Thursday, June 30, 2016

College degree?

Here’s a question I am often asked by folks looking to break into the entertainment arts:

Is a degree essential to an career in the entertainment arts field?

I think this answer can vary depending on the exact role one pursues. However, in the most general sense the safest answer I would give is: 


And No. 

Given that I effectively dropped out of college after just two years, it could be argued that a degree was not important in my case. 

However I would be remiss to not point the timing: I broke into the gaming industry just as the arrival of CD-ROM helped usher the end of programmer-
art and give rise to ‘real’ digital art. All of a sudden g
ame companies couldn't hire digital artists fast enough as there were no entertainment design degrees and very few artists even versed in the relatively unsophisticated art software at the time. 

It so happened I had strong art chops plus actual computer art skills thanks to experience I had accumulated during shot my time in college, working for the college. It so happened I didn’t need a degree to get my break because I entered the field when there was little competition and a very high demand for artists. 
In other words, I lucked out.

These days there is no shortage of private, state and trade schools offering robust 2-, 3- or 4-year degrees in every aspect of entertainment design, churning out who knows how many thousands of art graduates around the world each year clamoring for the same few entry-level positions. 

If I was entering the field now, would a degree make a difference? You bet your ass it would! Ask any of my fellow grey-haired industry peers and they will probably tell you the same thing. 

But really? Even with my raw talent, my youthful enthusiasm, and the mad skills I had in Pagemaker and Photoshop 2.0? Does a degree really matter that much??

Honestly: No. 

In my own experience, I’ve never once been asked about a degree, and I have never known it to impact a job opportunity. As a hiring manager looking for candidates myself, I usually give very little attention to someone’s academic credentials. Furthermore, almost every job description I’ve ever read gives the qualification: “college-degree or equivalent industry experience”.

Now, what does ultimately matter is how competitive you are relative to the needs of the position. Do you have the proficiency to produce high quality work? Do you have all the required skills and know how to effectively use all the required tools? Do you have the experience to show you can work under deadlines, collaborate with others, manage your time, take direction, communicate clearly, and solve-problems?

While I assert that a degree in and of itself is not key to a successful arts career in the entertainment field, what is absolutely important is how a degree, or even the pursuit of that degree, makes you more competitive in your field. 

Any good school is a protective cocoon that enables students to learn the tools and craft of their trade, often by industry experts with active networks capable of delivering star students right past company HR barriers into the hands of hiring managers. These institutions offer networks of supportive peers, access to the latest industry equipment, valuable job resources and industry contacts otherwise difficult to attain on one's own.

Of course not all educations provide all of this. With education becoming ever more expensive and student loan costs spiraling out of control, what makes any education worth the cost is what any student is able to take from it. Those who dedicate their time and effort to learning all they can, to being the best they can, are maximizing their competitive edge for those entry level jobs that that can mark the beginning of a career. Those that don't are simply incurring a massive amount of debt.

Taking the alternate path to teach oneself is possible but the burden of self-learning is all the harder. For those already with a foot in the door, one can certainly pursue the career that pays the student, as I did, but this comes with its own risk and trade-offs. My advice in this case would be to treat work as your education, each job a class measured by what it can teach you and how it can make you more competitive for your next job. Otherwise you can find your entire skill set and professional identity shaped by a single job whose goal it is to serve the interests of the company, not your future.

Fundamentally the success of any career is a product of supply and demand. When demand outweighs supply, like it did in my time, one doesn’t have to be as competitive. But when supply matches or outweighs demand, like I believe it has for some time now, then career success is directly impacted by how one is measured in comparison to all the other job seekers competing for the same positions.

Ultimately the goal of a degree is to help you start a career. It is the means to an end. But really the means is just the investment of time, energy and resources you are willing to make to become the best qualified for the opportunities you most desire. 

That, and a good dose of luck and timing!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Learning to Think Like a Designer

For 25 years I’ve worked in the visual arts field—from traditional illustration and graphic design, to visual design and art direction for games, feature animation and tech.

Having dropped out of college early on I never really gained an academic understanding of what the word ‘Design’ actually meant, and across my career my understanding of what good design is has continued to evolve. 

With the advent of my first job as a graphic artist designing flyers, posters, banners and ads for campus events at SJSU, I thought of design as simply what one did with design software—All the flyers, posters, banners and ads I made a were ‘designs’ simply by virtue of having been made with Pagemaker 2.0. 

© 1995 Mark Cordell Holmes
Over my first couple of years this idea began to evolve into a product of aesthetic choice--which dozen or so system fonts were used, which gradient patterns or shapes, how much illustration versus type. Designs were light, dark, sparse, text-heavy, or image-heavy, designations of the visual qualities that comprised them.

This understanding changed as I moved into computer games. Here design was about making things look cool. The greater the level of detail, the more rendering polish and visual complexity the better designed it was—the goal often being to design the shit out of everything.

When I joined Pixar my understanding of design truly began to mature. 

As as a production artist on my first couple of films, I was responsible for translating 2D character, set and prop concept art into production drawings that not only ensured that each design abided by the same rational world scale so characters could fit through doors, and so on, but also resolved the tiniest details so each design could truly function within the 3D world, or at least give the illusion it functioned.

 ©1998 Pixar/Disney

Designs were broken down into ‘packets’ of carefully measured turn-arounds, break-downs, cut-aways and elevations to maximize clarity and consistency as they were interpreted into 3D by teams of production modelers, riggers, and shading artists. Production art demanded a mindfulness for detail that led me to think of design as a process of defining and solving the tiniest problems so each design could serve its needs relative to story.

As I graduated to a designer role, this level of thinking was elevated to an entire character or set. No longer simply a matter of filling in details, it became about finding the right design choices for a given character or set though an in-depth process of asking questions, exploring and discounting options, making discoveries, and circling ever inwards until the right choices were found with respect to the needs of story. 

 ©2004 Pixar/Disney

This view of design as a process of deeply understanding a single person, place or thing in context of story exploded once I learned how to art direct. At Pixar, art directors manage the look, communication and consistency of different visual disciplines—characters, sets, textures, light & color, or even graphics. As designs cross through the 3D pipeline from art to modeling to rigging, shading, and lighting, passing though multiple hands, it falls on the art directors to maintain design integrity across all designs within their discipline. And as no design exists in a vacuum, every design is informed by the designs around it—how big a character looks is very much relative to the size of other characters and objects around it—art directors are always mindful of how all designs relate to each other within their discipline, within the service of story.

When I stepped in as art director on Wall-e, and became responsible for establishing the visual style of every graphic element in the Axiom, I needed to develop a design logic that that not only established a meaningful relationship of type, iconography, pattern, color, shape and motion between the graphic elements themselves, but that also worked in conjunction with the all the environmental, story, performance, camera and lighting decisions in context around them. 

Original matte painting by Paul Topolos  ©2008 Pixar/Disney

While this experience opened my eyes to the sheer complexity and problem-solving that design entailed, my real understanding of design came with production designing 'Lifted'. 

For this film of just 5 minutes, I was responsible for the look of every visual element in every shot. My varied learnings up to this point—the arbitrary use of design elements, to making things look cool, to solving the laborious details, to owning a single design, or an entire design discipline—all fell short of the task ahead of me.

At Pixar, production design is basically the process of interpreting and relating story intent into cohesive, consistent and compelling visuals, from the thoughtful design relationship of characters, props and sets, to the orchestration of all the visual design elements: composition, staging, light, color, form, space, depth, an so on. 

As the relationship of image to story helps communicate information, elicit emotion, reveal character, and convey subtext, production design requires an intimate understanding of the creative intent of not just the the film as a whole, but the dramatic progression from scene to scene, the intent of each shot, and a sensitivity to how any detail, no matter how small, can help convey story intent.

©2008 Pixar/Disney
Of course, as much as I learned at Pixar, my understanding of design did not stop there. Returning to games with Dynamighty enabled me to think of design as a mode of thought and problem-solving. Here I had the opportunity to help craft an interactive experience defined by completely different set of constraints, goals and needs. And for the first time I was not approaching design as a service provider visualizing someone else’s voice, but as a co-author author articulating my own voice. 

©2014 Sony Computer Entertainment

Art directing Counterspy expanded my consideration of design as not just the use of visuals to support a carefully constructed narrative, but as the means to crafting a user experience and fulfilling a core player fantasy in service of game design. This entailed communicating goals, supplying user motivation, shaping an immersive and engaging world that supports player fiction, and establishing clear visual gameplay systems.

©2014 Sony Computer Entertainment
From the games space to the tech world of Google, my understanding of design was stretched again. Illustrating and leading Doodles, where design was used to capture the curiosity of billions of internet users around the world within a 500x200 pixel space, as well as to help bring more user delight to a range of Google products and services, I discovered that the heart of the Doodle team was about bringing a soul to technology through artistic expression and the celebration of humanity. 

© 2015 Google

Over my career I’ve applied many of these learnings into a series of cinematic design talks on visual and emotional storytelling as it relates to film, animation, and even writing as I routinely apply design thinking to my own script and novel writing.

Since then, I have come to see design as a broad process of understanding, problem-solving and communication, where the success of execution is only as effective as the design thinking behind it. While perhaps far from academic or complete, my understanding of design is being expanded once again as I now consult with Virtual & Augmented Reality companies to help them craft entirely new visually immersive experiences. 

So what I have gleaned through all of this? 

Visual design is a means for crafting experience, whether expressed through movie screens, computer screens, mobile screens, virtual reality or words or pictures on the page, imagery is a means of capturing people's imagination, to distract, amuse, inform, engage and powerful illicit feeling. 

What is successful design? You know it when you don't just see it, but you feel it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Why Story by Design?

This Story by Design blog is a collection of learnings, processes, observations and inspirations I’ve collected across my career. 

In my posts I’ll share lessons learned from some of the animation industry’s best directors, storytellers and craftspeople I’ve had the privilege of working with over my 16 years at Pixar; I’ll compare my experiences moving between feature CG animation, computer games and tech, including my approach to art directing the BAFTA-nominated game, Counterspy, and designing Google Doodles; I’ll give observations and analysis of visual storytelling in feature film and animation and discuss my thoughts on experiential design for VR; I’ll post inspirations and anecdotes, answer commonly asked questions and hopefully feature some wisdom of industry peers more knowledgable than myself.

A few reasons for starting this blog: 

When I taught two courses on Production Art for 3D Animation at the Academy of Art in San Francisco several years ago, I found the time commitment too great between teaching, working full-time and being a parent of young twins. But I discovered that I truly enjoyed teaching and helping others, which perhaps stemmed from being largely self-taught. I also quickly realized I couldn’t teach what had I learned through doing without a more academic understanding of how and why I was taught to do things this way. Teaching became as educational for me as for my students, if not more even more so.

Over time my continuing desire to teach led to my lecture series on Cinematic Design and Visual Storytelling which I have taken to universities, companies, events and conferences around the San Francisco Bay Area. With this blog I intend to expand these concepts around a wider framework of visual-emotional storytelling to encourage a more meaningful approach to visual design informed by emotional or narrative considerations over simply aesthetic or stylistic ones.

I believe what elevates a well-crafted work beyond thee conventions of technique, form or genre is emotional connection, with the capacity to emotionally move an audience as the heart of true artistry. As I have always been drawn to the creative work of artists who express their own voice and points of view, I believe the more honest, original and meaningful an expression the artist brings to their work, the more truthfully, personally and meaningfully it can resonate with an audience. 

With this blog I propose that successful visual storytelling is equal measures art and craft—that is ART as WHAT idea is being said, and CRAFT as HOW that idea is visually expressed. With so much attention already paid to the ‘How of Craft’, with its answers, rules, guidelines and conventions, I hope to bring some attention to the more nebulous ‘What of Art’, which in my experience is usually a process of first finding the right questions to ask. 

At a personal level I am using this blog as an exercise to further develop my own artistic voice and better craft my thoughts on emotional design. I am very much still a student and I am not sharing my particular experiences and perspective to prescribe answers or assert myself as an authority. Rather I want to encourage thought and discourse on good design, and if I can offer any value, insight or inspiration to artists and storytellers, it would be to dare you to seek out your own artistic voice that you might create expressive work more meaningful to both yourself and your audience. 

And if you just happen to get to that place, let me know what it feels like!