FORUM PRIMER: The Unofficial Truth about The Industry

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  06 June 2006
FORUM PRIMER: The Unofficial Truth about The Industry (updated 09/13/10)

Some of this will seem like information youíve heard before, like common sense, like something someone should have sat down and told you. Maybe thatís 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 youíre just here to brush up or learn a new skill. Your continued education is evidence of the dedication you have, and thatís 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.

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 Iím technical though, do I still need to be artistic? At the end of the day, the answer is yes. While itís 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? Do you have the discipline and determination to get a job with your current abilities? Keep asking yourself questions, and eventually youíll figure it out.

What if I get a degree in something else?
Thatís fine if you want to have something to ďfall backĒ 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, itís not a bad thing, but it does raise a question as to how determined are you to make it in this industry if youíre already making a backup plan?

How do I know if I am getting what I need out of school or not? ďI feel lostÖĒ Iíve 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 youíre just wondering whether or not youíre getting what you need from school, then you should probably ask yourself what it is you expect. Youíre only going to get out of it what you put in.

Should I focus on art or science? Thatís for you to decide. Unless youíre 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 itís 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. 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.

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. Look at where grads are working, not so called ďjob placementĒ numbers that the school puts out. Just remember, itís 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 and 3DSMax. PhotoShop is a standard application to know. For compositing you're best bet is to learn Nuke. For rendering, Renderman and Mental Ray have the strongest markets. Houdini and 3DSMax are popular with FX artists. Also, many larger studios have proprietary packages that are very unique to their pipeline.

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.

I am about to graduate, what should I do? There are a few steps to preparing for graduation and entering this industry.

  • Look at job openings and preparing your resume
  • Put together an online portfolio and/or demo reel
  • Make contacts who can review your work
What should I have when I graduate? The most important thing you need is a demo reel and online portfolio with your work on it. You need a resume, obviously. Almost everyone gets reviewed solely on their demo reel, so, youíre going to need that demo reel. If you donít have that when you graduate then you essentially have nothing to get a job with!

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 hard copy reels and e-mails as you can. Take time and make cover letters for each one, and make them specific to each company. Donít write generic cover letters. Donít overdo it either, simple and to the point. Cover letter, resume, and demo reel, 3 things, thatís it.

As far as demo reels go, here are my rules:
  • 3 minutes or less, anything more is too long
  • Your best work goes first, never repeat anything
  • Don't focus on your soundtrack, itís on mute, sorry.
  • Name, phone and email all over the place, donít forget contact info.
What to put on it? Only your best work. If you donít think itís 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 a job, but if you throw in five others that are terrible, forget it.

Tailor your reel to the job that you would like. If youíre a modeler, show models. If you want to animate, show animations. Donít try to show more than one or two skills, 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 donít put it on your reel!

How much is your demo reel worth? Technically, itís 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, itís priceless. If you spend one week hacking together a reel, itís obvious. All the talent in the world wonít make up for rushed work, laziness, or procrastination. Be proactive, and donít doubt for a second Ė there is competition.

So, how much money can you make? It depends on the market that youíre in. Letís take LA for example. An entry level artist at a 3D job might work for anywhere between $18 and $22 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, itís almost all the same; youíre looking at equal pay across the board for most entry level jobs.

What if I donít get a job right away? Thatís normal! Youíre going to have to keep trying, and be persistent. Keep applying, keep making phone calls, writing e-mails, and keep refining 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 youíve applied? Unless theyíre interested, you wonít hear anything. If they are, usually a couple of weeks at most unless thereís an enormous amount of candidates or someone else fell through. Calling HR a week after is acceptable, but donít call everyday.

Itís 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 donít waste the postage.

I got an interviewÖso what do I say? Just be yourself, take extra reels and resumes and be on time and prepared. Most importantly, be honest; donít lie about what you can do. Donít dress up, but at least look presentable. Be confident, theyíre 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 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, 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 6 months. If they ask you to work longer than that for free, then it's not really an internship. 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. Donít expect them to hand you anything important, and donít expect them to give you a huge raise. Just do the best you can, everyday, and learn what you can. Youíre building your resume, thatís it, bottom line. Live with roommates or friends or family if you canít afford the market youíre in, but donít quit just because you canít 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 youíre 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 wonít 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 thereís not projects coming in, it could mean staff layoffs. Itís not uncommon to save two or more months of rent and other living expenses just in case. In fact, youíre playing a risky game if you donít. 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 youíll work with many different people, and many of them will know you and each other quite well.

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 itís 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 didnít know what was going on. Thatís what everyone really wants in a candidate, entry level or not.

Itís all about your demo reel, your attitude, and of course your talent.

====== UPDATE: 09/13/10 =====

I am always amazed that this thread continues to live and thrive on CG Talk, and am glad it may have helped you along the way. While some of the information never changes, there is some that needs updating, and so I am going to go through my original post and make some tweaks here and there to try and keep it as current as possible. Since the original title was ďunofficial truthĒ, I wanted to add a few more observations I have had over the last few years in this business.

Our industry is shrinking
Over the last few years, the amount of places that create Computer Graphics work has diminished, and has become a more difficult business to break into. Those places that are established, and have reputations, are in a position to grow with the changes that are in store for the future. There were many smaller shops that were doing commercials, and small amounts of FX work, and they are now gone. When money for advertising was crunched by Wall Street, this market essentially was cut off at the knees, and some buckled. What is left are well-established places that are doing great work, but there are some big changes.

The industry is world wide
Los Angeles and San Francisco might be the two places with the most employers related to Computer Graphics, both in film, and in video games, but the reality is that more companies are going international. Vancouver now holds divisions for most of the major U.S. film companies, and some game companies. London is now home to a large branch of VFX houses that are now working together to get large projects and complete work. New Zealand and Australia have a strong footing as well. Ironically, the foreign shops now have smaller shops in the US that are supplementing them, and also obtaining new work, giving back some of the jobs that have moved.

Pay scale changes
There is not much of a middle-class artist or technician these days. You are either very senior, and therefore expensive, or you are cheap, and able to work more for less. The middle-of-the-road artists are gone. They have been replaced by Jr level talent that can exceed most mid-level workers. Sr. level and lead level workers are now ensuring the work is completed. A team comprised of all veterans, and no Jrís would be an exception, not the rule, in todayís industry. This in turn creates a wide pay gap. Artist rates are suffering as a result, as middle-class workers are squeezed out, and Sr. level workers are having to go longer between projects. The irony is that Sr. level workers are able to get a higher rate than usual, as there are less of them.

Time vs Money
Work is now expected to be completed faster and faster, and for cheaper and cheaper. This continues to push smaller places out of the industry. An acceptable quality can be achieved in less time, and therefore has caused those paying for the work to demand it be done cheaper, because it is being completed faster. Anything to the contrary would again be the exception, not the rule.

Supply vs. Demand
There is an overwhelming number of graduates who are finding it difficult to obtain employment. There is, equally, an overwhelming number of highly skilled artists and technicians who are currently unemployed, and/or have changed industries altogether. It is a direct result of the current economy, and the above mentioned issues. They all add up to equal less jobs and more skilled workers out of work.

Entry-level work has shifted

As of today, entry-level does not mean what it used to. I now expect an entry level artist to be able to do the work that a Senior Artist of 5+ years ago was doing. This is especially true of modeling. Because the tools are difficult to keep up with, students are now being exposed and learning technology, and surpassing their Sr. level counterparts. They are, in turn, replacing them.

Less skilled technicians
Similarly, there are now less skilled technicians available, and the entry-level market for this arena has diminished significantly. There are plenty of artists coming out of schools, but very few scientists and technicians who are interested in more technical jobs. Therefore, those technical jobs are difficult to break into, as they are held by more Sr. counterparts with a vast amount of experience that is difficult to match in most instances. It is assumed that technical people are more difficult to replace than artists, but more-so lately, as artists seem to be piling up and becoming more and more talented and effective.

Too much experience can hurt
Those artists that are ďset in their waysĒ and have too much experience on their resume, are now having a difficult time finding work. Those Sr. artists/technicians that are choosing their colleagues are now opting for less experienced, more moldable candidates, and generally are shying away from those that are as or more experienced, as they do not want competition for their own job.

Apply online ONLY
There is now an online application process for almost every studio. E-mail and web based portfolios are standard. Mailed-in DVDís and resumeís are piling up in the ďnever gonna see itĒ pile, and those candidates that stick out in their ďelectronic profileĒ will most likely be forwarded around (again, now via e-mail), for review and consideration. Those candidates that make the cut, again, will be e-mailed about a possible job interview. Sometimes, not even until the actual interview, is there a real conversation. Most candidates are screened out long before they get the chance to make an impression over the phone or in-person.

Interviews are different
There used to be several rounds of interviewing that would occur, and then several more rounds of recruitment, and excitement from recruiters to get new candidates. This has also changed. Interviews are now short, to the point, and because candidates are so well screened before ever making it in, there is little to talk about. Mostly it is a meeting to see if people actually like each other, or if itís a bad fit. Employers are not interested in discussing their benefits and other incentives anymore, and do not use that to entice. They assume they have the upper hand (they do) and that whatever benefits they have you will gladly accept (and you will).

Just because youíre hired doesnít mean youíre hired
There is now this weird thing happening where people are being ďtried outĒ, instead of hired. It is more frequent and causes some confusion. Also, sometimes 2 or 3 people may be hired for the same job, only to find out later that only 1 of them will be kept. It has become somewhat brutal at some smaller places who are looking for the best of the best entry level candidates, and are willing to pit people against each other in order to find a match.

Ground-breaking work still exists!
There is a common myth that no boundaries are being broken anymore in CG. This is simply not true. The industry continues to do more complex and difficult work, and so there is ample opportunity out there for those who want to be truly challenged. There is no reason the work will stop continuing to break new grounds and continue to impress us all, and that to me, is the best reason to keep doing what we do. If we can do something that you did not think was possible, then it must be done. We can only hope for a stronger industry, filled with more opportunity in the future for all.

Either way, ďthe show must go onď, as they sayÖ

Good luck out there,

Last edited by -dc- : 09 September 2010 at 09:44 AM.
  06 June 2006
thx -dc- for taking your time and wrinting such a good FAQ!
It helped me setting my priorities.

I just finished high school and i am working on my portfolio to send it to some studios right now. Here in Germany good colleges which deal with CG are really rare.
So i try getting an apprenticeship (usually 3 years) or if i don't find an apprenticeship a 1-year internship to get an insight into the industry.

Hope its a good way...
thx again for putting so much effort into this FAQ

  06 June 2006
This should be a sticky, it will help a lot of people.. and not just the newbies, but the guys who find themselves answering the same questions over and over again
  06 June 2006
Pretty cool. And I agree, this would make a great sticky.

One suggestion regarding the formating though, and you're gonna hate me for this , rather make the questions bold, so that it is easier to find the relevant questions.

:Edit Ah, cool. Bold questions. Easier to scan through now. Thanks
Do you smell that?

Last edited by spikkel : 06 June 2006 at 08:05 AM.
  06 June 2006
Yeah a lot of this we cover over and over. Like my thread about Uk universities. Someone sticky this thread. Please!
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Last edited by 99sproth : 06 June 2006 at 07:52 PM.
  06 June 2006
Thanks very much for taking the time to post all of this.
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  02 February 2008
Wink Yes,you should do it.

Originally Posted by spikkel: Pretty cool. And I agree, this would make a great sticky.

One suggestion regarding the formating though, and you're gonna hate me for this , rather make the questions bold, so that it is easier to find the relevant questions.

:Edit Ah, cool. Bold questions. Easier to scan through now. Thanks

Everyone should realize it.
  07 July 2009
Thumbs up

Originally Posted by newman: This should be a sticky, it will help a lot of people.. and not just the newbies, but the guys who find themselves answering the same questions over and over again

Agree to u

special thx the article for the newbies like me
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  11 November 2007
Thumbs up

I can see that this thing is right or wrong, I am such a good thing to learn! Thank you, landlord!
  11 November 2007
Great Thread

I'd like to add something as well, from someone who got a degree and now works in "the industry"

I graduated from the Art Institute - Orange County with a BA in Game art and Design, early '06. It took me about 6 frustrating months to finally land a job (a very good one at that). Most of the people who got their degree didn't do anything with it, and went about their lives. But some, like me, actually got pro-active and sent out reel after reel, cold-calling places and not giving up the pursuit. And again, most, like me, didn't get anywhere with that. Until! a friend from school was visiting town from the place he had landed a job at and said he might be able to get me an art test, and the rest is history.

FRIENDS ARE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT RESOURCE, your degree might collect dust, but your connections never will. Meeting people who are passionate about the same things you are and will possibly be your "in" to the industry are the major reason to GET OUT THERE and attend college, you can't get that anywhere else. If you sit in your room trying to make the "perfect" demo reel you probably wont get anywhere too fast, even if it's amazing, your chances are much better if you already know someone on the inside, and this is the easiest thing to do, just be social. Talk to that wierd kid in the back of the class who consistently turns out good work, talk to anyone who's work you admire and let your voice be heard, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You never know who will get a job where, so meet as many people as you can, and this will make life much easier.

Carry that mindset into your first job and make as many friends as you can, networking should never stop, because even getting that first job, it's never a sure thing forever, so be friendly towards everyone, ask as many questions as you need to, and strive to learn something new everyday.

And one last thing, be realistic when looking for a job. A ton of people want to be character artists for some reason, and 90% of the stuff you see on zbrushcentral and other forums are characters, faces, or busts in some form or another. The best way to attract attention by employers is to be varied in your skills. For every character in a game or movie, there are hundreds of objects or environment sets. Model things that are applicable to most 3d mediums, ie: colums, walls, doors, windows, plants, etc. they don't have to be boring either, have fun with those concepts. And DO NOT model things that have already been done to death, ie: world of warcraft style anything, this will get you nowhere. Above all Be open to offers and don't limit yourself. I had to move halfway across the country and leave all my family and friends, and I can't surf out here in Texas, which really sucks but you know, the job I got is a dream come true and it's truly worth it and I never doubt any of my decisions that led me here.

good luck all, never give up.
  11 November 2007
[QUOTE=ZCtrl]I'd like to add something as well, from someone who got a degree and now works in "the industry"

I graduated from the Art Institute - Orange County with a BA in Game art and Design, early '06. It took me about 6 frustrating months to finally land a job (a very good one at that).

That is awesome that all of your hard work has paid off. Way to go!

I am attending the Art Institute of San Diego in my first quarter. It is very challenging but I am really enjoying it. There lots of resources to take advantage of here (which I fully intend to do). I am networking also. There are many very talented students here that I have learned from as well as the instructors.

Thanks for the input Z, it is very inspiring!
  07 July 2006
about schooling

while i understand that schooling is not an absolute MUST, dont most animators at the bigger, more well known studios such as dreamworks, sony, etc. do in fact have schooling since the projects are much more heavy and more nuanced skills are required that are almost impossible to self-teach??
  07 July 2006
Whoa. Just wanna say that was a really good read and it made somethings clear in my mind.

Many thanks
  07 July 2006
Excellent read!! Thanks so much for the truly honest advice.
  07 July 2006
Thumbs up Good advice

You know, It is really refreshing to know that there are still some in this world who care enough to offer great advice, even sacrificing thier own time. I admit, I worry about my future but we must have drive with dreams. Thanks especially for the section on choosing a school... I have had my doubts, but you are right. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you can do, not a piece of paper that says where you have been trained.
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