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Out of the Box Skills Shortages

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​Putting people in boxes is something which occurs throughout every sector, and within every discipline. It is no more apparent than in the creative vs technical debate. You’re either good at mathematics, or you’re good at the arts. Black and white; no room for the grey area that is multiskilled workers and competent allrounders. Why is that? Why have we convinced ourselves that there’s only two paths we can tread? Is it an academic failing, started at the grass-roots level when we’re entering the professional world, or is it self-inflicted?

The games industry is crying out for skilled Technical Artists and Technical Animators because there’s a very distinct shortage. Every studio, large or small, now requires them. They are careers which didn’t exist five to ten years ago as a standalone role. Facets of being a Technical Artist or a Technical Animator were built into other people’s roles within the department. As pipelines have become more technical, and workflows are smoothed out, the need for a central focal point for these two specialisms has come to a head. 3D artists need to be able to do what they do best, so do animators; they haven’t got the time within their deadlines to crunch away at tool development or learn scripting languages.

Both Technical Artists and Technical Animators create tools and provide a function that aids video game production schedules. Whether shaving time off a repetitive task by creating a new workflow or creating bespoke packages from scratch to fill a gap in the market, they can be a studio’s best asset. But if that’s the case, why are there so few of them?

“Most people starting in games begin by embracing a broad range of skills and disciplines. People with a more artistic tendency would start off by learning software that allows them to produce beautiful imagery, perhaps specialising in animation, concept art, modelling, compositing, etc. Those with a more technical passion instead might tend to head towards a path in programming, which would conversely leave no time to learn other more artistic disciplines,” observes Federico Lamartina, an experienced Technical Animator at Firesprite. With a rich history of game development behind him, including work as a Digital Artist, Federico knows all too well the difference a good Technical Animator can have on a studio. “It is only natural that eventually one would have to specialise in a particular direction…either very technical or very artistic. [This] becomes necessary if we want to be competitive in our field.”

It’s an interesting point to make. In a hyper-competitive market, where talent wins out, it seems only natural to home in on your own specialism and learn all that there is to learn to stand out. But is this a common misconception? Would being a brilliant artist serve you better than being a great artist with scripting knowledge? It depends on the career you want, and ultimately what you enjoy.

“In my twelve years of running a BA and MA in Games Art and Design courses, I find most, if not all students that end up being Technical Artists don’t know they want to be Technical Artists or Games Designers until we start to introduce the students to the technical lessons,” adds Neil Gallagher, Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. “Their skills grow in these areas, particularly when they start to work on group projects and [they see that] tools are needed to help speed up production.” The need for Technical Animators comes from necessity. It can be seen by game development students at this early stage in their careers. These group projects instil a sense of teamwork, and the Technical Animator/Artist is nothing if not a team player.

“From my experience, becoming a Technical Artist works best when they have tried various aspects of being a digital artist. The student starts to build up an idea of areas of production that need improving. [For example it could be] taking a long time due to the repetition of tasks, lack of tools in an area, [something could be] too complicated for artists to use due to a steep skill curve, [there could be] pipeline blockages, lack of software documentation and so on,” adds Neil. This framework for learning and becoming a Technical Artist, by doing the role of the Animator or Artist first, is an interesting one. Can you really expect someone to design something for a competency they don’t know the intricacies of?

“If I can use my own career as an example, I initially wanted to be a Modeller and an Animator, but I soon realised that to be competitive I had to develop strong rigging skills. [This] led to learning how to code in Python to optimise my workflow, which then led to applying that knowledge to develop complex in-engine IK animation systems and player interactions,” says Federico. Knowing what he needed to do his job gave him the insight to search out the skills which would ultimately result in him becoming a Technical Animator. Becoming a Technical Animator/Artist “require(s) someone who has spent time wearing all of the different hats of the art department, but also has spent time learning how to code to maybe develop a game in their spare time.” It’s no small task, and there’s always something else to learn. It might go some way to explain why they’re in such short supply.

I spoke to Neil Gallagher about the possibility of a university running a technical program, to cover these competencies, and he confirmed it’s a debate which rears its head every six months or so within the animation department. “This year we have had around 1000 applications for 110 places on our BA Animation courses (Games Art, VFX, 2D & 3D Animation). Many of the applicants have technical games design portfolios and no traditional artwork. We advise them to do an art foundation. If we had a Technical BA, we could house the purely technical students. But that would mean they would not have any understanding of artwork and the needs of an artist.” It’s a double-edged sword. The students would certainly have the skills to do the job, but without any comprehension as to the specifics of why they’re doing it, or how the end product will benefit the Artist/Animator, would technical graduates be entering the games industry with a degree of unemployability due to that knowledge gap?

“Every Technical Artist, of course, has a different path and excels in some areas more than others, we are not all the same,” confirms Federico. It’s a thought shared by Neil. “Technical Artistry is a very wide area. The student could focus on VFX for film or Games, Rigging, Animation Tools, Hardware, MoCap, VR/AR Platforms, Renderfarms; even down to rendering materials.” There lies the issue. How do you teach that? How do you cover all of the competencies and skills required for the specialism when Technical Artist/Animator is a catch-all name for a million things you could do? The answer is, you don’t.

“Once a student has had a few lessons on the technical aspects of screen-based production, we then offer technical electives so they can expand their knowledge in areas of coding, blueprints, tools development and so on. Those students that really struggle in technical art can then opt out of these lessons and choose subjects that they enjoy, which might be more traditional art skills-based,” confirms Neil.

The support network and opportunities are there for those with the skills and drive to take them. The issue is the variety that the role of Technical Artist/Animator embodies. Those that can create gorgeous landscapes go into a career as an Environment Artist. Those that want to code and make amazing looking games generally become Graphics Programmers. It’s only with the experience that comes with seeing what the team need to be better at what they do, that a developer might decide to grab the bull by the horns and step up to a technical role. It’s not really about people being put in boxes, it’s more about understanding just how many boxes there could be within a games studio.

“Learning is a long and time-consuming process,” adds Federico. Developers continue to grow in their roles throughout their career, so it may be impossible to choose such a specific discipline early on. Especially as it remains clear that there are a multitude of roles within a games studio where a potential developer could fit. As they’re exposed to new methodologies, they may decide to venture into a new specialism. Studios have begun to pick up on this, carrying out skills workshops within their ranks to promote skills sharing. Could this innovative way of finding undiscovered talent, by opening developers up to roles and workflows that they may not be familiar with otherwise, be the solution to the skills gap in the industry?

Daniel Hawkins

Recruiter - Build A Rocket Boy

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