The Importance of Technical Knowledge

CG production is an exciting career. Just look back at the changes that have taken place over the last 10 years and im sure you will realize how fast this industry moves. This industry of ours, so new, so fresh, so desired. Every year at Siggraph I see a large river of young new comers, eagerly applying for the scarce few openings that are available here in the USA.

Amazing how things have changed. I have met plenty of seasoned artists who have shared their stories. They remember how back in the old days (the 90s), big studios would snatch up anyone who had just a little bit of CG training. The demand for CG was so hi and the available talent pool was so small, that studios would pretty much open their doors to anyone who was willing to learn.

I became obsessed with the industry in 1999, effectively missing that sweet window of opportunity by about 4 years. By the time I had reached a level of mild competence, the industry had exploded! Nemo, Monsters, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix had all been released and people where flocking in mass quantities to Siggraph. The lines to drop off demo reels at the ILM, Pixar, Imageworks, Digital Domain and Dreamworks booths where huge!

It was Siggraph 2001 and I managed to get acquainted with some industry heavy hitters. Being the young, eager beaver that I was, I kept trying to get information on what would be the best way to break into the industry. One of the industry veterans from Digital Domain told me; "Learn RenderMan and scripting, for one animator opening, we get 20 to 30 reels, but for 10 technical openings we get 2 reels".

That conversation pretty much changed my life, as I went back home and completely changed the focus of my CG training. Instead of studying how to become an animator, I would learn RenderMan and scripting. Such career change eventually paid its dividends and I am glad to have the technical knowledge that I have. It has opened so many opportunities as a TD with good technical knowledge is always sought after by employers. Granted, I still have so much to learn, but that goes with the territory, as being a TD is a never-ending learning journey.

Fast forward 8 years. The industry is very mature by now, the amounts of work being done is huge, with a talent pool that is even bigger. There are hundreds of extremely talented CG artists out there, all competing for a limited number of jobs available. This has made getting into the industry extremely hard. The amount and level of competition, for even the simplest entry level jobs is way higher of what it used to be. With such an environment, it is essential that new comers find a way to differentiate themselves from the rest.

While running TD College, I was lucky enough to meet may young talented artists. There was one in particular that caught my attention. This young artist had sinked a small fortune (around 90 thousand US dollars) into his education. He had received an internship at Pixar and graduated with very good grades. However, a year after graduation, he had still not landed "the" job that would place him in the industry. This artist enrolled in our "Python Programming" course. A course that lasted only 6 weeks but it covered a lot of very important programming concepts. The course was all taught in python, a language that has become the most popular for scripting in the CG industry. With 6 weeks of training, he was able to walk into interviews with new found confidence, applying for positions that he was not even considering before. Well, very soon he landed a job at IMD, then ILM and at the moment is at Dreamworks Animation. How much did he learn in those 6 weeks? Not much im sure, but he did learn enough to get him into the industry. These days this young artist is learning and growing by leaps and bounds, constantly improving his CG skills.

Our industry is a weird mix of talents. So unless you are a complete bad ass on your art, be it modeling, animation, lighting, texturing or else, your chances of breaking into the industry will be a lot higher if you are able to bring some technical knowledge to the table. What kind of knowledge? Here is a list of things that I believe will help anyone trying to enter the industry:

  1. Python: The most used language for scripting. Easy to use, easy to learn but soooo powerful. Python will allow you to script for pretty much every major CG application in the market, as well as develop quick pipeline tools.
  2. C/C++: The most used language in the industry. The APIs for most CG programs is usually in C++. If you want to develop plugins for Maya, Nuke, XSI or Houdini you will need to learn C++. If you want to write shaders for MetalRay, Arnold or VRay, you will also need to use C++
  3. Linear Algebra: Learn how to use vectors,points and matrices. Give special attention to vector operations such as cross and dot products. Learn the properties of vectors as well as the operations when you mix types (point + vector). Learn the properties of matrices.

So dont be afraid of programming or math, they are after all, the backbone of our industry and the stronger your understanding the more productive you will be able to become.