The Evolution of a 3D Artist: What Has Changed in the Past 15 Years

Richard Thomas talks about the differences between starting out in 3D in the early 2000s and now, shares what skills an artist should have, and pictures the role of a 3D artist in the future.

Self-taught Richard Thomas has seen 15 years’ worth of industry evolution in the 3D space. Now Head of 3D at Jellyfish Pictures, he leads 3D across some of the world’s highest profile projects including The Book of Boba Fett and Stranger Things.

How has the life and work of a 3D artist changed since he set out? And what has remained the same?

What led you to pursue a career in 3D?

I come from a traditional art background, I studied Fine Art and Art History at Goldsmiths, University of London, then went on to complete a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Academy of Art. During my studies, I became interested in using computers to create images and animations, playing around with going from 2D to 3D – so that’s how it started for me.

Starting out in 3D then: breaking into the commercial industry

3D was a natural fit for advertising and the film industry. However, the aesthetic I developed during my studies in Fine Art didn’t make sense in a commercial setting. I was in a new territory and realised that I couldn’t compete with the artists trained specifically to cater to those industries. I knew nothing about how to make commercial work or how to fit inside a team. All I had was a computer and the knowledge of how to use certain programmes. I was also a good critical thinker thanks to my education in Art History, and I was good at problem-solving. 

Back in the early 2000s, you either became a runner at a company, working your way up to get a seat at the table, or went to university, and usually, you would still need to run after that, but eventually, you got an opportunity. The third option was to teach yourself, become autonomous and try to find a way in – which is what I did. I decided to target a niche area of the market where there was a shortage. For me, that was MEL scripting, which is a language used to automate 3D processes within Maya. I found a few jobs where they needed that ability and I was a cost-effective option because I was a junior, and there weren’t many juniors with this type of skill around, it just wasn’t pursued that much. Over time, my artistic skills started to adapt as well and make sense commercially, which then opened up more opportunities.

Starting out in 3D now

Becoming a runner is still very common in the industry, and it can be a good way of getting your foot in the door. But mastering software and learning new skills on your own has become so much more accessible: you can just go on YouTube and watch a tutorial these days. People create content and share knowledge for free, and even big software companies recognise that in order to stay relevant, they need to capture users, so quite a few of them put out free educational content as well and create paths to learning. 

As the industry evolved, university courses have become more structured – 3D art wasn’t even an option when I did my A levels. It’s still a competitive industry and if anything, the barrier of entry is higher now as most companies are looking to hire people with at least an undergraduate degree. At the same time, there’s a lot more awareness and the career path is more defined and navigable than it used to be.

How did you teach yourself in an era where knowledge wasn’t so readily available?

I used to spend all my money on textbooks to learn how to use Maya, I read them on the bus, in the bath, just memorised them back and forth. While I was at university, I was also diagnosed with dyslexia; I didn’t realise it earlier because I had always been a good student but I took a test and it showed that I’m on the spectrum. So that qualified me for a free computer and it did get me through university, but I was also able to use it for other things. After a while though, it got so old and knackered that it started to overheat massively. I had to go down to my local plumbing shop and get an extractor fan so I could plug it into the mains and keep it cool enough to finish my portfolio to apply for my postgraduate. There were no next-day delivery services then to get a laptop cooler, and I couldn’t afford a new computer, so I worked with what I had.

What advice would you give to people wanting to forge a career in 3D?

I think a lot of people go into this thinking that if they follow the path, they will find a career, and that’s just not true. My advice to everyone is to make sure you’re in control and maximise your chances – don’t leave your future in somebody else’s hands. Make yourself indispensable. If a company needs a specific skill and you’re the only one they can find, they will hire you. 

And for some people, especially if you learn best in unconventional ways, going to university might not be the best option. It might suit you better to become a runner and get experience that way. I think it’s still possible to do what I did too, there’s no right way in. You just have to understand what kind of person you are and how you learn best.

What was the general landscape for a 3D artist 15 years ago and what has changed since then?

There were two types of workflows when I started out: a very ad-hoc, loose way of working and a stratified structure with hard-coded relationships between tasks and steps. This fully structured pipeline is still how a portion of the industry functions, but I think we’re moving towards a more fluid space where you work within frameworks. That kind of setup organises the workflow more loosely, allowing room for agility and innovation. Ultimately, the fully structured workflow will always be around because it’s cost-effective, but I believe that in order for artists to feel empowered and produce the highest quality work, some flexibility needs to be built into the pipeline.

How do you see the importance of geographical location then versus now when it comes to 3D work?

There were certainly pockets of the industry across the globe, one of them being London, and Soho specifically. I am from London originally, so I tried to take advantage of it being on my doorstep and appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to consider moving at all. In general, though, it’s become a lot more decentralized now. With cloud-based workflows, it’s become fairly common for studios to have artists working fully remotely. It’s important for a business to have that robustness, especially in a post-pandemic era. On the other hand, many studios are moving towards multi-site models across countries, as well as having relationships with vendors and sub-vendors all over the world, creating more opportunities to enter the industry outside of those traditional hubs.

The industry has always been notorious for its long hours. Has the work/life balance improved, with all the technological advancements we see?

I think there’s more of an awareness around mental health, stress, and how they’re linked to productivity. Twenty years ago, sure people knew in an informal kind of way and tried to look out for one another, but there is a formal awareness now that was missing back then. The nature of the industry and the increasingly tighter deadlines, particularly around episodic work, are big pressure but there are more legitimate channels to seek support if you need it. I feel like we’re on the right track but not fully there yet. 

In my current role as Head of VFX at Jellyfish Pictures, it’s one of my main priorities to reduce those stressors for my team because we’re more productive that way. I only ask for overtime when absolutely necessary because part of my goal is to create a work environment that’s better for everyone and better than it used to be for me when I started.

What are the most important skills to have now when you are starting out in 3D?

I think the most valuable skill is still professionalism. The ability to listen, understand what’s being asked of you, and then follow through. And if there are any blockers, if you need help, communicate that. During one of my first jobs, I had to tell them that I just didn’t have the skills to do what they hired me to do – I can keep trying, but it won’t have a good outcome. It’s better to be clear and communicate in the beginning so you don’t find yourself in this position.

What do you think will be most needed in the future? Can you picture the role of a 3D artist in 10 years' time?

I think there will be better systems and tools to take care of some of the more manual processes. Just like now, we have better modeling tools, so when I look at what I used to do, push points around manually, it seems crazy. By extension, tasks that we think of as artistic now will become automated: for example, cleaning up a texture for a material by painting over it. Soon enough, with machine learning and AI, we’ll be able to train that modification and embed it into the software.

What will consistently be needed besides professionalism are interpersonal skills and critical thinking: identifying the problems and solving them, being able to manage expectations and communicate well. These all ultimately drive productivity. The need for these soft skills will always be there as long as there are people in the business.

Richard Thomas, Head of 3D at Jellyfish Pictures

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