Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Experience Counts by Doug Masters

COLUMNIST -- Doug Masters has been a CG artist, director, and senior manager in the CG/animation business over the last 20 years, working in software development, games, commercial production, VFX, and most recently TV animation. He is active within the Toronto animation community and is currently focusing on next generation content development and production.

Experience counts. This is not just a plug for myself, or anyone else who may have done their time in the business for as many years. Experience is the great underlying thread that companies and managers look for and respect. Its also that line on a job ad that causes new artists to gnash their teeth. "Professional experience required", "5+ years experience as a senior artist or director", "experience on one or more features", and on. An old story - how to get that experience if no one will hire you without it?! Its like some esoteric, Star Trek time-parallax trap. An impossible sort of logical problem Kirk might throw at the ship's computer to cause it to go into an infinite loop and start having fits - which is I guess exactly the sort of feeling the new artists who are trying to enter the business must experience. If there is not an official word for the that trap (like the "Von Neumann Bottleneck" in CPUs) there should be (I believe "Graveyard Spin" is already taken by the airline industry).

Anyhow I know it sucks, but you have to look at it as a test - as much as successfully graduating from a course or solving a problem on the job. The rest of us can't (won't) help if you can't get past the first of those guarded gates on your career path. It's one of those Scout badges you need to earn. But I am not here to go into detail about that process. Just... get good - and be prepared to offer some services for free if you have to (sorry, no angry mail please). Experience counts on a lot of levels. It helps us learn and adapt and, most importantly, avoid disaster. In my last entry, I mentioned the importance of fundamentals. Those are the things you need when you don't necessarily have experience. They'll help you survive. But to really do well, without the same risk, scrambling, sheer luck. or shameless charm, you need experience.

I remember when I first started in the business, I got a REAL PAYING gig working nights and weekends doing 2D CG work. Actually thinking back, after driving two hours each way in an old Honda civic that liked to drop it's transmission and other stray parts along the way, I am not sure I made any money at all. Some companies today would accept such a loss as helpful cash flow. Which is again why you should note ignore the prospect of working for free if it will help! Anyhow, I had previously been frustrated with the cursor locking up on the system in question (I can't even recall it now; Genigraphics??), but some very good training helped me recall that a simple tap of the escape key would release the cursor. On the day when I showed up for my first shift, there were four people in suits struggling and swearing in front of the system trying to get a correction completed on an image. I could see of course that the cursor was locked and so glided past coolly to hit the escape key without asking any questions or introducing myself. A little dramatic I know but it can sell. The people there saw the system unlock and a guy (one of those execs with some experience of his own) said, "well, what say we get the hell out of here and let the expert take over". Ahh, small glories. The real success however was all the energy and frustration that was avoided by my action had value. Now flash-forward, and multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand. What does it save a project or company to have someone coolly walk in and demonstrate an alternative solution that will avoid the loss of serious time and money -and potentially a pissed off client who may never come back?

People like that are not always the smartest ones in the room. I'm not that big a fan of clever; I'm always more impressed with experience and wisdom. I know that when experienced people offer solutions, its not because they just figured it out in a flash of genius. But they still deserve credit for having been through "the shit" in the past and have earned their own set of shoulder stripes. So never begrudge someone older and possibly slower than you who might be senior to you. You may be missing an important point, and believe me there will come a day when you will understand it.

Which brings me to another dilemma in the animation industry (or any other for that matter) - that beats the inexperience death-loop I mentioned earlier hands-down. It's one that increases with seniority and responsibility. Mainly, that people won't always listen. That you become what's known as "a voice in the wilderness". Those are those old coots or yahoos who sit there saying mad things like the credit market is poised to crash, that viewers will increasingly abandon standard sources of media and entertainment, or that people will use Apple platforms more for games. Sadly, they are often the first to be ignored during the heady days of success or when the big challenges arise. And it particularly sucks when you find yourself in such a position and you happen to be on the same ship as everyone else cruising through dangerous reef-filled waters. But I can see their point - that the experience and wisdom has to be demonstrated first, then they will listen. I guess it's really not all that different from the experience trap that you bump into at the beginning, except that's it's like try to passing through the "9th Gate".

So in the end, the process never really ends, which you have to admit is kinda cool. As I often say, the entertainment business is a lot of things, but it is rarely boring. Especially true for the animation side of the same business with its constant demands, young talent, and technical evolutions. If you want boring, stable, and predictable, you may want to look elsewhere. But as long as you stick to some strong fundamentals, and listen more than you talk, and try to avoid burning bridges (it happens, but it is rarely worth it), and put in a string of solid days, you will naturally accumulate knowledge and experience. And so you will be worth more. And people will want to hire you to help them avoid costly mistakes. Just be sure not to act like you know something when you are not totally positive; that you have made it work before. Like using dynamics on a quick turn-around job instead of just animating hair or something. That's what we call clever, and when it goes wrong, it can cost a lot of money and sleep - and gnashing of teeth. So as you tread through all the guarded gates, try to remember: there's never any harm in saying "I don't know" or "I'm not sure". The rest will come later.

© Doug Masters, Mar 2009

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