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Graduation to Gig: Kaela Smith’s Steps To Success

Recent Savannah College of Art and Design graduate Kaela Smith has just taken her first step from student to seasoned professional in an industry she loves. Currently an intern at Bethesda Softworks, the Interactive Design and Game Development major is putting her degree to work on an upcoming video game. Smith, who grew up loving Bethesda titles herself, characterizes getting a gig at the studio known for The Elder Scrolls series as well as new takes on the Wolfenstein and Doom franchises right after graduating as a college kid's fantasy come true. Smith's success didn't happen overnight, however. Speaking to the outgoing artist reveals a level of professionalism and motivation that served her during her time at SCAD, both in and outside of the classroom.

Now Entering the Careerland

Relocating some 600 miles from Georgia to Maryland just a few weeks after graduation could be daunting for anyone, but Smith welcomed the opportunity to jump right into a job.

"I had a week to pack up my stuff and leave Savannah, and honestly, I was really excited to move. I didn't want to get complacent in Savannah looking for a job or working from home, even though I loved it there," said Smith, "A new change in scenery is a great way to form good, different habits. I think transitioning into a new city mimics my feelings towards moving into a professional atmosphere."

Smith credits SCAD with preparing her to do professional-grade work at Bethesda right out of the gate, even arming her with skills outside her specific focus.

"The professors there are great. I'm very thankful for everyone giving me the resources I needed to get a new job like I have now and pick it up as quickly as I felt I have. The experience of working with games engines, 2D and 3D programs, as well as design theory are all, I feel, instrumental to what I'll do here," said Smith, "Before I got to SCAD I was just an aspiring artist who could draw well. After I graduated, though, I had the ability to do almost every task associated with game design, even though I chose to go down the 3D art path."

Like many students, Smith started school with some apprehension, worrying that the other students would be more skilled on day one.

"One of my biggest fears going to SCAD was that I would be 'the worst in the class' because I wasn't yet familiar with 3D software. It turns out very few there were! Almost everyone was caught up to the same level fairly quickly though, and I realized I wasn't really worse than anyone else. I just put a lot of effort into my work and it paid off."

 

Extra Credit for Career Advancement

Proper coursework wasn't all that advanced Smith's skills while at SCAD. To stay in step with her workload, Smith took on extra studying, using everything from an Intuos to various Cintiqs along the way.

"I remember my first 3D art class, Advanced Computer Art, didn't teach me at the end of the class as much as I wanted to know, so I took it upon myself to take advantage of the free Lynda.com license the school had. I went through their tutorials that summer so I would feel 'caught up' to the level of my peers. It helped me a lot and I learned a lot of great techniques from it that I utilized going into my later 3D art classes."

First Days as a Pro

Bethesda has tasked Smith with 3D engine work to start off. She's currently working on a dual widescreen monitor setup, with access to modeling and rendering software such as 3DS Max. From her new digs Kaela's started to observe the inner workings of the industry, including a perk she wasn't expecting.

"The coolest thing I've learned is probably the fact that people here love to sneak video games in while they're working. I know that sounds silly, but what other industry will let you do that at work? That is so cool!"

A longtime World of Warcraft player through high school -- that is, when she wasn't working on schoolwork -- Smith said her raiding days finally slowed down when she faced the demands of college. Other roleplaying games and massive multiplayer online roleplaying games influenced Smith as well, but the turn-based strategy title Civilization V may be her most played game following nearly 400 hours of play time.

 

To stay inspired, Smith collects images that impress her from around the Web, particularly the video game art and design forum, Polycount.com.

"It's honestly probably my biggest inspiration looking at others' work," said Smith, "because it motivates me as an artist to think, 'I could do that! I WANT to do that!'"

For students seeking to get noticed by employers, Smith underlines the importance of getting their work online and in a presentable format before they graduate. Her own website played a crucial role in getting her a job.

"I've noticed a lot of my colleagues at SCAD weren't happy with their websites, so they didn't showcase them for one reason or another. But just having that core was so important because I wasn't afraid to apply for anything at any time. Of course, looking at other external websites like Polycount for feedback and tutorials doesn't hurt either."

Smith credits achieving her goals with challenging herself and setting -- and sticking to -- schedules.

 

"When your professor tells you, 'I don't think you can finish this before 10 weeks,' tell them, 'Watch me!' And then do it! That's what I did. That was about the moment I started gaining respect as an artist at my school and gained a lot of opportunities in the long run," said Smith. "I also think that keeping a schedule is almost imperative to doing something in a good amount of time. I had to keep one when I did that, and if I hadn't had a schedule telling me I HAD to do one to two 3D models a day, I wouldn't have done it. I would've thought, ‘I'll do them tomorrow’ and they would've fallen off to the end of the school quarter. It was a great tool, and I highly suggest keeping an organized schedule for large projects. And don't get discouraged either! Feedback is your friend."