A real insight into what it’s really like studying VFX at CG Masters, and then getting a job in the industry – from two brothers
Kelly and Kade Eckstein are brothers. They both attended, at different times, CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX in Vancouver, which involved a three-term – one full-year – enrolment. And they both scored jobs in the visual effects industry after graduating.
Their stories are interesting, not just for the family connection, but in terms of pursuing a dream to work in VFX, which has led them to be able to work on incredibly big movies in the Marvel franchise and huge TV series such as Game of Thrones. Read on to find out how it happened for both Kelly, now at Scanline VFX, and Kade, who’s working at Digital Domain. You can also check out their current and previous demo reels.
The VFX dream
Kelly: Prior to attending CG Masters I had just graduated high school and was working at McDonald’s, which was my first job ever. I knew that I had an interest in VFX and animation and had been looking around at a few of the big schools in the area. One day I went on a field trip during my grade 12 year to a career fair where there happened to be a presentation from CG Masters. I really enjoyed their presentation so I grabbed as much info as I could from their booth and attended their next open house.
I knew that the school would be the best fit for me and I applied right away. I went in for an interview at the school and they reviewed some of the art that I had done throughout high school. They gave me some really great constructive feedback and I became even more excited to start my training.
Kade: I had actually also been working at McDonald’s right before I started at CG Masters. I just graduated high school two months prior to applying at CG Masters. I had taken an animation class through high school, that I really enjoyed, but never really thought I would be able to make a career out of it after school. During my last year of school Kelly was already attending CG Masters.
My brother got me to come check out the school and I went and spent the day there with him. After I got home I decided that it was worth a shot, and applied a few days later. I was invited for a meeting with the school, and around ten days after that I had quit my job, and began at CG Masters!
The first thing that really got me excited about the school was seeing people really work together and rely on each other as a team. That was something I didn’t experience or really think about in my high school classes. The other big draw for me was the fact that all the instructors were currently working in the industry. The fact they weren’t people who had once worked in the industry and are now teaching what they used to know, but rather people currently in the industry still passionate about what they are doing, and still learning and growing with the industry, was a big draw as well.
What actually happens day to day at CG Masters
Kelly: Training at CG Masters really is a full-time endeavor. Most weekdays I was there from 9:00am to 9:00pm and occasionally went in on Saturdays. The days were spent attending classes, working on projects, and generally learning and practicing as much as I could in between.
For the first four months, we worked on solo projects which required a small amount of collaboration between classmates. This really set the stage for our next two projects because we gained a solid, basic knowledge of all the aspects of VFX and animation as well as learning how to work really well as a team. For the next eight months my classmates and I worked on two group projects. It was then that I decided to specialize as a lighting artist.
Kade: The environment really feels like a nice blend between school, and an actual production studio. I truly lucked out with classmates that started in the program the same term as me. We were all passionate about what we were doing and always willing to help each other out. We all got along really well, in class and out. That really took my experience at the school to the next level.
The program had a nice incline to building up pressure. My first term, you are pretty focused on your classes. You also have a solo project that your classes support, as well. Term 1 really eases you into what the following terms will bring. The first project I worked on was a single shot that made you work through all the different departments, to really show you what goes into a shot. In our first term we were tasked with filming our own shot, and placing a CG robot inside. So we really got to learn the whole process of a live action shot. From on set, to the final comp, and everything in between.
In term 2 you still have your classes, as well as a project that you will collaborate and work with the rest of your class. Additionally for my second term, we worked with the term 3 students as well. We worked on recreating shots from the movie Gravity, which was a pretty ambitious project for students. During term 2 most students were assigned tasks across pretty much all departments. From modeling and texturing the space shuttle, to rigging the tether that connects the two astronauts, animating and matching the original movie, to compositing are all components that I touched throughout the project. Gravity was definitely the most rewarding and challenging experiences from my time at the school.
Term 3 is where you are in full production mode. Where you have no classes but spend all your time working on a project along with the whole class. You have scheduled dailies, along with the support of all the teachers whenever they are in to teach their classes for the first two terms. Term 3 you really start to get the idea of what an actual production will be like. We were also given a chance to start to specialize in a certain department if we found ourselves leaning towards one more than the others. By term 3 I was leaning towards lighting or comp at the time, but ultimately compositing won me over in the end.
CG Masters – the takeaways
Kelly: When I graduated I had learned SO much! I picked up new artistic skills and learned more about composition. I learned how to use a whole list of new software that I had never used before such as Nuke, Maya, V-ray, Houdini, Photoshop, Modo, Mari and Mudbox, to name a few. I also learned a lot about the science of light and how it works in the real world so it can be replicated in CG.
Kade: I think what I valued most after leaving CG Masters was what to expect and how to act in a professional studio environment. Another big take away from the school was my knowledge of all the other departments. By making you stick with all the departments through all three terms, you really come out with a better understanding of the whole picture. I think that really enhances your ability to do your job, no matter what discipline. It especially helps as a compositor, being able to know or understand the steps before you, or if you are able to get away with what you have, or if it needs to go back downstream to another department.
Kelly: I left school with a demo reel showcasing my work as a 3D generalist. It had different shots from all three of the projects I worked on during the year. But at CG Masters I also learned a lot of practical life skills to do with time/task management, dealing with people, setting goals and being accountable.
Getting that first VFX job after CG Masters
Kade: When I graduated I started throwing my reel wherever was hiring lighters or compositors. I was lucky enough to get a recommendation from CG Masters’ Nick Boughen to Encore, where I and another classmate started out as roto and paint artists.
Kelly: I sent out my reel and my resume to basically any studio I could find a recruitment email address for. The thought of not getting a job was definitely a scary thing to think about. But I received an email back about an interview for a 3D generalist position at Bardel Entertainment and that ended up being my very first job in the industry. I can honestly say that the production pipeline there was exactly how we ran things at CG Masters. There were a lot of skills I still needed to improve but generally I felt very confident that I knew what to do on a day-to-day basis. CG Masters did a really awesome job teaching us how to work within an actual studio environment.
Navigating the VFX industry after the first job
Kelly: For that first job at Bardel Entertainment I worked as a 3D generalist on a 2D/3D Disney cartoon called Jake and the Neverland Pirates. I was there for about 10 months and then I moved on to work at MPC as a junior lighting artist. I worked there for about a year and a half and got my very first feature film credits on The Finest Hours and Independence Day: Resurgence. Then I moved over to Scanline VFX where I still work today. I’ve been here for about three years now and absolutely love it. Some of the projects I’ve worked on include Justice League, Tomb Raider, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Game of Thrones Season 8 and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Kade: I stayed in my roto/paint role at Encore for a couple months before they started throwing some comp shots at me. I think it was around four or five months where it shifted to doing more comp than roto/paint work. I am very thankful for everyone at Encore, I learned a lot from everyone there, for the almost two years I spent there.
During my last six months at Encore I got the opportunity to help out Method Studios during some of their delivery crunches. That’s where I got my first movie credit as a compositor on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A few months after that I got to help out again, this time on Spider-Man: Homecoming. During the time on that I decided that I really wanted to push to work on movies, rather than TV. In the month or so after that I was able to transition from Encore to Method. I spent a year and a half there where I got to learn from a bunch more people and got to work on some of my favourite projects like Thor: Ragnarok, and Deadpool 2.
After that I made the jump to Digital Domain, where I worked on Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. From there I moved to Sony Pictures Imageworks, for a brief two months to work on Spider-Man: Far From Home. Following that I jumped back to Digital Domain to work on Terminator: Dark Fate, which was one of my favorite movie franchises growing up, so that was pretty cool! That about brings us to now – I am currently still happily working at Digital Domain.
Memorable shots (so far)
Kade: I think the most memorable shots I’ve worked on are from Deadpool 2. That project will always be near and dear to my heart. It was the first feature film project I was on from nearly the beginning. The team was fantastic on that show, the compositing supervisor (Andrew Brooks) and VFX supervisor (Sean Konrad) are some of my favorite people to have worked with. The ‘Meth Lab’ shot, near the beginning of the movie, with the drug boss running through the lab and Deadpool causing chaos behind him, is definitely one of my favorite shots to have been a part of. It’s also the longest I’ve had a shot on my plate for by far!
Kelly: I had the honor of doing lighting and shader work for the sequence in the final episode of Game of Thrones where the dragon completely melts the iron throne into a pool of lava. I worked very closely with the FX team that was doing the lava simulations to build a complex lava shader. I started watching Game of Thrones for the very first time in the summer before I started school at CG Masters so being able to do the lighting work for a very crucial part of the final episode of the series made me extremely proud. The industry is an amazing place to be working right now. There’s lots of opportunities for artists in all stages of VFX production and many different locations to work in. I’m very excited to be a part of it.
You can find out more about studying at CG Masters at their website: https://cg-masters.com, including details on more alumni from the school and the work they’ve done since graduating – just look for the Testimonials section.Support befores & afters on Patreon, and get bonus content in the process!