Specialist or Generalist as a Digital Artist?


One of the most common questions I get asked - and this week alone I've received a lot of email about this is exact question..

"Should I be a specialist, or should I be a generalist?"

This question applies to you - whether you're a designer, an FX TD, animator, you work in video games, or you create portraits of celebrities to sell on Etsy. Whatever you do, as a creative artist, we always wonder if by specializing or "niching down" we're eliminating the opportunity for other work and jobs.

I think the misconception is that by specializing, you're really saying no to everything, except for a very specific job, and that it's going to be a massive massive risk.

I wanted to cover this question and reveal a lot of insights to not only put this topic to rest, but also how you can apply these mindsets to what you're doing, to position yourself as the obvious expert.

[Watch The Video]

[The Specialist Mindset]

The first thing we all need to do is change our mindset. Stop looking internally, and look externally. To the person doing the hiring.

They have a problem. They need to hire someone to solve that problem.

Rarely do we ever post a job saying "hey everybody, I need a 3D person."

A lot of the time, it's going to be ultra-specific. Because we want to filter out the noise and hire the right person for the right job.

If I need to make a big tsunami for this new TV commercial - I'm not going to ask for a 3D Generalist, I might look all the applications that come in, but what I'm really looking for is an FX person. More specifically, if someone reached out to me and said "I'm an FX person, that specializes in large-scale water simulations and I just finished up a bunch of jobs involving floods and destruction shots" that person is going to stand out even further.

That's sub-niching, or 'niching down'.

The more specific you're able to communicate, the more you're qualifying yourself, and filtering all the 'noise' out to make your voice louder, and louder.

The ultimate goal - is to become the 'go to person'. Whether it's the #1 'go to person' for the entire world, internet, industry, your city, or even just the #1 go to person for your client. That they'll always go to you when they have this problem that needs to be solved.

[Know Your Market]

Like I said, we hire to solve problems. We'll rarely green-light a project and say "let's just hire a bunch of 3D guys". Yes we'll need generalists. But typically the generalist will be a support role around the specific problems we have.

So there's nothing wrong with being a generalist, and I'll get into the meat of this in a moment. But it's a lot harder for you to negotiate your money, your terms and get exactly what you're worth as a generalist on a project when they say "we need x amount of people". Because negotiating outside of their margins, it's easier just to hire someone who is within their price range or terms (ie. you might need to be relocated, or work certain hours, or whatever your needs might be) - if it's a specific pain point they are trying to resolve - they're able to bend the rules. If it's for a more general position, it's easier just to look to the next person to fill that position than to bend too much to your specific needs.

Let's say we have a new movie greenlit

  • We need to hire a creature modeler, to sculpt our hero Godzilla monster
  • We need an expert fluids FXTD to create the big 'nuclear bomb' at the start of the film. This role is important as it tells a pivotal part of the story - the birth of Godzilla!
  • We need a dynamics FXTD for the big city destruction sequence
  • we need an expert character animator for the big 'creature fight' finale at the end of the film.
  • Lighting artist who focuses on photo-realistic city environments as we're doing a lot of fully CG city shots (which later get destroyed).

These are specific pain points, or roles that we might want to staff up for. So because they are critical parts, we are putting importance on them, we're putting a budget, schedule and therefore a need around them.

Of course we're going to need generalists to help out with needs around these positions. But they're typically seen as "we need an extra 3-5 generalists to help out. Which makes it much harder to negotiate on your terms, when there's other people who are lined up with similar qualities that could easily take your place.

Whereas with the more defined roles, the emphasis is on getting the right people to solve these specific problems, which are critical to the success of the project.

To clarify. As a generalist, you can negotiate on your terms, you can get what you're worth, you can negotiate the money you're worth too. But you have less of a leg to stand on in most typical situations where a studio is staffing up for a project from the ground up. Typically it takes putting in the time, building the relationship, and your worth over time to really bring validity to why your freelance rate might be higher than someone else's, when on paper they're looking to tick the box "we need 5 generalists $300-$450 per day. So over time, working at one place you can get what you're worth, but not when you're starting out, or building a new relationship with a new client. Because the minute you ask for $800 per day, and they have others who have similar experience at $450.. It makes more sense just to hire the next person in line. 

Not so much when there's a defined role that they're looking for a specific task to be fulfilled, there's more weight put on this person.

[It's About Building Your Brand]

It's funny. I can think of a dozen 'areas' inside of VFX alone, that when I think of that topic - at least one or maybe many expert names pop up.

If I think of amazing character modelers, specific names come to mind. If I think of mind-blowing matte paintings, or compositing, animators, amazing water effects or pyro effects. All of these areas, specific people's names come to mind. Why? Because they've put in the work, or the time, to effectively brand themselves. 

Over time, their reputation, their name, and the fact that they're in a specialist niche, it's led to people associating their name with certain subjects. The problem is - if you were to ask me if I know any amazing 3D artists, or people great with Photoshop.. It's so broad, nobody can really come to mind. 

So when we want to look for an artist to fulfill a certain role, instantly we think "man it would be so cool to hire X person, I wonder if they're available". Rather than posting a job on all the forums and looking through hundreds of reels for the right candidate.

How often do you think this person, who's done the groundwork, who's branded themselves effectively - that their name is the "go to name" in the area they specialize in.. How much work do you think they need to do to actually find work? .. I imagine it's probably as easy as opening their inbox each morning.

This is ultimately where we all want to be. Now it doesn't mean that you need to be the 'best in the world' at what you do. It simply means you need to define your message of "what you do" down enough that it's so laser focused, that in the circles that you position yourself in, that your name comes up first, or as one of the key candidates. Like I said, this can simply be around key clients you want to work with in your city. That's fine. But if you communicate "I'm a 3D generalist" how many other people are doing this exact thing?

[Master of None]

I get this a lot, people hand me their business card - because they want a job in 3D and think I might be hiring. So when I get a business card that reads:

Joe Smith
3D Artist / Web Page Designer / Wedding Photographer

(and I get a LOT of these). It makes me wonder if you're basically just trying to mention the mist diverse subjects possible, to hopefully cover "any and every job" that might come up?

It's extremely non-specific. And sure it might mean that almost anything creative, you might qualify for. But it also means so does everybody else.

But when I receive a business card from someone that reads

"Sarah Elliot
Character Modeler"

Not only does it mean, that if I have a character modeler job, you're instantly qualifying yourself. But it also means in that exact moment, I can place you in my mind, as a character modeler.

I have dozens of friends that I knew did 3D, but they never really communicated 'what' they did exactly. And then years later I find out they're a hard surface modeler. "DUDE! I could have hired you a dozen times by now, I had no idea".

Not only does your name not resonate when certain tasks come up, because the description is too broad. But what if you send your application into a studio, and it's not the character modeling supervisor that sees your reel, it's not the head of 3D who at least knows where your strengths are. It's the Human Resource person, manager, producer, receptionist, somebody who probably doesn't know your department all that well - and so if you communicate you're a 3D artist, you're going to go in the "miscellaneous pile" of reels rather than actually being sent to the right department, who could potentially hire you that day if they have a position to fill.

In other words, the clear it is what you do, the less clear it is how to place you on somebodies team.

Now, Sarah Elliot, might not get a call from me right away. There might be a few jobs that come up that aren't the right fit for her. Because she communicated she's a Character Modeler. But as soon as a Character Modeling position comes up, you can bet that out of every candidate who had applied as a 3D artist or generalist, she's going to instantly be the more qualified person and more likely to receive my call.

Because she's already qualified herself more than anybody else by simply communicating 'Character modelling' "this is what I do, this is what I specialize in".

Think of your family medical physician. They might make $150k a year. Now, if you look what an orthopedic makes - it's typically 6-7 times that. Because they specialize. Sure they might not get the call from you every time you have a flu and need to see a doctor, but when you do need their services, they will and they get paid much much more for their services.

Their job then, is to just focus on getting more prospects, knowing that their services are needed, and they can charge a lot more than a generalist doctor because of this.

[The 80/20 Rule]

So the big fear a lot of us have as generalists, is that if we were to specialize, we would instantly disqualify ourselves from 80% of the jobs that are out there.

"If I'm an FX specialist, then every lighting job, animator job, modeling job that comes up, I'm going to miss out on".

However, if you think of it this way - any FX job that comes up, you're already eliminating 80% of the competition. Only 20% of the people out there are the right fit for the job. You have a much smaller sandpit to play in, than a big ocean of people that are all sending their portfolios in. More so, if you work harder, you can bring it down from 20% to maybe 5%. You can eliminate more people, by qualifying yourself more, making yourself stand out as the right fit.

And.. we'll cover exactly how to do this in a moment.

The more that you can narrow your niche, the more you can stand out and qualify as the obvious expert in any subject.

[It's About The Message]

Here's the other realization I need you to make. Being a specialist, doesn't limit you to one thing for the rest of your life. This is about communicating your services to the right person at the right time. They have a problem, you have the solution.

Picture it this way.

You have a splitting migraine. You walk into a drug store, and immediately walk to the pain relief section. You see a whole shelf of products that all look almost identical.

You pick up two. The actual contents is identical in every single way. But one says "Cures all aches and pains", the other says "cures migraines".

Which do you pick?

Naturally, you pick the one that cures migraines. Because you came to the store with a specific problem you need solved. And even though both of these products do exactly the same thing - The second product communicated a specific result, and because of that, it's the one that you're going to choose. Every single time.

This is common with all product branding. Whether it's shampoo, toothpaste, headache pills. Whatever it's going to be. They'll release the same product with multiple different labels. Because they know tat you're more likely to pick up the one that speaks directly about what your paint point is, whether it's that you have dandruff, or you want one for oily hair, it doesn't matter. They're all going to be the same product, but they know the message is what's important, to single themselves out from all of the other products on the shelf.

You have a problem. This product is the solution. This is it's message, and it instantly disqualifies all of the other competition. All of the other products that are generalists, it's now qualified itself over the others.

It also means you can have multiple labels for you (the product). You can specialize in a dozen different ways, to different clients, with different needs. But of course we do need to start somewhere.

But here's the thing. I'm not actually saying NOT to be a generalist. I told you, it's not as simple as that. Being a specialist, is something that you should evolve into over time. Without being a generalist first, you're going to not have the foundations you need to really be the specialist you need to be..

[It's An Evolution]

Really.. we should ALL be generalists. Just not for our entire career. Really we should all START as a generalist, and evolve naturally into a specialist, over time.

The big risk, and why this subject isn't as easy as saying "yes be a specialist". Is because a lot of us, as artists, hear we should be a specialist.. and we just start our career off as a specialists. 

This is probably the worst thing you can do.

In the late 90's, in my country, EVERYBODY had to be a generalist. The idea that I could one day specialize in just one area, sounded like a pipe dream. Not a reality. Outside of the U.S. the industry was tiny. And it meant that you might be passionate about one particular area, for me I loved Character Animation, and I loved FX. But we were all generalists. It meant one day I might be modeling a hard surface model for a print job, the next week animating talking dogs for a commercial, the week after that doing a logo ident for my local tv channel. Whatever work came in, I would do it. I did specialize in FX, so if there were FX jobs that came in, I would typically be the person to get to do those. But I would animate characters for the show Max Steele, I would texture or do matte paintings, or whatever else came up.

Every artist had to be a generalist. The same with Brazil, Germany, and any other country with a smaller industry.

But not the United States. A lot of the industry started here, and there were already schools pumping out 3D artists. Studios typically were bigger, hired more people, and therefore they usually had a much more specific task when they were hired. I was kind of jealous that 'the states' had so much work. Australia had 3-4 big studios, and by big I mean 50 or so people.

However, I found this to be really counter-intuitive. When I came to the states in 2003, I came on as a lead and we started hiring my team for a project. And I was really shocked that a lot of the guys I brought on, if I asked them to do anything outside of their 'one thing' they had no idea how to do it. "Can you adjust that texture, or render this additional pass?" "I can't do that, I only know how to create sparks".

Seriously.

Now, this isn't the case now. But it was the case then. And it's probably why so many people were so guarded about their 'one trick'. But it made me realize, that all of us who had come from other countries, or been fortunate enough to start as generalists first, had the general 3D knowledge we needed to do our job better, and also help out our team mates where they needed us to as well.

As I mentioned at the start. This can be design, it can be illustration, this can be video games. I'm not just talking about 3D. I'm not just talking about FX. Learn the foundations of the industry you work in, the better you'll be at your niche.

Every single guest I've had on my podcast, from senior supervisors at ILM to studio owners of some of the leading vfx studios in the world, recruitment managers, directors, artists. Everybody. We all agree, starting out as a generalist, and then moving to be a specialist is CRITICAL to being a successful artist, no matter what discipline, no matter what department.

It's an evolution. Start as a generalist, and evolve, into a specialist.
We should learn the foundations, and naturally evolve into the area that we naturally accel at. We dont' choose an area to specialize in at the start. Because, who knows, maybe you start out wanting to be an FX TD, and as you get experience in your industry, you naturally gravitate toward compositing, or animation, or hell even camera tracking (I've lost a few good FX artists to the Camera Tracking department, even though it pays less, they've found it fun and enjoyable.. R.I.P. FX homies).

I'll just add, learn your trifactor. I've talked about this a lot on the Podcast and on stage when I've given talks. Do be effective at what you do, you need to know the areas that closely fit your discipline the most. If you're an animator, learn modeling, character rigging, and lighting. Then you can communicate to the Modeler your needs, or the Character TD. Or FX you want to learn to script, composite, and light. so you can automate a lot of what you do, or get more complex with it, slap comp your work and see the end result, light your work to push it as far as it can go.

All of these things are critical. Without them you're handicapping yourself. And you also can't communicate your needs effectively to the department that you're likely to be receiving assets from, or how best to do your job that the next department can take it over. Ie. Compositing, knowing if they need depth passes, or elements broken up a certain way to do their job more effectively. All of this is so critical. The more you understand how all the departments work, and what happens to your work once it leaves your hands, the better you can do your job in the long run. This of course is what you learn during your time as a generalist.

["But Allan, You Don't Want To Get Pidgeonholed"]

Early in my career, maybe at the age of 18 or 19 - all of my friends were animators. All of them. And nobody seemed to get why I loved FX. They saw animation as a chance to tell a story, to bring characters to life. So why hell would I be so interested in creating fucking dots on my screen?

For me, my passion was trying to solve problems. Especially back then when there were still problems to solve. How do you create clouds? How do you create fire? "How do you create something that isn't made of polygons, when all we have is polygons?"

But I got told time and time again. "Watch out Allan, you don't want to get pidgeonholed into doing this the rest of your life".

And for a moment, I actually saw being pidgeonholed as bad thing..

Then I thought.. "wait .. I don't want to be pidgeonholed into doing something I really enjoy?"

Around 2000-2001, there were probably 3 people that actually specialized in FX. There were tens of thousands of "3D artists". But there were maybe 3 that actually did "FX", as in we were "specialists".

So can you imagine, if an FX job comes up - one of the 3 of us are going to get it. And if the other guy was busy, one of the other two guys was going to get the job. That was the math. By specializing. I had ELIMINATED 99.999% of the industry. And I had created a sandbox that I could play in, where there's always going to be FX, and there weren't enough people to fill the positions. It also meant that all of us could negotiate the fees that we wanted.

The other thing is, we were smart. We weren't going to see the other FX people as competition, we collaborated. We had our network. If one person was too busy, we would RECOMMEND the other person to the client. We had each others backs. It also meant we knew what we all made and made sure to always keep our fees competitively high. But it meant that as long as we always recommended each other, our clients wouldn't ever even need to reach out and see who else was out there.

So why compete, when "strength in numbers" makes so much more sense?

More so - we knew there was a demand, and we knew we were in low supply. This is the kind of sandpit we all ultimately want to play in. It's a blue ocean (opposed to red ocean, meaning swarming with sharks).

I'll get more into this in a moment. But this is ultimately where we all want to be, in a place where we've created such an ultra-defined-niche that there is almost nobody else playing in it. More so, we know that there is a demand for this (This is important, you don't just niche down in an area that has zero demand).

2004 - I worked on Blade Trinity. This was the 3rd blade movie. Honestly, probably one of the most exciting moments in my career. Also probably one of the worst movies ever made. But getting asked to create vampires ashing, especially when I was 21 and had just moved to the states. How cool was that?

There was a team of us, we killed over 120 vampires. You're welcome.

After that, dozens of gigs landed at my feet because I had all this 'blade ashing effects' on my reel. Anytime a bad guy turned to ash "call Allan".

2007 - back in Australia my studio teamed up with another, to bid on the vampire movie Daybreakers with Ethan Hawke, and Willem Dafoe. The directors (The Spierig brothers) specifically said they were looking for something similar to 'Blade'. Coincidentally Rangi had worked at Framestore on Blade 2 on all the vampire ashing. I had worked on Blade 3 in LA. We were a shoe in.

And so I continued to get calls for jobs requiring people turning to ash. It got to a point where I would walk out of meetings, because they were doing the reboot to 'Fright Night' and needed the hero character to turn to ash. Or insert a dozen other similar scenarios.

In 2010 - The storyboards for the Superbowl commercial for God of War landed in my inbox. And. I. Fell. In. Love. The commercial piece looked amazing. Of course, Kratos' daughter, wife, his entire world, turns to ash. But fuck it. This is something I had to work on. I got my passion back. I rocked this piece out. I put everything on the line. and it is still by far one of my favorite contributions.

The same week that commercial aired, I was already meeting with directors, I was getting projects left and right landing in my lap. Even earlier this year, a certain Marvel superhero movie landed because they had seen that God of War piece and 'ash' was an important part of this film.

I look back at 1999 Allan, the one warned not to get pidgeonholed. And I look at the projects that have landed, because I did a certain effect "ash" in 2004, and then communicated that effect as a service, as a brand, me as an "ash specialist" and how it meant I then had limitless movie work for the rest of my life I could be doing if I wanted.

Being pidgeonholed is not a trap, it's not a negative thing. Being pidgeonholed is actually 'effective branding'. It's branding your message, that you are the obvious expert, that you are the go to person for this problem that people need, you are the obvious solution. You are the specialist for this need that they have.

The thing is - I'm not pidgeonholed. Do you think I just did ash for the last 15 years? I got pidgeonholed in fire and explosions, in water, I got pidgeonholed in as many areas as I could. In other words, I specialized in as many areas as possible. And I still had time to direct commercials, contribute to books, speak at events, speak at business events that have nothing to do with film, work on set, produce shows.. In other words, you're not limiting yourself to one thing, all you're doing handing out that business card that says "Allan McKay - Ash Specialist" the same way if I were to meet a games studio, I might put out a completely different card, based on their needs and their problems they're looking for someone to fix.

It's branding. And you can be a specialist in anything, and everything. Just be that specialist, to the right person.

Putting your hands up saying "I do everything" rather than doing "one thing" for the right client. Are two very, very different things.

So don't avoid being pidgeonholed. But try to find as many ways as possible to be pidgeonholed, because you're putting in the effort to then attract the work to you, rather than you having to pursue it yourself.

The ultimate goal, is to get to the point where you no longer need to look for work, the amount of effort you have to put in to get a job, is simply opening up your inbox each morning.

[The Billionaire Mindset]

I attended a private mastermind a couple of years back. And one of the things that stuck out to me, that I instantly could relate to in my industry was "High Demand, Low Supply".

The talk was about the difference, between a millionaire.. and a billionaire.

The millionaire, finds trends, and they jump on these trends. Whereas a billionaire, sees opportunity, where there's something missing in the market, and they create that service or product that's missing.

You can look at Uber, in the beginning it was a personal limousine service. There's lots of limos driving around.. What do they do during their off-time, when there's no jobs scheduled? What if there was an app that they could pick people up and drive from point A to point B while they're waiting for their next client?

And naturally it grew from there, into everybody with a Prius, pretty much.

But what if you were able to identify areas in your creative industry that were in high demand, and in low supply. I know FX is one. There are so many FX positions available in Vancouver, Canada alone. Yet nobody to fill them. Let alone the rest of the world. There's over a thousand FX positions available in Vancouver, as I write this email. A thousand. People are struggling to find good FX people. I know at Blur Studio on Halo, we had a HARD TIME finding good FX people. I was shocked. There's lots of people who want to do FX, but those who were ready and could prove they could sit down in a chair tomorrow, and do the job? Not so many.

But that made it clear, that's an area that's high in demand, and not that many people capable of filling the positions. So if you can fulfill them, does that give you more negotiating power? Absolutely.

The critical thing for all of us, is to be a futurist. A futurist is someone who predicts new trends or technology down the line. Such as how Skynet is totally coming, and my Amazon Echo is so going to murder me in my sleep once it becomes self-aware. But it also means that we can anticipate in our industry, where there's likely to be new needs that aren't in 'high supply' yet.

Because it's easy to say "I missed the bus". But every day there's new trends happening, new needs. 3D printers get big, someone says "hey time to pitch this tech to the shoe companies, or car companies" there's always ways to sub-niche down.

Even simply hearing that Realflow is out for Maya, or some new 3D plugin is out for After Effects. Whatever it is, you could be the first to get in there, and "learn the shit out of it". Because if you anticipate it's going to become "high in demand" in other words, studios are going to need specialists in that software, tool or genre - why not get there before anybody else, put in the time and become THE OBVIOUS EXPERT?

Remember, we all start as generalists. We lay the foundation. And we niche down and specialize over time. If you start out as a specialist, you're not likely to see where you naturally evolve into, and just because you're a specialist in one thing, doesn't mean you can't be a specialist in many things. It's just you want to communicate one thing to the one person, that's how you can define yourself and stand out as a specialist and eliminate the noise and make you the key candidate for the job. 

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