Tangible Advice from the Pros for Future Animators

WRITTEN BY ROBIN WILDING of www.animationcareerreview.com/

The point of creating our Interview Series was to provide tangible, actionable advice for aspiring animators—from people with real-world experience. And the series provided just that: advice from experts in the industry—men and women with decades of anecdotal advice.

Many of our experts helped create the industry we know today since way back in the 1970s, before they could fathom the technology we have today.These experts now run the animation studios that form the U.S. animation market—they hold the keys to breaking into the industry and hire for the jobs.

We’ve taken the best responses from dozens of interviews, and extracted hard-and-fast advice that future animators should use as their Ten Commandments for getting a job:

Kathy Rocchio, Slap Happy Cartoons
Aside from the obvious (learn and hone your skills) is to try and get to know as many supervisors, directors and producers as possible. Friends hire friends with talent and the community is pretty tight knit. Particularly here in Vancouver. Networking is key. Find out where they hang out and buy them beer.


Brad Graeber, Co-Founder of Powerhouse
It’s about the time you put into the tools, not the tools themselves. When I see entertainment industry pros speak, I often hear younger animators ask them which version of what software they are using or what pencil or pen they like to use. Using the same pencil that Chuck Jones used won’t make you draw like Chuck Jones. You have to sit down and do the work, over and over, and then be able to look at it with a critical eye and make it better the next time. 

Simon Monahan, Serif

To get the best results, invest in a good quality graphics tablet that will help you develop your natural drawing style. Posting your work on sites and forums and becoming part of an online community to receive feedback and critique can also be really useful, as well as helping to keep you up to date with the latest trends and techniques.

Network, both online and in person. Do your own work and get it out there. Animation has the benefit that you can make your own projects to sell yourself with. 

Don’t be afraid to send your reel around. You might not get a response right away, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t like your stuff. Most places are busy and don’t have someone dedicated to hiring, so things can get lost in the shuffle. So try again in a month if you don’t hear anything. Persistence and who you know, are the things that are going to get you in the door. Have fun and don’t lose sight of your passion.

John Ryan, Animation Director at DAGNABIT!
Be passionate. Maintain focus. Develop a back-up plan. Marry for money. 

Mark DiGiacomo, Founder of Digital Elixir Studios
Get a full education because just knowing animation is today’s equivalent of being a line worker at a car factory in the 1960’s. Learn to write, read and everything else. Don’t just be a technocrat because it won’t be enough.

Rob Corley, Funnypages Productions
At Disney we participated in portfolio reviews for many hopeful applicants wanting to become Disney artists, so the three most important words I can give any artist, even CG artists, is to, Draw, Draw, Draw! I know that can sound like a broken record, but nothing separates a great artist from a mediocre one more than a portfolio full of bad drawings. 

Keep a sketchbook and draw from life by going to the park, the mall or the zoo. Learn to adapt and observe as many styles as possible in order to give you an edge over the competition.  An extremely important piece of advice would be to never, ever, think that you can’t learn something new, because the moment you begin to believe you’re there is the moment you stop growing as an artist.

Limit every animation you do to 5-10 seconds in length when in school or practicing. When deciding to spend a week polishing an animation to perfection or making two more animations in a week, choose to do 2 more animations. Practice your craft, stay on top of technology trends, don’t get discouraged, focus your goals.

Also, go into the field because you love it, not because it’s considered “cool” or you think you will make a lot of money. Be an artist first.

Paul Griswold, Fusion Digital Productions
Don’t focus on the software. Learn photography, film-making, editing, acting, sculpting, theatrical lighting, and take some fine-art classes. I see so many horrible demo reels where it’s clear the student doesn’t know anything but how to push the right buttons in XYZ 3D software. Button pushers are cheap and easy to find.

Gabriel Polonsky, Gabriel Polonsky Studio 
Love what you are doing because it ain’t easy. Once you get out of school, you will get a second education by working in the industry, your career may take twists and turns you never expected (for the good and bad). Get your foot in the door, grab an internship, make contacts, do good work, don’t piss people off, go where the work is, build a reel and a reputation.

Stephen Fishman, Mac and Cheez
Like I had mentioned, create your own personal projects. It gives you a great overview of how finished pieces come together. Being a great roto artist or character rigger will be useful for larger companies but somebody who can create killer boards and animate them is indispensable for the boutique outfits.

Kai Bovaird, AD/M
Get a solid grasp on movement and timing foundational skills. Also learn composition and framing. 

Arthur Kautz, Aniben
Pick the element of animation you like doing best and focus on that. Learning curves for new software are steep, and having a focus helps. Beyond that, try to broaden your artistic talents and understanding of movement. Study the great animated films. Go back and look at the early Disney animation; Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan and observe how they did things. See if you can replicate it in your work.

Matthew Teevan, Arc Productions
I find one of the problems that we are starting to see in visual storytelling – meaning animation and visual effects primarily – is that a lot of it is becoming derivative of itself. It can start to feel like a Xerox of a Xerox and loses a certain zest. Studying real life, real emotions is key. Reference real people or actors as much as other animation. When you can bring a level of internal ‘thinking’ to an animated character and make it behave the way that it really would physically, then you really have magic.

Robert Stava, Arup
My own personal strategy has been to always look at the best that’s out there, emulate to learn, then try and improve on it. You can learn quite a lot from traditional techniques. 
Work hard, be humble, be persistent. And be original. Your reel has to speak for itself so make sure the opening shots are your best because that’s all a prospective employer may see before moving on to the next one. Then show variety – no one wants to see five minutes of the same thing. 

Also, know your target market. There’s nothing worse than someone kicking off their reel with a bunch of dancing mushrooms when they’re interviewing at an architecture firm: it announces you didn’t bother to research the job you’re applying for. 

Lastly: be generous with your knowledge – it’ll come back to you two-fold. But keep a trick or two up your sleeve.

Glenn Barnes, Big Sandwich Games
Get involved in the scene. Whether you’re an artist, programmer or designer, the best way to get noticed is to show a game that you’ve worked on. Hit the forums, hook up with some like-minded individuals, and start working on a game or a mod. That will show potential employers that you’ve got ambition and discipline, as well as showcasing your talent.  

Trevor Davies, Owner of CORE Animated Effects and Professor at Sheridan College
Watch films other than animation. Watch international and independent films. Go to Art Galleries and travel when you get the chance.

Gary Thomas, Crush
Work on your own projects constantly. We will not hire any new grad who comes to us only with student assignments. In this day, with the resources available there is no excuse for a lack of completed projects to show.

Andre Lyman, Clambake Studios
We’d recommend any applicants learn the tools of the trade prior to applying for a job. Those with internship experience at relevant production companies absolutely gain a competitive edge. We look for a clean, neat, prolific portfolio, and recommend you read up on the company you’re meeting with prior to your visit. Last but not at all least, bring a hard copy of your resume with you to your interview! 

Paul Kakert, Owner of Effective Digital Presentations
Open yourself to the possibilities and evolve with what the industry needs. Know your strengths and your weaknesses and pursue the job or project that best suits the areas in which you excel. And focus on the design and artistic side of your education just as much as learning the tools of the trade. Animators are visual storytellers and artists just as much as they are technicians that must understand highly technical aspects of the process.

Mark Cappello, Invisible Entertainment
Work your ass off, constantly challenge yourself and network with your peers. It’s actually easy to spot the rising stars in the industry as they are the ones who are drawing constantly, teaching themselves new skills and production modalities, and they always manage to maintain a wide-eyed wonderment towards all things animation.

Mike Drach, March Entertainment
If you feel you’ve got the vision, talent and business acumen to start up a studio, I encourage people to go for it. One strategy would be to pick an under-served market and become local heroes there. Another is to wedge yourself into an already booming market and hope to eventually get noticed by one of the bigger players.

Also, there’s a huge difference between being a shop, or your own studio developing original properties. I’d say the latter would be much more challenging unless you’ve already got a lot of interest in your idea or portfolio. Not having built a studio from scratch, I’m not necessarily the authority to give advice, though.

Charles Gaushell, Paradigm Productions 
Be aware of the good work that’s out there and set a standard of the quality of work you want to be doing. Get to know others who are working in the industry. Listen to critiques and learn the art of observation. No spaceships, skulls or bad character animations. Note that artistic skills are huge, but if you have to have everything handed to you and can’t solve problems then you are pretty much a technical artist. We want design artists – problem solvers that create exquisite illustrations and animations that tell the story needed by our clients.

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