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WTF does a Head of 3D do?

Interview with Nick Taylor (follow Nick on Instagram!), Head of 3D at Man vs Machine

What’s your job title, and what do you do?

I'm a Head of 3D.

I’m a technical artist doing 3D motion design and visual effects [here's an example project]. I also take care of our render farm and our 3D pipeline, and some sysadmin and IT troubleshooting.

There are two elements to the role:

  • project-based creative work, producing design concepts and refining them into final renders

  • managing the ongoing technical aspects of the studio

How did you get into it?

I originally started with creative coding, which is essentially programming with a visual, artistic output [here are some examples]. I managed to get a full time role doing that for a small motion design studio called Future Deluxe, who were doing mainly 3D animation and motion design. Creative coding was an experimental arm of the studio, and I ended up doing this for about a year before gradually switching over to Houdini. Houdini is a 3D design application well suited to programmers, because it gives you a lot of extensible tools - you can script and write plugins. I later joined Man vs Machine and found this hybrid technical role.

An example of Nick's earlier work

What does your day to day in this hybrid role usually look like?

On average, 80% of my time in any given week is spent on creative work, producing shots, and the other 20% is the “Head of 3D” side.

The most common thing that I do is running simulations. It also involves lighting, look development, building shaders, doing renders, and occasionally some animation or basic modelling. There is also some idea generation and creative thinking involved - that all is about 80% of the role.

The other 20% is technical troubleshooting, dealing with problems that people have with the pipeline - if their computers are not working for some reason, if their logins are failing, I’m the first point of contact. Another part of my job is to improve our pipeline, the way we work, the tools that we use, and to make us more organised and efficient.

What do you find to be the most meaningful part of your job?

I think the role is a good fit for me.

There is a spectrum of people within 3D and motion design in terms of what they find most interesting and enjoy the most. I think for the majority, it’s the creative output that is by far the most important. For me it's still the primary motivator, but there is also a big part of me that enjoys learning in general - particularly taking on technical challenges. By having a role with two aspects I can get the benefits of being involved in interesting creative projects; but I also have this underlying line of broader technical learning that can go on indefinitely. This often involves programming and is a different type of learning from gradually building design skills.

These explorations will often be used across the studio, especially if it’s improving the pipeline. That’s also something I find meaningful - building tools that will benefit a lot of people, rather than just me.

An Castello ad Nick worked on at ManVsMachine

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m proud of the fact that I initially pushed myself to get into the creative industry, despite not having a creative degree. Then, I had the determination to learn programming and creative coding in order to get a role in an area I knew I would find interesting and enjoyable. I’m definitely proud that I managed to break in - a lot of it was down to luck, obviously, but a lot of it was down to pushing myself very hard to begin with.

I’m also proud that I managed to transition from the pure creative coding into 3D. More recently, I’m happy that I still find my role interesting enough that I’m often looking for new ways that I can improve things, and I don’t feel bored. That I don’t just stick with the status quo, with what we’ve always done - I’m always looking for new ways to improve things.

There are individual projects which I enjoy looking back on, but I think I am most proud of the underlying decisions and continual learning.

And to flip that around, do you ever feel the impostor syndrome?

Yes, all the time! 😄 Well, quite often.

I think I’m generally aware that I have quite a unique set of skills, and that certainly in my role now, I have a lot of knowledge built up about the studio and about technical 3D work.

But I definitely still get impostor syndrome. As someone who is a technical artist, the people that I follow, either in the studio, or on social media, are usually either technical specialists or creative specialists. Either they are, say, very good C++ programmers, or maybe they are digital sculptors, or rendering specialists, or lighting specialists. It’s really easy for me to look at someone who is very specialised, and think “I wish I was as good as this person in this area”, and compare myself to them in so many different specialisms and genres, and feel like I’m not doing well enough.

Whatever it is you are learning, make sure it's something you actually find interesting.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

I feel like my path into it has been a bit unorthodox.The standard path is for people to choose a design-related degree, then discover 3D, then push themselves to really learn 3D and get good at it. I went a slightly roundabout route.

The only thing I could say is that whatever it is you are learning, make sure it's something you actually find interesting, otherwise it will be impossible to motivate yourself to the level needed to actually get good at it.

When I was first learning creative coding, I knew I could just learn general programming and aim for a generic programming job, but the thing that was actually driving my motivation was the visual output. It’s about finding something that you will want to keep learning.

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