The VFX industry is constantly evolving and expanding. Every major studio is pushing the envelope in terms of quality and complexity of productions. So there is no surprise that, in order to keep up with all of these changes, you have to constantly be looking out for news and updates of studios pipelines.
One such change happened over the past decade, the Digital Matte Painting discipline and Environment Discipline have been getting closer to each other and even merging into one department in some studios. In 2012, to get into a big vfx shop as a junior or mid level artist you would need to know Photoshop perfectly and be familiar with 1-2 other software's (usually Maya and Nuke).
Today the picture is a little bit different.
Photoshop, Maya and Nuke are still an absolute must to know in order to be considered as a candidate. You can get away with just Photoshop but you need to be an absolute master and have amazing artistic skills to cover Concept art and Keyframe assignments on top of your DMP duties.
Matte Painters need a good understanding of Photoshop,
Nuke, and a bit of Maya.
Ok, so everyone knows you must have a good understanding of Photoshop, Nuke and a bit of Maya (some studios prefer 3dsMax but Maya is an industry standard at the moment), So what else do you need to be familiar with?
Terrain generation software
Terrain software allows us to create quick, realistic terrains with erosion, snow and water effects applied. Usually you'll either use it as a base for your overpaints or for scattering vegetation on top of it. There are a selection of tools that will help with terrain creation.
World Machine is probably the most common software you will find in the studio pipeline. With the recent update it brings it back a good choice for terrain generation and heightmap export. Not to mention that it is very affordable price-wise.
GAEA from Quadspinner
Gaea is very close to the world machine in terms of logic and execution but is much more advanced in the interface, easier to use and extremely powerful. It has a handful of example scenes to start from and the same nodal non-destructive approach will help you to create stunning looking terrains in a matter of minutes.
World Creator is gaining popularity among real-time developers for its ability to create sci-fi or fantasy looking terrains very fast and export into a game engine of your choice. It offers a layered workflow that is not as flexible and scalable as a nodal approach but still very powerful.
Instant Terra offers nodal workflow and some interesting ideas for terrain generation. Despite the fact it’s not as popular as the previous options, you might consider to give it a go and maybe it will fit your needs.
Assets Generation software
Most of the time in big studios this task will be covered by the Assets/Build department but it's still handy to have the skill to create some organic or hard surface elements for yourself without waiting a day or two for a window in another’s department schedule to create something for you.
ZBrush is an absolute industry standard for organic and sometimes hard surface modeling and sculpting. It's not the most intuitive interface and can scare new users off but thanks to the huge community you can find tons of tutorials for different levels and needs.
3D Coat is not as popular as ZBrush but certainly has enough unique tools to help you in your everyday DMP or Environment work. Its voxel sculpting abilities will close some gaps or offer some alternative workflows from ZBrush. It’s also more 3d artist friendly and has a large amount of learning materials on YouTube.
Asset Texturing software
Even though most of the time you won't be asked to perform such tasks in a big studio, some small studios will probably appreciate your help with texturing. Logically, after asset generation, you will need to paint or generate textures for its look development. ZBrush and 3d Coat have instruments to help you with that but those tools are not as extensive or feature-rich as the list below.
Mari, developed by The Foundry, has been a de facto industry standard for quite some time. It has a perfect bridge with Nuke and can help you to fix your DMP projections as well. Lately its losing its positions to Adobe Substance Suite and more and more studios prefer the procedural workflow or smart material approach.
Substance painter initially was developed as a Game Development tool but was picked up by major VFX studios and integrated in their pipelines. With recent updates and ability to work with UDIM's and seamless connection with Substance Designer (which produces procedural textures and materials) it's now a serious competitor to Mari.
This is another good option to accomplish your material creation tasks. Integrated into the Quixel Suite and with support from the Megascans library it will help you create photoreal materials in a matter of minutes.
Tree Generation software
When it comes to the scenes where you need to have a good amount of trees or grass or bushes you either have to buy premade assets from on-line stores or create it yourself. Here is a list of tools which can help you with that.
This is the most prevalent of all the vegetation software among the big and medium size studios. It offers a very comprehensive library of premade projects you can tweak or alter to your liking. It comes with a hefty price tag but also has a subscription option and you can learn the software by following official and third party tutorials.
The Plant Factory from E-On software is a more affordable option for indie artists and small studios or low budget projects. It also has its own library of premade species and if you are familiar with its sister software, Vue (which was widely popular a couple of years back), you can cover your needs for any vegetation project.
Xfrog is a procedural organic 3D modeler that allows you to create and animate 3d trees, flowers, grass and other foliage. It’s been around for quite some time and has its own library of presets. Also it can offer a big variety of export formats for the majority of nowadays software.
Yes, we singled out Houdini as a whole type of software! What started as a great tool for FX generation (fire, water, etc) quickly became a Jack-of-all-trades item thanks to integration with game dev engines. You can generate terrains, foliage, clouds, procedural modeling and much more.
The drawback to Houdini is it has a very steep learning curve, it requires a specific mindset to understand and, to be honest, it's not for everything. It is definitely an industry standard, especially for the FX departments and is becoming more widely used. It's a tool which will play a major role in the DMP/Environment pipeline in future and definitely worth at least getting familiar with.
You might notice that I skipped some tools that were popular a year or so ago. The reason for that is the majority of studios have either stopped supporting it in their workflows or not integrated it at all for various reasons.
Some studios and artists are still using Terragen as their terrain generation software in conjunction with World machine but it doesn't have the best integration with other 3d software and the 3d viewport is quite dated which makes it difficult to recommend as something to learn.
Despite the fact its popularity among freelance concept artists and free price tag, Blender isn't used in any major capacity in the film industry yet. It offers a wide selection of tools and technically can cover the whole pipeline from modelling to composition but it still has some major downsides like no solid color pipeline and it's not the best when working with third party formats in terms of opening assets and so on.
Still, it should be considered if you're just starting out and want to get an understanding of 3D modelling, texturing lighting, etc. Much of the skill you will learn through Blender (or any 3D software) can be translated to another software.
This is, in my opinion, the best tool for any of your environment needs in terms of set dressing and scattering. It can easily beat any software in terms of handling a huge amounts of 3D geo in real time in your viewport. Unfortunately only a handful of studios have integrated it in their pipeline (the biggest is DNEG) so it's only a software we can recommend is “good to be familiar with” at this point.
Initially the answer to ZBrush but taking a more artist friendly approach, Mudbox is still a pretty valuable tool especially if you want to stay within the Autodesk suite. It's just not quite as popular or powerful as Zbrush.
Hopefully this article will give you enough information to start with. It’s always a good idea to read behind the scenes articles from the studio you want to be part of to know what choice they made and learn what software will help you get on board faster!