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Change Your Thinking

Change Your Thinking

I want to cover a topic that is extremely important to your success. When I start teaching someone, I usually find myself having the same conversations I’ve had a thousand times regardless of whether the artist I’m talking to has zero experience or is working in the industry.

They all have the same desire to succeed, but in each of their paths to 3D mastery one thing stands in their way. Once they get past this roadblock, it’s all smooth going. What is this “one” thing that you have to get past (or passed, if you are a student of mine)? Could it be Booleans? Polygon flow? Radiosity? A cornfree diet?

The answer is none of those things, although the corn-free diet makes for a creative answer. Actually, the one thing you need to get past is simply the way you think. It’s my experience that most people have a can’t-do attitude, especially when it comes to learning new things. When I say most people, I’m not limiting that to artists new to 3D. I witness this on just about every forum online and at any industry shows I attend. Most people assume that things are not possible, they are too difficult, or special software/hardware is needed to solve the problem. I always suggest a different approach.

It may sound cliché, but the power of positive thinking goes a long way when working in this industry. Every day you’ll be asked to tackle the impossible, and if you go in with the attitude of can do, you’ll be able to see the task to completion. If your attitude is not possible, you will most likely not complete the task. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Robert K. Merton, the man who is credited with coming up with the expression, explains it this way:

“The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior, which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”

Simply put, go into every new venture with a positive attitude, and you will be able to accomplish things you never knew you could. I get asked to do something I’ve never done all the time, so I always go in with the idea that I will be able to do it and will have that much more experience when it’s done. Accept the fact that you haven’t done that task, but don’t dwell on it.

I always tell people, “I know everything I need to know to do the things I’ve already done.” Even I have to admit that it sounds silly but it’s a great way to approach each new task. Really give thought to that statement. The next time you feel like giving up before you even begin, recite that phrase. Say it out loud if you have to. It’s very similar to one of my favorite quotes from Rene Descartes, which states, “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.”

In this industry, we are not modelers, lighters, animators, or compositors. The best title for what our job is on a daily basis is problem solvers. As production artists, we are thrown problem after problem, and we have to devise solutions to move on to the next phase in production. The next time you “wonder” if something is possible, say, “I bet it is; I just need to figure out how to do it.” Do that and I believe you’ll have far better results than giving up before you begin.

One of the biggest hurdles for new users to overcome when problem solving is actually trying to use the tools currently available instead of wishing for the tools of tomorrow. I once had a student who wasn’t producing tell me that he couldn’t complete his tasks because he was “waiting for technology to catch up with my ideas.” He left me speechless! To this day he is still waiting for those magical tools to catch up with his unrealized ideas, whereas others who have the right attitude are realizing even better ones. Maybe I’ll check back with him in a few years to see if the tools he was waiting for were ever released and see if he has any of those incredible ideas left to realize.

I like to call this magical tool the “Do My Job” button. You know, the button that you click and it creates whatever you’re currently tasked with in one simple step. Many people waste valuable time looking for the “easy” way out of their problem. Although this method sometimes leads to a breakthrough, usually the end result is lost time. The sooner you realize there isn’t a “Do My Job” button and that you need to put a little elbow grease into each project, the sooner you will be on your way to producing amazing work.

I tend to use the phrase “back in the day” all the time—which is surely a sign of getting older—yet I can’t help but explain to new artists the stuff we used to have to do to solve what seem like minor hurdles with today’s tools. Not having the tools didn’t stop us. When we needed a flag blowing in the wind and there were no cloth dynamics to be found, we simply ran a procedural texture through a segmented plane and called it a day, and at the end of the day (to use another overused phrase) what it is really about is solving each task with the tools and techniques that you currently have. Sure, the tools will improve and so will your bag of tricks, but you already have the things you need to accomplish today—not tomorrow!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t push for new tools and improvements from the software developers. I push for new tools all the time. What I don’t do is let the tools I currently have in hand stop me. This type of positive thinking and problem solving is what has helped most successful artists and studios flourish. Otherwise, studios with massive teams of programmers to write every tool needed for every job would be the only ones to play a significant role in our industry. What fun would that be?

It probably says a lot about me, but I usually give the software programmers the benefit of the doubt and assume I’ve made a mistake when something goes wrong. It saves me a massive amount of time as I start trying to work through the problem as soon as it pops up. Here is a trick that has worked for me over the years and seems to be working for many artists working in the industry today. The next time you’re deep in production, and the software crashes or doesn’t give you the result you’re after, ask yourself, “What did I do wrong?” Don’t assume it is a bug in the software or blame the computer, even if it turns out that it is.

I’ve found that 98 percent of the time the problem turns out to be user error. If your first thought is that it’s the software or hardware, you have already come to a conclusion without working through the problem. Before you blurt out the knee-jerk reaction of “I didn’t do it!” ask yourself, “What did I just do?” It’s hard to take the blame sometimes, but give it a try and see if your workload becomes easier. Just remember the term PICNIC (Problem in Chair Not in Computer), and you’ll be set.

As CG artists, we need to be problem solvers who are able to think fast and tackle any issues that are thrown our way. With positive thinking and past experience, nothing is impossible. These are the tools that allow us to create lovable characters, amazing explosions, and photo-real environments—not the software or hardware. Software and hardware will continue to evolve, and you may find that you jump from one application to another over the course of your career. But the true value of your abilities is your problem solving skills, not where the Boolean tool is located and what it does.

This philosophy is what has allowed me to accomplish the things that I’m most proud of, and it is my most valuable skill. Take advantage of your problem solving skills and mix in some positive thinking, and nothing will stand in your way.

Excerpted from Digital Modeling by William Vaughan. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

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