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Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio

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How to Learn VFX (Beginner’s Guide + Top Courses)

by | Last updated Dec 11, 2023

Due to the popularity of movies and streaming platforms, visual effects artists are in high demand. Learning VFX can be an excellent way to break into the industry and build a rewarding and successful career.

Ready to learn more? Let’s go.

You’ll learn: 

What is VFX?

What does a VFX artist do? 

Who should learn VFX? 

Can you learn VFX online? 

Can you learn VFX on your own?

The best VFX courses

 

What is VFX?

Visual effects (VFX) are computer-generated visual effects used in film, television, video games, and other media to enhance or alter scenes in post-production.

VFX can be used to add special effects, such as explosions, fire, or water, or to create scenes that would be difficult to create in real life (large crowds or landscapes).

You can also use visual effects techniques to create entire digital worlds and characters. Visual effects can be used to add touches to a scene (including making the background more realistic or a character more lifelike).

What’s more, VFX is often used in combination with other techniques such as animation, motion capture, and computer-generated imagery (CGI).

For instance, VFX can be used to create the illusion of a character flying through the air, by combining live-action footage with CG elements such as a digital environment and animated wings.

One famous example of a movie that uses VFX?

In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, the late Carrie Fisher was “brought back” as Princess Leia, thanks to VFX.

A few other movies that use VFX are:

  • Avatar
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Harry Potter

Want a closer overview of what VFX projects can look like? Here you go:

Computer-generated visual effects

Computer-generated visual effects can create entirely artificial scenes and environments, such as in science fiction films. VFX allows filmmakers to take their storytelling to the next level, creating imaginative and immersive worlds for audiences to enjoy.

Compositing

In VFX, compositing is the process of combining multiple elements to create a single image. This includes combining elements such as live-action footage, 3D elements, and special effects. The end result is a believable image that has the desired visual impact.

Examples of compositing are combining two different shots into one, adding CG elements to a live-action shot, or combining elements from different sources.

Motion Capture

Motion capture is the process of recording the motion of objects or people. It is used in many areas such as film, video games, virtual reality, and 3D animation. For example, Avatar and The Lord of the Rings used this technique.

Motion capture techniques capture movements and translate them into a digital form, making them easier to use in animation and other digital applications. Motion capture is typically achieved using special cameras and sensors that capture the motion of the objects or people being recorded. The data is then processed and used to create a digital representation of the motion.

But how exactly do professional VFX artists work on these projects? Let’s take a look.

What does a VFX artist do?

A VFX artist is a specialist in creating visual effects.

There are several types of VFX artists who work on different parts of the VFX pipeline.

These include:

  • Concept artists
  • Pre-visualization artists
  • VFX animators
  • Compositors
  • Matte painters
  • CG artists
  • Lighting artists

Concept artists work in the pre-production stage. They create artwork to inspire the look of the VFX by drawing characters, environments, props, vehicles, and buildings. Many of these images are 2D images, but they could also be produced with 3D software.

Another role in the pre-production stage, pre-visualization artists, plan what the end result (film or game) is going to look like. They usually start with a 3D storyboard and then create draft versions of the moving image sequences.

VFX animators make characters (or vehicles or machinery) move and come alive. They use rigs (digitally movable 3D models) to create frames (images). In a sequence, frames form an animation.

Compositors are responsible for taking all the different elements of the shot and combining them into one image. For example, a compositor might take an actor’s performance filmed on a green screen, a background plate shot in a different location, and CG elements and combine them together to create a single shot.

Matte painters are responsible for creating digital environments and manipulating the lighting to create an immersive experience. For instance, a matte painter might take a 3D model of a castle, add some textures and shadows, and adjust the lighting to make it look like it was shot on location.

CG artists create 3D models and textures, while VFX lighting artists are responsible for adding lighting and shading effects. For example, a lighting artist might use a program such as Arnold or Renderman to create a realistic lighting effect for a 3D model of a car.

Different VFX artists work closely with other departments such as cinematography and special effects. Some VFX artists work as generalists and can work on any area of VFX. Others are specialists and focus on a specific area, like lighting.

But who should learn VFX?

That’s what we’ll look at next.

Who should learn VFX?

If you want to become a VFX artist, then you need to learn VFX.

But what skills do you need?

VFX is a creative and technical field. While you don’t need to have artistic skills to become a VFX artist, you do need to learn how to use software. So, you need creative and technical skills (but they’re learnable, as we’ll look at below).

And if you’re looking to work in animation and VFX, learning VFX is part of that career trajectory.

However, how can you learn VFX?

Can you learn VFX online?

Yes, you can learn VFX online.

But should you?

Or, should you complete a degree?

The answer is…

It doesn’t matter. You see, VFX is an industry that doesn’t require a specific degree. You can learn the same skills online, especially with the help of mentors and course instructors.

Online courses can often be more cost-effective and more flexible, allowing you to learn at your own pace and in your own time. They’re not as expensive as degrees – and you don’t have to spend years on getting a degree.

What’s more, some online courses offer the opportunity to receive feedback from expert instructors, which can be extremely valuable in terms of gaining practical skills.

Degree programs have their advantages, too. For example, if you’re planning on going or returning to college, a degree program can give structure to your learning. (But, the right VFX course gives that same structure.)

A few well-known degree programs are:

  • University of Southern California
  • Savannah College of Art and Design
  • The Gnomon School of Visual Effects

Both online courses and degree programs can give you access to visual effects industry experts and mentors.

Can you learn VFX on your own?

Yes, you can learn VFX on your own by watching tutorials, reading books and articles, and practicing with the tools and software available. With dedication and hard work, even a complete beginner can become proficient in VFX.

However, this is an extremely difficult path because you need to learn everything from scratch.

A better alternative is to use online courses to learn on your own, especially those created by people who have the right experience.

But what are the steps you need to take to learn VFX? Here’s what you need to know.

The four steps to learning VFX

How do you learn VFX? By taking these steps:

  • Pick a software
  • Learn to use the software
  • Create a demo reel
  • Learn automation and coding

Let’s take a look at each of these.

Pick a software

The first step to learning VFX is to pick a software to start. Some of these platforms include Blender, Maya, Adobe After Effects, and Houdini.

Once you have chosen your software, it’s important to learn the basics of how it works and what it can do. You should learn the fundamentals of the software, such as the user interface, how to navigate the workspace, and how to create and manipulate 3D objects.

After you have the basics down, you can start to explore the more specific tools and features in the software that you will need to create your VFX projects. This includes learning how to use the materials library, lighting tools, animation tools, and particle systems.

Learn to use the software

The second step would be to take an online tutorial class or course to learn how to use the software. Again, learning the fundamentals will give you a basic understanding of the software and how it works, so you can make the most of its features and capabilities.

Taking an online class or course will allow you to go even deeper and really become an expert in the software.

After completing the tutorial, practice using the software with real-world applications. This will allow you to gain practical experience with the software and become comfortable with its capabilities. Additionally, making mistakes during this process will help you learn faster and gain more expertise.

Create a demo reel

As you learn, you should practice and experiment with the software to get a better understanding of the tools and techniques available with the goal of creating a demo reel.

That’s the third step. Creating a demo reel is important because it will be valuable to show potential employers and clients what you can do. It will demonstrate your abilities and give an idea of the type of work that you are capable of producing.

A VFX demo reel should showcase your skills in visual effects. It should illustrate your ability to create photo-realistic imagery and animation, as well as demonstrate your understanding of visual effects techniques and software.

Include a variety of different types of projects and effects and keep it short and to the point.

For instance, if you want to showcase your 2D compositing skills, you could include shots of a live-action scene that you have enhanced or augmented with VFX elements.

Make sure to include a brief description of each shot in the reel. This will help the viewer better understand the work you’ve done. Finally, make sure to emphasize the skills you want to highlight in your reel, and avoid including anything that is unrelated.

Learn VFX automation and coding

The last step is to learn about VFX automation and coding. Automation and coding can be used to streamline the process of generating photo-realistic imagery and animation, such as through scripting and other software tools.

VFX automation and coding allow for the automation of tedious tasks, such as animation, rendering, and compositing. This can reduce the amount of manual labor needed to create complex visuals, as well as cut down on time and cost associated with projects.

Additionally, coding can be used to create more intuitive user interfaces, allowing for greater control and flexibility over the creative process.

Now, let’s move on to the top VFX courses to learn from.

The best VFX online courses for beginners

What are the best VFX courses you can take?

You have a few options to choose from.

You could take a “mini course” that teaches you how to use a software.

Or, you sign up for an “A to Z” course that teaches you all the skills you need.

Ultimately, you’ll want to sign up for a course that supports your goals within the VFX industry – whether you want to work in the film and games industry, VR, or something else.

Here are a few courses to help you get started.

Introduction to Photorealistic Lighting

Academy of Animated Art

Do you want to become a Lighting Artist for VFX but don’t have the portfolio and foundational background to apply for the job?

That’s why we created “Introduction to Photorealistic Lighting.”

This course will give you the necessary skills and knowledge to apply confidently to a VFX lighting job – even if you’re a beginner.

Grooming for VFX 

CG Master Academy

In this course, you will discover the basics of grooming to create fur and hair. You will need to have an understanding of Maya and know the basics of rendering, texturing, and lookdev. The course is eight weeks long.

Introduction to the Unreal Engine

Academy of Animated Art

Unreal Engine is a stable software in the gaming industry and is rapidly growing in popularity in architectural visualization, VFX, and animation. While this software has traditionally been used in gaming, its application is much broader these days.

Visual Effects for Games in Unity

Udemy

This course is about the creation of VFX for Games with Unity. You’ll start learning how to create Magic Spells, Fireballs, Special Skills and more effects for games. It will take you from a Beginner standpoint to an Intermediate level in Game VFX.

Next steps

There you have it! That’s how you’ll learn VFX.

VFX is a fast-growing field with plenty of job opportunities. By learning how to use visual effect techniques, you’ll build a thriving career doing creative and interesting work.

Want to learn more about becoming a VFX artist?

Get the three insider secrets to make your demo reel stand out:

 

Learn more: 

The Difference Between VFX and Animation 

The 10 Top VFX Learning Books

The Best VFX Studios to Work For

 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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