I don’t talk much about my own work, but I thought I’d share this story with the forum today. This month marks my tenth year since my first freelance CG gig, which I got within weeks of finishing a diploma course in graphic design; a course I’d done as it was the only one in my country at the time that offered a module in 3D. It was a really basic set of simple turnaround animations of symbols in 3D, and I put my nose to the grindstone to get them done, determined to prove myself. Fast forward ten years, and I am working on my 21st feature film, on the other side of the world. Tons of stuff happened in-between.
I’m posting this largely to address many questions which frequently pop up here, to share my own experiences and perspectives on them.
What are my qualifications? In the grander scheme of things, nothing. As mentioned above, I have a diploma in graphic design. It was a one year course, nothing particularly in-depth or even useful. I grew up drawing and painting on my computer so that probably helped. No-one has ever asked me about my qualifications in any interviews, and I’ve moved internationally twice in the last five years (to the US, and then the UK). The lack of a university degree has never caused a problem. But I don’t think education is a waste of time. In fact, I’m working towards doing a degree in ancient history in my spare time, purely for the pleasure of it. I figure that one day when I’m much older, I’d love to work in a museum as a stuffy little academic, or something. If you have the time, money and motivation to go to university, do it. No education is ever a waste. But don’t worry too much if you can’t go, for whatever reason.
Do I still enjoy my job? Yep. I’m a person of many interests and passions and I’d be lying if I said there was nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life, but right here and right now I am still happy to be doing this for a living. I like the fact that I can walk into work every morning, looking however I want to, not having to hide any of my numerous tattoos or piercings, being able to talk with my notorious sailor mouth, so I can spend the day in my corner painting in Photoshop. It’s an awesome way to make a living, it really is.
However, something that has changed is that I don’t really do 3D in my spare time at all any more. I’ve gone back to doing traditional art, trying to get back into that again. I get enough of the 3D stuff during the day, and don’t like spending too much of my spare time in front of the computer. I’d much rather spend it trawling around various metal gigs and festivals around the UK. That’s my biggest passion. But as a job, CG is great for me.
What’s an average day like for me? I work eight hours a day, five days a week. Most of my time is spent painting textures in Photoshop and Bodypaint, but as an extremely social and talkative person, I spend a lot of time chatting too. Most people that I work with know me by my loud mouth and even louder laugh.
All the studios I’ve worked at over the years have had very informal, relaxed atmospheres, where people are free to express themselves, and are encouraged to enjoy their work. Most of the people I work with are not the CG geek stereotype at all - there is a lot of socialising and mucking about, and I’ve made a number of very good friends over the years. I think the best thing about the people I’ve worked with over the years is that they’ve all been intelligent and insightful people. I like that.
Is it stressful? From time to time, yes definitely. Stress is a part of any job, really. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at handling stress. Do I work overtime a lot? As a texture painter, I am luckily in a part of the production process that tends to be complete quite some time before the final deadline, so unlike animators, lighters and compositors, I don’t do overtime very often at all. In fact, it’s very rare. Having said that, I’ve done my fair share of it in the past. In my first few years of working in VFX, which was obviously many years ago, I frequently worked until 2am, 4am, hell I’d often work for 48 hours straight. Do I regret that? Absolutely. That’s time I’ll never get back. But I’ve learned from that, and over the years I’ve learned to work more efficiently and I’ve become more selective about who I’ll work for. I don’t work for shitty studios with shitty reputations. People starting out may not necessarily be in a position where they can be too picky about where they work, but with a few years of experience under your belt, you can. So hang in there. However, if you find yourself in a really exploitative situation, and I have myself in the past, get out. No amount of your sanity is worth losing over some studio with a shitty approach to work ethics. You can always find another job.
What software do I know? Lots. I’ve learned a lot of packages over the years. Sometimes I’ve learned them on the job, and sometimes I’ve learned them in my own time. Yes, Maya is the standard package for the film industry. Yes, studios are more likely to hire you if you already know it. You should also be able to find your way around a Linux terminal, and if you’re a texture painter like me, you’d better know Photoshop very well. Does it help to know other packages though? Of course. It never hurts to know lots of stuff. Learn whatever you have the opportunity to learn, if you have the time.
Do I make a good living? Back in the beginning, I scraped by, barely managing to cover my living costs. These days, I earn a very good salary and live a very comfortable life. I have no debt. I spoil myself rotten. So yes, you can make a good living in this field.
Is it a great job for everyone? I honestly have no idea. I’ve worked with numerous people who hated working in this field, so it totally depends on the person. Is it the best job ever? Nah. A better job would be getting paid to just hang out, read books and listen to music. Is the industry as perfect and awesome as I hoped it would be? Hell no. As with any field, it has its politics, its bullshit and its downsides. There isn’t a ton of stability. Staff positions are very rare. Planning longterm is nigh on impossible. I’ve been laid off a couple of times. But I stick with it. Because I know that no job is perfect, and if I can get paid to sit around and paint in Photoshop all day, working with a bunch of intelligent and fun people, then that’s pretty cool by me.
Do I have any advice for anyone else? Just do what you want to do. Be yourself, and do your thing. If you’re currently trying to break into the field, just keep working hard. Show your work around. Hang in there. I don’t personally subscribe to this kind of scare tactic stuff I’ve seen posted so many times around here in the past, about how you have to be some kind of CG god to get a job. This is just not true. Yeah, you have to be good. But you don’t have to be godlike - studios don’t expect it, and hardly anyone is that good anyway. I think there is way too much downer stuff posted on this site and others, about how impossible it is to get a job in a big studio. I’m not saying it’s easy either, but it’s hardly the impenetrable fortress of elite wizards that’s so often described in various threads around here. There are no secrets to getting in, you just need to be a cool person, and have cool work.
And that’s all, really. Happy new year.