vfx reel
VFX Demo Reel (November 2015)

Software : Unity, Photoshop, Maya

Project Spark character models by Fred Pasche, Matt Musante, Matt Gillmeister

Project Spark character animations by Ben Meals, Joe Janca

(This is the reel that got me hired as a mid-level VFX Artist on Hearthstone in 2015.)

you're done! that's all you need to make me happy as a hiring manager
Seriously, all I actually need from a VFX application:
  1. Demo Reel with contact info
  2. Resume with contact info
  3. Boom! You're done. You didn't even need a website, strictly speaking.
If you are making a website, pleeeease don't do these
  • Splash/welcome pages - just let me see your work, I beg you. If this were my actual portfolio, I would just have this be what shows up when you type in hadidjah.com. (Or if I had multiple specialties/sections, I would just link directly to this one for VFX job applications. When I applied to Hearthstone, I even had a /hearthstone page that I linked to in my resume, because it had a reel with Hearthstone fanart.)
  • Small images - I'm fine with clicking to enlarge (especially if I can click/swipe to the next image in fullscreen), . I've genuinely gotten reels that were 240p
    • My website is weirdly narrow so that I can cram all these notes in here. Don't do that! Use the space for big beautiful images!​
  • Password-protected areas are rarely worth it. If you do have some really strong work that can't be made public, pleeease make sure the password is cited in your cover letter, resume, and anywhere else possible. If we can't easily find the password it's very possible we just won't look, because we probably have hundreds of applications left to go through.
Not making a website? Great! Other totally valid ways to display your work:
  • ArtStation (I don't care if you have a custom website or their default portfolio as long as it's easy to navigate)
  • In my opinion, other portfolio/compilation websites are also fair game, but I've seen some devs raise eyebrows at  (I think this is kind of silly, if it's easy to view stuff and all in one place I'm happy, but it's worth knowing that unfortunately ArtStation is generally viewed as more "professional" than, say, DeviantArt.)
  • Yes, that does mean I'm okay with a well-organized Twitter thread of gifs/images, too. (But again, that probably won't be true of everyone.)
  • If you're only sending a demo reel, then just linking directly to the Vimeo/Youtube is great too. Again, it's easy, it's straightforward, just make sure I have your contact info somewhere.:)
Alright let's break down the reel
  1. I hope to see 6-12 solid pieces in a portfolio. These are recommendations only, but I find 6 can generally satisfy questions of breadth and consistency, and 12 or fewer shows that you can judge and curate your own best work. It's always better to leave them wanting to see more of your work.
  2. A 1.5-2.5 minute demo reel is often the sweet spot. Shorter often makes me wonder how much you can actually make - longer just takes up a lot of time.
    1. Give the pieces some breathing room or 2-5 loops. We won't catch every detail the first time and scrubbing is annoying.
    2. You'll notice my definition of "12" pieces here is... loose at best. You could easily claim this has at least 28 pieces in it. None of these rules are set in stone and VFX and concept art in particular often have lots of stages/sub-components that relevant to the completed piece.
  3. Start and end strong. I don't do this in this reel! My weakest piece is actually first, because this was a Hearthstone-specific reel and I wanted to grab them immediately with the fanart. However, in general you want to start with your strongest piece first and go down from there. How strong the piece at the end is is up to you - I like to go second- or third-strongest at the end so it finishes on a good note. And, again, it's always better to cut a weak piece than make people wonder if you really think that's indicative of your skillset.
  4. Contact info! Start, end, and ideally center. Put it unobtrusively on every piece of media you send it, so it's always readily available.
  5. Credits​​!
    1. Unless it's *super obviously* not yours, credit other people whose work appears in your reel or cite the parts you did (whichever's easier).​
More Reel Questions
"What about music/audio?"
I pretty much always mute reels immediately, because I want to focus on the VFX.​ (And unmute animation for lip-sync sections, ofc.) I've seen some reels, especially with ambient VFX, use sound to great effect... but you should never assume that they'll hear it.
"Should I showcase 2D concepts in the demo reel?"
It's up to you - to me, proper crediting is the only essential part. If you're proud of how you've realized another person's concept or of the concept you did yourself, show it off! I have the cards onscreen in my sizzle reels for a similar reason - I think that having the mechanics and card art there to reference is the best way of showing what I was translating into VFX. (I don't tend to show concepts mainly just because I so rarely work from one and I find the framing and transitions clunkier than I want to spend my time on.)
"What sort of characters should I be using?"
It's very common convention to just use grey spheres as character placeholders, so you don't really have to do any extra animation at all. I use those lil' animated grey spheres with sphere-hands unless I have a specifically-animated character to use; I'm just not a strong character animator, but I like having a little more context than the static spheres.
In a previous reel I had used a static, posed character model in a grey environment - I dropped this for the spheres in part because I wanted more animation, but mainly because I was moving towards a much more streamlined/greyboxed look.
(The target dummies I just think are cute, do what you will with that.)
what do i look for in an applicant's vfx reel?

Number of Pieces

As mentioned above, I'm usually hoping for 6-12 pieces in a reel. In a junior reel in particular, I'm expecting 5-6, because you probably taught yourself VFX on your own time and likes 

For the purposes of what a "piece" is, I tend to think of it as all the parts of a single effect: a single explosion is one piece, as is a missile that involves a cast, projectile and missile. For very small things such as hit impacts, it may be worth doing tiers, such as small-medium-large or basic+critical.

Display

Another entry-level specific detail: personally, if you've never actually worked on a game, I'm totally okay with your entire reel being in a greybox with spheres standing in for characters (I've also seen people have great success with - if you're comfortable in Mixamo or similar I highly recommend this).

Even if you're displaying in greybox, you should still be considering (and hopefully testing) how your VFX look in different lightning environments

In heavily art-leaning reels, I'm rarely looking for breakdowns; . In highly technical reels, if part of what you're marketing is your technical capability, showing 

If you have cool stuff (technical or artistic) to show off, you can also show them off below/separately from your reel: this is often easier to view and parse.

Content

These are sort of the checklists I have in my head as I'm reviewing reels. You do not have to check every one of these boxes; however, the more of them you check, the fewer questions I have left over about your basic abilities to execute.

For instance, in the space of these five VFX you can check off every thing on the list:

  1. Mid-tier fireball with cast, projectile, and impact

    1. Shows off looping and world-space ​

    2. Fire!

  2. Powerful magic explosion AoE

    • Clear gameplay telegraphing of area of effect, build-up to explosion, and after-effect 

    • Any debris, smoke, or dust in this can be used to 

  3. Small healing self-cast with wind-up and impact

    • Shows your ability to work small 

    • Shows animation and timing principles in a very contained ​effect, ability to work subtly​

  4. Three-swipe sword attack with increasing strength and hit impacts

    1. Modeled trails for swipes or smear frames can show off basic modeling abilities​

  5. Magic portal with opening and closing

  1. Magic missile

  2. Grenade explosion

  3. Magic trap + triggered effect

  4. Boulder missile

  5. Waterfall

Principles

  • Gameplay context/communication

  • Clear Visual Hierarchy

  • Strong use of Color, Value, Shape, and Detail

  • Animation Principles

  • Readability in varying environments

Elements

  • Fire* / Lightning

  • Water / "Weighty" real-world elements* (smoke, goo, rocks)

  • Swipes/smears - physical motion

  • Bright/additive magic

  • Dark /transparent magic

Effect Types

  • Missile with cast, projectile, and impact

  • AoE or Explosion

  • Heal or Buff

  • Physical / swipe attack

  • Hit impact

  • Debuff

  • Environment or looping VFX

Construction Skills

  • Texture painting

  • Basic modeling skills

  • Basic shader skills

  • BONUS: Simple rigging

  • BONUS: Simple animation

  • BONUS: Flipbook animation