Interview with Brandon Lee Smith

Brandon Lee Smith is a Freelance Designer from San Francisco, California with 9 years of industry experience.
He likes to work with Cinema4D, Photoshop, Zbrush and Substance Painter.

What led you into the CGI/3D? Tell us your story.

I grew up wanting to be a film director. I was convinced I would go to film school and everything would just work itself out. But when reality set in and I realized I’d have to dish out $40k a semester for art school, I decided to go the self taught route. I still thought school was important and enrolled at Grand Valley State University (in Michigan where I grew up), and choose a semi related major, Advertising. Strangely, I ended up falling in love with advertising but I wasn’t on course for the creative track. Instead I was focusing on the account side of the business. After graduating and completing a fairly competitive internship at CP+B (which was the hottest agency in the world at the time) I applied for positions related to account management expecting to be a shoo-in. But after failing interview after interview with ad agencies all over the country and hitting rock bottom at one point, I started to play with Cinema4D and AE in my spare time. I had always dabbled in 3D art prior with software like Blender and a little bit of Maya, but it never really clicked until I found C4D. I pushed myself to make a reel within three month (it wasn’t good), and luckily landed two offers for internships in LA. First went to a studio called King & Country, then moved on to intern at Brand New School, before I went freelance for the following 6 years. I was very lucky to end up where I did, and have a lot of people to thank for taking a chance on me when I was struggling.

Recently, however, I hug up the freelance badge and joined the tech world at Instagram as a designer. I’m on the camera art team that focuses on camera experiences including AR related tech.

Where do you go to get inspired? What/Who inspires you?

Film and movies have always been my biggest source of inspiration. Spike Jonze, Miyazaki, Sophia Coppola, David Fincher makes up a wide range of storytellers I admire. While a lot of my work can be cutesy, stylized, or low poly, I still find a lot of inspiration from cinematic experiences. Lately, I’ve also started following a lot of game designers. Game art has so much variety, that its hard to get bored of it compared to typical concept art you might find with film.

How does a typical working day look like?

This has dramatically changed since joining tech. It’s meetings, meetings, meetings now! And sometimes I get to open Photoshop. In all seriousness, its a pretty typical day of drinking coffee, concepting ideas, and testing things on the IG app

What does your workplace look like?

IG just opened a new office in downtown SF, I have nice views of the city and new Transbay Terminal park.

How do you stay motivated in this tough industry?

Honestly, this was a tough thing for me the past couple of years as a freelancer. And largely why I made a shift to tech. As a freelancer you can easily get pigeonholed into doing the same kind of work over and over. I was usually considered a generalist designer, meaning I was considered decent at a variety of different styles in 2d and 3D. This kept things interesting just enough for me, but I still needed a change of scenery from dealing with the typical motion scene of chasing checks all the time. It’s important to also surround yourself with friends who share the same interests, and can bounce ideas around with.

What is your passion beside CGI/3D?

I always come back to photography. Starting to rediscover the magic of shooting on film. Im in the process of turning my bathroom into a mini darkroom where I can process my own film. I always try to stay grounded in some type of traditional art, and my most recent distraction has been watercolor painting. I’m far from being anywhere good at it, but it’s something that I find is able to help me slow down and get lost in the process. I’m guilty of getting caught up in the rat race that the industry can promote on a daily basis, and social media helps to create a lot of noise in that regard, so finding something that you don’t care whether anyone sees or not is great for the soul.

How do you keep your portfolio up to date? Any tips?

My portfolio is currently at a stand still. But generally, I was able to update it steadily with a mixture of freelance and personal work throughout the year.

What Software do you use to create your artwork?

Generally Cinema4d with a heavy dose of photoshop. I’ve recently come to terms with Zbrush. I’ve also been spending time learning Maya. C4D is great, but I find many artists who start in it, like myself, learn bad habits and how to cheat in 3d. This can make it hard down the road to learn more advanced concepts, that might be required to make more advanced stuff. How many C4D artists know how to UV, for example?

What Software do you want to learn in future? And why?

Houdini for sure. Blender 2.8 looks amazing. Still climbing the zbrush ladder as well. I also want to learn to code in something. I’ve tried multiple times but haven’t been able to stick with it yet.

And with all that said, I’m trying to not focus on specific software and better myself at traditional methods as well.

Which books would you recommend to the read?

Design for Motion, Animators Survival Kit, School of Motion Freelance Manifesto, The Power of Now, The Art of Pitching

What music do you listen to while working?

I actually have a hard time listening to anything when working. I find it distracting.

Any advice for new Artists?

  • Even though you inevitably will at some point, try not to compare yourself to other artists.
  • Get a standing (adjustable) desk early on. Take care of your back. I know several artists including myself, who have back issues already in their early 30s. If you think it won’t happen to you, it will.
  • Slow down and enjoy the journey.