Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 6 | WebReference

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 6

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

Other Skills

Like all industries, the 3D games, television and film world has many specialties. Some of the more common specialties are game design, Linux and Unix skills, and compositing, which each require a unique set of skills.

Game Design

Game design, contrary to what you might expect from the name, does not imply graphic design. Game designers are the unique individuals who create the game concept, puzzles, and game-play that make games fun and interesting. Often, hardcore gamers who fantasize about working in the games industry set their sights on being a game designer without actually understanding what the job entails.

To get a job as a game designer, your best hope is to establish yourself as a successful artist or engineer in the game industry. Because game development is exceedingly expensive, most game designers first hold some other well-respected position in the gaming industry before being trusted with this crucial job.

There are numerous things a game designer must know, but the exact combination of skills and aptitudes will depend both on the game company and the type of game being created. Here are some of the typical requirements:

Writing A game designer must be able to translate game concepts into clearly written documents that other members of the team can use to guide their work.

Recommend reading: Postmortems from Game Developer: Insights from the Developers of Unreal Tournament, Black and White, Age of Empires, and Other Top-Selling Games, edited by Austin Grossman. It’s an anthology of Game Developer magazine articles that have become an industry standard for learning game development best (and worst) practices. This book details what happened with the design, development, and release of many real-world games. It’s fascinating reading, and there’s nothing like learning from other people’s mistakes.

Art and graphics You must be able to guide the visual design of the game to support the theme, or, as is often the case, to maintain consistency with the expectations established by the license the game is based on.

Puzzle and game-play design This is one of the most intangible qualities to specify in a game designer. The job requires an intuitive understanding of game logic and what makes a game fun and compelling to play. This ability to create a challenging, interesting, and addictively playable game comes from studying games, playing games, and contributing to the design of games.

Marketing While game designers are subordinate to the producer in the marketing role, they do need to know what other games are on the market, which ones do well, and what makes those games successful. You can’t expect to make a good game if you don’t know what’s already out there. In addition, as a game designer, it will be your job to communicate the essence of the game to the media and, ultimately, to the consumer who may be tempted to buy it.

Management and leadership The game designer is ultimately the driving force behind creation of the game. In conjunction with the producer, the designer has to inspire the team with creative leadership and will be expected to direct the art and engineering teams to adhere to the requirements of the game design.

Programming knowledge While game designers don’t necessarily have to be programmers, they do have to understand programming well enough to direct engineers in their software development. This might mean, for example, balancing the performance demands of audio effects with the requirements for game-play and rendering quality.

Linux and Unix Platform Skills

Most 3D artists get their start working on Windows or Macintosh desktop systems using off-the-shelf 3D software such as Maya, 3ds max, or LightWave. While many studios have also standardized off-the-shelf software for most of their work, the Linux operating system has become a new standard in 3D film studios and even some boutiques. There are several reasons for this: one, it’s inexpensive, which is always a compelling argument for a business tool. Two, Linux, like all flavors of Unix, is a powerful network operating system that makes it easy to share the resources of multiple computers. This may not be so important to students, but in the film and television production environment, it’s vital to have fast, transparent access to file servers and render farms. Three, Linux also supports powerful scripting systems such as Perl and Python, shell scripting, and command-line controls. Maya, and at least some professional-level hardware accelerators, have also been ported to the platform.


A shell in computer terms has to do with a text window or command prompt that gives you access to the OS. For example, a Windows shell is called the command prompt. These shell windows merely allow you to easily and quickly access operating system commands for file maintenance and the like.

Scripting is the task of writing strings of commands together to have a batch of processes execute from the shell. This makes for an efficient way to manage large groups of files typically seen in CG production.

Similarly, Mac OS X is based on a Unix kernel and has a usually invisible underpinning in Unix that can be used to great advantage in production environments. With the advent of the 64-bit G5, which appears to have exceptionally fast performance for 3D applications, this may become increasingly important as a 3D operating system.

Many studios require a basic knowledge of Unix and/or Linux, so it’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with these operating systems before you start job hunting. For TDs, it’s not just a good idea, it’s essential. To learn the basics, simply install a copy of Linux or dig into the Unix terminal of OS X, and pick up a book to help you learn basic commands like cd (change directories), ls (list the files in a directory) and mkdir (make a directory).


Compositing is the final stage in the 3D process that merges multiple layers of rendered animation and live plates into a single cohesive sequence of film or video. Compositors have to be experts at manipulating digital images of every kind. They must also be masters of color because color matching and color balancing are an important part of the composite artist’s job.

Frequently, compositors are required to create 2D effects to complement 3D plates. For example, they might be required to animate background clouds, manipulate depth of field and motion blur, or add smoke or fire to a scene.

A number of compositing tools are used in high-end studios, such as Adobe After Effects; Discreet’s Inferno, Flint, Flame, and Combustion; Houdini Halo, and Apple’s Shake. Some studios such as Digital Domain and Rhythm and Hues rely on their own proprietary compositing programs.

Because compositors work closely with 3D artists, they’ll also need to understand at least how 3D applications are used to render scene elements into multiple layers so they can communicate problems and needs to technical directors. A sense of lighting can also be helpful for compositors to be able to effectively communicate with CG artists to get the elements properly.


Some boutiques are beginning to require that their 3D artists know how to composite their own shots. For management, this removes an entire step from the pipeline, saving some time and cost. Some film studios are also realizing that lighting artists can control their shots more precisely if they also composite them. That way they have the final image and its color correction in mind as they light the preceding scenes.

Increasingly, compositing is becoming a tool all CG artists should be familiar with on some level, if not intimately. It’s all about knowing how to put together the frame.


While there’s no clear path to educating yourself for a job in 3D, there are some basic rules you can follow. Be a generalist when acquiring art and visual storytelling skills; the more you know, the better you’ll do in any 3D career. Specialize in at least one core talent and devote yourself to perfecting that talent; all studios, whether game or television or film, are looking for people who do at least one thing exceedingly well, but have a core understanding, if not applicable skill in other areas of CG. Embrace the technology you’ll need to make your art but do not become a slave to it. 3D is a technical field, but remember that the tools change constantly and without warning; expertise in one tool cannot match a core competency in creative arts.

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: April 9, 2004