Not expecting a reply from any of the artists I contacted, I was ecstatic when Mike Rhone, a professional VFX artist, replied to my email. He allowed me to ask him several questions in a sort of online interview. My questions and his answers are below:
How long have you worked in the industry?
17 or so years. My first job was in 1999 working on the intro animation to FIFA 2000 football. It was a slow start before I got full-time work though
Did you always want to do VFX or did you discover that that was the route for you at a later time?
Before VFX I had planned on being an electrician. In VFX I’ve hopped around a number of different specialties. In school I liked animation the most, but my first job was as a modeller/texture artist (Which is funny because that is still my weakest area). I moved into rigging for a long while, then into effects. After that jobs started coming much easier and I spent a number of years as a generalist (Back then the position was considered a “technical director”): I was on a team of two 3d artists for Season 2 and 3 of Supernatural where we had to do pretty much anything that was required. I’ve been a specialist in FX for the last 5-7 years or so, but still find myself helping out whenever there is a “We don’t know who is supposed to do this” task.
Are you self taught? Do you feel that it’s important or beneficial to have a qualification in animation?
Ahh… I went to Vancouver Film School in 1998-99, but pretty much everything I know is self taught. VFS was good for putting me in touch with the right people and gave me a good start on the absolute basics, but for me VFS was just a ‘foot in the door’ so to speak. As someone that has done a lot of hiring I can confidently say that where someone went to school has no bearing at all on if they will be hired. From the hiring perspective we look at things in three stages: Do we need someone for this role and do we like the demo reel? If so we bring them in for en interview. In the interview we see if they would have a personality that fits with everyone else and make sure the person being interviewed is the same one that did the work in the reel. Protip: If you already know someone that works there, be sure to let the recruiter know! You get put to the front of the list ahead of all of the “Unknown” artists.
The industry is growing, do you feel that it’s now easier to find employment? Would you say that it’s difficult for those new to the field to find employment even with its growth?
It’s always been hard to ‘break in’ to the industry; There are lots of new/junior artists but not many junior roles. Studios need people that they are confident can finish a task proficiently so most are in the market for mid/senior level staff. It’s difficult and an annoying catch-22, but keep at it. Once a studio takes a chance with you you’ll learn so much in your first 6 months that jobs will be much easier to find with even that little experience. I personally had a TON of difficultly breaking into the industry, which is funny considering I’m now confident I could work anywhere. If you have a passion for VFX, please don’t let the speed bumps dishearten you.
We are learning Maya at the moment in our course, which I am currently struggling with, do you have any tips for people who are just starting Maya on how to develop an understanding of the software? Is there any software that you recommend we learn in correlation to Maya?
Maya is a great program to learn on in my opinion. Saying that, 3d software has a high barrier to entry. By that I mean in the beginning it is very daunting; “Maya seems easy for everyone but me”. “Why is that arm moving when I have no keyframes on it?” “Why does it keep crashing?”. Keep trying and don’t be afraid to start a fresh, clean scene. When scenes get too ‘dirty’ I often do a full rebuild, and I usually get back to better than I was quite quickly. To keep things easy I would stick with one program in the beginning. To supplement your education I would definitely check out www.digitaltutors.com. And be sure to post questions to cgtalk
Who would be your inspiration?
Artistically I would say animator Chris Derochie. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on several projects. He understands acting, composition, timing in a way that surpasses most directors. He started as a traditional animator in the 80’s but made the jump successfully over to 3d. (He’s also very approachable, if you ever reach out to him be sure to mention my name). Skillwise, I’ve always had great respect for a lesser-known compositor named Chris Pounds: He can fix any shot, re-use and create from scratch unlike anyone I’ve ever worked with. And any compositor with a background in motion graphics will always be an FX artists best friend. Me and him were able to get an Emmy nomination together for a show called the 100. (We lost to Game of Thrones, which is fine because Game of Thrones is awesome)
Does networking and who you know play a large part in securing jobs in the industry?
It is a massive part of it absolutely. Most of my jobs have been through word of mouth through friends and former colleagues. Be sure to keep that linkedIn updated! It’s important not just for getting jobs but also for negotiating salary. When I apply to a company I usually say something to the effect of: “I’m a former colleague of ~Currently employed persons name~ and they said I should get in touch with you”. It’s a key part of my application process. If the person you name dropped gives you a recommendation you have a better chance of negotiating the higher end of the salary range for that role. This is because to the recruiter there is less risk hiring you because someone they already know recommends you.
Can you describe what a typical day in the studio is like? On average, what hours should we expect to be working once we enter the industry?
It changes from studio to studio and by role. When I was a supervisor there were no real ‘typical’ schedules, you’re just there to make things run smooth .Currently Im in an artist role, so I start my day at 9am, check email to make sure there are no ’emergencies’, then flag anything I need fix. I’ll check the farm to see if my overnight sims/renders are done, and re-render any broken frames. Once those are done I’ll do a ‘slapcomp’ of my elements (Put the raw FX over top of the background plate. No glows, camera shake, cheats… things like that.) I’ll then submit the slapcomp to dailies for review, and move onto the next shot. Once you’re in a studio the key is to work efficiently, and prioritize.
Regarding hours, most days for me are 8 hour working days. In heavy crunch time they can get up to 12 hour days, and maybe 1 weekend day. These days I’m in a position where I can ‘push back’ on production a bit if the hours are too much. Generally speaking I don’t do overtime unless its necessary. Its tricky, especially when you are starting out, but try your best to not get taken advantage of. I am personally very vocal about unpaid overtime: I won’t do it, and I won’t let anyone on my team do it. As supervisor I am most proud that I was able to work within everyones personal schedule and I have never once denied a time off request. I wish more supervisors “pushed back” on production. I like to follow good supervisors than big credits these days. Its less stressful. 🙂
What would be your worst nightmare to work on?
Any reboot franchise with inexperienced supervision/direction. That’s a bad recipe of “Don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it” combined with “Must be better than the original” (Which it never is). Anecdotally, for me the easiest projects are sequels where everyone has already worked together before and knows what they are doing. Harry Potter Deathly Hallows 1 and 2 were the smoothest projects I’ve ever worked on. I chose to work on the new Fast and Furious movie for the same reason, even though I was offered roles on the new Mummy and Blade Runner movies
What has been your favorite project so far?
The most fun I had was working on a low budget direct to dvd cartoon. I still am close to many friends and colleagues from those days. And many of the people I worked with there are now top talent locally.
And finally, what tips would you give to animators who are just starting in the industry?
Be sure to share any tips or tricks etc, I’ve known a couple of people that like to keep secrets about how they do such-and-such. Do your best to stay upbeat in crunch time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and try your best to not ask the same one person all the time. Spread the questions around! Once you are comfortable in your dept/specialty, try and learn a bit from the departments that come before and after you in the pipeline. An animator that knows some rigging basics is MUCH more employable for example. Once you are working, if you want to make an easy $5/hr extra, learn the basics of python or MEL. Once you are working, the easiest way to get a raise is to move to a different company (Which is sad if you really like a place, but you can always come back.) I’ve rejoined a number of different companies, all in a much better position and salary than when I was there previously.
I am so grateful that he took the time to talk to me considering how busy animators are and I’ve really learnt a lot from what he’s said.