Thanks to the still struggling economy, recent graduates are finding the competition for work tougher than ever. That is why it is more important than ever to be prepared for real-world environments, even before offered that particular opportunity.
Chris Mulcaster, now full time with Cinesite, spent months preparing his show
reel (featuring this VW Bug) until he was ready to apply for jobs.
Schools and training programs will certainly get you close, but talent, dedication, personality, the willingness to take direction, and the ability to be a team player will get you all the way there. In this article, we look at how some digital content creators put these traits to work.
Cinesite’s Chris Mulcaster
Chris Mulcaster’s road to becoming a professional modeler and texture artist found him parked at Cinesite London’s Inspire Program, a six-week paid internship that allows graduates to work alongside experienced pros while creating visual effects for feature films.
Mulcaster, a Portsmouth University (UK) graduate with a computer animation degree, also has an intensive 12-week course in visual effects at London’s Escape Studios under his belt. This schooling gave him a good base of experience working with tools such as Autodesk’s Maya, 3ds Max, and Mudbox, Apple’s Shake, The Foundry’s Nuke, Pixologic’s ZBrush, and Adobe’s Photoshop, but what he really craved was real-world work, and that’s exactly what he found at Cinesite (www.cinesite.com).
At the start of his internship, Mulcaster began working on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a junior 3D artist, doing modeling and texturing. At the end of the internship, he was offered a contract as a junior artist and is currently working on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an environment TD.
“Being dropped in at the deep end from day one, I was forced to learn a lot very quickly in order to get up to speed,” explains Mulcaster. “Although slightly overwhelming, this is the best way to learn. All visual effects studios have their own pipeline, and, initially, it was just a case of learning the setup at Cinesite. I had enough skills and knowledge to do the job but no experience of working in the film industry within this environment. You need to make sure you follow the correct procedures and conventions so work can flow from one department to another without confusion. You don’t want to aggravate someone with silly mistakes, especially when big deadlines are looming.”
While Mulcaster’s role hasn’t changed much since being hired full time, he says the learning process never ends. “Every day I am picking up helpful shortcuts to increase my efficiency,” he adds. “Even the most experienced guys have to keep up with changes in technology and development of new techniques. A good example is the demand for stereoscopic films, which has created a plethora of new challenges for all.”
Mulcaster’s schooling made sure he was experienced in having his work critiqued, and that helped prepare him for the process at Cinesite. “Dailies are a good way to get regular feedback of our work,” he says. “Initially, it’s very daunting, as a number of [people on] your team will get to see your work and critique it, but it’s essential and always constructive. You need to be able to take criticism and learn from your mistakes in order to improve your work.” What advice does Mulcaster offer those gearing up for the real world? “Make the most of your tutors when you’re at university/college, or anyone you may know in the industry,” he advises. “And when you do get a job, never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. People don’t mind giving you some time to teach you; they were all in the same position when they first began.”
In terms of show reels, this newcomer’s advice is to keep it simple. “Prove you have the skills. Creating a photorealistic model integrated into a live-action sequence or still is going to stand out far more than a crazy creature or a spaceship,” Mulcaster says. “If you want to be a modeler, focus on your modeling, but I feel it always pays to show you have what it takes to produce a quality shot incorporating the whole VFX process, from tracking through to compositing.”
We all know this industry is relationship-based, and Mulcaster hammers home the importance of being personable and easygoing. “You have to be able to get on with people,” he shares. “When you’re interviewed, they are not only looking for a person with the required skills and enthusiasm, but also someone who they can see themselves working with. I’ve heard of people not lasting long in their job because they couldn’t get along in a team.”
As an intern, Pendulum’s Jason Yacalis began applying his skills, working on the cinematic for the video
game TRON: Evolution.
You also have to be passionate about what you’re doing and be as self-critical as you can. “If you can get any work experience at any VFX studios, it’s definitely beneficial, if not just to see whether you like working in this type of environment or to get more of an idea of what you may want to specialize in,” Mulcaster says.
“It’s not always easy—don’t feel disillusioned that you will never get a job,” notes Mulcaster. “You have to be prepared for long hours and lots of hard work, but it is definitely worthwhile.”
Pendulum’s Jason Yacalis
Pendulum lighting and effects artist Jason Yacalis didn’t start out wanting to be in the entertainment industry. Instead, his interests lied in physics and math, but those interests evolved, and he found himself leaning toward more creative endeavors, such as traditional art. Yacalis found himself at Full Sail University in Florida, where he majored in computer animation while occasionally gaining real-world experience freelancing on game mods, music videos, and even a television pilot.
After graduation, Yacalis stayed on at Full Sail, interning for three months—an experience that offered him the opportunity to see the curriculum from a different perspective. In addition to helping prepare material for class, which included making models for students, he sat in on lectures—but this time listening with a slightly different ear. “I got to re-learn a lot of the material, and that prompted me to work on my own assets,” he adds.
Yacalis’s creative path seemed destined to wind through Full Sail. When his internship ended, he was offered a three-month mentorship at the school. The artist then applied for and won a full-time job there as a lab specialist. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that he left the school to start a three-month internship at San Diego-based Pendulum, which led to his present full-time job as a lighting and effects artist.
Yacalis is quick to point out that if it weren’t for his time at Full Sail, in all capacities, his transition would have been more difficult. “I adapted pretty easily because of my work at Full Sail. Had I come to Pendulum directly from graduating, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. I know that for a fact,” he says. “Working at Full Sail and getting to see the student mentality from the other side of the fence, I got a nice vantage point as far as what [students] believe or are led to believe.”
At Pendulum (www.studiopendulum. com), which specializes in game cinematics, Yacalis’s transition from intern to pro was made simple in that his role as intern ended when the project he was working on (TRON: Evolution) was delivered. “When I started officially full time, I started on a new project (Red Faction: Armageddon), and that helped buffer the transition,” he says.
The new job did come with some new responsibilities. “They have laid more upon me as far as the pipeline [is concerned], and essentially helping to lay out the foundation of the systems we are using to complete the projects,” Yacalis explains. “Instead of just creating assets or shading the lighting or creating shaders and materials and doing lighting, I am actually creating the process, which flows through the pipeline.”
Yacalis, like many other recent hires, was already very knowledgeable of the software used at major studios. “The only thing I had to learn in-house was the pipeline, the in-house tools, such as whatever various scripts or processes they were using,” he notes.
What tips would Yacalis offer others? “Love what you do and work hard. It’s really an industry where the harder you work, the more you’ll get out of it,” he adds. “You need to be social. You need to be able to network and talk to people. You can’t be a loner. You need to be able to coordinate with your peers and be wiling to learn and take criticism.”
The new hire says some people who can’t take criticism aren’t as willing to learn once they leave school. “They say, ‘I’m done with school. I don’t need to learn anything; everything needs to be given to me because I’ve gone through school. That’s my dues.’ But school is not the dues you pay to work in the industry,” says a wise Yacalis. “School is prepping you to be able to handle the dues.”
The Mill’s Robert Holmes
Robert Holmes, a 3D artist at London’s The Mill (www.the-mill.com), is no stranger to dealing with clients and delivering projects—he was a graphic designer running his own small company for eight years. Clients were asking for more and more projects incorporating 3D motion graphics, and he “fell in love” with the process.
When he did officially make the jump, Holmes found himself at Escape Studios, preparing to work as a 3D artist. One of the first things he was taught was that he didn’t need to know every aspect of every tool. “You open up a package of Maya or Shake, and you think you have to know every single button, and you think you are going to walk into a company and start modeling and doing big things straight away, but they said, ‘No, no, no. You learn this part of this package; it’s the most important bit you need to know,’ and that really helped take the pressure off.”
Another thing Escape taught Holmes was the theory of everything and then the practical application of that theory, and afterward, the application of the practical within a work environment. “They told us, ‘You can do all the squash-and-stretch cartoon characters and all the gargoyles you want, but if you want a job [you have to listen to the client],’” he recalls. “They geared the learning toward that, which, for me, was invaluable because I came in with silly ideas. I wanted to work in 3D, and that doesn’t really exist as an industry. It’s either [visual effects in] films or games; that’s what you should be aiming for.”
And Holmes aimed for commercials. “There wasn’t anything about the process I didn’t like,” he says. “Starting in Maya with a concept, making that concept into 3D, going through the process of texturing, writing, and rendering it, going to Shake, compositing it, and then finishing up; I wanted to do all those things. We had some guys who came in and played Warcraft for eight hours a day and then came to Escape for eight hours a day and modeled those characters. It was obvious that is what they wanted to do.”
Another thing Escape emphasized was always producing something that has a reference. The [instructors] would tell him, “Don’t just model a seat or a car randomly—create something that is real because that is what happens in the commercial world. If they want a brand-new L’Oreal bottle, you make that.” As part of the course, Holmes had to design his own character, and then he had to realize that character in 3D. “That trains you to deliver what you are asked to deliver, and not your opinions or your view of what you are asked to deliver,” he explains. “Being a lead now, I see a lot of guys who didn’t go to a finishing school and came straight from university. They say, ‘Oh, I thought this would be a good way to do this.’ ‘No, this is what we need.’ From a production side, that is what Escape really gives you.”
Critiquing work was part of the curriculum at Escape. “A critique is never like, ‘That’s bad.’ It’s always constructive, and even in a commercials environment [like here at The Mill], it’s always constructive because your lead is trying to make you better,” Holmes says. “If you have someone who is critiquing your work, literally, just criticizing, that’s not good for anyone.”
Holmes offers this advice to students turning pro: “Understand what you want to do and deliver what is asked. Your opinion will be asked at some point, but if it’s not, don’t offer it. If you are asked to do a shampoo bottle or realistically light a scene, do that, and do it well. Offer your opinion once someone is looking at your work and nodding. That is one of the best times to offer it because by that point, you’ve earned their trust and they know you can do it, and anything you can do on top gets received better.”
Randi Altman is the chief editor for Post magazine, CGW’s sister publication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.