Probably the scariest time in your career will be the beginning, while you search for that elusive first job. Getting your foot in the door and convincing someone to pay you for animation is no easy thing. There are some who are snatched up right out of school and they’re set, but for most of us that is not the case. You should be prepared for a long, hard road ahead; one that probably won’t take you the direction you’ve envisioned. Talk to most professionals and they’ll tell you about the jobs they didn’t expect to have, the opportunities that popped up out of nowhere, and the rejections and failures they went through.

The first thing to start with is an honest assessment of where you’re at. If you can’t be honest with yourself, ask someone who you trust to give it to you straight. If you look at a film or game studio’s work side-by-side with yours and there’s an objective quality gap, it’s probably not going to happen quite yet. The days are gone when a company will train new artists and allow them time to get up to speed. You will be expected to join a team and almost immediately deliver seamless results. There are a couple pieces of good news, though. First, if you can see and identify that quality difference, you have a clear path forward for how to improve. Second, there are plenty of opportunities out there that you might not initially think of.

When I got out of college, the first artistic job I got was as a 3D lighter/renderer at a vehicle manufacturing company. I took the CAD models made in the design department and rendered them out for product presentations and design visualization. I had no idea what I was doing! I got the job based on one lighting shot on my reel, and completely faked it from there. To this day I can’t light a scene to save my life, but somehow I found enough how-to’s online to do the job. There are also plenty of commercial houses, local advertisers, and small game studios that can serve as your first experience. Don’t get stuck in the rut of “having” to work at [insert studio] and settling for nothing less. You just might find that where you end up is where you should have been all along, or lead you down a path that impacts your life in ways you never thought possible. You can only find out if you keep an open mind and take chances.

Preparing a demo reel can be tricky, and there’s a lot of contradicting information out there. In my opinion, there are three main rules that every reel should follow. First, put your best work at the beginning, period. Someone told me once that I should put my second-best piece at the end, in order to leave a good last impression. Well, luckily the internship recruiters at Pixar had the patience to watch my entire reel, because they told me later that the last shot is what got me in. If it caught them on a bad day, they might have never gotten that far and my life would be very different. Second, only include your best work. One “meh” shot can dilute an otherwise strong reel. You never want to show them anything but your absolute best, no matter how attached you are to a particular piece. Third, don’t include anything that will distract the viewer. Obnoxious music, extremely long and elaborate title cards, and work that doesn’t apply to the job will hurt the odds that they’ll watch the whole thing. The discipline you’re applying for should be front and center.

Like I said, when you’re first starting out you should keep an open mind. I’m a fan of the shotgun approach to job searching. Find any job posting, any recruiter contact on LinkedIn, and any personal connection you might have. Sign up for recruiting events and go to job fairs. Don’t discriminate and just send it everywhere. Putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea when all you really need is anything to get your career started. And don’t let experience requirements scare you off if your reel is good. Unless it’s for a senior or leadership role, those numbers are really there to weed out those who don’t have the skills needed to do the job, but if you think you might, then go for it!

I’ve had my share of rejection letters from studios. Even more never wrote back at all. Even after my internship and having characters like Woody and Sully on my reel, it took almost six months to find a job. That’s not to scare you, but to prepare you for what you might face. The job market is extremely competitive now, and frequent studio layoffs flood the landscape with very capable talent looking for work. However, if you’ve had the determination to get your skills up to a professional level, I don’t doubt that you have the tenacity needed to find a job. And by the way, if a company is courteous enough to write a rejection, take it as a sign of respect and be sure to thank them for their time (remember your invisible resume!)

Thankfully, the first offer is the hardest to get. Think of it as the final obstacle in the crucible, and attack it aggressively. Stick with it and keep trying until it happens. The hardest things in life are the most rewarding, and obtaining that first job is both. It’s a beautiful day when all of your hard work comes to fruition, and that effort will make you appreciate every day after. I sure as hell do.

-Chris