Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Generalize or Specialize? and How VR Changes Things

Putting together a high quality computer animated story requires skill sets in illustration, modeling, rigging, animating, shading, lighting, effects, and programming.  It's rare to find a great talent that can do all of these skills as a 10,000 hour expert.  It's near impossible to put together a full team of such experts.  I've found in my 10 years of being a technical director and artist at Pixar that you need a proper mix of generalists and specialists to make the right team.

There is no easy answer to what a good mix should be, and the right mix changes as an industry evolves and projects develop.  During early days of computer animation, the industry was under developed and so most technical directors were generalists out of necessity.  When I joined Pixar in 2004, the industry had hit a stride and specialists were more needed to mix in with the established generalists.  The specialists raised the bar.  Over the years, I was fortunate to see the industry mature, and the bar raised project after project.  Understandably, we found ourselves recruiting more specialists than generalists.

A dilemma that faces technical directors and artists from the start of their career is knowing when they should specialize or generalize.  Students looking to find jobs in well established VFX houses or one of the big feature film studios need to stand out.  I recommend specializing if you want to get into a place like Pixar.

Now in a young industry like virtual reality, my first instinct is to recommend generalizing.  The content making process and the creative language is so loosely defined that flexibility is valuable in the chaos.  But VR is also an industry that more easily stands on the existing expertise coming from VFX, game making, and computer animation.  We are already positioned to benefit from the specialization of what's come before.

At Pixar, we talked about team members that had a primary focus and secondary focuses.  The more desirable members could flex into other roles when their primary focus was under fed.  And having understanding of disciplines upstream and downstream of your specialization makes you a better citizen of the pipeline.

Note how I phrased the dilemma - when to specialize or to generalize (not if).  Although specializing does require focus over a long period of time,  I don't think specialists need to feel pigeon held for their entire career.  I find that most specialist technical artists want the opportunity to work in other areas of the pipeline, and so willingness is not the problem.  The opportunity is just not easily available when the team is of a certain size and expectations are well established.  Helping develop the birthing industry of virtual reality could be the moment you were looking for.

We're still slowly growing the team at our studio.  We're also uncertain what the right mix should be, but virtual reality helps us here.  If we were building a traditional computer animation studio, we'd need to grow to a 100+ team if we wanted to make high quality content that competes in the film market.  Such a large team would require more well defined responsibility boundaries.  Those of us in traditional computer animation based story telling had been envious of the creative freedom and nimbleness of indie game developers.  There just isn't a market for selling computer animation short films like there is a market for selling great and small scoped indie games.

One of the exciting things about virtual reality story telling is that the novelty is so powerful, small teams can make high quality, small scope experiences (5 to 10 minutes) and people will buy them.  So we can keep VR story telling teams small and those that may have specialized in their previous jobs will have many more opportunities to learn new skills.