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.
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.
It’s so easy to get tunnel vision when you’re deep into a shot. I can get so focused on the arc of a wrist that I’m completely blind to the fact that the whole pose is wrong. I can be so concerned with my shot having a perfect beginning and ending that I forget that it needs to hook up seamlessly with the ones before and after. Losing sight of the big picture is something everyone is guilty of at one time or another. It’s important to learn how to recognize it when it happens, and how to deal with it.
The best thing to do is to just step away from your desk. Go for a walk and get some blood flowing. I’ve found that I just can’t solve an overwhelming problem in the place that it’s happening. The solution always comes to me when I’m out of that space and in a new environment. If I return to my computer without coming up with a fix, I instantly feel that cloud come over me again. Just because you’re away from your desk does not mean that you’re avoiding work; you’re doing what you need to do at that time. Don’t use this as an excuse to go play a video game or take a nap. There is a difference between active and passive rest, and too much of the latter can get you fired!
Asking a coworker for help is another tactic that’s under-utilized. I’m guilty of not doing this enough. When you’re stuck and lose confidence in the job you’re doing, it can be tough to reveal that to someone else. The good news is that no one will think less of you for it, since I guarantee it happens to them too. It says a lot about your character if you’re able to admit that you need help, and it will mean a lot that you trust their opinion. Unless you work in the most toxic studio ever, there’s no shame in sometimes leaning on your team. And if you’re a student or animating a personal shot, there are great online communities out there and you’d be surprised how many pros are willing to offer advice if you ask politely.
If you have another shot to work on, “plate-spinning” can be a good way to avoid going too far down a single hole. There are times when your full, undivided attention is required, but it can be smart to set a time limit so that you’re forced to shift your focus. This keeps things fresh and wakes you up to the context that each shot lives in.
Sometimes none of this is working and you need to invoke the nuclear option: shutting it down for the night and walking away. I know that you want to keep going and muscle through, but there’s a good chance that you’ll be spinning your wheels or even going backwards. I’ve spent many late nights trying to hammer a shot into working, only to come back the next day to find that everything I did was wrong. But there’s the secret! Since I came back the next day, I could see what the problem was. The human brain (or mine, anyway) tends to absorb information passively over time. Using guitar as an example, I’ve come to expect that I’ll stumble over a new riff over and over again, not able to get my fingers to do what my brain wants. The next day, though, after I’ve slept on it and let my subconscious mind do it’s thing, the information has soaked in and I’m able to play it. So the next time you just can’t get your animation working and you’ve exhausted the other options, just cut your losses and shut it down.
This is not an excuse to procrastinate or get lazy and there definitely are times when you need to snap out of your funk and get the job done! You don’t want to be known as the guy or gal who’s never at their desk or constantly on a coffee break trying to “work up to it.” That perception can be very detrimental to your employment status if you’re not careful. These are methods for enabling the hard work to continue, not to avoid it. A strong work ethic is essential, and balancing that with the appropriate amount of rest is key.
Now that you’ve taken a break from your shot to read this, get back to work!
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.
Animation is generally referred to as the means by which artists imbue drawings, virtual rigs, or physical objects with the illusion of life. Character animation adds that this illusion portrays an individual with specific characteristics, mannerisms, beliefs, etc. This is the typical way to think of what we do, and it’s certainly a valid definition. However, I would like to explore another way to interpret that term and how it applies to us as human beings.
Animation is hard. It’s hard if you’re in your room as a child making flipbooks. It’s hard as a student trying to develop basic skills. It’s hard as a professional holding yourself to the industry standard and the example set by your peers. It’s just damned hard. Anything this hard requires of us that which we strive to instill in our work; it requires character.
The definition of “animate” is “to fill with courage or boldness; give zest or spirit to.” In striving to learn this art form, we must continually animate our own internal character. We seek out inspiration to embolden our resolve. We have to zestfully observe people and motion every moment of the day. We need to have the courage to recognize our shortcomings and boldness to seek feedback from others.
This might seem overly-dramatic, but I believe that personal development goes hand-in-hand with professional development. A long career of shot work will be rewarding, sure, but it will also at times be difficult and demoralizing. One of the skills you will need is the ability to rev up your willpower and get things done. Not every day is going to feel great. You’ll get tired and demotivated and tempted to let your focus stray from the task at hand. But shots won’t finish themselves. Your boss won’t pay you to take a mental sick day (or five). Discipline has to take over when motivation fails you.
As I write this, I’m animating a shot that scares me. I have a tighter than usual deadline, and it’s in a style that I haven’t done in a while. As the due date gets closer and closer, I’m definitely feeling the squeeze and stressing about my ability to get it finished. That’s not an easy thing to admit publicly, but I think it’s important for you to know that I’m not immune to those things either. I have my fair share of insecurity, though over time I’ve learned to recognize and utilize it. It’s a warning sign that I need to pay attention to. In this case, I need to step back and observe how I’m feeling, but also look objectively at how the shot is going. If I step back and take my head out of the weeds, I can see that it’s getting there. If I keep my head down and grind out these last days of work, I know I’ll get it done. I’ll still feel the stress, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to suck it up and put in the work.
When facing something difficult, it’s an opportunity to find out what you’re made of. Can you overcome the effort ahead of you, or will you quit? Will you put those final finishing touches on your shot, or will you let it slide at 90%? Will you set aside your insecurities (and possibly jealousies) to ask for help or help a coworker in need? These are matters of character, and if you don’t have it, you’ll have a hard time putting it into your work.
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.
I’ve always had a bit of an issue with how “the industry” is portrayed to animation students. I used to think that it was some kind of Mount Olympus-like place where only the gifted went to make incredible art and live easy. I remember all too well sitting in my room, beating my head against a little laptop with this ridiculously complicated thing called Maya on the screen, and despairing about how far I still had to go to get there. Mind you, this was after getting my four-year degree in animation and while working part-time in a fitness club cleaning floors and bathrooms. Not exactly how I dreamed of things turning out after graduation. There seemed to be an impossibly high wall to climb, and just on the other side were all the studios I looked up to so much. There must have been something special about those gods that animated the shots I drooled over. They had to have figured out some secret formula that put them out of my league. I know now that students and graduates around the world feel exactly the same way, but living in the midwest felt like I was on another planet.
That’s who I’m writing for; those people who feel hopelessly detached from whatever they define as success and need someone to tell them how it really is. I want to demystify the professional animator and the struggles we all go through. To show the hopeful that they can do great things as long as they’re open to where the adventure takes them.
While I do intend to dabble in animation techniques and educational content, my focus will be on the realities of what its like to transition from student to professional. There are more than enough resources out there to teach you how to animate; I’m more interested in teaching you how to be an animator. Or at least what’s worked for me. Plenty of people have more experience and wisdom than me, but hopefully the lessons I’ve learned so far will be of some use to you.
Thanks for reading.