My name is Zero Dean (LinkedIn). Yes, my first name is really a number. I’m originally from Maine.
I went to college in Maine, but spent a semester in Brisbane, Australia. After I returned from overseas — where two classes, Screenwriting and Film Production (taken pass/fail) translated to a full-courseload of credits back home — I got a position as a multimedia lab supervisor at a totally brand new lab filled with the most powerful, cutting-edge computers on the planet (at least according to my university): Macs.
My job, for which I had lot of enthusiasm for — was to learn software in order to provide tech support to students using the lab. I loved computers and software, so I was actually kind of good at it. Well, I at least knew more than those I was teaching. So I had that going for me.
My affinity at that part-time position led to a second one (doing the same thing) for the university’s help center. Between both jobs, I literally spent 40 hours per week learning and then teaching both students and faculty how to use the software we had available — as well as this new thing called the internet, HTML, and web design.
I absolutely loved it, but I also had no idea how lucky I was. All that software and hardware at my disposal and being paid to learn it. It was amazing.
Sometime within the next year, I was sponsored by a faculty member to design and teach my own continuing education course, “Intro to Animation”. Truth be told, I was a fan of animation, but had little experience with it. So I was learning things just prior to teaching them!
I scoured and participated in newsgroups for knowledge. And that put me in contact with dozens of people working in “the industry”. That is where I learned “squash & stretch”, which I, in turn, shared with my students. They were amazed! Clearly, I was the best animation teacher they had ever had. I also presented “Odyssey Into the Mind’s Eye” in class and totally blew their minds and ears. Almost everyone got an A. I’d like to give the guy who wrote the music for this video an A.
Based on some art I had posted online, I was recruited by an online gaming company out of college. It meant leaving school, but they promised lots of work that I could do from home. So, of course, they ran out of things for me to do a month or two later.
No longer signed up for classes, I sought work elsewhere and began working for a small gaming studio in Massachusetts. First by remote, but eventually I moved on-site (literally), where I lived in the basement of the founder’s house that was half studio/half home.
We were working on a spline-based Playstation 1 game dealing with the microscopic world of germs. “Cyborgs & Cells” would have been an appropriate name for it, but the actual name escapes me. It was fun while it lasted. Especially for my boss who was having, uh, intimate relations with our Sony rep which he was happy to talk about.
One night someone broke into the garage. I woke up to a man walking down the hall in the basement with a flashlight — which he eventually shined in my eyes and ran. My dog who was in the room did nothing. So of course I started screaming. My boss ran down the stairs with a baseball bat. But the would-be thief got away. Fortunately, he left with nothing.
But when he came back another day the house was empty, he cleaned out our PlayStation games library, but left the funny looking development console worth thousands and thousands of dollars.
But I digress.
When our funding inevitably dried up a year later, I was forced to move out of my employer’s basement and look elsewhere for work. But first, it meant moving back in with my parents in Maine after being out of the house for nearly a decade. They were thrilled, I tell you. Thrilled.
I was forced to take my first job offer — from a military contractor in northern Virginia.
During the same year (1997), I made a post to a newsgroup titled, “To industry members: Am I good or do I suck?” To which I received dozens of responses (the equivalent of going viral at the time) dealing with my skills and portfolio. The advice was invaluable.
I took these responses (with permission) and used them as a foundation for a site called 3DArk.
Answers from industry members (some of them are 3D-PRO members) — including
people CG gods from Pixar, Industrial Light + Magic, and elsewhere — related to demo reels became extremely popular. As did the whole site. That site got so much traffic I took it for granted. It was something that people within the industry I wanted to work in were aware of simply because there were so few resources like it at the time.
The following year (1998), I founded 3D-PRO. And although I was proficient with Photoshop and other multimedia software at the time, I had little experience with any 3D programs that were used at a “professional level” and absolutely no experience in “the industry”. My experience mainly had to do with Mac-based software: Infini-D, Bryce, and Animation Master. I also knew TrueSpace thanks to the Caligari Truespace 2 Bible written by Peter Plantec (he was on the list before retiring). Through his book, he was one of the most influential people in my life at that time.
Back in Virginia, I was never given full status as an employee at the military contractor I worked for (that’s something that is only considered after you have worked for them for at least a year), so I was one of the first — or perhaps only one — to be laid off due to “budget cuts” about a year later.
Fortunately, my services were desired elsewhere. So I moved from Virginia to San Francisco where I began working for an internet startup at the end of 1999. This is where I finally began kind of sort of learning 3D Studio Max. Or so I thought. We made high-polycount models with about a 200 poly limit. Cutting edge.
Our 3D-based browser was going to be the next big thing! Instead of clicking links, every website was represented by 3D objects placed on 3D planets. You would go to “shopping world” and click on a 200 polycount model of Target to…um…open up a link in your browser that took you to Target. Revolutionary! Companies with big budgets actually paid real money for planetary spaces.
But, of course, the internet bubble burst and ruined everything. So, no “3D internet” for you!
75% of the company I worked for was laid off during an outing disguised as an off-site lunch. It was just a way of separating the “stayers” from the “leavers” while the company disconnected computers and gathered everyone’s belongings.
Coincidentally, I was home sick that day. So I got a phone call from someone who simply said that I was being let go and not to come into work tomorrow. No explanation given.
So, of course, I thought it was because I called in sick (and I really was sick). I had no idea they had a “no sick days!” policy. I wish I’d known. I would have gone into work anyway!
Fortunately, my friend and coworker (who didn’t get the axe until the company finally tanked a few months later) explained everything that afternoon.
A month later I got my first real “industry-related” position at a AAA studio founded by game designer, Brian Reynolds (He was the actual game designer of Sid Meier’s Civilization II. Sounds weird, but trust me. Wikipedia says so).
I began working at Mr. Reynolds’ — or “Bri Bri” as we used to call him (that’s a lie) — Big Huge Games in 2001 and that’s where I learned that I really knew nothing about 3D Studio Max compared to what the gaming industry required me to know to produce anything of any worth. Apparently, 200 polys was not quite the limit I was led to believe it was.
I was part of the “buildings team” at BHG and I created several of the structures in the RTS game (obviously the best ones), Rise of Nations, the expansion pack, and also had some limited involvement in some of the buildings on Rise of Legends And although I left early in that game’s development, they still put me in the credits, so that was nice. I truly loved that company. It had an amazing culture.
Coworkers became true friends. And every time a milestone came, it felt like we were going to battle together — which we ultimately survived each time. We would frequently pull all-nighters during those times and had no complaints. We absolutely loved what we did. We worked weekends even when we didn’t have to because it entitled us to free meals, all the coffee & beverages we could drink, and the simple fact that we all got to see each other or have conference calls from one office to another.
We actually got our own private offices. Which is something that changed shortly after I left.
But all good things…
After 4 years at BHG, I ventured into professional portraits photography — working with aspiring and professional models, actors, entertainers, and more (which I still do). In late 2005, I moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles in an attempt to take my photography business to the next level.
I didn’t realize I was walking into such a cutthroat industry where even then, it was said that every out of work actor was a photographer on the side. It’s even worse today. I somehow managed to make it work until 2007. Most likely because I was really good at SEO at the time and my business often came up at the bottom of the first page of google during searches.
But self-employment is exhausting. And I missed a consistent paycheck, benefits, being able to stop thinking about work, and the energy of working on a team of creatives.
So, in 2007, I joined Rockstar Games in (north county) San Diego as a Senior Environment Artist. I was excited because I knew Rockstar created world-famous games and I would be moving to San Diego. It wasn’t until I moved that I realized that it’s not really “Rockstar San Diego”, it’s “Rockstar 40+ minutes north of San Diego”.
In any case, I loved what I did at Rockstar, despite other…challenges. It was also where I learned Maya in order to make buildings for Red Dead Redemption. Of course, they have since moved to the piece of 3D software I was actually very proficient in when I got hired, 3D Studio Max. But I’m glad to have learned Maya anyway.
I left Rockstar in 2009 (infamously documented in forums online if you know what you’re looking for). As is customary for employees that leave that company (and some others) before a game is released, no matter how much they contributed to it, you won’t find my name in the credits. Some companies just work philosophically different than others. I know for those working in film that it’s the same way.
In 2010, I decided to pursue 5 of the things I was most passionate about (writing, photography, adventure, travel, and connecting with people in a meaningful way) by creating a unique internet-based project. In short, I became the protagonist in a real-life choose-your-own-adventure where the internet would tell me where to go, what to do, and suggest people for me to (try to) meet. It was supposed to be fun and some of it was. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it nearly killed me.
I had hoped to be able to monetize my adventure — as lots of people do — but it never came to be. But thinking it had to be inevitable, I continued until 2012 when I was finally forced to stop to conserve resources.
After crisscrossing the United States for roughly 2 years and covering over 60,000 miles in the process, I finally settled back in north county San Diego.
As I had been living out of my SUV for the previous 2 years, it made sense to continue living that way while I decided what to do with, well, my life. It took some time. Running back to an 8 am to 8 pm job — or even a 9 to 6 — felt like failure because of what I had been trying to do in life (get away from that kind of life — not 3D/CG, but the grind and working).
Early on, a comment on one of my youtube videos in 2010 said something like, “You can’t escape the system.” That single comment has haunted me ever since.
Ultimately, I ended up writing a book about the experience — or more accurately, a book consisting of lessons learned from the experience. It’s called Lessons Learned From The Path Less Traveled Volume 1 and it was published in December 2018.
This summer (2019), in an attempt to try my hand at photography back on the coast where I started, I plan on traveling across the United States. And since I am already investing in the cost of making the trip, I decided to make a project out of it.
Specifically, I’ll be seeking to interview people who have taken unconventional paths or have had unique experiences in life to share their stories, struggles & lessons they’ve learned. I will also be vlogging about my own life and sharing lessons learned from my travels as well as those in my book.
YouTube channel: zerodean