How to Become a 3D Modeler

By TACP Staff on June 17, 2019

The field of 3D modeling is as wide as it is deep. There are many opportunities for successful 3D modelers to apply their skills, which has made 3D modeling one of the fastest growing career choices for young professionals.

1. Learn the Basics of 3D Modeling

3D modeling blends advanced technology with creative thinking and problem-solving skills in a fast-paced and detail-oriented environment. From television commercials and video games to blockbuster Hollywood films, 3D modelers fingerprints can be found everywhere in the industry. Still, this isn’t all that a 3D modeler is consigned to do. 3D modelers find rewarding careers in the scientific field, designing models for the purpose of research. So, what does it take to get into such a complex and multifaceted career?

The act of 3D modeling may be simple to explain, but it is far from simple to learn or master. 3D modeling is a job assigned to artists and animators who use computer programs to create figures and models in three-dimensional space. There are a plethora of tools that 3D modelers must master in order to create models that meet the standards of their employers. The needs required by a Hollywood blockbuster movie are going to be different than the needs of a medical lab’s research study. 3D modelers will be charged with making almost anything that you can imagine – from items in the background to fully realized, detailed primary characters. 3D modeling at its core is a combination of skills that work together for use in our technologically-oriented world. But, while this can be an exciting profession it is also notoriously difficult to learn, and it takes a great deal of patience, advanced math skills and stick-to-itiveness.

2. Learn Formal Concepts, Methods, Theory & Technique

The art career world is notoriously unreliable in terms of finding straight line career paths from point A to point B. Still, 3D modelers typically fall into one of two camps: self-employed freelancers or employees at larger design firms. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 57% of 3D modelers are self-employed. Either way, the tasks required of a 3D modeler are similar, whether they are working at a firm or freelancing.

A large portion of the 3D modeling industry is located in the world of film. The Bureau of Labor Statistics again states that nearly 13% of all reporting 3D modelers worked within the film industry. 3D modelers aren’t typically consigned to specific niches as their tools and understanding should transfer fairly easily. So, this means that on any given week, tasks could be different depending on their assignments. One week a 3D modeler might be creating assets for a video game. The next week that same 3D modeler could be shaping the 3D elements in a movie. 3D modelers will be expected to utilize their wide array of skills and knowledge in a variety of different applications. This makes 3D modeling the perfect career choice for active minds who need to be a part of new projects to stay keyed-in on their work. 

Even though some would say the art world is different than most other careers, there is still a focus on advanced education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests pursuing a four-year degree in fields related to the type of 3D modeling that aspiring artists intend on pursuing. A 3D modeler who wishes to work with scientific laboratories, for example, should focus on a degree that combines physics and 3D modeling. Conversely, a 3D modeler who is interested in working in the film industry would be better served earning a degree that combines some sort of film- intensive focus along with their 3D modeling skills.

3D modeling isn’t a job that you can isolate in a vacuum. To be a successful 3D modeler, you must be able to employ a wide array of knowledge and skills based on the industry that you are pursuing. 3D modelers don’t work as little islands; they work as links in a large chain, and working well within a team is essential. Also, understanding core industry concepts will help to enlighten a 3D modeler’s work, thus making them a stronger potential hire.

3D modeling is a profession that mandates a complete understanding of certain software. The field of 3D modeling is always changing, and there will undoubtedly be updates to integral programs, so a 3D modeler must stay on top of their game. There are a few key programs that 3D modelers should understand, including Sculpting – 3D modelers will spend the majority of their time working with some form of sculpting programs like ZBrush or Mudbox. In these programs, a 3D modeler will sculpt the base of what the model will be. Here, a 3D modeler will get to flex their artistic skills while creating an asset that pays huge dividends for their client.

Another technique required of 3D modelers is Texturing – A 3D model without any texture will simply look like a block of clay. To bring a model to life, a 3D modeler must employ texturing. While texturing isn’t exclusively a 3D modeling job, it is another part of the graphical pipeline that is worth learning about. A common texture program is PolyPainting.  Proficiency in animation is another skill required of many 3D modelers. 3D modeling and 3D animating are two different career fields that overlap considerably. 3D animators serve themselves well by knowing how to model, and conversely, 3D modelers serve themselves just as well knowing how to animate. In any event, 3D animating is the act of creating a rig and attaching a model to the rig to create movement. This process is what creates action out of otherwise fixed models.

3. Build a Strong Portfolio and Professional Network

Working as a 3D modeler will be hard work, but it can pay dividends fairly quickly. With a four- year degree, an experienced 3D modeler can expect to earn an average salary of around $65,000 per year. Due to the self-employed nature of the profession, however, it can be difficult to guarantee an annual salary with any certainty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a fairly wide gap in salary expectations for the top and bottom 10 percent of modelers. The top 10 percent of earners brought home an estimated $113,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent earned closer to $35,000.

Self-employed modelers can opt to undercharge for their work in order to build working relationships. 3D modeling firms, however, are going to stick to industry-standard rates. In any event, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is expected job growth in the industry and modelers in the entertainment industry specifically can expect employment growth nearing 14 percent by the year 2018. 

In the 3D modeling world, you must impress people with your visual skills. A 3D modeler should have at least some understanding of web design, or they should be able to hire someone who does. A good portfolio will be based on an intuitive website that showcases recently completed jobs that will be showcased by a demo reel. A demo reel will have all your best work compiled into a video that tells the industry your story, your experience, your professionalism, and your skills.

No matter where you end up in the 3D modeling world — arts or science, you will want to focus on creating a network of professional relationships. Networking should begin in school with other students and your professors. The people you learn with today are the ones you collaborate with tomorrow. Otherwise, networking can be undertaken by attending industry events, and living in hot industry cities like Los Angeles or Vancouver can mean you have access to all sorts of professional events. Have business cards at the ready and an updated website as well.

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