Career Advice: Working as a Freelance 3D Artist

Career Advice: Working as a Freelance 3D Artist

After completing his studies at Billy Blue College of Design at Torrens University Australia, Ryan Ricketts emerged as a Freelance 3D Artist. In this article he shares his journey and advice for aspiring artists seeking a dynamic career.

After completing his studies at Billy Blue College of Design at Torrens University Australia, Ryan Ricketts emerged as a professional 3D Artist. After taking the leap to travel the world, he found himself exploring work as a Freelancer specialising in Unreal Engine. In this article he shares his journey and advice for aspiring artists seeking a dynamic career like his own.

Can you share with us your journey into freelancing as a 3D artist specialising in Unreal Engine?

I have been working in Unreal Engine for over 5 years now, with the beginning of my journey as a 3D artist starting at various companies in Sydney, working across VR, Gaming and Broadcast Television. Although I worked in varying industries, all roles leveraged the power of Unreal Engine, and I began to realise how valuable my skills in this platform could be. After the height of Covid, around May 2022, my partner and I decided to leave our full time roles in Sydney and buy a one way ticket to see the world. Whilst this decision seemed daunting at the time, it forced me into the world of Freelancing, and has since shaped my career. Working remotely for global clients gave me the freedom to work in my own way and in my own time, and simultaneously broadened my scope of work and skills in a way I didn't know was possible.

What initially inspired you to pursue this career path?

I had a huge interest in Art, Design and Multimedia at school, and have always had a love of gaming in my free time, however I never really considered or explored the possibility that I could turn these hobbies into a career. After trying a few different career paths when I finished school, I realised I wanted to continue my studies, and started searching for potential courses that seemed of interest. This is when I came across the 3D Design & Animation course at Billy Blue College of Design at Torrens University Australia, and once I enrolled I never looked back.

How has your education at Billy Blue influenced your skills and approach to 3D design and animation? Are there any specific courses or experiences from your degree program that you found particularly valuable in your freelancing career?

Billy Blue played a big part in my preparation for entering the 3D industry. Aside from having specific courses that provide fundamental information to not only learn the basics but enhance your skills, the lecturers ensure that you know how to utilise what you have learnt in the real world, providing opportunities for work experience at high profile companies and helping you build your portfolio allowing you to begin your career while you are still studying.

As someone skilled in various software tools including Unreal Engine, Maya, Blender, and Substance 3D Painter, how do you approach learning and mastering new tools or techniques

Working as a 3D artist you really do learn something new everyday. With the industry changing so rapidly, and in my own personal experience working across such a large breadth of projects and verticals, utilising self learning platforms & forums is crucial to making sure you stay ahead of the new tools & techniques. Software specific forums i.e. Unreal Engine or Maya are a great place to chat with like minded individuals on any new tips and tricks, while Reddit & YouTube can provide broader education. The more you try the more you learn, so don't forget to work on your own passion projects in your free time and always test new techniques out.

Could you walk us through your typical workflow when starting a new project as a freelancer?

Although the workflow can differ depending on the freelance project at hand, there are a few best practices that I find keep myself and the client accountable. Having a clear brief with exactly what is expected and required is crucial at the start of any new project, and agreeing on work capacity / hours needs to be locked in. I am very transparent when I'm onboarding a new project, and let clients know exactly what my offering is to make sure the project is right for us both.

What advice would you give to aspiring 3D artists who are considering freelancing as a career path?

My main bit of advice is trust yourself and your creative ideas, as you are often working on your own in between client check-ins and you often don't have the luxury of waiting for other people on the project to check in.

The more you try the more you learn, so don't forget to work on your own passion projects in your free time and always test new techniques out.

Are there any challenges or misconceptions about freelancing in this field that you wish you had known earlier in your career?

The largest misconception about freelancing is the lack of job security, and whilst it is true that you may have quiet periods between work, there is so much opportunity out there to keep yourself busy, you just have to be open to it.

With your expertise in Unreal Engine, how do you leverage its capabilities to create immersive and interactive experiences for your clients?

Unreal Engine is an incredibly powerful tool for a number of different areas across multiple industries, and for an environment artist such as myself it gives you the power for real-time adjustments to projects without having to constantly render shots individually. What would usually take an hour to render a single frame with traditional software like Maya or blender, takes a fraction of the time almost instantly within Unreal.

Through my past experiences within Unreal at previous companies, we were able to use the gaming engine to provide Virtual Production services for the Winter Olympics and Fox Sports, as well as VR walkthroughs for international clients like Westfarmers and PepsiCo. If used correctly, the possibilities for Unreal are endless.  

Collaboration is often key in freelancing projects. How do you approach collaboration with other professionals such as game developers, designers, or clients to ensure successful project outcomes?

Although you can often be working individually on your own specific portion of a freelance project, collaboration is crucial to make sure all of the moving parts come together - just like at uni. Being aware of your own timelines is exceptionally important, as I will often have other teams such as animation or character rigging waiting on me to complete my section of a project before they can start their own work.

In your experience, what are some essential skills or qualities that contribute to success as a freelance 3D artist?

To succeed as a freelancer you need to be highly adaptable, and you need to remain self motivated. Contracts often work to an hourly rate, meaning that you need to ensure that you make the most of your time on that project, otherwise you may end up working late in your own time. Personally I like to schedule regular check-ins with other people who are working on the project, and commit to progress updates by certain dates to ensure I'm staying on track. I also have found that taking on larger scale projects with longer time lines ensures you can really commit to a company, and are often easier to manage opposed to working on several small freelance projects at once.

Can you share any memorable or challenging experiences from your freelancing career that have helped shape your growth as a 3D artist?

A challenge that comes to mind is a project I worked on late last year, and due to a combination of incorrect briefing from the clients side and over commitment from mine I found myself unsure if I had the specific skills to complete the project. Although there were a few difficulties in getting the project to where it needed to be, it was a good reminder to make sure you truly understand each project you take on.

Working as a freelancer there will always be setbacks, but it's good to remember that every problem you encounter will eventually turn into a solution you have created, and another bit of knowledge you can take to your next role.

Are there any specific projects or industries you're eager to explore further in your career?

Looking ahead I will absolutely continue to freelance as I love the freedom it gives me in both my personal and professional life. I have been looking into 3D architecture as an industry, and am very eager to explore this, so this is something I am hoping to work across in 2024.

You can reach out to Ryan via LinkedIn. Check out his student work via his Rookies profile here.