A Day In The Life Of... VFX

In this instalment of "A Day In the Life Of..." we checked back in with our VFX team to find out what they're up to with Phantom: Covert Ops. nDreams VFX Artist Conrad Hughes gives us the lowdown...

What do you do?

I’m a VFX Artist—here at nDreams, VFX is a really wide role (which is great). The VFX team cover everything from big old explosions and crumbling buildings to things like the skies, clouds and water drips you will see throughout the game. What this means is that we make textures in Photoshop and other bits of software, use maths to make shaders to make things like smoke evaporate or rain fall, use VFX-specific digital content software like Houdini or Maya to simulate destruction, water and fire and do a lot of problem solving to make it all run at our target frame rate. We have to do a little bit of ‘code’ from time to time as well to make our effects respond to the world in a lifelike, believable way.

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How do you fit into nDreams

I started at nDreams about 9 months ago now and it’s really flown by. Throughout the development cycle of Phantom the VFX team and I have been pretty involved in the process. As we cover broad features like skies and lighting, gameplay features like guns, [redacted] or chain gates, and large set-pieces like the tower destruction at the end of our demo, we’re involved in both the creative and technical sides of things. We tend to be around at the conception of an idea to ensure it’s feasible and at the end to add the final polish and make sure everything ‘feels’ just right. Us VFX artists tend to also be sequestered now and then to work on fast prototypes, where our roles are wider in a smaller team. ‘Fail fast’ is the priority on these quick projects which leads to rapid iteration and things coming together extremely fast. This is always fun. 

Inter-personally, writing about how you fit in to a company is quite difficult, though, honestly, I feel really at home here. VFX and graphics code work closely together which is fantastic (cheers Pete and Steven!)—but I like to think that I work well with a bunch of people from different departments, both in direct and indirect development roles. We get a great taste of every department in VFX.

What kind of skills and experience do you need to be effective in your role?

To be a successful VFX artist, I think you need artistic clarity and the technical skill to execute on that. It helps if you’re good at learning and curious about new techniques. I’m a bit of a tinkerer and I think most VFX artists are the same. It’s difficult to know when something is 100% done, complete. Knowing when something is finished is a skill that only comes with experience. It’s completely necessary to have good people skills, good soft skills. As a VFX artist in any games studio you will likely be interacting with design, animation, environment, code, production… everyone, basically. I try and improve my skills every day.

Tell us about a typical working day…

I try and get in between 8 and 8:30, meaning I leave between 4:30 and 5pm. I get quite a lot done in the first couple of hours in the morning—it’s a great time to put headphones in and refine something until I’m happy with it, or sketch out a new feature. I cover stand-ups for the VFX team usually—stand-ups are, for the uninitiated, a part of agile software development whereby everyone in a scrum (this is agile-speak for team) basically meets and checks in with each other. I do two or three of these per day, which gives us a great overview of where the game is. Then, I’ll normally work on my tasks, taking breaks to play pool regularly as one should. Tasks can be short and sweet or can last a full two-week sprint, depending on what they are. I like having a mix of short things, like bug fixing, and long projects, like destruction set-pieces that last a month.

What about an un-typical day recently?

There was this one day recently where instead of doing VFX work on Friday morning I wrote answers in a Word document for a blog post. It was pretty good fun, thanks for having me on here!

nDreams do a lot of little things that make days un-typical. We have fairly regular all-staff meetings at which there is often pizza, sometimes champagne (thanks Robin). These small interludes break things up quite nicely.

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What do you love about your job?

I don’t think I’m a great artist in the traditional sense of the word. I’m not good at drawing. VFX gives me the chance to use technical skill to solve artistic problems. I love solving problems and VFX is essentially a big puzzle where once you’ve solved it, you get to watch things explode. It’s a great feeling when the public, other developers, or other VFX artists enjoy watching or playing things you’ve put together.

What areas do you enjoy less?

While I haven’t experienced it at nDreams, I have experienced some burnout in the past which is quite an awful feeling. The videogame industry is built on unmoderated and expected overtime hours which leads to the career of an average developer to be much, much shorter than it should be and unfairly penalizes developers who are also primary caregivers (mostly women). One of the best things about working at nDreams is that steps are put in place to avoid sustained crunch: everyone from production through to senior management here know it is a false economy and strive very hard to avoid it.

How did you get started in the industry?  Why did you join nDreams?

Between 2011 and 2014, I was teaching English in South Korea. My friends and I made English as a Second Language videos that followed the Korean elementary school English textbook, which ended up being viewed by a significant portion of the English teachers in the country. It felt great, so when I left Korea, I knew I wanted to work in media. I freelanced while living in Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam for a couple of years doing motion graphics, color grading, 2D art and web design before getting a job at a games studio in Cornwall who were expanding their trailer team. I started as a junior in that role, but as I progressed, I gradually moved away from video work. After three years there I’d taught myself how to do VFX to a reasonable standard and wanted to move into a full developer role. I applied, interviewed, and got the job here at nDreams. I chose to work at nDreams after interviewing. During the interview I saw the work-in-progress Phantom: Covert Ops, which remains an extremely exciting project to work on. I also met Aaron, the principal VFX here, who has a ludicrous amount of experience and hit me as someone who would be great to work for and learn from. Finally, the vibe in the studio was one of competence and welcoming.

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Do you have any advice for people who want to do what you do?

I studied philosophy and formal logic at university, which has essentially nothing to do with my job. If you want to be a VFX artist, don’t focus on what software package or game engine is the best to learn, just focus on the quality of your art, your ability to learn quickly and your core skills. Produce a varied portfolio that includes realistic effects. Show that you care about optimisation and making performant VFX. Push your own personal boundaries and make the coolest stuff you can make. VFX is really fun, so enjoy it!

Huge thanks to Conrad for taking time out of his busy day to talk to us!

If you want to join the team here at nDreams, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for all the latest job updates, and be sure to check out our recent interviews with Concept Art, Design & Recruitment!

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