Hi there, my name is Travis and I’ve been a vfx artist in the games industry for 2 years now. In a few threads around here, and speaking with current students at GDC this last year, it seems like there’s an interest in what it’s like to start out as a new fx artist. My experience is just a narrow point of view, as studios have a large range of sizes and organizational structures, so your experiences may differ. I hope I can type this up in an organized and logical approach.
Background: I started out in September of 2015 at Gunfire Games, a now mid-sized independent studio comprised mainly of ex Vigil people (Darksiders series). When I started I was just a college graduate, with my only vfx experience being my personal projects for my portfolio. When I joined Gunfire, the studio size was about 25 people, and I was the only other fx artist besides my lead. Now we have just over 50 people and three total vfx artists including myself.
Early Experience and Responsibilities: When I started we were about 1/3 of the way through the content and development of Chronos, a 3rd person adventure game for Oculus’ VR launch. Art and design had already turned out a ton of content and the vfx requests were starting to pile up, so I started out making lots of ambient looping environmental effects and smaller one shot effects like hit impacts. Since I started hitting the ground running, a lot of the effects I made were re-using textures and flipbooks that were already in the game. As well as the small one-shot effects, design already had a bunch of puzzles and interactives that needed vfx on them.
When working with our awesome design guys, they will usually have the bulk of a blueprint design done and they would show me where the effect needed to play from, how long it needed to last, a general idea of the effect they wanted to play when XYZ happened. For us, sometimes we would set the duration of the effect, and other times design would need the effect to loop so it could be killed on a trigger or through some procedural design element. Through some trial and error, this taught me how to design and manipulate my emitter in Cascade to fit the needs of design.
In addition to making small stuff in Chronos that stayed in, I worked on a bunch of placeholder effects, and that’s probably what a new entry vfx artist can expect to do a lot. Sometimes design or animation needs something to visually show up for an interactive or design element. You make an effect that is quick, functional (such as the aforementioned looping/killed on call effects) and this effect will have the final naming convention, is attached to a blueprint or animation call, and is oriented and sized properly. This way you or someone more senior can come in, and just replace the textures and materials to give it a finished look while only needing to add small elements or slightly tweak timing. I did lots of folder and effect organization.
Always stay sharp, and be ready: When you’re the new artist you of course will start out on some smaller stuff, but sometimes things will move fast or take more time than originally expected, and this may lead to a larger/more complex effect in your responsibility. You may have either shown good fx understanding with the small stuff you made and your lead decides to give you a shot at something bigger, or it may be out of necessity and your lead is busy and hands it off to you because your work load has been smaller. Whatever the case may be, give that effect your all, and constantly look for feeback or improvements to make it the best it can be. It may be given a thumbs up, or things may be moving so fast that you need to finish it quickly and move on to something else. If it looks good, this can lead to you getting more larger, more important effects to work on.
When working on Chronos, there were a few times where my lead was really busy so I got to work on some creature effects, like the flamethrower for a little goblin minion and the magic projectiles for an archer enemy. We needed to hit a deadline for one of the bosses as well, so I got to make some of the effects for a boss fight too.
Current responsibilities and experience: So now two years as a vfx artist working in the games industry, my list of work and responsibilities has expanded. I still try to get as much feedback and advice on my work from my lead and our other fx artist (John), but I have more autonomy than I did before. I will still get lists of bulk small tasks to do, but I have a fair amount of freedom outside of that, and I usually talk with John and discuss what each of us would like to work on before we choose our tasks. On a weekly basis I’m creating fx that play in animation tracks on characters or interactives, weapon and impact fx including beam/hit scan and projectile fx, and working with designers to hook up effects they need in Blueprint (UE4). I’ve worked on boss effects, setting up and rendering simulations and After Effects projects for flipbook textures, custom materials creation, and I still set up a fair amount of proxy and first pass effects for functionality.
Advice for aspiring VFX Artists and things to prepare for:
I’d say first and foremost, you will work with everyone, a lot. In just the first few months of working at Gunfire, I’ve worked with every group in our studio. You will probably work the most with other fx artists and designers, but I’ve worked with everyone from programming, to animation and environment art to come up with creative solutions to integrate fx into things. If you’re not a people person or have trouble with communicating your ideas, start working on that.
Learn how to break up your effects into Start, Loop and End. This is something you will encounter a lot but I don’t believe any tutorial I’ve seen talks about it. There are plenty of tutorials online for making particle and mesh effects, but not everything is just a one shot burst or a continuous loop. Learn how to break an effect up into pieces, and understand how to blend the start of your effect into a loop and fade it out. Quite frequently, Design will be iterating on how long something should play for, so you will usually have a looping effect that they call and kill through Blueprint/code. Sometimes these effects will be in an animation track though. For a portable shield we have in our sci-fi shooter From Other Suns, the shield is opened and held open by pressing and holding a button on the touch control, but is turned off when the button is released. Since this can be pressed and released very quickly I had to set the looping shield’s effect to play infinitely, but the emitter’s duration and the effect’s life were both set to 0.1 seconds.
You will learn a lot of stuff when you start, especially since you could be using a proprietary engine. I do recommend learning a bit of Blueprint or Unity’s equivalent if possible. I only have my experience to share, but I’m usually the one going in to the blueprint or the animation sequence to add the effects and test them out.
This leads me to my next bit, animations. I know these kinds of resources are limited, and after giving it some thought I might put together something myself, but creating fx for animations is probably a quarter or more of what you will end up doing. Creating sockets for, or attaching fx to skeletal bones and timing things with the animation is something very beneficial to learn. If nothing else it will help you understand the limitations of your effects and get you thinking on creative solutions to make it work.
Don’t be afraid to use and chop up other kinds of art assets from the project you are working on, and kitbash your effects as often as you can. Got an explosion that needs sparks or uses a widely applicable flipbook? Import or copy an emitter from another effect that has something similar. There is absolutely no need to constantly rebuild a particle emitter for your effect if you already have a similar one elsewhere. Believe me, it’s much faster to just tweak color, spawn rate and size than to go through and re-build it, especially if you are using a flipbook. Going back to chopping up other assets: need some falling leaves, or maybe you want a character’s sword to glow? Find those tree assets and cut out a few leaves in photoshop, or grab the obj of that character’s weapon and just cut out the mesh for the blade. Use whatever you need for your effects, just don’t forget to try and optimize it as best you can. Ex, cut out the diffuse and normal map for those leaves and make it its own smaller texture and label it for fx.
Optimization: Each engine and project will have its own optimization and limitations for vfx stuff, but some simple things you can start to incorporate into your workflow are shader complexity, spawn amounts, bounding boxes, and LODs. Shader complexity is how expensive the material is for a particle per sprite, and the shaders in front of and behind that sprite. Something that goes along closely with shader complexity is a term called “Overdraw” which is where the transparent and translucent parts of sprites overlap with one another. To help reduce overdraw, try to make sure that the edges of your images get as close to the edge of their texture space as possible on both the X and Y. Unreal and Unity both have a setting to see overdraw and shader complexity in real time; if it’s green or dark red, you’re probably doing fine, but pink to white and you need to re-evaluate the material or number of overlapping particles in the effect. This goes in hand with spawn rates and amounts. Cut your spawn rates as low as you can, until you reach that threshold where you start to lose the visual impact of the effect by going under that amount.
Bounding boxes help the engine determine in what area to calculate and update a sprite’s position. This is especially important with GPU particles. Try to set up your bounding box around the farthest reaching particles of your effect, but do keep in mind the practicality of those edge particles. If you have 5 or six sparks that reach out 50 meters past the core of your effect, you can probably don’t need to account for them when setting your bounds. Take this with a grain of salt and try to just set up some reasonable bounds; your tech people or leads will be able to give you a better spiel on bounds for your project once you start working at a studio.
LODs or “level of detail” settings are visual settings and setup that change the visuals and resources of your effect based on distance. These will depend on the performance requirements of your project, but in general are used for complex stuff like explosions or effects with high particle counts. Your engine probably isn’t going to render thin sparks and subtle dust and smoke very well from far away, if at all. You can set your LODs to increase the size or opacity of those particles, reduce particle count, or you can just cut them out all together if you can’t see them from 100 meters away in the game. If you are making close up effects for your demo reel, you shouldn’t need to worry about this, and once again, when you start working in a studio there will be more senior people who can give you a better idea on how you will need to utilize these. Just keep in mid that they are a thing, and what they are generally meant to be used for.
Skills to have:
- Be able to model simple to moderately complex meshes in a 3d package, and UV them.
- Use photoshop or another digital painting program to create and edit textures.
- Be able to render out frames and set up flipbooks from a 3d package or After Effects.
- Navigate and create particle systems in engine (UE4 and Unity are free to use)
- Simple material creation and understanding. UE4 has its built in, Unity will need a plugin and I recommend getting it
- Understand simple optimization and incorporate it into your vfx workflow
Suggested VFX to have or learn:
(stuff I use most often and what I was making when I started. Applies to realistic and stylized vfx)
- Fire. Torch fire would be simple, camp fire or oil fire is more complex and I recommend shooting for that.
- Magic. Something abstract; anything from your imagination on this one.
- Elemental impacts. Think bullets hitting various materials, ex water, glass, dirt, rock/concrete, wood
- Realistic explosion. Showing you understand elements and can layer complexity and timing in your systems.
- Blood splashes.
I will be editing this post later to add links to applicable threads on here, examples, and probably correcting any spelling and grammar that I’ve overlooked
Feel free to post or DM any questions you have about being a new fx artist and I will try to answer them as quickly and fully as I can. I would also encourage any other fx artists to share their early experiences on here, especially anyone who jumped into a vfx artist role with no prior industry experience! And for our more experienced artists, feel free to let me know if I missed anything or if I miss-explained any topic or example, I don’t want to be giving out wrong information.
I hope this helps any students working towards being fx artist, or anyone who is looking to switch over to the role. I don’t have a wealth of experience, but I’ll share all I have.