Artistic Enterprise: Advice on Portfolios, Software, and Schools

By Jill Duffy [07.08.08]  What does it take to rise above other candidates and get a job as a video game artist or animator?

Four professional video game artists and animators spoke on a panel recently about what makes job candidates in their field stand out. The talk was part of the Game Education Summit, held at Southern Methodist University in Dallas last month (June 2008).

The panelists specifically named things they want to see in a candidate's portfolio and show reel, what should be taught in schools, and which schools tend to turn out the best video game artists and animators.

"The guy working hardest in the class will be the guy most likely to succeed," said Greg Punchatz of animation studio Janimation. Punchatz believes that the primary purpose of arts education is to learn foundational art skills: modeling, drawing, color theory, for example. Students who really put in the time to establish this groundwork will do well in their future video game art careers.

Paul Jaquays of Ensemble Studios agreed. "You can't be a good game artist until you are a good artist," he said.

However, Mark Grigsby of Infinity Ward says it's not just about hard work. Pure talent, he said, is just as important, if not more important. "You can work as hard as you can and as hard as you want, but if you cannot produce the quality that's necessary" you won't get the job, he said.

One of the most misunderstood facets of being a game industry artist that the panelists wanted to elucidate is that the job is commercial artistry, not fine arts. And while game artists and animators certainly do need to be creative individuals, they also need meet the well-defined needs of their clients. "We need to educate students that it's not about doing what you want to do necessarily, but following directions," Punchatz said.

3ds Max, Maya, Softimage XSI, or Blender?
Another element of education they panelist spoke on was software. When asked what tools should be taught in game art programs, they mostly agreed that it didn't really matter. "I think it's just as important that they're familiar with tools," rather than fluent in one or another, said Madad Ansari of Paradigm Entertainment, a THQ-owned studio. "It's just learning where the buttons are and when to push them." He added that perhaps each of the major software applications should be touched on "just briefly" to expand the students' awareness of what each tool is and how it works generally.

"Infinity Ward is a Maya house," Grisby said, "but the tool is not going to make or break you. In animation, the important thing is that you know how to animate."

Punchatz suggested that art school instructors might show each of the major packages in brief, describing the benefits and disadvantages of each one so that students can later choose the tool that will best suit the kind of work they're creating. Educators should be probing the students to consider "What does each package bring to the table?" rather than mandate one be mastered over another.

Ensemble Studios' Jaquays proposed a different idea: teaching best practices rather than teaching software. "Best practices in using the tool is what should be taught. Workflow should be taught: how to take concept to production-quality model or production-quality animation and reproduce it a few times at least." The purpose of repeating the procedure, he added, would help students get a better idea of how it all works.

Punchatz, who liked Jaquays' idea to teach best practices, mentioned that when it comes to hiring, Janimation prefers generalists over specialists. The company wants new hires to be familiar with a pipeline and to be able to anticipate what happens along the pipeline. For example, modelers need to know how their output will work as an animated model. They need to anticipate how other team members will interact with the work they produce.

But even competent generalists should have one area where they excel. Said Jaquays, "Be really good at one thing, but be good at a few other things, too." Some examples of areas of specialization that he cited were designing UIs, texturing models, and rigging animations.

 The Portfolio
"What should be in a portfolio really hasn't changed since the time that I did it," said Jaquays. "Eight to 10 pieces of your absolute best work."

Punchatz really emphasized "best work only" by adding that he would rather see four excellent pieces than eight mediocre ones.

The portfolio should also "should focus on things you're good at and want to do in your career," Jaquays said. For example, students who want to work for a game company that makes next-gen shooters should eliminate cartoon work from their array, even if those images are stellar. "If you don't want to do it, don't put it in your portfolio."

One things some students don't know about showing an art portfolio is that not all the pieces have to be considered finished, Madad Ansari said. At his studio, Paradigm Entertainment, two of the best recent hires to the company showed sketch work. The pieces were individually detailed and overall broad in terms of showing a range of work and styles. Gallery sketchbook work in particular, noted Ansari, can tell a lot about a candidate, especially if it gives an insight to the artist's private thoughts.

For animators, emotion is the most important thing to get across in one's show reel. "With animation, I look mainly for a good walk cycle and a good run cycle," Mark Grisby of Infinity Ward said. He wants to see that the candidate has an understanding of weight, timing, and character. "Show what you're capable of doing." And for modelers, he added, what gets him excited about a candidate is seeing real sculptures.

Grisby also said that sometimes he will encounter a candidate whose basic art skills are so strong, he trusts that he or she can make the technological leap and learn the software after being brought in-house.

One thing that most of the panelists said is lacking in the reels of graduating animators nowadays is non-cartoonish animations. More realistic actions are much slower than the jumpy, whipped-around motions of cartoon characters, and a good deal of game studios would prefer to see this kind of work in a reel. It's better to not try to recreate a Pixar moment.

The Best Art Schools
The panelists named a handful of schools that seem to produce superior job candidates. It should be noted that the panelists were speaking from personal experience, based on the schools they were familiar with.

Ansari noted that The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University does a good job of "emulating the industry processes" by putting in place a system of deadlines and pipelines. Punchatz seconded that motion, noting that Guildhall graduates typically know what a producer actually does, for example.

Said Punchatz, "Vancouver [Film School] puts out the best modelers I've ever seen." He also added to the list Ringling School of Art and Design, which tends to graduate highly talented individuals.

Grisby, who himself attended the Art Institute of Dallas, called out California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and The Guildhall. "But to me, it's not really the school," he said. "It's you."

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