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Improve your freelance career

Learn valuable career advice from 3D sculptor and trainer Glen Southern

Learn valuable career advice from 3D sculptor and trainer Glen Southern

I describe myself as a freelance digital sculptor but I find that I do so much more than that these days. I split my time working for a wide range of regular clients or running ZBrush training workshops in my studio, and for companies like The Royal Mint, The Lego Group, and MacKinnon & Saunders. The rest of my time is spent talking and presenting as a Wacom Evangelist and STEM ambassador in schools and colleges around the UK. I find I get as much enjoyment inspiring young people to look at a career in the creative industry as I do actually working in it myself.

Self-teaching vs formal education

My degree is in Grocery Distribution and Logistics and has little relevance to my day job these days. Although I didn't attend university, I am huge fan of getting a really high level of education behind you before launching into the job market. I see lots of teenagers leaping straight into jobs right from college but I would always advise pushing your education as far as you can. That being said, I think tenacity, the ability to work with others in a team, being able to roll with the punches and take criticism are some of the skills you need to thrive in the industry, and they aren't things that you learn in university. I am always learning. Always. I've just done a Certificate in Education and Training, a 10-week UArtsy course, and I have a Digital-Tutors account that I nail all the time! I suppose I'm always either earning or learning!

With ZBrush4R7 we got the new ZModeler Brush and toolset, which made large, complex hard-surface models
a lot easier for me

Getting a foot in the door

I started in the art world before computers were commonplace, but even though the hardware and software has changed beyond recognition, people are very much the same. To get your foot in the door you are going to need to be able to shine out from the crowd, and if that isn't in your artistic talent (yet), then it needs to be in your attitude, work ethic and passion. If you can show your passion from the start people are going to want to help you.

With ZBrush4R7 we got the new ZModeler Brush and toolset, which made large, complex hard-surface models
a lot easier for me

Portfolios and self-promotion

When I'm recruiting for a project, studio or company, I like to see reels and portfolios that show what I want to see in a clear, concise, structured way. For example, when recruiting for 3D Maya animators, I want to see four or five of the best things the artist has animated.

I don't need to see any modeling, lighting or textures. An animator should have a reel that reflects the skill they're selling. A generalist may show a wider range of skills, but in general I would advise being clear about what you want to do.

I often kitbash models for concept art. This car was made in a few hours by making a few parts and repeating them in the model to get the desired result

I often kitbash models for concept art. This car was made in a few hours by making a few parts and repeating them in the model to get the desired result

Freelancing

Portray yourself as a larger company from day one, even if you're making hardly any money. Set yourself up with an accountant and decent accountancy package (I recommend KashFlow!) and learn how to manage your paperwork in the quiet times.

Very quickly you could be taking jobs and working to tight deadlines, and I see so many freelancers that are sinking under the weight of paperwork and tax bureaucracy a year or two in.

Learn to network with your peers. Get to as many meet-ups, conventions and summits that you can. Find out who is the best in the industry at what you want to do and find out how they did it. Don't copy or plagiarize their work but understand what they did to get that good.

Most of my ideas and designs start life in a Moleskine sketchbook using a black Bic Cristal Biro

Most of my ideas and designs start life in a Moleskine sketchbook using a black Bic Cristal Biro

Teamwork and communication

Artists often want to work in isolation for personal or professional reasons. That doesn't really work in VFX. You need to be part of a pipeline and know who is feeding work to you and who you will be handing off to. Even as a freelancer, it's very rare to be working on something with no direction or concept at the start. Build relationships wherever you go and learn what other people need. Later on, when you need to start getting some help yourself, those relationships pay dividends! I'm a pay-it-forward person and I can honestly say I get back tenfold what I give. Trust me on this one.

A sci-fi plane design

A sci-fi plane design

Motivation and attitude

This is a very personal one. I had another career in management and learned a lot about motivating people and how to get the best from a team. My philosophy is very simple: I'm honest and where possible realistic. Pressure and stress are a terrible burden when they hit, and quite often they hit at the worst possible time.

To handle this pressure, being organized is a massive help. I learned techniques like ‘Inbox Zero' and ‘Getting Things Done' (GTD) early on and I apply them in everything I do. Take a look at my mind maps some time!

Having downtime is essential for a creative. Find the thing that makes you happy away from your work and do it. I dive, spend time in nature, swim, cycle and take photos (bad ones, usually). All of the above gets me out and about and spending time getting inspired. Nature is the best way to re-ignite a spark of creativity for me.

A monster bust

A monster bust

Personal rituals

I have a few:

1. I use mind maps all the time and these often turn into spreadsheets. Mind maps allow me to pour ideas onto a page or screen.

2. I start most jobs in a Moleskine sketchbook. I always use the same BIC Crystal Biro in them and I keep every one like a diary.

3. I play a tenor ukulele badly but I do it every morning for a couple of minutes. Very sad, this one!

4. Warm-up sculpts. I think I've done morning warm-up sculpts for the past decade. No one ever sees them and I don't burden other artists on Facebook by posting them. I don't want critique or praise. I do them simply to warm up my Wacom hand, my brains and my imagination.

Working out detail with a sculpt

Working out detail with a sculpt

Online resources

My social media habits have changed over the years and like most people I prefer some solutions more than others. I get my news by customizing Flipboard on my iPad, and that's full of feeds from sites like CGTalk, 3dtotal, Lifehacker, Wired, TED, 3DPrinting.com, and National Geographic. I don't really keep active Behance or DeviantART portfolios any more but I do use Twitter on an hourly basis.

My main weapon of choice is ZBrush, so I of course would say ZBrushCentral. As a reference site you can't get better than 3d.sk for characters, creatures, skin, eyes, and so on. For scanning resources, I always turn to Ten24.

Now is a great time to enter this industry. Yes, there are regular upheavals and tremors (think Rhythm & Hues Studios and the Variety comments on MPC) but the demand for VFX, digital assets, 3D printing, and so on, has never been greater.

The technology is advancing at a tremendous rate, with innovative companies like Wacom, Pixologic and The Foundry pushing us down new avenues all the time. Substance Painter, anyone? What about MeshFusion? Framestore's work on Gravity?

It's an exciting time to be starting a career in this industry and there are jobs being hired for today that didn't exist five years ago. Imagine what we'll be doing in five more?

Related links

Check out more from Glen
See ZBrush Characters & Creatures in the 3dtotal shop

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