Tag Archives: Project

Recommended Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

If you haven’t already, go and read the first part of this mini-series on Deliberate Practice and Continuous Learning.

Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Over the past week I’ve been looking at job openings for VFX artists, mainly in America, Canada, and the UK but I wasn’t very location picky. Here are the assumptions I’ve made based on the criteria they claim to desire.

They tend to split into two broad categories; Software and Techniques, and Personal traits. Because both categories seem to be integral I’m going to cover each in turn.

Software and Techniques Wish List

For any of these subjects deliberate practice is easy to define (relatively). You can start out on each topic by picking up a good textbook or course and once you know enough of the basics you can set up a plan to practice those daily while you experiment with new things on the other side. There are hundreds of tutorials for each (or at least a few) and plenty of resources available.

Because its less of a challenge to figure out how to get started I’m going to keep this part fairly simple. Here’s a list of techniques and pieces of software that came up during my research.

Software:

  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max
  • After Effects
  • Nuke
  • Photoshop
  • Python (scripting)
  • Unreal Engine (mostly with games)
  • Shake
  • Cascade
  • Mental Ray
  • Houdini
  • Mel (more scripting)

Techniques:

  • Particle Effects
  • Composite Layers
  • Rendering Optimisation
  • Light Rigs
  • Roto Mattes
  • Blue/Green Screening
  • 2D Painting Skills for Mark-ups
  • Compositing
  • Integrating live action with miniatures or CGI
  • Use textures and 3D meshes in effects
  • Performance and Resource Management (games again)
  • Fluid Dynamic Particle Effects
  • Graphic Shaders
  • Procedural Modelling
  • Real Time Particle Systems
  • Scripting
  • Stylized lighting and Mood Lighting
  • Traditional Art Skills
  • Photography
  • Digital Image Manipulation
  • Stereoscopic 3D

Quite a list! I’m going to go through most of the techniques on this blog in the next few years, and probably some of the different pieces of software.

Traits of a Perfect Employee

These are, in general, much harder to practice and develop. Personally, I think this is because defining them is tricky; how do you cultivate being proactive, for example?

Hand on heart, I don’t know if any of this will actually work. Yet. I’ve only tried out deliberate practice on a couple of them and even on those I’ve tried the progress is slow (though noticeable). I’ll list my translation of the traits I found (you’re welcome!) and then I’ll go into depth on one for an example. If you’ve been practicing already, or you’re really good at some of these, drop me a comment and let me know how it went for you.

  • Understanding of Light, Colour and Composition
  • Demonstrate you’re a team player and can get along with multiple disciplines and backgrounds (I’d recommend building connections for this part)
  • Be able to talk about different types of art, your preferences, and why you like one style vs. another
  • Build change into your workflow and try not to flip out when things change last minute
  • Show you’ve improved your skills over time (*cough*Continuous Learning*cough*)
  • Be proactive and take initiative
  • Take direction from peers and supervisors with grace
  • Keep to schedule and deadlines
  • Create quality work
  • Perform well under high stress (or, presumably, manage the stress so that it never reaches ‘high’)
  • Communicate well within the team
  • Problem Solving
  • Spend time consuming projects from your industry (Different types of games for games, TV programs for television, etc)

Keep to Schedule and Deadlines (my example)

Anyone that knows me, knows I struggle with this one. Not because of bad time-keeping but because I have this habit of taking on far more than I can achieve within a specified time frame.

In fact, and I’m not proud of this, I don’t think I finished a single practical project in my degree year. Fortunately my ideas and paperwork were good enough that I passed anyway – that didn’t make it feel much better to me. After a month or so of not doing anything at all (ok, maybe two months) when the course finished I finally dusted myself off and decided to do something about that.

I found a project management solution that allowed me to time myself doing tasks, create milestones, multiple projects, and anything else I needed. I also went through the Personal Effectiveness Program book; some chapters were more helpful than others but I’d recommend giving it a read and following through as much as possible.

Armed with those tools I set up projects, learned quickly that everything creative was taking longer than I’d estimated and a lot of the other tasks were taking far less time to complete. The next time I scheduled a task similar to one I’d completed, I looked at the difference between estimated time and actual time and adjusted it accordingly.

I learned that I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d thought initially and scaled back on the work I scheduled for each day, prioritising the tasks as I went.

This was my form of continuous improvement; I’m still not very good at it but I’m more accurate than I was and I’ve gone from 1-2 hours of solid ‘real’ work a day to 2-3 (sometimes more) on average. Since I can see just how ambitious every idea I come up with is now I can allocate enough time to work on them (one of the benefits of setting your own deadlines for your own ideas) and the failing to learn process is much simpler.

To summarize the steps in a general way, here’s what I did:

  • Identified a problem in my skill set
  • Set up a method to track why there was a problem
  • Using the information gathered from tracking, determine what my ‘basics’ were (For this example those were estimating accurately, allocating work coherently, and paring back non-essential tasks)
  • Practice those basics every day and track improvements

Once I reach a point where I can successfully take a project from start to finish without extending the deadline then I can start to be more adventurous in how I practice. Yes I’m aware that sounds terrible (this would be a good time to point out that I can work on other people’s projects to schedule easily enough).

Your Next Steps

Have a look at that huge list and decide which part is most relevant to you. Then comment below saying which one it is, and I’ll respond with how I would start to work on it were I in your shoes.

That way, we can start together. Get the ball rolling with your comment just now (I dare you).

Continuous Learning and Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Why should I care about Continuous Learning?

Continuous learning is one of those things we hear a lot while we’re in school or college, usually within the first week of the year and as some magical thing that will help us throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, that’s usually all that’s said on the subject. If you’re lucky you get a bit more about why you should be doing it, or even a couple of pointers for things to practice that will be ‘useful in the industry’.

Continuous learning or Deliberate Practice, however, is one of the most important skills you can cultivate. Not just in this industry (though my research over the past week suggests that its a desirable trait), but in life in general.

It allows you to take skills you’ve learned, multiply them (over time) and if followed through it can make you a true expert in your areas of interest. I could go on, but I learned most of what I know from these folks;

 Let’s Define Deliberate Practice

For the purposes of this post I’m going to define deliberate practice as follows;

“The continual act of regularly taking a skill you have and practicing both the basics and pushing your understanding.”

  • Continual = you don’t stop.
  • Regular = Daily, Weekly, Fortnightly (I wouldn’t recommend monthly, but it could happen).
  • Skill = Measurable activity or set of actions. Think modelling with low polys, texturing to a certain resolution, and so on.
  • The basics = The very foundation of your skill. What you’re taught first when approaching the topic – the basic tenants of your craft.
  • Pushing your understanding = Going further than you ever have before. Possibly even than anyone has gone (I’m resisting a star trek quote here, but you get the idea).

It’s hard work, on a regular basis, over a long period of time. This isn’t a magical bullet solution (and because of that I fully expect most of you to ignore this!), you won’t become amazing over night and it’ll be more boring than anyone really wants to think too closely about.

Your friends, family and significant other won’t get it. Guaranteed.

It will give you both increased skill in your ‘area of expertise’ (for want of a better phrase) and a framework which you can use to learn just about anything with a little creativity.

In the visual effects industry in particular it’s vital; technology and techniques move far too quickly to approach learning them with anything less than a creatively made, flexible, framework. Our bread and butter as 3D artists changes every year or so (looking at Autodesk here) and we have to get used to software features appearing and disappearing all the time. Going beyond that, technological advances mean new techniques, new pieces of hardware, new software, and new requirements at our heart.

Assuming 2012 doesn’t herald the end of all we know, here’s how I’d recommend approaching these challenges for a visual effects artist. At least to begin with – you’ll come up with your own ideas and tailor it to your own plans eventually.

First, Make Time For It

Finding time is the first major hurdle when you approach anything outside of your normal routine. It’s not like we have time where we’re doing literally nothing – every single one of us can effectively fill our 24 hours a day.

Working on the assumption that no one can alter time or be in more than one place at once, we’re going to have to make sacrifices to fit all this in. I’d recommend an hour a day as being fairly manageable though you’ll know how much time you can spare. I’m not about to guilt you or point fingers at some of the things we fill our time with, but here are some points to keep in mind:

  1. It’s been mentioned multiple times that it takes 10,000 hours of continuous practice to become an expert.
  2. Focusing is not easy. After a bunch of practice and really watching where my time goes I’ve discovered that I can pay attention and work hard for approximately 2-3 hours a day. (Note: I work longer than that, but never very effectively)
  3. Exercise can usually roust you from sleepy inactivity, especially after work. I recommend dancing.

Next Time on ‘Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists’

Yes, it’s a bit of a tease but my ultra long post just wasn’t focused enough to cut the mustard (though why anyone would want to, I’ve no idea).

This will continue tomorrow with specific techniques and traits that my research into job postings has uncovered and how to use Deliberate Practice to improve your own skills. As well as a fascinating example from yours truly. Well, ‘somethin-ating’ anyway.

In the mean time, your next step is to make some room. You know where. Commit to some deliberate practice, mark out a time on your calendar daily (I like google calendar for this), and prepare yourself.

Also, comment and let me know what you’re taking time from to do this instead.

 

Two Types of Purpose

In the first post we talked about why having a purpose behind your work is important.  I also mentioned briefly that there are two types of purpose we can use in creative projects, this post shows how to create both of them.

In order to succeed, wildly, you’ll need:

In order for your project to ‘work’ to the best of its ability you need two different types of purpose.  Rather than belabouring the point at this stage, lets dive in and take a look at how to make them.

Creative Type Definition

Creative purpose gives life and soul to your projects; it deals with the higher meaning, why you want to do it, and what change you’re trying to make in the world (or whatever social group you’re comfortable with).  Without this, even if you have an amazing business purpose the idea itself will be a shell, possibly uninspired and definitely lack spark.

Creating the Creative Purpose

Look at your life and what matters to you.  Think about what you believe, feel the things that tug on your heart, and start from there.  The creative purpose is the most personal part of any project; I couldn’t and probably wouldn’t tell you how to find it.

There aren’t any road maps to defining what’s right or what you want to say and it’s different for every person.  In my opinion this is why we’re able to have so many different art forms and artists; not one of us thinks in exactly the same way as another, and we all have different messages and things we want to talk about.  This part can take a long time to find, and to get ‘right’.  You’ll know it when you have, sometimes you have to start work before it’s fully formed (that’s another issue entirely) however I’d urge you to wait until you have at least a rough idea before beginning.

Creative Purpose is your cornerstone after all, it’s worth taking the time to do this part properly.

Structuring your Creative Purpose

The beauty of the creative purpose is that there’s no iron-clad structure.  Often a simple statement is enough.

That is, as long as the statement conveys the following points to you (and those you work with!) whenever you read it:

  • The change you want to make
  • The circumstance you want to improve
  • The emotion you want others to feel
  • The message you want to send
  • It has an emotional connection with you; you should feel it in your gut

Example: Creative Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

My creative purpose for this month’s feature series reads something like this:

Provide clarity to creators so we can see more awesomely cool stuff.

Ulterior motives aside, that works for me.  My logic follows that we can’t make our absolute best projects without having a reason for doing so, and sometimes we can start with one and lose it along the way (or without one, which is scary but we’ve all done it).  By defining both types of purpose there’s a clear direction for us to travel in, since I believe this is really important and I want to be around to see some really well written games, animations, scenes, stories, etc… This theme was born.

Business Type Definition

On the other hand the business purpose gives structure to the idea.  What you’re making, what targets you’re trying to reach, who will use the finished product, and so on through all the more practical concerns.  This determines how successful your project will be at getting the message out and/or making money.

Building your Business Purpose

Before you can write your business purpose you’ll need to make three main choices.  First you’ll have to decide what you’re making; can’t go far wrong here and your creative purpose might point you in the right direction.

Second, what you’re trying to achieve.  This is a little trickier and speaks to your motives more than anything else.  Maybe you have a product and you’re trying to generate more sales.  Or you have a website / blog and you’d like more visits and views.  Possibly you want to win a competition, or get your message out to the greatest amount of people possible.  Aim high, but not cripplingly so here, and be specific.  Instead of saying something like ‘I want more people to visit my site’, go for something like ‘I want 50 people to visit my site per day by 1st January 2011’.  Constrain your goal.  Make it achievable, but not too easy.  Really go for it!

The third and potentially most important decision is about who you’re trying to reach.  Do you have a specific target audience (if not, why not?)?  Who would you most like to connect with?  How do they spend their time?  Are they students, working, not working, within your industry, in a specific age range, location, gender… There are a lot of questions you could be asking here.  As with your ‘goal’, your target audience has to be specific.

Structuring your Business Purpose

Unlike the creative purpose your business purpose has a generally accepted format.  It takes the form of a short sentence covering each of the three areas we just discussed.  You can almost copy/paste each section into the structure below:

A [what you’re making] for [target audience] in order to [business target/goal].

Example: Business Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

Continuing our example from before, the business purpose for this month’s themed features looks a bit like this:

Create a series of blog posts for creative professionals looking to make their own, successful, projects in order to revive my blog and bring visitors per day up to 45 by August 15th 2011.

Since it’s a blog project I’m running my first section was a given (I actually cheated and had the form before my creative purpose because I had a specific slot to fill per week).  My target audience was defined in a fairly broad sense because this particular set of blog posts can be applied by multiple disciplines, since I have a few creative avenues myself it makes no sense to over specify at this stage.

However, I did pin-point it to creative professionals (people working within creative industries, or wish to, with the skills required) and a mindset (looking to make their own, successful, projects).  The mindset it key at this point because it focuses the direction of each post back to an ultimate goal – partially defined in my creative purpose.

As for my target – I’m a blog owner that’s had a semi-dead blog for the last year due to time constraints.  I needed to come back out with a bang though traffic doesn’t grow overnight.  45 people seemed a fair goal, and by placing the deadline half way through next month each post should have time to gather a little momentum.

Next Time

This week we’ve gone through the process of creating our own creative and business purposes in order to define our projects and give ourselves definite goals.  In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at finding these purposes in existing projects; both client defined and personal.

Right now though I’d like you to choose one of your projects (or things you do) and come up with both a creative purpose and a business one.  Comment below and let me know how you got on.

Purpose Introduction

Why do we create what we create?  What is our purpose?

July Monthly Feature: Purpose

No one likes to stumble around, not quite realising what it is they really want to do with what they’re creating, or how a client really wants to see a brief fulfilled.  By being able to create, identify, and use purposes we can eliminate some of that confusion and make every project from here on out much simpler to understand and more effective in execution.

Because it’s such an important concept we’re going to be exploring it as our feature throughout July.  This post kicks it all off by talking about purpose, what it is, and why we should bother and then over the next couple of weeks we look at creating purposes, identifying them in existing projects, the two main types of purpose, and how to use them.

What is Purpose?

According to Uncle Google, a purpose is:

The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

As a broad definition that’s perfect, and exactly what we’re looking for.  The reason behind what you do, and create, or why something exists.  We can take this definition and apply it to just about everything, from a kid building a sandcastle to one company buying another.

Taking it into our industry though there are two levels of purpose that I want to explore within this series.  The first is business purpose.  Examples of that include making business cards to generate more leads, designing an e-commerce site to increase sales, starting a t-shirt line to increase brand awareness.  Anything that relates in some way to money, visitors, and power can come under the ‘business’ purpose.

The second purpose, and probably the more fun one, is the ‘creative’ purpose.  This deals with the less tangible meanings, like educating someone, causing a tear with your story, encouraging laughter, changing a behaviour, awareness of an issue.

I propose that in everything we do as creative professionals, we should be defining both of those purposes.

Why bother with Purpose?

    1.  Stay on message

If you know exactly what you’re trying to say and why it’s much easier to build that into whatever you’re doing.  Design and functionality choices become more focused because they’re there to enhance rather than define.

2.  Measurable results

When there’s an end goal, you can test and track your product/project to see how well it’s progressing towards that goal.  And make tweaks where you need them.

3.  Clarity in Execution.

Ever reached the point in a project where you’re not absolutely certain what you need to do next to improve it, take it to the next level, or complete it?  By knowing what you’re trying to do you’re in a better position for planning, and deciding when it’s done.

What happens without one?

We do our best.  And guess.  Some of us are exceptional guessers and can get work done for clients and themselves really quickly and effectively (personally I think these people are subconsciously determining the reason first), others not so much.

Can’t answer for anyone else, but I’d much rather work on something while knowing exactly why I’m doing it and what the outcome is.  Wouldn’t you?

Next week we’ll be looking at how to create both types of purpose statements.  But before you go; what is the most poorly defined project you’ve taken part in?

Until I’m 60 or so…

Subconscious Interface Test - Mixed Emotional Colours

Look at the shiny, emotional colours... Don't they blend nicely?

Where to begin.

I suppose I could start at the beginning as per conventional wisdom, but really, where’s the fun in that?

My super secret project that I was planning on unveiling near the start of summer changed. It had been a tutorial interface for videos, downloads, etc, but I got bored and changed my mind. It’s sitting half planned on the back-burner, cooling its heels in the waiting room alongside a couple of tutorials I could mention, leaving the way clear for me to do something much more fun. Drum-roll please….

The new college project is:

A digital imaginary friend/mirror that you can talk to as easily as you talk to yourself and actually gain some sense from it.

Subconscious Interface Test

When getting to know you, the entity doesn't use colour.

Not a sliver of 3D involved you’ll notice, but I do have pretty pictures of proposed interfaces (that’s what those things dotted through the post are). Instead there’s a large chunk of programming, another large chunk of psychology, and a portion of colour theory and digital typography.

Over the course of its development (which I’m optimistically stating will be finished in approximately 40 years) I’ll be posting strange, interesting, or useful facts about the project along with a smattering of more lighthearted posts and maybe some 3D stuff if I have other things to work on. No posting schedules – I dislike announcing those anyway, obvious reasons – and absolutely no promises. But it’ll be fun, I can tell you that much.

For me, at least.

Right now I’m working through the planning stages in college so that I can pass my course (like a good little student), posts will likely reflect that for the next little while and I’ll be sporadic at best. In the meantime if you feel like helping out, comment below with any opinions or thoughts on the project and if you haven’t already please fill in the survey over here.