You're Hired!
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 7: (Nov/Dec 2013)

You're Hired!

In high school, teachers often overload students with homework to prepare them for the next step in their education journey. Students then spend the next year, or two, or more, learning the vital skills they will need to succeed in the professional realm. However, given the current state of the visual effects, animation, and video game industries, landing a job can be a difficult proposition for just about anyone, let alone recent grads or those about to enter the workforce.

In the distant past, students who learned their craft could slip into the job market fairly easily. With an internship added to their resume, all the better. But today, with the economy being the way it is and available positions at studios more elusive than ever, what’s a student to do? And, what can a school do to ensure that its students are properly educated and prepared to embark on a career, as well as assist them in finding employment? Here, we talk to various schools to find out what they are doing to help students navigate the challenging professional landscape.

For the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), this entails dedicating the education it provides around the life of the artists, rather than just creating a kind of temporary educational skill set. “Our education model is intended to create a series of critical-thinking and creative skills that are adaptable, flexible, and future-proof,” says Tim Leeser, director of the Art and Technology Program in the School of Art and director of the Center for Integrated Media at CalArts in Valencia, California. “It is designed for the students who are interested in expanding their practice and expanding what we currently see as art forms that are within our culture right now.”

Leeser emphasizes that CalArts students, for the most part, are those who want to break new ground in their industry – Tim Burton and John Lasseter are two examples of just such alumni. “Our students want to make new groundbreaking work and move the culture forward, not just get a job. They are motivated beyond that. They walk away [from CalArts] with options and possibilities.”

Leeser has been in the film industry and art world for a long time, and every studio he had worked for prior to his position at CalArts is now out of business, the last being Rhythm & Hues. “This is due to a number of reasons, one being the volatile market. Another is because the technology they have incorporated and use is obsolete,” he says. “As an educator, I take that experience to my students and say, ‘Look, there are fundamental skills you need that go beyond knowing how to write Maya scripts. You need to know basics, fundamental aspects of the creative process. You need to know how to think about different formulas for creating new media. And, you must have the flexibility to adapt. That will allow them to survive in the volatile job market.”

To this end, CalArts continues to incorporate new technology into the curriculum. According to Leeser, a lot of the faculty members work in their respective fields, so they are current in what is going on today, as opposed to yesterday. And that is not just from conversations, but also from actually using the technology. A good deal of innovation occurs at Cal­Arts’ Center for Integrated Media, a multidisciplinary laboratory where students combine art, science, and technology. If offers specialized integrated media classes, workshops, and seminars, and supports a wide range of projects involving performance and environmental installations, video, sound, music, robotics, gaming, programming, interactivity, computer graphics, and the Internet.

CalArts also has visiting artists who help in career building through lectures and reviews of student portfolios. “We have working artists who come visit, and students likewise do studio visits,” Leeser says. There is also a yearly international outreach, during which time Leeser and a grad student visit Asia and participate in student workshops.

Coast-to-Coast Attention

Raymond Yan, senior administrator at DigiPen Institute of Technology (Redmond, Washington), acknowledges that the job market for digital artists is challenging, especially for new graduates. So, the school works with soon-to-be-grads on a number of fronts, such as providing access to the student resource center to prepare job search strategies. This includes understanding employment options, knowing where to look, preparing resumes, polishing interview skills, and so forth.

Art students at DigiPen can also participate in portfolio reviews conducted by faculty and industry art leads. “Our goal is to ensure that students are properly telling their ‘story,’ meaning that they not only showcase their best work, but also show their creative process – in other words, the steps they are taking to get to the final image. For entry-level artists, many art directors are looking beyond just the skills and want to see the thought process,” says Yan.

In addition, the DigiPen career services team arranges for “Company Days” almost every week throughout the semester, during which game and animation studios visit the campus and discuss their hiring needs and procedures. Annually, DigiPen hosts a career fair for graduating students, where they can showcase their work to invited guests looking to hire. Typically held in the spring, the career fair this past year featured 82 graduating students (from all DigiPen’s degree programs) showcasing their work to 134 employers from 50 companies on the West Coast.

Internships further give students a leg up in the hiring process. “Our internship opportunities offer employers the chance to try a DigiPen artist on for size, but even more importantly, it gives the artist a good opportunity to see how well they are able to fit into a real production environment,” says Yan. “While this does not guarantee that the employer will hire them full time (though many do), this normally gives the artist a certain level of confidence while searching for their first position.”

The Industry and Career Services (ICS) department at Ex’pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, California, provides one-on-one career guidance and counseling to help better prepare its graduates to compete in the job market. Some of the services include: organizing networking opportunities, on-campus interviews, and events such as workshops and lectures featuring industry professionals. The school also looks for internships and job opportunities, and conducts reel reviews and provides feedback on resumes and cover letters.

There are advantages to be had for students, as well, at the four-year New York City-based School of Visual Arts (SVA). “One great advantage of being in New York City is that our students have great internship opportunities, and often their first working opportunities come as early as the freshman and sophomore years,” says John McIntosh, chair of the college’s Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects Department.

SVA Computer Art hosts yearly portfolio nights, its own internship fair, and two screenings in the SVA Theater of the students’ work. SVA also actively submits students’ work to festivals, and this past year alone, SVA Computer Art had eight projects at SIGGRAPH LA, including one in the Electronic Theater and four at SIGGRAPH Asia. In addition, the school boasted a finalist in the College Television Awards, the Student Academy Awards, and at the Cannes Film Festival.

According to McIntosh, the SVA faculty comprises working professionals only. This gives the motivated student an opportunity to move quickly into industry positions within the growing New York community that features companies such as Framestore NY, Molecule, Look FX, Nathan Love, Curious Pictures, and Psyop NY. The school is particularly fortunate to have Blue Sky Studios as a neighbor and longtime ally of the program, he adds.

West Coast studios regularly visit SVA Computer Art, and this past year they included ILM, DreamWorks, Sony Imageworks, and Pixar. During the past four years, the school has provided interns to Pixar’s prestigious PUP program as well as animation internships. “In this industry, there have been busy years and slow years, and we have consistently seen our students be competitive and successful,” says McIntosh.

DIGIPEN HELPS students with job search strategies.

Southern Hospitality

Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD’s) Career and Alumni Services hosts a long list of recruiters quarterly and annually who visit the campuses, interview students, provide a presentation about their company, and sit in on classes to critique presentations or bring an artist along to do a workshop. “Often recruiters send ‘emergency’ e-mails that require a 24-hour turnaround for a hire,” says Tina O’Hailey, dean of the SCAD School of Digital ­Media. “For requests that are less urgent, employers can use the college’s central online job website to find students or alumni for full-time, part-time, and freelance work and internships.”

At the annual SCAD Career Fair in Savannah, Georgia, this year, 118 employers lined up to meet 2,000 SCAD students. Separately, the number of companies conducting individual visits to SCAD Savannah has increased 75 percent since last year, according to O’Hailey, and by 90 percent since the 2010 – 2011 academic year. In Atlanta, the school turns the career fair on its head with a reverse event called “Out to Launch,” where students occupy the booths and employers visit them. She notes that Animation in Atlanta had 100 percent job/internship placement from the participants at Out to Launch.

“Unique relationships with industry leaders also provide a pipeline to employment opportunities. For example, through SCAD’s long-standing relationship with DreamWorks Animation, more than a dozen SCAD student and alumni visual effects artists came to work on the blockbuster film Rise of the Guardians,” O’Hailey says.

Informally, the school has a “faculty network.” Because the school hires faculty with industry experience, many of whom remain active, they use their connections to link up industry friends and colleagues with potential hires. There is also the alumni channel: alumni reaching out to hire more alumni. “I just watched a chain of students of mine go to work for Sony Pictures Imageworks,” says O’Hailey. “One took a position there and received a promotion. He called a former classmate to take his previous job. This continued until six students from one of my classes found themselves working at Imageworks.”

ANIMATION WORK by a student from Full Sail.

To formalize that channel a bit, the school has alumni chapter industry outreach representatives and a new alumni mentor program, whereby star alumni return a few times in an academic year to work with students, critique work, hold workshops, and inform the students how they transition from being a student to an artist in the industry. O’Hailey provides the example of the Game Developers eXchange. Through a series of workshops hosted by SCAD interactive design and game development, alumni working in the game development industry come back to give students an insider’s perspective on trends and techniques. This past year, SCAD alumni working at Bethesda returned to share case studies of how they created Skyrim, one of the hottest games in 2012.

Finally, SCAD sponsors a number of signature events throughout the academic year that connect its students to industry experts through meaningful dialog and hands-on opportunities. The Savannah Film Festival, for one, brings world-renowned filmmakers, producers, actors, and journalists, as well as other film enthusiasts, to SCAD (and Savannah) for eight days of feature films, lectures, workshops, panels, and more. The festival was started by SCAD President Paula Wallace to provide students with opportunities to network with, meet, and learn from entertainment industry leaders and to showcase the university’s talented students and unique resources.

Every month Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, hosts an event called the Animation Industry Spotlight, where an employer (often local) that is not specifically video game- or film-related looks to hire students with the appropriate skills. This helps students spread their view of employment opportunities with companies ranging from the engineering sectors to those in the defense industry looking for students with animation and simulation experience, for instance.

“This event allows students to learn about how additional areas of the industry use their skills and hire for those roles,” a member of the school’s internal team states. Students can network at the event, and sometimes employers will sign up students for interviews in the days or weeks that follow.

PRATT STUDENTS can exhibit in the CCPS gallery

Full Sail also hosts employers from the industry who will hold events such as alumni roundtables, demo reviews and critiques, staff roundtables, and job interviews. Sometimes this is done virtually, via special podcasts or exclusive online events.

Then, during the last five months of the degree program, teams spend time helping the students develop their portfolios based on their artistic strengths. These portfolios include a Web presence to share with potential employers.

For graduates who have recently entered the industry or who are now industry veterans, Full Sail hosts alumni events throughout the country. Grads also get lead opportunities from the Career Dev department and by connecting to other graduates working in the industry for advice, critiques, and help through a Facebook group called the CG Artist Group, which posts more than 100 jobs and announcements every month.

Also located in the Orlando area is The DAVE (Digital Animation and Visual Effects) School, which offers an intensive one-year program for computer artists at its facility, strategically located on the backlot at Universal Studios. According to Jeff Scheetz, school director, DAVE School boasts an aggressive placement office that has had 65 to 85 percent placement for the past three years. “Providing interview opportunities is important, but the real trick is coming to understand future hiring needs (of very specific employers) and bending the curriculum to meet that,” he says.

As Scheetz explains, employers need to understand that schools, if they are functioning properly, are really here to serve them. “If they know they will need 10 new artists who can do particle effects, we can provide supplemental training of our top grads at no charge to either the employer or the student,” he says, adding that presently the school is seeing a rise in employers interested in using The Foundry’s Modo, but they don’t see a large enough talent pool to commit to its implementation. As a result, DAVE School is folding that lesson into its curriculum in order to provide a competitive advantage for its grads.

Northern Exposure

The Pratt Institute in New York has a diversified group of students in its degree programs, with some stepping into the fine-art worlds and others into the creative industries. For

the fine-arts students, the Department of Digital Arts brings gallery curators and working artists to campus for portfolio reviews and critiques. The school also hosts Open Studio events and thesis exhibitions for graduates who are publicized in art sources and publications. Moreover, a professional practices course helps students launch their careers.

For the creative industries, the Pratt Show is an annual juried exhibition of exceptional design work by more than 300 graduating students, including digital arts students. The show builds on Pratt’s legacy as a design innovator and provides members of industry and the public with the opportunity to see a diverse range of what’s next in design. At Pratt Show, animation and motion arts students present their work in a theater and on three other screens in the venue, while students prepare demo reels, business cards, and other material to give to interested industry professionals.

In addition to Pratt Show, the school invites industry representatives to campus for portfolio reviews and critiques. “We are also successful at placing interested students in internships, which lead to employment,” says Peter Patchen, chair of the Department of Digital Arts at Pratt Institute. In addition, the school enters student works in screenings and film festivals, where the budding artists and animators routinely win awards. Moreover, Pratt’s network of alumni working in the creative industries provides a host of opportunities for the students who want to freelance.

Pratt’s Center for Continuing and Professional Studies (CCPS) serves adult professionals who are interested in updating their skill sets and staying competitive in an uncertain job market. Since Pratt’s computer graphics certificate programs are based in Manhattan, there is a dynamic hub that helps connect the school’s students with some of the world’s top cultural institutions, leading companies, and members of industry that include Pratt’s faculty, according to Karen Miletsky, interim director for CCPS. Besides internships, the school provides students with the chance to curate an exhibition of their own work in the CCPS Gallery. As an added bonus, CCPS promotes student work in its marketing and advertising materials.

Extended Reach

Animation Mentor is an online animation and visual effects school that assigns experienced animation professionals as mentors for its students worldwide.

“Landing a job is what we aim to achieve for all of our students, and our Career Services and Industry Relations teams work hard to develop relationships with studios – big and small – all over the world,” says Bobby Beck, CEO and co-founder. “While students wait to hear back from studios, they should not be left without a support network or motivation to keep up their development.” For that reason, Animation Mentor has begun to teach its entire community the AMP Pipeline, so its students will be able to create whatever they want with people from any Internet-capable location in the world. Beck notes that is what gives the students the motivation to keep learning and opens up possibilities for their career development.

“What can really talented artists create when they are given the tools, facility, and community to do so? We can only imagine great things — and that’s why we are so dedicated to our community,” says Beck. “They are the future.”

So, it appears that educational institutions are dedicated to their students, not just during their initial months but also throughout their education – and beyond. Schools are taking their roles seriously as educators and as the bridge to supplying the industry with the next generation of talented artists, animators, and game developers.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for CGW.