How to be discovered as a digital artist

What you need to know about The Rookies.

At some of the visual effects and CG events I’ve been able to attend in the past few years, I kept seeing and hearing about The Rookies. And I kept running into Alwyn Hunt, who runs The Rookies with his co-founder, Andrew McDonald.

The Rookies is self-described as ‘a platform to help digital artists get discovered without having to compete with professionals for attention’, but I’ve been intrigued about exactly what The Rookies is and what it involves, and how artists who are just starting out can benefit from ‘contests’ that can lead to internships and training programs from the likes of Weta Digital and Animal Logic.


So I asked McDonald to outline why he and Hunt created The Rookies, how artists can apply to be part of the platform, what’s new in how they operate, and what it takes to run everything.

Andrew McDonald (left) and Alwyn Hunt.

b&a: What was it that directly led you to create the Rookies? Why did you feel something like this was needed for the industry?

Andrew McDonald: While working at MPC in London, Bournemouth University approached me to come up with a solution to teach industry based skills to their students. It wasn’t an option for me to commute from London to teach classes, so I suggested their students upload projects and questions to a cutting edge web platform at the time – Blogger. This proved really successful and as a result I pitched to Alwyn Hunt that we build a dedicated platform and try to help as many students as possible.

As our team of industry professionals grew and we interacted with students and faculty members, it became obvious there were two key trends. The most alarming was the disconnect between what schools thought they should be teaching and what skills the industry was actually looking for. We also noticed that each school was adamant they had the best students and facilities. This was the driving force behind why we launched the Rookie Awards (formerly CG Student Awards) – a contest designed to find the best students and schools around the world for creative media and entertainment industries.

b&a: You’ve recently re-launched the site with a new look – where is the Rookies ‘at’ right now? What are the different ways students can participate?

Andrew McDonald: We are no longer simply an annual contest for students, we are now a full-stack platform dedicated to helping students and self-taught artists launch their careers. We run regular contests designed to challenge our members to get their work seen by recruiters and key industry players. The kicker is that these contests have all the usual software and hardware prizes, but we also offer fully paid educational scholarship and studio internships which money can’t buy. Behind all this is ‘The Journey,’ a self paced learning path that we recommend all members undertake to help them gain employment. At each step we offer targeted training, advice and success stories to help motivate and keep members on track.

What the new site looks like.

b&a: What have you noticed over the past few years about the quality of student work, and also perhaps their attitudes towards the CG, animation and VFX industries?

Andrew McDonald: There is no doubt that the quality of student work has improved. However, I don’t believe this is necessarily because artists are better. It comes down to the fact that software and hardware is making it easier for artists to be creative from the moment they start. Combine this with easy access to high quality online training and you have a truly impressive ecosystem that I wish was available when I started out.

Even though on the surface the quality of work is much higher, this does not mean the industry is in a good place. Having reviewed student work for over 15 years and employed countless junior artists it’s clear that there is still a large disconnect between what artists create for their portfolio and what is actually needed. To help finally combat this problem we are launching an initiative in Q4 of 2019, so watch this space.

In terms of attitudes towards these creative industries I don’t feel much has changed at all. There will always be people that whinge about the industry, complain about hours, lack of jobs and no unions. This is warranted in many cases, but the fact is there are plenty of amazing opportunities out there for digital artists, there are plenty of amazing companies to work for, there are countless freelancer artists running successful businesses, and to top it off the creative industries are not slowing down with new career paths evolving each year.

b&a: Similarly, what have you seen from the company side, both in terms of studios and also software/hardware companies and how they want to be part of the early stages of artist careers?

Andrew McDonald: Next year, in 2020, it will be our 10th year running the Rookie Awards, so we’ve seen it all. It has taken a few companies a while to catchup but I think it’s fair to say that everyone understands the importance of engaging with artists in the early stages of their careers. These are the artists that will be making the creative and technical decisions of the future and software/hardware companies are totally aware of this and a key reason why they support The Rookies.

On the studio side of things, I feel they are playing catchup here in comparison to software/hardware companies. There are studios out there who support higher education and have well established internship schemes, but as a whole there could be a lot more done to help attract young talent and reinforce the benefits of a career in creative media and technology.

People gathered at SIGGIES 2018, an event The Rookies held during SIGGRAPH last year.

b&a: What’s one of the toughest things about running the Rookies?

Andrew McDonald: Up until recently, technology has always been an issue for us. For over 10 years all the web design and development was handled internally by myself – a visual effects artist. I was never trained formally to understand this world, so it was always a catchup game where every mistake possible was made. I’ve lost important data, wasted countless hours trying to combat cyber attacks, and spent a life-time debugging tickets. It’s probably been the best education you can get, but the pressure and time involved has always been the toughest issue for me.

Thankfully, that is all behind us now! Earlier this year we launched a custom built application built by one of the world’s leading web agencies. The difference is light and day. The platform is stunning. It’s built for growth, speed and stability which is something we never had when running on an open-source CMS. I can now spend time focussing on the business and less time stressing about a new feature that is broken.

b&a: What’s one of the more fulfilling parts of it?

Andrew McDonald: Meeting our members in person. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily business tasks and forget that we are interacting with actual people and helping them with an important part of their lives. Over the years we have helped countless people launch their careers and offered support and advice that they couldn’t find elsewhere. To now see those people leading teams, supervising on AAA level games and getting nominated for prestigious film awards is incredibly humbling. To hear them say that we contributed in a small part to their success will never get old and pushes us to keep doing this.

b&a: Is there one contest, one contribution, one event etc that has made a lasting impact on you since starting The Rookies?

Andrew McDonald: It’s truly hard to nominate a single success story as they are all uniquely special. However, the highlight for me was an event we hosted in Vancouver called SIGGIES. The name was a mashup of SIGGRAPH and ROOKIES. During the 2018 SIGGRAPH event we invited our members to come and party with industry professionals, studio representatives and industry heavy weights. Not only did this give us a change to meet our members in person, it provided them with an opportunity that is often missing from events like SIGGRAPH that are simply not affordable or offer enough for aspiring artists.

Find out more about The Rookies at their website.

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