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So, You Want to Be a Digital Artist

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Pursuing a career as a digital artist starts with getting the right education and finding a mentor to guide your path. From there, it's a matter of how, when, and where to showcase your abilities to prospective employers. In this article, art director and industrial designer Duane Loose gives you some practical tips on interviewing, creating a reel, and landing that first job.
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Creating digital content for games, feature films, and TV is outrageously fun. From the viewpoint of the outside observer, it looks like we are having a ball and getting paid well to play—and, in many respects, we are. However, the day-to-day life of a digital artist is also full of intense and focused creativity, hard work, production deadlines, and so on. I have no complaints, of course! However, there are some realities about the biz that I think you should know if you want to be an artist creating digital content.

Good advice is hard to find. It's also sometimes hard to accept, especially if it doesn't fit into our own preconceived notions or if it's not the easy answer we were hoping to get. I have grown to trust advice that's based on straight talk and realistic expectations. Watching my fellow artists struggle to find their own path reminds me of my own struggle and search for intelligence to light my way. This also reminds me that I have an obligation to share what I know. So here's some free advice, worth every penny you'll pay for it.

First Things First: Education

The first step in becoming a digital artist is to become a traditional artist. There is no substitute for a foundation of traditional skill or the study and mastery of time-honored artistic principles. This isn't a new concept in preparing for a career in entertainment; it's universally acknowledged, as shown in this excerpt from Pixar's Web site (with some bold type added for emphasis:

In choosing an animation-related school, look for one that focuses on traditional skills, drawing, painting, sculpture, cinematography .... Look for a school that has not substituted electronic arts for traditional (or vice versa) ... concentrate on the more expressive traditional skills.

To put a finer point on the concept, Ed Catmull, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Pixar, was asked what the most important skills for professional artists and animators to possess in the coming decade would be. His answer was this:

Fundamental art and science skills: drawing, color, composition, lighting, study of motion. Every studio encounters people who think they can become an artist without developing those skills. Wrong. (Excerpt from an article by author Ted Greenwald, January 2000 3D magazine.)

It is very clear that the successful digital artist must have an intense and abiding devotion to the mastery of traditional skills. Be an artist first and realize that the digital arts are nothing more than another set of tools to express yourself as you pursue the artist's way. Don't rely on the power of your computer tools to compensate for a deficiency of fundamental artistic ability.

Computer Science

It is indeed important to be a traditional artist first, but traditional artists have also always been technologists, inventing and creating new techniques and processes to achieve their artistic vision. Digital artists are no exception. In addition to traditional skills, you must understand and, in some cases, master the technology behind the tools that you'll be using. A working knowledge of computer programming (C++, Unix shell scripts, and so forth) used specifically for procedural and expression-based animation and rendering is fast becoming a requirement for artists desiring to become digital animators.

Combining the traditional skills of design, painting, sculpture, cinematography, and so on with the technology and science of computer programming creates a powerful foundation for your work as a digital artist. Finding a course of study that formally acknowledges this might be difficult. But if your school doesn't include computer science in your program, you can always take the classes on your own. The same holds true for classes in cinematography, acting, costume design, sound design and so forth—all are core skills that you'll be using in your work as a digital artist. It's the end visual result that ultimately counts, and the process to achieve it is relying increasingly on computer science tools.

Anatomy, Physics, and Engineering

From time to time, I've been asked to talk to young people contemplating their future in digital art. They are usually surprised (and often disappointed) when I ask them how their math and science classes are going. "But all I want to do is make cool pictures!" they say. "Why do I have to know all that science junk?"

Creating believable digital content requires that you understand the properties and effects of gravity, momentum, inertia, friction, fluid dynamics, and so on. Knowledge of mechanical engineering principles and a thorough understanding of physics and mathematics are absolutely necessary. For example, the more you understand about mechanical linkage, sliding and rotational joints, power transmission, and so forth, the more realistic your machines will be. The same holds true for the anatomy and kinesiology of humans and animals.

It's not necessary to be a master of all these fields of scientific endeavor. However, a thorough understanding of the concepts, principles, and vocabulary will provide you with a sold foundation to build on. Don't ignore the hard sciences! When you are at a loss on how to proceed in any given animation task, the knowledge contained in the sciences will point the way and save your artistic vision (not to mention your job)!

Still want to be a digital artist? Knowledge itself is not enough. You must also seek, cultivate, and nurture a curious and rare relationship.

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