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Your Career in Computer Graphics: Choosing Your Specialty

This lesson is a part of an audio course Your Career in Computer Graphics by Eric Carlsen

In the last lesson, we looked at how you can continue learning throughout your career. Now, let's step back and look at how to choose your specialty.

There are many different and equally exciting areas of computer graphics to specialize in. If you're not sure which discipline is right for you, it can be helpful to reflect on your interests and personality.

First, what sorts of content do you like? If you like video games, think about which aspects are most appealing. The character and object animations? The props and environments? The visual effects? The cinematics and cut-scenes?

Perhaps you love comics and print design, or sleek, high-end vector illustrations, or compelling social media ad campaigns. Or maybe you're blown away by the visual effects in movies or artistry of full-length animated features.

After identifying something you enjoy that was created with computer graphics, it can be relatively easy to look up the specific disciplines of the people that made it. For example, to create a compelling visual effect shot in a movie, there can be quite a few roles, including concept art, storyboarding, 3D modeling and texturing, 2D and 3D rigging and animation, camera tracking, digital matte painting, compositing, and lighting and rendering.

While it helps to be creating the kind of content you already love, that's not the whole story. The workflow is also very important. There's a big difference between enjoying playing video games and enjoying making video games.

So let's reflect on your personality. Do you like working on a team or as a solo artist? Depending on the size of the company you're working for, if you're an animator or visual effects person, you may be more likely to work on a large team, whereas if you're a graphic designer or illustrator, you may be working alone or within a much smaller team.

Do you like creating beautiful images? Graphic design or illustration could be ideal, or even architectural renderings if you're more technically-minded. Additionally, if you're technically minded and love problem solving, 3D may be right up your alley, perhaps even technical art and rigging. Do you like music, timing, or acting? Animation or motion graphics could be the field for you. If you're patient and love physics, visual effects might be the right fit.

Reflecting on your interests and personality can help point you in the right direction, or at least narrow down your choices, but ultimately the only way to know is to get hands-on experience.

I started school with a major in film, having loved making movies and stories as a kid. However, after some classes in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and Autodesk Maya, I quickly found an even greater love for computer graphics, particularly animation.

In addition to going to a school that offers a lot of variety, there are other ways you can dip your toe into various specialties.

Interning is an excellent tried-and-true method. As an intern, you can get a foot in the door at a fantastic company, even if you're not yet experienced or qualified enough to be hired as a full-time employee. If you are friendly, diligent, and open to feedback, people will often be happy to help mentor you and answer questions along the way.

The downside is that many internships are unpaid or pay very little. But if you think of it as an investment and can supplement it with another job, an internship can be tremendously helpful as you figure out what you want your career to be.

If you can't commit to an internship, job shadowing and informational interviews are a great way to see first-hand what the work looks like and get questions answered. Other helpful ways to test the waters include listening to industry podcasts, following artists and studios you love on social media, watching behind-the-scenes videos, and simply trying out tutorials on your own time.

Another thing to consider, beyond figuring out which area or areas most interest you, is whether to specialize or generalize. In other words, do you want to be an expert in one focused discipline or be someone who wears many hats.

If you specialize, you can get very good in a specific area and may even be able to charge higher rates. You may be more likely to work within a team or pipeline and be more reliant on others to take a project to completion. Larger studios and production pipelines often prefer specialists. For example, as we discussed earlier, a visual effects shot requires a lot of different specialties to pull together. So for those, a big company would often seek out many specialists to fill those roles and then have a producer, director, or lead person manage the group.

The other option is to generalize and work in a number of different areas. Being a generalist may yield more job opportunities, especially in a smaller market. A small studio might only have the budget to hire one person, so they'd like to get someone who can wear many hats. Or a client may want to get something done, and instead of hiring and managing a team of many people, would rather just work with one person who can complete the job from start to finish.

I personally am more of a generalist. It has its pros and cons, but overall I have found it very fulfilling. The work is always different, and I feel like anything is possible, given enough time. That being said, it can be more difficult, as there is more I need to keep up with. But the longer someone works in many disciplines, the faster they'll get at picking up new techniques on the fly and at finding common threads between different disciplines and software packages.

There is a bit of a stigma around generalists, with the old saying "jack of all trades, master of none." It makes sense in that if you're not putting all of your eggs in one basket, each basket may only have a couple of eggs. But it's more nuanced than that and depends on the individual. You could be a generalist who does animation, design, and visual effects, and is very good at each of those, because you hold yourself to a high standard, are consistently learning and growing, know how to ask for help and find answers online, and get feedback from others.

If you're not a hard worker, you'd be in just as much of a pickle if you only did animation and weren't very good at it. Also, many techniques transfer. As you build up your sense of design and composition, or pacing and storytelling, that can help you grow in a number of disciplines.

Your task: If you are trying to figure out which computer graphics field is best for you, reflect on your personality and your interests, and figure out where they intersect. If you already have some idea, look for opportunities to get hands-on experience in the areas you are considering.

Further, think about whether you want to be a specialist or generalist. Do you want to master a specific area and be able to devote all of your energy to it? Or do you want to take on projects in many different areas?

In the next lesson, we'll talk about the value of networking and how to take advantage of networking opportunities.

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Written by

Eric Carlsen