Motivational Monday: Reputation

henry-ford-reputation

Today I want to talk about saying yes to those opportunities that lie outside of your comfort zone, because improving yourself doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable. Adventures only happen when you leave home. You only get stronger when you lift heavy things until it burns. And your art skills only improve when you attempt to create something you’ve never attempted to create before. We talk about that last one a lot here on this blog. But one thing I don’t talk about often enough is improving your reputation as an artist. In some ways, your reputation as a reliable, confident, enthusiastic teammate is more important than your skills.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a common cliche and it’s completely true. However, a lot of people misunderstand the phrase. They take it to mean that breaking in to the industry is pure luck, or only for those privileged enough to have connections. What it really means is that to break into the industry, you have to actually meet people. You can become an absolute ZBrush virtuoso alone in your room, but if you don’t put yourself out there, no one will know or care.

It’s  important to say yes to things that are difficult or stressful. The only way to learn how to work with a team under a tight deadline is by doing it. How do you react to challenges, assuming you chose to face them at all?  Here’s the big secret: challenges won’t usually just throw themselves at you. YOU have to seek them out and throw yourself at them. When you do that, people will see and your reputation will grow.  Case-in-point: Last year someone asked me to do the 48 Hour Film Project with them. I was extremely uncomfortable but I said yes. The film was cheesy and my animation was wonky. But we were the only team with a 3D character and people remember it. I met tons of great, talented, and well connected people and I’m still getting contacted about job offers a year later.

But wait! Before you think that story was about me, there’s more to it! This year I was asked by a different film maker to participate again. He had an insanely ambitious idea and I realized I needed help. I decided to ask a Platt graduate. So I asked a former student named Lindsey Joell Warrick. I had only seen a little bit of her work but it was really good. But the thing about her that really stuck in my memory was that she never once said no to a new challenge while she was in school. She wanted to learn EVERYTHING. And she even came to me after she was done with all my classes to ask about new techniques and technologies that I didn’t cover in class. Her reputation was that of passion, excitement, and curiosity. And she has the skills to back them up.

When the weekend came, we were asked to do so much more than either of us expected. But Lindsey and I never said no. We worked around the clock, barely sleeping for the whole 48 hours, and we delivered our shots on time. Lindsey’s work blew everyone’s minds. Everything she did was out of her comfort zone. We even had to do R&D right there on set occasionally. But we got it done and now these influential San Diego filmmakers know her name. Before we were even done we were approached for another project coming up in the future. And it all happened because she built her reputation as a strong teammate and as an artist even back when she was a just student.

Don’t think for a second that your story isn’t being written RIGHT NOW. You are already a 3D artist. You’re not waiting for your career to begin. It began when you decided to start learning this art. Your fellow students and your instructors will remember the way you sought out and attacked new challenges when you were in school…or how you avoided them. When you graduate and enter the industry, your classmates will be right there with you. Look around. When you get an opportunity, which ones would you want to rely on? Which ones would you not trust? Would any of them call you based on your reputation as an artist?

How to become an expert in 3D! (Or whatever)

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.

 

KokcharovSkillHierarchy2015Take 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?
pakalu-papito-follow-pakalupapito-i-would-do-anything-to-be-2474709If 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?

Let’s Talk About Proficiency and Self-Confidence

There’s this thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The basic rundown of this phenomenon is this: less skilled, less proficient people tend to over estimate their abilities and rate themselves higher than they are. While more skilled and more proficient people tend to under estimate their abilities and rate themselves lower. The reason for this is that less skilled people don’t know enough to know what they don’t know. While more skilled people do know how much they don’t know. They also tend to assume that what is easy for themselves is just as easy for other people when it really isn’t.

Think of it like this. You’re walking along and you come upon the base of a mountain. We’ll call it MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™. You look up and see that not very far above, the cloud cover obscures the top of the mountain. That cloud cover doesn’t seem very high so you decide to try to scale the mountain, confident that you will reach the top in no time. And it’s true, you look back and see that you’re making great time, and not long after, you reach the clouds and break through. But once you do, you can see that the mountain has no apparent peak. It just goes on forever and ever. And not only that, there are already dozens of people up there using well-worn footpaths. Suddenly you don’t feel so proud of your accomplishments.

This is the point where self-confidence drops. You’ve seen what some of your peers have done and instead of getting inspired, you get discouraged. Congratulations, you now know enough about your field of study to know how vast it is, how many different paths there are to take, and how many people have a head start. But you’ve lost sight of the fact that you’ve climbed a long way. There might not be a top to MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™, and if there is, who ever gets there before you will only build the peak up higher. (That’s basically what a PhD is. In many fields you have to discover or create something new to earn a Doctorate.) But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Keep climbing. Follow the footpaths that were created by the people that went before you. They know what they’re doing. But if you see something interesting that lies off the well-beaten path, go check it out. As long as you’re moving upwards, you’re heading in the right direction.

I like to define “proficiency” as the point when you know enough about a subject that you know the right questions to ask in order to keep learning. The students who I see achieving the greatest success are the ones who do more than I ask of them in class simply because they love the subject. They are constantly sketching, even if they aren’t good at it. They are constantly trying techniques I haven’t taught them, even if the results aren’t great. And they’re constantly adding to their body of personal work. To graduate from Platt, you have to show a teacher a finished portfolio. The portfolio represents the very best work you did as a student and proves that you’ve learned the skills that we tried to teach you. The first thing you should do when you get that final approval on your portfolio or demo reel is celebrate your achievement. The very next thing you should do is look at that collection of your best and most favorite works, identify the weakest piece, and start working on a new piece to replace it. This should be a constant and never-ending process. You never get to stop climbing. The good news is that if you keep struggling your way up MOUNT KNOWLEDGE™ you will eventually land a job, and you will start getting paid to climb the mountain.

Just remember, when you feel discouraged and insufficient compared to your peers, that might just be a sign that you’re getting better. And trust me, they feel the same way.

PRACTICE. YOUR. ART.

A couple months ago we had an Unreal Engine workshop with Waylon Brinck from Naughty Dog Games (Uncharted, The Last of Us). During the course of his lecture he made the point that the people who just do the bare minimum in the industry don’t really go anywhere. And I was thinking that that advice applies to school as well. Those who do just the bare minimum to graduate, even with straight A’s, won’t necessarily make it in the industry. If your portfolio is 100% school work, an employer will recognize that. San Diego is a very insular community. If you are a web student, for example, and you show up at an interview, chances are someone at that firm is a former Platt student. They know the Neighborhood Bike Shop site that you made in Fred’s class because they had to make it too. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t put classwork in your portfolio, but you should put other things in there too. Employers want to see that you can finish a project without a teacher standing over your shoulder.

Recent graduates have two reputations in the industry. Whether it’s true or not, you will be seen as either lazy and flakey, or as full of energy and eager to learn. You want to fit the second stereotype. They know you have no experience, they’re expecting that. The reason they hire recent grads is because you are enthusiastic learners who are full of energy. You want your portfolio to reflect that fact, and the best way to do that is by doing work outside of class. Lots and lots of work! Teach yourself new techniques and practice practice practice!

Career Services will never get you a job. That’s not to bash Career Services, they are great at what they do! But that’s not their goal. Their goal is to get you connections. It’s up to YOU to actually land the job. I talk to former Platt students a lot. Occasionally one will complain about how hard it is to start out in the industry (which is true), and occasionally they’ll blame the office for not doing their job finding work for them. The first things I always ask them are…

“What was the last project you worked on?”

“What are you working on now?”

“What have you learned since you graduated?”

“How old is your demo reel?”

“When was the last time you even opened Maya?”

I’ve taught this class fora couple years and before that I was a TA for 6. I’ve seen lots of students come and go. I’ve seen students succeed in the industry and I’ve seen students who didn’t even seem to try; who just burned out and gave up before they even graduated. The main thing that all those who succeed have in common is that they all open Maya every day. They are always posting new personal characters on Facebook. They’re always emailing me asking for tips on new tools and techniques. They practice their art out side of school.

5 weeks is not enough time to teach you everything you need to know about Maya. The intro class is just the very basics. I like to say that we’re not even learning to walk in this class. We’re more like newborns who are just discovering that we have two feet and ten toes. The walking comes later in the advanced 3D classes in terms 5 and 6. But even then, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Without fail, the most common thing I hear from former students who land a their first job in the industry is “School only barely taught me half of what I needed to know to do my industry job.” Now, a lot of that knowledge you won’t get until you do get the job. The studio will have to train you. But a huge portion of the knowledge you need to succeed will have to be self taught. The purpose of school is to teach you how to teach yourself. We give you the basic run down and equip you with the tools you need to grow on your own. From there it’s all up to you.

The work doesn’t stop when you get your degree, that’s just the beginning. The industry is incredibly competative. Look at other people’s demo reels to see what I mean. Compare them to yours. And then, here’s the key, get inspired by that rather than discouraged. Instead of thinking “I’ll never be able to do that” go out and learn how to do it. Go on Digital Tutors, go on YouTube, email me, email other teachers, ask questions.

Become an autodidact, or die. Those are the only two options. Practice. Your. Art.