Land your dream job in VFX with these 15 tips from senior ILM staff for honing your skills, building a killer demo reel, and tackling the interview itself
If you're good enough to get a job at Industrial Light & Magic, you're good enough to get a job anywhere in visual effects. Over the past four decades, the legendary VFX studio has worked on movies ranging from the original Star Wars to The Avengers, winning an unparalleled 15 Academy Awards and 15 BAFTAs along the way.
But how do you set about getting that job? It's a question that Gnomon set out to answer in The ILM Perspective: Careers, Recruiting, and Industry Advice, a free event at the school last month. Over the course of an evening, Senior Recruiter Lori Beck set out her best-practice guidelines for developing your skill set, building an online portfolio and demo reel, and tackling the job interview itself, while former Gnomon students Sonja 'Sony' Christoph and Joseph 'Jay' Machado discussed their own career paths from graduation to landing jobs at Industrial Light & Magic.
Read biographies of Lori Beck, Sony Christoph and Jay Machado
Below, we've distilled some of the key advice from the presentation into 15 killer career tips for getting a job at ILM – or at any other large VFX or animation studio.
1. Differentiate yourself
Many artists dream of working at a studio like Industrial Light & Magic. To get hired, you need to make yourself stand out from thousands of other applicants. Begin early: while you're still a student, research the types of jobs available in modern visual effects production, decide in which area your skills lie, and focus your artistic development – and your portfolio – towards it.
2. Become excellent in at least one area
To stand out from the crowd, you need to become truly world-class in your chosen field: to be “the sharpest ninja sword you can be”, as Jay Machado puts it. If you're aiming to be a generalist, you need to be able to model, texture and light well. Focus on photorealism: “Even if it's a very simple scene, if you can make me think it's a photograph, job well done,” says Sony Christoph.
3. Make sure you graduate
“Excel in your education – and graduate,” says Lori Beck. “That's going to be important in a global industry.” Although it's tempting to quit college if you're offered a job while you're still a student, formal qualifications are a must to obtain the work visa you will need if you hope to work overseas.
4. Build an active online presence
Once you've built up a portfolio, put it online. ILM recommends Vimeo for demo reels and a personal blog for still images. And be active in online communities. Forums and social media are a good way to get to know individual artists, but to catch the eye of recruiters, Lori Beck recommends also maintaining an active presence on LinkedIn, sharing relevant posts regularly.
5. Keep everything updated
Don't just upload your reel and forget about it: re-edit it every time you finish a new project. Update your online portfolio every time you finish a new personal project, and post breakdowns and making-of information along with the final render. “Supervisors want to see your most up-to-date work,” points out Lori Beck. “If your reel is two years old, that's not going to cut it.”
6. Be prepared to talk about yourself
Even if your work is world-class, it won't get you a job unless you can make other people aware of it. You need to become comfortable talking about yourself to strangers. Practice networking at every industry event you attend, and take every opportunity to hone your public speaking skills. “Even if you're shy, you need to figure out a way to engage with others,” says Lori Beck.
7. Approach as an individual
Conferences and trade shows are a good place to meet recruiters – but when you do, don't do so in a group of other students. “If you come as a group, you don't stand out,” says Lori Beck. “It doesn't give us a chance to get to know you as an individual.” Approach on your own, armed with your latest reel on a tablet or mobile device, and be willing to talk a recruiter through it.
8. Apply online
Industrial Light & Magic no longer accepts resumes in the mail. Instead, the Lucasfilm group of companies, of which ILM is a part, posts details of current vacancies online at jobs.lucasfilm.com. To apply, you'll need a covering letter, your resume, a contact list of three references, and a link to your demo reel. Read the FAQs section of the site before you do.
9. Less is more
The staff at ILM are busy people, and they have scores of applications to look through each day. So keep it brief. Resumes should be no more than a page in length, and demo reels no more than two minutes long. Adding more material won't make you seem a better-rounded candidate: it just makes it less likely that anyone will watch your reel through to the end.
10. Format your reel correctly
When editing your reel, put your best work first, and cut anything that isn't absolutely top-notch. If you didn't do everything in a shot yourself, explain what you did work on in a caption or title card. Include shot breakdowns where possible. Don't let the interface or the soundtrack distract from the content itself, and make sure the audio is clear when showing lip-synch animation.
11. Build up a Vimeo playlist
For online reels, ILM prefers Vimeo over other video-streaming sites. If you want to show off different specialties, uploading multiple reels is okay – but make sure you label them clearly. The same goes for separate reels of related work, like stop-motion animation. “It can help you stand out,” says Sony Christoph. “Oh, he's the stop-motion guy: he's got a lot of patience.”
12. Be well-presented
No one expects artists to dress like accountants, but if you're called for an interview, smart casual is safe. “Think about personal hygiene,” says Lori Beck. “You don't want to look like you flopped straight out of bed.” The same goes for your intellectual presentation: research the requirements of the job you're applying for, and prepare answers to likely questions in advance.
13. Ask questions
Don't expect the interview to be a one-way process. “Ask questions: it's something we look for,” says Lori Beck. “We want to know that you're interested, and that you're paying attention.” ILM uses interviews as a way to gauge how you will tackle real production work. “We want to be sure that you're comfortable about asking questions when you're working on a job,” says Lori.
14. Don't be defensive
Interviews can be stressful occasions, but try to relax. If you're open and optimistic, you're helping to convince the studio that you will behave in the same way in production. “Remember that we're rooting for you,” says Lori Beck. “We're not jerks – and we're interviewing you for a reason: because we have a need [for an extra artist]. We want you to be successful.”
15. You don't have to succeed first time
If you don't get the job, don't take it as a sign that you'll never work at ILM: focus on improving your reel and apply again later. Lucasfilm recommends reapplying every six months if you have an updated resume. And take heart from Jay Machado and Sony Christoph, both of whom were contacted directly by the studio: if ILM feels that you're a good fit for future positions, your resume will remain active for one year.
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As an animator trying to find work, a good demo reel is one of the most important assets you can have. Some animators though, mostly those who are less of a generalist and more of a purist, don’t really like to mess around with lightning, rendering and all that technical stuff. I know I don’t.
It is because of that that most of the demo reels out there (especially of beginners) consist of a collection of playblasts (un-rendered shots straight out of the 3D program).
Now, I should clarify that it’s ok to only have playblasts in your reel. Most people in the industry can look past the aesthetics and focus on the important thing – the animation.
It’s always more fun watching rendered shots, even in the most basic ways, with nice colors, depth of field and motion blur.
It’s also a nice way to stand out of the crowd of grey playblasts.
That is why I decided to make a video about basic lighting and rendering methods just for demo reel purposes. Enjoy!