Transition from VFX to Programming


Why would someone to give up a reasonably successful career in the glamorous movie industry for the more banal world of code, bugs and databases? Well, I've been meaning to write about my transition from VFX into Programming for quite a while now, so here goes my attempt at answering that question. Like any big decision, there were multiple reasons that influenced it. But let's start at the beginning...

Note - Looks like there will be multiple blog posts about this topic - this is part 1!

Working in VFX - Beginnings

I more or less fell into VFX by accident. When I was about to finish high school at the International School of Copenhagen, I had to apply for 6 universities. Because I didn't know any better, 5 out of those applications were for Graphic Design. Only when turning up for an actual interview at Goldsmith College in London did I realise what Graphic Design actually meant (I was shown their latest demo reel with featured egg shells and feathers arranged in artful fashion), and was also told by the examining interviewer that I was definitely in the wrong place after he has seen some of my illustration work from art class.

Thankfully I had slipped in a rogue application for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University because it sounded like fun (I was way too much into video games), and when I turned up for the interview and saw the previous years' work, I was hooked. It just felt like a natural fit and after successfully enrolling in the course, I had a blast in the four years that I studied there (3 years Bachelor and 1 year MSc) and just really clicked with building 3D models, then texturing and lighting them. During my time I learnt some C++ and OpenGL and spent some time coding during my MSc, but effectively I had become a 3D technical artist.

Working in VFX - The good times

In the summer of 2005 I started my first job as a Junior Technical Director at Moving Picture Company in Soho, London. It was here where I got my first taste of doing overtime during crunch time ie shortly before a delivery deadline. I soon left to join Double Negative in 2006 where I spent a happy two years of texturing, lighting and look development.

In 2008 I managed to get a job at Weta Digital in New Zealand. I started out working as lighting technical director and progressed to leading a team of lighters at the end of Avatar. Weta was renowned for long hours back then, with an average 50 hours work week going to up 80 hours a week just before a deadline. It became a point of pride of who had worked the most hours, not least because every hour of overtime was paid for! But that doesn't mean that it wasn't fun to be there. I made some great friends during my time there and it really felt like we were doing something special.

In 2010 I received an offer to join Industrial Light Magic in San Francisco, which was too tempting to turn down. The parting advice of my supervisor was that I should looking into programming.

Working at ILM in San Francisco was amazing. It's arguably the best VFX company in the world, having pioneered VFX. Part of their office was a film museum, with exhibits from Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Mission Impossible. Annoyingly I didn't get my contract renewed after Transformers 3 finished, so I headed back to Europe. This was probably one of the big turning points for me.

Working in VFX - Trouble ahead

After coming back from San Francisco, I briefly tried to find work in Germany but with no immediate success, I went back to Double Negative in London in August 2011 (generally there is only about a dozen big VFX companies across a few hubs throughout the world). I continued to work on some great movies, but during my time there a number of things started to bother me.

First off, there was/is no overtime pay in London (as opposed to in NZ and US), which means you can be asked to stay late at work but not get paid for it. This would generally be the norm towards the end (or 'crunch time') of a movie. You might get a £10 meal voucher to buy dinner with, but had to pay if the cost was higher. Not paying for overtime allowed companies to hide inefficiencies in their process. My time working on Total Recall comes to mind which felt really badly managed. Emails were sent around, mandating that employees had to sign off in person if they wanted to leave before 9pm and I stayed until 11pm (so 5 hours unpaid) in the final crunch time. On top of that the director seemed to change his mind quite often and I could not help but feel that I was subsidising a not-very good movie that would still making millions at the box office with my own money.

In 2012 I started working more in the middle management layer, most notably on Skyfall, which I can't say I enjoyed. My role was CG Sequence Supervisor and I was in charge of about 20-30 people. It was a pretty stressful experience thoughout as I only joined half way in, had lots of work to finish and instead of feeling in control of doing the shots myself, I had the much harder task of guiding other people in their work. Towards the end I was also asked to tell the people on my team to stay late after work, which I did not feel comfortable with. In the end the project was successful, but I can't say that I enjoyed coming into work each day.

One day a couple of weeks after Skyfall wrapped, I witnessed my first (and only) day of mass firings at Double Negative. The total number was not revealed, but we guessed that up to 150 people were let go in one day, including some close friends and colleagues. HR even sent an email around, saying that if you didn't receive an email about being let go by the end of the day, you could consider yourself 'safe'.

People were shocked. In the weeks after, there was an attempt of creating a VFX union but to the best of my knowledge it never really took off. Some of the people that were fired found jobs a week later in Singapore or Canada and went their with the promise of a 1 year contract which had become a rarity in London (the popularity of Canada is mostly explained by them providing huge tax rebates for film studios, see this blogpost from Effects Corner). More and more of my friends and colleagues would jokingly discuss their 'exit strategies' of how to quit VFX and find a more sustainable way to work and live. And by the start of 2013 I too had an incling that I should be pursuing a different career...

Next up

How I got started with programming, went to

The Good

  • lots of work, everywhere
  • feels future proof
  • employee's market
  • learning so much more, no more Fachidiot
  • massively useful in all kinds of fields (Civil Service, Banking, Ecommerce, looking to explore Healthcare)

The Bad

  • struggles with going back to school
  • maths is hard
  • pay is not necessarily higher (but contracting is way to go)
  • support out of hours (helps with pay though)
  • tech jobs interviews 😑 too varied and seemingly not related
  • tech bubble/lack of diversity, but at least it's being addressed

The Interesting

  • always have to learn and so much of it
  • social challenges
  • consensus building, conflict management, toxic colleagues
  • much more collaborative than VFX => more surface area for conflict
  • pairing/mobbing