A Day In The Life Of An Environments Technical Director

Interested in the world of Visual Effects? Hear all about it from someone in the industry.

Today we sat down with Joseph Yu, an Environments TD who moved to Canada from the UK for an amazing opportunity. Let’s hear what he has to say about getting into the world of VFX and his story so far.

What did you study at University?

I studied Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. It was a fairly challenging course that was coursework-heavy. It covered a wide variety of topics ranging from cinematography and life drawing, all the way to pure maths and programming. A big variety of people came out of it as you’d imagine, most will end up specialising in a much narrower niche from the vast modules we were taught.

How did you get into your current job? What previous jobs did you have before working at your current role?

I got into my current job from messaging studio recruiters. But a few years of experience helped too, having first worked at a much smaller studio directly after university with a few mates, then switching to a mid-size one in London. I then went after the bigger studios in London.

Although jumping about might not be suitable in other industries or roles, I think it’s helped me experience more variety and insight into how different places work and how I can adapt to different scales, situations, and roles.

We see your role is in Canada! Want to explain how that happened?

As one of the guest speakers at the university put it: â€Working in VFX is a ticket to travel around the worldâ€. There are a few hubs around the world with great studios that have hired artists and developers from other places. It’s always interesting when listening to leads and supervisors back at pubs in London explaining how they met each other in the most random situations on the other side of the world, as well as the culture and lifestyle differences.

Initially, I wanted to start the world tour earlier, but COVID happened. Now things have opened up more, I thought I would seize the opportunity. I personally prefer living and spending a longer time at a place than just “going on holiday†to experience their local working life and vibe.

What does an Environments TD job role involve?

The TD role stands for a technical director, of which the “director†part sounds very up there and fancy but it’s nothing like that most of the time, and TD is used quite often for various roles.

TDs are generally the slightly more techy people, helping troubleshoot more technical issues with programs misbehaving. But some studios may also expect TDs to do some actual production work creating models or setting up scenes for shots. My day-to-day falls more into the former, as well as developing new tools, i.e. buttons, to save artists time and headache with repetitive or error-prone tasks.

Environments is a part of the CG VFX (Computer Graphics Visual Effects) that mostly involves putting together all the various models and animation and FX (which we call assets) together into an environment/scene, which are then used later by other departments.

Environment artists, not TDs, may also create the various assets for an environment/scene too.

What does an Environments TD actually do on a typical day?

Want a button to export out all the right files to the right places with the right names? Hit me up! Using an old button that’s giving you errors? I’ll try to fix it. So less glamorous, but appreciated enough it’s a job.

I’m a programmer, essentially!

Can you show us your workspace or a project you’ve worked on?

Like most in the VFX, my current work and projects I’m part of are all hush-hush.

All of the actual work I do is code and the publicly available ones are on the j0yu GitHub.

Some of those projects help drive backbone VFX workflows and the Vimeo of my previous job has a few showcases of the artist’s work behind the scene that made use of the tools and workflows I’ve built for them.

What are some of your key responsibilities as an Environments TD?

For my role, which is more skewed towards the technical and programming side, keeping production tools running smoothly and building more tools to get things done quicker are the most important aspects. Being able to communicate and nail down issues impeding artists from creating things is also important.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

When artists test new tools out, seeing it saves them from a headache, stress and time is very rewarding for me.

Alongside that, getting to see how films and adverts come together before they’re released is also pretty cool; watching various pieces from different departments coming together and being refined is great.

What would surprise people the most about working as an Environments TD?

Probably the programming and computer parts.

Lots of people still think about miniatures, 2D animation and drawing and painting things by hand, which are still being done and are great, but lots of things have moved on quite a lot and have gone interstellar.

The computer and maths behind it “draw†our pictures, all the effects, models, animation, cameras, and almost everything is done inside the computer and it really boggles people’s minds how much work is done sitting in front of a computer outside of footage being shot on-set and sent to the VFX studios.

What’s the coolest opportunity you’ve had so far in your career?

Going to Paris for a couple of days to visit the department over there. I was working in the London office back then and we’ve always had people from Paris and London going over to each other’s offices, but mostly the leads and supervisors.

The guy in Paris, that was in a similar role to me at the time was visiting the London office quite often, so I took his advice and asked if I could go then the rest was history. Was good seeing the team in person at their own office and also had some fun wandering around the city after work during my short stay there.

Where do you see your career taking you in the next 5 years?

I prefer “doing it myself rather than telling people to do at the moment, so I would like to work on more senior roles without getting into lead roles yet, but maybe that’ll change in the next 5 years.

On the travel side, I’ll want to stay in Vancouver for another year at least to really take advantage of the snow sports and wilderness here while it’s close to the city. Then after that, I’d love to give New Zealand and Australia a go.

Any advice for those looking to work abroad?

Just go for it. It doesn’t hurt asking and the move will be stressful, but after all the madness it’ll be worth it. Even if you don’t like it and move back right away, at least you gave it a shot and you’re looking after yourself. Check if places are open to hiring people from abroad, e.g. Canada is fairly open to getting foreign talent in, and recruiters are more than happy to give you advice.

Also, even for non-abroad, you don’t need lots of previous work experience either. Employers are always looking for different kinds of people at different times, so finding work is also a lottery of being matched for the right place at the right time.

What would you advise students to get into your field?

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Being good at adapting, learning things by yourself, and being curious helps a lot in this fast-moving industry. Nearly nothing quality comes from being spoon-fed; lots of watching tutorials, experimenting and figuring things by yourself goes a long way.

Also, learn the way of real-life form before making any stylised content, it helps ground your work and it’s what makes monsters and aliens in films more relatable to us.

Some universities might not be the best place anymore to learn professional-driven VFX in the UK, for example, a red flag is universities chasing the Guardian top 100 or being the Russell Group.

In industry, higher education qualifications have little to no value for artists and more production work-focused TDs. Your showreel and portfolio does.

More technical people like me, or software engineers, will benefit more from degrees, but not all techy people start from very techy courses either (I know a few phenomenal programmers that graduated from animation).

You want to learn from somewhere that has hired more recent workers from industry with fresh insights, not professors with PhDs who never worked in a studio. You don’t want to go into a job having been taught an outdated skillset. Some smaller universities and institutes like Escape Studios are a good option.

For more jobs and careers advice check out the most sought after degrees by employers. You may be wondering if it’s worth doing a master’s or if it’s worth studying a PhD. We hope those looking to get into the VFX industry gain some valuable insight from Jo!