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Starting a Career In Computer Graphics 
By Jeremy Birn 

Top . Learning 3D . Finding a Job . Demo Reels . The Job Market

 

THE BIG IDEA

The most important thing to remember in planning a career in 3D graphics or computer animation is that it's what you bring to the computer, not how well you fly the software, that will matter most to your work.

Most of the best 3D artists have some other visual arts background (such as illustration, painting, sculpture, live action filmmaking, or 2D or stop-motion animation) in addition to 3D experience. People with strong traditional visual arts skills generally produce the best graphics and animation, and get the best jobs, with the most creative control over their work.

To see what it'll take, check out some 3D job descriptions on-line.  VFXpro.com is one of the best sources for up-to-date 3D job listings.

Or go straight to the site of a 3D company, such as Pacific Data Images and check out the qualifications they are looking for in their recruiting section.

LEARNING 3D

By saying "how well you fly the software" is not the most important issue, I don't mean to trivialize it, either! It takes hundreds of hours working in 3D before most artists can control the software well enough to even let their own style show through, instead of the "computer look" that so often takes over.

If you are learning about computer graphics for the first time, learn 2D tools first, such as Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, before doing 3D. This is not just a good foundation, but Photoshop is also a program you're going to continue using during 3D projects.

Start with as many short, simple projects as you can, so that you can go through the whole process of planning, modelling, texturing, lighting, animating, rendering, and editing your work several times on short projects, and learn to use a variety of software functions along the way.

I learned 3D by using my own Amiga to run some simple 3D programs at home. Even at a top school that teaches 3D, much of what you learn will be self-taught, as a result of spending time creating your work on the computers.

If you're setting up a home-based system to learn 3D, don't go spending huge piles of money. A package like Hash or Lightwave should be fine for most people, and will teach you the skills you will use in any other system.

The Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist's Union Local 839 has a list of animation schools.

Pixar's Recruiting Page has another list of schools for aspiring character animators.

Another School List

I got my MFA in Film at the Art Center College of Design, located in Pasadena, CA. Art Center has a rare combination of one of the best Silicon Graphics facilities in any school, and knowledgable, professional instructors. It's one of the best places in the world to learn Alias. Most of the students taking Computer Graphics courses are majoring in something other than computer graphics: you apply to a department (such as fine art, photo, industrial design, film, illustration, or others) and then do some of your work on the computers. It seems as though almost as many Illustration and Design majors from Art Center can now be found working in the entertainment industry as Film majors. The work is hard, the school is expensive, and it is difficult to get in. Most of the students in the main undergraduate program have had some college before attending. Being within commuting distance of Hollywood was an enourmous advantage for me in making connections while I was in school, and getting a job immediately upon graduating.

 

I highly recommend that you request a catalog:

Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, CA 91103.

phone: (626)584-5000

This spring term, I am teaching a couse at The California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). Cal Arts is another well-regarded Southern California art school. Different departments and majors are available: Cal Arts does not have design departments like Art Center, but has departments of Music, Character Animation and Experimental Animation. While Art Center may have more advanced computer classes, and a better regarded Illustration department, Cal Art's focus on character animation is far ahead of Art Center's more limited animation courses. Cal Arts was partially funded by Walt Disney and focuses on animation, with and without using computers. Cal Arts is in Valencia, California, further out of town than Art Center.

For more info:

www.calarts.edu

FINDING A JOB

Focus on finding a specific match between yourself and a company. Companies have specific positions to fill, to do a specific job. It doesn't matter if you are the world's best modeller, if you are applying to a company that only needs someone to write renderman shaders, they won't take you if you can't do that job. This might seem like common sense, but a lot of students, and hobbiests trying to turn professional, seem to send off their tapes blindly to companies they have heard of, without any thought about the job descriptions and requirements of the company. Landfills full of VHS tapes, and thousands of hours of company time scanning through reels, are wasted because of this.

There are a lot of different positions. Some require a certain amount of production experience, others are entry level. Some require that you know a specific software package (especially true at smaller companies, where they can't afford to hire someone who isn't going to be able to get work done). Others will train you in their software after you are hired, and hire based on artistic qualifications as a character animator, texture map painter, etc.

Some positions are very specialized, especially at larger studios and for feature film work. One person or department might spend years just building 3D models, which would then be textured, lit, animated, and rendered in different departments. Most of the companies that are big enough that everyone has heard of them, also have labor broken down into an "assembly-line" style production process, where one artist would only be working on a small part of what goes into a final frame of the film.

Others jobs are more general, especially at smaller companies and game developers, where one artist might be given his own shot to animate from scratch, or her own environment to design and render. Knowing a range of skills, from modelling to compositing, would be a big plus at these companies.

 

See the animation job openings (CG & non-CG) in "Career Connections" hosted by Animation World Network.

The organization Women In Animation has a useful web site with profiles of people's careers.

Visit some company web sites:

Blue Sky | VIFX

Sony Pictures Imageworks

ILM

Topix

Pacific Data Images

Pixar

Digital Domain

Rhythm & Hues

For lots more up-to-date links, see www.vfxhq.com.

Some positions require that employees sign a long-term contract, binding them to work for the company for a specified number of years. Some (most) positions can have very long hours, so getting paid by the hour or getting extra for overtime can have advantages.

Think about what's important to you, and what you are ready for. I am now working on a freelance basis, but started out on a full-time salary until I had a number of connections and a strong demo reel.

YOUR DEMO REEL AND RESUME

Your demo reel's purpose is to show that you can do the job. If you are applying for a character animation job, don't send tapes of spaceships and flying logos. Be very clear on a written page about what you yourself did, especially if any of the work on your tape is collaborative.

Transferring drawings, designs, sculpture or other non-CG art onto the tape can be appropriate if it is relevant to the job, and shows some of your best work.

Put your best stuff first, and keep it short, with only your best work. My demo tape is now about 2 minutes long.

Don't bother with color printing or fancy sleeves. Put your name and contact info on the tape label, in case it is separated from your resume.

RECOMENDED READING: Professional opinions on demo reels, from 3D Ark.

EI  FAQ: Demo Reels

Be clear and straightforward on your resume. Don't pad or exagerate what you've been doing. If you want to show how important some experience was to you, use bullets to say what you did (ie. after listing your job or internship, say -administered this -created that -improved this -studied this, etc.) to describe what you have accomplished. Don't put down anything that might make your interviewer think you were being dishonest, even after you have discussed that specific item in detail.
 

THE JOB MARKET

There is a global shortage of character animators, and of skilled artists who can apply their skills on a computer. At the same time, there are also a lot of people trying to break into the industry. With recent closings of some studios, entry level jobs are not as plentiful as they once were. A few years ago, simply knowing how to run a high-end 3D package was almost a guarantee of finding a job. In a more mature industry, other factors such as artistic talent, and production experience, are more important.

You will hear stories about the terrific amounts of money that some CG animators make. Some of us are making a good living from this, but remember that your earning potential will be much higher once you have more production experience than when you're just starting out.

The best (and possibly the only) way to predict how good you'll be, and gauge your personal chances of sucess, before you fully master 3D, is to look at the artistic skills you are bringing with you. Now, and for years to come, there will be creative and rewarding careers in this industry for many artists who pursue them.

The Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist's Union Local 839 has a survey of 1997 pay scales for different jobs.

Top . Learning 3D . Finding a Job . Demo Reels . The Job Market

Copyright © 1996-1999 by Jeremy Birn.