What is an expert?
First of all we should probably talk about what an expert is, in general. A lot of people have defined ‘expert’ in different creative ways. Mark Twain said an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town.” Will Rogers describes an expert as “a man fifty miles from home with a briefcase.” Those are sort of abstract ideas but what they both describe is someone with experience. Both of those allegorical experts are far from home. In other words, they’re far from the comfort of the classroom. The point I’m trying to get across is that no one becomes an expert at anything by going to school. Of course, school is a crucial first step in your journey, but no matter how good of a teacher I try to be, and no matter how hard you work to get a 4.0, none of that will make you an expert.
Take a look at this diagram. It breaks down the levels of proficiency in way that is very easy to grasp. Look at the bottom of the pyramid, that is you, the student. Level 1. Right now you are learning the facts that you need to know and the rules that you need to follow. It’s actually possible to graduate with a good grade without ever advancing past Level 1. But you won’t go very far in the industry. No, your goal should be to move into Level 2 as quickly as possible. As soon as you have acquired enough knowledge to do something interesting with Maya, ZBrush, or whatever your chosen software is, you should start practicing outside of class. Get excited about the possibilities that your new knowledge opens up. Make models after class even though you won’t be graded on them!
By the time you graduate, you should have enough experience under your belt that you don’t have to consciously think of “the rules” and they become automatic. Second nature. If someone asks you to model a face, you immediately know how to begin. Not because you’ve memorized some handout that your teacher gave you, but because you’ve made a face before 3, 4, 5, or more times. That is what it looks like to be at Level 3 on the diagram. Someone can tell you to make something, and you can quickly figure out how to do it, even if you’ve never modeled that particular object before.
The good news is, this is the level you can be at to get a good solid entry level job. If you can follow instructions from an art director, and your technical and artistic skills are well developed, congratulations! You can land a job somewhere! But where to go from there? What level is there beyond being able to make whatever you can think of in 3D? In an academic paper at Berkley on Expertise In The Real World, the paper’s author wrote,
“If one asks an expert for the rules he or she is using, one will, in effect, force the expert to regress to the level of a beginner and state the rules learned in school. Thus, instead of using rules they no longer remember, the expert is forced to remember rules they no longer use. … No amount of rules and facts can capture the knowledge an expert has when he or she has stored experience of the actual outcomes of tens of thousands of situations.”
An expert is someone who uses their tools in a creative way to come up with solutions to new problems. An expert is someone who knows what rules can safely be broken. They create techniques for themselves which are better than the ones they learned in school. An expert knows where their teacher made a mistake or taught them something obsolete. They can use tools in their software in ways they weren’t originally designed for to create a new effect.That is Level 4. What’s the highest point of the pyramid? Those are the people who create new tools. They are the PhD’s in computer science who invented Maya and ZBrush. That’s Level 5 but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
What’s the secret?
When someone asks me “What’s the trick?” what they’re really asking is, “How do I get to that level without doing the work?” The good news and the bad news is that there is no trick or secret to becoming an expert in something. It’s bad news because it won’t be easy. It’s good news because you already have everything you need. You just have to ask yourself how badly you want it, and then you have to put in the time. It’s a lot like getting in shape. Do you binge an entire season of Breaking Bad this weekend or do you go for a long hike? Do you mealprep your food for the week or do you eat at McDonalds every day? Similarly, do you go home and play League of Legends after class or do you find a tutorial to try out? Do you wait for inspiration before you’ll open zbrush or do you open it anyway and start sculpting? What will you do this afternoon: level up your Elf Cleric or level up yourself?
If you really want to be an expert, you’ll practice. It’s going to suck sometimes. It won’t always be fun. But if you put in the time, you will see the rewards. And whether you’re doing it or not, I guarantee someone else is. Which of you is going to land the dream job at ILM or Blizzard?