Naughty Dog's Jack Coleman gives 10 career tips to help young artists land their first jobs in game development – even at the biggest studios
Most people don't get jobs with AAA studios straight out of school: they gain experience at indie developers, working on smaller games, then move to the majors once they've built up their portfolio.
But as Uncharted 4: A Thief's End proves, just because it's difficult to go from school to big-name game studio doesn't mean that it's impossible. In fact, one in 20 of the artists who worked on Naughty Dog's critically acclaimed third-person shooter were recent Gnomon graduates.
To help you get your first job in the games industry, we asked Jack Coleman, Naughty Dog's recruiting and studio coordinator – and the man responsible for hiring those Gnomon alumni – what young CG artists can do to maximize their chances of being hired straight out of school. Some of the 10 tips below are specific to AAA developers but many, including those relating to how to format your portfolio, are common to studios of any size.
To help you get your first job in the games industry, we asked Jack Coleman, Naughty Dog's recruiting and studio coordinator – and the man responsible for hiring those Gnomon alumni – what young CG artists can do to maximize their chances of being hired straight out of school. Some of the 10 tips below are specific to AAA developers but many, like the advice about how to format your portfolio, are common to studios of any size.
1. Apply 6-8 months before release
The first thing to do is to time your application right. As a recent graduate, you're unlikely to be hired at the start of a game, when the studio is looking for experienced artists to steer development. The best time to apply is six to eight months before the title is due for release, when smaller tasks are piling up. “A lot of jobs like building props and rigging destructible environments keep getting put off throughout production as everyone barrels towards deadline,” says Coleman. “These are jobs junior artists can do.” The release dates for major games are listed on the gaming news sites, and on Wikipedia. IGN's list of games on show at E3 is a great place to start. Click through the hyperlinks for individual release dates.
2. Contact a recruiter personally
Don't just send off your reel blindly
and hope the right person sees it. Rather than using the generic
contact address the developer lists on its website, track down an
individual recruiter and contact them in person.
LinkedIn is a good
place to search, if you have a wide enough contacts network; or you
may be able to track down a recruiter via the websites of trade shows
at which the studio has had a booth. If you only know their name, try
searching for them on Twitter, or even just guessing their email
address: most big companies use addresses in the format john_doe,
john.doe or jdoe [at] tripleastudio.com.
3. Apply even if no job is advertised
Don't be put off by the fact that no junior artist jobs are listed on the website. When things get busy, people tend to focus on the most urgent tasks, so you may represent a ready-made solution to a staffing problem that the recruiter hasn't got round to tackling yet. “Contact them even if there isn't a position listed,” advises Coleman. “They may not know themselves that they need you to contact them.”
4. Be brief and polite
In your initial contact, keep things brief and polite. “Just say, 'I see you have a game coming out soon. Here's my portfolio: if you need any extra help, let me know.' Something as simple as that can get you your first job in the industry,” says Coleman.
5. Format your portfolio correctly
There's no 'one format fits all' rule when it comes to preparing a portfolio. Naughty Dog accepts submissions in many formats, including still renders, animated turntables, edited reels, and links to artist websites. But be mindful of the fact that your work will need to be passed around different people in the studio, so a format that keeps everything in one place works wonders. “A link to an online gallery is fine, but we love it when people send us a PDF of their work,” says Coleman. “It's something we can share across the studio, and nobody has to click on links.”
There's no 'one format fits all' rule when it comes to preparing a portfolio. Naughty Dog accepts submissions in many formats, including still renders, animated turntables, edited reels, and links to artist websites. But be mindful of the fact that your work will need to be passed around different people in the studio, so a format that keeps everything in one place works wonders. “A link to an online gallery is fine, but we love it when people send us a PDF of their work,” says Coleman. “It's something we can share across the studio, and nobody has to click on links.
6. Be concise
Keep the number of projects in your portfolio down. “Two or three great pieces is all you need in your portfolio,” says Coleman. “We don't need 20 or 30 examples.” Including too many actually reduces your chances of getting hired, as the weaker pieces dilute the impact of the stronger ones.
7. Be specific
During busy periods, a studio just wants to see from your portfolio that you're capable of filling the very specific gaps it has in production. So focus on a particular skill. If you're best at character modeling, show only characters; if you specialize in environment work, focus on that. Don't throw in a bit of concept art and a bit of animation in the hope that it will make you more employable. It won't.
8. Be accurate
If the developer has any general guidelines for job applications, follow them precisely. “If they don't ask for a cover letter, do not send a cover letter,” says Coleman. “For a start, you aren't following the instructions. For another, it sets you up to fail if whoever reads the letter starts nitpicking about things like run-on sentences and missing periods.” Most developers will want to see a resume as well as a portfolio: again, the briefer the better. Nobody needs a list of all the courses you took at high school when they're just trying to hire a Maya animator.
9. Be a team player
Game developers don't need divas, but especially not during busy periods in production. If you're lucky enough to be invited to an interview, remember that the studio isn't just trying to find out how good you are as an artist: it's trying to find out who you are as a person. “During interviews, we're making sure that you're a team player, and that you can take instruction from a supervisor,” says Coleman.
10. Think about your next job, too
As a recent graduate, the odds of getting a job at an AAA developer right out of school are stacked against you. But with the right timing, right portfolio, and the right approach, you may buck those odds. If you are lucky enough to get hired, make the most of your time at the studio, particularly if you're on a short-term contract: the work you do is your passport to your next position – hopefully, a permanent one this time. “Start getting your samples together early. Be vocal with your supervisor about that,” advises Coleman. “Once you leave, it's hard to get them back, and you don't want to miss out.”
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Watch recent demo reels from Gnomon graduates
Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more