Articles - 24th January 2020

You don’t have to fake it to make it in VFX

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Jon McCormack

From advertising and social media video to TV shows and movies, there’s a huge and increasing demand for VFX artists right now. And whether you’re a newbie or seasoned pro, that includes freelance artists.

That’s because all VFX studios have to manage varying workloads. When a project overruns, a director decides to reshoot, or a new client comes in that no-one wants to turn down, freelancers are a great way to plug the gaps and make sure all deadlines are met.

“It’s a great time to be a freelance VFX artist,” enthuses Mahmoud Rahnama, VFX supervisor and head of studio for Pixomondo’s Toronto and Montreal teams. “Visual effects houses are busy, and companies are looking for good and reliable freelancers.” Yet it’s still a fiercely competitive field, so how can you maximise your chances of getting freelance work?

Jorge Oliva, 2D supervisor and senior compositor at Milk Visual Effects, believes the most important part of getting your foot in the door is a killer showreel. “Select what you think reflects your best work, and don’t rush doing it,” he advises. “If you don’t have enough professional work under your belt, create it yourself: help a friend with their short movie, or just be creative at home.”

It’s important to make your showreel short. “You shouldn’t need more than one minute 20 seconds to convince potential clients you’re the person they’re looking for,” he stresses. And most crucially, avoid overstating your abilities. “It’s important that your client knows your level,” says Jorge. “If you’re a junior artist applying for senior positions, you’ll likely suffer if you get hired, and probably won’t be hired again.”

Mahmoud agrees. “Over-promising and under-delivering is a very common mistake among new VFX freelancers,” he says. “Many artists take ambitious jobs and fail to deliver, which really hurts their reputation.” And Cale Pugh, head of 2D and VFX supervisor at Outpost VFX, takes a similar view. “Never apply for anything you can’t do, or lack confidence in,” he urges. “You’ll definitely get found out, and you’ll have wasted your time and the VFX studio’s time. Instead, try to under-sell and over-deliver.”

It’s understandable why some freelancers are tempted to oversell themselves, because rejection in this industry is common. But you need to learn not to take it personally, says Cale. “There are a million reasons why you might not have got the gig you applied for, and often none of them will be down to you,” he explains.

Instead, boost your chances of getting work by casting your net wider. “Take every opportunity: not just jobs that are close to where you live, or the ones that sound easy,” he recommends. “As an artist, you are the accumulation of your experiences, so get as many as you can.”

Once you’ve found your way into a VFX studio, it’s vital to project the right attitude. “As a freelance artist you’ll be moving around lots of companies, and you need to make a good impression so that people want you on their team,” says Cale. “Remember that when you leave, the other VFX artists on your team will be giving feedback on your performance, and so a positive attitude can go a long way.”

Also, do everything you can to make yourself easy to hire. “For instance, if the company isn’t in the city that you live, always book your own hotel and travel,” says Cale. “If you make it difficult for a company to get you in, that will count against you when you’re looking to get re-hired. And repeat bookings are very useful in giving you stability and a steady income. They look very good on your CV, too.”

Plus, he adds, be social. VFX artists do work hard, and often put in long hours, after which it’s natural to want to head straight home. But as an independent contractor, that would be a mistake. “Sustaining a freelance career is as much about the friends you make along the way as the work you do,” Cale points out. “You never know when the compositor you went to the pub with that time will end up being a VFX supervisor on the latest blockbuster.”

Finally, one of the trickiest things you’ll have to manage as a VFX freelancer is setting your rates, because you don’t want to lose work by asking for too much. “Over-charging or bidding very high is a very common mistake that VFX freelancers make,” says Mamoud. Guides such as the VFX Rate Calculator and the Animation Price Guide can help you get a feel for industry rates as a whole, but there’s no substitute for finding out what artists are actually being paid for particular jobs by particular studios. And again that comes down to being social, forging contacts, and making subtle and diplomatic enquiries.

All this might sound like a big challenge, but there’s a huge potential upside for those who are willing to work hard and convey a positive attitude. “My advice to new artists is to start small and deliver good quality work, fast,” says Mamoud. “Slowly build a reputation and gradually invest in better and faster equipment.” Follow this advice, and you should soon be sitting pretty with a creatively fulfilling and financially rewarding career as a VFX freelancer.

To discover how to get started in VFX, My First Job in Film provides an excellent guide.

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