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More from Ron Doucet: Specializing Within Your Field

Last updated on March 17, 2010

Specializing Within Your Field

Many animation courses (including the one I graduated from) really stress to their students that they should be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’. I have always disagreed with this. From the very beginning, when I began to work in this industry, I have never seen any evidence of this being true. From all the festivals, keynotes, workshops, and lectures I have attended or participated in, and all the talks I’ve had with other studio heads, never have I heard of anyone wanting a ‘generalist’. Some colleges allow the student to eventually specialize as either a 2D or 3D animator/designer, but you need to specialize even further.

I’m not saying being a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is all bad, but most artists don’t have the time to master ALL the software and different animation techniques out there, at least not until you’ve had a few years of experience. I’d like to stress the importance of focusing on one or two different aspects of the industry, because doing this will make the quality in your work get better, and therefore you will seem more valuable to any employer. Give yourself time to master all aspects, 5, 10, 15 years of steady work and constant dedication to the craft will naturally give you experience in all facets of animation production.

As a 3D-CG artist you can focus on modeling, animation, special effects, rigging, layout, texturing/shading, lighting, compositing/rendering, cloth/hair simulations, crowd simulations, and a multitude of other technical and creative aspects. As a 2D-traditional artist you can focus on character animation, FX animation, storyboards/layout, concept art/visual development, character design, color design, BG design. There’s a long list for both fields. Choosing one or two to concentrate all your efforts on will allow you to get better at those specific elements of production.

Think about it, why would a director or producer hire someone that is kinda-good at animating and designing and storyboarding? When they can hire someone who is specialized in just ONE of these disciplines. It’s not likely that you’ll be able to become a master at ALL the different aspect of animation within the 1, 2, 3 or even 4 years of college you may be attending. Animation is an industry where you must constantly be upgrading yourself and improving yourself, college gives you a wide spectrum of different elements to explore, after a while you should choose which is your favorite, which one are you most comfortable and passionate about exploring further.

Imagine you are the recruiting officer or production manager for a television animation studio. You’ve got a contract to make 4 animated TV commercials for $30,000 each. Are you going to hire three artists (based upon their blog showcasing all their work) that are all a C+ at 3D modeling, a C+ at 2D character animation, and C+ at background design? Or will you hire one guy who’s an A+ at 3D modeling, and another guy who is an A+ at character animation? The answer is obvious. Sure, once in a while a client, director or producer will want someone to be able to do a bit of everything, but 99{f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} of the time you want specialists, and you only become a specialist when you work long and hard at that one thing to make yourself better.

This is not to say that after a few years you can’t branch out. Many assistant animators have been able to get promoted to Lead Animator or Supervising Animator. Most art directors start out as design assistants or revisionists, and eventually climb up the ladder to higher positions. Many story artists start out as layout artists or animators, and of course the list grows every year of 2D traditionally training animators making the transition to the world of 3D animation. Lots of low-budget freelance work out there requires you to do everything, design, board, animate and polish off a 30 sec. online commercial or a 2min. series pilot, simply because there’s no money to pay 12 people for 10 weeks, but rather only enough cash to pay 1 person for 10 weeks.

In a studio environment, there are many times that animation supervisors can (and must) juggle a few different things at once. One day they’re revising animation scenes, the next day their fixing technical issues with some renders, the next day their compositing backgrounds into some shots, and the next day they’re training a couple new animators. But that’s after years of moving around different departments and having the good fortune of trying different things and being fast learners. It seems the smaller the budget of the project, the more likely you’ll have people within that project wearing multiple hats. The director might design and storyboard that commercial herself. Or the animator might be asked to clean-up/paint, composite and revise his own scenes. The smaller the studio the more likely this is going to happen. The production value and overall quality level of the project can determine how specialized each department must be.

For the majority of the time the directors and production managers will want to hire specialists first, if you are in the 1{f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} of animation-trained artists that are very skilled in ALL aspects of production, than you are incredibly talented and you shouldn’t need to worry about getting a job, the work will find you! But if you are in the other 99{f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} of animation-trained artists looking for freelance and contract work from independent clients or studio managers at big companies, than you must stand out. The best way to do that, is get a blog, and showcase the stuff you’re best at, the stuff you love doing most.

I’ll conclude with this quote from Shawn Kelly, ILM Animator / Cofounder of Animation Mentor:

“At any medium-large studio (including games, TV, or feature films), an animator is hired to animate. Not to create textures or model characters or light scenes. Most bigger studios recognize that these are all skills that take decades to truly master, and that the true path to beautiful imagery onscreen is to fill the studio with expert specialists. In other words, most studios aren’t too hung up on finding people who “know a little about a lot of different disciplines.” Most feature animation productions and video game studios are looking for an artist who “knows a LOT about ONE discipline.” It’s the pairing up of these experts that results in the truly memorable work you’d see in any blockbuster film or A-list game. Of course, there is nothing wrong with dabbling in all the different disciplines available to you as a CG artist, but we generally recommend that once you’ve found which discipline you are the most interested in — be it animation or modeling or lighting or rigging or textures or whatever — once you’ve found your “true calling,” your best bet is to put the rest of that stuff aside and focus as much time as humanly possible on becoming a true expert in whatever that chosen field is.”

– Ron
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