Does a VFX Artist Need to be a Jack of All Trades?
In the VFX industry, the term "jack of all trades" is often another term used for a VFX generalist. What defines a VFX generalist; however, can vary greatly depending on who you ask. In most cases, a VFX generalist simply refers to an artist working in the visual effects industry who is not a specialist. That is not to say that VFX generalists can tackle just about any step of the pipeline when they need to. Consider that a VFX artist may specialize or even have a preference of modeling, but as a "jack of all trades" they also can take that model all the way through the pipeline.
In its early days, getting into VFX was incredibly expensive. The cost of both hardware and software meant that a very few could afford to own the type of equipment necessary to create top-notch VFX. For example, without even counting the cost of the hardware to run it, a single license of Maya used to cost over $15,000. As a result, it was common to find niche specialists across the VFX industry that could specialize in a specific step of the pipeline to take advantage of this high-end hardware and software to create the VFX needed.
Things have changed quite a bit since then and as of writing, a license of Maya can be purchased for only $150/mo. Needless to say, the technical capabilities of the latest version of Maya far surpass the capabilities of Maya back when it cost over $15,000 for a license.
The cost of entry into the VFX world has plummeted over the past decade thanks to cheaper hardware and software, the result has been an influx of artists into the industry who have access to a wide range of tools that they simply couldn’t access before. As time ticks forward, this trend of access to increasingly powerful tools at an incredibly affordable price point doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon. It shouldn’t be a surprise either when the number of VFX artists with a wide range of skills is also increasing.
As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Or perhaps also appropriate is a paraphrasing of another classic saying, “Ask two VFX artists, get three opinions.” When it comes to the question of whether or not a VFX artist should be a jack of all trades, depending on who you ask, you are bound to get mixed opinions.
Does it benefit you to know a little bit about all the steps within the pipeline or is it better to specialize in just one of the steps? In order to determine an answer, we must first go to the driving source behind any pipeline and ask yet another: What are studios expecting from artists these days? After all, the projects and budgets for those projects any given studio undertakes will determine what their needs are and, by extension, determine what type of artist is needed to be able to fulfill those projects. In turn, this means that the answer to this question may not be such a “one size fits all” answer.
Specialist: Master of One
To truly master a step of the pipeline can take a lifetime of dedicated focus. It is thanks to masters of these steps that the VFX industry as a whole is able to benefit from their ability to innovate new tools, techniques and workflows that simply wouldn’t be available without their focused dedication. For example, although they aren’t typically known as a VFX company, Pixar Animation Studios started off as a team of artists dedicated towards one focus: Rendering. This mastery of their craft ended up in a product that has helped, and continues to help, VFX artists around the world: RenderMan. Without the dedication of Pixar artists who have mastered their focus, RenderMan certainly wouldn’t be where it is today – and certainly wouldn’t be available to other VFX artists all around the world. From the technologies behind RenderMan have spawned numerous other breakthroughs in the rendering algorithms throughout the entire industry.
Pixar is a great example of a studio that has mastered their craft. This is due in no small part to their desire to hire artists who have already mastered their craft. For example, they clearly state their desire to only hire animators who focus solely on animation. Just as the technical breakthroughs of RenderMan have led to numerous other technological innovations in the rendering step of the pipeline, Pixar's masters of animation have innovated inside their own step by delivering a style of animation that is copied and mimicked by many.
Pixar certainly isn't the only studio to employ such specialists. Similarly, powerhouse VFX studios such as ILM and MPC each employ their own fair share of specialists that focus on a specific role in the pipeline.
Generalist: Master of None
Despite the prominent studios named above, to be considered a VFX generalist in the VFX industry is hardly an undesirable thing. Due to the increased demand for VFX and the decreasing budgets for those VFX projects, even powerhouse VFX studios often turn to a number of boutique VFX studios to help on large projects.
These boutique VFX studios, by their very nature, often do not have either the budgetary freedom or the need to hire the specialists that have dedicated a lifetime to mastering their part of the pipeline.
Consider the VFX generalist, or the "jack of all trades", that can deliver a high quality model and texture, rig and animate that same model. In this common scenario, neither the need for developing new or innovative tools is necessary nor the need for any revolutionary workflow that requires a specialist. This isn't to say that boutique VFX studios can't or won't hire specialists when needed. However, the role of the VFX generalist plays a clear part in studios where the need is simple: Deliver high quality work on time and on budget.
Time and time again in studios around the world, VFX generalists have proven themselves fully capable of delivering high quality work on time and on budget.
What Does This Mean for You?
Understandably, the demand for employment at the Pixars, ILMs and MPCs of the industry tend to be notably higher than it is for smaller studios. On the other hand, there are a lot more boutique studios in the industry that are working on projects that require a VFX generalist to wear multiple hats. Some mid-sized studios even prefer a mixture of specialist and generalist, if it were possible, where an artist is a generalist with a specialty. For example, an artist who primarily focuses on character modeling most of the time but knows enough about texturing, rigging and animation to be able to be tackle those steps of the pipeline when needed.
There certainly is a place in the VFX industry for specialists and generalists alike although, as mentioned above, these different types of artists play different roles in the industry. This means that the answer to whether or not you, as a VFX artist, need to be a "jack of all trades" depends primarily on where you are and what you want to achieve in your career.
Regardless of whether or not your passion is to become a specialist or a generalist, one simple fact remains true: Studios don't want decent artists. They want amazing artists. To be an amazing artist means a dedication to mastering your craft, even if that craft is being a "jack of all trades".