Due to the state of the 3D industry there’s been a major shift in the last few years towards Generalists, and I’ve found this to be especially true for the commercial industry. Not too long ago when I first moved to LA a lot of places would turn generalists away because they just didn’t know what to do with an artist of that type. The industry had become accustomed to thinking of artists as being a cog in a wheel, and if you were hired to texture paint you were going to texture paint at that company for the rest of your life end of story. There was very little opportunity for movement in terms of being able to float from department to department, or project to project unless you were relentless or special or both. Then LA imploded, and the landscape changed almost overnight it seemed. A lot of insanely talented people that had spent the last ten+ years doing one thing extremely well were now finding it nearly impossible to find work because they didn’t have the ability to use multiple disciplines. The good news for many of those people is that there is now an open playing field for those willing to adjust to the times. We’re seeing the dawn of the Generalist age, some see uncertainty, but I see opportunity.
Being a generalist is a good thing these days. Not only does it pay more, but being a generalist is job security in my opinion. Job Security being your ability to get another job. For instance the first time I got a gig at a Studio in LA I was brought in to model stadiums for a duration of about 2 weeks. While on that gig I would overhear artists around me on other projects having problems with A or B, and I would pop over and offer to help. I got pulled into multiple projects and wound up staying for close to three months beyond my original booking dates BECAUSE I could do more than one thing. In the end I worked on about 8 different commercials in 5 different roles. I would model for a few days on project A, then light for three days on project B, and texture on C so on and so forth.
Being a good generalist means much more than knowing multiple software packages and disciplines though, it means knowing your part in the pipeline, and how it affects your fellow artists up/down stream as well. You have a responsibility to not only pull your own weight but to help your fellow artists work be the best it can be by giving them the best assets to work with. You could have modeled the most amazing elf warrior the world has ever seen, but if your UV’s are crap and your topology is nasty you probably just screwed over both the texture artists and the animators. You could have lit and textured the perfect scene, but if you didn’t properly set your project and work within the proper naming conventions and folder structure of the pipeline the people trying to render your scene will have a nightmare trying to debug it. Having to come in on a weekend to track down textures that are rendering blank because some guy used a non network accessible desktop folder can make for some uncomfortable glances across the lunch room.
I find points like these are missing from the endless online discussions of “what software should I use”, and “how can I get a job” etc etc. There is just soo much more to being an asset vs. a liability than having talent artistically in one software package or another. If you want to stand out from the mass of undulating hoards begging to work for free, you need to ask yourself… Do I know how to work linear? Do I know the difference between a linear .exr and a rec709 .exr, and what it means to the Flame artist that will be comping my work? What’s a Flame artist?! Do you know linux? Can you find your way around a command line? You might look pretty silly on your first day asking the guy next to you for help because you don’t know how to open Maya on your workstation! Don’t waste time debating things like V-ray vs Mental Ray Vs Arnold, but rather take the time to learn ALL of them! Multiple times I have shown up to a gig that was supposed to be done in Mental Ray that got switched last minute to Vray, or started Vray and switched to Arnold, or used Vray and Arnold simultaneously!! In each case had I not taken the time to learn each and every one of them, I would have lost the booking. The more you know, the more bullet proof you become. Don’t be a software fanboy, it’s all about the right tool for the job.
In the end I’d say the best course of action to be a better generalist, or artist for that matter, is to look at the talent around you. Quickly identify the people that are smarter than you, and discretely become their shadow. There is no better training for the job you want than absorbing all the knowledge you can from the person currently doing it. Having a good social game can help you skyrocket up the working ranks almost as fast as being a genius of an artist can. An old cliché comes to mind that I believe is absolutely true, “Who you know is almost as important as what you know.”, and “Luck is often times just preparation meeting opportunity.” I’ve landed more work from referrals of friends I’ve made on the job than any resume I ever sent out, and I make it an active practice to return the favor to great artists I come across. So get out there and network, go to user group meetings, go to tech talks etc. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. If you’ve sent out over 500 resumes and haven’t heard a peep, why keep doing it?
The only thing that can stop someone from being a success in this industry is themselves. There is a wealth of available knowledge out there on just about every discipline you can imagine. It may not get you a job tomorrow, or the next day, but if you sit down and start training today you’ll be amazed how far along you’ll be three months from now. If you use your time wisely, have a thick skin, and don’t take no for an answer it’ll all come out in the wash.