Learn and Earn?


I had this challenging and thought-provoking comment from Ian on my Oscar Month post today:

How to use expensive filters, stock and not model something (which is what makes this special by the way)… What happened to learning how to do something by hand before relying on someone else.” 

Can you focus on being a technician and still survive in business?

Here’s my reply: “Hi Ian, this is a breakdown of an actual project for a client and not designed purely to teach techniques. I love to model and could have modelled the Oscar but would have missed my deadline as this was a tight turnaround project. I use plug-ins because I have access to them and like the results they give me, but you could definitely use built-in Ae effects. Completing a project successfully is more than raw techniques, it’s knowing when to borrow/buy resources and what tools to use to get the job done on time and approved”. Best wishes, John.

Should every project be built starting with a blank screen and use only default tools?  Can you focus on being a technician and still survive in business? For me, if one can be consistently challenged as an artist and run a successful business, that’s the perfect balance. Unless you’re a hobbyist, managing that juggling act means understanding when you can learn new skills, and when to use the skills you already have and any available resources. What do you think?

  1. Thomas Nordén

    I think the question one should ask is: what is the customer buying? Is she buying a solution that helps her meet her goals or is she buying a process? As long as no one is harmed during the process, should she care how you reach the goal? Probably not.

    If you are on a tight deadline(and who isn’t) you might very well outsource. But if you have the time, by all means, assemble pixel by pixel. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have more time to improve my craft, but I am slowly realizing that part of my craft is being a project manager that has to make sure that the customer gets what they have ordered.

    And if you outsource/buy models/use plugins… perhaps you can free up more time to do some serious experimenting for pure learning purposes.


    • John Dickinson

      Excellent insight Thomas. It truly is part of the craft to be a great project manager. Best, John.

  2. William Mease

    Generally speaking, a client doesn’t know about video. They are paying you because you do. I’d love to do something different and innovative every time but in reality they are happy if they see their logo and company in a way that you’ve done countless other clients. Clients don’t push you. You push yourself. Essentially, I left a successful business I co-owned because of this premise. I wanted to be challenged and local production could never do that. I’d rather be a creative video hobbyist than a stale video professional.

    • John Dickinson

      I agree William. I’m working on a project at the moment and in order to get the result I want, have been working on it outside office hours – to push my skills and ensure a quality end result. Sometimes going the extra mile is the only way to stretch yourself. Best, John.

  3. Mike Beckman

    Using stock models is fine if it gets the job done, but there are potential pitfalls; mostly if models are used because the artist lacks the ability to competently model themselves. Last minute client changes could require the artist to clean up, add to, or otherwise modify an existing model. If they don’t have the chops to do it, they could lose credibility in the eyes of the client and blow their budget hiring someone who can make the necessary changes.

    • John Dickinson

      That’s true Mike, not having the skills can get you into a jam, unless you’re able to hire someone else who has those skills of course! Sometimes having a stock model can allow you to complete a project in such a way that may not have been possible on a tight deadline. If I didn’t have the Oscar model I probably wouldn’t have had time to use an Oscar in that project. Best, John.

  4. Joe Vallero

    Hey John,

    I think the initial comment is a false equivalency. You can only be a good artist if you build everything from scratch. That is simply untrue. Django Unchained is an homage to spaghetti westerns and used many of the genre’s tropes to create a separate piece of art. The fact that you bought a model and saved yourself a 1/2 or a full day of work means you had more time to focus on the overall look of the final piece.
    I use to struggle with the idea that if I didn’t create it from scratch that it wasn’t mine or original. I learned after years of working professionally, creating your own singular piece of art is rarely the job that is asked of you and almost never required. If you have the time and resources it is great to be as artful and original as possible but at the end of the day you have to ship on time and at a high quality.

    Just my 2 cents

    Thanks for all the great tutorials and blog posts and I’d love to see another Business of Design sometime soon.


    • John Dickinson

      Well said Joe, thanks for your insight.

  5. EJ Hassenfratz

    The only time I use “shortcuts” is with 3D models. I’m not the best at modeling, but when I actually have time to model (like with that Oscars model), I always push myself to model it myself so I can begin to learn things. I just had another project recently where I needed to rig a robot arm and never really used IK before, so that gave me an opportunity to dive into that although the solution was kinda half baked. I didn’t use angle constraints, etc, but at least it’s a building block for 1. when i want to learn on my own time or 2. when i get another gig where i need to do character rigging again.

    • John Dickinson

      Hey EJ, you did a perfectly acceptable job on the Oscar model! I was glad to have it available and wouldn’t have been able to do that project without it! It’s definitely important to push one’s skills by attempting techniques outside our comfort zone. It not only stretches us and makes us better designers, it also gives and injection of satisfaction that keeps apathy and burnout at bay.

  6. Richard Squires

    This is a really interesting topic as I deal with this on a daily basis. Due to the insane deadlines I am given I do sometimes wonder about the validity of what I am producing as I tend to fall back on tried and tested methods to get stuff done. The end product looks perfectly respectable ( so it should, I have been doing it for over 20 years) and I get excellent feedback but I feel like a bit of a sideshow hawker dazzling with fancy misdirection. I always want to learn more and I want to push myself further with every job I take on. It’s just those bloody deadlines that get in the way. As a one man band it is hard because you have to be a generalist in all areas, which means your particle work for instance only gets to a certain level. One area I lack knowledge and skill in is character animation. I just never have the time and opportunity to do anything like this in my job so it always stays on the back burner. I could do it at a pinch but it would be hard and I’d be better off out sourcing this to someone who does it 24/7. Same with modelling a stadium. Why spend a week doing something that you can buy off the shelf for a few hundred dollars. This would give you more time to finesse and come up with a better product. One recent job I forced myself to UV map in Modo and it paid off because now it’s very easy for me to do it. And once you have a UV map, texturing just becomes a lot easier and asset sharing is cleaner.

    Fundamentally as creatives as soon as you think you know everything then that’s the day you down tools. I recently bought a tutorial on rendering in Modo as I felt I wasn’t sure about whether what I was doing was correct and if I was really using all the tools available. I get on the exercise bike and watch it for half an hour and it just opens up new avenues to explore.

    I think the actor Stephen Berkoff really described this well when he talked about his Hollywood career. As a very respected stage actor who has his own theatre company and produces very edgy work, he used Hollywood and the roles he got playing stereotypical villains to pay for his own experimental work. I’d love to get to that stage, but then again what would I do. I’d probably get creative block!

    • John Dickinson

      It is indeed a challenge to stretch yourself when you’re a one-man-band Richard, I know that first-hand. I love motion graphic design because it’s always stretched me. Having had no formal training or even completed high school I always felt on the back foot when it came to design, and still do 17 years later, although these days it’s more about pushing myself than trying to hide my perceived lake of skills.

  7. michiel

    I don’t see a problem at all with using a stock model esp for something like an Oscar, since it’s a predefined shape and you didn’t have to actually design it in any way. A film director doesn’t make all his props, his lenses, the filters, the lighting himself either (though he might have some creative direction over the process). We motion graphic designers already are being supposed to have an extremely broad skillset, ranging from editing to animation to graphic design, to grading, to 3d modeling, texturing, lighting, directing etc etc.
    And yes in the end, if you’re running a business you will have to deal with clients and deadlines. The client doesn’t care if you bought a model or spent three days modeling it yourself from scratch, as long as it works for the project and the project gets done on time and on budget.

    • John Dickinson

      Good point Michiel, I doubt my Oscar model would look quite as good as EJ’s, and in the case of recognised objects such as the Oscar it’s vital it looks identical (or close to identical) as the original.
      Best, John.

  8. Karl-Jason

    I can’t believe you used an out-sourced model for this!! I can’t believe you used plugins!! I can’t believe you used a computer!!! It’s only REAL animation if you painstakingly draw ever single thing hand-by-hand!! Movies nowadays disgust me! With all the CGI and film cameras!! Film should be painted at 24fps by a group of artists with pencils and paintbrushes!!
    This industry disgusts me!!

    • John Dickinson

      Ha! To be fair, the original comment was probably more about learning the basics first. I felt it was a good opportunity to create a dialogue about the use of stock and plug-ins.

  9. elmoo

    Great post, great replies.
    Thank you for this great blog!

    I entered in this business (motion graphics) with modeling. It started as a hobby.
    At the moment I use stock models almost all the time, because of the deadlines.

    • John Dickinson

      You’re welcome Elmoo. Deadlines really are the determining factor indeed.

  10. John Stanowski

    It’s great to have tutorials to teach you how to do something in After Effects from scratch, particularly for new users. However, intermediate and advanced users tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to tutorials because most of them are like this. Jon’s situation is similar to a lot of others. We need to get something done, and done quickly. And on plugins: Just because they don’t come bundled with AE doesn’t mean they are any different from any of the other tools. They are there. Let’s use them! I think it’s great to get tutorials on how to get something done well… quickly. It IS the nature of the business. Especially our business. Intermediate and advanced users don’t know it all and it’s great for them to be able to get instruction that doesn’t start with a long discussion of the interface!

  11. ciaran

    Interesting points Richard, mainly around learning character rigging/animation. I guess it comes into the rest of the discussion here that motion designers have do a hell of a lot, as John Stanowski said, like editing, directing, grading, animating alongside the actual designing. Companies like Pixar, etc. hire staff to work exclusively on character animation, or particles or backgrounds, whatever it is they’re best at.

    Playing to your strengths is the most important thing. Sure, you don’t want to find yourself stuck in a rut doing the same shit day in, day out, but if I’m doing any client job that will involve a huge amount of work I’m shakey with, or just don’t know how to do yet without arsing it up, then I either buy some models or get somebody who can to do it. That way the job gets done and everybody is happy.

    Like everybody else, the projects I like to work on are the sexy-to-look-at ones which get me learning some new tricks and workflows which make the job quicker and I get to use again on another project, rather than squeezing out something bog-standard, uninspired and dull, just because it ticks the boxes.

  12. 3DGirl

    I agree with Ian, but have learned the hard way through actual production at my job that I have to just get the work done, as John said. People like us who like it to be our own models may have to continue doing that outside of work as a hobby, etc.

  13. 3DGirl

    Outside of my job, I’m fortunate enough to work with clients who allow me to do my own thing with loose deadlines. I take joy in doing custom work for them. Plus sometimes the right tutorial or stock items isn’t available and you have to pull on your own know-how.

    I guess I’m so against templates, etc. because they’ll be recognized at some point — especially once popular (like Element 3D). Everybody’s going to be using the same style, models, look. What will differentiate our’s?

    I hope to get to the point where I’m good enough to catalogue and re-use my own or create fast. Otherwise, I don’t think I want to do this anymore. Think about it. If dropping models into projects is so easy for us pros, think about how easy it is for the growing amount of what I call YouTube amateurs coming up on our heels? We have to exhibit some skill that differentiates us and maintains our value — like a photographer vs. an amateur with the photographer’s tools. Understand?

    • Richard Squires

      3D Girl If you take your analogy of a photographer then say said photographer was asked to shoot food, he wouldn’t be required to make it himself. He’d employ a professional food stylist/chef to help in this area. Same with models. The skill comes in the lighting, camera angles and movement. I do agree that it’s pointless using templates as that’s just lazy but for some jobs they can give you a handy leg up. Nothing is original it’s all been done to death before. You just have to do it your way add your special sauce and make it yours.

      Recently because my turnarounds have got so fast, say I have a logo to do, I’ll look for other examples of it then amass a whole bunch of reference of how I don’t want to do it. It’s like you have a department of people just working on stuff for you. You can then see very quickly a direction you’d like to take. I don’t see this as plaigarism. But Google is such a great resource use it to it’s strengths.

  14. Kes Akalaonu

    Great article, Jon. As I’ve matured in this business as an editor and motion graphics artist, you really do learn that the client only cares about the final product. With tight deadlines always abound, you made a smart move that had you working smarter and not as hard. I would like to try to learn something new every project and push my craft further but that’s not always possible. The whole idea of not being an artist if you don’t create it from scratch is a bit absurd. Just because you use plugins and models doesn’t make you any less of an artist. You did what was best for the project and were able to meet your deadline like a wise veteran. Keep doing what you are doing.

  15. Carey Dissmore

    Hey Jon, spot on.

    My tolerance for the “I don’t use plugins” (or stock) view has worn quite thin. I think you will find quite frequently that someone who holds that view is not in a position of running a business, answering directly to clients, needing to support a family, staff, etc. They might be a night/weekend/hobbyist or independently wealthy, student, or otherwise have their primary living met another way–in other words, they can afford to hold that view. And for another point: I think plugins are really great! I think they are great tools in the artists hands, and I really appreciate and encourage the support of a healthy plugin community.

    The fact is that we all want to take pride in our work, but in the real, client-driven, deadline-driven world, we cannot afford to measure our success only on our own personal satisfaction with the art we create. We must also balance important things like: satisfied clients, deadlines met, desired results (of the spot, or the meeting opener, etc.), and not having to eat dozens to hundreds of uncompensated hours for the sake of some abstract concept created from our own pride and arrogance. I live in a world where I need to deliver. Frequently.

    Sometimes I labor to satisfy the needs of my inner artist, but I must always balance with the recognition of who I am ultimately working for–myself–or the client? Often the answer is “kinda both”, but there’s a pecking order: If my own creative impulses and desires are going to make me miss a deadline, there’s no amount of cool factor that is going to appease that client who is now DIS-SATISFIED. There is so much more to being successful in this business than simply artistic and technical skills required to execute some software.

    Here’s something I like to do: I take on one or two pro-bono projects per year for a cause or charity I believe in. I invest heavily of my own time and talent for little to no compensation. Typically the deadlines are looser, and I have great artistic license. The fact that there is little to no budget definitely constrains my use of purchased elements, but beyond that, I’m able to really express myself creatively and do what I want. I love it, and these projects offer tremendous satisfaction.

    Look, the production business is not just some ordinary “punch a clock” job to me, I believe you cannot make it in this business without serious passion for it—but I’ve definitely got higher priorities than just the work I do.

    Personally, I measure that by looking not at my work, my house, my stuff, but rather by looking at my family, my wife, my kids, my community….asking myself–were their needs met? did I make a difference?

  16. Rob Redman

    Just a little thought to add here…

    What do people consider a plugin? Most of the main 3D apps these days are a collection of original (or re-written) source code which has had new features bolted on over time.
    More often than not these new features started out as plugins and other the host app developers license or buy the technology and the host app becomes an amalgamation.

    What I’m getting at here is that you may not even realise it but you probably use plugins all the time, you just don’t know it. So does it matter? No.

    Using stock isn’t in itself an bad thing. As many people have pointed out it can save the day when you have an impatient (or unrealsitic) client. Yes, there are downsides (like having the skills to remedy problems with a mesh, understand UVs if you need to re-texture and don’t get me started on look alike work that pops up (I have been sent reels with shots that are copies of my work!)) but if you need to incorporate a model into a bigger project then fine.

    There is nothing better than having the skills to do it yourself but I doubt there are many of us who can model everything we need, or write plugins to make our app do what we want, how we want it. At least not in the time our clients give us, or for the money they are willing to pay.


  17. Roy

    From reading the responses I can tell most are working professionals and understand that at the end of the day the Client has to be happy or you might not get a call back. I’ve realized that at the end of the day what we do is pretty meaningless is the grand scheme of things. We’re essentially providing a service to a client that’s selling some kind of product. Money is the main motivator so we shouldn’t get all hung up on beleiving we’re creating some grand art. I know we all got into because we wanted to make a difference and feel special but it’s just a game at the end of the day. And like people have said, clients don’t care how it’s done as long as it looks good. When my gardener cuts my grass I don’t care how he did it or whether he copied someone else’s technique. I just care that it gets done and looks good. That’s the world we live in, and every industry is the same, whether it’s photography, music, motion graphics or whatever. So these people that say we need to create everything from scratch should get off their high horse and look at reality.

    • Richard Squires

      Hi Roy

      I am guessing you may be a little older and wiser than some of the people who have replied to this topic. You are right. What we do for the most part is ephemeral and means very little. It’s not like we are saving lives or coming up with ways to slow global warming.

  18. aidan

    I agree with you John, if you were commissioned to create something for an artist or client than that’s where you would be more likely to start with a blank canvas. I don’t think anyone would really have a problem with plugins, If you use them at their default setting than that’s just crazy and you’re not using them wisely.

    I have to say, it’s a tough industry, I feel like i’m always coming and going thinking I may be able to sustain and survive each time I get back into the creative side but never know when I might have to go back to the regular office job. pretty risky thing to do tho, taking a break, as I get out of the loop and need a lot of catching up with the latest programs, releases, looks and workflows.

    but hey, learnings half the fun 🙂

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