If you are an artist working in computer graphics it is time to start thinking more like an arteeest and less like a technician. The availability of real-time engines, affordable-yet-powerful GPUs, and lightning fast CPUs have leveled the playing field for people who want to create, opening up tools for building new worlds or creating 'can't-tell-its-not-a-photo' product renders, and anything in between. This is not to mention the continual breakthroughs in rendering software as well as the unbelievable amount of choices in production-ready render packages.

These developments mean that creating both realistic and stylized computer generated images is becoming easier and easier, which is a good thing. Often, this allows me (you) to focus on being an artist. Forget about building absurdly complicated shading networks in favor of spending your time evaluating “does this image look amazing?”

Goodbye, CGI Hacks

For example, working as a texture and look development artist, often times my job has been to come up with neat tricks or clever combinations of texture maps and shaders to produce a specific look. It occurred to me last year at SIGGRAPH while attending the technical papers fast forward that tricks and hacks were most definitely on their way out. Several different groups of computer scientists were presenting breakthroughs in graphics, specifically about CG materials. Complex phenomena (micro-scratches or facets, realistic BRDF models, etc.) that in the past required elaborate shading networks to reproduce will soon be drag and drop. Yikes!

Experimenting with falloff curves, daisy-chained bump maps, layering shaders, and similar work-flows are still necessary for producing high quality work. I don't think these techniques are going to disappear entirely (your job is safe... probably) but I do think the necessity of hacking bits together, finding complicated workarounds, and endlessly googling images will fade to the background.

Develop Successful CGI Artist Traits, Not Just Technique

To remain relevant it is critically important to develop your ideas and your artistic/critical eye. The ability to destroy a planet is... err... the ability to create a realistic shader is insignificant compared to the power of an artist who can concept, evaluate, and create a beautiful image. The former serves the latter, but the final outcome is what matters. To me, it is not about what you can do, but what you do. Observation, image analysis, critical thinking, good taste, and subtlety are what makes a successful CGI artist, and these traits will become more and more important in the coming years. To reference Sinek, why you do something is so much more important than how you do something. Certainly technique is requisite, I consider it a given, but good ideas and a critical eye will trump technique, every time.

Good luck out there.