Image courtesy of Kris Yu

The first year out: moving from student to 3D artist

February 17, 2023
We all know how daunting it feels to go from school to the workplace, regardless of what field you're in. Do you have the right skills? Is the technology you've studied going to have any use in the job you land? It's enough to keep you awake at night.

Recently, we talked with a few 3D artists about how they are handling the transition from school to new jobs in game development, VFX, and immersive media. If you are interested in transferable skills, potential gaps, and the day-to-days of different 3D positions, this one's for you.
 

Kris Yu – Associate Environment Artist, Blizzard Entertainment

So what’s a typical day like for a new environment artist working on the Diablo IV team? According to Kris Yu, her general routine begins with signing into the system, syncing the game development engine, and then starting work on the environment tasked to her. Time management is essential for artists on her team, and finishing tasks on time is the base standard for success. “It’s not about ‘try your best’ or ‘create the best art ever’,” says Kris. “It’s about following the schedule and making sure everything works.”

One helpful trick she’s learned is to lay out all of the notes and pictures of the task. Then once she’s finished with it, she’ll put a tick mark on it. With the level of detail in each environment, it can be easy to miss something that needs to be addressed by her or her team, so this tactic helps keep Kris on track.

She’s also quickly learned how much communication and teamwork are required in the video game industry, especially when working from home. “Being able to speak up, express yourself, and listen to other people is crucial in this industry,” says Kris. “I’m expected to ask questions and make mistakes. Instead of regretting and getting nervous about my mistakes, I’ve learned from and corrected them, which has made me grow so much faster.”

To get better insight into her tasks each day, Kris regularly has voice chats with colleagues and team leads. Her team also uploads videos and offers feedback to each other during weekly review sessions, which she says is a great way to learn and see the passion her colleagues have for game development.

One thing Kris wishes she learned more about before her new job is design. As a student, her preference was to start with another artist’s concept to create a 3D environment from it. With that solid foundation, Kris would only need to make some minor changes to improve the overall environment.

Once Kris started work with the Diablo IV team on world-building tasks, she needed to further consider its gameplay design in a 3D space, a design fundamental she believed she lacked experience in. “All of my personal projects don’t have the complexity of a playable game, where all angles should be perfect with moveable cameras,” says Kris. “So I’m continuing to learn about design spaces and I’ve started reading architecture books to gain more knowledge on structures.”

So, how did Kris land a job at Blizzard right out of college? She won Rookie of the Year – Game Development at the 2022 Rookie Awards and was featured in the 2022 Unreal Engine Student Showcase. If you frequent the Unreal Engine website, you may have even seen her work without knowing it!
Image courtesy of Kris Yu
Also recognized as ‘Best of Term’ at Gnomon, the abandoned factory environment she created helped her become what she considers a next-level artist. “The piece is inspired by my favorite video game, The Last of Us,” says Kris. “Naughty Dog’s game was my motivation to come to the United States and study game art, so I wanted to achieve their style and tell a story through the environment itself.” This was her first project created with Unreal Engine 5. Using many new techniques, skills, and a little experimentation, Kris modeled all of the assets in Maya, sculpted them in ZBrush, and used tiling and baked textures with Substance Painter and Designer.
Image courtesy of Kris Yu
But success also requires overcoming failures. Before working on her award-winning project, Kris admits she had some missteps on another project. “I did a poor job of research and was impatient at the early stage,” says Kris. “I rushed into the project too quickly and later discovered I didn’t collect enough references to work with the concept, so I chose to start a new project rather than continue with one that had so many problems to fix.”

After that mistake, Kris spent extra time acquiring a huge amount of reference images for her scenes. She even took a trip to see one of the locations in person. “I spent about two months focused solely on collecting references and on the blockout. It was a bit of a long time, to be honest, but it was the most detailed project out of all four of my pieces,” says Kris.
Ultimately, if you’re exploring real-time technology, it’s worth making an active effort to put yourself and your work into the public eye. This has always been a hallmark of newly opened doors and fresh opportunities. Just ask Kris.

“I got so much exposure after I won the 2022 Rookie Award, it led in part to me becoming a full-time associate environment artist at Blizzard Entertainment on the Diablo IV team,” says Kris. “When I saw the game at The Game Awards this year, I finally felt like I’m a professional artist.”
Kris’ Pro Tips:

Focus on the big picture before jumping into the details

“I highly recommend you frequently focus on getting a clear picture of your overall environment. I’ve seen so many students jump straight into the small details such as spending too much time focusing on a prop, but if the entire structure has a problem, then it can amount to wasted time.”

Document the process of your projects

“Your future employers care about this process, even if it’s a simple grey-box model or a terrible mistake that didn’t pan out. It presents your thinking process and creative problem-solving skills. It’s also part of how I secured an interview opportunity to work at Blizzard.”

Show off your work

“Since most 3D artists post their work on ArtStation, I highly recommend getting a Pro account, so that you can get more visibility to the public. ArtStation even has discounts on student subscriptions. For instance, after the art director of Diablo IV saw my portfolio there, he reached out to me on LinkedIn, which was another place I’d post my work because that’s where a lot of professional artists and recruiters are looking for candidates.”

Josh Carstens – Assistant Pipeline Technical Director, DNEG Animation

Josh started working at DNEG Animation as an assistant pipeline technical director, supporting in-production shows like Garfield and That Christmas. While he has plenty of school-driven, virtual production experience—and caught DNEG’s eye thanks to it—he isn’t using it quite yet. But he’s confident he will sooner than later.

His team provides support to their 3D pipeline for artists, production coordinators, show supervisors, and sometimes each other. Support tasks range from helping artists fix issues with renders, rigs, and models to doing development tasks on DNEG’s suite of in-house tools amassed over the years. All of this is done in an attempt to make the process of producing a feature-length animated movie as painless as possible.

Josh experienced something when he started at DNEG Animation that may be familiar to many students as they go from school and internships to their first job out of college. “My responsibilities at DNEG are kind of the opposite of my internship in that it’s all software and programming, and pertains to traditional 3D animation, which was never strictly my main academic focus,” says Josh. “But all the fundamentals were present in which I could build upon such as familiarity with Python and the filmmaking process.”

Before working at DNEG Animation, Josh had a short but fruitful internship at Production Resource Group (PRG), which enabled him to become skilled in virtual production. “It was a very hardware-focused and free-form internship, which was something still fairly new to me. It allowed me to gain a lot of familiarity with LED technology, which helped a lot in my following semesters,” says Josh.
Image courtesy of Josh Carstens
It’s not uncommon for young 3D artists to begin a role wishing they had known something in particular. For Josh, he noted that it would have been nice to know more about Git and version control systems, in general. “I’ve had days where sizable blocks of time went into rebasing repos I had worked on and then let sit for a month while new updates came in, then I’d have to figure out how to merge my code with the new updates,” says Josh. “It can become a headache when a lot of internal repos have their own system of how you’re supposed to make branches and contribute.” However, most of Josh’s academic work was done in C++ or MATLAB, so his programming familiarity helped with his current role.

While at RIT, Josh directed Reverie, which was another outlet for his growing virtual production skills. His leadership role on the project allowed him to make creative decisions, work on Unreal Engine, and do post-production. “There were some tense moments I dealt with, like when our licensing dongle for Axis Studio died just before a shoot and I needed to get support to mail us a new one overnight so we wouldn’t be completely without motion capture,” says Josh. “It was a gratifying feeling to be able to lead a project like that.”
He also believes that virtual production and Unreal Engine should always go hand-in-hand. “Epic Games has really pushed for Unreal Engine to be synonymous with virtual production, and  its licensing terms are very welcoming for those who are new to it, so assuming you have a computer with a decent graphics card and CPU, then that’s got to be it,” says Josh.

For anyone new to VP, take a look at the numerous learning resources available on the Unreal Engine website, each can easily complement any other educational resources you use.
A heads up from Josh:
“I moved from upstate New York to Montreal, Canada to work at DNEG. In the process, one thing I’ve faced is the socially isolating feeling of moving to a new city, especially one where I don’t speak the native language. Having never lived without family or friends before, it’s quite a lifestyle change I didn’t feel prepared enough for. However, I’ve come to realize that this is a perfectly normal way to feel and to any other young professionals in the same place, you’re not alone. Give it time and don’t be afraid to reach out to others.” DNEG has recently started offering free French lessons to employees, so Josh hopes this will be a good way to meet new people from other departments. Finding others who are in a similar situation such as other new hires is a good way to reduce feelings of isolation.
 

Lara Rende – Student, Drexel University

Lara is still in college, but she’s no stranger to using tools experienced professionals are already using. As a matter of fact, the more we learned about her story, the more we found it inspiring for any student about to graduate.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Lara. “I remember when my professor opened up Maya in my first class of freshman year and Unreal Engine 4 in the second. Initially, it was overwhelming, but I never thought that I would be working on so many projects by my senior year.”

She’s partially amassed so much experience because her professors know she’s excited to try out new and immersive technologies. One project they steered her towards was a joint research project with a local botanical garden in Pennsylvania. Not only does Lara get to help recreate a historic building (the DuPont House), she’s also getting to apply a lot of different technologies at once, including iOS LiDAR, photogrammetry, and Unreal Engine 5.
Image courtesy of Lara Rende
But while photographic references are a great resource for 3D modeling, to Lara, nothing beats seeing a location in person. Spending a day at Longwood Gardens helped her experience the place as a whole and see the house her team was recreating first-hand, a moment that ultimately became one of Lara’s favorite things about the project. “I got so many reference photos, videos, and personal notes that day,” says Lara. “It was so fascinating to be in such a historic building, knowing that I was working on a project that was going to help people visualize how this place looked 300 years ago.”

However, even though Lara’s team used LiDAR and photogrammetry scans of the DuPont House, they chose to keep them as references and model the house in Maya, so they have the freedom to texture and animate it in Unreal Engine.

Outside of 3D modeling, Lara is also passionate about learning motion capture. As the current president of the Drexel Motion Capture Club, she helps teach her club members all about its process, working with her friends on independent motion capture sessions, or just having fun motion-capturing K-pop dances.

Lara recently put those motion-capture skills to the test when she participated in an independent virtual production shoot with director Ian Fursa. This opportunity gave her an incredible perspective of what a studio shoot could be like. During, Lara helped set up the studio and configure the motion capture cameras as needed for tracking from Vicon to Unreal Engine. She was also responsible for setting up and breaking down the set, running the motion capture system, setting up the virtual production screen, and marking the subject. She worked this process again while working with Remington Scott on Meta’s Notorious B.I.G. Sky’s The Limit VR concert—to great success.
So what now for the busiest student around? Graduation is coming soon. When she’s not working on her studies, Lara’s splitting her time looking for job opportunities and considering if graduate school is her best bet. Regardless of her choice, she says, “No matter what I end up doing after graduation, I know I want to keep learning and exploring.”

Clearly getting hands-on experience with 3D modeling, photogrammetry, motion capture, and more will only help as Lara moves into the workforce. But it’s her curiosity and drive to keep learning that’s the real lesson.
Image courtesy of Lara Rende
Lara’s Pro Tip:
“I hop into all projects offered to me. Even when my professor needed me to create a VR-playable level in Unreal Engine without any prior experience, I just went for it. Any project I can be a part of always becomes an immensely valuable learning experience. If you really want to do something in 3D, just jump into this world. There are so many tools and tutorials out there that people can easily access. Unreal Engine 5 is free! Take your time and believe in yourself.”

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