The New Rules for Artists of the 21st Century
If you think the rules are the same - you will be up for a surprise.
The 21st century has started. A while for some but not too long for most. There is a "new" industry on the rise of digital entertainment and we are part - actually in the center of it. The moment you create content you are the brought media and sucked into their new rules. In the last years of our digital age there is a shift coming. Like the highly effective production model of standardizing assembly lines which made Henry Ford changing our ways to produce consumable goods. We experience a never seen connectivity through the internet and the shareness of digital files. Your craft can reach millions of people which in return means you are competing with millions of artists.
Today everyones art and technology can be anyones - just a post away.
So what are the main ingredients to become a successful artist today?
The first thought anyone has when it comes to a profession is skill.
Can I do the job? Can I create this painting, model or software?
The more serious we are about our career the more we push ourselves to become really good. The problem is in times of the internet really good doesn't mean much. Like we compare our bodies and lifes to Instagram models we tend to compare our work now with the cinema of polished 1000 team projects or a prodigy somewhere in the world with worse education and not even a constant internet connection. The expression "There is always an asian kid who can do it better." is less of an insult (sounds like a compliment to me) but more a reflection of the Chinese education system: Copying until perfection. Someone who plays guitar since he was 3 years old, five hours a day will always outperform you. He just puts more hours into practice and is more focused on a particular goal exciting the 10.000 hours to mastery. And to be honest - we are mostly not as productive as we would like to be or think of ourselves. But what about talent? Science confirms that talent is a booster for sure but hard work will always beat talent in the mid and long run. Just because you seem to have a neck for something doesn't automatically will make you an artist. On a global scale skill becomes less reliable as a selling point since you can NEVER win against someone with more talent and more dedication.
Work smart not hard, boys!
We are not only better connected than before it is also easier to transfer to another country or work remote. Today we provide goods for others - this is the future - which means more than 77% of our work is in the service sector. So people have to know you or your company to book your services. But what if you only can get hired when you can sell yourself? What if people only want to hire a feeling because they can choose now? A feeling of competence, quality, balance, posh and self organisation while raising to the bottom searching for the cheapest option. Now they don't need to hire the artist around the corner for him being the only one they know. They can hire EVERYONE. Location is becoming less of a factor - putting aside geographical benefits like visa, education and cultural standards. Being a brand is becoming vital also in the VFX and animation industry. Of course your outstanding CV and experiences are a key factor you get hired and paid well in the first place combined with vitamin B - even in the old days. But what if most of us don't want to dive through years of mediocrity to work for our dream companies like Pixar, ILM or Framestore or on the new Star Wars, Frozen or Guardians of Galaxy (with or without James Gunn) movie? Of course we could build our way up like in the old days or we brand our way in. We only need one hit. One project, company or connection. Boom. Everyone else looks like a sucker compared to us. We now play in the big league.
But will it really make us fulfilled and excited about our jobs? Or is there something else that makes this companies and projects so successful and admirable?
3. Teamwork or Soft Skills
Not only who we work for shifted but also the way we work changed. Instead of solo or top down we are more likely to work in teams. It is becoming a recruiting cliche to search for "team player" but it is also the only way to cope with the higher demand of today's clients. Much more than anytime before the complexity of providing the given services needs a variety of skills on such high level that we mostly cannot provide all of them ourselves. Anything is googleable now while anyone is able to become an expert on any topic without excessive education but it doesn't mean that we can become experts in all of them.Teams are today's way of getting things done but team skills are not really told nor are they really learned. A lot of people I've worked with or talked to are amazing people with incredible talents and goals but they are not team players - they are followers. This is fine until you have a team problem than it becomes a reliability. One of the reasons for me to become a taker in teamwork situations in the past (see Give and Take) is to get things done. Responsibility or making decisions (for which you are reliable) are like curse words for most including leads and supervisor. The problem is if you overtake a team just to come to a conclusion it will burn you out while creating unappreciation and dismissiveness inside of your team. There is no shortcut for effective teamwork it takes time and dedication to make it work. One rule of thumb that helped me to avoid most pitfalls is:
Only work with people who are willing to listen and set in motion.
This became my mantra in staying in a giving state, having less frustration and enjoying the sometimes surprising outcomes. (I will dive into this topic more deeply in a future article.)
You know your craft, you did get hired through exposure and have a dissent enough way to handle teamwork or maybe even leadership. This should be enough, no? If you ever read or watched any of my content you know what is coming.
Now not everyone is a software or pipeline developer and neither want to become one. When I started scripting I neither enjoyed it very much nor was I: "This is a future investment." kind of person. It was just part of my media studies - thanks german education system. Luckily I felt challenged by the scripting tasks even if I didn't really cared to sit down and script something for myself. Years later I am happy that I picked up a lot of this skills and continued to push them when new challenges arrived. Working on the short film Breaking Point forced me to learn Python to provide the project with a new pipeline. Python was never on my radar until I started to work on animation and VFX films where it suddenly appeared everywhere. The short film ended up to win the team and me a VES Award 2017 and enforced me to continue my scripting journey.Through my last two years I noticed something very empowerful and influential. Even when I was working as a surfacing or lighting artist I could occasionally fall back on my scripting skills. Developer understood what I wanted and were often ego to support me since I talked their talk. I could create tools for myself to avoid repeating tedious or complicated steps and my colleagues asked me to share my scripts with them. Becoming someone who can solve problems is not only valuable it is also a very fulfilling role that helps you and others.
Your scene doesn't open? Lets try out this ...
Python for Artists
Python became a necessity in a series or film production just to cope with the smaller schedules, more complex scenes and higher demands in quality. Hundreds of files have to be renamed, build, updated, checked, republished, reviewed and communicated. This is neither a manual task for a person nor a group. Besides being boring and slow, mistakes will happen and things will break the moment your file suddenly switches from "fx_v001.ma" to "char_fx_v001.ma" or your Read node is now "read7" instead of "read007". This seems trivial but imagine the hours of finding out popping issues, fixes, communication and frustration.Learning Python is a beast in itself especially if we have to overcome our aversion of being "a scripter". Most of us are not engineers we are artists but there is a big difference between learning something from the ground up or learning something for a practical reason - being efficient. Of course you cannot avoid specific basics like variables, functions, loops and if statements. It is the life and breath of most scripting languages but you can stay focused and only learn what is really needed.
Selective Learning: The order of learning can already make the difference of how useful and fun it is. Besides the very basics anything else is dependent on your specialization. As a rigger understanding classes are important since it is the most efficient way to build a rig while understanding software architecture is not really vital. For a modeler or lighter building a basic app is more common while classes will only matter at a higher level.
Practical Examples: While new skills are always fun and challenging seeing it unfold in your work environment is sparkling. It is enchanting to see what Python can do with your model, light, shader or scene. Making examples even on the simplest terms can help you build a connection between scripting and your goal of manipulating the scene.
Teaching lists to a Rigger:
wrong: fruits = ['apple', 'banana', 'peach']
right: face = ['eye_ctrl', 'lip_upper_ctrl', 'cheek_left_ctrl']
Community: Being connected to other learners and having a mentor is essential. Having people around you on the same level keeps everything in perspective while a mentor can explain the why, how and when keeping your final goal in mind. In the end asking questions is half the path of understanding.
A new skill is never easy but it always can be fun. Anyone can pick up scripting to a degree that helps him and is still a enjoyable experience. It is only a matter of framing. If you feel intrigued now to start today have a look on my YouTube channel or browser through my or other ones content. There are some amazing stuff out there.