I've been a 3d modeler and 3d generalist for the last 13 years in the arch/vis industry. I have an associate degree in drafting which is somewhat irrelevant I guess. When I started in the industry, the typical workflow usually involved being handed some loose sketches of a concept that I would then model, texture, light, compose and render. As technology has progressed, the workflow has changed to where the architects model the buildings in Revit and then hand off the (extremely crappy) model to me for texture, lighting, composing and rendering. The software is starting to make it more and more possible for the architects to manage most of the work without my involvement including texture, lighting and rendering.
My primary interest is modeling and that has been taken away from me for the most part. I still model some entourage pieces where needed but mostly I've become a virtual photographer. While this isn't the worst job on the planet, it's essentially removed all creativity and art from my job. On top of that, the architecture firm I work for doesn't exactly have the best target market or design ability on the planet (not by a long stretch).
I've been an artist since I could hold a pencil and took private art lessons at a very early age. As I've become more entrenched in my 9-5 job and personal life (33yrs old, married with 2 kids) though, it's left no time for painting or drawing much outside of work.
I really want to move to a career that at least allows some creativity and artistic license. I've been thinking more and more about moving into game or film and reading all the information about schools vs. independent study. I'm fortunate in that I'm in a financial position that I could leave my job and take on side projects for several years.
What I'm trying to decide is whether I should use that time to develop my portfolio/reel on my own or take classes or get a degree. I live in Pittsburgh and while the art institute offers classes, one of the teachers there said I could probably teach half the classes they offer. That doesn't give me a lot of confidence in their program. I want to learn, not simply go through the motions to get a piece of paper.
I've been looking at online courses and tutorials and I've actually started buying some books. I'm a self motivated person and have the discipline to learn on my own (really I just need to practice and get back in the rhythm of creating/designing/drawing). That said, what interests me about attending a college is that it will force me to get out of the house and focus on the subjects. My other major concern with self instruction is the lack of contacts in the industry. I've been around long enough to know the routine when it comes to applying for jobs so I'm concerned about the effectiveness of "cold calling" or firing off resumes with no reference in the industry and nothing but a portfolio to back it up. I know how important industry contacts are.
I'm sorry this is such a long winded blabbering of thoughts. To make a long story short, would my experience (12 years in 3d modeling, texturing, lighting, rendering, compositing, animation, post production, working in a production environment under tight deadlines etc. etc. etc.) coupled with a strong portfolio (assuming I can develop one over the next year or so) be enough without industry contacts and a degree? Any advice given my set of circumstances? Any thoughts, advice, comments, concerns greatly appreciated. Thanks!