Today I got two requests for internships and then a follower wrote me a question about internships on Twitter. Since tweeting isn't a great way to communicate more than a quick thought, I figured I'd answer here.
@z_hardy So did your career start with an internship? and if you did, was there a benefit to it?
The tweetable answer is: Yes, my VFX career started with an internship and yes, there were huge benefits to it.
The long version goes like this. I went to film school in the mid/late 90's. We cut on actual film. Avids were a thing but most schools didnt have access to them and digital VFX was way out of the realm. I knew CG existed in theory but had no concept of the actual execution. During my last summer my school hosted a statewide program focused on "Filmmaking in the Digital Age." I signed up for every class. We had Avid training and lectures from guys like Walter Murch who was famous for being one of the first old guard film editors that swtiched to digital.
Anyway, one of the lectures was from a guy named John Parenteau who owned a small Digital VFX company named Digital Muse. In that moment, I realized CG was what I wanted to pursue. It went from theoretical to actually possible. I was a computer and tech guy since my dad brought home an Apple ][ when I was a kid. I was fortunate to grow up with computers in a time when very few kids did so I was able to speak about some of this stuff, at least on the hardware side, without sounding like a complete idiot. I bugged JP after, for about an hour, asking him all sorts of questions. Finally he shut me up, handed me his business card and told me to email him. I sent him an email that night asking for an internship. I must have emailed him every day for months until he finally relented and said they had a workstation open and I should come in.
Now, to the second part of your question, I think having the right internship makes it beneficial. If you are getting coffee and running errands, sure, there might be some benefit in the tiny access you are getting but my internship was different. He sat me at the DEC Alpha Dual 366mHz (ooooh) workstation and dropped two 5 inch-thick manuals on my desk. He said I had 2 weeks to learn what every button did and the internship would last for 3 months.
Now let me set the stage a bit here. CG in films was just emerging and CG in TV was almost non-existant. Amblin Digital was started to do Seaquest DSV and Foundation Imaging had done Babylon 5. Amblin Digital folded when Seaquest was cancelled and two guys from there started Digital Muse. Digital Muse and Foundation were the two vendors for Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Both started as practical model shows but quickly embraced CG when it became apparent that it could look good, come in on budget and allow the writers more creative freedom.
Back then there were no schools that taught this stuff. If you wanted to learn you had to buy a computer and teach yourself or find access to be able to teach yourself. Hence my desire to get this position. I looked over the manuals and realized that the other owner of the company, John Gross, had written the animation module manual and one of the lead artists had written the modeling manual. I figured at the very least, I was going to get a priceless 3 month education in CG, specifically Lightwave 3D and Digital Fusion (now Blackmagic Fusion.)
I took those 2 weeks and just absorbed everything, went through every letter of the manuals and learned all of the tools. Once done, one of the leads gave me some really lame little tasks for stuff they needed built for Voyager. My first task was a simple 3D chalice for a character to barf in. Seriously. Right now I could build it in about 2 minutes but it took me all day. But it worked, they liked it and it got used in a show. After that I built a borg implant and got to animate it for use Voyager.
Once my internship was done, they were apparently pleased with my work and offered me a job. After 3 years I had moved up to supervising and leading projects and got two Emmy nominations for my work. That lead artist who wrote the manual, was Bruce Branit who became my business partner and we created 405, started a company called Strange Engine and worked on a lot of cool shit.
So I guess my answer is this: Yes, internships can be hugely beneficial but they need two components to work. First, it has to be the right internship. There has to be hands-on experience for the intern. They need to be learning. Second, you have to want to learn. You have to want to work hard and absorb, finding ways to be useful, finding new things to learn. For me it wasn't just software, it was seeing how it all went together, seeing the bidding process, learning how to talk to clients and supervisors. I've had interns where I feel like I spent more time finding shit for them to do than any benefit they might get for themselves or provide to me or the job I have them helping with. That's not a good intern. When I wasn't given a task I sat and read manuals and learned the software, asked questions, watched someone work, whatever, so I was ready when they asked me to do something.
One last thought. All of this applies to academic-based internships. Having someone who is not getting school credit work for free and calling it an internship is not only against the law, it's morally reprehensible. I run a business and if you bring value and allow the business to make money then I should pay you. If you don't then I won't hire you.
And for anyone reading this who wants an internship at SDM, please ask. Most of the time I'll say no, because we're small and don't have the infrastructure to provide a proper internship but I've had interns in the past and it's always been good for them. A few have had great careers and at least one decided that while the idea of being a CG artist was interesting, he ultimately found he didn't like it. Both very valuable experiences. Again, it's what you make of it.
Hope that answers the question.