How to get Hired as a Concept Artist
[Warning: wall of text incoming!]
As some of you already know, I am mentoring aspiring concept artists, and multiple times I was surprised by the fact that some of them didn't have a slightest idea of how to look for the job. So in order to avoid repeating myself for 20th time I figured I will just write about this. It's also summer now and many fresh grads are in crucial moment of their lives, when they are finally ready to get hired - so let's dig in the topic!
To those of you that are not aware: the current myth that we have about the work situation is that the industry became "over saturated" and "flooded" with concept artists, and the industry is not able to "fit them all in". In USA alone, we have multiple private schools, that focus on Game Development, and the numbers of students roaming their walls increase every year. So if you'd look at that trend while also being aware of how small Concept Art Departments tend to be in many studios - you would get a conclusion that yeah, situation doesn't look very good.
But! In reality "entry job" market is actually quite big! Many studios are ready to risk and hire multiple interns and temps at the same time, because it's: making the studio look good, government sometimes helps to pay intern salaries - and it's a cheap way of getting proficient workers, due to teaching them the ropes and "studio know how". Students don't have habits learnt from other jobs yet, so its easier to "program" them in a way that suits studio production style. Entry level positions have their down-sides too - the pay is usually quite low. But, its still a great start in the industry, to get hired in a studio, be taught by industry veterans and gain first credits in games.
Let's assume you all got a nice portfolio already and you are ready to enter entertainment industry. Some of you believe that work "should find you" (meaning that you should be selected, "hand picked" - be the "chosen one") so you are sitting and waiting for the sign from the sky. In some cases people are waiting years for that to happen! And some of you are proactive and like to take destiny in your own hands - so you are applying to 10 studios at once, but all you get is.. crickets.
So how does that happen, that some people are flooded with work applications, and others are struggling to get first break in? It's usually thanks to their "soft skills". Meaning that some individuals are more open-minded to learn, to reach out, to ask questions and to do research about industry standards and work market in general. No wonder that they have an upper hand!
Soft skills and general industry knowledge are not something easy to learn - but there are ways to gain them, if you know where to look. I will point websites and materials that will help you with it. [disclosure: my take on the subject may wary from other industry professionals. If you obtained other information from good sources, feel free to follow their advice instead]
After talking to artists at mentoring sessions, university grad shows and art/game conferences it's clear to me that aspiring concept artists don't get hired because they:
Don't know where to look for job
Are waiting for studios to contact them - they want to be "chosen"
Don't properly use linkedin, artstation and glassdoor (sometimes they don't use them at all!)
Discriminate studios available to them/ are ignorant to the opportunities out there due to lack of research
Don't exist online - so their portfolio discoverability is practically down to zero
Don't understand industry standards <-- that's a topic for another article though.
Are not willing to relocate are fixated on a single company or industry
Are applying to jobs that are not a good match to their portfolio (for example folio is filled with cartoony designs while they apply to studios that do realistic, contemporary shooters)
They get very discouraged after receiving rejection e-mails
They don't network - so they develop their portfolios in a vacuum
They are stubborn about certain techniques and software (for example people that use GIMP that are unwilling to learn Photoshop)
They are paralyzed by the competition (they assume it's hard to get a job so they don't even try)
They don't believe they are "good enough" to apply for jobs yet (so they just keep working on their portfolios for years)
As you see all of these issues have nothing to do with drawing skills or design sense. Portfolio is not the problem in most of the cases. Mentality and lack of knowledge is. So what can you do to change that?
1. Research job market properly
And be open to the opportunities out there! You don't have to limit yourself only to video game and movie jobs! As a concept artist you can apply your skills in many different industries like: mobile, toy production, tv, animation, comics, tabletop&board games, card games, casino games, theme park industry, advertisement, vfx, theater, product design, fashion, children book market - just to name a few! If you think that you might stray away from your preferred path - don't worry. I know many successful concept artists, that worked in advertisement, comics and toys before they ended up in games. So if you are unlucky to get a job in games or movies - don't waste time on "not art related jobs" and start applying to other industries that can use your design skills! Time spent there will be valuable to you - in terms of connections you will build there, and in terms of skills that you will acquire by working on those different projects. That also will "enhance" your CV and portfolio which eventually might lead you to landing your dream jobs.
If you are very stubborn and want to work in games right away though - there are plenty of websites that are accumulating all gaming companies around the world. The amount of studios is quite overwhelming! I would recommend you to click through them, and select a bunch that you'd like to work for, then see what projects they are working on and check their reviews on Glassdoor before you apply to them. If you are desperate to find ANY game work RIGHT NOW - then you can try to apply to bigger number of them. For example: the Gamedevmap map lists 1752 registered companies in the United States alone, and 474 in England. I'm sure that if you'd sent enough applications you would eventually get hired. Another game company list I recommend to my friends and students is: GameJobLists Google Doc by Mitch Dyer. His list is a bit smaller, but the links are directing straight to "job" sections on the companies websites :)
Other places that accumulate job offers: Artstation Jobs, LinkedIn Jobs, Glassdoor Jobs. Subscribe to "job digest" on Artstation, and set up "alerts" on the other two (so you'll get job notifications when new offers appear on those platforms). It will open your eyes in terms of amount of jobs that are appearing every week. You will suddenly realize that you do in fact, have choices.
2. LinkedIn is more useful than your diploma.
This portal is the most important tool, after online portfolio that you could possibly have. It's your online CV and your business contact list. You can literally search your dream studios, and find people that are recruiters there. Same with art directors and all department leads. You can go to their profiles, and see their portfolios, so you can compare yourself to people already working in the desired studio. You can reach out to them, ask questions, ask for advice. They are busy people, but I know they usually are still nice enough to take couple of minutes and reply back to you. You are not really risking anything by trying. At the worst scenario, they just wont reply. At the best scenario you could get hired or even gain a mentor in some cases!
You can add recruiters and head hunters to your contacts, so they can have access to you when they are about to fill new openings. You need to make it easy for them to find your portfolio (so have a link to it visible in the profile description). Add your art there too. And choose avatar photo and "background" image. I always thought this is obvious, but people still don't use linked in, and even if they do, they don't show any work on it and don't customize it. If you won't customize it then nobody will know that this is the artist's profile. You need to make it obvious so recruiters know right away if they want to read your resume and click in the portfolio link.
Another amazing feature that LinkedIn has, is "career interests" button in your Dashboard. It notifies recruiters that you are looking for work. You can customize this notification by adding key words of job titles that interest you, types of employments (freelance, full-time, contract, internship etc) and locations you are willing to work in.
Agents and recruiters are valuable people to add to your contacts on LinkedIn. Their main work purpose is to find artists and place them in right projects. So it's in their interest to actually get you somewhere.
3. Discoverability factor
Social media presence is important - but don't get fixated on follow numbers associated with it. Those numbers don't reflect if you are good enough or not. They just show how mainstream and popular your ideas are. You still need to be present online though. Online portfolio - like the Artstation profile is a must have. Remember to tag your art with "searchable phrases" and to share link to your folio in other places online. You should also consider joining community events (THU, IFCC, PromisedLand etc) and art competitions (like Artstation Challanges, Character Design Challenge - cos people really are looking at submissions! I found plenty of new artists to follow thanks to browsing through that. These challenges are good because they: give you a brief (so you work within the guidelines) give you deadline (so you are working against the time limit) and they give you exposure - so your discoverability is enhanced through the roof.
4. Research the industry
Read Kotaku, RockPaperShotgun, GamesIndustry.biz + other industry press to be up to date with: news, crunch culture, studio closures and accusations as well as next project predictions. Sometimes rumors about studio closures are appearing long before that happens. And at the same time - hardcore fans are able to predict what next game will come out from their fav studios - sometimes companies are even driven by "what fans want" - so games they make are an answer to their demand. Also, popularity of certain types of games can become an industry trend - for example: new Battle Royal games will be appearing couple years in a row from now due to success of Fortnite. It's better to stay up to date with what's going on in the industry. Thank's to that you wont apply "blindly" to the studios. You will have hints and context of what they might be working on and what their work culture is like.
5. Research the PROCESS.
If you never worked on games before - there still are ways of gaining a general understanding of the production cycle thanks to documentaries and books about game production. I recommend:
There is more materials out there, but those above are already a great start.
6. First job wont necessary be your dream job.
Students dream big. They are telling me that they would love to work for Square Enix, Bethesda or Bioware - but who wouldn't? And I get it, I understand it, it's good to aim for the sky. But this big dream often makes them blind to opportunities more accessible to their current level. Often I have to encourage students to apply to smaller studios, because they would prefer to work in Starbucks, and hone their portfolio at nights, than to get hired in a small studio to draw. Which sounds a bit insane to me. It slows their skill progression down. They already have loads of myths about the industry in their heads, and they are not able to auto-correct them until they land a job in any studio.
All aspiring concept artists have to understand, that in order to get to the "tip of the mountain" as Neil Gaiman used to say - you need to slowly take small steps that will get you closer. So I advise fresh grads to take the (very low paid) intern positions in the gaming studios, or to join small start-ups and apply to all entertainment studios around that are currently hiring if the portfolio fits the projects.. Students should really consider all opportunities around - including freelance, attending game jams and even working on amateur projects.
It seriously will pay off much better, than working in not- art related job, in order to work on the portfolio in free time. Working in actual studios will help you with growing your portfolio, and you will learn a lot from people sitting next to you.
7. Relocation. The silent elephant in the room. This industry presents many opportunities, but only those that are willing to move are going to have a higher chances of finding a satisfying job. This obviously gets more complicated, if you have a partner, if you don't know other language or if you have very strong ties with your family. Moving cities and countries is a very risky project, because you are starting at new job, but also at the same time you are changing environment. Which means your start will be hectic, your life will be still in boxes, you will have a lot of paper work piling up, and you will be expected to do your job well, learn all the ropes and be social in the studio to create new friendships at the same time. It can be a very difficult process, but it's manageable. Hundreds of artists lived through that, so can you.
8. Career is a climbing wall - not a ladder.
Sometimes in order to get "higher" you need to take step back. Loads of young artists have this unrealistic assumption, that the trajectory of their careers will always go upwards. But life happens. People change. Studios get closed. Projects get cancelled. You might be "forced" by life or professional circumstances to move on. Which is a good thing, because change always brings new opportunities and room to grow as a person and as an artist. Sometimes fluctuations and project cancellations can push you out of your comfort zone. You might consider becoming an entrepreneur yourself. You might start working on your own project. You might start a little outsourcing studio. You might consider moving cities, countries or even continents. With drastic changes, people harden and become stronger and more independent. And don't forget about your gut feeling. Sometimes if its time to move on, its just time to move on.
Putting your foot through the door, is the hardest thing in your career. It is manageable. All professionals went through this - so you can do this as well! I wish you luck with job hunting! Opportunities are out there! You just need to reach, and grasp them.
Ok that's it from me!