Watch this mock interview and portfolio/resume critique between an actual video game artist and an actual recent graduate. I love this video because it shows you how to present yourself to new employers as someone who has no industry experience.
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?
AnimatedJobs is a good place to search for animation jobs around the world. There are fulltime, freelance, and contract positions available. Some of them allow you to work remotely, some of them will help you relocate. There are even internships available, which I HIGHLY recommend, even if they’re unpaid. I’ll be adding the link to our resources page.
There are two types of people in the world: Those who respond to encouragement, and those who respond to the hard truth of realistic criticism. I’m one of the latter. Sometimes tough love is what we need to progress. Sometimes a former student will ask me why they can’t get a job. Or they’ll complain that there are no jobs out there to apply for; at least no jobs that don’t require experience. Let me tell you right now, if you aren’t getting call-backs from studios, it’s because your demo reel and resume aren’t good enough. It’s that simple. That’s not a dig at you. Don’t take it personally. My own reel isn’t good enough to land me an interview at my dream studio either (Naughty Dog) …YET!
The truth is, if your reel is good enough and shows that you have the skills that studios are looking for, you will get called back. “But every job requires 3 years of experience!” No they don’t. They’re trying to weed people out. If your demo reel is good enough, they’ll hire you. Now, don’t expect to get a senior or lead position without experience. They won’t hire you as lead character artist if you haven’t shipped any AAA titles. But you can get your foot in the door. The reason you aren’t is because of your reel.
There are two ways you can respond to this: Get offended and give up, or get serious and double down. The universe doesn’t owe you a career in 3D animation. There’s no seat in some studio with your name on it. You have to carve your own path and make your own name. Turn yourself into a legend! It’s not going to be easy. You aren’t going to graduate and just fall into a job. You WILL fail. A LOT!
So which kind of person are you? Will you respond to this by deciding that it’s too hard for you? Will you shrug it off, load up your WoW character, and waste another evening NOT progressing? Or will you dust off your demo reel, take a hard honest look at it, identify the weakest piece, eliminate it, and make something brand new to replace it?
The hard truth is that you never get to stop doing that if you want to get anywhere in this industry. I don’t know who told you otherwise. The good news is that if you keep doing it, eventually people will pay you to do it. But you never get to stop because somewhere out there, someone else isn’t stopping. If you rest on your laurels, you will be surpassed.
This motivational rant isn’t intended to come off as mean-spirited, although I know some people will take it that way. It’s just the cold hard truth that everyone needs to understand. I didn’t understand either until I met someone who didn’t give me false encouragement but instead looked me in the eye and said “The reason you aren’t getting a job is because you aren’t good enough to get a job….yet.” Let that spark a brand new fire in the depths of your soul rather than extinguishing it!
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?
Daybreak Games is running their annual scholarship and internship competition right now. If you’re a current student, you like money, and you want to get your foot in the door in the game industry, there’s literally no reason not to apply. You have nothing to lose by applying, and a lot to gain. The game industry can be difficult to break in to, but once you land that first job, word of mouth spreads quickly. If you work hard in school to make a killer demo reel, you will get a job somewhere. But there are tons of people graduating with killer demo reels (don’t believe me? search youtube for student demo reels), so the best way to get a leg up and stand out above the rest is to get a little bit of experience under your belt before you even graduate. An internship is THE best way to do that and I can’t recommend them strongly enough. Your 3D career doesn’t start when you graduate, it started the moment you walked into your first 3D class. So let’s do this! I hope each and every one of you signs up for this. Here is the link: https://www.scholarsapply.org/gamersinreallife/