This is a post about how to apply for technical art jobs. I’m going to cover the actual definition of technical art as a job role, how to know if you should apply and how to structure your CV, portfolio and cover letter.
The reason I’m doing this is that I continually see applicants where they might be a good technical artist and good fit for our team, but its difficult to tell where their skills actually lie. Its rare I see an application for a bad technical artist…most of the time they’re just not one at all.
I’m hoping by writing this I can help people show off their skills and get more technical artists into the industry – we really need them!
Why Should You Listen To Me?
You should definitely take everything in this post with a pinch of salt, as I’m only talking from my own personal experience. However, I’m a Technical Artist who’s coming up on six years of experience in AAA, AA and indie. I’ve been involved in recruitment for about four years and have screened applications for and interviewed Technical, Lighting and VFX artists of all levels. So I’ve seen a fair amount of applications and made a few myself! While I’m basing this off of professional experience, this is purely my opinion and doesn’t represent that of my employers, past or present.
I’m by no means perfect and I’m sure people could find a lot of issues in my folio and CV, but I’m hoping this advice can help folks who are struggling to get interviews or jobs.
If you’re applying for senior or above positions, you probably already know all of this. This is aimed at graduate to intermediate TAs.
So what is a Technical Artist Anyway?
The real answer to this question is what the job advert says a technical artist is. Every studio defines the role differently. However, there are some key skills that crossover for most jobs, and certain skills that compliment each other nicely.
Generally, I’d expect a TA to have a minimum of:
- A specialism in an area of art (e.g environment, lighting, vfx)
- A solid understanding of the potential performance issues of that specialism
- The ability to diagnose those issues through performance profiling tools
- Knowledge of common optimisation techniques for the specialism and the ability to come up with new ones
- One scripting language, that they use to make tools for their specialism
- Some form of shader creation, be it node or code
I’d expect a more experienced TA to have worked with multiple art disciplines and know more than one scripting language. They should also have worked with industry standard profiling tools like PIX and Razor if applying for console roles.
If your skillset looks more like:
- MEL/Maya Python
- Animation implementation in engine
I’d call you a Technical Animator. Some studios differentiate between the two roles, some don’t. Don’t be surprised if this skillset is not landing you Technical Art roles – they may be looking for the optimization/shader based skillset above. If you’re having this issue, start looking for specific Tech Anim roles.
Smaller studios combine Technical Art roles with Lighting or VFX, so it can be helpful to have skills in this area. Make sure your core TA skills are up to scratch first though.
A TA coming from a code background might look a bit different, with more emphasis on the technical and programming aspects of the role.
Ultimately you need to be someone who can demonstrate that they understand code and art and can combine those things in a way that supports a team.
Advice for Beginner TAs
Though you’ll need to be flexible and will likely need to expand your skillset to move up, here’s some groups of skills that compliment each other well. If you focus on one of the specialisations below and have one thing on your portfolio representing each of the requirements, you’d be off to a strong start. We’ll cover how to actually show off these skills in the portfolio section later on.
This is just advice for those who are struggling to define a skillset. One of the best things about tech art is getting to build your own specialism out of random things that you like, so I’d encourage you to go beyond and just work on projects you think are cool – you’ll get better results that way too!
Technical Artist – Lighting/VFX Focus
Required: Lighting, Technical Lighting and Rendering Knowledge, VFX, Shaders, Profiling
Additional: Vector Maths, Houdini (with Python or VEX)
Technical Artist – Asset/Environment Focus
Required: Asset/Envrionments, Profiling, Maxscript/Python for Max, Shaders, Engine Tools (Blueprints/C#)
Additional: Substance Designer, Substance Painter, ZBrush, Houdini
Technical Artist – Tools Focus
Additional: Some form of art work – environment, assets, vfx etc.
Also listed as Technical Artist (Animation) or other derivatives.
Required: Rigging, Maya, MEL/python, Animation Systems in Unreal/Unity, Character Modelling
Additional: Motionbuilder, MoCap Experience, Marvellous Designer
UI Technical Artist
This is a highly specialised role that normally only exists in large AAA companies.
Required: UI Design, UI Implementation (blueprint/C#), Shaders, Good Understanding of Game Mechanics
These are important for any TA regardless of specific technical skills. Some of these come with experience, but you can develop them when thinking about personal projects.
- Ability to learn and adapt to new technologies quickly
- Strong problem solving alongside the ability to bring ideas together to form new solutions.
- Google-Fu! I often tell people that my entire job is googling stuff and I’m only lying a little bit. Being great at finding and implementing new knowledge is key to the role.
Teaching and Communication
- Ability to teach and communicate complex technical concepts in a way that makes sense to the art team.
- Good standard of documentation/informative writing in the language the company uses.
- Willingness to be the ‘bad guy’ in a kind but firm manner. Having to cut features or heavily optimise areas can result in tense relationships with the art team. Being good at navigating this is always a plus, but is generally a skill you’ll learn on the job.
Apply For The Right Job
Read the advert!
Now that you know whether you have the appropriate skillset to be a technical artist, lets think about the specific job you’re applying for. Use the above information to identify whether the job focuses on tech art or animation, and look at your general skillset. Does it match what the main responsibilities of the job are? Here are some things to consider and some things to ignore.
What to Consider
- What are they actually asking you to do? Can you already do these things or could you learn to do those things in a reasonable time frame? Be honest with yourself.
- You don’t need all of it, but you need enough to know that you could carry out tasks asked of you.
- This is where they ask for specific technologies, languages or skills. As discussed below languages and tech are transferable, but you do need to have the appropriate base skills and knowledge.
- Compare each of your skills with the list of skills requested. If you have more than half of the skills listed and some overlap with the rest, it’s worth applying.
- If you have a quarter or less this might not be the right position for you – refer to the above about different tech art paths.
Parts of the Advert to Ignore
- Unless you’re looking for a visa, if you can do the job, it doesn’t matter where you learned it.
- Years Experience/Seniority
- Companies will consider you with less experience or take you on at a lower level of seniority. Absolutely apply for the position above where you’re working at.
- Do be realistic about this however. With senior and above roles experience is needed to make solid decisions that affect the whole project. If a studio is asking for 7 years experience and you’re a graduate yoir application won’t be considered and could hurt your chances of getting an appropriate job with them in the future. You could always put in a speculative application asking if they are looking for artists at your level if you really want to work there.
- Particular Technologies or Languages
- If you know one scripting language you can learn another. If you know 5 you can learn another really fast.
- We’ll discuss in the CV and Cover Letter sections how to show the crossover between different languages and technologies and explain your capacity for learning.
- Anything in the additional requirements section
- This is all stuff you’ll be able to learn on the job. If there’s a lot of competition it will give you an edge but that’s fairly unlikely.
Ok! So you have a TA skillset, you’ve found a job advert that matches your skills and experience and you’re ready to apply. What now?
Lets start with your CV. Your CV should be as short as possible while still conveying your experience and skills. It shouldn’t be more than one page if you can avoid it. I’ve just gone over one page this year and I’m not happy about it! Hiring managers look at applications on top of their day jobs – they don’t have time to work out if you can do the job, you need to show them immediately.
Layout and What to Include
I’ve generally had success with my CV layout, so feel free to steal it if you like. There are a lot of different options here, and lots of advice and templates available online. Generally, I want to be able to see your shipped titles, skills, languages/tools knowledge, experience and education, in that order. Some may also include a personal statement about career goals, but I like to put that in the cover letter.
If you have at least one professional shipped title, this is the first thing I want to see. If you have a fairly high profile shipped title, even better.
You can put student or self-initiated projects on here, but be sensible and limit the number you list. I don’t want to see lists of game jam games (you can add a section for this under experience) but a title that you spent a fair amount of time on and released would be fair game. You need to walk a line between showing that your non-professional experience is relevant and looking like you’re lying about the status of things you’ve made. Its tricky. Err on the side of caution, and if you’re unsure get a second opinion.
Skills, Languages and Tools
This should be a concise list of the skills, languages and technologies you know and have worked with. I separate these into different lists as I’ve had exposure to a fair amount of different areas of work, but if you have less to list it could be rolled together.
One thing we see a lot that no one likes is ‘skill bars’. Something like the image below. (This is the first image on google images – not intended to single anybody out!)
Please never do this. The scale is completely arbitrary and it means nothing to an employer. Is your 10 the same as our 10? If you’re only a 2 does that mean you’re useless at the skill? It never comes off well.
If you’re concerned about misrepresenting your skill when you’ve only used something for one project or don’t have a strong foundation in it, you could always list the skill as ‘working knowledge’. I do this on my CV as I have made a couple of MEL and C# tools in a production environment but in general my exposure has been limited. I’d need to spend some time training my skills up if I was to use those languages on a daily basis.
This is only my way of doing things, and I’m not convinced its a great solution, but it is far better than skill bars.
List your most recent professional experience first. If possible, list project names and then the responsibility for those projects underneath. I find it helpful as depending on which stage of production you were involved in and what platform the project was on, the skills used can be quite different.
Be as clear as possible about what you did and what tools you used to do it. Use technical language where appropriate and try to convey how in depth you went.
If you’re under NDA, you can still write something, just talk in broad strokes. An example I have from an unannounced project:
Developed export pipeline tools for 3DS Max and Photoshop.
Investigated shader needs, art budgets and technical requirements for various prototypes.
While those two sentences are incredibly generic, they immediately say what tools I’ve used, what languages I’ve used (because I’ve listed the languages I use for those programs elsewhere), and the type of work I’ve been doing for the company.
Absolutely include any experience that is games adjacent like working in tech or animation.
If you have professional games or games adjacent experience I wouldn’t bother adding other jobs. Personally, I don’t include my experience working in office administration or hotel kitchens as there are no transferable skills there that aren’t already covered by my professional technical art work.
If you have no directly relevant experience do include these jobs, but keep it brief and emphasise only the relevant skills such as teamwork and taking direction.
This is an optional section, most helpful to those without or with little professional experience. Write it in the same manner as your experience section, but feel free to include student projects, game jams or other self-initiated work.
Emphasise the technical and soft skills utilised as part of the project, and mention any accolades and releases.
If you have experience, make this section as small as possible. Real experience beats education every time.
It is however worth listing your degree title, classification and university. It is helpful to know the background your coming from as it can show that you understand the teams you’ll be working with. Not listing the classification can sometimes appear like something’s being hidden, so worth popping it down.
If you’ve completed any training courses that are well known and regarded it may be worth putting them here, especially if it fills in a gap that you didn’t get from your degree. Don’t list every Udemy course you’ve done though!
Don’t bother listing courses or grades from high school, they’re irrelevant. I don’t list anything pre-college.
If you don’t have a degree, that’s fine. You don’t need to justify not having the piece of paper if your work is good.
This is another optional section, depending on if you have awards and how much you want to emphasise them. Personally I no longer include this, as all the awards I have are from when I was a student. I think they were very helpful when they were fresh though, so if you’re a grad with some awards under your belt show them off!
If you’re wondering how to get an award – apply for EVERYTHING. Our student project Seek ended up with a TIGA award, a BAFTA award and got me in 30 Under 30. We never thought it was good enough for any of this, but we applied anyway. It doesn’t take long to write up an application for these things so just go for it.
What Not To Include
The only thing I can say without a doubt not to include (beyond skill bars) is anything that comes under protected status, such as your martial status, age or gender. Some of these can be implied by other parts of the CV, but you want to avoid giving anyone any reason to not employ you that isn’t directly to do with your ability and experience. Unfortunately we all have implicit biases that can get in the way of our ability to accurately judge an application. This includes putting a photo on your CV, at least in the UK anyway. I’m under the impression this is more common in other countries – best to check with someone who works in the country you’re applying to work in.
Personally, I don’t like to read about people’s hobbies or clubs (unless its something like a Game Development Club, in which case list the projects you did there in the projects section) as this is something I can talk to them about in an interview. To me this comes across as padding, but I do know some hiring managers who like it. Exercise your own judgement.
You know you’re a TA. You’ve written about your experience. Now its time to back it up. Your portfolio is your chance to shine, to prove that you know the skills and tools you’ve listed in your CV and that you can create work that will benefit the studio you’re applying to.
What Should You Include?
You should include pieces of work that fit the skills and technologies you’ve talked about in your CV and that reflect the skills most commonly asked for in job adverts. I shouldn’t be able to mistake your portfolio for that of an environment artist, or any other job role in the industry. It should scream technical artist. I want to see shaders, tools, optimisations, technical solutions and a small amount of art.
Environment artists are often given the advice that one good environment is better than many mediocre ones. This is true for us to some extent. You will be judged on your weakest piece, so make sure to cut anything that isn’t up to scratch. However, one piece is rarely enough to show the range of skills a tech artist has, unless you’ve embarked on a monster project with art, tools, shaders and it runs really well. A couple of different things that show your range is fine.
Keep the amount of work from your art specialism low, unless you are very confident that it is comparable to that of at least a junior in your area. If the first person who sees your application is a non-technical Lead Artist and they’re not impressed with your art skills, it doesn’t matter that your tools and shaders are fantastic. Include one piece like this to show you know the pipeline, but more isn’t really necessary unless you’re applying for hybrid roles.
What Shouldn’t You Include?
Don’t include any skills that are not directly relevant to technical art or directly relevant to the art discipline you intend to support. This means that I don’t want to see your life drawing, photography or ZBrush sculpts, even though there’s no doubt that those things will have helped you become a better TA. I might want to see the sculpts if you were making ZBrush tools – it all comes down to relevancy to technical art, and to the jobs you’re applying to.
Another thing I don’t want to see is anything straight from a tutorial. There’s no shame in using tutorials, in fact we are all still learning, so its likely that whoever is looking over your application has followed the same tutorial and recognises it! Make sure that your work has your own personal spin on it – show that you gained an in-depth understanding of the technique or concept, not just copied what someone else did line by line.
Good presentation is very important! Good presentation should show exactly what you did and show it off in the best light.
If you didn’t do everything for the piece, explicitly state what you did do, with details about the tools and languages used. For example, if you have screenshots of an environment, did you do the models? The shaders? Tools for placement? Let us know! If at all possible, isolate the elements you did so that its super clear and present quick breakdowns.
Choose the best method of presentation for the piece. Make sure anything with movement or lighting is shown in video and make videos talking through tools.
If you can include a downloadable version or source code, please do! Not everyone will actually look at these, but if we’re unsure about how technical you are this will tell us very quickly.
What about Works in Progress?
That’s why I have this blog. I post things I’m working on, tutorials and personal notes on here. It shows potential employers that I’m keeping up my skills, even if I’m not producing full portfolio pieces.
A blog is also a cool way to show your writing skills – documentation is a big part of the job, so showing that you can write is helpful.
If you’ve followed tutorials without making it unique, throw it on your blog with a link to the tutorial.
What about work under NDA?
With any professional work, always check with your manager what you can and can’t show. Show as much as you can without breaking any rules. Optimisation and tools work is the most likely to be affected badly by NDAs. In this case, just describe the work the best you can and put up a video from an official channel of the area of the game you provided this work for.
Many workplaces will not let you put work on a folio but will let you send work straight to a company you’re applying to, so if you are in a position where you can talk about applying to other places this is worth asking about.
Unfortunately we cannot judge what we cannot see, so if you have skills that you can’t show due to NDA, take what you learned and apply it to a personal project that you can show. I know it feels unfair that personal time has to be put in here, but there’s not really any other option.
Your Cover Letter
Many people don’t write cover letters these days, but I think its an essential tool to bridge the gap between the job advert and your folio/CV. The main goal of this letter is to explain how the experience and skills you’ve shown off in your folio/CV can be applied to the company. The first person who sees your application is rarely a technical artist (often an internal recruiter or a lead artist), so this lets that person tick your qualities off against the advert. Its also an excellent space to explain how transferable your skills are, especially if you don’t quite fit what the posting has asked for.
In terms of formatting, I like one page with a polite opening and closing in addition to four short paragraphs of actual content.
This should be a short and sweet paragraph with some general information about you. You want to include number of years and shipped titles alongside a general overview of your experience. Including what stages of production you’ve seen here is very helpful – many studios want to see a full cycle, but having closed one project and done pre-prod for another is just as useful. This should hook them in and show what you can do for them.
Again, keeping it short, this should show what you like about the company and why you want to work there. You can talk about team size, environment, technology, projects, whatever it is that appeals to you about the company. This needs to be tailored to each job. This is what they can do for you.
This will likely be the largest part of your letter. Here we want to provide that ticklist I spoke about earlier. Compare the responsibilities listed on the advert with your experience. Show that you’ve done this job for someone else, so you can do it for them. Grab key words from the description and use them when describing your experience.
This is your chance to show how skills not listed in the advert are relevant to those that are. Here’s an example of comparing the need for node based shader creation in UE4 to experience with in-house node tools and HLSL.
Though I have spent the last year programming shaders in HLSL, I am also familiar
with node based shader and script authoring, having worked with a similar node based system while at [COMPANY], creating visual effects and object behaviours through node graphs. These activities gave me a strong grasp of vector maths, operands and logic, which I can bring to material creation in Unreal 4.
This also works well for comparing different engines and art creation tools.
This is a chance to expand on your skills a bit, to talk about what you like and to highlight parts of your folio. If you have a specialism, tell them what it is and how that can help their team.
After this, end the letter by thanking them for reading.
That’s it! With a good cv, folio and cover letter sent to the right job posting you should be on your way to getting an interview. I’m afraid you’re on your ow from there!
I hope that this information has been helpful to you and good luck with your applications
One Last Thing
Writing this took quite a bit of my time! I don’t have a ko-fi or anything like that but if this was valuable to you and you have some cash to spare please consider donating to Gateshead Foodbank. It gives out emergency food parcels to those in need in my local area and is a cause close to my heart.