Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 5 | WebReference

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 5

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn.


Animation is the most crowded field in the whole of 3D computer graphics. It seems everyone wants to be an animator, which is understandable, given its capacity for expressive storytelling. The mechanics of animation are fundamentally not too difficult. You’ll need to master the use of characters that are rigged with combinations of inverse kinematics and forward kinematics, constraints, motion graphs, and shape blending.

Few animators in film are expected to rig their own characters, so whether you can do this is wholly secondary, but if you’re going to work in a smaller boutique, you may need to become proficient at setting up joint hierarchies and deformations as well. State-of-the-art characters include rigs that make their muscles and skins move and deform in realistic ways, so depending on your studio’s expectations, you’ll have to build such complex rigs, animate characters that use them, or both.

The real prerequisite for being an animator is an almost intuitive grasp of the fundamental principles of animation and the ability to tell a story and elicit an emotional response with animation. In short, your characters need to be first-rate actors. Some studios require a demonstrated knowledge of these skills in software such as Maya, but if you want to be an animator at Pixar, one of the premier animation studios, your technical skills and what you’ve done in 3D are almost an afterthought. Consider what Pixar’s recruiting manager, Sangeeta Prashar, looks for in an animator’s reel:

A comprehensive understanding of animation fundamentals—a good sense of weight, timing, movement, and acting ability should be reflected in the characters. Computer animation is helpful but not necessary. Your reel should also reflect a storytelling sense.



If you want to become a well-rounded animator who works on mostly physical animation (like cars, trees swaying, dancing pasta, talking cows, etc.), you should look toward the television or gaming industries first. These jobs require a well-versed ability to rig and animate your own objects (including some character work, but usually not much) and deal with some particle animation and environment effects typical of a generalist’s calling.

If you want to specialize in character for film, however, you’ll want to sharpen your traditional animation skills as well as CG character work. This is the hardest animation niche to get into as it’s a very coveted position. Whether you’re aiming for TV, games, or film, however, you will need a solid reel of nothing but character animations.

Technical Direction

Few schools teach technical direction as a course of study. The film studio technical director is typically a 3D technician with a command of both the art of 3D and the technical tools used to drive the process.
A TD needs a wide breadth and keen depth of knowledge of the entire 3D pipeline. In modeling, TDs are required to analyze and repair problem geometry, as well as to create expressions to generate geometry on-the-fly. For example, a TD might create a script to automatically generate dynamic air hoses that move in synch with an animated space creature, or to animate the displacement of surfaces to create the effect of a giant sand worm burrowing under the ground.

In texturing, a TD might be required to write a complex shader to make a metal surface appear to corrode under the influence of dripping acid or to solve a problem with tearing seams along the NURBS edges of an animated character. What it takes to be a great TD depends a lot on who you talk to and how a specific company structures the role, which makes it even more important to be an accomplished and well-rounded artist-technician. Craig Lyn, CG supervisor at London’s Frame Store, wishes TDs had more artistic and technical balance.

The great failing of ILM is that they haven’t been hiring enough people with an artistic background. They’ve been hiring a lot of people with a very technical computer sciences background. And it needs to be a balance between the two. Someone with a good eye, and also someone with a good technical background. We have TDs that are amazing artists who have someone sit there and run their shots for them. On the other hand, you have people who can write amazing programs and tools, but can’t paint worth a damn. It’s a hard balance between the two.


Andrew Pearce, Pipeline Supervisor at ESC, sees the TD as a more technical role:

It doesn’t always necessarily involve scripting. We have some tools to make it more of a UI scripting. But they still have to understand what’s going on in those scripts. And if they have the ability to script, it makes it easy for them because if they have something they have to do that’s very specific to their shot, they can make that script. They don’t have to rely on someone else to provide it for them. So the TD is really a technical position.


Most dynamic simulations are created by effects animators, who are essentially animation-specific TDs. Such animators create explosions, smoke, fire, and weather-system effects and are often responsible for the animation of hard surface objects, such as vehicles, which are more dependent on physics than on the 12 principles of character animation. This requires a command of expressions and MEL Scripting, as well as the dynamics toolbox.

TDs also use scripting extensively to build interface components and workflow tools and to move around the large amounts of data generated in any 3D environment. To streamline the flow of data in a production pipeline, TDs need a working understanding of the relevant operating systems, which might be a mix of Unix, IRIX, Linux, Windows, and the Mac OS.

Although there are TDs who deal primarily with the art end of the production process, others spend most of their time writing scripts and software. Scripting tools, including MEL in Maya, Perl, and other scripting languages, batch scripting, and even C or C++ are necessary components of the TD’s toolbox.

In games, TDs, often called technical art directors, have similar roles, although they are engaged in getting data into games rather than into rendered images and must make sure the art and animation created for a game can work well within the game engine.

Character TDs are also an increasingly important position. They build the complex rigs that are used to control a character, whether the motion is generated through motion capture or by a keyframe animator. As character animation becomes a more vital part of games and film, the demand is soaring for character TDs with knowledge of muscle deformation systems and highly detailed facial animation controls. Character TDs also handle the rigging of objects such as vehicles and other props that may have to interact with characters or environments.


Rendering is a technical director’s domain. The goal of rendering is to take all of the elements of a 3D scene—geometry, textures, lights, animation, and backgrounds—and to render them into a single image or series of animated images that fulfill the vision of the director.

In modern film studios, rendering is usually done with advanced rendering systems that work in conjunction with the 3D animation software, typically Mental Image’s Mental Ray, or Pixar’s RenderMan, or SplutterFish’s Brazil. These renderers support highly realistic lighting models and are designed to work seamlessly with mammoth render farms.

Rendering requires an understanding of 3D lighting, shaders, and textures, as well as the rendering tools and the almost endless minutia that are used to configure these systems. For example, film renderings are often done in many passes to generate layers that are ultimately composited in programs like After Effects, Shake, Inferno, or Combustion.

Rendering for television work is often part of the job of the TD or CG artist working the shot because many CG artists in TV take a shot from beginning to end, and some even composite the results themselves. Rendering in this case can be done through primary animation applications like Maya’s Renderer or Mental Ray for Maya or through an external renderer like RenderMan. In television, however, rendering is less of the pipeline step it is in film work and more a general part of the CG artist’s workflow. The renders are then composited or handed off to the compositing team for integration and finishing.

In games, rendering is often an intermediate step in the texture mapping process. Real-time 3D games don’t use advanced rendering effects, such as radiosity or global illumination. Instead, all rendering in real-time 3D games is done in real-time by the 3D hardware, through the game engine. On the other hand, games like Maxis’s SimCity 4 rely heavily on prerendered artwork that rivals the quality of film rendering.

Although rendering presents similar challenges in most 3D software, it’s not really a fundamental skill, like drawing or composition. Rendering is a highly technical process that requires some in-depth knowledge of each renderer and how it works, combined with an eye for the ultimate finished result. One of the best ways to learn the art of rendering in depth is to find your way into a job as render wrangler (see Chapter 2), where you’ll be required to manage the countless details of render jobs.

The first thing I’ll look at is at the bottom of the resume. Software and skill set. I’ll look for programs that we’re using. You need to know Maya, RenderMan, MTOR [Maya to RenderMan]. That’s what I’m looking at. A lot of other companies are looking for things such as XSI or Mental Ray, but for the stuff we’re doing, a lot of people are heavily into RenderMan.


Created: March 27 2003
Revised: April 9, 2004