Where to start?

I've wanted to be in the SFX industry since I was a kid (like most).  Thing is I'm not sure if I should invest in traditional makeup effects or move toward CGI/VFX.  Any thoughts?  How would I find out what the future of this industry looks like?  


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    Both the Special Effects and Visual Effects industries are rather volatile, so predicting their future is difficult.  But in short, neither is going away.

    I have the unique pleasure of working in both over the years, and I can say that neither has a clearly defined future, but both have a lot of unique rewards and opportunities.

    Visual Effects:
    The Visual Effects industry is in a state of turmoil at the moment as many visual effects houses are closing their doors for financial reasons.  In an effort to remain competitive visual effects houses have to constantly underbid their competitors to get work, and studios keep asking for more and more revisions and variations on every shot.  The increased financial burden of all the additional resources (man power, overtime, larger render farms and more frequent renders, software licensing costs per additional machine, etc.) is put entirely on the effects house.   For example, you sign a contract stating that you will build a single car for your client for $7,000, and doing so costs your company $1,000 in resources and labor.  After the contracts are signed, the client says they actually want that car in 3 colors and 2 body styles (6 total cars), still for only $7,000, but now your resources and labor cost $6,000.  If you say no or ask for more money another company may step up to the plate and that studio will be less likely to work with you in the future.  This happens extremely frequently.  Some effects houses even take work at a loss (spending more than they make) just to please a client for the possibility of future work.  Many effects houses are now forced to outsource much of their work which creates production pipeline issues, project management nightmares, and often significantly lower quality work.

    All this is only compounded by "runaway production," where much of the industry is leaving Los Angeles for Canada, India, Romania, etc.

    I suggest watching the short documentary "Life After Pi" about the bankruptcy of the visual effects house Rhythm & Hues.

    Special (Practical) Effects:
    The special effects industry has some of the same type of competition for contracts, but suffers slightly less from outsourcing and runaway production.  As with Visual Effects, the vast majority of work being done is for commercials, but practical effects are going through a bit of a resurgence right now.  Shows like Face Off, Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge, Making Monsters, Foxy & Co, etc. are directing a lot more attention towards the industry than there has been in a long time.  But one of the biggest changes in favor of practical effects is the way the entire entertainment industry is changing.

    The industry as a whole is going through a lot of major changes.  The big studio business model is proving too complex and cumbersome to remain agile in a changing landscape.  Many studios are struggling to make money off a few major "tent pole" or "block buster" productions every year, and are cutting back the total number of projects they green-light.  Many directors, writers, actors, and "above the line" talent are leaving the silver screen in favor of projects tailored for the internet, TV and independent distribution.  

    Cable networks like AMC, Showtime, and HBO are stepping up their game and producing groundbreaking new shows with production quality that rivals that of film, but with a long-form storytelling that audiences are flocking to.  With this increased production value comes the increased use of practical effects.

    Joining the cable networks are multimedia studios like Netflix and Hulu that are starting to develop original content.

    Smaller production companies are now backing and distributing their own content rather than working with the Hollywood studio system, and working more-closely with their fans.

    Some productions like "Harbinger Down" (By Alec Gillis of Studio ADI) are being backed by fans on crowd funding sites like Kickstarter.

    This industry change creates a lot of potential for more special effects work in the future, as many of these smaller productions don't have massive budgets for visual effects, and can get more value and quality for their money by going practical (in camera) where possible.

    Budget visual effects and compositing look terrible, there's no way around it.  But budget practical effects can be developed and shot in creative ways to produce amazing results, especially when enhanced with post production techniques or visual effects.  This gives independent productions a lot more creative potential when operating under more financial constraints.

    Ultimately visual and special effects are both unique and valuable tools in the storyteller's toolbox, and both can enhance the other.  Neither is going away any time soon.  So if you find yourself a fan of both but don't know which to pursue, my suggestion would be to dabble a bit in each and see where your creative drive takes you.  Whichever path you ultimately decide on following, your exposure to the other path will only help you, especially in a world where practical and visual effects will be working more closely together.

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