actually declares the chess piece to be their actual queen.
Drawing dots on individual frames that need CG, so the computers don't get confused. Over and over.
Matchmove is a lot like roto as far as prestige--that is, zero to negative.
Little known industry secret - most cubicles for real animators are actually built out of extra matchmove and roto artists. So what could matchmove artists do that could be as mind-numbing as roto?
Well, when the film makers shoot a scene with a camera, the camera is usually moving, even if just slightly. Your CG effect, on the other hand, will want to hold perfectly still if you don't tell it otherwise, so you need to match its motion with the real scene or else your Gollum or aircraft carrier landing on the White House will appear to jiggle haphazardly through the frame.
To fix this, some poor bastard has to put a little dot on the corner of the central building's tower in this frame...
...and then in the next frame, put a dot on that same tower to tell the computer that it's the same corner. He usually has to pick out several landmarks to put dots on, at which point he will turn it over to the computer, which will scream back that it doesn't have enough dots and make him do more.
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.
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.
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.
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.