Competition is fierce in computer graphics. Everyone wants to be part of the next groundbreaking, breathtaking hit and responsible for the greatest eye-catching computer graphics and visual effects in film, television, gaming, or the Web. That’s not really news. What is making daily headlines, however, is the economic recession. Today, we hear daily reports of the plunging US dollar, increasing layoffs, and unstable oil prices. So what will the summer bring for a new class of ambitious graduates eager to find or make their niche in the industry? Truth be told, qualified applicants today outnumber industry job vacancies.
“The economic downturn has made more applicants available, giving us the ability to select from a large pool of resources,” acknowledges Jeff Rothberg, president and co-founder of Future Media Concepts (FMC), a digital media training center. A boon for recruiters, this fact can present a challenge for recruits. Industry veterans—the recruitment and human resources professionals who interview you from across their desks—offer advice on how to best render yourself “recession-proof.”
“In a competitive market, it is more important than ever to get the basics right,” says Vic Rodgers, HR manager at Double Negative (www.dneg.com), a full-service visual effects facility in London. “Ensure that your show reel is working hard for you: There should never be any excess or diluted work that will detract from the main event, which, for us, should be the first 15 seconds of any reel. Continue to update your reel, he says. And if you have left college, don’t stop there. Keep working on things and adding them to your reel. “The VFX world moves fast, and it’s good to see that you are keeping pace.”
“The most important thing is having a solid demo reel,” says Kraig Docherty, director of talent strategy and acquisition at Blue Castle Games (www.bluecastlegames.net). A full-service, third-party publisher/independent developer in Vancouver, British Columbia, Blue Castle Games more than doubled in personnel, in 2008, adding 80 staffers. New graduates tend to include all their material—everything they did from the first day of school through graduation—on their five-minute demo reel; rather, he points out, the demo reel should be a representation of their best work. “I would rather see a one-minute demo reel of their best work,” he admits, “than five minutes of everything they were learning throughout their education.”
Docherty also encourages candidates to stop casting a very wide net. Demo reels often include a wide array of projects and elements, making it difficult to discern what the artist is interested in. It’s important, he says, to get a sense of what they want to do or what their passion is—for example, concept art, character animation, and so forth—and to ensure that their reel demonstrates their best work. “I cannot stress that enough,” he adds.
Experienced professionals also need to submit a demo reel, Docherty recognizes. It needs to be a detailed art breakdown of what they did in an animation, otherwise it is difficult to tell what their involvement was in the project. “What I have seen from animators who ‘get it’ is they break down their reel and show us the progression of what they developed, what they did personally, and then the end result. The resumé does have a lot of weight, as does the cover letter, but the demo reel tends to be the first thing we look at,” explains Docherty.
It is also advisable to submit a demo reel with material in relation to what the potential employer is looking for, advises Docherty. If an artist submits a reel full of puzzle games to a publisher of first-person shooters, for example, he hasn’t much hope of being considered for a job vacancy.
The aesthetics or achievements of the work completed in a portfolio also gain the attention of Lala Gavgavian, director of staffing at Venice, California-based Digital Domain (www.digitaldomain.com), a VFX and animation company. Yet, the overall presentation also makes an impression, good or bad. “Something as simple as correct spelling on a resumé and cover letter goes a long way,” she admits.
Networking is the most important tactic, says Gavgavian, of landing the ideal job. Although travel budgets are often curtailed and travel funds hard to come by during trying economic times, industry events can be invaluable networking tools. In fact, even if you can only attend one conference, expo, user group meeting, or trade show a year, make the most of it while there and then keep in contact—whether by phone, e-mail, or online social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others—with folks following the event. It is advantageous to become and remain involved with this fast-paced industry as much as possible.
Kristin Ying, while a junior in the Digital Media Design program at the University of Pennsylvania, interned for Electronic Arts (EA). She included this 3D model of a tiger in her demo reel.
“Part of the ability to secure employment in this industry is timing,” says Gavgavian. “Staying on top of the latest news for the industry, like which studios have awarded work and are beginning to ramp up, is key. Most studios receive hundreds of reels per week, and a submission will receive the most attention when an actual position is available.” Making connections at industry conferences, such as SIGGRAPH (www.siggraph.org), is an advantageous way to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and key studios within it, she continues.
“Where at all possible, make the most of conferences as a chance to meet potential employers,” advises Rodgers. “A smile and a hello go a long way.”
Gavgavian, proposing another method of industry involvement, encourages seasoned creatives to become a mentor or an instructor at an art college during the down cycles. “That need is becoming more prevalent, and these slower times are the perfect opportunity to get out there and exercise creative abilities in a more diverse way.”
Interning presents another opportunity to get your foot in the door and gain greater experience during economic hardships. “FMC is a strong proponent of interning,” admits Rothberg. Interns can learn a great deal about the business, whereas employers can get a sense of who will make a good employee and become a valuable member of the team. Interning is no guarantee of future employment, but FMC (www.fmctraining.com) has hired interns to full-time positions based on their desire, willingness, and aptitude. “Having the ability to intern can definitely pay dividends if one has the time and desire,” he explains.
One way to set yourself apart is with manufacturer certification, a valuable tool to have in your digital tool kit. “The achievement of an industry-recognized certification can only help in the employment process,” continues Rothberg, who has experienced an upward trend in certifications offered by Avid, Digidesign, Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, and other solutions providers. “Being able to differentiate oneself from the competition is an excellent idea in case of unexpected layoffs or downsizing.”
Attitude Is Everything
Gavgavian and her colleagues look for “soft-skill” qualities—such as the ability to be a strong team player, a self-starter, and have a great attitude—when filling all positions at Digital Domain. “We seek individuals who are open and willing to learn new software and processes for the technical and/or artistic positions.”
Similarly, Rodgers seeks proven team players whose reel demonstrates the potential to produce world-class visual effects for the cinema. He also endeavors to avoid people with large egos and who want to do their own thing, because they don’t fit into Double Negative’s culture. “You can’t pretend to be passionate and enthusiastic about what you do,” he says. “People who commit to do their best, have integrity, and are willing to learn, stretch, and challenge themselves are worth their weight in gold and should always be able to find work.”
Know your Stuff
When all is said and done, it is paramount to be knowledgeable about the process, workflow, and the latest tools. Rothberg recommends “really knowing your stuff, becoming an expert in the software of your choosing and more. Today’s editors, for example, are no longer just storytellers. Today’s artists are often called upon to add effects, adjust audio, deal with outside production elements, and to be comfortable with compression and output issues; therefore, it is critical that one know as much as possible.”
Qualified applicants may find themselves in the main conference room, called “the whale,” or the adjacent executive office in Digital Domain’s studio. Most recently, the VFX facility finished groundbreaking work on the feature film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Strong and varied technical skills ensure that students and graduates are better protected from economic considerations, says Norman I. Badler, professor of Computer and Information Science; director, Center for Human Modeling and Simulation; director, Digital Media Design; and faculty executive director, Computer Graphics and Game Technology at the University of Pennsylvania (cg.cis.upenn.edu/cggt). “For example, in the initial Web boom of eight to 10 years ago, many companies had 10 to 20 employees developing a single Web site. They had front-end designers and back-end programmers galore. When that bubble burst, our students survived because they had been educated to do both jobs; thus, two salaried employees could be replaced with one person. Likewise, in animation, special effects, and games, the closer a graduate is to the boundary between being a technical artist and a technical director, the more choices that student will have for each job he or she considers, and the more valuable the person will be to the employer. By being conversant and knowledgeable in the culture and lingo of both, such students serve a critical interdisciplinary, yet flexible, role.”
Badler and colleague Amy Calhoun also find that the highly technical jobs are more “recession-proof” than others. Badler says: “Learning how to program for real time, how to write shaders, how to build an [Autodesk] Maya plug-in, or how to program for the GPU are not trivial skills. You can’t pick them up overnight, and yet our industry is dependent on such technologies. The more advanced technical skills students have (the more they know about how a piece of software works and not just how to use it), the safer their positions will be in a slow economy.
“In a technology-driven industry,” continues Badler, “it is crucial that students know how to make technology work for them, rather than the reverse. If you only know how to model objects in one platform and the company recruiting you uses another, can you adapt? If your tool set lacks something you require, can you build the tool that you need? Can you explain what you need, in either artistic or technical terms, well enough for someone to build it for you? These are the skills that keep people employed.”
Multifaceted skill sets and flexibility are the hallmarks of great employees, according to Badler. If you don’t know how to do something that is in demand, he suggests learning it; after all, myriad resources are at your disposal, and virtually all new discoveries are documented and publicly available. “Can you think of any other industry that distributes all its intellectual property for free in the way that graphics does? I can’t, and because of that, there is really no excuse for being uninformed. Access to SIGGRAPH papers are a click away, and the better informed job seekers are about the directions that technologies are headed, the better prepared they are for the inevitable changes that are inherent in a technology-driven industry,” he says.
Times of recession provide a chance to step back and re-tool. If you lack sufficient technical skills to land the job of your dreams, you might want to consider an advanced degree created for returning students, Badler suggests. “For example, our CGGT master’s program was designed specifically for students with undergraduate degrees in computer science who wanted to re-align their skills for the graphics industry. We don’t teach them topics they’ve already mastered, but we do focus on helping them develop new abilities to add to their bag of tricks. Similar programs are cropping up all over the world, so find one that suits your current abilities and, more importantly, will help you improve your areas of weakness and re-enter the job market at a higher level.”
Perhaps most importantly, consider what you love to do and determine how to make it easier, faster, and better, recognizes Badler. Want to do animation? Find a way to do some of the background animation procedurally, thereby freeing up your time to focus on the star characters. Love rigging? Build a rigging system that will work for most characters so you’ll have more time for complex rigs.
“Creating tools that allow ‘creatives’ to spend their valuable time on the jobs that really matter is the key to efficiency of time, money, employees, and companies,” Badler says. “And efficient companies don’t need to lay people off in recessions.”
DMD’s Ray Forziati modeled and animated a T-rex, and composited the elements in a video scene to produce this project.
Choose a Company
Just as you audition for a position at a studio, to some extent, that studio is also auditioning for you. They want to draft the brightest, most talented, well educated, and hardworking team players to their team. And when you win that dream job, you likely will want to be gainfully employed there for some time and not laid off due to economic hardship. Apply to companies unaffected by the recession.
“Companies like Digital Domain, which have diverse service offerings, are in an advantageous position to leverage talent across several areas—in our case, across our feature VFX, commercials, and games divisions,” says Gavgavian. “We haven’t seen a big difference in our hiring patterns due to any change in the economy.”
Whereas diversity shields one studio, another is unaffected thanks to its global reach. As a visual effects facility for feature films, Double Negative’s work is dependent on the status of the film industry, admits Rodgers. “We are fortunate that our client base is truly global and that, thankfully, CG is often the most cost-effective solution to delivering striking images to the screen, both fantastical and ‘photoreal’ invisible effects. [In 2008] we were the busiest we have ever been, and our recruitment has continued to allow Double Negative to increase in size at a healthy rate.”
In the end, the quest for a dream job doing exactly what you love in this industry takes heart and dedication. “Never give up,” advises Rodgers. Gavgavian echoes the sentiment, noting, “Sometimes it takes working within the industry in different disciplines or positions before your dream job will present itself. Be open to other opportunities that can lead you there. Don’t give up.”
Courtney E. Howard is a contributing editor to Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.