The most important tool in getting a job in any creative field is your portfolio – whether it’s 3D modelling, logo design or animation: Your showreel and portfolio is king. While degrees and a solid network are important, they are only tools to help your portfolio. In this section, we are going to cover everything you need to know in order to get started with making a kick-ass portfolio. Some of the biggest mistakes I see students and hobbyists make related to CG is when it comes to building their portfolio.
As there are a plethora of fields out there, all portfolios will obviously have to be different; an animator will need a very different portfolio from a logo designer. That said, good portfolios have a lot of key elements in common:
• They are showing relevant work for the position you’re applying for.
• It doesn’t waste anyone’s time: It’s presented in an orderly, clean and easy to find manner.
• The work is solid and well thought out.
- Your showreel is the most important part about getting a job.
- Talk to industry professionals regarding what’s required of a junior in your desired field.
- Your portfolio should show marketable skills – Work which can be used directly in a production.
- Keep your reels simple and informative.
- A mentor can greatly help your career and learning along the way.
- Make a clean and informative resume and cover letter.
What IS a portfolio?
Before getting into the juicy bits, let’s all start at the same page: What is a portfolio? In short, it’s simply a collection of your work which you’re in this case showing off to potential employers. Certain professions require showreels while others prefer websites with still images -This all depends on what you want to do. For nearly everything in VFX, you’re required to make a reel. A reel is a video which is usually 1-3 minutes long, showcasing your absolute best work. Other fields, such as illustration and concept art prefers websites with stills.
Here you can find an example of a showreel – which is my 2014 modelling reel, the very same I used to get a job in the industry as modelling and texturing artist
As mentioned above, different fields have different needs. Here’s an example of a portfolio from a good friend of mine, Michelle Tolo. ArtStation is a great service which a lot of artists use. More on this later. Michelle Tolo’s Concept Art Portfolio
Winged Bear Goat – Michelle Tolo
Building a Portfolio
One of the recurring themes in our FlippedNormals Tutorials and articles is the concept of being methodical and deliberate. Making a portfolio is very much adhering to this.
Maybe the single biggest issue I see from students and people building portfolios is the lack of thought behind them. Let me repeat my opening statement: Your portfolio is your life as a creative professional; it’s not something you casually throw together at the end of a bachelor course with whatever work you might have scrapped together over the last 3 years. I see this all the time. After 2.5 years of going to school, you realize that in six months, you’re out in the real world and you should probably start looking for a job soon. You look through your student work and you panic like a cat who just discovered a scary-looking cucumber.
You put together all the work you have and in 4 months you have a shell of a portfolio which you know is lacking; it contains approximately 100 % less love than it should. After several months of applying for various jobs, you decide that the industry is too hard and you become a florist in Bristol, specializing in selling sad flowers.
As you can tell my the strangely specific scenario described above, this isn’t a recommended path (unless your passion is flowers with frowny faces). As with everything else, we need to take a big step back and look at the big picture. Currently making a killer reel seems like an insurmountable amount of work. Let’s break the task into a series of problems.
Why are you making a reel in the first place? Simply put, the portfolio is here to land you a job. That’s it. You’re not making it to impress your family, get to the front-page of 3DTotal, get laid or more importantly, get tons of Likes. This may sound extremely obvious, but surprisingly few reels seem to have this as a focus. Making a good portfolio can take literally years, as you might need to develop your skills and also produce the work, which is a task not taken lightly. As it’s a massive job, one you need to plan accordingly.
Before doing any work on the reel, you need to figure out what you want to show with it. By this, I mean, do you want to be an animator, modeller, lighter, concept artist, generalist, motion graphic artist, etc.? The reel shouldn’t only show a high level of skill in the field you’re applying for, it should also show that you understand what’s required of the role.
Michelle Tolo, Concept Artist at MPC Commercials in London.
Once you know what field you want to go into, you build a reel based on that.
I’ll go further in depth regarding the modeller-example here, as that’s the route I personally took. There might be a huge discrepancy between what you assume a modeller is doing and what they are actually spending their days on. When I see modelling reels, I nearly always see them filled to the brink with characters and nothing else. As it turns out, there are very few character modelling positions available in the industry. The chance that you’re going straight from school into a position like that is unlikely. Obviously, it’s in no way unheard of, but it’s rare. As it turns out, the characters are some of the most important parts of the films and games, and they need to really trust the people doing them. This means that they are most likely done by the more senior people in the studio.
How does this relate to you? It means that it’s probably not a particularly good idea to bet all your cards on getting a character modelling position. Instead, figure out what’s required for a junior modeller.
I cannot stress how important this next bit is: Talk to industry professionals about this. You most likely won’t find the exact requirements anywhere online, so talking with somebody on the inside who knows exactly what work a junior does can be invaluable knowledge.
When reaching out to professionals in your chosen field, be patient and professional about it. A lot of people work very long hours and if they don’t answer your emails right away, don’t be insulted. Certain people get a lot of emails asking the same things over and over (which is also one of the reasons I’m writing these articles).
Develop Your Skills
Before starting on your showreel, it’s also important that you spend some time developing the skills to pull it off. If you’ve never done a walk-cycle before, it’s most likely not a terrible idea to do a couple (where you get solid feedback along the way) before you put it a professional portfolio. Let’s use a sports metaphor! If you want to go into a boxing ring, you need to prepare heavily beforehand. In order to win the fight, you will need a lot of body strength, which you in this case get by doing a lot of pushups. The same is true in CG: In order to make a good piece for your reel, you need to be skilled – in essence, you need to do a lot of pushups before going into the ring to play with the big kids.
To use the modeller-example, a junior modeller will most likely do the more low-level work, such as photogrammetry (3D models from photos), camera line-ups, retopology, simple environments, props and similar tasks. It’s much better to have a reel consisting of these elements as opposed to mediocre characters. A suggested reel could then consist of the following:
• Environment showing a collection of hard surface and organic models, such as an old kitchen.
• A character showing an understanding of anatomy (while you may not do characters right away, it still shows understanding of the higher levels of work)
• A hard surface model with solid topology (and possibly UVs)
• Organic models which have been sculpted, such as old trees and rocks.
• A photoscanned model which has then been cleaned up and matched to the cameras.
If you have a reel showing the aforementioned items, you are essentially telling a HOD (Head of Department) and the recruiter that you can be put in a production right away. Every one of the pieces in your reel would then show relevant skills for a junior position. This information is very specific and it’s something you’d only get by talking to professionals; I’ve hardly seen anyone make a reel like this, as most people don’t figure out exactly what’s needed.
This is an example of a very good showreel by Zak Boxall. It doesn’t contain crazy characters, wild designs or anything like that – instead, it’s showing some really good production models. A supervisor can then visualize Zak in a role immediately: He shows a creature based on reference, which is built for production and two hard surface models also heavily based on reference. These are skills which are highly valued. Zak was offered a junior position at ILM London.
A reel like this may not be sexy, may not get you tons of Facebook likes and it maybe won’t get you to the front page of 3DTotal. However, you’re achieving something far more important: You’ll have a damned good chance of being employed. Getting the first job in the industry is by far the hardest one
Tailor your reel to the various companies
Amy Smith, Head of Recruitment at Framestore, has this insight to share:
“A lot of students will apply to film VFX, artistic advertising and feature animation companies all at the same time when they graduate (understandably as they just want a job!). However, the needs of all of those different industries in terms of demonstrable skill set are quite different. Just as someone might have a different cover letter for each employer I often suggest that they may want to consider having a different reel depending on who they are applying to – one reel doesn’t necessarily fit all.”
Understand your Competition
A big problem I see when it comes to students, is the complete ignorance of their competition. You have to realize that your competition goes far beyond your class. It’s easy to assume that your class represents the average of the industry: The top students being secured jobs before graduation, the students in the middle finding job, but maybe not their dream job right away, while the lower portion will struggle to secure employment. However, this is most likely not true. I’ve seen students who were in the top of their class receiving all A’s have reels far below what’s required of an entry level job. The trick here is to look beyond your immediate social circle and to acquire the hard facts. CGStudentAwards is a great way to find the top students from the last couple of years.
Amy Smith goes on to say:
“I always advise students to understand the competition. We get sent a lot of reels from graduates who have done exceptionally well in their studies and then are surprised when industry tells them that their work isn’t quite up to scratch yet. Generally this happens because they have only compared themselves to their immediate peers and received feedback from their tutors and haven’t looked into who the wider competition might be or sought feedback more widely. It is so easy on Vimeo or LinkedIn to look up ‘Junior X’ and start looking at people’s reels – I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t! How can you try and win a competition if you don’t even know what competition you’ve entered?!”
FlippedNormals Lighting Scenes
For anyone interested in showcasing their models or general 3D work, we have developed the FlippedNormals Lighting Scenes. One of the key elements to making a nice showreel is to make it as presentable as possible.
Lit in seconds using the FlippedNormals Lighting Scene
You literally only drag and drop your models into the scene and your models will look great right away. This may sounds like a marketing trick from me, twirling my imaginary mustache, but it’s not. One of the key issues I see over and over in modelling and asset-reels is poor lighting and bad presentation. The reason is simple of course – good lighting is really hard. Our Lighting Scenes means that everyone can have really well lit and presented models regardless of your skill level in that area.
Even if you’re going for a different job, the framework for building the reel is exactly the same:
1. Make sure the purpose of the reel is to get a job.
2. Figure out specifically what you want to do (animation, modelling, lighting, etc.)
3. Develop the skills in your chosen fields. (Pushups)
4. Talk to industry profession to learn specifically what’s required of a junior artist.
5. Make a reel consisting of the elements the professional recommended.
6. Get feedback along the way and really take it to heart.
7. Edit it nicely together and upload it to Vimeo.
Never put anything in the reel which you aren’t ready to defend in an interview. When you’re invited to an interview, there’s a big chance they will want to review your showreel, either live or covering the main points. You have to be 100% sure that what you’re including is work you can stand behind and defend. At no point in the interview should you bash your own work, saying it was rushed or you’re not sure why you even put it in.
If you have a foundation in art, such as sculpting, photography, drawing, oil painting, etc., it’s a great idea to showcase this in a portfolio, such as on ArtStation. Technical CG skills might be antiquated by a single software update, while solid art foundations will stand the test of time. Employers and recruiters know this, and a solid foundation makes you more valuable over time. It’s a lot easier to teach somebody how to use ZBrush, which you can do in months – than it is to teach them sculpting, which takes years and years. I’d advise you to keep this separate from your main showreel, though, while still keeping a link to it in the reel-description.
Technical Reel Discussion
Music isn’t a bad idea at all, as the reel generally becomes more pleasant to watch. That said, most recruiters will turn off the audio. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you have music or not. Keep the editing simple, though. I’ve seen some terrible reels when it comes to editing. They are flashy, the music is crazy, the cuts are like a Jason Bourne movie and there’s more focus on making a sexy reel as opposed to a useful and descriptive one.
Start With Your Best Work
I highly recommend that you start your reel with your strongest work. As somebody is reviewing your reel, they might just watch the beginning and potentially turn it off if it doesn’t spark interest right away. This way, there’s a bigger chance of catching their attention. I’d also end the reel with your second best piece, as this leaves the viewer with a solid impression.
Try to keep the reel between 1-3 minutes. My current reel is just over a minute long.
Only keep your best work in your portfolio! If the quality of your work is varying a lot, the recruiters might wonder why certain pieces are a lot better than the others. Maybe you didn’t do all the work yourself and had a lot of help? I like to think about it like this: You’re only as strong as your weakest piece. If you constantly keep improving your weaknesses, you’ll eventually be in a pretty good spot.
The included work should show variation. It’s pointless to have two pieces which show the exact same skill-set. You’ve already proven you can do what you wanted to show – why show it again? I like to think about it like each piece is there to represent one area of your skill set. Figure out what the skill set required for a junior position is, then add variation based on this.
Keep your contact information in your reel, such as your email and website. If the reel get’s featured on a third-party website, it’s rather handy to have this embedded in the video.
Include a reel breakdown. This is where you write exactly what you did in each shot of your reel. It’s not necessary to say who did what in the reel – Simply state what you did. If you are going in as a lighter, it’s of no concern to the recruiter who rigged the model; it;s your reel and there is no need to credit everyone involved. You make the breakdown as a separate PDF or in the video description. I’d recommend doing both, as the recruiters can then print your breakdown out and use it in an interview.
I’d highly recommend spending some time on the presentation of the reel. A well edited and crafted reel will be a lot more comfortable to watch than one which was edited in an evening, with terrible font work and no love at all in the presentation. Remember, the reel is the most important aspect of getting a job. Make sure it’s treated as such.
Along the way, make work in progress versions of your reel. This allows you to get proper feedback on not just the content, but also on the presentation. I’ve also seen people make proper previz versions of their reel. While it might take some extra time, it may be worth it, as it means it will probably be a well edited and proper reel.
Resume and Cover Letter
While the reel is by far the most important part of getting the job (did I mention that already?), having a good resume and cover letter is also something you want to spend time on. The resume is a written document stating all relevant profession experience, as well as your education.
Here’s an example of a resume (Not my actual one, for anyone wondering)
Modelling and Texturing Artist
I’m a modeller and texture artist with a focus on the entire modelling and texturing process, particularly when it comes to high-end characters. I can also take out a man with one punch and jump slightly further than the pensioner.
2014 – Present – Senior Modeling/Texture Artist at [London VFX STUDIO] – Modelling on [film] (2015)
– Modelling on [film] (2016)
– Modelling on [film] (2017)
2014 – Modeller at [DIFFERENT LONDON VFX STUDIO].
– Modelling on [film] (2014)
– Modelling on [film] (2014)
2010 – 2014 / Freelance for various clients
– Character and creature modeling and texturing for various clients from around the globe.
– Teaching at various universities and colleges around Europe. Everything from 3-week courses to 1-day masterclasses.
2011- 2015 – Bachelor Degree in Computer Graphic Art from The Animation Workshop
At TAW, I did 100 pushups, 100 squats, 100 sit-ups and a 10 kilometer run every day. This groomed me into the ultimate VFX weapon.
ZBrush – Ninja
Mari – Advanced
Maya – Advanced
Mudbox – Advanced
This is Jan Jinda’s showreel. All the models here are lit using the FlippedNormals Lighting Scene. This is the reel he used to get hired at Double Negative as a generalist.
The template would be something along these lines
NAME & CONTACT INFORMATION
[Name] [Website] [Email]
Who you are and what you do. What makes you special? Tell them where you should be placed. Is it clear exactly what your role is? Can you also take out a man with one punch?
[ Year] – [Year] – Position at [Company] – [What you did for Company] [ Year] – [Year] – Position at [Different Company] – [What you did for Company]
Don’t list everything you’ve ever done. Keep the list short and sweet with only relevant experience. Did you work in a bookstore when you were 15? Probably not relevant.
2011- 2015 – [Degree] at [School]
[Software] – [Skill-level] [Software] – [Skill-level] [Software] – [Skill-level]
Again, don’t list every software you’ve ever touched. If you list something as Beginner, you should probably remove it. Only list software you’re comfortable using. You also want to be to be careful with the skill-levels you put here, as it might show a lot of arrogance. As a student, you’re most likely not an Expert in any of the fields.
A cover letter is what you send to the recruiters when you’re applying for a job. You should list why you’re a good candidate and how you can be an asset to the company. It’s generally a good idea to write a somehow unique cover letter to the company you’re applying to, as it becomes far more personal. Before sending it off, PROOF READ IT and be sure that there are no nasty mistakes. I’ve heard countless stories (at least … 3!) where people have sent off “Dear Double Negative” to Framestore.
Don’t go crazy when it comes to the length of the cover letter; I usually keep them at 150-250 words. Keep in mind that a recruiter has very little time to review each candidate and you want to make their lives as easy as possible. I would also highly recommend that you’re realistic about your skill level. If you have no feature film experience, it can look bad to apply for senior positions. I’m not saying that you should undersell yourself but have an idea about what level you’re realistically at.
I’d highly recommend that you get a LinkedIn profile. This serves as a more interactive resume which is open to the public. You can connect with other students and industry professionals there. Like any tool, it’s only useful if you use it well: Spend some time to build a proper profile, including your past profession experiences (if any), education and other achievements. It can also be a good place to ask professionals for feedback. I’d highly recommend asking for feedback and advice either through LinkedIn or by email: avoid their personal Facebook accounts.
Once you have a profile set up, I’d recommend connecting with various recruiters from the companies you’re interested in. They usually post jobs on LinkedIn before they are posted on their website, so it’s a great way to keep updated on the job market.
Having a mentor can be an extremely influential factor in your learning process and when it comes to getting your first job. A good mentor will be like having a metaphorical lighthouse and compass. Whenever you get too far off course, they can gently steer you back on the path again. If you’re on your own, you might thread far down a bad path before you realize. if you’re constantly guided towards the correct path for what you want to do, this can be a significant boost to your learning and career.
When I started out, I was extremely fortunate to have a couple of very kind people who were interested in helping me along the way. These are people I still have a great relationship with to this day, many years later. I’ve also mentored several people over the years (and still do), and I’ve seen how incredibly useful it can be to be given the right advice at the right time.
Finding a mentor is easier said than done, though. There is no good answer on how to get one. Online forums can be a great way to find people. If you’re active on the right forums over a longer period of time, you can meet some incredible people. Finding talented people and contacting them over email is also a way. The relationship usually starts off pretty rigid with you sending them questions about your work, such as getting feedback or life advice. A relationship can then be build from there on. I’ve started mentoring several people through this exact way. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though:
• They are spending their (presumably) valuable time on you. Don’t be angry or upset by the feedback you might receive.
• Never take them for granted. It’s not a one-way street. Try to do something nice for them once in a while.
• If you’re lucky enough to get a mentor, really value the person.
• While words are a nice way to show gratitude to a mentor, nothing is more rewarding than seeing true progress – show that you’re listening by taking their advice to heart.
A good mentor can also help you with the showreel planning, discussed above. This way have a way more interactive way of getting feedback on your work and also regarding what’s required of a junior artist.
For reels, I highly recommend Vimeo. It feels more professional to have the video on Vimeo than on YouTube.
ArtStation is a great portfolio site which should be used by anyone, regardless of what discipline they are interested in. A lot of 2D artists use ArtStation as their main portfolio instead of a more personal website. While I would recommend getting your own domain and site, an ArtStation page is a really good starting point.
Here’s a great example of a good ArtStation portfolio by my friend Andrew Hodgson.
I’d avoid DeviantArt like the plague when it comes to any kind of professional work. ArtStation is far more suited as a profession portfolio.
You Own Website
I’d highly recommend getting your own website. This way you’re really controlling how people view your portfolio as you have full control over every aspect of the site. Having your own website is also a great way to control your image. If your website is beautifully crafted, it probably gives the impression that you’re a professional who really cares about his work. On the other hand, a rushed website can have the opposite effect. I’d choose between spending a fair bit of time on the site or not having one at all. Anything in between might feel cheap.
Morten Jaeger’s site – My FlippedNormals Partner.
Building your own website isn’t terribly hard either – you can buy a pre-made WordPress theme from sites such as themeforest.net. By spending $50-60, you can get a very customizable and beautiful website. For buying a domain and hosting, there are a lot of options out there, which are relatively cheap.
Building a proper portfolio or showreel is one of the most important things you’ll do as a student. Getting your first job in the industry is most likely the hardest challenge you’ll face for some time and a good reel is the key to getting it. You need to develop a set of marketable skills as opposed to work which feels fancy, might be popular online, but has no place in a real production. It may seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down into a series of smaller problems, it’s very much a solvable task. A big thanks to Amy Smith from Framestore for excellent help with writing this article!