Studios Need More Real-Time FX Artists | 2023 State of VFX IndustryJan 05, 2023
Observations, trends, and needs of the VFX Industry in 2023 from a Senior VFX Artist, consultant, and educator.
As we start off 2023, I want to share a few observations and trends I’ve noticed across the real-time VFX industry. I see a lot of positive momentum in the VFX community these days, and I’m excited to help it along.
For those of you who don't know me, I’m Jason Keyser, the founder of VFX Apprentice. In the past I made real-time VFX for Riot Games as well as 2D FX for several animated films and series. Now I primarily consult and supervise VFX teams at a variety of studios, while also running VFX Apprentice, an online school that regularly places artists in VFX animation jobs in the game and television industries.
Hopefully my vantage point as a VFX artist, VFX teacher, and VFX consultant will be of value to the VFX community, studios, artists, and students.
How Did We Get Here?
The history of visual effects doesn’t go back all that far, or at least the job description of VFX artist doesn’t. This is because “VFX” is a rather generic term which encompasses a broad array of techniques, tools, and styles. In fact, in modern live-action film and television, everything on the screen which is moving but isn’t in-camera footage is considered “VFX.” In most video games, that would literally include everything!
For the sake of simplicity, we can define VFX in games as anything that’s moving, but isn’t a character (more or less, with exceptions, like most things in game dev). That means from project-to-project, it was (and still is) often the case that a programmer, environment artist, or character animator made the effects for the project they were on. Throughout the history of game development, VFX has been a much more loosely defined role, as compared to standardized jobs like Character Concept Artist or Hard-Surface 3D Artist.
This has been the case for so many studios for so long, that it's still relatively common place. VFX Artists, or sometimes FX Artists, in games have only been called that for maybe a decade or so. Now it's true that some larger game studios manage mature and robust VFX departments with standardized roles, but those positions and pipelines are all kept behind NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) so the industry knowledge is still kept behind closed doors. There is a lack of cohesion on what each position's responsibilities and expectations are not only in between studios, but also in between projects. This is an issue which some of us in the VFX community are trying to address, but we still have a long road ahead of us.
A Growing Need
At the end of the day, people play games because they’re fun. they purchase a game because it LOOKS fun to play. Visual FX are a key component in both factors. First and foremost, making epic and impactful VFX come onto the screen is a fun experience. And if the effect looks amazing, then the satisfaction is even greater. A visual effect literally has an affect on the player’s emotional experience when playing. Players get satisfaction from hitting an enemy, restoring their allies, or destroying massive structures. At a more fundamental level, VFX let you know when something good (or something bad) has happened. VFX are critical to a successful gaming experience.
Studios are all well aware of this, as their hiring practices have recently shown. To say visual FX artists are in high demand is a drastic understatement. Every large game studio I am aware of has had visual effects job openings almost completely without interruption for the past 10 years. We are dealing with a massive supply-demand imbalance. There are many more open jobs for VFX artists in games than there are VFX artists.
This is not a new problem. The most common scenario is a studio that can’t hire a lead VFX artist, due to the aging gap in the talent pool. Without having managers and mentors that can train junior VFX artists, we are seeing the gap in VFX talent across all skill levels.
Here’s a straightforward formula to sum up what we’re seeing in the game VFX job market. I mentioned this recently in an interview with 80.lv, and feel it’s worth reiterating here:
- More Growth = More Demand: Non-stop long-term growth in the games industry means more VFX artists are needed.
- More Jobs = Smaller Supply of Available New Artists: Startup studio investors expect teams to hire quickly to hit their milestones faster.
- More Jobs Per Studio = Larger VFX Departments: Larger studios recognize the importance of VFX in AAA game development.
- No Training = No New Artists: At my last count, there are exactly zero college degree programs specialized in game VFX.
This is terrible news for studios wanting to push their VFX production by staffing up their teams. This is fantastic news for new VFX artists entering the industry.
This is also translating into salaries, as we are seeing growth across the board in VFX artist salaries. Several factors still come into play, primarily location and contract work vs fulltime. Many positions paid in USD either have a higher pay without benefits as contractors, or a lower paid salary positions with benefits and bonuses. For new junior VFX artists and associates, the average salary has jumped from $55,000-$60,000 up to and average of $65,000 - $75,000.
The VFX Industry Challenge
This doesn’t stop at a supply-demand equation being off balance. VFX is understaffed across the entire games industry, as well as the film and television industry. We are seeing a variety of production challenges.
I mentioned earlier that “VFX” is a very broad term, covering a wide array of styles, tools, and techniques, depending on the project. So picture a team that is understaffed with VFX artists. Say it’s a team of 20 creatives with 1 VFX artist. Now that ONE artist needs to know a lot of things in order to interface with their 19 collaborators. They’ll be expected to manage the vision of their work, timelines, technical constraints, artistic direction, tool & feature requests, integration with character, modeling, and animation, and so on. Oh, and they also need to make effects!
Many of the colleagues I speak to on a regular basis report burnout and overwhelm as a regular part of their job, depending on how well their team is staffed with VFX support. To the credit of the studios, a lot is being done to minimize burnout, but the core issue of a shallow talent pool still remains.
It is difficult to overstate just how shallow the VFX talent pool is:
- The average studio needs one concept artist per one VFX artist (a job ratio of 1:1)
- Schools produce roughly 1,000 concept artists per one VFX artist (a job ratio of 1,000:1)
What's Next for VFX in Games?
It seems that the best solution to these complex problems are elegantly simple, yet unexpected. Many studios have gotten creative with their approach to growing their VFX capacities. Some studios are building outreach training efforts that break down barriers for new artists to discover and find long-term careers in effects. Many of these studios have now joined forces with VFX Apprentice to receive consulting, training, and support from our VFX ecosystem, realizing that traditional methods of candidate sourcing just don’t work the same with a dried up talent pool.
Individual VFX artists are starting to speak-up and share their knowledge more and more. Schools are beginning to recognize the opportunities for their students to get high level jobs in game VFX, and have started adding curriculum to support the VFX track. While this is all really good news, we have yet to see the solutions turn the corner of critical mass. One core issue that will need to be addressed is early awareness for the next generation of digital artists. Anything that targets career-aged individuals is hitting too late in the pipeline. If people in their teens and early twenties can get proper exposure to the joy and satisfaction of making digital magic through visual FX, we will have our best chance of seeing the talent pool balancing out.
I’ll end with this call to action. Think of a student you know who is interested in working in games, and wondering how to get a job. Show them what visual FX are, and explain how these artists are in VERY high demand. And on the chance that making digital magic becomes their passion in life, they will have a very rewarding and fulfilling career indeed.
How is VFX Apprentice Helping?
VFX Apprentice was born out of trying to solve these very types of challenges within the VFX industry. Whether that be through education for new artists, or consultation and guidance with established studios and VFX teams.
In 2022 we worked with a number of studios to help staff and mentor their projects. In addition, each month we directly helped FX artists find new jobs. Our community of mentors and apprentices has helped train and place countless other artists and alumni on a variety of VFX projects.
VFX Apprentice members and mentors have recently worked on projects like God of War: Ragnarok, World of Warcraft: Dragonflight, League of Legends, Fortnite, Rocket League, Overwatch 2, and Valorant. And those are only projects we are allowed to talk about!
In addition, VFX Apprentice recently launched the new All Access program which offers monthly or annual plans to help FX artists find the knowledge they need to work in studio pipelines.
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