Is it better to be a VFX generalist or specialist?

By Sean Amlaner on November 11, 2015

So you want to work in VFX. But is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? This is a question that's been asked of me a number of times in the past. As a budding artist, you have a choice to make that’ll not only dictate which direction you take your training here but can also decide what direction your career goes.

The role of generalists and specialists in VFX

61084_Inline_01

Although they use the same tools, generalists and specialists aren't the same.

Historically, jobs within visual effects (VFX) have long been known as a specialists arena. In reality, that’s not the case anymore. The lines have definitely been blurred over the years.

Offsite, cloud-based jobs are becoming more and more prevalent. And with that comes a rather exciting opportunity for artists to focus not only on one particular area, but to take on a multitude of tasks.

On-site jobs, depending on the size of the studio, will sometimes concatenate their artist resources by specifying certain jobs as generalist jobs. This lets some artists float between departments depending on needs of the current projects. This is considered cross mobility.

Smaller studios will primarily look for more generalist employees due to the financial limitations of hiring a larger staff of specialists. In this category, upward mobility might be a bit more limited, but there’s also the opportunity for longer-term employment due to the smaller studio having less of a financial overhead.

On the flipside, specialist jobs allow an artist to narrow their focus and hone their skill into one particular category. Whether that be a lighter, compositor, animator, rigger, modeler, etc., the point being they specialize and become an expert in that one specific area. This applies to a multitude of larger studio formats.

For both cloud­based and on-site positions, the opportunities tend to allow for upward mobility but only in that one particular area that you are considered an expert in. Cross mobility becomes somewhat limited due to the mere fact that your marketability is only in one specific field.

But if you’re looking for quicker career advancement (i.e., ­ moving from an artist to a lead to a supervisor, etc.),  the specialist avenue is a significantly more lucrative opportunity to pursue.

Compensation differences

Financially speaking, as an average, both generalist and specialist paychecks sometimes balance out. But the reality is, specialists tend to end up with a larger paycheck.

The typical assumption for this is due to larger studios leaning towards hiring a majority of specialists instead of generalists.

Larger studios equal larger paying projects, which in turn, requires the larger studio to hire more specialists to ensure the highest level of knowledge/skill within each niche of production and ultimately, afford to offer bigger paychecks.

A career outside VFX

61084_Inline_02

When the grass looks greener on the other side, generalists have a leg up on specialists.

The specialist versus generalist discussion is one that occurs quite a bit in our field of VFX. And here’s where the generalist opportunities have a very specific singular advantage over the specialists.

Specialists typically are locked exclusively to VFX. Generalists, by definition, have a broader overall knowledge base, which allows them to branch outside of VFX a lot easier.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some specialists transfer to other areas of the entertainment industry just fine, such as moving into the gaming industry.

But generalists tend to have a broader level of marketability due to being able to perform a multitude of post­production tasks instead of a singular, finely-honed task.

Advertising/commercials and motion graphics are two areas that come to mind. In these categories, a broader knowledge base is almost imperative. This is due to the simple fact that a large portion of advertising and motion graphics houses are smaller shops, which require individual artists to take projects from concept to completion.

In these other industries, generalists suddenly have a larger range of opportunities to grow their career, both within cross mobility as well as upward mobility.

It’s an interesting conundrum. As you can probably surmise, I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. And the scenarios that have been present above are just small facets of what both specialist as well as generalists can pursue.

Deciding what’s right for you

As an artist who’s spent the majority of my career specializing, yet having friends who have been both generalists and specialists, I can tell you there’s absolutely no clear, definitive answer.

To be a generalist, you need to know a large number of topics and software. You should enjoy switching focus from one software to another while maintaining the continuity of your current projects.

To specialize, you can get away with knowing a limited number of software but you need to have extensive knowledge of that one topic. You should enjoy focusing on one specific software and plugging away at a singular challenge until you’ve found a solution.

Is one or the other the right way to go?

Honestly, only you can ultimately answer that question. As a whole, there’s no wrong path to choose. It really depends on your personality as well as your career goals.

You can even start out as a specialist and end up as a generalist, or vice­versa. Some studios even encourage generalists to pick up secondary skills so they are available to help with others when their specific task(s) aren’t currently required.

Whatever you decide, the only thing to remember at the end of the day, is to own your decision. If you choose to become a generalist, then become the very best generalist. If you decide to become a specialist, then become the very best specialist.

 

It may sound cliche, but no matter what, be the best at all that you do, and you’ll succeed. It’s that simple.

Choosing which direction to go can be difficult, but by making an informed choice, you’ll be opening up many future doors to success. Choose wisely, work hard at that career path, and own your decision.

Get our content first. In your inbox.

Contributor

Sean Amlaner

has worked as a Senior Digital Compositor for feature film visual effects studios such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Technicolor, Rhythm & Hues and many others. He's a Pluralsight author who has worked on over 40 feature films such as The Incredible Hulk, Kung Fu Panda, Men In Black 3 and Wreck-It Ralph.