CTN is an exciting event for students, artists and professionals. Students get to mingle with the industry and make connections, artists get exposure and sell their art, and professionals share what they’ve learned and even recruit talent. There’s a lot of opportunity to be taken advantage of if you’re prepared and handle yourself correctly. There are also the chance to make negative first impressions and fade into the sea of hopefuls filling the convention. I remember my first time and how overwhelming it is, and want to help guide you through how to present yourself in a way that will make it a positive experience for you and those you meet. If you’re a confident, self-assured person who can command attention in a room, I’m sorry but today’s article isn’t for you. This is for everyone else who, like me, struggles in high-pressure social situations. You’re not alone.
I went to my first CTN in 2013. It was right after my internship at Pixar, and I really, really needed a job. I walked in hoping that the second a studio saw the Woody and Sully characters on my reel, I’d have a job offer and things would be back on track for me. But this expectation only added to the pressure, and I started to fall into the trap that I most want to warn you against here. The LAST thing you should do is shove your tablet at someone for their opinion along with a business card and resume. Literally, this should come last in the interaction. I look back and realize that this is exactly what I was doing, because I just wanted them to see those characters and that line on my resume that would surely grab their attention. What I didn’t do, though, was introduce myself properly as a person, or treat them like they were one too. I naively thought that what mattered was the video I was peddling, instead of me.
When I’m nervous, I tend to close off and get very quiet. This can give the wrong impression real quick. Now that I’m a bit older, I can recognize it when it happens and compensate somewhat, but it’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t help that I suffer from a condition commonly called “resting bitch face” which when combined with a bald head, goatee, and strong build, can make me look less than approachable. Internally I’m just a kid that’s trying to do good and be nice to people, but I have to be very conscious of the vibe that I give off. I’m not being self-deprecating, just observant and realistic about how I come off in initial impressions. This awareness reminds me to smile, have an upbeat tone of voice, and make eye contact. Anyone who really knows me probably knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I think it would help anyone going to a networking event to take a step outside themselves and do an honest assessment like this. This is not to beat yourself up, but to identify your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Say it’s finally your turn in line to talk to an animator that you admire and you’re shaking. I’ve been there. Holy shit have I been there! You think that you’re meeting a deity that knows it all, and is going to see right through you immediately. Please try to remember that imposter syndrome holds a place in all our hearts, and chances are this person doesn’t think of themselves as being “above” you at all. And also remember that this is what they’re there for, and they were once in your shoes! You likely have common experiences, believe it or not. Greet them with a smile and a handshake, and just say hello. Start with a personal connection before you ask them for anything! They want to know you. They want to know what you’re passionate about. They want to help you. What they don’t want is for you to be shivering while you talk to them, afraid that they won’t like you. If you find this happening to you, just confide in them that you’re nervous and having a hard time with this. I’d bet real money that they will immediately drop their guard and do their best to make you comfortable. This is far better than to fight it and tighten up, becoming silent and awkward. Trust me, this can mistakenly come off as arrogance, and at that point no demo reel is going to help the situation.
Overcoming shyness is extremely hard, because it’s closely tied to who you are. Being an introvert, I’m happiest alone or hanging out with my wife because of the level of comfort and trust we have with each other. Anything beyond that can take real effort to get through, and I have a finite amount of crowd tolerance that I have to deliberately manage. Socializing can be really fun in small amounts, but leaves me exhausted. I’m not getting at any real lesson here, just reduntantly stressing that it’s not just you.
When you do hand your tablet, laptop, or phone to them, don’t look to be lavished with praise. Hopefully they are kind and constructive, but what you’re really there for is honest feedback. My reel isn’t perfect, and neither is yours. There is always something to improve, and this is your chance to hear what it is. Take both their praise and criticism humbly and with a smile. Even if they’re tearing it to shreds and recommending that you scrap your 3-character, 5000-frame masterpiece and go back to bouncing balls, you should be thankful for their honesty. And if they tell you that your work is wonderful and they have no notes for you, don’t let them off that easy. Ask specific questions about things that you want to improve, and show them that you really want to get better. Showing that you can handle feedback enthusiastically is incredibly important demonstrate that you can work as part of a team. Even if your work isn’t ready yet, they’ll at least see that you have the desire and potential to get there one day.
Just as difficult as starting a conversation is ending it. You want to take advantage of your time with professionals, but not overstay your welcome. There are a lot of people in line, and we’ve all been in a conversation that’s gone on too long and gets awkward. If you feel like you’ve made a good connection with them personally, exchanged some pleasantries, and gratefully taken their feedback, you should thank them for their time and end it with another smile and handshake. Just like demo reels, short and sweet is better than drawn out and uncomfortable. Once you’ve left your best first impression, get out. If your reel is good and they had an enjoyable few minutes with you, that’s the best you can reasonably hope for. Don’t ask an animator for a job, because that’s not their call. You can follow up with a recruiter if one is present, because answering questions about jobs and how to stay in touch is why they’re there.
My best experience at CTN was in 2016, when I went there for fun and not to find a job. I was working at Telltale, so the extra burden of job hunting wasn’t weighing me down. I still submitted my reel to the recruiting thing, almost for fun. Feedback is always good to get, so why not give it a shot? To my surprise, a couple studios wanted to talk with me, including Blizzard. While I definitely felt some nerves talking to them, I was able to come into it infinitely more calm and relaxed, and the interview went so much better than any I had in the past, and resulted in a job offer later in the month. I remember being in the waiting room and seeing the other applicants sweat it out, and I felt grateful that I did not have the same pressure and empathized with what they were feeling. Now, this is great if you already have a job, I know. But if you can detach yourself a little bit and focus on relaxing and enjoying the experience, you’ll do better. I think that a friendly, casual confidence is the key to a good interview, even if you have to fake it and then have a breakdown once you leave the room. Speaking from experience there, too.
At the time of this writing, CTN is in one week. I hope that I get to meet you there, and that this post at least helps you feel comfortable chatting with me. I don’t go there for any benefit of my own, other than that I love meeting students and offering whatever advice I can. I’ve heard it referred to as “sending the elevator back down,” which I think is the responsibility of anyone who’s reached where they are thanks to the support of others. Many great people have helped me along the way, and my goal is to pay that forward every chance I get. So head over to the About page to see what I look like, and PLEASE stop me if you see me. That’s literally what I’m there for, so if I don’t get to talk to anyone it will be a wasted trip. Safe travels to everyone coming out, and I hope you have a great time!
One of my coworkers recently told me a story that really resonated with me. His family owned a beach house that they would visit a few times a year (must be nice, I know). For years there had never been any issues whenever they came to stay. Since no one had been there, there was never any reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. One time, though, they forgot to turn off the water main, and one of the faucets upstairs was accidentally left on a very slow drip. This happens all the time, and is usually harmless to anything but your utility bill. Months later, though, they returned to find the entire second floor sagging down and standing water everywhere. The house looked like it had been through a hurricane! Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage, caused by a drop of water every few seconds.
This is the power of consistency.
When I look back on my path to becoming an animator, this is the thing that has been the most responsible for everything good that’s happened. I don’t have an abundance of natural talent, but I kept my head in the game more days than I didn’t, and slowly those drips turned into a flood. It really is that simple. Not every day was a win, and breakthroughs didn’t come often. But I kept showing up.
The life you have is a result of the decisions you make and the habits you keep. I’m always trying to identify my own and weed out the ones that don’t serve me. I pay attention to successful people and try to adopt the habits that will fit into my own day-to-day. The more good habits I have, the more consistently I can have a day that pushes me forward instead of holding me back. They don’t have to be big things. For example, I start my day early before the sun comes up. I take a cold shower to wake me up and get my daily hygiene out of the way. I have oatmeal in the pressure cooker on a timer and ready to go for breakfast. My clothes have already been laid out the night before, and the food I’ll take to work is prepped and packaged. Starting every day this way frees up so much time and takes all the guesswork out of my morning. Then I can focus on writing, teaching, or whatever I need to get done before work. Then I’ll go to the gym, and finally head to the studio by 9:30. Whatever life wants to throw at me after that, I’m ready for it because I’ve already won the morning. These routines will change as my life evolves, but I’ll always make it a point to control the start of my day as much as I can because I’ve seen the benefits.
You can apply good habits to your animation practice, too. Just imagine what would happen if every morning you performed a one-hour, throwaway animation test. Every morning. One hour. That’s seven tests in a week. Thirty tests in a month. If you did thirty pendulum swings by this time next month, I bet you won’t be intimidated by quadruped tails anymore, would you? That skill would be with you forever, improving how you think about momentum, speed, spacing, overlap, and everything else that’s involved. Do that for bouncing balls, arm swings, foot rolls, facial transitions, and weight shifts, just to name a few. JUST IMAGINE how far you could come in a year with just one hour every morning! Or you could to two or three massive “dialog tests” a year like I used to. With the benefit of hindsight, I know which one I’d pick.
Habits don’t depend on motivation. They become second-nature, done as a matter of course. You brush your teeth every day, not out of an ever-present fear of gum disease, but because that’s just a thing you do because you should. If there’s something you know you should be doing, practice it until it’s as engrained into your day as brushing your teeth. This way when motivation fails, you’re still showing up and putting in work. Keep that faucet dripping and cause some damage.
See you in the morning?
Whenever some great piece of animation or visual effects is posted online, invariably the most repeated questions is “What software did you use?” CGI has been around for decades, yet the impression that software is responsible for the art still persists. Schools tout their cutting-edge computer labs and 3D packages, claiming to teach what studios want to see. Students are forced to buy software books with horrendous-looking CG characters on the cover, and follow tutorials that don’t result in anything even resembling industry standard art.
Let me make this clear: Software does nothing without the artistic skills necessary to use it creatively. In the case of character animation, software is often a hindrance to the results you want to achieve. For every useful feature in Maya, there’s another one you have to work around or compensate for (this goes for any program, but since Maya’s caused me more headaches than I can count, I don’t feel too bad about singling it out). I have an entire skill set devoted to forcing Maya to do what I need, just so that I can get to actual animation techniques. Hundreds of third-party scripts and plugins exist out of necessity because, after all these years, fundamental animation tools are not included out of the box.
The is no “animate” button. No amount of button pushing will result in a good character performance unless one knows the principles that were around long before computers even existed. Students have to focus first on artistic study and then learn how to achieve it with modern tools. There is a reason why in every medium, be it CG, stop motion, hand-drawn, cut-out, etc., the first lesson is the bouncing ball. Not how to set a key on a timeline. Not how to build an armature. Not how to render a face. The bouncing ball is universal, and contains most of the lessons needed to move on to more advanced assignments. Each medium has different methods to get it done, but the goal is the same – a two-dimensional visual representation of a sphere moving through space with believable physics and, in some cases, personality. Software doesn’t make that happen; artists do.
You’ll notice that none of the links I’ve included in my “Resources” page have anything to do with learning Maya. Every one of them is devoted to learning the craft and not the tools. And the tools that I’ve linked are only there because they force Maya to better serve the craft. It’s important to know enough buttons to actually make the software function, but then you can move on!
The first skill that students should start developing is an understanding of posing, staging, timing and spacing. Not how to achieve them technically, but what they mean and how they can be applied to any movement. Just like there can be no physical life without oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, there can’t be animated life without posing, staging, timing and spacing. A good eye for these things is of paramount importance in the day-to-day work of an animator. This takes time and practice to truly understand, and I’ll probably keep refining these skills for the rest of my life.
So don’t waste time learning program after program, and stressing that you don’t have the latest version of this or that. Masterful performances have been created for decades with much more primitive tools than what you have access to now. Technology will continue to evolve, and who knows what we’ll be using twenty years from now. The fundamentals will never change. If you really know the basics, you’ll be able to have a career no matter what tools are put into your hands.
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.
Feedback, in my opinion, is one of the most crucial components of success in animation. The desire to seek, accept, and implement feedback is directly proportional to how well you will do in the long run. There can be a lot of emotional resistance to showing peers and supervisors unfinished work. Our identity and self worth tend to get wrapped up in our art. This is perfectly natural, but has to be out in check so that we can be open to outside opinions and direction.
Here’s an image I’d like to shatter right now: none of us are perfect. None of us can do it all on our own. The worst thing you can do is get the idea that your taste is flawless and no one else can offer anything useful. Animation always benefits from second opinions, even if it’s just to reinforce what you’re already doing. If you refuse to ask the person next to you for their critique because you think they don’t know as much as you, that’s your ego talking. And if you refuse to ask because you don’t want to put the effort in to make changes, that’s your ego making you weak.
When I was a student I was very resistant to critique. I think this comes from my experience in college, where I felt like I knew more than most others around me. I still didn’t know shit, so that was an unhealthy attitude to begin with. I rarely got useful feedback from my teacher, so I began to close off and stop accepting it. This carried into my classes at iAnimate, made worse by the fact that I was doing it remotely without anyone physically around me. I was in a self-imposed bubble, though I was consciously unaware of it at the time. Ironically, the main benefit from going to school and having a good mentor is the critique, but I wasn’t getting the full benefit because my ego always had its guard up.
It was only when I interned at Pixar that I got humbled. Hard. I’ll never forget the first time that we showed our work to the entire department in one of the animation common areas. It turns out that showing your blocking in a room full of the most talented people you’ve ever met is a good way to find out how little you know. As terrifying as that was, it inoculated me to every being scared to show my work again, which has been invaluable. Sure, I still get nervous to show things that aren’t “ready,” and it doesn’t feel great to hear that my idea was wrong. But that doesn’t stop me from willingly opening myself up to it. I’ve seen the benefits time and again, and learned to love the process of collaboration.
I’ve talked about the invisible resume, and it certainly applies here. If you’re known as someone who resists help and gets defensive in dailies, that reflects poorly on you. Animation production is a team effort, and it takes the whole team to make something great. We need to support our teammates, and accept their support in return. Over time it becomes obvious when someone has closed off from the opinions of others, because their work tends to suffer in the same areas over and over. If someone’s getting the same notes in their last shot on a show as they did on their first shot, that means that they didn’t listen and absorb the feedback. This hinders their ability to be a useful member of the crew, and is noticed by peers and supervisors.
If you don’t already, start actively seeking feedback any way you can. Good resources include teachers, classmates, your partner, and even random people that happen to be in the building. If you ask them the right questions, you’d be surprised at the insight that a “non-animator” can have. My wife has a surprisingly good eye for things I tend to get blind to, so I always show her my personal work. Your parents and Facebook don’t count, because the response will always be “looks great!” We’re trying to keep the ego under control, not to feed it.
Don’t provide 20 caveats before showing, because you want honest first impressions. You can give a quick summary of what state the shot is in, but don’t tell them exactly what to look at. Even if they give you a note that is already on your list or that you can’t have reasonably gotten to yet, it’s still a note that you’ll have to remember to hit later. It might feel like they’re just pointing out all of your failings, but everyone who does this recognizes in progress work for what it is. They’re trying to help you get it where it needs to be, not degrade you, so don’t take it personally. Participate in the process and make it a collaboration. Ask questions, discuss solutions, and remember to thank them.
If there’s one thing that I teach anyone with this blog, I hope this is the one that sticks. It will come into play every day for the rest of your career, and it will make you a far better animator than you ever could be on your own. I’ll be going to dailies today and using these same lessons myself. And if I ever get to work with you, I’ll expect the same.