How to Get Hired as a VFX Artist: an Interview With Hannah Killian

By: Rebelway

Are you preparing your resume for the VFX application process? Make sure you read this guide on getting hired in VFX to increase your chances of being noticed by the HR team.

Sometimes it might seem like there is a secret formula to getting hired in VFX that only a few people know. While there are, in fact, a few gotchas you should be aware of, overall landing a position in the industry is no rocket science. Talent Manager Hannah Killian explains how to make your application stronger and comments on the most common beginner mistakes aspiring artists make when submitting their resume.

Many aspiring artists believe that the industry is so competitive it's nearly impossible to get a job, even as a VFX runner. And some believe you can never make it to a senior position unless you have connections that can help you land a job. Is it true? Why do people have the impression that the VFX job market is unapproachable?

There’s no denying that VFX is a competitive industry, but the same could be said for most creative industries. I think the fact that studios have a vast global talent pool to pull from can lead people to view the market as unapproachable, but in my opinion, it provides even more opportunities for aspiring artists.

Without experience in the industry, it’s reasonable to have some trepidation about finding a job, but it’s far from impossible to secure a great VFX position for yourself. Regardless of the industry, job searching is really difficult. It can be exhausting, but it’s important to learn what you can in the process and not lose sight of your goal. 

Having connections is never a bad thing, but not a prerequisite to breaking into the industry, and certainly not to making it to higher-level positions. In my opinion, the hierarchy of VFX is based more on merit and skill. The beauty of this world is that your work speaks for itself. If you are skilled in your craft, willing to work hard, and respectful of your colleagues, then the only way to go is up. 

One more big misconception is that if you don't have all the skills and qualifications listed in the job description, there's no point in applying. Artists often assume they're too young or too old for the job, or that having no academic training in art will make the hiring manager send their CV straight to trash. Should artists apply anyway, even if their qualifications don’t exactly align with the position requirements? Does having a full skill set that a job requires guarantee that you're going to get it?

When it comes down to it, most people are not going to have every single skill and qualification for a position, so recruiters review candidates with that in mind. Obviously you shouldn’t apply to every VFX job you see, but if your qualifications align closely enough to the crux of the role, I’d say to go for it. Recruiters aren’t reviewing applicants with a fine-tooth comb and comparing their resume to each bullet point on the job listing, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard the position description. 

As a general rule of thumb, if you are confident you can perform the duties of a position to the level of standard expected by the studio, then you should apply. 

If a position seems like a reach and you’re missing many required skills, then you should wait until the company posts a position you’re better suited to before applying for a role there. Especially when it comes to specialist roles, it’s better to not apply than submit your resume for a job that you can’t perform. When studios are looking for an artist with a specific software knowledge, and you’ve never used it, it’s safe to assume that you won’t be considered seriously. 

No matter how much you want to work at a certain studio, if you’re not at all qualified for an open position there, then you should not apply. It’s better to submit a general application or drop your resume for future consideration than to apply for positions that you are not qualified for. Aspiring artists may think that applying to every position at a company will get them noticed. It will, but not in a good way. Recruiters always remember the people who continually apply to positions they’re not qualified for, and not for a good reason. It’s a good way to get your resume sent straight to the trash and remove yourself from consideration for future roles. If you truly want to work for a studio, either now or in the future, never do this! It shows a lack of restraint and inability to follow directions, and is a waste of time for all parties.

sci-fi vfx by barnstorm

For me personally (and I hope everyone else!) I would never throw away a resume because of age or because someone has no academic training in VFX. 

It’s important to remember that age and experience are not mutually exclusive. In many studios, you may find a 22-year-old and 60-year-old sitting in the bullpen together, with the same title. 

The same goes for academic training. Of course, it’s great to have formal education in VFX, and students may have more opportunities for internships/networking, but there’s no one path to becoming a great artist. I’ve met and worked with countless talented artists and, in my experience, their path to working in VFX has little bearing on their success. Some are self-taught, some have taken a few VFX courses, and some have years of formal education, but all have been great at what they do. 

Required skills and resumes aside, it’s important to remember that submitting an application is just one step of the hiring process. Meeting every requirement of an open position is a great start, but unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be hired. There are so many factors that go into filling a position, and only some that you can control. VFX is a dynamic  industry in every sense, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where one applicant is guaranteed to get a job. Even if the timing doesn’t work out this time around, if you make a good impression on the team, they’re more likely to reach out to you first the next time the position opens up. 

vfx breakdown set extensions

Let's talk about the actual application process. What do most applicants get wrong about their resumes? What are the most common mistakes FX artists make when submitting their CVs?

Job hunting can be incredibly time-consuming and stressful, but you have to be thorough when choosing roles to apply for. Although it’s frustrating to continually apply for positions without hearing back, throwing caution to the wind is not in your best interest.   

If you’re applying to every single position a studio has posted without discretion, you might not even be considered for a position you are a fit for. It’s really important to show employers that you can follow basic directions, and if you’re a Compositor applying to a CG Generalist role, your resume may go straight to the trash. 

Resume Do’s:  

  1. Keep it to 1 page.
  2. Make sure to include employment dates: recruiters want to know where you worked and for how long. If you’re not including employment dates, it may raise more questions than answers.
  3. Always include software proficiencies!
  4. If possible, it’s great to have a link to your reel/portfolio directly on your resume.
  5. If you have a password-protected reel, be sure to always provide the password with your application. It’s okay to have a password on your reel, but not including it with your application will likely get your resume pushed to the side. 
the man in the high castle season 3 vfx
barnstorm explosion and fire reel

Resume Don’ts:

  1. Including a reel link on the resume that doesn’t work.
  2. Forgetting to check for typos.
  3. Including a headshot – not necessary and takes up valuable space.
  4. Addresses don’t matter but regional location does (for some of us).
  5. Making it flashy but hard to read.

It’s crucial to include as much information as possible, in a clear, concise way on your resume. Recruiters review hundreds of resumes a week, so missing information or adding too much fluff can make a bad impression. If you’re applying for artist roles but not including your reel/portfolio, most recruiters will not take the time to try to find it. Make sure that you review everything you’re submitting with your application to ensure that you have all the information you need, that everything is accurate and there aren’t any typos.

What about motivation or cover letters? Many applicants skip this part when they see it's not marked as a compulsory document. What is the value of a motivation letter to a hiring manager? Can an applicant use it to their benefit and what should they include in it? What would you look for in one of these letters?

I don’t need to see an objective on a resume, ever. If you’re applying for a job, it’s clear that your objective is to find a job. It’s not going to make me throw out your application but it’s really unnecessary. 

It depends on the recruiter, but I personally think cover letters are a great way to stand out, especially for artists with no industry experience. It’s not easy to summarize everything you’re good at in a one-page resume. That’s where a cover letter comes in handy. You can use it to highlight what makes you an excellent candidate, especially if you do not have much industry experience. I’m not a huge fan of including relevant coursework on a resume, but if you learned valuable skills for a studio in class, put it in your cover letter! While cover letters can be great, I would rather not receive one at all than get a poorly written one. You should always tailor your cover letters to each role that you apply for. Recruiters can tell when you’re just using the same letter for every role. 

Lastly, always submit a cover letter if one is required! If you forgot one of the requirements for an application, 90% of recruiters will not even consider you as a candidate. 

The reel. This is one of the most straightforward, yet one of the trickiest things to get right. How would you describe a poorly made reel that would make you want to hit 'Close' in a few seconds? What should a strong reel look like?

General Reel Guidelines:

1) 1-2 minutes is the ideal length. Start with your best work: if you don’t make an impression in the first 15 seconds, many recruiters will stop watching.

2) Quality over quantity: I’ve noticed that artists who are just getting started sometimes don’t know when to stop with their reel. There seems to be this tendency to think, “well I’ve only done 10 things, so I better include all 10 in my reel” but it’s much better to include your best work, even if you’re left with only 3 shots on your reel. Most recruiters would prefer watching a short, good reel, than a longer one with shots of varying quality. 

If you are a junior artist, there is no reason your reel should be more than 2 minutes. As you gain more experience, you may want to include more in your reel, and that is fine as long as you remember that quality over quantity is the standard to go by. 

3) Separate reels for separate disciplines: if you haven’t had industry experience yet, but you’ve studied two disciplines, it’s okay to make 2 separate reels, even if they’re short! If someone’s applying for a compositing job, then halfway through their reel they put character animation shots, it can be a little confusing. It’s not a bad thing to be skilled in different areas, but it’s best to keep reels relevant to one skill at a time. 

If you do end up creating separate reels/portfolios for different disciplines, great! Please make sure to include the appropriate reel and portfolio in your application based on the position. Most recruiters don’t want to dig through your website to see if you’re able to fit the role you’re applying for.

4) Sound doesn’t matter: if you want to put some cool background music on your reel, feel free to do so, but don’t get hung up on the music. Most recruiters don’t listen. 

5) Don’t forget about breakdowns/before and afters: ideally the breakdown will be included on the reel itself and if not, it should be in the reel summary or included separately.

Taking ownership over your work is super important. And as you gain studio experience, the need to do so is even more necessary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the same shot on the reels of multiple different people from the same company. Without some sort of breakdown, it’s impossible to tell who has done what.

This is one of our Barnstorm reels, and company reels are a bit different than what an individual reel will look like, but I’ve included it here because I love the breakdowns the team did. Including before and afters or breakdowns just sheds a lot more light on what you contributed to a project, which is really crucial for recruiters looking to hire.

Open positions in the VFX industry can be hard to find. While some of them are advertised all over Glassdoor, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter, most of the time they're only posted on the company's website. What is the best and the worst way to apply for a job? How effective would applying through the company's job portal be? What about open applications/general applications and cold outreach when there are no offers available? Is that a shot in the dark or can it actually work out?

Check the company website and LinkedIn page, use their job portal, or look on sites like Zerply, Indeed and ZipRecruiter. There’s no “worst way” to apply for a job, but I would advise against cold calling (especially if a company’s job description says no calling!), but cold emailing is a different story entirely. 

If the position you’re looking for isn’t on a studios site or job portal, you can always submit your resume to be considered for future open roles, and you should! I can’t tell you how many great candidates we’ve met and hired from cold emails. Many companies have a jobs or recruiter email on their website for general submissions, and others have resume drops on their job portals. Don’t be afraid to ask for an exploratory interview so you can connect with a studio’s recruiting team. It might feel like a shot in the dark, but it never hurts to make an introduction. In fact, I’d suggest trying to do as many exploratory interviews as possible to make connections with recruiters and hiring managers. All companies store candidate resumes and you never know when an urgent hiring need is going to pop up. 9 times out of 10, if we need to hire in a hurry, I’ll reach out to previous candidates to see if they’re available before posting a job anywhere. 

If you have a solid portfolio/reel, and know what you’re good at, just continue putting yourself out there and eventually, it will work out.

For those who make it to the next round, a.k.a. the interview, what do you normally talk to the candidates about and what do you like to hear when speaking with them? What is it an applicant can say that will instantly make you realize "oh they're definitely the one!" or "oh no, they are definitely not the one..."?

Much like an application, interviews are another step in the application process that is hard to boil down to “this works” and “this doesn’t.” There are certain steps to take to improve your odds. Aspiring artists and folks hoping to get jobs in the VFX industry should treat interviewing with the same respect that they treat artistic disciplines – it’s a skill that needs to be developed and kept sharp. The best artists in the world have missed out on opportunities because of interviews that didn’t go well. And even flawless interviews don’t guarantee a job, because there are so many elements at play. But with the right combination of elements: the right skill set for a position, a great series of interviews, chemistry with the team, and the right timing, you’ll find yourself in luck.

Even for an exploratory interview, do some research on the company and the types of open roles there (or past open roles) in your discipline to get a better understanding of their expectations. Job descriptions don’t always cover all the ins and outs, and it’s okay to have questions, but it’s much better to have a sense of what they may be looking for rather than go in blind. 

Always check the requirements for a position and the day-to-day responsibilities – are these things you can realistically do? And if so, are you prepared to talk about how to accomplish those things? These are important questions to ask yourself before an interview, and if the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then make sure you show up ready to sell your other qualifications and why you’re still a good fit for the company.

vfx breakdown

No matter what position you’re applying for, you’re going to be asked technical questions and you’ll need to be able to answer them. Take a look at your reel and your portfolio, are you able to confidently talk about everything you’ve done and how you did it? Some interviewers will ask about your favorite shot on your reel, or the hardest thing you’ve ever worked on, and in doing so, they want you to talk about your process. When someone can’t properly articulate how they put a shot together, it raises more questions than answers, and that’s something you never want in an interview. 

There are artists who are technical, artists who are creative, and artists who are a blend of both, and no matter what category you fall under, it’s expected that you can clearly explain your work process in an interview. If an artist has an amazing reel but can’t walk hiring managers through the methods used in achieving that, they most likely won’t get a call for a second interview. It’s really easy for recruiters to tell when someone knows their stuff and can speak about it confidently. Not everyone is skilled at this naturally, so it’s definitely something to work on and practice as you start interviewing. 

explosion vfx breakdown

It should go without saying, but do not ever lie about what you can and can’t do in an interview. If you admit that you’re not able to perform one of the main job functions, you might still be considered for the role, but it should be on the basis of what you can do. We’ve all heard the saying “fake it till you make it,” but you should never take that attitude about getting a job in VFX. 

Believe me when I say that employers always find out when you are not able to perform to the standard you set by lying about your skill set. If you get the job based on lies, and are unable to perform those skills, it reflects very poorly on you and could result in you being fired and removed from any future consideration at that company. If the interview goes well, and you tell the truth about what you can and can’t do, but don’t get the role, it’s okay! You’ll still be kept in the recruiter’s roster and will likely be considered for future openings.

I always advise against asking what the pay will be in the first interview. Even though some states/provinces list salary ranges, it’s better to wait until you’re further along in the screening process to broach the topic. When I’m initially meeting a candidate, hearing “how much will I get paid?” right away is a bit of a red flag. You should reserve the first interview for letting a recruiter get to know you and show that you’re a good fit for the role. If you are asking about salary right out of the gate, companies may think you’re just chasing a paycheck, or even assuming that you’ll be hired without going through the necessary steps. 

vfx breakdown

What word of advice would you give to those who are just starting their journey and are preparing for the application marathon?

I think there’s a tendency for aspiring artists to get discouraged when they can’t find a VFX job quickly, but persistence and patience are key.

Your dream studio isn’t hiring for the role you’re looking for? Reach out anyway. Had a few great interviews with a prospective employer but didn’t get that role? Keep in touch with the recruiters so they think of you for future opportunities. 

Job searching without results can be disheartening, but everyone in the VFX industry has felt that way at some point. If you’re not finding a fit despite countless applications, stay diligent and don’t lose sight of your goals. You may find that getting a foot in the door is easier in a different position than you were hoping for, but sometimes you have to take whatever opportunity is presented to you. 

Being an assistant or PA might not be your dream job, but it’s a great way to start and secure a position at a great studio. I started at Barnstorm VFX as a Production Assistant and because of the great people I was working with, I was able to work my way up to a position that I really love. 

The VFX industry might seem unapproachable, but the people who work in this world are some of the kindest, most hard-working, and smartest that I’ve ever met. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, even if it doesn’t result in the desired outcome immediately. If you make connections along the way, you’ll find helpful folks at every corner and mentors when you least expect it. You may not land your dream position at your favorite studio right away, but if you are passionate about VFX and commit to the journey, you will ultimately find your way. 

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