Post Visual Effects Supervisor
How To Become a Post Visual Effects Supervisor
Wes Caefer, a Post Visual Effects Supervisor and Artist with over 30 years of industry experience, lays out the main production responsibilities he takes on as a Supervisor:
“We receive a list of shots that need doing and I make an experienced estimate of how long it will take and how many people it will need to complete the shots. I also find out from production how much time we have and, from that, I can let them know exactly what size of team we are going to need to finish the work.”
Post Visual Effects Supervisors are in charge of hiring the team of Artists in the VFX Department and, although they are overseen by the Post-production Supervisor, Caefer finds himself in closest daily communication with the Editorial Department:
“If there’s not an Effects Manager, you’re dealing with editorial on the whole. Generally, I coordinate most closely with the Assistant Editor, and obviously we talk with the Director. Directors come in all shapes and sizes — some are very hands-on, while others say, ‘Don’t talk to me, just show me when it’s done!’”
Caefer goes on to highlight that there isn’t really a standard template for the post visual effects workflow. Every project has its own rhythms: “There has been a real effort to standardize the flow of the day with software like Shotgun where everybody in production can track and review VFX progress and share a pipeline that everyone can agree with.”
He likes to break the main project into smaller, manageable pieces: “There is always one big target date so I split that up into smaller goals until we envision every day as some kind of deadline. We might have a certain number of shots that need to be completed by end of day.”
“Alternatively, there might be a push for one particular shot because it’s going to be in the trailer, or they’re concerned about how a certain shot is looking.”
Days are long for both Artists and Supervisors, says Caefer: “Everybody has a list of things they need to do and we tend to work twelve-hour days. In VFX, the work on the bigger shows and features may be divided out among different ‘shops,’ with some of these even in different countries.
“If you’re supervising with Artists and ‘shops’ in different timezones, you might find your day starting very early! That’s becoming a lot more common with VFX work being outsourced to countries like India and Vietnam. As a Supervisor, you need to be flexible and not expect a lot of sleep!”
Caefer shares the challenges he’s up against on a daily basis: “Time is an issue. I remember when you’d have a year to do your work on a television show but now, you have to complete more complicated work in three months or less. The industry is becoming a lot more demanding. I had a guy recently who didn’t like the lighting from his shoot and wanted the entire movie relit in post. That’s a huge amount of work.”
Beyond time constraints, the root of industry challenges is fiscal, laments Caefer: “The real challenges are all about money. There’s literally nothing we can’t do. It’s a matter of being confident in your ability to tell the Producer or Director that, yes, we can do that, and it will cost you this much extra. Some people will tell you to forget about it, and others will be expecting it.
“On some shows, I’m brought in for pre-production, production and post-production. On others, I’m brought in post-facto to fix footage that has already been shot. If that’s the case, I’m asked to assess how much the work will cost. Sometimes production comes to me directly, otherwise, I give the price to the Visual Effects Producer or Post-production Supervisor. For the projects where I’m brought in early, I give updates every step of the way.”
“For example, the script might have had it a certain way, and we estimated a particular amount of money, but we shot it in a more effective way so it brought down some of the costs. Then I can go back to production in post and tell them that it’s well within budget.”
“Or, the production will have changed their minds completely, and they’ll bring me new, undiscussed footage and work; that will add weeks to the schedule and I have to communicate that it’ll cost however much extra.”
Caefer shares some insight about how easy it is in post-production to make promises that can’t be always be kept: “Although certain work may cost more, anything is possible in visual effects so, as a Supervisor, I have to be careful not to overpromise and to ensure our schedules and budgets are realistic.
“Honestly, there are plenty of studios and shops that have gone bankrupt trying to meet promises they made. Sometimes that is also because they didn’t memorialize from the beginning how many passes/versions they were contracted to do and they end up spending money they don’t have just to get the shot.”
There are quantitative differences between television and film: “Television is great because we have such time pressure. At some point, we know the specific date the episode is going to air so we have to lock the shot sooner or later. Contracts tend to have stipulations that involve language like ‘beyond reason’ to ensure we’re not doing pass after pass after pass. Some Directors will do that — they’ll doodle with something forever.”
Every Supervisor has their own approach to the way they manage their team and the delivery of their work. As for Caefer, he’s very artistically hands-on: “I’ll look at people’s work and advise them on the changes they should consider making. For example, I’ll say, ‘Your black levels don’t match, you have to introduce a little more haze into that.’”
“Sometimes I’ll give Artists strictly artistic appraisals, without even knowing technically how they’ll fix the issue! The software is changing all the time, so I’m constantly learning new protocols and systems. Luckily, I’m always supervising working Artists on shows so I can ask them questions and learn the new tools from them!”
The average annual salary for a Post Visual Effects Supervisor is approximately $122,300. The salary range for Post Visual Effects Supervisors runs from $57,000 to $241,000.
For the entry-level rotoscoping jobs, you can’t expect much more than minimum wage, perhaps $20 per hour. Caefer explains that, at the Supervisor level, “It really depends on how much you’re working and the kind of projects you’re on.”
“The Supervisors on the big Marvel films (all five of them!) are earning in the six-figures but for the majority of us working on a freelance, show-to-show basis, you’ll make $90-$100K at the low end and around $300-$400K at the more prolific end.”
When it comes to describing the balance between his work and his life, Caefer is candid: “When I have a job, I have no life. It’s very intense for a period of time, say, three months. You have to plan to have your fun, your life, in the gaps. But if you’re working a lot there mightn’t be that many gaps.
“The problem with gaps is you have to put life on hold until the next job comes along because you don’t have a lot of income. The paradox is that the better you are doing, the less time you have for life! It’s a very strange balance and a lot of people don’t do it successfully.”
Caefer shares an anecdote that encapsulates perfectly the approach to a job in the Visual Effects Department: “When I first got out to California, with no experience at all, I met a childhood idol of mine, David Allen, a Stop-motion Animator. The man didn’t know me from dust but he invited me into his office and talked with me for hours about animation.
“I remember very clearly him saying, ‘You have to love it. Because it won’t necessarily love you back.’ And I carried that with me.”
Caefer explains that every Supervisor in post-production comes up a different way. Some come from through the Camera Department, others through the more practical, artistic route.
As for Caefer himself, “From a very early age, I always wanted to work in film. But I took the long way round; I went to college, then spent four years in the army. I would say that what discipline I have probably came from my time in the military. I was actually a ‘Combat Cinematographer’ in the army and I would capture footage on the ground and at military events.
“They used it for propaganda and training, etc. I also ended up shooting a lot of news footage for the Armed Services Television Channel! Even though the parallels between military life and the entertainment industry are many (intense work periods, campaign to campaign, close quarters with your team, clear hierarchy), I wish I had spent that time working on my craft rather than marching around in circles.”
After the military, Caefer moved to Los Angeles: “I always wanted to come to Hollywood and work on film, so I started in makeup effects and stop motion puppets. Then I transitioned to animatronics for several years before my buddy, Scott Coulter, gave me a copy of a software package called Lightwave to see if I could animate digitally. I loved it.
“Lightwave is now not the software du jour — anyone coming up now should be learning Nuke and Maya, Nuke for compositing and Maya for animation. I know lynda.com does a really good job with their online tutorials — I’ve used that site recently to learn more about Nuke.”
The entry-level job in visual effects is rotoscoping. Caefer says that it isn’t too hard to pick up, even in the extensive software packages: “It’s not like you have to memorize the software thoroughly — you can learn rotoscoping in an hour and do a whole week of work while only understanding that one function in the package. And it’s a very valuable skill.”
After that, in terms of career trajectory, you move to Compositor, then Lead Artist. Beyond that, Artists can then look to stepping up to becoming a Post Visual Effects Supervisor.
Post Visual Effects Supervisors are freelance and they find almost all of their jobs by word of mouth. As Caefer puts it: “To get a job, it’s who you know and who you were sitting next to on the last show — honestly, that is how it works.”
For this reason, gaining entry into the VFX world, even at an entry-level, can seem daunting, but Caefer does have some guidance on that front: “Contact Post Visual Effects Supervisors with your reel. If I get an email with a link to someone’s reel, I’ll watch it for sure. And most people are like that. Finding a talented Artist, in the end, makes us look good! When you bring in someone really good, we get partial credit for it! Everybody wants good people.”
Caefer also prompts any aspiring VFX Artists to establish their self-worth right from the outset: “At the beginning, don’t undervalue your skills; ask for decent pay.”
- “Make films. And try every job on set. If someone asks you to hold a boom, do it to see what it takes. I’ve done everything and all of it informs some other aspect of the filmmaking process.
- When it comes to your reel, I don’t care how good it is, nobody’s interest lasts more than two minutes. I’d say that’s the limit. If you don’t have a lot of stuff, three good things are a lot better than three good things and two bad ones. Let your work speak for itself and don’t interrupt.
- Consider moving to Vancouver! Los Angeles used to be a real hub but it’s less so now.”
Experience & Skills
Caefer is keen to point out that any experience in the film industry will inform your work in any other role. As he puts it: “Film is such a comprehensive, collaborative, interconnected matrix of artists and professionals. Shooting makes you a better Editor, editing makes you a better Screenwriter, writing makes you a better Actor, acting makes you a better Director.
“All these things are interrelated. So do everything. If you’re at school, or even if you’re hanging out with your friends, you have a phone with a camera in it. When I was a kid, it was an undertaking to get people together, get a Super-8, get lights, etc., but now it’s much easier and no one has an excuse.
“Go and make a movie. I can’t say how informative it was for me to write a werewolf feature a couple of years ago. I’ve been involved in the industry for over thirty years but here I was seeing things from a whole different perspective.”
This insight is invaluable — every discipline informs another. Not only that, but experience in one field enables you to reframe a movie or a sequence from another perspective. Caefer boils it down to an old axiom:
“There are three movies — the one you wrote, the one you shot and the one you edited. Nowadays, the distance between the movie you shoot and the movie you edit is absolutely huge. I have watched people in post-production make an entirely different movie from what they shot. It’s a lot of work, it’s varied, multi-faceted work, and you have to be prepared to take it on.”
“The caricature of the temperamental artist is not well tolerated,” says Caefer. “You’d have to be extraordinarily good for that to pass. It’s hard work and it’s very demanding work. Everyone is pulling together in the trenches so somebody who is negative and prone to complaining is not going to do well.”
This is advice we hear time and time again on CareersInFilm.com — the film business is a competitive world (with the added attraction of the “glamor” of the industry) so there are a lot of applicants. That is why the industry doesn’t tolerate attitude.
Caefer articulates it further: “Interestingly, the industry is largely self-correcting. It’s just such hard work, and jobs are found by word-of-mouth so, if you’re difficult, you just won’t work again. We really value the extra mile — this isn’t a ‘good enough’ industry so try and put in that extra effort.
“In VFX, we’re working on 27” screens but, ideally, your work is going to be projected 30’ across so that attention to detail, those little touches, they’re important. I guess, talking about enduring personality traits in our world, it’s about passion.”
Education & Training
Caefer insists there is no formal education for working in VFX and most of the skills can be learned online: “Beyond lynda.com and other similar sites, The Foundry (the makers of Nuke) have a ton of support, tutorials and instructional material on their site so it’s worth having a look through there.”
However, Caefer is keen to remind us that visual effects is an art form: “I know it’s a job and it’s physical labor, but it’s art and it requires passion. There are no unimportant jobs in the film industry. We need professionals. You need to be responsible and you need to be disciplined. So, for people coming out of school or entering the industry at an entry-level, being clearly passionate and dedicated helps you to get hired.”
As for what those first steps might look like, Caefer suggests that you do good work at a ‘shop’ rotoscoping or working as a Compositor. That way, you build a reel full of your material and take that showcase to other places. It’s about building a body of work that you can share with the industry, says Caefer. “It doesn’t matter your school or qualifications, people are just interested in seeing your stuff.”
Unfortunately, post-production VFX jobs remain outside union remits. Caefer says, “There was pressure from the Visual Effects Society to try and unionize but it hasn’t happened yet.” So for now, until a larger, unionized body represents your best interests, ask for a fair and reasonable wage and do not undervalue yourself.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The one piece of advice I would give to anyone, no matter what aspect of film they want to get into, is learn to draw. Having a pencil in your hand and being able to explain yourself visually is paramount. Even if you’re not looking for a ‘drawing heavy’ role, being able to express something visually is really important.
“If you’re a lighting guy and just want to draw a top-down diagram of the lighting setup, learn to draw. Film is a visual medium, don’t forget.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Please don’t send out resumés with spelling errors in them. Also, I do see people being hired simply because they are liked. Bear that in mind when it comes to your approach to working with people!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Love. It might sound corny, but I’m here because I love it.”
Wes C. Caefer
Wes Caefer has been working in the film industry for over thirty years, and has built his vast body of experience on films and television shows such as The Expendables, RAMBO, Bad Times At The El Royale, Criminal, Rizzoli & Isles, Southland and Olympus Has Fallen.
Caefer used to build and perform animatronic creatures and puppets for various make-up effects houses. This gives him a unique perspective on the best blend between practical and digital effects. See more of his work and story at www.littlecoloreddots.com and through these interviews with Art of VFX and Vantage Point Interviews.