How do I find my niche in VFX, Animation or Games?
What area of 3D or CG should I specialise in?
As an Aspiring VFX, Animation or Games practitioner, you are bound to be faced with the daunting decision to specialise in an area of CG when applying for jobs or speaking to recruiters.
This can be very confusing and even paralysing for beginners. How do you choose something you hardly know anything about?
But before I go further, I want to congratulate you first. Here’s why.
If you are reading this, you probably already know you like computer graphics and digital art and you want to do this professionally. Most people are still searching for their true passion in life.
It is certainly wonderful to wake up every morning knowing what your interests are and getting excited about being able to work on it.
Now, on to the simple part. Finding out where you a fit.
Generalist or Specialist?
Before we begin, I wanted to dive into the notion of a generalist and a specialist.
In large scale productions, the term specialists is thrown around more often. Typically, it is used to denote a person with expert knowledge of a specific discipline like modeling, lighting or compositing.
This can get even more specialised to Shader TD or Massive Crowd TD if the production gets even bigger. (For those of you who aren’t aware, Massive is a software developed to address the needs for simulating crowds.) If this just flies over your head, don’t worry. Just know it can get pretty deep and segmented in specialisation.
The term “generalist” tends to be used in smaller productions like commercials, TV or visualisation work.
A generalist is someone who has a well rounded skill set to take a shot from start to finish.
Smaller productions can benefit from this because it is easier to allocate tasks to artists who can wear multiple hats.
The down side typically is that quality does not rise above a certain level because generalists are not given the opportunity to get great at something.
That said, the truth is most generalists I have met that do great work have a well-rounded skillset and then 1 or 2 deliberate fields of specialisation.
Their areas of specialisation often include compositing, lighting and painting.
In my opinion, when you are just starting out, asking whether you should be a generalist or a specialist is not the right question. Even if you like to be able to do everything to bring a shot from start to end, you’ll find that you like certain aspects of the job more than others and you will naturally want to specialise in those areas somewhat.
Be Familiar with the Jobs.
Okay, this isn’t a secret — it’s common sense. But it is surprising how many beginners ignore it.
Creating visual effects and AAA games is a very complex and challenging process. There are many people involved in it and the roles are diverse.
It is vital that you are familiar with what each job does. You need to know how a complex product like a film or game is constructed.
Can you explain how games and VFX are made by different people to your 14 year old niece or nephew?
If you can’t, you’ve got some learning to do.
There are a lot of resources online for the beginner to learn. Here are some ways, I suggest.
- Khan’s Academy’s Pixar In a Box is a great collaboration with Pixar to look behind the scenes of how different digital artists do different jobs in creating animation. I recommend this resource to most beginners looking to understand the different roles in animation and VFX. Even if you are only interested in VFX, this is still highly applicable.
- Watch lots of behind the scenes of your favourite animation and VFX films. You will learn a lot about how your favourite films are made and the different jobs available.
- Go to your favourite CG studio’s jobs page. Look at what roles they are hiring for. Take note of the requirements and responsibilities of the ones that particularly appeal to you.
- Follow CG news outlets like 80.lvl and before & afters.
- Subscribe to my Insider’s Newsletter and learn more about CG careers.
The roles in CG can largely be broken up into the following. At the risk of oversimplifying this, the first 3 roles go from the spectrum of heavily artistic to heavily technical. Know that this is just a generalisation and there can be extremely technical animators or compositors.
Artistic – These jobs tend to lean heavily on the artistic side. The ability to draw, sculpt, create music, audio or video. Concept Artists, Sculptors, Modellers, Texture Artists, Matte Painters, Animators, Roto Artist, Matchmover, Compositor, Editor, Audio Engineer, UI Artist, Environment Artist.
Hybrid– A blend of artistic and technical knowledge here is critical for the job requirement. The job requires an artistic eye, while the execution and process will often require a level of math, physics and scripting knowledge. Layout TD, Lighting TD, Rigging TD, Creature FX TD, FX TD and Shader Writer, Technical Artist, Game QA Tester, Game Designer, Gameplay Programmer.
Technical – These roles do not require an artistic eye but will certainly benefit from it. They lean heavily on computer science, technology, physics and math knowledge. Render Wrangler, Resource Assistant, Pipeline Engineer/TD, R&D Engineer, Game Programmer, IT.
Management – Organisation, spreadsheets, a knack for getting the team in sync and delivering on deadlines are skills that these roles require. Runners, Production Assistant, Game Producer, Production Coordinator.
Picking a Major
Think of yourself as an explorer who is tasked with the mission of exploring the Amazon Rain Forest.
You’ll first want to quickly get on a helicopter and take an aerial view of the land, so you have a good sense of the lay of the land.
That you should have done with your research into the CG industry and all the jobs that are available.
Then you will want to look for where the vegetation is not too dense. Somewhere that is interesting enough, but easy for you to start making in roads and mapping out the land. Perhaps the entrance of a river? Somewhere to start.
Here’s the “secret” about finding your niche and area of specialisation.
You can only find your interests and passions by trying things out.
Too many beginners make the mistake of not starting somewhere because they are forever trying to find the perfect “entrance to the river”. Don’t think about what-ifs. Just pick something and do it.
I had a student once tell me that picking a niche was so worrying for him that he found himself paralysed by his worries. He would procrastinate to do anything.
What he was actually saying was,
I want guaranteed success and perfection for whatever that I am doing for the first time.
Don’t worry about perfection or success.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”― G.K. Chesterton
“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” by English writer G.K. Chesterton is one of my favourite quotes. It reminds me to always have a bias towards action. The consequences of not taking action is worst.
If you know anything about me, I take forever to start something new. Because I spend an irrational amount of time making sure I am headed in the right direction. And then I spend an equally ridiculous length of time to get all my ducks in a row before I do anything.
Realise that you are so new to this, any area you choose to focus your efforts is going to reap benefits to your CG learning.
So yes, if it helps you, I am giving you permission to pick an area in CG that you may fail horribly in.
So how do you pick an area of major?
- What have you found easy or enjoyable to do?
- What do you friends say you are good at?
- What do you already find yourself reading more of?
Finally, allocate a fix amount of time to try, experiment and get better in your major. I recommend 2 weeks. While it is unlikely, but if it is the wrong fit, you will quickly realise it. Just pick the next thing to major in.
If you find you like what you are doing, set for yourself goals every 2 weeks in that area. Make sure you have something to show every 2 weeks. Try doing it for 6 months to a year.
Here’s what you are doing.
You are allowing yourself to be held accountable to fix periods of learning with demonstrable outcomes.
You are allowing yourself to fail fast in 2 week increments.
You are allowing yourself to be nimble, by re-evaluating if you need to pivot or continue working on something.
Finally, human beings aren’t easily boxed into a job description. You will find that many people are talented in more than one area and you can always pivot in your life and career. So don’t feel stuck with what you chose.
Have a Major and then a Minor
Once you find something that you will want to spend the next 6-12 months learning deeply, it’s time to introduce the concept of a minor.
One my earliest mistakes in my career is not having a minor always. In fact, I still struggle with it.
I did not graduate from art school, so I never had the generalist background that many have. I couldn’t model, texture, rig and animate. In fact, in many ways, I still can’t do those things today.
However, I want to emphasize how important it is to have a minor.
In CG, you will start off learning the skills to be a generalist. From trying all the different things, you will quickly find your niche or niches.
As you start to take on more responsibilities, your understanding of other disciplines is going to help you as a lead and as a supervisor.
Your ability to problem solve is going to dramatically increase because you are not just looking at the problem from your discipline. You are able to solve it from a variety of different approaches.
Allocate 10-20% of your time on a new discipline or beefing up an area where you have less knowledge of always even as you major in your subject area.
Here’s a bonus tip.
With every 2 week goal you set, try to incorporate someway you can dip your toes into something new as part of the problem-solving process of your goal.
An example would be,
I want to learn about particles by recreating the Dr Strange portal FX. However I also want to learn some basic camera tracking. So I will shoot some moving footage and attempt to composite the FX onto the footage.
If you are still stuck on what to minor, start with the disciplines that make the most sense for your major.
An example would be how a 3D animator, can spend 20% of his time learning 2D animation. Or a rigging TD can minor in animation. A matte painter can learn Nuke. A modeller can learn procedural modelling in Houdini. And of course any artist learning some Python on the side is going to benefit.
Summary and Take Aways
We discussed that you need to be familiar with all the jobs in your particular field of CG and how to do it.
I also showed you the “secret” of finding your niche — pick something and keep trying things, making sure you have something to show in 2 week increments.
Finally, we talked about the importance of keeping an area of minor always. So you are dedicating some amount of time learning the other aspects of CG that will significantly augment your ability to problem solve.
- How are you going to familiarise yourself with the jobs in your CG industry this week?
- Let me know what major and minor you decided to pick after reading this.
Let me know what you are doing for your actionable take-away this week, by posting on the comments below and inspiring other readers to take action today!
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