Introduction to Portfolio Building for CG & VFX

How to Approach Portfolio Building for 3D, Computer Animation, and Games

Okay everyone. In "real-life" I've been pretty focused on the finer points of portfolio building this month, so I though this would be a great time to do a series that touches on the dark art of targeting your portfolio for whichever sector of the industry you want to find work in.

It's ridiculously important, but it's also something that a lot of young, aspiring artists ignore or don't entirely understand.

Quite frankly, I only feel like I've really gotten the hang of this in the last half-year or so, and even now I'm not completely satisfied with the consistency of my my portfolio pieces (though I'm working hard to change that). For a long time, my stuff was all over the place. Low-poly game props next to stylized, animation style characters, with some really mediocre concept art to fill in the blanks.

My biggest struggle as an artist has always, always, always been the desire to do too many different things, and it took me a long time before I felt like I was good at any of them. Which caused me to be an inconsistent worker, because let's face it, it's a lot easier and a lot more fun to sit down and work when you feel like you're making progress toward your goals. Growth in art is as much about working smart as it is working hard.

The easiest way to become good at something is to narrow your focus for awhile, and devote as much energy as possible to mastering a single discipline in artmaking. After that it becomes a lot easier to broaden your horizons because you have a core skill to build around.

Art directors aren't usually looking for a jack-of-all-trades.

Now, occasionally they are, but those jobs are relatively rare. Certain studios will hire CG generalists, and the wider your skillset the more attractive you are as a freelancer. But even if you consider yourself a generalist, you've probably focused your efforts on modeling, texturing, rendering, and maybe animation if you want to do motion work. But even with all that, we're still talking about a pretty narrow band of digital art.

And the bigger studios are looking for even more specificity. People that do one or two things really, really well. A visual development artist is a a visual development artist. An animator is an animator. A modeler is a modeler, although this is one case where you obviously want to study up on satellite skills like texturing, rendering, and maybe even rigging.

What I'm trying to say is, your portfolio needs a clear focus.

The worst thing you can do is send out a reel with a couple character models next, and a set of oil landscapes, and some sci-fi concept art next to a handful of logo designs. This kind of portfolio tells art directors that you aren't sure where you want to be as an artist, and begs them to choose someone else.

If you do more than one thing at a high level, think very carefully about whether the two belong together in a portfolio, and if not, then you should strongly think about having multiple versions of your portfolio that you can show depending on the client.

So how should you tailor your portfolio to get the job that you want?

First of all, you really need to know what sector of the industry you'd like to work in. If you're not sure yet, don't worry—just keep working on your foundational skills (perspective, anatomy, value, color, and composition) and trying your hand at different disciplines. As you discover more and more about your strengths and weaknesses, the direction you want to take with your career will gradually reveal itself.

Off the top of my head, here are some broad disciplines that are either directly or tangentially related to the world of 3D computer graphics:

  • Animation
  • Game Development
  • Visual Effects & Simulation
  • Visual Development/Concept Art
  • Architectural Visualization
  • Rigging/Technical Direction
  • Lighting & Rendering
  • Industrial Design
  • Commercial Design/Motion Graphics
  • Illustration
  • Medical/Technical/Product Visualization

My advice—if you're ready to start thinking seriously about fleshing out the portfolio that you'll eventually send to potential employers—is to pick a primary discipline from that list (or similar) and learn everything there is to know about it.

Know the top employers. Know the top artists. Especially, know the subtle differences between the different jobs in a field. For example, to someone outside of the art world, the portfolios of an illustrator, visual development, and story artist probably seem fairly similar.

However, while there is certainly a lot of overlap in the three sub-disciplines, there are just as many key differences. An illustration portfolio needs polish. Finished images that can stand alone and tell a story in their own right. A concept art portfolio is all about iteration, process, speed, and variety. For a story artist, it's all about the storyboard. A story artist needs to show knowledge of cinematography, camera movement, staging, composition, rhythm, and gesture. And they need to show evidence that they can turn out clear storyboards quickly.

The art world is full of subtle delineations like this, and knowing what they are will give you a clearer idea of what you need to focus on in your work. You need to know that there is a huge difference between a level designer and an environment modeler. You need to know the difference between a concept painting and a matte painting. You need to understand that the portfolio of a character modeler applying at Walt Disney Feature Animation should look very different than that of an artist who is applying at ILM.

These are the things you need to keep in mind when you're developing your work. Every discipline has a set of key traits just like the ones I just outlined. It's in your best interest to know what they are and structure your portfolio around that knowledge. This doesn't mean that as a concept artist you can never practice illustration—it just means that any illustrations that you include in your body of work should play a supporting role to your concept work.

What if I'm not sure what type of work to focus on?

Since this is already getting a bit long winded, we're going to break off here for now, but we're working on a second article that takes some of the major job descriptions in computer graphics and breaks down some of the things you should and shouldn't include in a portfolio for work in that part of the industry.

For now, hopefully this has given you something to think about if you're struggling to pull your portfolio into a streamlined, cohesive body of work that best showcases your skills and knowledge.

Be sure to make the jump to join us in part two!