Awesome, welcome! You’re already off to a great start by asking questions . Your experience with computer languages will definitely come in handy in the long run. There’s no clear-cut way, or perfect path to learning effects, as it involves so many different skill sets, and everyone here likely got started in a different way. For me personally these are some things that have come in handy to help me be more successful.
Inspiration. Here’s a book: Elemental Magic. The author Joseph Gilland was a Visual Effects Artist with Disney and shares his insight into creating VFX from an artists perspective. A big takeaway is to start being more observant of nature and how things like fire, water, air and earth all act. Being a VFX artist you don’t need to know how to draw, but having a good understsanding of how the elements move and look is key. Video Reference when creating something is a good practical example of being observant as the author speaks. Are you creating splashes from a whale breach? lighting the insides of a building ablaze with some fire effects? Shooting out sparks from the impact of a hammer? There’s a YouTube video of that with the colors, timing, and shapes that you can use as inspiration for your own work. More often than naught we also use other artists work to help us with the ideation process. For example, I often create more stylized work, and am constantly referencing anime’s like Fate Stay Night to get my creating juices flowing. Frame by frame through some of my favorite moments with Rowvid to disect shapes, colors and timing has served invaluable. No matter how you get it, inspiration is what drives you from start to finish with any given visual effect you create. Make that the priority.
Understanding tools to execute on your interpretation of any given effect is second to inspiration. There’s so many tools out there to get the job done, however depending on your vision you will utilize varying amounts of them. Here’s some basic tools that you may want to learn and why.
Unreal Engine 4 (UE4)/Unity. This is where you will be doing most of your work. Unreal Engine has what’s called a particle editor (Cascade), as does Unity Engine. Note, these aren’t the only game-engines out there, but they are the most widely used for the public. UE4 has TONS of free tutorials on Youtube that you can watch that’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started. Here’s some links for getting started in the engine, and for getting into their particle editor “Cascade” this series covers the basics. Tom Loman also has a solid post on getting started with UE4. Again, this series Epic released on Cascade is your friend.
Autodesk Maya/3DS Max. While game effects have come along way even in the past few decades, we still heavily rely on camera trickery to “fake” an effect. The final result of your effect is seen in engine, however you often need to create meshes from a 3dpipeline tool like Maya or Max and bring that into your game engine to get a desired result (not always). Jason Keyser touches on meshes and UV’s nicely in one of his videos seen here.
To reiterate a bit, most effects you see in games, fire, smoke, explosions… magical sparkles etc… these are all just textures being manipulated on a flat polygonal surface; be it a texture on a trail/ribbon generated by the engine, a texture on a mesh like a cylinder or sphere… any shape really… that you created in Maya/Max and import, or texture on a single card/quad that the engine generates on its own. It all comes down to a texture placed on a polygonal surface of some kind. Also note, these textures are often, if not always manipulated as part of a shader before being applied onto a polygonal surface as seen in UE4’s cascade intro, or with a plugin for Unity called Shader Forge. Common things to do within a shader is to scroll a texture across the surface of your particle mesh/card/trail as seen in Jason’s video, or multiply/add/lerp etc. it to other textures for varied results to create things like a texture decaying over time, or the added complexity of a texture as shown by Julian Love in his 2013 GDC talk. Her’s a post by Bryanna that has a small collection of useful GDC talks as well.
Once you’ve got some of the basics down, start showing your work! A great place to post is in our WIP & Critique category where getting a second look can serve invaluable. It doesn’t have to be finished as the category suggests, so post away. We’re a friendly community and promise not to bite . Feedback loops are something that will occur even after you are hired as a VFX Artist, so learning how to take and give feeedback now will help you dramatically in the future. Very rarely will you ever create something and not need to rework it in some way based off of feedback you get from your leads/peers as a working professional. It doesn’t mean that you’re a “yes” man, but it does mean that you should have the skillset to evaluate feedback with a clear head. For exmaple, if multiple people suggest a change that you are resistant to, you might want to take a closer look at the issue at hand. Artists go blind to their own work after staring at it for hours at a time, and an extra pair of eyes is invaluable .
Once you’ve got some solid personal projects finished, you’ll want to make sure you’re pushing all your efforts in the right direction with your demo reel. Unlike other lines of work, a solid demo reel of 1-2 minutes showcasing your work is what will get your hired. For more on what studios look for, check out these links:
Note that opinions vary from person to person but you can start to map out some trends that’ll help put you ahead of others in the hiring process.
Hopefully this gets you started on the right foot. Let us know if you have any other questions or need clarification! That’s what these forums are for