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I want to work in computer animation, but the industry is so new that it would be easy to invest a lot of money and time -- and wind up with the wrong skills or not enough of them.

There seems to be a pretty clear path for a regular graphics career but, how do I prepare for a career in computer animation? Is self-study a viable way to go? What do I need to know about the industry? Finally, what do employers look for in a resume?

Insider Advice from
Michael Klouda
Klouda Studios

The Computer Graphics industry is hot. Every year the biggest movies tend to have the biggest effects. Movies that are fully computer animated, once a far-off dream, are now playing at your local movie house. Television commercials use more Hollywood effects than ever before, and the gaming industry is bursting with computer graphically created products. Colleges and universities are offering degrees in computer graphics, also often called computer animation, and are turning out tens of thousands of graduates eager to work on the next major blockbuster.

CG Is More Than You Think
When most people think of computer graphics they think of Terminator 2, or Jurassic Park. Perhaps they have even heard of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Pixar. But film effects are only a part of the computer graphics industry. Computer Graphics (CG) is used in broadcast graphics, games, theme parks, industrial animation, virtual reality, and scientific and medical research. For this Industry Insider I will be focusing more on the animation side of the industry, but it’s important to note that there is very heavy use of CG in the design community too (automotive design, consumer products, industrial design and interactive design).

When someone is thinking about getting into the CG field they need to understand that there are many kinds of jobs working in many different industries. To say that you want to be a 3D animator is like saying you want to be a musician. You need to make choices. Certainly there is an overall level of understanding (like music theory), but beyond that you need to choose your instrument and your style.

Lots of Job Choices
For instance, you could be a modeler, an animator, a character animator, a lighting specialist, a compositor, a texture artist, a CG programmer, a technical director or an art director. Each of these jobs is different. You may be interested in all of them and your school may be teaching the basics, but the earlier you can focus on an area that you are particularly good at, the better off you will be once you get out in the working world.

Inside The Computer Graphics Industry
Let’s look at a few realities of the industry.

CG is big business. Like any other business, CG companies need to be profitable. It’s a common misunderstanding that the companies that do effects make a lot of money. But, many film effect houses have closed in the past few years because they have not been able to produce a steady profit. Many of them have turned to doing commercials to make money, and they do film effects to build their prestige.

The CG industry is project-oriented. When a project is completed, there are often layoffs. So, being a CG animator is not all that secure of a job.

The CG business is centered in a few major metropolitan areas including Los Angeles and New York. This means you will probably have to move to one of these cities if you want a CG career. There are jobs elsewhere, but comparatively few. (Remember, we are talking about the animation side of the business. If you are interested in computer graphics in general, you are not so locked into Hollywood.)

The people in CG are not your normal bunch. You need to keep in mind that you’re essentially working in the entertainment industry, which means you will be working with quite a lot of odd, quirky, egotistical, competitive and often unpleasant people. You will also work with a lot of really great people, too. But, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

What You Need To Get In The Door
Okay. Now that I've given you a few warnings, we can talk about what it takes to prepare for a job and a career in CG. There are some obvious things that you need to get started. You need to have skill, talent and a portfolio or demo reel.

The skills require a significant investment in time and study. How much money you invest depends on how you approach your education. You can acquire the necessary skills at school or through diligent study at home with some good software and time. [Don't forget to check schools that offer a computer science degree online. Online degrees give you the flexibility to gain the right skills and work experience. -Ed.] Talent comes with practice and experience. And jobs come from having a good portfolio and demo reel that show an employer what you can do.

The Academic Approach
When evaluating schools there are some key criteria I suggest you keep in mind.

What will you learn?
Is the school going to teach you how to be an animator or a computer operator? Some schools teach just the technical skills. While that might qualify you to be a computer operator, it’s a sad experience to graduate and realize you don’t have the design and conceptual skills necessary to be an animator.

So, take a careful look at that school before you enroll. Will it teach you concrete design and conceptual thinking? Will it teach you how to draw and how to tell a story? These are critical skills for an animator. If the school is focused just on computers and technology, your career will be limited. Don’t let the school make your choice for you. Before you select a school, decide what your career goal is and make sure the school’s offerings fit your needs.

How good are the teachers?
This matters as much as the school’s specialization. Look beyond the course catalog and find out if the teachers really know the material. What are their credentials? Have they actually worked in industry? What are their own accomplishments in the field? (What do they have in their portfolios?) Talk to students who are already enrolled. How do they like the program? What are their complaints?

How good are the graduates?
Look at students who are graduating and examine the level of their work. Talk with graduates who are working in the CG industry. Do they have good jobs? Are they satisfied with their education? Talk with the companies that employ these grads — are they happy with the skills of their new workers? Checking a school’s references takes time and effort, but it’s critical. If you select an inadequate school, your career will suffer.

Is there depth in the course offerings?
What non-computer graphic courses are offered? You’re going to need some depth in your training, and that depth lies beyond computer technology. Does the school provide traditional animation courses? Are there courses in photography and film? Courses in design, drawing, scriptwriting and acting will be important in your training and in your career. These are the skills that can make you stand out as a great job candidate. [For more about traditional design training, see Eric Szantai’s Industry Insider: Graphic Design: Getting An Education.]

How good is the lab?
Finally, how complete and how large is the CG lab? A good school will provide you with the newest computers, software and graphic technologies available — something you may not be able to afford if you attempt to learn CG purely through self-study. So, ask to see the lab before you sign up. Find out how accessible the lab is. Is it open evenings and weekends? Is it well-maintained? Are there enough systems and printers to accommodate all the students? A great lab is no good to you if you always have to wait to use it.

The Self-Study Approach
If you have lots of time, lots of money, and want to develop expertise without attending school, you can set yourself up with a system and learn to use computer animation tools on your own. Some of the books and software that you'll need are listed below.

The problem with this approach is that you will learn the tools, but you probably will not acquire the skills that make a great employee (e.g., interpersonal skills, like the ability to communicate well). You will also miss out on the opportunity to learn one-on-one from expert teachers.

No matter how you acquire your expertise, don’t expect to become proficient at animation overnight. It will take you two to four years to build a good, solid foundation of knowledge. Then it will take additional time to hone your particular talents. If you can afford to go to school and you have a system at home, then you are in great shape.

Most of the older professionals working in the field today had to learn on their own because there were no schools for computer graphics. Today there are a lot of great schools, but you still need to augment your courses with additional self-study if you want to excel. Practice at home all you can, and start a personal library. Acquire additional books about the software your school uses, and subscribe to publications that influence the animation industry.

The Basic CG Library
Here a few books that I believe are important to anyone starting out in the animation field:

The Software Tools
Any training (or self-study) for a job in CG should include training in how to use the four main software packages that are used in the industry.

These packages are:

  • Alias PowerAnimator/Maya
  • Kinetix 3D Studio Max
  • SoftImage
  • Lightwave

(With Alias Maya I include PowerAnimator, a heavily used software package that is being superceded by Maya, but which is still very much in use.)

All these tools are available for the PC; some also have Unix versions. At this time Lightwave is the only one available for the Mac, and I’m sorry to say it is not used very much for animation. Many animation companies use these tools along with their own proprietary software. Pixar is a great example of a company that develops its own software to solve problems they encounter during the creation of a feature.

Your First "Job": An Internship
Okay, now you’ve completed your studies and you are getting ready to graduate, whether from a school or from your own "basement lab". You’ve developed your particular skills and talents in computer graphics and you are going to hit the job market. Or, perhaps you are a year off from graduating and you are starting to think about where you want to work. It’s time to get some practical experience in the industry.

The best way you can do this is by getting an internship. An internship is essentially a low-paying job (sometimes, there’s no pay at all) where you do all the grunt work in exchange for valuable experience. Many schools have internship programs already running so you could start there. You may have to take an internship in a company that is only indirectly related to the CG industry.

What matters is the experience you’re going to gain. Consider it "paying your dues" or "doing an apprenticeship". Either way, it can be important to your success. There’s no academic education or self-study that will teach you how to actually do the work — you need to learn from others in a production environment. Make sure your apprenticeship (or first job) is relevant to your career goal. You could work for a video company, a television station, a theatrical agency, a photographer or even a printer. All of these jobs can give you valuable production experience.

The Demo Reel & Portfolio
A critical part of winning a job is having a good portfolio and a demo reel; these feature samples of your work.

A basic portfolio will include character sketches, sortboards, paintings, illustrations, figure drawings and motion studies that you have done. It could also feature other work you have done in photography or design, if it showcases your talents well.

A demo reel is a video tape that shows off your best work. The key here is your best work — not all your work. Even if you have only a few projects under your belt, it’s still critical that you carefully select what you are going to put on your reel. Remember: an employer is expecting to see your best. If you "throw it all in", you won’t come across well.

Your school may have courses on how to put together your portfolio. This is a good start, and looking at other people’s work is a great indicator of what recruiters are looking for. But, you need to keep in mind that there are thousands of other job hunters out there taking the same courses and often producing portfolios that look pretty much alike. Your goal is to stand out — never forget that. In the end, the best way to create a great portfolio and demo reel is to follow your own judgment and emphasize the areas in which you really shine.

The Demo Reel Is Your Resume
A typical demo reel includes:

  • opening title
  • 2D pencil tests
  • a walk cycle
  • a decently rendered scene with a camera move
  • a space scene
  • a scene that's "just not done yet because I didn't have time to get it to tape and the equipment was down . . ."
  • closing title

This is a typical reel. But, "typical" is not what you want because it is what everyone is showing. This industry is competitive and if you show a demo reel that is like the one listed above then you will not look any different than anyone else.

So, what should you do to stand apart from your competition? What is it that the industry is looking for?

The Ask The Headhunter Edge
We all know that you are hard-working and interested in the industry; that you are a quick learner; and that you probably have a system at home with software that you grabbed off the Internet. That describes your competition, too. To go the extra mile, ask yourself two critical questions:

  • Why should a company hire you?
  • Why should they pay you good money to work for them?

These are not easy questions — they are the kinds of questions The Headhunter discusses in The Basics and in his books. Every employer needs something different. It’s up to you to find out what. No school can tell you that; you must do research on the company to find out for yourself. To make yourself stand out, you need to know what you can bring to a specific company to help it be more successful. Once you figure that out, you can produce a resume and demo reel that will make the company stand up and take notice of you.

In other words, a great demo reel shows off skills and abilities that are most relevant to a particular emloyer.

You do not need to have a lot in your reel. Just something that is good that reflects your interests and talents and will clearly state why you would be a useful addition to a creative staff. Are you particularly good at modeling or at setting up a composition? Do you have a talent for creating dynamically lit scenes? Are you really good at animating characters with lip-synch? If so, prove it. The best demo reel is the one that leverages your strengths; so, build yours that way.

Join The CG Community
Remember that you will most likely be working as part of a creative team, so being a team player is very important. Having great ideas counts, but it’s just as important to be able to work as part of a team that works together to produce great content. So, be positive and confident, but not egotistical or overly-opinionated. Project a team-oriented attitude.

Finally, you need to become a part of the CG community. You need to be actively involved. It is critical that you learn to network and meet people. You can join user groups, Internet communities, go to conferences (Siggraph in particular) and other animation or design clubs. The best way to locate computer graphic clubs, animation or film clubs is through the Internet. Some important sites are:

When you participate in the CG community always be friendly and remember that you are representing not only yourself (and your employer, if you’re working), but also others in your industry. Don’t just take; give something back. Participate actively. That’s what will increase your own value when it comes time to seek a job.

So, get to work! Spend some time reflecting on who you are and what you do well, and put something together that will impress. This is an exciting and satisfying industry to work in. Position yourself to be an exciting animator and a "satisfying employee", and you’ll be on your way to a successful CG career.

Michael Klouda is a computer graphic artist specializing in modeling for design and animation. He has worked as a Senior Art Director for a design agency, and as a designer for a broadcast effects company. An occasional lecturer and instructor on computer graphics and graphic design, Michael now runs his own firm, Klouda Studios, providing services including web design, multimedia and 3D animation/illustration.

NOTE: The advice provided above is an opinion, not a professional service. Ask The Headhunter and the author of the advice are not responsible for its accuracy, use or mis-use.


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