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The Creative Student’s Handbook – Introduction

Landing a job doing 3D or art in general, is a dream for many, but for a lot of people, it seems like an impossible goal to achieve. I’m going to preface this with saying that it WILL be hard. This is not a field you just happen to walk into; It requires a lot of hard work and passion. In order to reach your goal, you need to stop thinking about it as a mountain to climb, but instead as a series of smaller steps to take. If we break the problem into smaller digestible chunks, suddenly it goes from not only a far away dream, but instead an achievable one. In short: You can totally do it. Read on, trouper.

In this series of articles, the Creative Student’s Handbook, we are going to cover some of the most important topics when getting the first job, such as:

  • Networking
  • Showreels
  • Internships and why they rock
  • How to get the interview
  • You have an interview: Now what?
  • Schools: Are they worth it?
  • Software: Which ones should you use?

As I’m currently working in VFX in London, it will have a focus on this area of getting a job in 3D, but it will still be very relevant for whatever job you’re after, be it gaming, VFX, commercials, big studios, smaller places, etc.

How to Get Started With Getting a Job in 3D

TL;DR

  • Play around with software, techniques and various disciplines (like animation, modelling, compositing, etc)
  • Seriously increase your skills by paying for online training or by going to school. Schools can be a good, but an extremely expensive alternative.
  • Make a portfolio/showreel. The showreel is your most important tool for getting a job in 3D.
  • Keep improving once you’ve got the job and keep the pressure up.

Before we get into the specifics of how to get a job, I’m going to cover the overall process of how this will all work. There are probably as many ways to get a job as there are people in the industry, but I can still give you an overall idea of the order of things. I’m going to use my own personal experience as a basis for a lot of the steps covered here, in order to keep it grounded in reality. For every step described loosely here, I’ll get far more in-depth in our future blog posts; this is simply to give you an idea.

3D/Concept Art/Animation seems really fun! Where do I go from here?

If you’re just starting out in the creative field, you’ll probably feel extremely overwhelmed by now. The very first step is to take the mental step and commit to the fact that this is the career path you want to take. A good choice, young one! It’s a path littered with danger, dark caves, ogres, but also with princesses and treasure.

Play around!

In the beginning, it’s a good idea to play around with the various tools out there and simply try out different directions. Don’t decide at this point that you want to only do animation, concept art or modelling. You’re still far too fresh to make an informed decision. I didn’t choose a path until I’d done this for years; my decision was based upon facts and the reality of the industry, as opposed to a mere gut feeling. Get a Wacom tablet, a decent computer, some 3D software, like ZBrush, Maya, and Photoshop and simply play around. Watch some tutorials on the various aspects of 3D and don’t take it too seriously. I had a friend of mine who was absolutely determined to become an animator, but after taking a step back and talking to the right people, he decided that he instead wanted to do FX (effects for film, like fire and big booms) instead. Being an animator isn’t at all a better choice compared to being an FX artist; it simply comes down to your personal preferences.

I spent my first years doing 3D by just having fun with it, trying out different software and disciplines. This meant that I got a pretty decent understanding of how 3D software worked, knowledge which is helping me to this very day in a lot of different ways. Even if you’re in school, I’d still advise you to spend the first year just trying out different aspects of the field. I’ve seen a lot of people do a 180-degree switch after being exposed to new areas 3D.

Schools & Learning

You’ve now decided that this is a field you’re determined to get into. Good on you. It’s time to get those skills polished up! There are a lot of ways to learn how to do 3D professionally. In this future world where people are charging their cigarettes in the USB port, it’s easier than ever before to learn how to get good at 3D. The internet is a fantastic resource for you, which really shouldn’t be underestimated. There are more free and cheap courses available online in just a few clicks than any school can offer you, such as Pluralsight (formerly Digital-Tutors), Lynda and of course the best of them all, FlippedNormals (I may have a slight bias here). On these sites, you have access to pretty much everything you ever need to know about 3D. There are very few schools out there which will present knowledge which is significantly better than what these sites can offer.

‘If everything is available online, why would you bother with a school, Sensei Henning?’ you might ask, and that’s a very reasonable question. One of the problems is that there is so much information out there; there’s simply no way you can go through it all. By going to a school, you will go through the necessary courses and with a teacher present. I’ve been teaching at schools a fair bit myself, and having a good classroom experience can teach you in a far more efficient manner than being self-taught online can. One of the important reasons for this is simple: Feedback.

If you’re stuck with an issue (which you'll experience a lot initially), it might take you days or weeks to solve it, while in a classroom, you can get help instantly from a qualified teacher or from your fellow students. I cannot stress how important a good teacher can be. I’ve seen students learn advanced topics in weeks which took me months or years to learn by myself, simply due to having a good teacher (well … me) around. Imagine if you can learn twice as fast by having a teacher compared to by yourself. That’s the difference between spending 2 or 4 years getting to the same level.

Schools also offer another element which online teaching never can: Students! Having like-minded people around who are sharing your struggle is extremely handy for your learning experience. There’s also the second advantage to having students around you: You get friends! Hooray! It’s easy to forget to live life as a 3D artist. As it turns out, having friends is pretty neat. Personally, I’ve got a lot of really good friends from studying at The Animation Workshop for 3 years. These friends will also prove to be very handy down the line as they get jobs themselves. Suddenly you have contacts in pretty much every major company out there; You have been ninja-networking without even knowing about it. Clever. Networking is one of the key points in getting a job, one we will explore in-depth later on. By going to school, you get a network for ‘free’ just by attending the school and by being a somehow decent human being (don’t be a dick - more on this later).

The case against schools

There’s a dark side about schools which nobody really talks about. Let’s break the silence: Money. Going to school can be an extremely expensive decision. In the UK, every university costs £9,000 ($13,000) a year to attend. That’s almost £30,000 ($44,000) for three years, just in tuition fees. Other schools are $40,000 (£27,000) a year, excluding housing. The more expensive schools can cost you more than $150 000 (£100,000) to attend. Unless you’re from a very affluent family, this is a cost which will almost never be worth it; you’ll be paying down your student loans for decades, even with a high salary.

OK - maybe you knew schools were expensive; here’s what nobody tells you, though: The entire school experience could be wasted if you go to a mediocre school. Imagine being more than £50,000 ($70,000) in debt and not having a single marketable skill. I’ve been this happen time and time again. We will explore this more in-depth in later articles - I just wanted to bring up how insane the situation can be if you don’t play your cards right.

There are plenty of amazing schools out there which are affordable. If you pick a high-quality school which doesn’t leave you eating paprika-flavoured cardboard until you’re 82 years old, going to school can be an amazing experience and will provide you with the skills required to get a job!

Portfolio-Time!

As a 3D artist, the single-handedly important aspect of getting a job is your portfolio. This is simply a collection of all your best work in one place. Usually, your portfolio will be presented as a showreel. A showreel is a 1-3 minute long video showing all your best work. When you’re applying for a job, this is what you’re sending to them.

I also highly recommend having a personal website for the recruiter to peruse. This provides them with more information about you than what a showreel can say. A personal website is also really useful when it comes to sharing your lovely work with the rest of the world.

Here's an example of a showreel. This was the reel I put together back in 2014 when I was still in school and it was the one that got me into MPC as a modelling and texture artist.

Apply, apply and apply!

Once you have a sexy portfolio and website up, it’s time to send it out to everyone. At this point you cannot be picky; you’ll realistically not get into the more high-end studios right away such as Pixar, Disney, ILM or Weta. If you only apply those places, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Find as many local and international studios as you can and send your work around to them all. When you’re fresh out of school, you need to cast a big net.

I’m going to be completely honest here: Getting the first job is probably the hardest thing you’ll do in your entire career. You’re fighting against a lot of recent graduates, you have no actual experience and there really aren't’ that many jobs available. Fear not, though - if your work is solid and you’re persistent enough, you’ll get that job. Once you’re in the industry, getting another job feels like a day in the park compared to the first one.

Here are a couple of examples of job portals for various VFX studios.

Double Negative Jobs

MPC Jobs

Framestore Jobs

ILM Jobs

Congrats - You got the job in 3D!

After all these years, thousands of hours and more coffee than any human should legally be allowed to consume, you’ve finally landed your first job. Good work, cowboy. Remember that this isn’t the end - it’s another beginning. At this point, you need to keep the pressure up and learn as much as you possibly can about the industry, how to improve as an artist and network well with other professionals. You’re still very fresh and you still won’t have a showreel containing professional work for quite some time.

In the rest of the articles in this series, focusing on getting a job in 3D, we are going to go far more in depth into the various topics discussed above here. As they are released, we'll update this page with new and updated information. Stay tuned, grasshopper.

Author Henning Sanden

Henning is a London based 3D artist currently working at Double Negative as a character modeller and texture artist. He has worked on film such as Batman V Superman, Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean.

More posts by Henning Sanden