Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The reality of creative industry education, and the struggle to become employable

An old uni friend of mine wrote this in response to a newly graduated multimedia student who was having trouble finding a job and asked for some advice.

He was mostly speaking about 3D and VFX, but what he says applies all creative industry fields in my opinion.

It's groundhog day!

Every 3 months like clockwork a student or grad writes an email just like yours. Every time this happens my first though is - which half-assed school has dropped the ball here and failed to provide even a basic grounding to their students as to the reality of getting employable in this industry? Your email also suggests that you have not proactively pushed your skills far past what is taught in class, which is pretty much a requirement for landing a junior role in 3D or VFX at any studio. You cannot simply turn up to class and expect your school to teach you all you need to know, this attitude will get you nowhere.

Technically I can use Photoshop, indesign, illustrator, Flash, Aftereffects and Dreamweaver, technically I can use cinema 4d but in practice...

From an employers perspective you probably cannot use any of these programs at what they would consider a strong junior level. Your education has been generalist to the point of being irrelevant, and has given you a shallow introduction to software and skills covering 25 different job roles spanning 4 completely separate career paths.

Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator - Graphic Design
Dreamweaver and Flash - Web design
Aftereffects - VFX and Compositing
Cinema 4D - 3D production

These days all of these career paths split off into more specialized career paths even at the junior level, especially 3D. Medium to large studios want junior; animators, modellers, riggers, lighters, TD's etc etc. They want to see a showreel that demonstrates a high level of skill in just one or two areas, which is only possible if you dedicate yourself to that specialty for 6, 12 or 18 months exclusively. The same is true to a lesser extent with the other careers- junior graphic design, web and VFX roles are not generic entry level opportunities where any graduate will do- they want to see that you already have strong skills in some areas relating to that career path.

Soooo when you study all of these things at the same time you are not studying a single job role, you are studying 25 separate and distinct job roles simultaneously across 4 separate careers which is why you are likely totally unemployable at any of these roles. Students who self-specialized or who are graduating from dedicated web design, Graphic design, FX or 3D courses will have a dramatically higher level of skill in their area of focus and so will be far better choices for junior studio roles than you will be.

NO employer actually wants or expects junior staff to work across web, graphic design, 3D and VFX simultaneously- this is a delusion chased by half-assed schools who have no real comprehension of what employers want, and no interest in preparing students for the real world. Courses are created this way because it's cheap and easy for arts schools to cobble together these generalist courses from pre-existing classes, teachers and infrastructure, not because it's the best way to make a student employable. Teaching shallow introductions to multiple software packages is easy and allows teachers and students to be largely interchangeable, as opposed to teaching high level skills which requires expensive staff, serious curriculum's and dedicated students.

Employers already know that most CG and VFX education in this country sucks. They know that most schools run unfocused carpet-bombing campaigns that typically produce generalist grads who are months or years away from being employable. It is not the responsibility of the industry to clean up this mess by offering 6 months internships left right and center- it's your job to train and teach yourself to the point where you are worth employing. Also you need to realize that you are entering an extremely competitive industry where there are 4 grads for every entry level job. This is NOT an industry where just because you graduated from some course (even a good one) that means you are ready to work, or can expect to land a job right away.

Most people who graduate from 3D and VFX courses are unemployable. A high proportion of grads will never work in this industry. Your story is repeated 500 times a year, and most DLF readers can probably recite the email I'm typing right now (and yours) off by heart. It is extremely common for very talented and motivated students to spend 3, 6 or 12+ months after graduation working around the clock on their showreels before they get their first studio job. And I'm not talking about the class clown here- I'm talking about very talented and motivated people who make it into junior positions working at the feature film level. It's actually uncommon for someone to graduate and walk right into a great full time junior role at a studio. You will meet the class clown 3 years after graduation working at Bunnings.

What no'one tells you when you're in school is that it's not enough just to graduate. It's not nearly enough. Graduation means nothing. All graduation means to employers is that you passed every subject of a likely bogus curriculum, and everything else including how employable you are is a variable. Which is why recruitment of juniors at studios is all about the quality of your showreel, not your qualification. Standout students are almost always the most dedicated and proactive students who push their skills 500% past what is covered in class (literally), and they usually specialize in an area that lines up with a real focused job role, not a fantasy generalist role.

You have to self teach yourself as an aspiring artist trying for their first job in this industry, you cannot simply do your 40 hours of 3D class and expect to be ready to work. Even if you school is great, 3D and VFX (to say nothing of Graphic and web design) are simply too broad and too complex to be effectively serviced by a single course, even in 3 or 4 years. Trying to teach software and skills referring to all of these careers at once, in just 1 or 2 years, is usually a suicide mission where the only hope is aggressive self teaching or charity from an employer in the form of training after graduation.

Internships like you described are rare. NO studio is interested in taking unemployable students under their wing for 6 months whilst they continue their studies, and you are very naive and disconnected from the reality of this industry if you actually expect anyone to be interested in that deal just because you are a graduate. Graduates are a dime a dozen. There are internships available, the VFX placement scheme is a great one if you are in NSW. However the competition is so fierce for these places that the people who get them were often already employable as juniors at a feature level before they got it, and have already developed very strong skills in their chosen specialty and their showreels demonstrate this.

The best advice you can be given at this point is to choose a real-life job role that interests you and focus your time developing the skills needed to do that job role very well from day 1. DO NOT split your time over 4 separate career paths, this is the highway to fail-town. If you contacted every studio around and no'one replied that means your reel is not good enough to get peoples attention, and you need to start aggressively improving it. (Please tell me you know that a showreel is essential... if not the people running your training should be instantly fired). Do not apply to studios without marketing yourself toward a specific (and real!) job role or roles that you can demonstrate some kind of aptitude for with your showreel. No'one wants to employ a grad who knows a tiny bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing. Such people are a financial burden and require 6 months of training in specific job role(s) before they will be useful, which is a shit deal for studios.

You mentioned that you were waiting for studios to ask you to send your portfolio- remember most grads are not good enough to actually be in the running for a studio job, so don't waste their time with spam correspondence- apply with your reel/portfolio from the word go. No'one has time to waste chasing up possible leads on junior artists who will most likely turn out to suck anyway. The fact that you are not applying properly in the first place telegraphs the fact that you don't have even a basic awareness of how this industry works and how much competition you are up against, which will be a red flag to studios regarding your application.

I'm sorry to read that you were fired from your first job because you couldn't do the work at the level required. A similar thing happened to me in my first 3D job and it was a very tough experience, but it turned out to be a bump in the road that made me stronger. Hopefully you will look back a few years from now and see this as a bump in the road. I'm sure it wasn't personal, this industry can sometimes be very tough on new grads unfortunately.

A while back David posted this link to a PDF called The Core Skills of VFX which looks at what studios really want from junior staff ~ www.skillset.org There is a section in there called The VFX Core Skills Student Primer, page 9 (5) that any current or recently graduated student could learn allot from. Not to mention most schools.

I know this email might seem really harsh, but this is the reality that most people on the other side of the wall understand to be true, but most schools actively hide from their students (even if that is just a lie of omission). Unfortunately many schools survive by selling courses to students that are very disconnected from the reality of the graduate employment situation, and they rely on the ignorance of students and the complexity of the field to keep doing this year after year. Such schools keep students like you in the dark on purpose because it makes you easier to handle, less likely to ask searching questions about the time-wasting curriculum and more likely to keep signing up for additional years of training which keeps the cash flowing in.

Having said all that, many students are lazy, unmotivated and lack the passion and proactivity to make good artists anyway, and students who passively hitch their wagon to the education train and hope to be somewhere at the end of the line deserve to fail. There are too many passionate people trying to get in, and the nature of this industry is too aggressive and too demanding for such people to really make a big contribution anyway. So make sure you are not one of those people and start educating yourself in every possible way and aim to be the best junior candidate around, don't just rely on a school to teach you everything.

Good luck with everything, hope that helped and wasn't too harsh.

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