This article is all about what to include in your demo reel if you want to get in a VFX studio. Even if you are still in school, it’s a good idea to plan ahead. If you are already finished school, then it’s a matter of creating quality content and showing the right material for the job you want.
I thought about what a perfect junior level demo reel should be and here’s my list:
If you are a student, keep your reel under 1 minute.
If you have 1 - 2 years experience, keep the reel under 2 minutes.
Include production experience if you have any.
Breakdowns are good, don’t drag it out. 3-4 quick wipes is all you need.
Include breakdown descriptions where applicable.
Use vimeo, video quality is better than youtube.
Everything in your reel should be 10/10, do not put mediocre work to fill time.
Keep the music fairly conservative, nobody listens to it anyway.
Watch your reel a lot of times, look for comp, edit, frame or spelling errors.
Get feedback from at least 3 instructors or industry pros before releasing online.
Show reference footage when applicable.
Share your reel with the world via linked in, facebook, instagram.
Almost all schools train students to become generalists. If you are applying at a small studio with less than 30 artists, they will most likely want generalists. Larger studios will have separate departments. Below is a departmentalized guide for contents that should be in your reel.
Tracking / Match Move
You need to show your ability to track motion from different types of cameras and props. Always include proxy geometry either in wireframe or semi transparent. Your reel should have examples of:
Nodal camera motion (rotation only)
Steady camera motion
Hand held / jittery camera
Rigid object tracking
Deforming object tracking
Object tracking and rotomation can be a difficult and time consuming task. It’s not an absolute requirement but it will help you stand out.
Some large studios are outsourcing tracking & roto, but they still keep a small team in North America. There is still very little competition when it comes to applying for a match-move / tracking position
Tracking Reel Example:
Asset Developer / Model / Texture / Shading
Building 3d assets is the closest task to being a generalist in the 3d department. Most studios will have a unified role called an “asset artist” to deal with modeling, texturing and shading. A few studios still keep those departments separated. Your reel will need to show a large variety of skills that are now considered the standard for “asset artists”. Your reel should have examples of:
Realistic props with reference for comparison
Hard surface modeling (eg. props, buildings, vehicles, mechanical parts, weapons)
Organic surface modeling & sculpting (eg. creatures, characters, clothing, anatomical parts)
Lidar / photogrammetry retopologizing
Mari & Substance Painter workflow (UDIMS & procedural texturing)
Various shading examples (subsurface, translucent, reflective, refractive, weathered)
Turntables from production quality renderer (Renderman / 3delight, Redshift, Arnold)
Set Dressing with props (eg. trees, plants, leaves, garbage, low res buildings, rocks, terrain)
There’s a steep list of requirements for an asset artist since the scope of work is quite broad. You don’t have to have everything in the list above. The most important part is to show a few “photo real” props with real life picture-in-picture reference.
Don’t get caught up with building extremely complex models such as battleships, boats, cars, trains, and cities. These types of geometry have many parts and will take too long to model. Most of these types of models are often purchased from a model library anyway. It’s better to focus your time on showing skills that are relevant for production work.
Since modeling is one the first skills students learn, it tends to become the favourite for many as well. Be prepared to compete with a large number of junior artists applying for this position.
The most common software you need to know are maya, mari, substance painter, photoshop. It would be a bonus to know houdini, blender, nuke, arnold
The main objective is for your reel to show your understanding of the “12 Principles of Animation”. Showcase your ability to work with different rigs by showing animation with and without controllers. Most animation for VFX will involve animating props, not characters. Make sure some of your work is integrated with live action footage (even if it’s not rendered). In typical VFX shots, animated props are mostly foreground “hero” objects. We choose to animate them in order to get precise object placement, motion and composition. An ideal demo reel for an animator should include the following:
Technical & Prop animation (animate props being affected or interacting with live action footage)
Character animation (walk cycles, action movements, facial animation & lip sync)
Previz & Camera (shot composition, realistic camera motion)
Mocap cleanup & rotomation (Rotomate live action footage, cleanup and enhance mocap)
This is the one department where it’s ok to show unrendered work. Of course rendered animation always helps sell a shot. The last 2 items in the list are optional, but it will help your reel stand out. The most important for an animation reel is showing your ability to animate both characters and props with realistic motions.
The requirement for animators will highly depend on the type of project the studio is working on. We generally keep at least 5 on staff, the numbers could easily double if a project requires a lot of animation. Turn over for animation in VFX is fairly low, but there’s always room for that extraordinary animator.
FX / Dynamics
Students are notorious for posting Houdini tutorials and shelf generated tools in their reels; This has to stop. Placing a carbon copy of a tutorial in your reel does not prove that you understand the fundamentals of the lesson. Learn a few tutorials and repurpose them for your own needs. Make sure your work is different from what everyone else is showing.
These are the most common Dynamics / FX work that show up in feature films:
Procedural Effects & Instancing - volumes, complex fracturing, geometry scattering, noise driven animation, geometry, growth patterns & other unnatural phenomena (leaves, trees, buildings, snow, bacteria, lightning, force fields, clouds, fog)
Pop - embers, ash, dust, snow, rain, distortion, reveal / vanishing effect
Pyro - Smoke & Fire
RBD - crumbling structures, broken glass, fracturing
Vellum - cloth, flags, crumpling objects, dirt interaction
Spectrum Ocean - non simulated water (ocean, river, lake, pond)
R&D- Flip Tank, Crowd, Fur/hair, wire, chops, terrain, scripting / custom tools
There's a lot to learn in Houdini and you are certainly not expected to know all of them. It’s better to focus on good quality basic simulations than having a lot of mediocre examples. Simplify and keep your effect subtle. Not everything has to be an epic explosion.
“Research & Development” (R&D) is optional, this can demonstrate your ability to problem-solve and learn on your own. It’s ok to show R&D renders over black. Make sure you are not simply copying a tutorial.
Make sure you include footage of the live action reference you are matching to such as fire, smoke, snow, dust, destruction etc. Knowing how to light and shade your FX work will help showcase the motion better. Aim to have some of the FX integrated on a live action plate.
Most TV and Films have plenty of effects ranging from simple dust particles to complex water simulations. The availability for FX artists greatly varies depending on the size of the studio. Many students and artists are attracted to this role, expect a lot of competition entering the job market. FX artists that truly understand the fundamentals of procedural thinking / problem solving is still difficult to find.
Matte Painting / Environment / 2.5D
Matte painting is best fitted for an individual with traditional art background and photography. A good matte painter can save hundreds of hours by photobashing and painting an entire background instead of CG. In addition, matte painters should also have thorough knowledge in Nuke, Modeling and some lighting. An ideal matte painting reel should include:
Photo real environment & extensions
Compositing & Projection mapping
CG Paint Over
Experience with practical painting & drawing
Matte painters are a vital role in the VFX team. Studios don’t typically have more than a dozen matte painters. The turnover and demand for this role is relatively low.
As procedural tools become increasingly more accessible, it is a big bonus to be able to scatter megascans using Houdini or Unreal.
The finaling stage of a vfx shot happens in comp. A compositing artist is responsible for many types of integration tasks and they tend to carry the burden of correcting any imperfections coming from other departments. In order to be an employable compositor, make sure your reel can show a wide array of your skill sets. The list below shows the most typical work a Nuke compositor might do on a project:
Blue / Green Screen (hair detail, motion blur, zoomed in picture-in-picture)
Various rotoscope examples (focus change & motion blurred objects, roto layers)
Paint, clean plate & rebuild (wireframe, object / set removal)
Practical element Integration & 2d tracking
Projection mapping (eg. signs, buildings, ground)
Sky replacement / Matte Painting integration
Day for Night
Retime to slow motion
The last 4 in the list in bold are common 2d tasks that almost never show up in demo reels. You don’t need a separate shot for each example, some of these tasks can be merged into 1 shot.
An essential compositor skill is the ability to pay very close attention to detail. Check all your comps for technical imperfections and zoom into the pixels to make sure everything is integrated properly. An experienced compositor, supervisor or recruiter can easily spot errors even on compressed online video formats.
Compositing Reel Example:
There's a lot of responsibility being a rigger for a VFX studio. Riggers are responsible for connecting the supply chain of geometry for every other department in 3d. Riggers typically have ways of scripting repetitive procedures and generally have a technical mind set. Since the responsibility is steep in this role, most rigging positions are offered to artists with a few years of experience. A good rigger should have some experience animating, modeling and building a variety of rigs. Most studios are still using maya for animation rigs. A rigging reel should include some animation and modeling along with some examples showcasing the list below:
Quadruped & Multi-legged Rig
Scripting / Procedural Rigging
I personally have only interviewed a few riggers in the past 4 years and the turnover is extremely low for this position.
Entering a VFX studio will be a bit tough as a j.r. Lighter. We generally keep a small and efficient lighting team. Most lighting setups for sequences can be propagated and a small team can deal with the entire show. In the last 4 years, I only interviewed a handful and only hired one. Larger studios with 200+ artists are more likely to hire straight out of school.
The ideal material that’s good to have in your reel are:
Full CG scene
CG integrated with live action
Volumetric / Fur / Dynamics
Model / Texture / Shading turntables
There are a lot of different rendering engines. Some of the common ones being used are Arnold, Redshift ,Mantra and 3delight. Pick one and roll with it, you don’t need to know all of them. These days most lighting uses a combination of HDRI & PBR (Physically Based Rendering). A well integrated CG shot will go a long way, once again focus on quality v.s. Quantity. Include a simple breakdown.
If you want your reel to impress the viewer and stand out, include varying materials in your render. Most students tend to forget that objects in the real world have a large variation in shading properties.
Lighting Reel Example: