The last two years have been challenging for most people in a variety of ways.
I was working at Staffordshire University when we first went into lockdown. A couple of weeks beforehand, I hosted one of my last photogrammetry classes to a group of students from the VFX course run by Dan McCarthy. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Dan’s students, they were consistently among the most driven, competent and mature I had the pleasure of educating.
As you might expect, the (at the time ‘potential’) pandemic was a topic on all of their minds; were we going into a lockdown? How would this affect teaching? Would they be able to graduate? What would happen to the job market?
One such student was Sam Cassidy. Sam went on to complete his education, graduate and secure employment all when things were arguably at their worst. I contacted him in early spring 2021 to arrange a conversation, to which he kindly agreed. However, shortly before its completion, his employer closed their doors and so the timing didn’t seem great. A few weeks later, Sam secured his second position and we both felt that covering the entirety of this period (and the evolution of his thought process) would make for a better conversation.
So without further ado, my first conversation of 2022 – with Sam Cassidy, CGI Artist.
Please note: Incase the structure of the conversation seems confusing, we did not move things around to accommodate Sam’s changes in employment. The entire first section was done before departing from his initial role and no alterations were made, as to maintain his perspective at the time.
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Evolving aspirations through study
ED: Hi Sam. I’ve spoken to a few folk now about their work and pathways to industry. Whereas they’ve each been in their respective roles for a few years, you both graduated from University and secured employment during the last twelve months. Given this time period is when Covid chaos was arguably at its worst, with noone seemingly have a clear idea of what was going on or to where we were headed, i think you likely have a unique perspective by comparison.
But let’s get a bit more context. What did you study at University and what were your long term career aspirations?
Sam: So when I joined Staffs I was originally studying Games Art with the hopes of one day working as a 3D Artist for somewhere like Naughty Dog or Rockstar Games. However, after a year of being on the course I felt that it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to focus on. I thoroughly enjoyed the high-poly modelling and texturing assignments but the one drag back that I wasn’t too keen on was the high to low poly workflow, I found it was time consuming as I would rather have a super detailed scene and I felt this was holding me back.
After much thought I decided to look at what my other options were with switching courses and I found the CGI and Visual Effects course which is run by Dan McCarthy. I arranged a meeting with him shortly afterwards and we discussed what my interests were and what I hoped to achieve from university. I said that I wanted to create the hero assets seen in film and television and learn the VFX pipeline as well. Dan believed it would be best for me to redo the first year as this would allow me to learn the fundamentals of the course, but I knew financially that wouldn’t be an option for me so I insisted that I would spend the summer catching up so that I joined the second year instead.
ED: It’s good to know that that flexibility was available, as students often find that their understanding of a discipline changes the more they learn about it, or they become aware of directions/vocations they hadn’t otherwise considered. It sounds like your fundamental interest didn’t change, so much as how it lined up with the pipelines and expectations of the industry?
Sam: Well as I learnt more about the games pipeline the more I realised that it wasn’t necessarily for me, so I decided to change my path all together for my second and third year and I have no regrets whatsoever. My goal was still to be a 3D Artist but instead of working for a games company I aspired to work for a VFX company such as Weta Digital, Framestore or MPC.
It was only during my third year when I had to come up with a final year project plan that I looked into the architectural visualisation industry and what work would be on offer there. To my surprise there were so many more of these companies in the UK as opposed to VFX houses. I didn’t want to commit 100% to Arch Viz at this time though so I chose to do a recreation of a living room that I found on the Dezeen website. I thought that if I was to model and texture everything in this scene then it would demonstrate my knowledge and skills in 3D to any employer in both VFX and Arch Viz.
Ed: Changing course midway through is a fairly brave decision, especially considering the commitment you made to catching up with a year’s worth of material in your summer. I can imagine there’s a few people in a similar position today, but who aren’t sure if making that change is the right move. What advice would you give in terms of both knowing if it’s the right thing to do and catching up with the work if you go ahead?
Sam: I spent a long time considering whether I should change course and the deciding factor for me was a meeting with the course leader Dan. We discussed what the course entailed and what I would be studying during the second and third year and then we started to talk about what previous graduates have gone onto do with their careers. Until this point I had spoken to the course leader for Games Art and asked his opinion and he was incredibly supportive in telling me that there are two options I could take. One of them was to stay in Games Art and find that I may enjoy the second and third year, or I take the leap and realise that my interests are based elsewhere.
Once I had decided to change course I asked Dan what the current first years had been studying and asked if I could be linked to any of the first year resources to study in my spare time. I was sent the documentation for the first year and I followed the same tutorials that the first years did. Once I had done that I emailed Dan over the summer asking what software we would primarily be using next year. I was told Maya, Houdini and After Effects so I spent the remainder of the summer teaching myself the fundamentals of these softwares using YouTube tutorials. This helped me massively when we started the second year as I didn’t feel as if I had been thrown into the deep end and I was able to comfortably learn with the rest of the class.
Overall I’d suggest that if you are having doubts then speak to your lecturers as they have your best interests at heart and want you to succeed. And once that happens it’s up to you whether you want to catch up or resit the first year, it’s all down to the individual I feel. I received the minimum student loan which would just cover my rent so I knew I couldn’t afford to resit the first year again, but if you are in a position where you can I would suggest you do it as you definitely won’t feel out of place in the second and third year.
The benefits of University; skills learned and dealing with feedback
Ed: It’s not unreasonable to say that an incredible amount can be learned on the internet for free, particularly where software is concerned. What benefits did your experience of studying at University provide?
Sam: The software that we were able to use at Staffs was a huge help as it meant that we were able to get first hand experience using these industry standard tools and this helped a lot when applying for work as it meant that the fundamental knowledge was already there. But the main benefit that I had when studying at University was definitely the feedback from my lecturers and classmates. They always had good points on what improvements I could make to my work and if there would be anything that stood out in the scene both good or bad. I was very lucky with the class that I was in for my second and third year as we all would help each other with feedback and tips.
We all looked out for each other and I feel that we still do now, with either letting each other know about any job openings and any opportunities that may appeal to someone. So as much as I made friends at university, I also made connections that I hope to keep.
Ed: Right, I suppose it’s important not to forget that learning isn’t just about repeating patterns and processes. Exposure to feedback is certainly important and having people by your side to offer criticism and/or support is something you can miss when working in isolation. But it’s also common for criticism to be interpreted as a personal attack, regardless of how it’s communicated. I assume you received negative feedback during this time, how did that effect your mood/mentality towards the work and what were the long term benefits of hearing things that you perhaps didn’t want to?
Sam: For every positive response that I had, I would have about five negative ones. I tried not to let this get to me as I was taught early on by my lecturers that I shouldn’t be precious about my work as what I consider to be good at the time I may look back on later and see many flaws. However, it does affect your mood when you have a string of negative responses to your piece. But my suggestion in those cases is to take a step back and give it a day to look at their reasons why they said no. See if there is a trend and if there is work on those areas. There were many companies who said no due to COVID or a lack of experience but then some would say that they couldn’t hire me based on the fact that I only had one main piece to show and it didn’t demonstrate if I could create a home exterior.
I knew that my work wasn’t perfect as I am obviously still learning and at that point I wasn’t even a Junior artist, but I knew it at least demonstrated the modelling skills that companies would be looking for. So whenever a company criticized it and gave negative feedback I took it on board and said that I would make those changes to my scene asap. Once I did I would send them back the piece to show that I could take feedback on board and act accordingly.
Ed: What software and technical processes do you now specialise in?
Sam: When I was at university I made it a mission to use as many pieces of software that I was able to in order to bolster my knowledge and skill set. While studying I was taught Maya, Houdini, 3DS Max, ZBrush, Marvelous Designer, Substance Suite and Unreal Engine 4. Outside of software I also looked into learning other 3D practises such as Photogrammetry which you taught me, I thoroughly enjoyed those classes as it was a fun environment as well as it was very interesting. I’ve used what you’ve taught me a few times outside of work for personal projects and I am very happy to have the knowledge that I do.
However when I started work I was predominantly focused on Maya and did most of my work on that, but I knew that most Arch Viz studios use 3DS Max so i’d have to make an adjustment at some point. I knew the fundamentals of 3DS but I was nowhere near as comfortable in it as I was in Maya. I spent most of my free time teaching myself tips and tricks in 3DS but I couldn’t quite crack it. We mainly showcase our work in UE4 as we offer virtual walkthroughs for clients looking to visualise their property before it has even been built. I discussed with my bosses the possibility of us using high poly renders done with V-Ray to use as advertisements for our company and we agreed this would be an interesting thing to look at the difference in quality we would have between real-time and V-Ray. I spent about a week teaching myself the V-Ray renderer and after creating renders for a project that we had previously completed we came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be cost effective with the render times and the fact that it doubled our workload.
It was only after about 4-5 months of me working that we decided to look into Blender as an alternative option for our work. We spent a week specifying all the tools that we would need Blender to have to complete our work to the same standard and luckily we found that Blender 2.8 and 2.9 were more than capable of completing our work without the need for external renderers such as V-Ray. We found that the quality of our work was improving since our move to Blender, and the time that we took to complete a project was substantially less after the move. So we currently use Blender, UE4 and the Substance suite to complete our projects.
Preparing for the ‘real world’ and graduating during a global pandemic
Ed: What about the job market? Were you aware about the size of demand for professionals in the areas you wanted to go into? Was that ever something you considered?
Sam: I knew that for VFX work you had to be top class and have an amazing portfolio of work otherwise you wouldn’t even get a response due to the number of applicants they get. Because of this I always wanted my work to be the best it could be and thanks to the feedback I would receive I would instantly work on the areas that needed improving. Once I started to look at the Arch Viz industry it was quite overwhelming to see just how many companies there are in the UK and how many of them were producing photo-realistic renders. I was incredibly lucky because my lecturer Dan knew someone who was currently working for an Arch Viz company based in Stoke and put me in touch with him to ask for feedback and advice on my work. He was a huge help and gave me a lot of tips and insight into what the standards are for the Arch Viz industry and what to expect if I was to pursue a career in it. After the conversation with him I found myself feeling more and more interested in pursuing Arch Viz as a career, as I was enjoying my final year project and I was learning that the work they do is similar to what I’ve been wanting to do.
Ed: Thankfully it’s not something you have to worry about now, but had you not been able to secure employment, what do you think you would be doing now instead?
Sam: That’s a tough question. I think that I would have carried on networking and creating more scenes until I had a portfolio that appealed to the masses. I do believe that if I continued to get declined work due to COVID then I would have burned out after a while, and I would have probably decided to wait until the pandemic was over to look for work again so that excuse could no longer be used. It’s difficult to say what my response would have been to not getting work as I was so determined to get employed that I was looking before I had even graduated.
Ed: I remember hosting a class you were in during March 2020 and within a couple of weeks, everyone was working from home. ‘How did you feel during this time?’ is a bit of a vague question, so I’d like to know what your instant gut reaction was in respect of your studies and career prospects, since you would be graduating in a couple of months?
Sam: It was a very surreal thing, I came home about two weeks before the lockdown restrictions were set in place due to family reasons and was isolating as I had met a family member with COVID before they had been diagnosed, so when we went into lockdown I thought it would just be a month like that essentially. I wasn’t necessarily stressed as far as my studies were concerned as I was at a good place with my work so a week off wouldn’t be the end of the world. However, we were planning on going to a VFX festival in London with the university which would have been an amazing opportunity for us to network with industry level professionals so we all were excited for that.
That event got cancelled and then moved to another date which again got cancelled because of lockdown restrictions. My thoughts at this time were simply “this is for the best, as no-one wants to get ill”, my mum was classed as high risk so I wanted to make sure she was kept safe and that was that. I was more upset that I couldn’t say goodbye to all the friends I’d made over my time at Staffs and instead had to send them a message saying “I hope we get to meet each other and celebrate soon”.
And as far as graduation, I had hoped that it would still take place as I initially thought that we would be in lockdown for a month or so. This wasn’t the case and we instead got told that the graduation would be rescheduled for November instead of July and again that got cancelled. The university offered our year a “virtual graduation” in September and it was a waste of time sadly as people didn’t turn up, the internet kept being jittery which meant speeches couldn’t be heard, and we were essentially just watching someone say “Well done!” and that was it. So on that front it didn’t really feel like we graduated… we were sent our diploma through the post and that was it. I still would love to go to a graduation and be able to celebrate it with my close family as it wasn’t just me that went through university, they supported me from the beginning so it’s as much a credit to them as it is to me but I highly doubt anything will happen now as we don’t even have access to our University emails anymore.
Ed: In your own experience, would you say your response was consistent with that of other students? Were those you were closest to experiencing similar responses or did it really vary between people, depending on their situations?
Sam: I think I tried to remain as positive as I possibly could in the beginning. I was still determined to find work as soon as I left Uni and I was set on making sure my work was the best it could be. However, I know many other people didn’t find it this simple and really struggled with the idea of lockdown and finishing their University experience remotely. Some struggled with not seeing their friends and others struggled with not having the facilities at home to complete their work whether it be poor internet or not having a workstation that could run the software we worked on. I tried to message many of my classmates to see how they were doing as I would see these people and speak to them every day and now it was just radio silence for the majority of my friends. It was a very isolating time and we tried our hardest to keep spirits up whether it be organising game nights, discord chats or just a call.
Sadly it was a huge blow to a lot of people’s motivation as they can’t see the point of working and looking for work in this current climate. But I stand by the thought that if we apply for 100 jobs that at least one will come back with an offer to an interview, and if not then that should be enough feedback for you to improve whatever they didn’t like the first time round.
Ed: The University like most institutes and companies took measures to mitigate disruption to their delivery and your experience. What was your mindset going into those last few weeks?
Sam: I was aware that the University was doing all they could to help us students during these weird times, they offered us a VPN which allowed us to access the majority of the software we had at University and access to the render-farm which was crucial to many students final year work. This helped massively and took a lot of stress away from us as we knew that the only main change is that we are now working from home instead of in a classroom. Some adjusted to it well, while others didn’t. I wasn’t necessarily phased by it as I was still able to do my work and get the feedback necessary to make improvements with my piece. The only thing I had to drill into my mind is that I had to be strict with myself on my work schedule.
Ed: I know for a lot of people, moving to remote learning required a different approach to self-discipline and organisation. Was this true of you and if so, what changes did you make to your own mentality and work methods to ensure you could still be productive?
Sam: Well when I was at university I treated it like a 9-5 job where myself and a friend would sit in on the other years classes as there would always be a spare seat at the back and this meant we would be focused on work and have little distraction. It also allowed us to have a chat with our lecturers and gain a better insight into the course and our work. When we began working remotely I kept this same discipline that I would work and join the calls for all the classes. This was mainly to just be part of a conversation and it helped a lot as I was able to give some advice to the second years as well as get some feedback from them on what might need changing in my work. I felt that my productivity at home was slightly less than that at university but I hold that down to my PC not being the same spec as that at Uni which meant my work would take slightly longer to render.
Ed: This might be an uncomfortable question to answer, so please feel free to skip it if so. To what extent do you feel Covid-19 impacted those around you? My expectation is that the move from on-site learning to remote in such a short period of time will have been a challenge for everyone, but were there any who actually benefitted from the blended working approach?
Sam: I didn’t tend to interact with many people outside of my course, and as we were a class of 16 we spent most of the time in the final year in the same room. That being said most of our conversations would be work oriented and we rarely spoke about any difficulties that we were facing that weren’t work related. I feel as if when we went into lockdown there was a split down the middle between people who could continue to carry on with their projects and those who were impacted by not having the facilities available to them. I wouldn’t necessarily say that anyone did better as a result of COVID-19 but there were definitely students who didn’t let it affect their work and productivity. However, I don’t think any of us were happy with how it ended as we were unable to say goodbye to each other properly which was such a shame.
Ed: Once you’d graduated, what was your approach to securing employment? For example, were you throwing your portfolio and CV in the direction of anyone who would listen, or had you set your sights on any company in particular?
Sam: I was emailing employers about a month before I’d submitted my final year piece for feedback. I’d introduce myself and state what my intentions were for emailing and then ask for feedback on my piece and my CV, and ask if they were possibly in a position to take on any junior artists at the time. I made the majority of my contacts through this way and I found it to be a valuable exercise as not everyone was hiring but nearly everyone was in a position to give feedback. I believe I emailed over 70 arch viz companies and the majority weren’t in a position to hire due to the uncertainty of COVID and felt it wouldn’t be fair to take a junior on if they can’t guarantee they will stay active. I didn’t take this as a blow as I technically hadn’t been turned down by anyone, and because of this I carried on messaging people for feedback. My thought wasn’t to necessarily focus on an individual company but instead look at a companies portfolio and ask myself if I wanted to be a part of what they were creating.
Ed: A common issue I hear from graduates is that the emphasis on previous experience from prospective employers though understandable, can be highly demotivating as it’s not something that can be addressed in a CV or portfolio. Did you experience this when looking for positions and what was your attitude toward it, if so?
Sam: A few employers that I spoke to gave me that as a reason that they couldn’t hire me. They said they required at least a year’s experience at a professional studio before they could entertain the idea to hire a junior. I found this to be incredibly strange as surely after working in a studio for a year I would hopefully be less of a junior and more headed towards the path of a mid-level artist. I raised this query with the companies and said that “I understand that the company would be taking a risk hiring a new graduate with no professional experience but I believe that I am a risk worth taking”. Some companies changed their opinion and said that they will keep me in their record for when a job becomes open (one recently contacted me however I turned it down as I am happy working with Triadic Labs) and others just simply ignored me which I understand as well.
Ed: Did you adopt a particular mentality when it came to structuring your CV and portfolio? Were there any words of wisdom from friends or tutors that were particularly helpful?
I get a lot of positive feedback regarding my CV and I don’t make it any secret that my CV layout was purchased from a CV template website, which ironically makes it my best investment to date. As far as my portfolio I didn’t have a huge amount to show when I graduated but I intended on making sure that the stuff I did show was high quality. I revisited my Japanese forest scene in my third year to polish it up and make it presentable and this was a huge help. From there my portfolio of work was mainly my LinkedIn and Artstation. It helped that my work got a big boost from The Rookies awards as I was draft selected for my final year piece and became a finalist in two categories with it. This helped get my name out there further and get my foot in the door with a lot of my conversations.
Ed: On that note, since you landed a job it seems your portfolio did exactly as was required, but are there any shortcomings or problems with it that looking back, you would’ve changed anyway?
Honestly as much as my work helped me get a foot in the door the main thing that helped me get my job was my art test. I was told by a friend that a company called Triadic Labs were looking for a 3D Artist and were based in Coventry. I found that they were a start up company and this thoroughly intrigued me as I thought that this could be successful and I wanted to be a part of the journey that the company takes. So I initially messaged the other artist that worked there asking for feedback on my portfolio and he mentioned that I should apply for the job. We both got along well and found that we both studied at Staffs Uni which was a huge ice-breaker. The next day I spoke to the managing director James and he asked me what my goals and inspirations were and told me what the company focuses on and what they do on a day to day basis. He then asked if I would be interested in doing an art test and told me if I was successful that I would be invited to interview. I had a week to create a living room with the cap of 200k tris in UE4. I submitted the piece on the deadline day and two days later was invited to an interview for the following week.
Advice to fellow CGI Job Hunters
Ed: So to summarise your attitude to job-hunting for the benefit of other recent graduates: make your work accessible, get anything that represents you (ie: CV) done to the highest standard and never say die when it comes to contacting prospective employers, however disheartening it might be to hear no or nothing at all. Is that accurate and would you add anything else?
Sam: Yes I would say that this is accurate, I would also encourage people to be themselves and try their best to keep a positive mindset when looking for these opportunities. It’s rare that you’ll ever get a job handed to you especially when we have no experience but just keep trying and taking their feedback on board and you’ll get a positive response back eventually. It is also worth remembering to keep trying to expand your skill set. The more you know and can demonstrate in your portfolio and CV, the more you’ll stand out among the other applicants.
Ed: What was the experience of interviewing like? My assumption is that it was remote based since we were in lockdown at the time. Do you think there were any particular advantages or drawbacks to this compared to doing so in person?
I wasn’t too fazed initially by the idea of an interview as I’m a talkative person but I really wanted this job and I was determined to get it. The call took place on Microsoft Teams and I brought a webcam for it as that was a requirement of the job. I feel that there were more advantages of it being over webcam, mainly because I was in my bedroom/ office and this is a space that I am comfortable in and familiar with. I was interviewed by the other artist Adam and the managing director James. They asked me the standard questions of what did I enjoy about the art test and what would I do differently, then they mentioned that there was another applicant that did the scene in half the amount of tris that I did and how I would expect to lower my current scene to match that number. I answered the questions but I just thought that that was it and that I hadn’t got the job. After the interview ended I was told that I would hear an answer back in a week. The next day I got a phone call at around midday from James saying congratulations and that they wanted me to start the following week.
Ed: What was your working situation like when you started? Were you in office, working from home?
Sam: It’s strange to say that we have a team of 7 people with myself included and I have only met James once to pick up the work PC. Apart from that, all of my work has been remote and it’s not been an issue so far. We have all adjusted well to it and this company and the other artist Adam was also hired during lockdown so we don’t necessarily know much different to this.
Ed: Was there much change to that during the course of lockdown? Have the demands on where and how you worked changed much over time and what has been your approach to dealing with that?
As there are only two Junior Artists at Triadic Labs I definitely feel we do above and beyond what our job title would suggest. We are responsible for all of the art side of the company and we work incredibly well together which helps loads! If necessary we will have a crunch week but they rarely happen. It helps a lot as Adam is very talented with UE4 so he does a lot of our renders in real-time whereas I do most of my work in Blender where I create assets and renders using Cycles renderer.
Ed: You’re very early into your career and I’ve no doubt that further experiences might affect how you view some of your answers in future. Nevertheless, you seem happy with where you are, where you’re headed and thus, the attitude you’ve adopted to date should be considered a success. You appear to place great emphasis on self reliance. That is, you figure out what you want, establish a structure that you believe will facilitate reaching that goal and while it might need to adapt along the way, you’re steadfast in the belief that it will take you where you want to go.
That’s not to dismiss the significance of the support network you’ve had, but your ethos seems to be that “You’ll figure it out” regardless of what’s going on around you. This was true of your time at University, your final months during Covid and securing your first position in industry. Some might argue that this is a privileged perspective, that the sort of perseverance and self-determination you’re talking about is a luxury afforded only to people who are not burdened with responsibilities or by societal obstructions beyond their control. That your attitude toward being responsible for where you’re going is only possible because you’ve had it ‘easier’ than others might have.
For how frequently I hear this view expressed, it’s rare that I’ve been given a direct opinion on it from someone in your position. I don’t wish to pry into your personal life or derail this into some huge discussion about the hows and whys of society at large, but as someone who has succeeded in terms of reaching the goals they set themselves, what is your opinion on those achievements being judged by any merit other than their own? Have you ever encountered any challenges in life that really tested the sort of resolve you’ve been talking about here and if so, why were you able to overcome those?
Sam: I would have to personally disagree with this idea as I have encountered many testing times throughout my life, and I have had to work extremely hard to get to the point I’m at currently. I have had 15 life changing surgeries since birth which could have easily affected my time at school and could have meant that I was behind in my classes. However, I wasn’t prepared to let this hold me back so I attended extra classes outside of school to make-up for the time away that I needed to recover.
Once I finished secondary school I set myself the goal of attending sixth form and going on to study Psychology at University. However, after completing the first year of AS Levels I realised that it wasn’t for me and I knew that I had to look for an alternative route. After much deliberation I decided to attend college and study Games Development in the hopes of pursuing a career in Games Art. Initially my friends and family weren’t on board with this decision as they were unsure whether there was the possibility of attending University with this course, but after much convincing they soon came to support my decision.
When I was at college I spent most of my free time working a part-time job to save money for when I moved away for University. Once I finished college for the day I would then head to my job for the evening and night. I made sure that my priority was succeeding in the course so that my work could be the best it could be. This led to me receiving an unconditional offer of acceptance at Staffordshire University.
I have worked hard for everything that I have received and although the obstructions in my life haven’t been societal, this doesn’t mean that the odds were in my favour. I wanted something so I made it happen and when it didn’t work out then I found an alternative route and I made that work.
Ed: And finally, assuming I’ve not been eaten by sharks or the cat, if I was to speak with you again in ten years time, where do you hope to be and how do you plan to get there?
Ideally I would like to be working as a Senior 3D Artist but I am also interested in eventually going into teaching. As I’ve mentioned before my lecturer Dan McCarthy was a big reason that I enjoyed University as much as I did so I would ideally like to follow a similar path as he has. I’m unsure about whether I will be in the Arch-Viz industry in 10 years time but I guess we will see.
I intend to get to that stage of my life through committing to the job and continuing to learn from my co-workers and during my spare time. I want to keep developing my skill-set while continuing to improve my current ones.
Life finds a way
Ed: Now Initially, my plan was to end the conversation here and publish it on my website. As I expect you’ll remember, shortly before I planned to do so you got in touch to advise my that you’d unfortunately lost your job due to the company encountering funding issues. You were keen to make sure this was reflected in the conversation. This was in late April 2021 and by the time I’d gotten round to finalising the piece in June, you had already secured yourself a new position.
So in the time since that last class I hosted, you’ve completed your studies, graduated, secured employment, worked a full time job, lost that job due to forces outside your control and within a couple of months, secured your second. This has all taken place during the global pandemic. Some people would say you’re lucky. I would say those people should keep their mouths shut and not trivilaise what I expect has been a considerable amount of effort and reflection to keep yourself moving forward, during a period where there’s been no lack of excuses not to. I am interested to learn what this experience was like and how you managed to navigate the challenges it presented.
First of all, I want to ask how it felt when your first employer closed its doors? What was your immediate reaction?
Sam: I guess shock and disbelief honestly… I can remember it as if it were yesterday. We all were ready to start a busy week working on a demo walkthrough for a new hotel development in London. We started the day as usual with our morning meeting and then we all went off to do our jobs for the day. However, the other Junior artist and myself noticed that the top guys were on call for most of the morning and afternoon. This usually was an indication that we were going to receive some news in the afternoon meeting so we called each other on Teams and speculated what it could be about. We had recently finished a demo for a lot of properties in Dubai so we assumed it may have something to do with that. We were soon contacted by the boss to say that we all need to be in the afternoon meeting on time as there is big news. We were both quite excited as we thought that it was our big break for the company and that we had been successful. We never even assumed that it could be anything negative to the point where I even said “could you imagine if this is how they sacked us” and we both laughed about it as it didn’t even occur to us that it was a possibility at that time… I mean we were aware that if we didn’t secure any contracts from these big clients then we would be in some financial trouble later in the year but again that wasn’t going to be for ages so we never even assumed the announcement could be bad.
We joined the call at 3 and saw that all of the top guys at the company were already in the call which was unusual as usually we would all join one after the other. There was no beating around the subject and once all of us had joined the call my boss came out and said “I never wanted to have to say this but sadly as of today Triadic Labs is ceasing operations”. My first response was that this must be them joking and then the other artist and myself said that we were joking about it earlier. But they assured us that it wasn’t a joke and then he told us more about what has happened behind the scenes. They assured us that they wanted to do what’s right by us employees and the reason we were ending things now is so they could give us our notice and be able to pay us for our notice and for the time we’d already worked that month. I appreciated how open they were with us as you could tell they all genuinely cared about what happened to us afterwards. We are all around the same age so we all understood how it is trying to find work in this industry but they told us we could use our notice period to find new work and that we were free to use any of the work we had made in the past year for our portfolio and social media. This was a huge help in finding new work honestly. I am pleased though to say that the old team have all gone on to do things whether it be furthering their education with Masters and PHD or like myself gone back to work so I wish them all the best and I will always be grateful for that years experience with them.
Ed: Do you know if it’s common for closures such as these to happen in the industry? Do you think things are largely the same as they’ve ever been, or has the pandemic made things more/less cut throat?
Honestly I’m not too sure. We were a new startup company and when I joined Triadic Labs they had only been active for just under a year. This meant that when I joined we were still in the process of developing our workflow and deciding which tech and software would work best when creating our demos and virtual walkthroughs. There was always the risk that we could close if we didn’t get any big contracts, but we always assumed that at least one of the big clients we were contacting would sign us up for work. Sadly though it was always the same story, we would have loads of interest from them, do a demo for them, the demo would go well and then we would have radio silence. This became such a regular occurrence that towards the end it was almost expected with most clients instead of them actually saying yes. In the end the investor must have not seen us as a worthwhile long-time investment so pulled the plug and gave us 2 months funding to see us all out of notice periods. And then we were finished and Triadic Labs was no more. I don’t personally think it was that cut throat from him though as realistically he has to make money and if we aren’t making anywhere near what we thought we would make then for him it’s only business and I think we all understood that honestly.
Ed: I know when I’ve been in situations like these, your brain goes through phases. Shock, denial, anger, etc. Could you describe what stages you went through, how long they lasted and what you did to combat their effects? I think it’s important for people to hear how those who’ve been in these situations deal with them.
Sam: Well I felt disbelief at first and thought it could be a crappy joke before telling us good news. But once that faded I felt somewhat empty and sorry for myself, I went and told my parents and they said to me “you can either sit here and feel sorry for yourself or you can go and fix up your CV and get back out there like before” and that stuck with me for hours. I told all of those closest to me as I wanted their support as I felt truly devastated because not only did I feel bad about being made redundant, but I genuinely wanted to see the company succeed as we all had worked so hard trying to make it work and thrive. I joined the guys from Triadic on Teams and had a few drinks to see each other off and then we wished each other good luck and went off looking at our next options. I started working on updating my CV and looking at what companies were looking for artists then began applying for jobs the same way that I had been doing the year prior.
Ed: Noone wants to be in that situation, but would you say there were any benefits to the experience? Have you learned anything from it that you perhaps wouldn’t have learned elsewhere?
Sam: Well one of the benefits I had from the experience was that I now had worked full-time at a professional company for nearly a year. This meant that I was aware of the work expectations and could demonstrate that I could collaborate with other artists and programmers. I also had nearly a years more work to add to my portfolio and social media as opposed to the two pieces that I left university with. This was a massive help to me when looking for work as it showed that I hadn’t just spent the last year doing nothing but instead I was developing my skills and learning new software’s and renderers such as 3DS Max, Unreal Engine 4, Blender, V-Ray, Corona, Cycles and Real-Time rendering techniques. Also, working for a professional company for that time meant that I was able to develop my team working abilities and my vocal skills when speaking to clients. All of these newly developed skills and abilities were what helped me when looking for a job the second time around as it opened a lot more doors and it also helped make me stand out among other applicants.
Ed: I presume you updated your CV before applying to new places, but did you make any other changes to your portfolio? Beyond being able to say “Yes, I now have commercial experience”, did being in a professional environment have any impact on how you presented your work or what you felt it was important to highlight? If so, how did these differ from your approach after initially graduating?
Sam: Well this time round I had lots more work to show off than when I was looking for work the first time round, and I was able to show off demo videos that I had worked on and contributed to. I also decided to show off the breakdown of my projects as opposed to just a final render. This was because we always were asked by clients to show how the project came together, so I simply assumed that interviewers would be looking for the same thing. When I left university I still had work breakdowns but they were more of a progression shot instead of individual asset breakdowns.
Ed: And what about the interview process? I expect you felt more confident leading into it this time having already done it before, but did losing the previous job have any effect on the pressure you felt going in?
Sam: I applied to lot’s of different jobs this time round and branched out into all varieties of CGI work. I was invited to several interviews and was able to have conversations with lots of companies about my work, situation and their work and company. One of the interviews that I had offered me a job as a Junior artist but I had to politely decline the offer after finding that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to live where the business was located. Another interview that I had was for a Mid-level role as a Real-Time artist and saw me get to the final two candidates, however I wasn’t successful in getting the role as the other applicant had much more crucial experience than me. In hindsight I am very pleased that I didn’t get that job for many reasons but the main one being that I now know I would have been out of my depth working as a Mid at that time. In the end I was lucky to have one of my connections on LinkedIn suggest that I reach out to Blink in Manchester and to say that he recommended me for a Junior role. I was unsure of how this would play out as they weren’t listing any openings for Juniors at Blink at that time. I sent several emails back and forth to the owner of Blink and eventually we spoke on the phone and discussed what the possibilities are of me working there and what I am capable of doing in terms of work. I was told from the start that if there was a senior in the office who felt that they could train me then there would be a job available for me. After a week of waiting I received an invitation to join a Skype call with the owner and one of the Senior artists for a conversation and to demonstrate my modelling skills. I spent the day on call with the Senior artist and a week later I was given the job offer and began to look for a flat in Manchester. I have lived in Manchester for just over 4 months now and have fallen in love with the city, and I have worked at Blink for 7 months and I know that I am at the right company for me.
Ed: hat was your mentality like going into this new job? Would you say you were more or less confident than with the last?
Sam: I was feeling confident at first but I soon saw the amount of work the other artists were able to finish in a day and the quality that it was at. I quickly found out that it was going to be a big learning curve for me and that I was essentially back at square one in terms of my work speed. I needed to be shown how the company operated and how things were organised and the workflow that was used to create the projects or individual assets. Luckily I have a fantastic mentor who has had my back with work from the very start. He is always teaching me new and more time efficient ways to complete my tasks. It makes such a difference having his help because in the last job there were no seniors to ask for help when we were stuck. It was mainly myself and another junior artist relying on each other or YouTube to find solutions to our work problems, so to have someone teach and train you to the extent that he does is a real privilege. I can also tell that he wants me to succeed both in the company and as an artist as he is always completely honest with how my work is going as well as how I am progressing as an artist and I truly appreciate that. I have also been able to learn so much from the other artists in the studio and I have thoroughly enjoyed working in an office environment. There is something so much more satisfying about being able to show the person sitting next to you a work problem instead and receiving their help instead of having to message them and try to explain it over a call.
Ed: And what about the employer themselves? Do you feel like they maybe had a different impression of you having already had one industry role?
Sam: I think they understood that I was aware of what was expected of me. This was because one of the first things I was told is that they very rarely take on Juniors and that I would be the only Junior Artist in their Manchester office. This to me was daunting as I certainly didn’t want to be a burden on the company but I also thought of it as a boost of confidence as it made me think “wow they don’t hire Juniors but they hired me, they must feel I am capable of doing what’s asked”. I also used it to motivate myself as I don’t want to be the only Junior in the office and I’m now working towards getting bumped up to a Mid-level Artist.
Ed: I imagine there’s a fair few people who’ve find themselves in one, if not more of the positions you have over the last 18 months. If you had to break down what has worked for you as an approach to meeting and overcoming these challenges, what would it be?
Sam: Try to surround yourself with people who will push you to get off your ass and work instead of those who will give you a pity party 24/7. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have people who will be there when you are sad but you need them to then try and build you up and vice versa you should build them up too. I’d also say just get yourself out there… Like realistically the worst thing someone will do if you apply for a job is say no or just not reply. Is that the end of the world? No.
If you get turned down, ask why.
If they say you haven’t got enough work, then make some more work.
If they say you don’t have the software knowledge, try and learn the software.
It’s easy to feel like shit when a company rejects you but think of it statistically as it really is a numbers game. If you apply to 100 companies then at least 1 will come back with some interest and even if none do then that’s where you take time for self reflection and look at what in your CV, portfolio or approach needs adjusting. I have friends who didn’t get jobs straight away but they kept trying and working towards it and now they are working full time doing the job they want.
Good luck and don’t give up! Because if you do give up then you’re only making it easier for the other people.
Ed: Sam, thank you so much for your time and input on this over the last twelve months. I’m sure many people will be able to connect with your story and I think the clarity with which you’ve explained your approach will be useful for anyone encountering similar obstacles. Congratulations on your new position, all the best for your future endeavours!