Unveiling top 20 required skills to become 3D Technical Artist

Adolfo Reveron
Many people think that you need to be brilliant or a math prodigy to land a Technical Artist role.
Indeed, you need hard skills, which is a collection of knowledges revolving addressing specific tasks, like mastering a software or getting used to production pipeline.

In our opinion, this is secondary. The way you behave with yourself and with others is more important, we call them soft skills (or personality skills), and they'll be the main force driving everything else.


Behave professionally

1. Be a good buddy.
Even during your baby steps within 3D industry in TECH ART WORLDS or any other 3D school, you must behave professionally. Your mates are your very first contacts and you need to cultivate these relationships. Become one of those polite, honest and hard-working mates everyone wants to work with. This will pay-off in time (We still keep in touch with 3D professionals we met 15 years ago). When experienced professionals asked, the vast majority of us will prefer to work with average-talented, easy-going and hard-working mates, rather than working with brilliant-ish, too-proud hard-to-deal people

2. Remain humble as your expertise grows.
You'll gain more experience and confidence as you progress within professional environment and, at some point, you'll make a choice, we all made it, sometimes unconsciously. That choice is about the way you'll behave when you 'master' some subject. Many talented professionals ruin their growth due to they let their pride take control; do not let this to happen to you. Ask for feedback from different people, no matter their skill level and be thankful in all cases. If you need to explain why you chose this or that specific approach, stick to what you know and be accurate rather than presumptuous. Do not adopt defensive attitude, your audience will notice and will make a mental note similar to: 'this guy/girl belongs to the kind that get easily offended'. Hence 3D professionals around you will stop being sincere with the quality of your work which will interrupt fresh precious feedback flow, which is key for improving.
The most respected and admired professionals are those who, despite of mastering a subject, with many years of experience, remain humble and kindly share their knowledge.
The more you learn, the more you know you know too little.

3. Encourage team building.
It is ok to feel proud of your work, but you need to carefully balance it. It must be strong enough to make you feel passionate about what you are doing, similar to a driving force, but it must never be so high that might blind your judgement or make you behave unpolite, dishonest or unprofessional.
Leave all those bad feelings aside and focus on getting things done. Do not be afraid of asking for help nor think this will make you look weak. Strongest 3D technical artists are those who are open to share doubts and do not make up the limits of their knowledge. Actually, this applies to any profession. Ask for help around you and also invest your time in helping your mates, you'll always learn something new. Share your experiences freely and do not keep them in a vault. Otherwise you'll be noticed as selfish professional: a knowledge collector.
Show and ask for respect, make sincere efforts to understand what your speaker has in mind, be optimistic and do your best to keep spirits up. A handful of passionate team members in a room, flooded with positive vibe, may give birth to amazing results.
4. Love what you do.
No matter you are creating a simple generator with Houdini software for creating rocks or a complex HDA for assembling amazing space ships. You need to address both challenges with all your passion, and try to create the best rock generator ever. Do not allow uninspiring tasks to let you down. You can actively decide you'll excel no matter what the assignment be. Soon, production staff and 3D leads around you will notice, and you'll become trust worthy. Worst case scenario, if you delivered awesome results for some time and you feel like you are stuck regarding the nature of the tasks you are assigned, pumping steadily high-quality results, no matter how fancy the assignment, will provide you with plenty of reasons when asking for a switch or promotion.

Behave properly with yourself

5. Be brutally honest with yourself.
You are the key limitation factor to your own growth. Understand, accept and get along with your actual background and expertise. You may aim for the moon, but you need to be sincere to yourself and accept what the real picture is. What cinema or videogame role do you want to apply for in the near future and what does it take to get there?  

6. Do not be afraid of failure. 
Failing is the best teacher for succeeding. Please read the sentence again and think about it for a minute. It might sound to empty words, you may have heard it before, but you need to understand it is actually true, and you have to appreciate failing as a precious experience for growing. However, you need to understand why you failed and the lesson you learnt in the process. It is ok to fail, but it is a sin to fail without learning something.

Pain + understanding = Progress

Any 3D project you address is a learning vehicle that will help you improving your soft and hard skills, no matter it is a 3D model, a Houdini tool or an unreal shader. Understanding the failure as a ladder gets you in the fast track.

7. Learn to live with high levels of uncertainty.

Within any 3D production for cinema or videogame industry, there is plenty of tasks to address. The level of unclarity/uncertainty revolving the assignment changes drastically depending on the nature of the task, how far in the future it needs to be released and the departments involved. Say you are assigned to create a Python script that, given some path within Unreal engine project, you need to launch a Houdini session, load all the geometry files within that path, run some geometry process and dump the output to disk somewhere else. Some basic questions should arise before typing a single line of code:
Is the Unreal folder path fixed or you need to dynamically assemble it through evaluating some environment variable? What geometry formats are used? How big are those files? Where do you need to write the processed geometry?....

You might have answers for some questions by the time you start the tasks; quite often, barely enough to let you kick off. Anyway, chances are you'll never have all the answers when you need them, and you'll need to evolve your prototype as the information flows, in a iterative fashion. Get things done, focus on prototyping behaviour to validate the ideas/approaches and do not be a perfectionist. Embrace dirt, quick functional prototypes to prove the hypothesis.  This applies to basically any project and task, so the sooner you get used to uncertainty, the better. Focus on pushing as far as you can and bubbling up your concerns and foreseen risks to your manager / lead / producer. They'll highly appreciate it.

8. Do not fall in love with your creations.

Take some distance from your own work from time to time, and, as we already mentioned, ask for feedback constantly (and be thankful in all cases). For long-term projects, it is ok to make a break; let project and yourself 'breath' and focus on something else for a short time. After a few days, you shall resume and you'll notice about unforeseen dangers and mistakes you did. In general, it is ok to rephrase/redo stuff, but releasing on time goes first. Remember: you are not an 'artist' (in the sense they might spend 4 years on making an outstanding marble sculpture), you are a 'technical artist' (in the sense you need to deliver your work timely with acceptable standards of quality -rather than perfect).

The more time you spend on something, the more chances your judgement gets affected and you get less open to sharing 'your creation'. That is unprofessional behaviour and goes against cooperative research and team building. Indeed, you need to deliver something from beginning to end, if you are asked to, but make a mental note every time you kick off a task: it might be resumed by somebody else for a variety of reasons or, you might push it to some limited extent only.

9. Get used to iterations: the value of MVP

We already mentioned that you need to focus on getting things done, but we didn't explain how.

Within any Techart task there is some challenge going on. Always. Sometimes it is simply solved through doing a quick search on Google, because somebody else already bumped into the issue. Most times, it is not that easy and you'll need  to come out with your own working solution.Walking an unexplored path, implies defining hypothesis.For instance:'I'll create this FBX exporter for Autodesk Maya purely in MEL' (In case you are curious, MEL is the native scripting language for Maya). Following with the example, your priority would be prototyping a working version of the FBX exporter as soon as possible. You don't need to care about optimizing, files living in proper folder paths, correct naming nor similar. First and foremost, you need to focus on getting it done, no matter how dirt the solution is, because you need to validate your hypothesis as soon as possible. In other words, you need to create the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) version of your tool/process. On the contrary, if you aim for excel since the beginning, you'll get stuck soon and/or you'll get lost in the details; you'll deplete most of the precious time budget you were given to realize your solution just doesn't work.

10. Push, push, push.
If you are new to Techart or new to 3D in general, chances are you'll feel tempted to resign eventually. There are plenty of unknowns, lots of software, lot of knowledge you lack...just feels  daunting. In case you experienced similar feelings, we´ll tell you the secret for success: The only thing you need is some guidance so you don't get lost navigating internet, patience and the proper mindset. Just hold on: even when you feel you don't understand anything. If you feel passionate about helping creating outstanding worlds and objects in 3D for game/cinema, this force is all you need. Don't lose the mind game against yourself: you'll be assaulted by doubts. You need to believe in your own strength so you don´t surrender. If you keep pushing, if you keep learning steadily, one day, all the knowledge you gathered will settle down and many things will make sense suddenly. Just be constant; push, push, push.

Pain + understanding = Progress

Empty space, drag to resize


Creating 3D objects (called props) and environments for movies and videogames is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a ton of different disciplines required to bring a 3D project to life. Just to name some:

1. Modeling: This involves creating 3D objects, characters, and environments using software such as Maya, 3ds Max, Blender, or Houdini.

2. Texturing: This involves creating image files (png, tga, tiff, exr, etc) to provide surface details to 3D models, lighting and more. Some common software are Substance Painter, Substance Designer, Quixel, Photoshop or Mari. Images can be used as a way of coding data too, so it is important to understand colour and how to manage it from a technical point of view.

3. Shading: Combine textures and mathematical functions into a 'shader', that it is applied to 3D assets. A shader 'belongs' to its rendering context, in other words, the technology that will be used for generating the images. That means, game engines like unreal or unity, will have their own shader creation rules. Same applies to any 3D viewer in general, like real time Marmoset Toolbag or offline renderers like Karma, Octane, Arnold, Corona, Redshift, etc.

4. Lighting: This involves setting up lighting for a 3D scene to create the desired mood and atmosphere. Lighting is related to the rendering technology too, similarly to shaders. Again, there are plenty of real-time 3D renderers, like Cryengine, Unity, Unreal, Marmoset...and offline renderers such as V-Ray, Arnold, Maxwell renderer or Mental Ray.

5. Rigging: This includes creating a skeleton and control system for a 3D character (or prop) so the vertices of the geometry be 'weighted' against it, so that it can be animated using software such as Maya, 3ds Max, Blender, Cinema4D, Houdini...

6. Animating: This involves moving and deforming 3D models to create motion using software such as (Maya, 3ds Max, Blender, Houdini,).

7. Rendering: This is the actual process of creating the image, which involves using a rendering engine to create a final output of the 3D scene, with all the lights, textures, cameras and materials applied,

8. Compositing: This involves combining multiple elements of the rendered 3D scene (they are basically rendered images, usaually called 'planes', 'AOV's or simply 'layers'), into a final image or video using software such as Nuke, Fusion or After Effects.

9. VFX: This refers to combining models, shaders, lighting, rendering, compositing, technical processes and more in order to achieve a given visual effect. It ranges from something really simple, like a flare done in postprocessing stage (compo), until extremely complex setups, like a city destruction. Requires a good understanding of other disciplines, a technical mindset, planning and an eye for art. Houdini FX is the standard within 3D industry.

10. Technical art: This involves the use of scripting languages, programming concepts and mathematical principles to create assets, pipeline and tools to assist the art creation process.

...and many more up to 'n':
The above were the high level, hard skills/departments required for creating 3D art, but depending on the specific project or pipeline, there may be many other topics necessary such as motion graphics, game mechanics, level design , artificial intelligence, previz/layout department, concept art, distributed rendering and more.
Empty space, drag to resize

Does it mean you need to learn all this software and techniques?

Not really. You need to have a basic understanding, specially regarding departments surrounding your arena. Additionally, there is so much software and so many must-know core concepts within each discipline, that it is not realistic to aim for delivering production quality work for more than a couple of disciplines. For instance, as an animator, you may need to master both theoretical principles of animation and how to get them technically implemented (like animating software, motion capture apps, etc). Think of it: chances are you won't excel at running, chess, drawing, math, surgery and singing all at once... We´ll leave that for the Greek aces of the ancient times. 

On the other hand, it is a common mistake to think that you don't need to know about art foundations in order to be a good techartist. Equivalently, as we explained, assuming that you need to master art is wrong too.
The truth is that, depending on the role, 3D content creation requires a varying mix of technical skills + artistic skills.
For instance, a 3D character artist specialised in character visual exploration must master very little tech (3D sculpting software like Zbrush and maybe some retopology software), but he/she should be proficient regarding anatomy.
Houdini 3D tech artist, on the other hand, would certainly require stronger technical foundations, but would need to understand artistic requirements to create a good ivy generator.

Hence, in order to become a good Techartist, you need to understand how artists think and what is important for them. Most of your tools/processes will be useful if they are useful for artists, so you should be familiar with manual creation of 3D props and environments, and how they integrate within target platforms (either offline renderers like Arnold, V-Ray, Octane, Redshift...or real-time engines like Unreal Engine and Unity).
Empty space, drag to resize
Take a look at some of our current Houdini courses!