“Art school gave you a great overview, a place to try things. But it is perfectly normal to spend some time honing your craft and looking around before you start your dream job,” Chad Dezern of Insomniac Games tells Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham graduates. “The important thing is to know that, and not get discouraged—just keep doing the work.” Here is his complete graduation speech.
DURHAM, N.C. – And good afternoon to all of you! It is an honor to address the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham class of 2017. I’m absolutely thrilled to be here with the students, parents, faculty, and staff on this important day.
I should admit that I’m terrified. Partially because I find you all to be very scary in your matching gowns. You look like druids, or cult-members. Especially the culinary art students. You look like leaders of a delicious cult. A cult that I would very much like to join.
Before that happens, though, I just want to say congratulations. Because you did it!
A few years ago, you took a big risk by enrolling in art school. I’ll bet that some of you had to convince your parents that this was a good idea.
But you talked them into it, you enrolled, you experimented with hairstyles, you earned your degree, and now here you are, ready to begin a lifetime of creative work.
I’m an art school graduate too. I know that getting your degree takes extensive focus and sacrifice. Not to mention a major time commitment for every project.
You can’t read Cliff notes for a video production, or cram for a color study, or take shortcuts when you’re baking a pastry. When your work goes up in front of your instructors and your peers for critique, there’s nowhere to hide.
You either spent the time, or you didn’t.
But let me tell you–and I’m not just saying this because President Chris Mesecar threatened to bar my entry into the food-cult, though he certainly did–it’s worth it.
When I was a kid, I spent all of my time reading comics, and drawing robots, and playing video games.
I’m happy to say that as an adult, I now spend my time reading comics, and drawing robots, and playing video games.
And I know what you’re thinking: that guy is, like, forty-four years old or something. That’s very sad.
And I am 44, and it is very sad. But also, I’m very lucky. I get to do the type of work that I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a kid. To me, that’s what art school is about.
But when I graduated from college—when I was sitting where you’re sitting–that wasn’t the case at all. I had a major struggle on my hands.
It is really hard to get started. It’s even harder to keep the work going, to evolve along with the world.
That’s what I want to talk to you about today. You can think of this as things I wish someone had told me, from one art school graduate to another.
I want to tell you some stories about what happened to me after I left the relative safety of college. What I found out about the pace of change when I started working. And what I think I know now about what’s happening next.
At first, everyone struggles.
You’re about to enter the workforce. Are you worried?
I sure was. When I graduated as an illustration and painting major, I got a lot of rejection letters.
It’s not that I hadn’t been working hard. I had been working very hard on my portfolio.
But I didn’t have a point of view yet. Nothing that said, “this is who I am, this is why you want to hire me.”
So I did what any illustrator in that situation would do.
I took a bunch of random day jobs. I delivered newspapers. I climbed ladders in a warehouse. I worked for a gallery. I lifted wicker chairs in the backroom of a Pier-1 imports. I made pralines for a candy store.
And, you know, I learned something important at every one of those jobs.
Except for at the candy store.
My boss instructed me—and I’m not joking– that if any customers took too many free samples, I had to rap them on the knuckles with the metal spoon that I used to stir the pralines. That was my big takeaway there: a distinct feeling that something wasn’t quite right at the candy store.
BUT ANYWAY, here’s the point, aside from me wanting to mention to all of you that pralines are delicious and I would totally eat one right now—these were the right jobs for me at that time.
In a way, it was good that my first jobs were so far away from what I really wanted to do. I had something left in the tank at the end of the day. After work, I’d draw and paint. And I had friends doing the same thing; we supported each other, and critiqued each other’s work.
And before too long, my work got a lot more focused. So when I heard about an opening at Disney Interactive, I was ready for it: I got the job, and started my career in the video game industry.
You’re probably like I was; you probably don’t have a job in your field lined up right now. But that’s okay, very few people are so lucky.
Art school gave you a great overview, a place to try things. But it is perfectly normal to spend some time honing your craft and looking around before you start your dream job.
The important thing is to know that, and not get discouraged—just keep doing the work.
Really. Everyone goes through it. Just don’t lose sight of what you set out to do.
The nature of your work will change dramatically, but the foundation will stay the same.
How much do you think the field you’re in right now will change?
When I started at Disney Interactive, scanning was a big deal. We painted everything with physical paint. We waited for the paint to dry, and then scanned images to a hard drive to make backgrounds for video games.
We had a giant scanner, and a whole room dedicated to scanning, and a person who had the job of scanning things, and we’d all gather around and watch the scanning. Seriously, there was a lot of scanning going on in this place.
I haven’t scanned anything in 20 years.
That’s because in 1997, I got my very first Cintiq tablet.
Now, I could draw stuff directly in Photoshop. I could change palettes on a whim, and zoom in and paint tiny details, and work in layers.
Successive years brought 3d modeling in Maya, sculpting in Z-brush, surface creation in Substance designer . . . every year brings a massive change to how we work.
But in all that time, the foundation hasn’t changed.
Successful art is still about composition, tone, and color. It’s still about theme, variation, clarity, balance, and rhythm.
Every field changes rapidly, but the basic principles that you learned in art school will never let you down. I still revisit my college textbooks and even my class notes, all the time.
It comforts me to know that they’re still useful and true, even as the way we make and consume art takes on unexpected and surprising new forms, and the world we live in gets progressively weirder.
Speaking of weirdness, what’s going to happen next? It seems like everyone I know is an amateur futurist. So I’ll give it a shot, too.
I can’t think of a better time to enter the world as a creative.
Think about this– historically, many creative endeavors were like assembly lines, as much about process and compliance as critical thinking and originality.
Think of the ink and paint department for an animated film.
Or the paste-up desk at a newspaper.
These jobs required great skill, but not always creativity. Design sense, but not always a unique voice.
But now, much of that work is automated, and some of these jobs are extinct.
There are analogues across all the arts—the tedious stuff is, for the most part, gone, replaced by work that requires you to really care about what you’re doing.
We’ve developed three VR games at Insomniac now. I’m still amazed by the promise of the technology.
A few months ago, I put on an Oculus Rift VR headset. I grabbed a set of Touch controllers. Maybe you’ve seen these; you hold them, and they track your finger positions with great precision.
I looked down, and saw my virtual hands, lined up exactly with my real-world hands.
In front of me, there was a floating sphere.
I picked it up, moved it back and forth between my hands. Then I started sculpting it. I pulled it, chiseled into it. Before long, I’d made a little dinosaur—a brontosaurus, about the size of a toy horse.
Then, with both hands, I stretched the little sculpture out; it grew to the size of a 100- story building, and I stood there, staring up at it, marveling.
Then I looked down at its foot; at this scale, the foot that worked well for the tiny sculpture looked featureless.
So I reached out my hands and started sculpting a dinosaur toenail that was bigger than me.
And then I took a step back, and wondered; what on earth am I doing?
My grandfathers did noble work. One was a coal miner; the other a farmer. I’m sculpting a dinosaur toenail. They’d be amazed by the technological progress. And also, deeply embarrassed.
But think about this experience—I’m in a world, sculpting an object that can be the size of a toy or the size of the Chrysler building, all on a whim.
And this isn’t fantasy; this is a real experience that you can have right now, a valid way to create a 3d model.
And it’s just the beginning.
How will your work change when more of the constraints go away?
How will your film change when you can take over your audience’s entire field of view?
What will it feel like to cook with a recipe superimposed on your vision, and floating countdown timers for every kitchen task?
How will your fashion design change when you can sketch a dress directly on a real-world model, then send the design away for a near-instant 3d print?
There is so much fulfilling work for artists to do as we move into a world defined by virtual and augmented reality.
A world where we fluidly mix the real and the imaginary. Being an artist in this world will be a privilege, and a huge responsibility.
What will you make?
You graduate today as problem-solvers, soon to be responsible for the very big job of interpreting the world and shaping it for your fellow humans.
It might take a while to get started.
But I know that with dedication, and a willingness to evolve, it’s possible to do the work you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid.
And beyond that, you’ll do that work in a world where the role of the artist grows more pivotal with each passing day.
I can’t wait to see how you shape the world.
Thank you for the honor of addressing you, and congratulations again to the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham class of 2017.