From VFX Apprentice to 2D FX Artist on Netflix's ArcaneJul 25, 2022
Tom De Vis talks about the importance of finding your own style, his experience learning 2D FX, and what its like working on Netflix's Arcane.
Tom's 2D FX journey has been one full of quick learning, hard work and studio experience working on a multitude of different projects from feature films to video games.
VFX Apprentice's Jason Keyser sat down for an illuminating conversation about Tom's journey as a student of VFX Apprentice, to quickly becoming one of our instructors. Jason and Tom also dive into a discussion about how you should approach learning 2D FX, as well as good studying habits to try out.
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Full Interview Transcript
Jason Keyser: Hello everyone, welcome to the student showcase series where I talk to some of our amazing VFX apprentices who have been through the program. Today I am joined by Tom De Vis. Tom is one of our instructors and has also worked on the Netflix show Arcane. So Tom, tell us about the transition you made going from your original career in entertainment into what you’re doing today.
Tom De Vis: First I went to school for game design, then I got a job at a private company that made 3D animations that acted as sales materials for them. After a few years I realized this isn’t going anywhere and I’m not improving anymore so I saved my money so that I could quit my job for a year. In that year I decided I wanted to learn 2D animations because it came more naturally to me than 3D work and it was just more fun to do. So I started learning on the internet, which is how I inevitably found the VFX Apprentice YouTube channel. But it still felt limited and I wasn’t learning any more. Then the Booms and Blasts course got released which is when I really started improving.
JK: Yeah I remember thinking “this guy is really focused but he has no 2D FX work, but he’s already pretty good, even with just a few examples. Then as you went through the exercises you just took off. It was so exciting to see! When you joined, the 2D FX class was in Beta early access, and towards the end of the early access period, you’re already one of our instructors. Which was funny when I realized the student had become the master. So, at some point you caught the eye of Fortiche Productions in France. How did that work out? Did you submit your portfolio to them?
TDV: It’s actually a funny story, it's around the time when all the VFX companies around the world were looking for 2D FX animators for the second Space Jam movie. I was supposed to go work at a studio in Tenerife, Spain called “Tomavisión Studio” but there ended up being some problems with getting a contract and it was taking a while, so I kind of started to give up because it was taking so long. So at that time I saw that Fortiche was looking for an FX animator. On that day Tomavision also contacted me so that I could start working. I also got an email from Fortiche, to have a conversation with Guillaume Degroote, who I had worked with in my library, so I knew of him. Then, two days later I was hired.
JK: Yeah it was because of you that we were able to do another lesson, the 2D FX course as well. So, I imagine it must have been exciting to learn from the other 2D FX animators there, right?
TDV: Yes, very. It was also very stressful because it was towards the end of production, and I was there for about 2-3 months and everyone else had been there the whole time. The first weeks were super stressful because I just wasn’t at their level yet. When they hired me they knew I wasn’t quite there yet but I promised them that I would work my ass off and that’s exactly what I did for those three months. I would work about 12-14 hours a day so that I could get to their level.
JK: That’s so awesome. As a junior artist joining a team like, it's bound to happen in one way or another. You had his artwork in your reference library and here you are sitting next to them. What an incredible learning opportunity. It's also interesting that it was such long hours and stressful, it reminds me of being in art school. Did it feel like being back in school?
TDV: Yes and no. In my opinion it was better than school. We had these weekly meetings where we’d show our work, and you could see that the ugly work was mine. Each week I was super motivated to catch up to them in quality. That drive stayed with me. Every single one of them is super talented, though and worked super hard for it.
JK: Talent is just a matter of work ethic and time. If you spend the time consistently, you’ve gained the talent. So after the project ended, you went on to new opportunities, where did you go after that?
TDV: I went to work on a feature film in Belgium. That was a fun experience, they did a similar thing to Space Jam, it was a 3D movie with 2D effects. They needed a 2D person and so I had to concept with the art designer to find a style that worked and how we could incorporate them. First we were talking about doing it all in Blender. The whole movie was made in Blender with Grease Pencil and animated 2D FX straight in Blender, but then just for time purposes I was able to do it in Harmony on the renders and they would composite it all together. Then a few months later they hired more people and I became their supervisor.
JK: Oh nice! From Junior artist, to Supervisor artist on the very next project! That’s so interesting! So you said they were working in grease pencil - had you worked in grease pencil before this?
TDV: Well I learned it on the weekends while I was still working at Fortiche.
JK: Yeah Blender is really powerful, it can really do anything. I’ve seen some really cool projects in Blender. Maybe we’ll have you teach some Grease Pencil next, haha! So you’re doing some instructional stuff with us and I know that film wrapped up, I’m sure you’re bouncing on some next projects now. Is this common in the 2D FX industry, to go from job to job and studio to studio? Is that generally what someone should expect to find if they’re just starting out on their journey?
TDV: For me it is, because I try to choose what style I want to work in. I can take on some bigger projects that would last longer but if the style doesn’t speak to me I won’t take the job. So you can choose to work on smaller projects like trailers, music videos or video games, or you can choose to work on large scale, or feature films if you’re lucky enough to be there from the beginning. That way you can work for a couple of years on one or two projects. I don’t know if there are a lot of studios that have permanent FX animators on staff, other than a few in Canada.
JK: Yeah I know in Canada there’s Jam Filled and Mercury Filmworks. One of our instructors, Dan Elder works at Jam Filled, he’s an amazing artist. I think Marvel might keep people on for their animated series? I know films can be pretty volatile, once the show ends, everyone can go find different work or on the flip side, the show will go on forever and you can keep animating forever.
TDV: It all just depends, because if you work on a show for a long time, you might not get to do more fun projects. Whereas if you’re on smaller projects, you have more downtime in between to work on personal work or dream projects.
JK: Yeah that's great flexibility, for sure. So it's always exciting chatting with you, because you’re the kind of person who gets work done. I always admire your work and we’re going to have a lot of it playing throughout this video (see above), but being in the position you’re in now where you have these work experiences and very recently been through tremendous growth as an artist, how long was it since you started in the actual 2D FX space? It's been about a year, right? So in a year you started on the 2D FX lessons and now a year later you’ve been on a few major productions at a supervisor level. What advice would you have for people that are thinking about making the switch to 2D FX and animations?
TDV: To me it all depends on where you want to go and how much time you have. For example, I would not focus on all of the effects at the same time. I would take one: smoke, fire, dust - choose whatever you want. Then you do a couple of studies, then compare what you did and re-evaluate it with other work you see on the internet and then criticize yourself and your work. Look at effects frame by frame and determine why you like it. Force that style on yourself whether it's on paper with a pencil or in Photoshop. Not just with Animation but with still frames as well - it's all about getting used to the style. Then you keep working on that effect until you start improving. Take it week by week, that’s how I do it. That is, if you don’t have access to VFX Apprentice.
If you do have access to VFX Apprentice, I would do the same thing, but with one course. So you would download the source file you’d get from the course teacher. Look at it, study it, copy it. Then you just have to make it your own. It can be as simple as flipping the effect so that your brain looks at it differently.
JK: This is fantastic advice. You know something I did, because this is reminding me of when I was in art school learning 2D FX and Animation, I went to my favorite films like Mulan and looked at the avalanche scene at all those crazy effects pouring down the mountain side, and I screen captured it, then went frame by frame and put it in Photoshop. Then I ended up printing the images out, tracing over it frame by frame. By doing that I was learning about how the shapes were drawn, why certain shapes were where they were. I was feeling out the lines as I did it. I think it's a great way to learn.
TDV: Yep, and while you do it, you ask yourself “what if I change it a little bit?” and then you find out what you like and don’t like. Also, don’t do it while watching something or listening to a podcast, give it 100% of your attention, especially if you’re just starting out.
JK: I remember hearing from one of my professors who worked with people that were there at the beginning of the Walt Disney animation era, and they said there was never any music in the studio, just silent as people drew and were focused. They were creating art from the soul, undistracted. I know some people have a hard time being creative without their music but I think depending on the type of work - if it's learning work, music can be quite the distraction because your brain has a hard time recording the information. For me, music is good when I’m in flow, doing something I already know how to do.
TDV: So for example, when I’m working on a splash animation and I’m listening to techno or metal, the splash is significantly faster than when I listen to something like classical music. That’s why I feel like music is a bit dangerous because of how easy it is to be influenced by it.
JK: Well this is all fantastic advice, if students want to get started in 2D FX, are you available?
TDV: Yep, you can reach me on Instagram or Twitter!
JK: Awesome, thanks Tom. Can’t wait to see what you work on next!
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