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Course Leader Q&A

Don’t worry about software, we’d rather see you’ve got a ‘good eye’.

Saint Walker
Course Leader

Watch Saint Walker discuss VFX as a career option on the VFX Festival Future of Digital Creativity Panel.

Is VFX for people who want to work in films?

Yes that’s right, but that’s just the start of it. First of all, it’s important to realise that the UK has the second biggest VFX industry in the world. Hollywood likes to shoot and get VFX created in the UK. Last year’s blockbuster Gravity was shot here and the VFX were created by Framestore, a company we have consulted with about our new course. You’ll also know some of the other films where UK talent has created the VFX – films like Interstellar, Paddington, Godzilla, Avengers and Hunger Games: Mockingjay have all supplied work for the UK’s visual effects artists and technical directors. This is a growing industry and 17 out of the 20 highest grossing films of all time are VFX heavy productions so VFX is on the rise.

However, this exciting industry is cyclical and project based; there are peaks and troughs of employment, depending on Hollywood’s shooting schedules; so we’re designing a different kind of VFX course that will give our students more flexibility to take their profitable skills into other domains. The same digital tools that create VFX can be used in other fields too and our students will be able to move through the growing areas of medical or architectural visualisation and simulation. They’ll be world builders, creating immersive environments for the world of three years hence, not just the VFX film world of today.

Will there be a chance to work in industry or support for work placements?

Our course is being written by industry and there will be an industry advisory board to guide it. There’ll also be industry guests who will set briefs and assess work. It’ll be up to them whether students get work placements. There’ll certainly be visits to important film sets and VFX companies to understand their workflows.

I’m well connected to the industry and was the co-author of the Core Skills of VFX Primer, one of the most popular handbooks. I was Head of Development at Creative Skillset, the UK’s national skills agency that looks after the film, television, animation and VFX industries amongst others. Because of the fast nature of the projects industry is involved in, work placements aren’t always valuable (e.g. making tea rather than observing) or available and we’d prefer our students to engage with the industry in whichever ways are the most effective use of both the industry and the students time.

What can students expect to do on the course and how will it be structured?

We are currently consulting with the VFX industry (including companies like Double Negative, Framestore, MPC, Cinesite and ILM). However they have already given us some steers. The course is for creative people who will be molded into VFX artists who can design and build immersive worlds that the viewer believes in. VFX is a bit of art and science: students will learn about cinematography and code. The course will pride itself on helping creative artists with no skills in maths or science to program and code sufficiently. We’ll be doing this with some new online tools we are developing.

Students will learn how a film set works, they’ll learn to understand lenses and digital systems and they’ll also learn how to use focus, colour and lighting to fool the eye. Through real-world projects students will learn how to be a valuable member of a project team. They’ll be introduced to industry pipelines and personalities, but also be given time to think, study and reflect on the future of VFX, so they can contribute to the growth of the industry in three years time.

What types of software or equipment will students be using? Does it matter if they don’t have any experience in them yet?

Nuke Studio 9 will be the core technology. We’re also looking at Maya, ZBrush, Arnold, Renderman. It certainly doesn’t matter if students don’t know this software. We’d expect them to know Photoshop (or similar image manipulation software) though. Overall, I’d say don’t worry about software, we’d rather see you’ve got a ‘good eye’ and photography is one way of showing this, as is observational drawing.

What advice would you give to someone putting a portfolio together for the course?

We certainly don’t need to see monsters or spaceships, although no harm done if you’ve got them. A few years ago there was a film called The King’s Speech with Colin Firth about the abdication of King George VI and his lifelong struggle to overcome his speech impediment. It was one of the biggest films of 2010 and it was chocablock full of VFX that no-one noticed. Most VFX isn’t monsters or spaceships but simple ‘fooling the eye’ to tell a story.

Here are the special characteristics we’re looking for on this course (please note NUA portfolio tips also apply):

  • A good way to think about this is imagine you are creating some stills or a scene for a film of some kind. We’re looking for ‘rough diamonds’ we can polish rather than experts or technical whizzes, so don’t think you have to be great at these things – the fact you’ve had a go at any of these would be very useful.
  • Fooling the eye
    We’d expect someone applying for the course to have a good understanding of using Photoshop to ‘fool the eye’ and great artistic sensibilities. How have you manipulated the image to fool us? Have you put something from another image into the scene and tried to make it look like it belonged there? It could be an ordinary day to day scene, something we think we know.
  • Composition and capturing a feeling
    As well as an intuitive knowledge of how to make something look real that isn’t in Photoshop, we’re looking for people who can do something wonderful with a lens. You don’t have to have made a film, stills photography would be fine. Can you use a lens to tell us something emotional about the subject through colour, composition or light without overdoing it? For inspiration you can look at other photographers or filmmakers and see how they make us feel happy, sad, anxious, etc.
  • Spatial awareness
    Experience with 3D would be a bonus: Maya or 3DSMax, Cinema 4D or Sketchup for instance. We’re interested in people who we think have the capability to be 3D ‘Virtual Space Cinematographers’. We don’t necessarily want to see anything realistic in 3D. More imaginative or abstract work is better. How might you build a space that looks threatening, or peaceful? How does a space effect how we feel? A difficult one! We certainly don’t need to see monsters or spaceships unless they are different. We’d prefer to see an environment you’ve thought about as if it was for a film set.