Over the weekend, I joined a new social networking site for creative professionals called STAGE 32 which has numerous industry useful resources and blog posts.
Despite the fact that my job as a visual effects artist is anything but glamorous, I was asked to write about my experience of building a career that has lasted over two decades. I’ll work to avoid being self-indulgent and try and extrapolate out some bits of wisdom relevant to anyone working to sustain a career through a creative endeavor.
As is the case for essentially all visual effects artists of my generation, I spent my childhood constantly drawing, building models, obsessing over Star Wars, and being generally geeky. I often set up my bedroom as a makeshift stop motion studio where I would make goofy little Claymation movies with an 8mm movie camera. The main thing about me that was notably different was that I never had any dreams of making movies; I was always motivated to work in education in some capacity.
While pursuing a master’s degree in education, I was able to land my first job as an animator with a PBS affiliate for a series of six, nationwide daily live broadcast classes (a broadcast precursor to on-line classes). I was plopped down right in the hot seat as the sole animator to coordinate, design and generate graphics for six hours of classes every day. In taking on this new job, I quickly realized how shockingly unprepared I was. I had never created animation with a computer and knew nothing about all the technical issues of broadcast graphics, and the technical director of the classes was not in the least bit shy about making my ignorance abundantly clear. He was a Vietnam veteran who was initially skeptical of the new graphics I was introducing to the classes. Part of my initial training involved running repeated wind sprints up from my workstation to his control booth so I could see on the scopes exactly how my graphics were in violation of FCC broadcast standards. After this initial boot camp, I sponged up as much knowledge as I could and did ease into the job quite well. There was an experimental nature to the classes, and I was able to push the boundaries of how I could use my animation as a communication tool. The fact that my boss hired me for this job which, at least on paper, I was so clearly unqualified for leads me to my fist chunk of wisdom:
For entry-level jobs, people are rarely hired due to their current skills, but because they are a good investment
With my own experience as a primary example, I have seen so many people hired for entry level jobs not from their resume lines, but from an affable personality and an obvious desire to work, listen and learn.
While I was working with the classes, I took it upon myself to learn every piece of animation software they had in the building which included the old Wavefront software, my first foray into 3D animation.
Never pass up an opportunity to learn
While the Wavefront software was cutting edge for its time, by today’s standards, I might as well have been using a diesel-powered abacus to create my graphics. But, I feel grateful that I went through this initial learning curve on a more rugged tool since it forced me to find creative technical solutions. With the amazing capacity of the tools available today, I’ve seen a tendency in some newbies to sit back and be more of a passive software driver. At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old-timer, I’m glad that in order to create what would now be considered rudimentary effects, I had to MacGyver together some clever trick to get the job done. Going about my work with this more “MacGyvering” approach I feel has made me more fearless and creative with my software.
Drive the software – don’t let the software drive you.
At work, my responsibilities expanded beyond the classes to include show openings, interstitials, and the like. I also took on my first outside freelance job for a commercial. This proud moment in my career was a commercial for a local taco restaurant which featured 3D animated peppers, onions, and a tomato all wearing sombreros, dancing and shaking maracas. Although the taco restaurant did go out of business a month or so after the commercial aired, my animated conga line of vegetables was never proven to be the direct cause of their economic downturn.
For the pre-calculus class I worked with, I created an animation depicting how the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to measure the size of the earth in the 3rd century BC with only basic geometry. I was quite proud of the video and felt it was a great example of how I could use my medium to communicate abstract concepts, but never thought that anyone outside of the classes would give it much attention. A colleague encouraged me to submit this animation to the SIGGRAPH conference. Every year, the SIGGRAPH conference is a mecca for computer artists from around the world, and their Electronic Theater is the holy grail of computer animation festivals featuring the most beautiful and cutting edge work in the CG world. I honestly thought it was rather stupid to think I my work belonged anywhere near the conference, but after some coercion, I figured all I had to lose was some postage and a sliver of pride. A few months later, I remember reading and rereading in disbelief the letter from the conference saying that my animation was accepted into the Electronic Theater. Compared to the other entries in the festival, my animation was very low-tech, but the story was good and it had a compelling message.
A strong idea, even when presented a humble way, is still compelling.
Getting my work in such an international venue did draw a good deal of attention, and, long story short, I was eventually offered a job at a major visual effects studio. I did have a demo reel I had pieced together, and interestingly enough, the part of it that seemed to impress the studio the most was the clip that was the most “low-tech”. In my work, I had felt that I was often fighting a certain inertia in terms of the look the software could deliver. For this one piece, I decided to go in a completely opposite direction in terms of look, and hacked together a clever little low-tech cheat to create something that looked completely different. The resulting novelty of the look impressed them, and they were even more impressed when I told them how simply I had accomplished it.
This studio where I was hired was a place I had worshiped from afar for many years, and getting a job there was an odd mix of exhilaration and “oh crap, what have I gotten myself into”. Again, I see that I was hired on as an investment probably more than for the current quality of my work. The job took me and my wife to Los Angeles, and to compound to the surreal nature of the move, the LA branch of the studio was in a small place up in the Hollywood Hills immediately under the Hollywood sign. The studio was actually the closest structure to the sign, and if the second O in Hollywood were to become dislodged and fall over, it would have crushed my workstation.
The first feature film I worked on was probably one of the most fruitful learning experiences of my life. This was due not only to the fact that I was still new to the visual effects industry, but also because nearly everything that could happen wrong in production did, and I had a plethora of lessons in “try to make sure this never happens again”. For this feature, I was given a sequence to create in which a CG creature was to fight two actors and eventually be beaten into submission. My first “try to make sure this never happens again” lesson was that the whole sequence had already been shot before anyone knew what the creature was supposed to look like. In the footage I was given, the actors were essentially beating the hell out of what looked like an 8-foot phallus covered in greenscreen material, and I had to figure out what to put in there in place of the giant phallus. I was able to reverse-engineer a design for the creature and figure out what actions I could make it perform in order to have the fight make sense. I think what I came up with was pretty effective, although it resulted in my creature being an abysmal fighter. The creature had to make many unwise moves which always seemed to place some part of his body in the path of a punch every 20 frames or so.
Tomorrow we continue with Part 2 of The Reality of an Unreal Career.
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