Is a CS degree worth it if you are mostly interested in tech art?

The choice between an animation/film degree or a CS degree seems to boil down to connections and which is a more valuable credential. It’s hard to find any resources for specifically aiming for tech art as a CS major, and I’m worried I won’t be prepared enough for technical assistant and intern positions from the outside looking in so I wanted to pursue animation and do programming on the side to at least be connected to the industry, but I can’t convince the people around me or myself to spend so much tuition on an arts major, but I am told I have to get some kind of degree.

I am mainly worried about what I would do after graduating focused on a niche. I won’t and don’t really want to compete with people over web development jobs and other fields, and I worry that its easier from the perspective of an industry ready artist learning on the side to get tech art positions. But then there is the worry if I graduate from an animation program both inadequate in animation and programming skills. What then, what backup job would I get to pay the bills while I pursue more training online and such with an animation degree?

Since it seems that getting a degree is non-negotiable and I accept that, I’d prefer to put my head down and do a CS degree, but I’m not sure how I would then get into working in film.

From my experience working with folks in the game industry, having a CS degree can be highly valuable. I would say before pursuing either option, you should try taking some online boot camps to see if what is right for you and then go with what you prefer to do the most. Nothing worse than dropping out because you hate it.

I was basically in this position about 6 years ago. So here is my two cents.

The short answer is yes, you’ll just need to then pick up a foundational understanding of the artists tools. That would have to be done on your own. How much of that you think will be good enough to forward your professional endeavors, is your call.

If you go with a art degree, the opposite is true. You’ll get the artists education but you’ll likely need to pick up the fundamental programming skills on your own.

Complementing a CS degree with a handful of 3D art classes will immediately put you into tech artist territory(again, same with a art degree, just with programming stuff) But understanding artist workflows is the most important thing. If higher education is your route to do that, mixing those classes is kind of the best way to go about it, in my opinion.

Also tech art isn’t a niche anymore. The demand for us is pretty high. It’s unfortunate (for traditional art majors) but graduating with an art degree and having a programming language under your belt will give you that edge to basically do anything. Like a Super Generalist. So don’t feel concerned about that.

Hope that helped, good luck!

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You need both, I would say that the resources you have to pick up programming skills are far more available online compared to getting a good solid training in art. With art I do feel like you need the practice to become familiar with it, whereas if you have a CS degree you may have a lot of difficulty picking up all the various software and becoming familiar with them on your own. Plus, to become a useful tech artist you need to have a pretty good eye for things, otherwise you’ll just be an engineer. The feedback you get from peers and teachers in school is so important to developing your eye and hand in art.

The CS degree route gives you a more deep technical understanding that lets you do tasks that engineers would do. But of course the range of technical artist jobs nowadays goes from “basically an engineer” to “basically an artist who can code a little”, so your options are plenty.

Hey Apple3331, I’ve seen two or three topics you’ve started about your education decisions. A word you keep using is “worry” and unfortunately tech art is probably an area where it’s difficult to unearth any consistent story as to some kind of A-then-B-then-C path into industry. But I think you can take comfort that you’re being really forward-thinking as to your decision ahead and researching your options thoroughly. Your posts read as smart and analytical and it sounds like you’re applying yourself to study and practice so I think you should feel more confident you’ll find employment in the future. To repeat toomanyfrog above, there is a wide range of roles and your options are plenty.

I think one of your earlier topics mentioned the anxiety about what to study was weighing so heavily that it was a distraction from the actual study. I’m not an expert on managing anxiety but I feel it’s worth finding some personal strategy for feeling settled with the uncertainty. I was recently recommended a podcast episode here about making big life decisions with large elements of randomness affecting the outcome: Poker player Annie Duke on decision-making and betting on life choices. It’s interesting that the expert interviewed has a background in games of chance; I’ve also felt that my prior hobby of card gaming taught me a lot about making life decisions (big and small) because as a card player there are many random factors I can’t control, but also I can do my best to skilfully capitalise on the factors I can influence. The above 26 minute episode also outlines a three-step process for helping with making big life decisions (the actual example in the episode is the decision whether to move country across the Atlantic).

From listening to people in industry and getting a feel for my colleagues’ opinions, I would say a CS degree is more “valuable” than an arts degree. But it also varies a lot depending on the specific course, the quality and interests of the tutors, the particular institution, and its reputation and links to industry. You may be able to find a CS degree, perhaps in a university with a reputable filmmaking department, and find tutors who will support you in steering your graduation project in an animation / VFX direction. Courses with a sandwich year in industry may also afford opportunities such as work experience at an advertising studio or VFX house or another career-related employer.

Another tip I follow with reducing anxiety about decisions and where they may lead in the future is using the words, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” The podcast goes into “backcasting” and trying to estimate the chances of A or B happening if one does X or Y. For me, after doing some rigorous backcasting, there comes a point where I need to just accept that what actually comes to pass will unfurl with time, and I can just try to be as best prepared as I can be for certain outcomes, if they come up. Worrying about employment after graduation–yes that is a real concern and should factor into choosing which degree to do, but it’s also a long way off. In practice a lot of students wind up taking steps in industry during their university years and the transition to the world of work isn’t so much a sudden cliff as a series of milestones in the right direction. (Steps might look like working on a student short film in some capacity, or doing some game jam projects, or creating animation experiments using cheap motion capture, or attending talks (and volunteering) with your local SIGGRAPH chapter…)

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A CS degree is an excellent investment. If Computer Graphics or Computer Vision strike your fancy, go deep. Embrace numerical methods, linear algebra, and vector calculus. If you happen to like machine learning, those quantitative methods, along with computational geometry, will serve you well. Don’t shy away from performance intensive resource constrained low level programming.

Take some traditional drawing classes when you can, if you enjoy it. And try to gain a sense of design. Start with graphic design, the principles echo across 3d and 2d. More than knowing how to model or texture in xyz package, the fundamentals are timeless, just like algorithms and math. Languages will change, frameworks will change, so will software, but first principles, will always remain the same.

Understanding the principles of design will take you far. It is what separates artists from technicians in my opinion.

Since the tools we write are meant to improve peoples work experience, and unlike other subfields of tech, we actually do both UX and development, embrace your courses on human-computer interaction and UX, and take a few electives on psychology and cognitive science if you find that sort of thing interesting. You’ll find much interplay and overlap between visual cognition, design, art, and aesthetic sensibilities.

The field goes far beyond tech art, and as you age your interests and priorities will change, and that’s okay too. Enjoy the process.

Programming is both science and craft, and sometimes it’s Art too. Code, and code a lot. There is no way around that, you can’t fake mileage. But also remember to live a little, and have fun.