How to become a 3d modeler

Eric James Lyman
Mar 13, 2015 · 9 min read

I have worked as a 3d modeler in the animated film industry for about ten years. From time to time I receive e-mails from people who are interested in becoming a professional 3d modeler (typically for games, VFX or feature animation). The questions are often the same, and so I thought I’d write a little bit about the subject here.

There are three things that will help you land a job as a professional 3d modeler, more than anything else:

  • Your portfolio
  • Your experience
  • Who you know

Pretty much everything you need to do will be related to these in some way. Lets look at them each in turn, shall we?

Your portfolio

This is the most obvious of the three. Employers (more specifically, your future co-workers) are going to want to know that you can deliver on the claims your resume makes, and to see if you are the right fit for the type of work the studios does.

This should be your best work. The old axiom is, “You are only as good as the worst thing on your reel”. I hate that, but it’s absolutely true. From a psychological standpoint, people will remember a bad model more than the good one, in the same way we tend to remember criticism more than compliments. So how do you know if you are showing only your best work? Here’s another truism: “If you’re unsure if a model should be on your reel or not, it shouldn’t be.” After you’ve gone through this self evaluation, try to get brutally honest feedback from people whose artistic ability you respect. Ignore the compliments and listen to their constructive advice. Then post your work on a popular CG forum for critique. You’re far less likely to get direct advice this way, but you will be able to see how well your work compares with others (who are also competing for the jobs you want). Watch for their reactions. If you get very little, it could mean your work isn’t good enough, or doesn’t stand out. Recruiters look at tens or even hundreds of reels each day, and if yours doesn’t make an impression, you’ll likely be passed over.

As you can see, this is a large topic which I can’t do complete justice to here. Later on I may address this in more detail.

Your experience

This is one of the cruel jokes of this industry to someone who is just starting out, but having prior experience greatly increases your chances of getting a job. If you don’t have this experience as I assume you don’t (since you got this far in to the article), here are some suggestions.

> Find an internship

This is probably one of the best ways to go, especially if you can get in with a well known studio. You may or may not get paid as an intern, but the simple fact that you can list that studio as previous experience on your resume is golden. Additionally, you’ll be in a situation where you can increase your skills while networking with professionals. And that is simply invaluable.

> Work your way up

A slightly less desirable option is to apply for a position with a well known studio that is not what you actually want to do. It will probably be something non-creative, like working as a personal assistant, in the mail room, as a night-shift render wrangler or something along these lines. Once you’re in, look for any and all opportunities to help out on productions, rub shoulders with artists, ask questions, stay late and/or use someone’s workstation for learning. In short, make it obvious that you are enthusiastic as hell and will do whatever it takes to become something more than you are now. This sounds exactly like a triumphant underdog story from some movie, right? I might have said so in the past, but I actually know a guy who did that at Dreamworks successfully.

> Do freelance work for cheap… or free.

This could be the worst option, but it’s still an option. I hesitate to recommend doing free work, because doing so creates that expectation among clients, which is bad for talented artists who are worth the money. Then again, perhaps it’s a “get what you pay for” type situation that corrects for itself. Regardless, for someone just starting out it can be an easy way to add professional work to your portfolio, and learn a thing or two along the way.

Who you know

This is probably true of many industries, but it seems especially true in this one. Quite often studios never even advertise open positions, because they can simply reach out to their current employees for top notch recommendations. Having a network of professional friends will help in this regard- and help keep you employed once you become a professional yourself. This also ties in to your reputation and personality. If people don’t like you, you’re obviously not going to get that inside scoop. Less obvious though, is that even if you do get wind of a job opening and apply for it, you may not get a call back since the studio will have asked around about you first with their staff. The animation, VFX and gaming industries are very small compared to others. Others like, dentistry, car manufacturing, retail… you get the idea. It’s a tight knit group of digital artists. The type of person you are will carry you farther along, or hold you back.

So how do you get to know people in the industry? Besides doing internships or similar, it’s pretty tough. To be honest, the only way to get a large network of professional friends you can depend on is to grow one yourself. This is arguably the biggest benefit of going to college. Of course there are much less expensive alternatives to this as well: usergroup meetings, life drawing classes, conventions like siggraph, and so on. Can’t find something near you? Consider organizing something yourself. Whatever it is, make sure you’re in a face to face setting with your fellow humans. I think it makes a difference when it comes to actually connecting with someone- not just an avatar and username online.

That about sums up what I feel are the most important things you’ll need to do to break in to the entertainment industry as a 3d modeler. But, to make this article well rounded I’ve asked some of my modeler friends to chime in with their best bits of advice. Here they are.

Advice from other professional modelers

“Understanding the ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ regarding the elements and principles of design is to me the most important thing a modeler can do. It is the foundation of every good (or bad) decision an artist can make.” -Ardie Johnson, Senior Modeler at DreamWorks Animation

“When I was in college no one told me I needed to know understand topics like anatomy, python, design theory… I was basically playing catch up from day one.” -Michael Chang, Modeler at Hydraulx

“Take pleasure in your work, but never be satisfied with your skill set.” -David Strick, Modeler at DreamWorks Animation

“Model constantly. It should be what you spend all your free time doing. And exercise. It’s easy to get tubby doing this.” -Jason Baldwin, Modeler at DreamWorks Animation


Lastly, I want to acknowledge that this article has been necessarily broad, and I get that sometimes more specificity is desired. Lets move to the last fun segment, my very own “I wanna be a 3d modeler” FAQ!

What software should I learn?

Maya and Zbrush.

Maya is pretty much the default software in the industry for creating 3d models, and has been for a while. If you learn that one first and foremost, you’ll already have made yourself compatible with most of the studios out there. And since the learning curve is so steep, it doesn’t make sense to try and learn more than one major package (like 3d Max). Thankfully, Maya is awesome, well supported, and you can model pretty much anything with it.

Zbrush is pretty much the king of sculpting software. Yes, there’s Mudbox but it has technical limitations as compared to it’s competitor, and Zbrush seems to be more on the bleeding edge with tons of new features and software versions. Plus, like Maya, it seems to be more used in the industry at this point.

Should I go to school?

Going to school can be advantageous. As mentioned previously, you’ll be in a fantastic networking environment and hopefully learning a ton from experienced professionals. On that note… If you choose to seek out education, make damn sure that the people who will be your teachers are people who have worked in the industry themselves. And be especially cautious of large institutions that want to charge you a lot of money and offer you student loans. Ultimately, going to school can be a huge aid- what you put in to it will be what you get out- but I don’t feel that it’s required to actually learn to become a competent 3d modeler. One thing is for certain- studios could care less. It’s your demo reel and work experience that they look for. So if you are hoping to impress with your educational credentials, please reconsider.

One excellent point to consider though, is that even though you can learn everything you need to know on your own, one thing that school can give you is an environment in which you can perform your best. And by this I mean: experiencing stress, deadlines, and peer competition. Being subject to those elements will push you to learn faster, work harder and do more than you ever could on your own. This also ties in to my earlier statement about getting out what you put in.

Do you have any advice about demo reels?

Less can be more. If you follow my advice about only showing your best work, you may end up with very few models on your reel, and that’s ok. I’ve seen very successful reels that only feature 3–4 models, and I’ve seen terrible reels that feature 10–15 models. I would also suggest keeping the total time under 2 or so minutes if possible. Find some good music and match your edits to the beat. Have a friend who knows more about editing critique it. These are all subtle ways to help you stand out more.

What are your thoughts? Have any experiences to share? Or questions I didn’t address? Sound off in the comments and I’ll catch you there. (disclaimer, these are my personal opinions and do not reflect those of my employer)

Update, July 2015:

One thing that I didn’t touch upon in this article was the simple question that I am sometimes asked via e-mail: Should you try to become a 3d modeler? That’s something I can’t answer, but I can give you some opinions on the matter.

As mentioned earlier, the industry for entertainment driven 3d modeling (films, games, visual effects) is incredibly small compared with other industries like medicine, engineering, etc. This means your odds of landing the job you want, all things being equal, are small. Many of the people I went to school with aren’t doing anything related to their studies now, and they still have to pay back their large student loans.

The other thing to know is that once you have landed an entertainment 3d modeling job and started your career, you can (again, in general) not expect very much job security. The film industry tends to ramp up for projects and then ramp back down. So you may have to get comfortable with the idea of switching employers with some regularity, and/or being comfortable with relocating to other cities or countries to stay employed. (as I did!)

Also, because it’s generally a project based employment situation, there are naturally times where the production is in “crunch mode” and you’ll be asked to work overtime hours.

So you’re potentially considering a career that isn’t stable, has long hours and has a large barrier to entry in the first place. If you are say, young, single, like to travel… it might be the perfect choice. If you aren’t exactly young, have a family, would prefer to put down roots… Not so much. But there are also your preferences to consider: If you love, and I mean LOVE 3d modeling, I’m not going to tell you to not go for it- because in many ways it can be a rewarding, fun, and fulfilling career. But you’re going to have to work hard- probably harder than you think to make it happen.

On the flip side, if you have any interest in computer programming, I can’t think of a better career to go in to right now. Software engineers are paid well, are in high demand, and the market isn’t small. So pretty much the reverse situation! Just some food for thought.

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