Every now and then I get the question on how to get into the VFX business. In this post I'll give some pointers which can help you to get on your way. I have to warn you though. It is not an easy business to get into and a tough one to stay in. The competition can be quite stiff. Although I do not encourage working many extra hours you probably will at some point as you have to meet deadlines. In practice it is never a nine to five job. If you do not have a passion for computer graphics it might be better for you to find another occupation.
In the old days CGI was so new that no courses on the subject existed. It was something you had to learn on the job. Since it involved computers it was helpful to get a degree in computer science first but it wasn't always necessary. Many people started in VFX companies at the bottom of the ladder as runners and were allowed to train on the expensive workstations during the evening. If you were good it was possible to get promoted from runner to a junior position in the company. Usually this was in the tracking or rotoscoping department.
In the last decade it has all changed. Software has become more user friendly and you don't need to know how to program any more. Artistic people belong in this business as much as the tech heads. It can be done on mainstream hardware and many software packages have learning editions out there which allow you to get first hand experience for a small amount of money or sometimes even for free.
As in many things it is always smart to get some education first. When I started there were no VFX courses in Belgium at all so I had to move to the UK for an education. Today, your local school may have a computer animation course or you might try online courses like the ones available at FXPHD. Keep in mind that just learning how to work with Maya or any other software package is not good enough. I really recommend that you learn about traditional film making too. Learning about cinematography and story telling is a huge added value to your knowledge and will make your work so much better.
I can't stress this enough: practice, practice, practice... till it makes perfect. Nobody can model a perfect human model from day one nor paint a beautiful matte painting when opening Photoshop for the first time. Everyone needs to practice, even the super talented people. It is only by doing so that you learn it. You need to constantly hone your skills. Learn to understand why something is good and why something is crap. Get others to look at your work and let them comment on it. Learn from the advice which more experienced people give you and then go back to practicing. Reading about it and watching tutorials is great but if you do not practice it doesn't help you all that much.
This seems like a lot of hard work and it is. I spent many late nights on trying things out and practicing my skills while I was a student. Don't get disheartened when your progress is slow. Some things take a while to learn.
Once you start working you will have less time to practice and it can become harder to pick up and train new skills.
Generalist vs Specialist.
It really depends in what kind of industry you will work in when thinking about becoming an generalist or a specialist. Being a jack of all trades and a master of none can be really beneficial in a small company or when making VFX for commercials. You probably get many small projects each year and usually the teams are small too. It is even possible that you have to do the entire job on your own which means you got to model, animate, shade, light, render and composite it all yourself.
When you are aiming to become a VFX artist in the film industry it is very likely that you will have to specialize in certain skills as it demands high quality. This means you will be much better trained in your particluar field and therefor produce better and faster results. It also means that other skills will be neglected and you will probably never become good at them.
I do recommend to go over every category and at least try them a couple of times. This way you can see what you like most and you will understand the whole VFX pipeline.
Portfolio and Showreel
When you go to apply for a job make sure to have a portfolio (for Matte painters and concept artists) or/and a showreel which showcases your best work. Nobody will give you a job when you can't show the work you have produced in the past. It is even more important than your CV.
Only show your best work. One bad shot on your reel will pull the quality of the whole reel down. Don't make a ten minute reel. Nobody will watch that as most recruiters do not have time to do so. Two minutes is more than enough. If you don't impress them in those first two minutes of your reel you probably never will.
Focus your reel on the job you are applying for. If you want to be animator show animation. If you want to become a lighting TD show finished shots with a breakdown on how it is done and so on.
I don't want to discourage anyone but VFX is much more hard work than glory. If you are really passionate about VFX it can become a very rewarding job but keep in mind it is a tough job.
Now go practice some more.