I'm writing this article because as a board member of CGS Chicago and a professional 3d artist for 15 years, I'm often asked to review portfolios. I'd estimate that 95% of portfolios I review would not even merit a job interview. I frequently see the same mistakes and I want to create a document summarizing both common errors and what I would rather see instead.
Enough introduction, now on to common portfolio errors.
1. No Focus/ "Generalist" Reel. If you can actually be a generalist, that's great. But that means you have to prove you are good at multiple things. Most student reels I see that are "generalist" in reality contain an unfocused body of work and just prove that they are bad at multiple things. Have a focus to your portfolio. Make that clear-- if you want to do game environments, have a portfolio full of game environments. State this on your resume, on your web site, whatever-- and then follow through.
2. Too Redundant. I don't want to see the same work in different places on your web site or many times over on your reel. I don't need eight different slow pans over the same simple model. If I see work repeated, I assume it's time to stop watching/browsing because you have no new content to show me. I also don't want to see out of date work. It's better to leave the viewer wanting more than to let them know where your skill set ends. I also feel this way about most "in progress" work I see-- if it's weaker than the finished pieces, leave it out. And even if it's not weaker... just finish it!
3. Too Low Resolution/ Too Low Poly. Nobody is hiring anyone to make games for the original PlayStation. Even companies that require low-poly work are impressed by higher resolution work. Models should always be clean and efficient. But when I see students claiming their work is "low poly", it's often visibly faceted with blurry textures-- and that impresses no one.
4. Caring Too Much about the Stupid Stuff. Students often spend way too much time on the things that don't matter: music, titles, branding, fancy flash stuff, or "trying to tell a story" with their reel. Nobody cares about the music on an artist's reel: often reels are watched on mute. In a reel or web site, I feel like simple presentation is the best-- let the viewer focus on your work, not fancy fonts, flashy animated intros, logos, etc. If your reel is so polished that you have time to spend on all that stuff, great. But for most 3d artists, myself included, the time is better spent on actual portfolio content.
5. No Porn Elves. Porn Elves are what I call the grotesquely modeled mostly or completely nude women with pointy ears. Somehow students think these badly-executed creations are fine as long as they have pointy ears, wings, etc. With nudity, please err on the side of realistic life drawing and not some twelve year old boy's fantasy. If you have nudity in you portfolio, it better be well-executed and should not make me question your ability to work with men and women in a professional setting.
6. Don't Prove You Can't Draw. I used to think I could draw. Then I worked with professional concept artists in California who work for both the game and movie industries. Those people are amazing. I realized that while I might impress my friends, my high school art teacher, and my mom, I am not a concept artist. I do not have any concept art in my portfolio. If you're not really, really good, neither should you.
7. Have Substantial Content. As I mentioned earlier, portfolios should contain a related body of work. I see so many student portfolios consist of one environment, one car model, and a character... not enough of anything to get a job. I personally feel that any portfolio should contain three realistic pieces. I can't emphasize enough the use of photos as reference and as texture source too. Many jobs want you to model realistically. Also, if you can model something complex that is photo-realistic, chances are you could model from concept art.
8. Stylization as a Crutch. If I see a portfolio full of nothing but weird creatures, I wonder if the artist could model anything realistically or from concept. Creatures are fine, great even, as long as you have enough realistic content in your portfolio to prove that you can model anything that's thrown at you.
9. Wear and Decay. If you're trying to get a job in games or movies, wear and decay are very important.. I see a lot of students who want to be environment artists with scenes that look like architectural renderings (which is fine-- if you want to go into architecture.) A good, old, realistic environment though has hardly any true hard edges, straight lines, or flat colored surfaces, or crazy amounts of reflectivity. A sidewalk, for example, isn't just the color of cement. It might have patches of tar, uneven grooves, cracks, chewed gum, bird crap, cigarette buts, age/water discoloration patches, and edges/curbs often crumble or wear down. You should have textures on everything in a scene and use both textures and geometry to break up the hard edges that don't usually exist in real life.
10. Show Wireframes. I would never hire anyone without seeing wire frame versions of their models. Models that are clean and efficiently built means that someone more senior won't have to spend tons of time cleaning up your work.
11. Detracting From Your Work. The main offenders of this are crazy roller-coaster cameras, bad/too dramatic lighting, and low-resolution textures. An animated camera should be barely noticeable, not a version of Disney's Space Mountain. Lighting should emphasize how great your model is, not make the viewer squint and wonder what they are seeing. And I'd rather see no texture than a bad one that obscures the detail in the geometry with badly laid out UVs or giant pixels. Also, object-specific textures are much better than generic procedural shaders.
12. Licensed Properties. I don't want to see licensed property in your portfolio unless someone has paid you to work on that game/movie. It makes me wonder if the model really belongs to you, and if you would respect any licensing/legal issues of my company.
13. Other People's Work. One of my biggest pet peeve's is reviewing a student's portfolio, noting the highlights to myself-- and then seeing them credited to someone else at the end. Yes, professionals often use pieces they collaborated on in their reels but if your work wasn't the most noticeable part of the scene, don't include it. Often including another person's work in your portfolio either detracts from it because it's worse (thereby lowering the overall presentation of your portfolio) or emphasizes that your own work is comparatively weak. So act with caution here.
14. Including the Results of a Tutorial. We all do tutorials. The point is to obtain skills and apply them to your own projects. If you're too lazy to do that, I don't want you working with me.
15. A Word About Web Sites. Web sites are probably the best way to show your work. They are easy to view and accessible by many people at once. Make sure yours is simple to navigate. Don't' bury your content many pages deep, don't make me watch a slide show, and don't make me download some weird plug-in. Keep your work your work and your blog someplace else, because you only risk offending someone. Finally, if you have animation on there, make sure it's big enough that the viewer can see what's going on.
Good portfolios are brief but rich with information and detail. They can be surprising but must have a clear focus. And it bears repeating that I would not hire anyone without seeing multiple realistic pieces and clean wire frames. If your work isn't as good or better as what's currently being produced by a company, there's no way that company is going to hire you. Compare your work to other professionals, not students, because other professionals are your competition.
Being a 3d artist can be extremely rewarding, but many students don't understand how amazing portfolios need to be just to land an interview. I wish the best of luck to anyone reading this and hope the information here is useful.
Rachel Nador is a freelance 3D artist based in the Chicago area, and a board member of the Chicago Computer Graphics Society. She spent nearly a decade as an environment artist working on games published by Electronic Arts, Activision, Midway, and others. She has also created 3D graphics for film, web, vehicle simulation, and interactive medical and scientific visualization. Her work can be seen at www.rachelnador.com.