The Unofficial Truth About the Industry
By Joe Harkins - Relevant CG Society Forum Page
After responding to probably a hundred e-mails, being a guest speaker at various schools, and having taught at Gnomon, Academy of Art San Francisco, Expression Center for New Media, and SIGGRAPH, I’ve come to realize that all students seek the same information: they want the truth about the value of their education. They want an honest and experienced person to critique their work. But most of all, more than anything else, they want a job, and they want to know how to get it.
After a certain number of e-mails I realized that I had compiled a FAQ of sorts. From that point on I simply responded to any e-mails with the relevant answers from my FAQ, rather than write the same advice over and over again. Many people sent pages of e-mails with life changing concerns and problems. Issues that I don’t feel qualified to respond to – like whether or not they should go to college, whether to sign that big loan, whether to pursue a dream or just give up.
I always tried to be positive, realistic, and candid in many cases. I tried to give the best advice I could. Sometimes they would reply with thank you and long winded emotional rants about their life, and sometimes it was a “no thank you”, to let me know I didn’t help. Sometimes I would take the time to personally respond to someone only to not even get an acknowledgment back. Yeah…you’re welcome.
After my last stint teaching at Gnomon, I sat down to write something I could give my students. Something they could walk away with, answering their questions, removing their concern, and hopefully giving them some hope and clear their mind of doubt. Unfortunately, I never found the time…until now. And since I am currently too busy with production to teach, I have no direct students. But there are hundreds of you who are, and so this one’s for you…
Some of this will seem like information you’ve heard before, like common sense, like something someone should have sat down and told you. Maybe that’s the case, and maybe this is just affirmation of what you already know, but either way, I think you should read this.
I realize that you might not be a full-time student, and you might be working in the industry. In fact, some of you I know from work, and you’re just here to brush up or learn a new skill. Your continued education is evidence of the dedication you have, and that’s such a great thing to have! I admire those who want more when they already have what they need.
I believe that no matter what and where you choose to learn, be it at a public institute, a private school, or even in front of your computer at home, you should feel comfortable with your decision. You should feel like you're learning and that you've been given the tools you need to succeed in this extremely tough industry.
Should you go to college and get a degree? Whether or not you should go to college is not the question. Once you graduate, no-one cares anymore. They don’t need to hear about your education and how well you did in school. It’s no longer “What’s your major?” that you’ll get asked everyday, but “What do you do for a living?”
To be completely honest, this industry is not skilled enough to concern itself with education as much as doctors or lawyers, or even business people. Yes, there are computer programming geniuses with advanced degrees from Ivy League schools working in our industry, and they are a valuable component to what we do, but they are the minority. Many more of us are regular people, who have found something we enjoy, have some natural talent, and have worked really hard to be good at something we are passionate about.
Do you need to go to college to get a job in this industry? No, but it doesn't hurt your chances to have a degree, and it won't be frowned upon if you don't.
Do employers require a degree to get a job? Yes, some of the larger studios do require a degree for some of their more advanced TD, software engineering, and infrastructure related jobs.
What about non technical jobs, do those require a degree? No. While some schools hold a certain amount of clout with many large studios and their degrees are in fact well respected, like Ringling or Cal Arts for example, artistic jobs do not require a degree.
Do I need to be artistic? Yes. Hands down it all comes down to your natural, raw, artistic talent, your eye for detail, your ability to take criticism for your own work, and your ability to critique others.
What if I’m technical though, do I still need to be artistic? At the end of the day, the answer is yes. While it’s acceptable to not have any artistic talent and be completely scientific in many of the job functions, if you truly want to excel in Computer Graphics, you need at least basic artistic abilities to get by. It will only make you a stronger technical candidate.
So should I go to college or not? Are you talented enough to get a job without it? Are you completely sure about your artistic ability and what you want to do? Do you need more time to work on your portfolio and demo reel? Do you have the discipline and determination to get a job with your current abilities? Keep asking yourself questions, and eventually you’ll figure it out. Some people need college, while others don’t.
What if I get a degree in something else? That’s fine if you want to have something to “fall back” on, so to speak. Conservative people recommend this option to avoid pigeonholing yourself. I personally think that you should get a degree in whatever it is you want to do as a career. You can minor in something else, like business, while still majoring in art or computer science, for example. Either way, it’s not a bad thing, but it does raise a question as to how determined are you to make it in this industry if you’re already making a backup plan?
How do I know if I am getting what I need out of school or not? “I feel lost…” I’ve heard that one a lot. I honestly want to tell you to consider doing something else with your life if you feel lost and are already taking classes for your major. If you’re just wondering whether or not you’re getting what you need from school, then you should probably ask yourself what it is you expect. You’re only going to get out of it what you put in.
I’ll say that again. You’re only going to get out of it what you put in!
Should I focus on art or science? That’s for you to decide. Unless you’re absolutely sure you want a technical job that requires a degree, the B.A. vs B.S. is not worth arguing over. You need to pick something that fits your goals, but remember that it’s probably irrelevant later on anyways.
My school seems more interested in my money, is this normal? Many schools are cashing in on students desire to learn computer graphics. They are almost all the same as far as what you end up with on paper. As far as actual teaching quality, instructor experience, and overall reputation, that all depends on your school. It’s without argument that the most experienced instructors are in LA, SF, and surrounding areas, because this is a central place for our industry. But, each school is different, and it’s hard to say.
If you feel like your school is just seeking a profit, then your hunch is right, it is. The difference will be in the graduating students. You should talk to recent grads to find out the truth. Look at where grads are working, not so called “job placement” numbers that the school puts out. Just remember, it’s your responsibility to teach yourself and get a job, not anyone else, no matter how much money you spend on school or how much they promise to help after graduation.
What software should I learn? First and foremost, forget about the software for a minute. If you are interested in the technical side of things, then you are going to need a strong background in math and science. You'll also need programming experience.
If you're mainly an artist then you need to focus on traditional skills such as drawing, painting, and sculpting, among other things. Work on your 2D skills before trying your hand at 3D.
The software is only a tool.
To answer the question though, the software most commonly used for 3D in the industry is Maya. For 2D, Photoshop is still the standard application to know. For compositing you're best bet is to learn Shake and/or Combustion, possibly After Effects. For rendering, Renderman and Mental Ray have the strongest markets. For motion capture, MotionBuilder is the most widely used. Houdini is sometimes popular with FX artists, but Maya also has a stronghold in that market, especially with Maya Fluids.
Many larger studios have proprietary packages that are very unique to their pipeline. You will not be expected to know all of these packages, but a basic understanding of each will help you out in the long run. The more you know, the better you’ll understand everything.
It can matter what software you learn, because they are complicated packages that require training and time to understand. The less experience you have with the most commonly used software, the less valuable you will be. This isn't about what software package is better, that is a pointless argument. It's about what the industry is using the most, and that's what makes knowing certain packages more valuable than others.
I am about to graduate, what should I do? There are a few steps to preparing for graduation and entering this industry. They are pretty simple.
- Start looking at job openings and preparing your resume
- Start putting together a portfolio and/or demo reel
- Start trying to make professional contacts who can review your work
What should I have when I graduate? The most important thing you need in hand is a demo reel or portfolio with your work on it. You need a resume obviously, but that is far less important than the demo reel. Almost everyone gets reviewed solely on their demo reel, unless it’s strictly infrastructure or engineering, you’re going to need that demo reel. If you don’t have that when you graduate then you are not prepared for the battle in front of you.
I graduated, now what? Now is when you flood the market. You are new, you are unknown, and you need a job. Flood is the key word here. Send out as many reels and resumes as you can. Take time and make cover letters for each one, and make them specific to that company. Don’t write a generic cover letter, it will get you tossed in the trash with the others. Don’t overdo it either, simple and to the point. Cover letter, resume, and demo reel, 3 things, that’s it.
As far as demo reels go, here are my rules:
- 2 minutes or less, anything more is too much without experience
- The best work goes first, never repeat anything, and don’t put anything less than your best on the reel just to fill time.
- Forget the music; it’s on mute and being watched in fast forward, sorry.
- Name, phone number and email address all over the place, don’t forget contact info.
What to put on it? Only your best work. As someone who has been directly in charge of hiring and having seen quite a bit of reels, I can say that anything less than your best will cost you the job – literally. If you don’t think it’s great, no-one else will.
You should really get as much feedback from people as you can before you cut your demo reel. You need to find out what your best work really is. It could be that one piece that is really great that gets you the job, but if you throw in five others that are terrible, it’s going to cause people to question your ability.
Regarding specifics – tailor your reel to the job that you would like. If you’re a modeler, show models. If you want to animate, show animations. Don’t try to show more than one or two skill sets, even if you want to do everything. You cannot possibly be good at everything, and your weakest areas are going to shine through, not your strongest. Be aware that all of your work shown is being judged, not just what you say you want to do. Not fair? Then don’t put it on your reel!
How much is your demo reel worth? Technically, it’s priceless. A foot in the door in this industry is tough to get, and you are up against many willing and talented people who want that opportunity as bad if not worse than you do. So, it’s priceless. If you spend one week hacking together a reel, it’s obvious. All the talent in the world won’t make up for rushed work, laziness, or procrastination. Be proactive, and don’t doubt it for a second – there is competition.
All that matters is the reel. The demo reel is your only friend, it is your only way in the door, and it should get the majority of your attention.
That’s about half the questions. Usually most people want to know about school and the demo reel, and then they get to the ones I don’t really want to answer, like how much money can they make?
Yes, I know, you have a student loan to payback, and yes, I know you’re probably scraping by on nothing or mooching off of someone else. Yes, I know, you really need a job.
So, how much money can you make? It depends on the market that you’re in. Let’s take LA for example. An entry level artist at a 3D job might work for anywhere between $12 and $20 an hour, depending on the company, the work required, and your negotiating skills. That could be a 3D tracker, modeler, character TD, animator, lighter, or even a compositor. At this point, it’s almost all the same; you’re looking at equal pay across the board for most entry level jobs.
What if I don’t get a job right away? That’s normal! You’re going to have to keep trying, and be persistent. Keep applying, keep making phone calls, browsing job ads, and keep refining your work and your reel. Cut a new version of your reel every week if you have to, just keep making it better and better until you get that first job. The first job is so important and so hard to get, you have to really want it.
How long does it take to hear back once you’ve applied? Unless they’re interested, you won’t hear anything. If they are, usually a couple of weeks at most unless there’s an enormous amount of candidates or someone else fell through. Calling HR a week after is acceptable, but don’t call everyday.
It’s been a really long time, should I send in another reel? Call them first, ask them what the status is of the position. Ask if you can reapply. If they say yes, then go for it! If not, then don’t waste the postage.
I got an interview…so what do I say? Just be yourself, take extra reels and resumes and be on time and prepared. Most importantly, be honest; don’t lie about what you can do, because that won’t get you the job. Don’t dress up, but at least look presentable. Be confident, they’re interested in you; try to sound interested in them.
What should I ask for as far as money goes? Ask them what the job pays when they ask you how much you want. Ask them what they feel is fair. If you feel it is just too low, then ask for 5-10% more, but be careful with your approach. The ball is totally in their court, not yours. If this is your first job take what you can get, ask for more, hope for more, but take what you can get.
Is it ok to take an unpaid internship? Yes, and in fact many colleges will give you credit for doing so. You should try to do this while you're still living off of student loans or are still living at home. Unpaid should be no longer than 3-6 months. If they ask you to work longer than that for free, then it's not really an internship. Most larger companies offer internships and have a standard application process. This is a good way to get your foot in the door, make contacts in the industry, find out how much you really know, and helps you build your experience and demo reel. Look at it this way - unpaid now equals paid later.
How do I get experience when all the job ads require experience and I have none? This is the catch 22 of any industry. Students looking for work are two things to employers A) unknown B) cheap. Since you are cheaper than everyone else, you actually have a shot at filling in an entry level position, even if you have no experience and the ad says seeking experienced artists only. It's a way to weed out candidates, but companies know that students are still going to apply. Just make sure that whatever job you're applying for, you can actually do! Your unknown factor makes you a possible liability, and so they are taking a risk by giving you a chance. You should be thankful for the opportunity to prove yourself.
What about after this first job? You can expect to suffer for a little while during your period of being a grunt. It will be hard. Don’t expect them to hand you anything important, and don’t expect them to give you a huge raise. Just do the best you can, everyday, and learn what you can. You’re building your resume, that’s it, bottom line. Live with roommates or friends or family if you can’t afford the market you’re in, but don’t quit just because you can’t afford it! The job experience is more valuable than your pay. Think about your career long-term, not the job short-term.
After your first few projects, you might have earned enough respect to do a few things. A) You might have enough experience on your resume to get a job at a different company with a better position or B) you might get a raise at your current company and more responsibilities or C) You might get to try something new at your current job that allows a shift in position. This could take anywhere from a year to two years, but you should see results within that time, otherwise you’re in a stale environment and need to move on.
What about later on? What is my earning potential? Honestly, the sky is the limit. In LA there are unions for some of the larger shops, and the rest is pretty much standard hourly rates or salary. Many places require overtime to finish projects during deadlines. The lifestyle will be quite comfortable if you reach your earning potential. Supervisor and lead roles pay better, but also require very experienced talent, and companies are willing to pay for that experience.
Keep in mind there are dry spells, periods where you won’t have work. Almost all CG work is project based, even full time employees have to worry about projects at their place of employment, because if there’s not projects coming in, it could mean staff layoffs. It’s not uncommon to save two or more months of rent and other living expenses just in case. In fact, you’re playing a risky game if you don’t. Even the most talented artists get laid off from time to time.
The result is a tighter knit community. Many of your future job opportunities will come from past relationships with other employees. As you work at other companies, so are they and you will likely cross paths again. Remember that burning bridges in this industry can hurt your career, not just your current job. Chances are good that you’ll work with many different people, and many of them will know you and each other quite well. In short, yes, politics matter.
What are people looking for in a candidate? We don't care where you went, how long you went there, if you were top or bottom of your class. Show us you can do it by showing us a great demo reel and portfolio. Follow that up with a great humble attitude that shows a willingness to learn and the ability to take direction. Then, show up everyday, on time, and do the best you can until it’s time to go home. Show us that you are resourceful and can find answers to problems on your own before asking those around you. Show us you how bad you really want it, and above all, show us the passion, and remind us of how we felt when we were first looking for a job, were filled with energy, and didn’t know what was going on. That’s what everyone really wants in a candidate, entry level or not.
It’s all about your demo reel, your attitude, and of course your talent.