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Is “finishing” your missing skill?

We had a great conversation in The HQ PRO today about the top skills you can put in your toolkit to help you get work and to jumpstart your career. While I had many practical ideas and suggestions, one of the skills I actually thought was most important was the skill of “finishing.” In this post, I’ll tell you what I mean, why it’s important, and why it’s something all employers look for.

What does finishing mean?

Finishing isn’t a special concept or particularly tricky one. It really comes down to starting a project and actually taking it to it’s completion. That’s it. Sounds easy but I guarantee you completion means different things for different people, especially people looking to hire you for projects. For the vast majority of folks, finishing seems to mean that they’ve grown tired of tweaking the generative art they created on a whim. At this point, they quickly bounce out a few stills or video, then post them and move on. Artists and developers who work on larger professional projects have a very different concept of finishing.

Finishing in the way that myself and other pros see it can be attributed to polish, documentation, depth of work, and level of feature integration. Here’s a bunch of questions that folks like me ask when we’re looking at your work:

  • When you were getting ready to move on from the quick generative piece you made, did you take the time to run it through some post processing and colour correction?
  • Did you take a few different videos and edit them together with some music in Premiere?
  • Did you create some behind the scenes shots or footage of your work process?
  • When you posted the piece, did you post some insightful things you learned or talk about the techniques you used in creation of the work?
  • Did you actually spend time to create a narrative or concept around your work other than “it accidentally started looking cool so I hit record”?
  • In the case of seeing project files, is it well organized and automatically start in perform mode with a nice GUI?

Some of these may sound more silly than others, but I guarantee you that there are high-end pros and developers who are thinking about these kinds of things as they see your work.

Why does all this matter??

A lot of the times when we’re looking for new talent to bring onto projects, we start looking at websites and social feeds. One of the things I see a lot of is “cool stuff.” Unfortunately, most commercial projects aren’t based around solely cool artistic stuff. These projects may have interesting artistic elements to them but they’re often within a well-defined scope and come with accompanying feature or spec docs and need to be done on schedule. The project life ties into all of the questions and ideas I mentioned above: polish, documentation, depth of work, and level of feature integration.

To be honest, 60-70% of a project is polish, expressing/selling concepts, documentation, and feature integration. Making the cool looking artistic parts are usually the small and easy parts of a project! Anyone who’s worked on large projects is going to laugh at the list below because they know that’s where they spend most of their time, but the important, hardest, and most time consuming parts of the project are usually:

  • Getting the clients sold on your ideas through pitch decks or presentations so they’ll actually let you do them
  • Going through endless rounds of reviews and revisions until every little thing on the screen feels perfect to a CEO
  • Creating troubleshooting documentation and technical overviews of your work because you were only contracted as work for hire and the client wants to be able to work on the project themselves later (even though we all know they won’t!)
  • Integrating every little auto-starting, immediate-perform-mode-ing, self-error catching, self-reviving, remote monitoring, deeply logging feature that makes the art piece essentially bulletproof to the client and the users

That’s what pros do when they’re on projects, otherwise you are likely not going to be paid. And all of these things are honestly not exciting most of the time. They’re annoying bits of work that we have to do. And that’s why showing that you finish everything is important. If I’m scrolling through a social feed and I see work that is documented well, polished to high levels, looks like it has a lot of features, and was actually thought about and expressed, I’m immediately thinking that this person would be a great person to bring on to future gigs.

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How can you improve your finishing skills?

Finishing is harder for some people that others. Some folks find it part of their natural process to really take work and even sketches to certain levels of polish or maybe they love writing about them when posting on Instagram. For others, it can be extremely difficult to do all of the post-art tasks that often come with finishing. Below I’ve listed a bunch of different ways you can try to take your finishing skills to the next level and impress people that are looking for talent.

  1. Write and talk about it. I often say it’s not enough to just show someone your work. Art pieces are inanimate objects. They do so much better when the artist is actually there in some way giving you context about it, talking about how they made it, talking about why they made it, and generally giving you a sense that there was real process and thought behind it. If this is on your website portfolio, you could consider writing a few paragraphs about each piece that you posted. If it’s on Instagram of social, you can write even a single paragraph that quickly mentions why you made it, how you made it, and one or two interesting techniques you used/discovered while making it.
  2. Polish polish polish. In a lot of other industries, if you don’t do things like basic colour correction or simple post processing of your visual art work, you’d be looked at funny! Imagine if someone made a movie now and posted a trailer of it without any sound. You’d probably think your speakers were broken or the upload you’re watching was broken for some reason. So take the time to polish your work. How you polish is up to you, but spend the time to do things like add bloom filters, glow, cinema-esque grain layers, try adding SSAO or really working on the scene’s lighting to make things look as beautiful as you can. Maybe finish the piece in real time and then disable real-time to get that maximum render quality. Take the renders and write some music or even grab some simple stock music that works well with it. Whatever you feel is what you would do if someone paid you $10,000 to polish it, do that.
  3. Document everything. One interesting thing you can post along side the finished works are behind-the-scenes process documentation. These can be as simple as screenshots of the network looking nice and clean. It can be wireframe design drawings, UX workflow diagrams, or hand made drawings you did in your sketchbook before you started. You could even record timelapses of you building the piece and post them along side the pieces. Whatever parts of the process you want to document are up to you, but showing that you did have the forethought to document things and record your process are extremely telling of people who take care of their work and process.
  4. Show off projects! Especially if you’re doing something like building dailies or making art experiments, don’t hesitate to spend time after you’re done to clean up your project, make it look really professional and easy to navigate, comment all your code, and then post the sample project. I guarantee you, unless you’re at the top of the TouchDesigner game, most pros can look at your work and reproduce it pretty quickly, so you’re not exactly losing industry secrets here. Having those projects up not only can be a great thing to do for the community by sharing those techniques with folks that are learning, but they also give pros an opportunity to see your coding style, how seriously you take your work, and the fact that you won’t be an absolutely disaster to work with! There’s nothing worse than hiring someone, then finding out they have spaghetti code and you have no idea what’s going on inside their components.

Wrap up

A lot of the things I mentioned today might feel boring, but trust me, these are the things that separate the up-and-coming talent that gets hired and the folks that are confused why they post so much cool stuff but aren’t getting calls. It probably has nothing to do with how cool your work is but more so with how people perceive your ability to actually finish your work. If you take some of these tips to heart, you’ll definitely