What can people expect from working in the industry?
Well, if you find the right employer or clients, for many years you won't even consider it work but being in the playground and I'm not joking.
Having said that, on a slightly more serious note, expect long days and repetitive tasks and occasionally difficult clients.
Try to see the bigger picture; you don't just create pretty images/animations but a marketing tool that is supposed to sell a design or product, which will require developing a certain amount of business thinking. Also, learn a flexible approach towards issues. Just because you think or even know that what you created is correct and beautiful it doesn't necessarily mean that it serves its purpose or meets the client's requirements in its current form. Put that version you like in your portfolio but address those comments too. For the sake of your next project, if you know what I mean.
Just enjoy being an artist and always try to impress with your work. When you will see the positive reactions and the appreciation it will make all your efforts worthwile.
What are the key things that a great portfolio must have?
A proper breakdown pdf. In my opinion this might be the most important non-creative part. Keep it short and concise, but give enough information about what your role was, what software you used, was it your work only or a team effort. Just be honest, it's crucial. Also, no need to over-do it, but give credit where credit is due. For example if you look at my work there is hardly a recent project in it I did only on my own. Even a car brochure still image shows the work of an Art Director for the concept and of a Photographer for the backplate/HDRI.
Approaching the question from the artistic direction, use your best stuff only! Don't put anything on display just to fill a gap or to make it longer because your reel is shorter than the ones you saw. When you go through your work, ask yourself the question, am I proud of this piece? If yes it goes in, if not, keep working on it or forget it.
The most important question employers ask; why should I hire this guy? You need to have a portfolio that answers this question and secures that first interview. Make it original, make it stand out.
What is your current workspace like?
Layout wise it's pretty standard. Usual 2 monitor setup, a fairly large Wacom tablet Which took some to get used to by the way. In my first foolish effort to try it, I was navigating between folders and one suspiciously disappeared. It turned out I moved about 8Gb data in 2 seconcds. Even to date, I have no idea how I did it but it took about 2 hours to find and restore it! Since then the rule is: Windows-mouse, Artwork-Wacom. Highly recommend it.
What is great about my workplace is the fact that I see other's monitors. It allows me to see projects other than mine, to ask about those or give advice and more importantly to pick up new tricks.
Where would you like to be in five years' time?
I think I am guilty of not setting this kind of goal enough, though in retrospect I think I should have. Still not too late though :)
Having the experience and the drive, I would like to run a CGI department again, being surrounded by really talented artists who strive continuously to get better, which is an excellent recipe to stay ahead of the competition.
I need to be challenged on a daily basis, hence I am really into problem solving, talent and product development. I am in my element when I am dealing with difficult artistic and managerial tasks.
If in 5 years' time I can say that this is exactly what I've been doing, I'll be happy :)
Looking back with the benefit of your experience, are there are things you wish you had done differently, in terms of your career?
Of course, but I don't think there are any major decisions, I am quite happy with how things have turned out so far. I have worked in four countries so far, experienced various fields within the CGI industry, learning and seeing a lot.
Having said that, I am never happy to sit back. It may sound like a paradox but pursuing the happiness and satisfaction makes me happy. It is what moves me forward. Having this drive, working on the next challenge and continually developing is exactly what makes me happy.
Also, I tend to approach this question the other way round -what am I going to do differently and better next time? I like to promote this kind of thinking when it comes to artwork too. What will I improve next time? I always ask this same question when I have to critique a project or a portfolio.
If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to break into the industry, what would it be?
Do not be shy to ask.
Ask for opinions about your portfolio before sending it out, ask technical questions instead of trying too hard and wasting time, approach potential employers, supervisors and directors, ask for a meeting and about possible openings, about their opinion about your work, what would they like you to improve. Take everything on board and get in touch again.
This approach will paint a long lasting positive image about you and sooner or later will pay off.
Feel free to get in touch on LinkedIn if you have any specific questions.
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