J. Paul Peszko talks with the recruiters at top animation and visual effects studios regarding the intangibles that will help land you your dream job.
This month VFXWorld takes a look at the job market. One would naturally assume that recruiters at major animation studios and vfx houses would focus on an artists knowledge of craft, experience and creativity. But theres more. Having surveyed top recruiters in the industry, I discovered there are qualities that I call the intangibles, which are equally, if not more important, than the tangible ones. These are things like a keen sense of story, strong acting skills, a sense of humor, communication and teamwork. Heres how recruiters from six leading studios responded to my survey.
1. What do you look for in terms of training and experience when recruiting 2D artists?
Stan Szymanski, svp digital production, Sony Pictures Imageworks: Before I answer this question, I need to clarify which artist's skill-sets I am referring to when discussing 2D. In the digital production department at Imageworks, 2D refers to artists and supervisors who specialize in image compositing, rotoscoping, texture map creation, painted alterations to photographic images and matte painting. This is different from the world of animation, where 2D has a much different meaning.
The production schedules that drive my recruiting process for artists often requires that I recruit those individuals with a few years of experience on related and/or relevant projects. In other words, when looking to recruit 2D compositors for Ghost Rider, I seek artists with a few years of experience in motion pictures, preferably live-action-based, effects-heavy films. I am also looking at the aesthetic content and quality of the imagery, the specific type of software and production pipeline that was used and the types of projects the artist has worked on.
An educational background in the aesthetics and technology of image creation is a definite plus, but not essential. It is really the quality of the imagery shown on their demo reel, the process used to create this imagery and their communication and teamwork skills that determine who we look to bring on board.
Karen Chelini, recruiting manager, Pixar: When we look at anybody, whether its 2D or 3D work, were actually looking for the exact same qualities. For example, if its an animator, were looking for someone that has an incredible sense of acting skills, acting ability, and, whatever were looking at, were moved by whether it makes us smile or tugs at our heart strings. Thats what were looking at more than anything else. Were also looking for subtleties. Were not looking for movement thats over the top.
Barbara McCullough, recruiting manager, Rhythm & Hues Studios: When you say 2D artist, I assume that you are referring to traditional animators. Whether a traditional or computer animation artist, we require a demo reel that shows that the applicant has mastered the mechanics of animation, demonstrated strong acting skills and has examples of lip-syncing. We want to see a diversity of style ranging from highly realistic motion to more exaggerated cartoony style. Whatever the training or experience, the applicant's reel needs to show this.
If we talk about experience, then the applicant should have a minimum of two years professional experience. Please note that a traditional animator will need experience with 3D animation software in order to work in our environment. We use our in-house proprietary software for animation.
Chris Burns, co-head of 2D at Double Negative, London: We are always looking for 2D artists of all levels, so the range of training/experience varies. There are typically two routes into the visual effects industry, working your way up through the ranks of runner and data ops, training on spare machines in your spare time, or completing a course at a training school or university.
For an entry level rotoscope artist, we would expect to see at least six months previous experience either as a rotoscoper or a runner who has completed a few shots in their spare time. If you decide to complete a training course, then you would typically be taken on at a rotoscope level.
We like to take on junior compositors from our pool of rotoscope artists as the line between roto and junior comp is quite blurry. Our roto team will tackle wire removals and simple composites before they move into the junior comp team. The reason we typically don't recruit at the junior comp level is that there is a lot to learn, and every shot is different to the last. It's very important that our supervisors know the strengths and weaknesses of all the members of their team. That only happens when they've worked together for a while, so we like to invest in our junior staff so we can allocate work in a way that we get the best out of all the team.
We would consider recruiting at junior compositor level from a three-year degree course if a candidate shows sufficient skill and knowledge through their show reel and interview.
Once you have about two to three years compositing experience, your show reel and production history counts for everything and you should have varied enough experience to be hired as a mid level compositor.
Lara Hopkins, Sydney studio manager for Rising Sun Pictures, Australia: We look for a combination of hands on compositing experience using Shake on film projects, as well as people who are a good cultural fit for RSP. There isn't a minimum amount of years experience or set training that we require, we like to have a variety of skills and backgrounds in our teams. Culturally we like to find people who are interested in working in small teams, with leaning towards a generalist ethos and a good sense of humor!
Tony Hurd, production operations manager, The Orphanage, San Francisco and Los Angeles: In both cases (2D and 3D) we look for candidates with a solid understanding of the technical requirements of the position (e.g. the software required to complete any particular task) and a demonstrated aesthetic. Feature film experience is frequently a requirement as well because it's important that the candidate can demonstrate the ability to produce photoreal work.
2. What do you look for in terms of training and experience when recruiting 3D artists?
Kathy Mandato, DreamWorks Animation's head of human resources: We look at the portfolio or reel of the artist first to evaluate their aesthetic skills. If their aesthetics are strong, they'll very likely make it into the reel or portfolio review.
We prefer to have people with technical knowledge and experience with multiple software packages because they are more likely to pick up on our proprietary software quickly. For some of the more technical departments, degrees in computer science give a candidate an edge.
We look for personal drive and a passion for the art. If a candidate has won awards, this is usually an indicator that they have pushed the artistic envelope and would continue to do so at DreamWorks.
Stan Szymanski, Sony Pictures Imageworks: Its the same answer as number one (2D and 3D). The production schedules that drive my recruiting process for artists often requires that I recruit those individuals with a few years of experience on related and/or relevant projects. Again, an educational background in the aesthetics and technology of image creation is a definite plus, but not essential. It is really the quality of the imagery shown on their demo reel, the process used to create this imagery and their communication and teamwork skills that determine who we look to bring on board.
Karen Chelini, Pixar: Its the same (2D and 3D) because, honestly, regardless of whether its 2D or 3D anybody coming to Pixar has to learn our proprietary tools. So, the fact that someone comes from the 2D world or the 3D world thats not the driver. Its the quality of their animation. Can they convey feelings? Can they convey soul in whatever theyre animating? Thats what were after.
Barbara McCullough, Rhythm & Hues: Because the work within Rhythm & Hues is compartmentalized, we look for artists who specialize in specific disciplines, such as: 3D character animation, lighting, effects, modeling, etc. For example, in a 3D lighter, we look for a strong understanding of how light interacts with various types of materials and the qualities of realistic textures; how light affects mood; contrast; color value; and believability within various types photo-realistic styles. We look for this in portfolios and primarily in demo reels.
The demo reel is the calling card - the key to showing us what they can do. As we work with a visual medium, we have to see an example of work. It also shows us the strength of their sense of aesthetics and problems solving skills. Without the demo reel, we can't judge ability or project how well an individual will perform on our projects.
So, technical ability, aesthetic eye and problem solving skills are important but they aren't the only things we look for in potential employees. Additionally, we look for those who are good communicators, team-players and who are committed to quality and life-long learning.
Rhythm & Hues has a very unique company culture and environment. We were founded by computer graphics artists and programmers, who understand what it takes to do our work. Therefore, we feel that the people who work for us are a reflection of that culture and we do all that we can to foster respect for those who work for us.
In terms of experience, normally, we look for artists with minimally two years professional experience but we do hire recent graduates. Through our apprentice program, we seek recent grads or those otherwise new to the industry who show the ability and talent to learn our proprietary software within a short period of time, work in a collaborative environment, and manifest a strong work ethic. They work on shots similar to what they would do in actual production. Those who successfully complete the apprentice program may be offered a position.
Dayne Cowan, co-head of 3D for Double Negative: This is a very diverse area. There are many specialized roles in the field, which cover the needs of character animation, creature animation, effects, lighting, matchmove, R&D and so on. We recruit across all of these disciplines and at all different levels, from entry level to senior supervisors. We also are very interested in recruiting people with a broad skill base in 3D, and in helping people to get experience in areas that they would like to go forward in. Like most other companies, our needs are typically project driven, so the sorts of roles that we will be looking to fill at any given time will depend on the work that we have in house. At entry level, we realize that people may not have much, if any, production experience, so we look instead at their potential and enthusiasm for the industry. At the mid to senior levels, we look closely at their previous film experience and background. When recruiting we usually first consider the talent in the U.K., but we do consider people from all over the world. This is reflected in the composition of our current crew, which is truly multi-national.
Lara Hopkins, RSP: At RSP we work across many 3D software packages, from Maya, XSI and Houdini. We look for artists who are technically and creatively skilled, and ideally who have experience in film, but not exclusively. Those who are genuinely interested in teamwork and are comfortable working with a generalist approach are welcome. A cultural fit to RSP is always as important to consider along with technical and/or creative skill.
3. Do you require knowledge and experience with any particular software or operating system for 3D artists/technicians?
Stan Szymanski, Sony Pictures Imageworks: This varies greatly, depending on the project I am hiring for and that project's production schedule. If we have the luxury of time for re-training, we will make our hiring decision primarily on the aesthetic content of the work presented and assume a specific training regimen on relevant software. If time is short, we seek to have candidates meet our aesthetic requirements while having relevant experience in specific software applications.
Kathy Mandato, DreamWorks: We use mostly proprietary software and, as a result, offer advanced internal training. So its not mandatory to have any specific software or operating system knowledge to join the DreamWorks organization. However, since our proprietary software contains some similarities to the top software on the market today, there are many commercial applications where specific experience may give a candidate an edge. Linux, Photoshop, Maya, and Houdini are recurring examples. Classically trained artists with CG experience continue to stand out in the character animation department. Perl or Python scripting knowledge would distinguish candidates for our more technically focused positions.
Karen Chelini, Pixar: All artists, whether 2D or 3D, coming to Pixar receive training in Pixars proprietary tools. So, the fact that someone comes from the 2D world or the 3D world thats not the driver. Its the quality of their animation. Can they convey feelings? Can they convey soul in whatever theyre animating? Thats what were after.
Barbara McCullough, Rhythm & Hues: Rhythm & Hues has its own Linux-based proprietary software and does use some third party software packages within our pipeline. We always ask applicants to provide us with information on the software and operating systems they have knowledge or experience using. From there we look at how the software packages have functionalities that are in ways similar to our own software and how well the applicant executes creation of work using 3rd party software packages. Usually, if they do well with other packages, they can work well using our software.
Dayne Cowan, Double Negative: We are predominantly a Maya facility, so experience with that package is highly desirable. Having said that, it's not absolutely essential. We have taken on people in the past with experience in other 3D packages and provided in house training on Maya. For entry level matchmove positions, any experience with boujou, 3dEqualiser or pftrack puts you at an advantage. Certain roles require the use of other support software, such as Photoshop, RenderMan and ZBrush, so it all depends on what you are applying for.
Chris Burns, Double Negative: Not especially. Double Negative (as with most London film facilities) is based around Shake on Linux for compositing, but it is more about the techniques and skills rather than a particular software experience. Any node based compositing software experience will be desirable; however. we have taken on artists who have only worked with layer based compositing software, such as Flame, Inferno or After Effects, and have given in house training on Shake. The techniques are transferable. We use our own in-house software, Noodle, for rotoscoping, but this is spline-based just like any rotoscope tool.
Lara Hopkins, RSP: At RSP we don't work exclusively with any software package, all vfx industry standard software packages are used (Maya, XSI, Houdini etc). We are most interested in the artists driving the packages, and are led by them about which packages are best to use.
Tony Hurd, The Orphanage: The majority of our 3D work is done in Maya, Houdini, and 3ds Max. Our primary renderer is Brazil, and our primary compositing tool is Adobe After Effects, though we strive to keep our pipeline flexible enough to be able to use the appropriate tool for the job.
4. Do you provide any in-house training for animation and/or vfx artists and technicians?
Barbara McCullough, Rhythm & Hues: We expect our employees to be trained aesthetically before we hire them. "New Hires" training, therefore, covers the basic operation of our in-house proprietary software, as well as any job specific pipeline information.
Kathy Mandato, DreamWorks: Yes. DreamWorks maintains a diverse and robust set of training programs. Each program is designed to transition artists and technicians into our advanced proprietary production environment. Although our newly hired artists typically have feature-film experience, many of our top artists have come from other sectors of the industry, such as games or television, or even directly from school. As a result, DreamWorks training programs are specially developed to amplify the talents of the veterans and heighten the potential of the newcomers.
Chris Burns, Double Negative: At present we like to have an informal approach to training. We don't departmentalize in terms of seating. So, we seat a team of artists made up of roto, comp and 3D artists together in a room who are going to be working on a sequence. This means that you are sitting next to people with varied experiences, so it encourages learning from each other. Compositors are responsible for the rotoscope artists assigned to their shot, so you always have someone to ask for help and advice and to learn from.
Dayne Cowan, Double Negative: Double Negative has a lot of proprietary tools, and we provide training on how to use those through a series of recently started workshops. This is all supported by documentation stored on our intranet. We've also previously sent crew on external training courses for packages such as ZBrush. At the moment we are growing quite rapidly, and strengthening the amount and type of training that we provide in-house will be a focus for us over the next few months.
Tony Hurd, The Orphanage: We do not have a training department per se, but every new artist is given a thorough orientation and assigned a personal mentor. There is also extensive documentation on our intranet.
Karen Chelini, Pixar: When people first join the company, they go to Pixar University. Then, depending on the need of the show were assigning them to or actually the discipline theyre in will dictate whether theyre in a two week or four week training. Thats just to learn our tools. Then they may also get additional training to learn stylistically the types of characters or things theyre going to be animating to keep them consistent with the quality of our films because our films vary quite a bit. So, well train our folks to learn to animate in the style that were trying to achieve as well. Its kind of two-fold.
Our technical directors layout folks, lighting, our character people those roles are very, very creative. So, theres a blend of people that understand creatively and visually the look that were after, but maybe the tools they use might be a little more technically inclined. Sometimes they need to be able to solve problems on their own, and that sometimes means having a technical bent. So, we will train and look for people that have both of those qualities as well.
We train extensively and offer other learning or training opportunities along the way. For example, we may have individuals that start in shading, but we offer lighting classes to see if some of those individuals have the ability to transfer their skills to a new discipline like lighting. It just makes them that much more marketable within our studio if they can work on one part of the show where theyre doing shading and, maybe down the road, if were now doing lighting passes, they can do lighting. Its to our benefit, and its really a rewarding situation for our employees.
Stan Szymanski, Sony Pictures Imageworks: We always expect to provide in-house training for incoming artists and tailor their training regimen to an individual's experience as well as the requirements of their assigned production. All of our in-house training is geared toward getting an artist on the show as quickly as possible while maximizing their potential for success in their new home.
Our training program is on going. In addition to new hire training, we also have extensive offerings in all aspects of an artist's career path including personal and team management as well as artistic and technology skills development.
In addition to Stan Szymanski, I also heard from Sande Scoredos, Imageworks exec director of training and artists development, regarding the Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence (IPAX) program. Currently there are eight member schools participating in the program: University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, De Paul University School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems, Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Otis College of Art and Design, Pratt Institute, Ringling School of Art & Design, Carnegie Mellon Ent. Technology Center and Stanford University Program in Film and Media Studies.
Would you briefly describe the IPAX program for us?
The IPAX Fellowship program is offered twice a year for faculty of IPAX member schools. We offer faculty the opportunity to visit Imageworks for two to four weeks and to be part of our community. Each faculty member is enrolled in a series of training classes to learn about our standard tools, techniques and production practices. These are the same exact classes required of all our employees. We want our IPAX faculty to have the same training that any new experienced employee would take The most important part of this whole program is for the faculty to take the knowledge that they learn back into their own classrooms and incorporate it into their own course content. But the program does not end when the four weeks end. We expect the IPAX faculty to grow and keep in touch with all the people they meet at Imageworks, to know if they have a question, if they need advise, they have a network of experienced professionals they can call.
What kinds of classes are offered to IPAX faculty?
A typical series of classes might include an understanding of our directory setup, standardizations, naming conventions, data tracking, and LINUX operating systems. They would also take classes in 3D animation, modeling, character setup and lighting. We would also encourage them to take life drawing, film studies, scripting, production and a variety of special classes we may be offering that week. Once they have a good understanding of the techniques and the tools we use for production, we assign them to an area of the facility to learn more in-depth about production.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.