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New Year New Job - Creative Assembly's Mike Malinowski on getting a role in technical art and animation

New Year New Job - Creative Assembly's Mike Malinowski on getting a role in technical art and animation

Once again, the folks at Creative Assembly have been kind enough to share their insight into what you need to get into various aspects of development. Today, principal technical artist Mike Malinowski shares his top tips for landing a role in technical art and animation

What skills do you look for in candidates?

We’re primarily looking for two things – motivation and attitude. Motivation and the drive to explore new unknown areas is absolutely crucial as it really demonstrates the candidates desire to learn and dive into problems none of us know the answer to (which is the core role of any Tech Animator/Artist!). There are usually two types of problems a TA will firstly face a problem they know how to solve and will, therefore, iterate on their previous experience, and secondly, face a problem they have never tackled before. It’s amazing how often we tackle ‘first time’ problems – even as an experienced TA this occurs on a regular basis. So, having a strong motivation to always be exploring new techniques or technologies is paramount.

Attitude is equally crucial, as a TA you’re sandwiched in between multiple disciplines – each of which have very different skills and specialities. You’re often working with highly artistic individuals as well as incredibly technical programmers – and your role is to ultimately bridge the two. As a TA you have a responsibility to build up a rapport with all disciplines, striving to understand their needs and preferences whilst trying to be compassionate to each areas requirements when helping to solve problems. Ultimately this comes down to communication and your approach to learning and understanding how they work - you don’t have to be an expert in what they do, but you do have to have a good understanding of how they do it.

What do you look for in a CV?

Sorting through CVs can be hard, especially when so much of a TA’s role is about creative thinking, problem-solving and communication – all of which are very tricky to gauge on paper. Therefore - for me – the first thing I do on any CV is look for a link to a portfolio. I’ll quite often follow a link on a CV before even reading a candidate’s name. You should link to it right at the top of your CV to ensure it really stands out.

The portfolio is the first big check – its where you’ll be judged both in terms of knowledge but also your fit for the specific role. TA spans a broad area, sometimes the job title can mean ‘Rigger’ whilst other times it can mean ‘Pipeline Engineer’ or ‘Shader Artist’… or all of the above and anywhere in between! As a discipline it’s still relatively young and based on the size of the studio you’re applying to the role can vary dramatically. Don’t be afraid of tailoring your portfolio as you apply to different companies, but equally be honest with yourself in terms of what you want from a role.

What's your top tip for those looking to go into this career?

Show me what you love and show me how you do it. Portfolio is everything in any TA application regardless of whether you’re fresh out of school or a hardened veteran.

A portfolio for a TA does not have to be a beautifully edited video to sympathetic music – though it certainly helps you to stand out. But the best TA portfolios I have seen are ones which include technical write-ups or blogs. Seeing a portfolio which shows someone’s final result is great but being given the information on how that person got there gives so much more. It becomes a demonstration of how much you understand from what you have done. We live in a time where tutorials are everywhere and having a write-up of how you tackled or developed something helps differentiate between how much you have followed something step by step versus how much you have explored and built upon it. This all feeds back into the requirement of motivation, if you show me how you tackled something, I can see your drive for problem-solving. Tutorials are absolutely a great way to learn and showing that is fantastic – but show how you have taken it in a slightly different direction or extended upon it. Having a candidate show me how they followed the latest approach to creating a ribbon spine is good, but having a candidate show me how they followed a ribbon spine tutorial and then applied it to solve stretchy arms is even better because they are showing how they used a resource to springboard from and thought creatively about how and where something could be utilised.

Another great tip is to show your work within the context of someone else’s. This varies depending on what it is you’re doing, for instance, if you have built a rig then do a demo of the rig features, write up what those features are then *have an animator use your rig*. You get some really great benefits from this approach, firstly you get expert feedback on the rig (which makes for some fantastic discussion points in interviews) but you also get high-quality animation which you can place in your rigging showreel (just be careful to be explicit that your work is the rig and not the animation). This is true for tools, shaders and pipelines – taking them out of your hands and giving them to someone else is incredibly valuable.

Give people a reason to view your work beyond the work itself. Everyone’s entry-point into TA is different. For me, I started a website where I wrote up tutorials for rigging techniques I had learned or played with. I was by no means an expert but by putting up tutorials and guides demonstrating how I tackled problems I was pro-actively giving people a reason to see my work whilst also giving potential employers an insight into what I knew and where my strengths were. 

Finally, of all the roles in the games industry Technical Animation and Technical Art are probably the least defined. For instance, Technical Animator can mean a technically minded animator, or an animation tools developer, or someone who authors blend trees, or a rigger or all of those things. Equally the role of Technical Artist could mean any or all the roles of Technical Animator, or it could mean someone writing Art Tools, or a technically minded artist or someone who writes shaders. For this reason, when looking for jobs search broadly and read the descriptions in detail, not just the job titles.

Could you tell us about your best and worst job interviews?

There are two interviews that really stand out in my mind as being good but for very different reasons. One recent interview was with a candidate who was fresh out of university and applied for our associate Tech Artist position at Creative Assembly. The portfolio stood out as showing a nice (and very strong) breadth of interest areas but also had short write-ups about each. Some were from university briefs, others were things the candidate followed along with on courses/tutorials and others were problems they came up with and tackled themselves, but crucially each write-up described the problem, the goal and the instigator of the project – ultimately it painted a very clear picture of what they had done and why.

During the interview the candidate really demonstrated understanding of the tasks – and equally the parts they didn’t think went too well. For me, having a candidate express their weaknesses is a huge plus as it really demonstrates an openness and honesty. In TA you’re constantly trying to answer a question you have never seen before, therefore failure is a fundamental part of the job – as odd as it sounds. Being able to reflect on how you tackled something and how you might tackle the same problem really holds a lot of weight in an interview. I hold a lot of regard for someone who can turn around and say how they would have done something very differently. This is true regardless of experience too, I regularly look back at problems I have solved or tools I have written and if I don’t think I could have redone it in a better way it means I have not grown.

The second one that really springs to my mind was when I was hiring someone for a mixture of a rigging and tools development role. The candidate had worked previously as a rigger for just over a year at another studio. The rigging reel was good, but not outstanding but what really stood out was the candidate’s ideas. During the interview they spoke a lot about small – unfinished – personal projects ranging from tools in Maya to ideas for little standalone applications. There was a real spark in the way they spoke, and the detail given. For me, this is a real example of the weight attributed to how you come across in an interview. We hired this candidate and gave them scope to implement ideas and we never looked back. I have now had the pleasure of working with them at two separate studios.
The hardest interviews are the ones where the candidates are unwilling to talk in detail about their work. It’s absolutely understood that nerves play a part in this and it’s for that reason that you’ll find most interviews take quite an informal conversational nature. The best interviews are ones which feel more like a chat about work, techniques, ideas etc. Therefore, the hardest interviews tend to be the ones where the candidates give a lot of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. There was one particular candidate which stood out as having a really well-presented CV and a reasonable showreel, but during the interview it was incredibly difficult to get any detail and most answers were one-word answers. It’s really hard to judge a candidate’s knowledge and team fit if there is little conversation.

Ultimately – be prepared to talk about anything you show, and never be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ if you’re asked about something you have never heard of. Honesty goes a long way.

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.