When it comes to hiring, a supervisor reviewing portfolios will try to follow their instincts, using previous experience and knowledge to hire the most suitable candidate for the team or project. Having done this process myself multiple times, I was always try to find a portfolio page with personal projects. Some people will argue that your professional work is the only thing that matters when applying for an art position. As much as it is true for certain art professions, it is not always possible to detach one persons contribution from a team effort.

If you are an illustrator, graphic designer, or a painter it might be pretty obvious that all the work was done entirely by you, even though sometimes an art director will have a huge influence on the project, the final look and quality of your artwork will depend on you. However, in the visual effects industry there are not very many times when you will do all the work by yourself. 9 times out of 10 it is a team effort and you are just one of the contributors to the final product.

The purpose of the demo reel is to show the overall scope of your experience in the industry.

Even once you have completed your work on a film, you may not be lucky enough to have your shot be selected for the breakdown reel and all you have to show in your demo reel is a final comp of the shots you worked on. Sometimes the shot may have been heavily changed/altered in the next step of the pipeline, sometimes you cannot even see a large part of your work because it is obscured by other elements like smoke, dust, fire or destruction.

Given all that, when reviewing an applicants work it is very hard to determine the actual skill level of the person unless you directly worked with them before or you know someone who did. This is why most studios will ask you for reference contacts. We need to verify your skills and find out more about your involvement in the project and how it went in general.

Sometimes a there is no point of reference when reviewing an application and you have to make a call yourself based on the demo reel and portfolio gallery. The purpose of the demo reel is to show the overall scope of your experience in the industry. These are things like; how big were the projects you worked on, how complicated were shots you were involved with, etc.

Growth Indicators

So how exactly your personal art will help studio personnel to decide should they hire you or not? Well personal work can give use indications of things you might haven’t even thought about.

Creating a series of personal artworks will show your determination and ability to stick to one type of work or subject matter for an extended period of time.

Usually in your personal work, you are the Art Director, so personal work will show your overall level of creativity and subject matter you are interested in the most. If you're short on ideas for your personal work, ask people around you for feedback or critique. It doesn’t mean you have you use their ideas or feedback and implement everything, but it is a great starting point. Conversely, when you are working in a studio you will have to follow the feedback and decisions of the feedback you are given.

Another important indication presented in your personal work is that you are responsible for the quality level of your finished work. This is important as it demonstrates your level of self-criticism and attention to detail. Your general interests are also displayed in your personal works. If you are creating cityscapes or landscapes, for example, this will help determine which shots or what project you will be most suitable for.

Don’t show anything you don’t like personally. The best way to improve your portfolio is to ask a professional artist for a review!
Some random tasks I was playing with in my free time to expand my skill set and have a proof of knowledge

Personal projects will often give us an idea of what software or techniques you are most interested in, whether it be 3D modelling, procedural 3D, 2.5D projections or traditional matte painting. Remember that it is also important to stay up to date with the latest industry trends and tools. Your portfolio should show that. Even if you are already starting in the industry, your personal work on a different subject matter than your day to day projects could help you to prove your skill to the Head of the department in order to get more challenges and interesting tasks on the current project at the office.

You can try creating a series of artworks too. This will show your determination and ability to stick to one type of work or subject matter for an extended period of time. Some film projects can take months or even years to complete and so studios are looking for artists who have the stamina for that. Long, ongoing, personal work will help you to build that skill and demonstrate it to any studio you apply to.

Improving Your Portfolio

The best way to improve your portfolio is to ask for a review from a professional artist. Sometimes a few badly executed artworks in your portfolio can plant the seed of doubt in the reviewer's mind. Sometimes "less is more" with your portfolio and removing some of these bad artworks can really help. But you may not know which images you should remove, this is where a professional artist can help you.

One general rule you can follow is not to show old or outdated projects, just remove them from your showreel or hide them from the public view on your portfolio. It is better to have 2 very strong and solid images than 5 "ok" images. Of When it comes to your demo reel, you should start with your strongest work and but also finish strong to leave a great impression on a recruiter after watching your reel. If your showreel only ends up being 30 seconds long, then you know you have to make some new artwork!

On way of improving your portfolio is to do a revision of your old personal images. Try to recreate or adjust an image from a few years ago and see how your skills have improved. Over time, your artistic eye gets better and your technical skills change and improve. This exercise is also extremely helpful in times of self doubt if you feel like you are experiencing an artistic plateau of your skills as it will remind you of how much you have improved.

Series of personal artworks I was creating in my spare time using the same assets and similar subject matter

If you find yourself struggling to come up with new ideas for you personal project I would highly recommend to go over the past and current challenges on MattePaint Academy, or if you've participated in every single one of them, join our discord server and ask for a new one!

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To Summarize all of the above:

  • Your personal portfolio can help you to get hired in the position you really want.
  • It will guide recruiters and heads of the department in terms of your potential growth and areas you are truly interested in.
  • Will help to assess your current progress.
  • Recreating old work can help in times when you are in times of self-doubt.

Good Luck!

~ Oleksiy