I had to give this one a little time before I wrote it. It was important to let those involved grieve and process what happened without one more person adding their opinion. I want to send my best wishes to all of the incredibly talented and dedicated people who lost their livelihoods from yet another sudden studio closure. In a situation that has become far too common, hundreds of families went from the security of full-time employment at a famous company to complete uncertainty. Though I’ve never experienced those exact circumstances, I will never forget the harrowing feeling of losing a job and not knowing how I would provide for my loved ones. I hope you all are doing okay.
I left Telltale in early 2017 after nearly three years, and it was my first real job in the industry. In the time I was there, I worked on some really cool projects and grew tremendously, both personally and professionally. The pace of production was extremely fast, which has been recounted in several recent interviews and articles, which had its positives and negatives. While I was rarely proud of the quality of animation that I was able to produce at such a speed, I got a tremendous amount of practice through repetition. And though I ultimately had little control over the final look of the games, I chose to instead appreciate the parts of the process that I was in control of, and detach from it once my job was done. This is in no way meant to disparage any other artists, but the system just was not designed in a way that was conducive to a high level of polish. As long as the games were great, that’s what mattered.
The fundamental problem came when making great games began to take a back seat to making more games at an unsustainable pace. The fact that so many games got finished and released at all is a testament to the dedication of every artist there. Overworked and under-paid, the troops on the ground got the company out of many self-inflicted crises, routinely working late into the night all week long. The cinematic artists who came last in the process were hit especially hard when crunch inevitably came, and due to the cadence of release schedules, crunch was nearly constant. As it tried to compensate, I witnessed the studio grow three times in size in less than a year. I saw many of the same signs from when I was at a company who aggressively expanded only to have everything fall apart due to near-sightedness and greed, and decided it was probably a good time to leave. I had hoped I was wrong.
It’s important to remember that nothing, in this industry especially, is permanent. Through no fault of their own, artists can find themselves inheriting the problems of their employers and paying the price. No matter how great your company may be, don’t make the mistake of trusting it to have your best interests at heart. Those in charge may well have, but leaving yourself without a backup plan if things change is risky. We’ve seen time and time again studios that were thought to be stable and thriving disappear in an instant. Their employees likely saw a long future that included stability, advancement and even retirement. Instead they found a locked door and no explanation. So while your coworkers, supervisors, and executives may be wonderful people with all the right intentions, the shareholders are ultimately in charge of the fate of the company and its payroll. Never forget that. Keep a “rainy day” fund and your eyes open.
Before we go, I want to express the love I still have for the people I worked with at Telltale. It really did feel like a family, and being around them was the real joy of working there. We played together, ate together, shared thousands of GIFs (totally work-related), and helped each other become better artists. I still miss them. There was just something about the atmosphere, and when things got hard, we banded together tighter. In contrast to what I said about companies, I think the opposite is true when it comes to your peers. Lean into those relationships and make them last. Be there for each other and celebrate your time together. I’ve seen a wonderful camaraderie emerge since the closing of Telltale. Because they all became friends, they have been helping each other get back on their feet, and it’s inspiring to witness. This industry is small, and those lifelong connections are invaluable. I hope that each one of them finds this situation to be a blessing in disguise. The journey takes many twists and turns, but it has a funny way of working out for the best. Good luck to all of you.
Working at a computer all day is bad for you. Sitting in a chair all day, staring at a bright screen, contorting your wrists around a mouse and keyboard, and hunching your shoulders forward for hours will take a toll on your health eventually. It doesn’t help that for the rest of the day we’re sitting down driving, slouched over our phones, and loafing in front of the TV. If you want a long career in animation, it’s absolutely essential that you learn how to take care of yourself and fight the effects of sedentary life. Gravity punishes laziness, and you can see examples all around you.
I consider it mandatory for myself to exercise every day. I love getting in the gym and moving heavy stuff, showing gravity that I won’t go down so easily. This doesn’t mean I’m always pushing myself to the limit, but every day I need to do something. Some days I’m just going for a couple quick strolls around the building or making it a point to stretch once in a while at my desk. You don’t need to train like an athlete to stave off RSI and back pain, but the more fit you are, the less susceptible you’ll be. A great place to start is FoundationTraining.com, which has been a mainstay of my routine for years, and can be done easily and safely by just about anyone. Start slow, find a trainer, coworker, or good article online that can point you in the right direction, and get out of that damn chair once in a while.
Another element that’s been crucial to my health is a good ergonomic setup at work. Step one is a standing desk. The single best thing you can do to relieve the stress of sitting is to stand up! It takes a while to get used to, but it makes a world of difference once you’re conditioned to it. If your employer won’t provide one, I have made due in the past by building a large box out of plywood and putting it on top of my existing desk. If you need one at home, I’ve had one for years that I made on the cheap from IKEA parts. It should be set to elbow-height so that your forearms are around a 90-degree angle with your shoulders relaxed. Get a stool to sit on when you’re tired and you’re well on your way to living healthier.
Second priority is switching from a mouse to a pen stylus. Twisting your wrist over a mouse is terrible for your joint and tendons, and if you blow out your wrist, it becomes very hard to do your job. Like a standing desk, computing with a stylus takes a while to get used to, but after a few days it will feel completely natural and pain-free.
Setting up your monitors at eye-level will prevent neck pain from looking up or down for long periods, and putting them at arm’s length will save strain on your eyes. Consider lowering the brightness, wearing tinted computer glasses or using a software like f.lux to tint the screen.
Hotkeys are another crucial component of fending off RSI. Setting all of your most-used commands to easily-reached keys reduces repetitive arm motion and contortion of the fingers. Years ago I was introduced to programmable key pads (X-Keys and Genovation work great) and I literally can’t work without them anymore. If I take mine home for some reason and forget it, I’m headed back home. The benefits to speed, productivity, and comfort are undeniable in my experience.
Other “nice to haves” include desk-mounted elbow rests (I use Ergo Rests), a soft lamp if your room is dimly lit, and good shoe insoles or an anti-fatigue mat.
Finally, here’s the thing that no one likes to hear: eat better. Literally nothing you can do will counteract the negative effects of a poor diet in the long term. I won’t go into a long lecture about what to eat and which diet is healthiest, since I’m no expert and that can be different for everyone. That said, you know what you shouldn’t be eating! You know that the chips in the vending machine don’t do you any favors. You know that the office donuts don’t “fuel” your animation. You know that soda … ah hell, you get the point. If you’re really honest with yourself, you know these things already. Take responsibility for your health, and figure out the specifics as you go along. A healthy animator takes less sick days, has more energy to put into their work, and has a more adventurous life outside the studio.
I hope that this helps someone out there turn their health around, or prevents bad things from ever happening. Going through life in self-inflicted pain is unnecessary. I should say, however, that I am no medical professional. I highly recommend consulting your doctor about diet and exercise, having your workspace reviewed by an ergonomic professional, and getting started in the gym with a qualified trainer. Use common sense and go at your own pace. Just remember that something is better than nothing!
Now stand up!
Animation is crazy fun. The process is fun, the results are fun, and showing it off is fun. Naturally, crazy action pieces and slow, subtle acting are the hardest things to do and the most impressive things to look at, so that’s what we want to do most! From the second that we open up Maya for the first time, all we want to do is create the next masterpiece that will blow all the studios away and send our demo reel right to the top. Bouncing balls are great and all, but that 20-second hardcore parkour sequence will be our ticket to the big time!
That enthusiasm is great, but it has to be held in check. The number one mistake that I see students make over and over again is biting off more than they can chew. Before I get too far in, let me caveat that I’ve been guilty of this many times. It’s perfectly normal to want to push yourself and create something big, but unless you’re ready for it, you’d better be good at learning from failure. I’ve started many shots that just never get done because I got overwhelmed, and if I did “finish” them, they weren’t any good. And while it’s commendable to stick with a long piece through completion, that usually means that a certain number of frames are moving, not that the quality is high.
When studios review animators’ reels, they’re not impressed with the length of the shots, the ambitiousness of the choreography, the lighting, cloth sim, or anything like that. All they want to see is the quality of the animation. It doesn’t matter if the first shot is three seconds long with one character and a static camera. If the performance and polish level make them say “wow,” then it’s already in consideration. That is way more beneficial than the massive chase scene that’s fun, but just didn’t nail the body mechanics.
It’s great when I see a current student’s reel full of the basic exercises done well. It shows me that they’re doing what they need to be doing: practicing the fundamentals. I love looking at this and giving them ideas where to go next, but it breaks my heart to have to tell them to backtrack because they skipped the basics. Now, when a big studio looks at reels, they don’t want to see a bunch of bouncing balls, pendulums and walk cycles, but they do want to see the result of all that study. You simply cannot animate a compelling acting shot or physically accurate mechanics piece without first having done those basic studies and engraving them into your brain! Spending your time doing lots and lots of tiny exercises is the best and most efficient way to learn the components that you’ll use for those bigger tasks. In eight weeks you can do one ten-second thing that turns out “okay,” or you could do fifty throwaway practice exercises. By the twentieth or thirtieth day, I promise you’ll have made progress. I recommend picking up a copy of Richard Williams’ “Animator’s Survival Kit” and just doing all the exercises in order, preferably more than once. He does a great job of breaking down and building on the very basics, so you’d do well to follow along and do them yourself.
It’s awesome that you’re fired up to do something huge, but I hope that reading this will remind you to stay reasonably within your capabilities for now. It’s important to push beyond, but you wouldn’t want to get in a Formula 1 car when you just got your learner’s permit. Pick something manageable, find good reference and study it to death, and don’t be too precious with it. Not everything you do will go into a demo reel, so be willing to do things solely for practice. It is not a waste of time, trust me.
If you’ve been lucky enough to go to one of those universities that is renowned for its animation program and its students are actively recruited by major studios, good for you. Seriously, that’s awesome. But this post isn’t for you; you don’t need it. This is for the rest of us who, upon graduation, suddenly realize that it didn’t work. After all those years of overnighters, stressful finals, and bad cafeteria food, the demo reel we cut together to send out to the world. . . sucks.
You were promised professional level training and even help with job placement. The facilities were shiny and new when you toured them before enrolling, and you thought this was where your dreams were going to begin. Surely that dream job at [insert studio] was only four years away, if that.
I’m sorry, I really am. You were lied to. So was I. That is exactly what happened to me.
Don’t get me wrong; I had a great time in art school. I learned a lot about art, film and hard work. I met lifelong friends, had some wonderful teachers, and felt like I was part of a real community. However, it didn’t dawn on me until senior year that I had never asked about their job placement rate. It was almost zero. And at the end of it when I recovered from the sleep depravation and looked at the work I had produced, I knew I was in trouble.
Here’s what I was left with when I graduated. I swore I’d never show this to anyone, but here we go…
For a year and a half after that, I tried my best to teach myself. I had already spent four years and a boatload of money to learn this stuff, so I wasn’t about to throw it all away. I was able to improve some by watching professional tutorials (which weren’t as readily available as they are now), but the amount of time wasn’t justified in the results. All this time I was working the front desk of a fitness club fake-smiling at customers, slinging memberships, and mopping bathrooms. Not what I had envisioned four years prior when the world was mine for the taking.
I took my laptop with me and animated on my lunch breaks. I did it before and after work, too. Still the results didn’t come. Eventually I’d had enough and decided to spend every dollar I had on online training. At that time, iAnimate.net was brand new and looked like just what I needed, so I dove in. The next two years were hard. I worked on my assignments every waking moment while also working full time. Around the middle of the curriculum I got overwhelmed and even had to backtrack in classes for more body mechanics training. But it was exactly what I needed. There is just no substitute for being trained and mentored by working professionals who teach because they want to, not because they can’t do it themselves.
If you’re in a school that isn’t delivering on its promises, I feel for you. I’m hesitant to ever tell someone to leave school since there are so many other benefits to it, but it may be necessary to consider supplemental options. If you’ve already graduated and find yourself in the same position I was in, I hope this gives you some idea of how to move forward. Remember, it took me eight years to land my first real break into the industry. Many people get in sooner than that, but also many don’t. The good thing is that once it happens, no one cares how long it took, or how many times you failed. The only thing that matters is your attitude and your demo reel. If both of those are of high caliber, your time will come.
Keep at it and never give up. Fight like hell and do whatever it takes to make it happen. If your school just left you with the check, get angry and use it to push on and find the education you need. The reward will be a career that will sustain you creatively and enable you support your family by doing what you love to do, which in my opinion is the most important thing there is.
Or you could quit.
Eight years. Eight years and countless hours is how long it took me to finally “break in” to the animation industry. Most of my classmates didn’t make it. In fact, if you told them at the beginning that it would take that long, they would have stopped even sooner. That’s certainly not to say that there was anything wrong with them, or that I’m in any way superior. I’m sure that most of them had more talent and smarts than me, which is why they’ve gone on to other things and done well. My undeniable lack of talent is probably what’s most responsible for any success I’ve had as an animator. I simply didn’t have any other option to fall back on!
Character animation was the only thing that meant enough to me to stick with, and it took eight years (and counting) to scrape together enough competency to be employed. It was a deep-seeded need to do this that got me through it and helps me through every day. Even now there are far more days that I feel like that hopeless kid than a professional who’s got this thing nailed. I’ve learned to trust the process and my co-workers to help me get to the finish line, but each shot is approached with a silent prayer that I don’t screw it up.
Time and determination is all that separates professionals from those who don’t make it. I’ve heard legendary animators make these same sentiments. Few feel like they’ve truly earned their place and can rest on their laurels. Great artists don’t coast on what they can do now, but instead are running from what they were unable to do in their past. I would never consider myself to be great at anything, but I know that I don’t want today’s shot to look like what I was doing 6 years ago. Hell, I don’t want it to look like what I did 6 months ago! Fear can be your friend if you look at it from the right angle, pushing you forward and keeping complacency away.
When it gets hard and motivation inevitably fails you, try to detach and remember that it’s not just you. Think back to why you do this. If that “why” is strong enough, it will provide the discipline needed to get up, turn on that screen or pick up that pencil, and get after it. Every day you will be able to look at yesterday and assess what went wrong, and as long as you can do that, you’re moving forward.
If you can’t see it, ask someone to tell you. Find a classmate, a friend, an online community, or a mentor to pick you up when you fall and take their criticism with gratitude. I rely on the people I work with daily to push be farther than I could on my own, and they deserve at least equal credit for “my” work. Not to mention my wife who’s been more supportive and patient than I had any right to ask for. It takes a village, and it’s full of people just like you. Lean on them, and support them back when they need it.
I hope this provides some level of comfort that, though it will be difficult, you don’t have to be special to make it. Believe in yourself, and in the times that you don’t, allow others to believe in you. At least that’s what I do.