How To Become A Video Game Special Effects Artist

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This article is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.

Meet Nathaniel Hubbell, Video Game Special Effects Artist

Nathaniel Hubbell, Video Game Special Effects Artist

Nat takes bare-bones games and fleshes them out with stunning visual effects.

When it comes to animation, Nathaniel is a consummate “jack of all trades.” Whether it’s his work on big-budget franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Spore, or X-Men, Nat has leveraged his skills in animation, rigging and special effects to make amazing visuals that shock and awe gaming audiences everywhere.

Today, we talk with Nat about what it takes to become a VFX (Visual Special Effects) Artist in video games, and what you can do to get started down his path.

How would you describe your job?

What I always tell people is: “I make anything that moves that isn’t a character.” Anything from sparkles to explosions to rippling water to blinking buttons in a menu.

The art I make can be simple and subtle, like a couple of moving clouds in the background. Or it can be complex and flashy, like all the superpowers in a superhero game. There’s a lot of variety!

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How did you get your first job as a Special Effects Artist (VFX)?

It was a gradual transition. I went to school for animation, making several of my own short films. Through some connections I found a job in the game industry. There I started off doing character animation, but because I also had a general background in 3D art I often helped out with the effects as well. After a while, my supervisors approached me about doing effects full-time. I honestly had never considered that path because… frankly, it seemed too fun to be a real career! Very quickly I found that it was a great fit, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

What’s your favorite part of making special effects art?

My favorite part of this job is the “wow” factor. In large part, special effects exist to make the player think: “Oh, wow, look at that!” In other words, effects are there to be COOL. Delivering that kind of visually impressive moment holds tremendous appeal for me, particularly when I’m tackling something I’ve never made before.

What’s your least favorite part?

“learn to troubleshoot… and form a good working relationship with the people who support your software!”

My least favorite part of the job is when tools break. As you’d imagine, special effects are highly dependent on art production software; when the software you’re using stops functioning in the way you’ve come to expect (whether due to bugs or a problematic redesign), getting back on track is a pain. To remedy this, learn to troubleshoot… and form a good working relationship with the people who support your software!

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What aspect of the Special Effects Artist job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?

It’s often more of an art than a science. To be clear, it’s certainly true that special effects is a tech-centric discipline, and the more you learn about how things work “under the hood” the better off you’ll be.

That said, you can achieve a lot with simple tools and a strong artistic eye. There are games where I’ve essentially built all of the effects by hand in 2D. Even on larger projects where the underlying code is far more advanced, I constantly lean on my traditional art background.

What kinds of talents and personality does it take to succeed as a Special Effects Artist?

First, you’ll probably want to be a generalist. You can have a specialty, but you’ll want to have a solid grasp of several related fields.

Second, you need to be a problem solver. Again, you’re dealing with anything that moves that isn’t a character… which is a pretty wide field! Very often you’ll be assigned a something you’ve never done before. Who knows – a waterfall that flows up? An exploding star? A cloak made of starlight? A dust storm that’s alive? If you enjoy tackling weird, unpredictable challenges, this is an exciting area to be in.

“You have to be a good communicator: articulate, efficient, and proactive without being abrasive. Your job will be much easier if you’re easy for others to work with.”

Last but not least, you need social skills. This is true of any job in game development. You have to be a good communicator: articulate, efficient, and proactive without being abrasive. Your job will be much easier if you’re easy for others to work with.

What advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about that job as a career?

Ideally you’ll want to learn a little bit of everything, because just about every area of digital art production is important. Basic color theory, composition, painting, modeling, texturing, and animation are all essential. You’ll also want to know about rigging, shaders, physics simulation, and as much scripting/coding as you can manage. This is definitely a generalist’s occupation! You don’t need to be an expert in all these areas, but you’ll want to have a decent practical grasp on them. As someone once told me: “Be a jack of all trades and a master of one or two.”

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Also, a few particulars: Learn to make fire, water, clouds/smoke, explosions, lightning/electricity, and motion trails. Those six things are especially common tasks for effects artists, so they’re good to have in your repertoire. Learn to do them in different styles, using different methods, both 2D and 3D if possible.

What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start as a Special Effects Artist?

For higher education, that’s hard for me to say. Special effects is a small, esoteric field, and since it’s not what I studied in college I can’t vouch for any specific school. My best advice is to choose a school that gives you a broad survey of game art or animated film production.

For the software side, grab a game engine and just start playing with it! Source, Unreal, CryEngine, Unity 3D, whatever is current and free/affordable. Anytime you can’t figure something out, look for online tutorials. The tech changes so fast that frankly I think books fall out of date too quickly.

“do drawings or paintings of natural phenomena from observation. And read all the books on traditional art that you can get your hands on!”

For the art side, do drawings or paintings of natural phenomena from observation. And read all the books on traditional art that you can get your hands on! Glenn Vilppu is good. Also, Andrew Loomis has a classic series that has come back into print. There are many choices.

Finally, study art history. This will help you learn about different styles. Sometimes you’ll find the best inspiration in art that’s well outside the game world!

You can reach Nathaniel at his LinkedIn profile. If this article was helpful, please give back by sharing on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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8 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Special Effects Artist
  1. oman says:

    I am planning to join a college for Bsc in Animation and VFX in india so that I can become game animator or game VFX artist like him .
    I also have interest in game designing so can I do masters in game designing afterwards?
    Is it going to have a positive or negative effect in my career?
    Can I get any other suggestions about what course shall I do after Animation and VFX?

    Thank you

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Oman, if the career you’re interested in is animation or VFX then you should be able to get a job after you complete your degree in Animation and VFX. Game design is a very different career path though, so it may not be worth it to do a Design masters after unless you’d prefer to do design instead of VFX.

  2. oman says:

    Hello thank u for the reply.

    But my interest is in both the jobs but I don’t think that I’m ready to be a game designer directly,I think after some industry experience in animation I would love to go for designing.

    Can u recommended me any other course that I should for after animation maybe similar to animation..

  3. oman says:

    Or any other bachelors course which will help me if I do game design in masters level..

    I would really appreciate that

  4. manikandan says:

    am currently learning game programming. i want to get into special fx in games. where should i start with, should i have to start with fx from 3d pacakages like maya, 3dsmax or should i have to directly start with the game engine fx system.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Since special FX is an artistic job, it doesn’t matter so much which tools you learn first, because it’s all about learning how to build the effects from an artistic standpoint. Also, most of the fx tools work similarly, so once you learn one you can learn the others easily. The sooner you start, the better!

      • George says:

        So i want to become a Videogame Special Effects Artist but what software do i need to use, how will i have to use programming, any book SPECIFICALY about Special Effects? This was very helpful but not practical it was just theory.

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        The advice in this article might feel like it’s “just theory,” but if you read it closely what Nathaniel is saying is that you need to start by learning “general” art and animation. One approach would be to start by taking some art classes, then some animation classes, and then build from there.

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