Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Getting Started"?

Since somebody asked "How do you get started" a couple of notches down, I here respond to the question.

My answer is: "A million different ways." Which the disgruntled might equate with "I haven't a clue," since it's almost as vague. But let me explain...

There's a few baseline requirements everyone must have to break into the animation biz ... or any biz.

One. You need a basic mastery of skills within the area for which you want to be hired. If you want to be a design artist, you need to know how to draw and render with a pencil, know mechanics and design, know how to use the appropriate computer software.

If you want to be an animator, same thing. Artistic skills, animation skills (squash, stretch, acting), knowledge of Maya or whatever software package a given studio is using.

And if you're a writer, it's useful to know the lessons of "Elements of Style," know story arcs, how to structure dialogue, know nouns and verbs and various kinds of word modifiers.

Etcetera, etcetera.

Most everybody already is familiar with these things, so I'm not imparting a whole lot of valuable wisdom. But I've kicked around these parts a long time, and found out stuff. So here's where the advice gains a little more weight.

To start: Since you get hired (mostly) based on your skill sets (derived from innate talent, training and job experience, if any), it's useful to know how good your skills actually are. The problem for many young creators is, they reflexively believe their creations to be top-notch because they created them..

Well, maybe your drawing of Willie the Wacky Wombat is beyond compare, but maybe it sucks. A good reality check is to create something, put it away for a few weeks or month, then peer at it again. Now how does it look? Still totally wonderful? Something less than wonderful? (Maybe you can find somebody who's opinion you value who is brutally frank. But that is sometimes hard to do ...)

Summation: Make (or get) an honest assessment of the awesomeness of your chops. How you stack up against the competition. Tailor your expectations accordingly.

Two. Assuming your talents are solid, and your work ethic is productive and energetic, there's another thing you need. That thing is not being an annoying asshole.

With job interviews, the non-asshole shows up on time, dresses appropriately, answers questions honestly and professionally. And doesn't natter on and on.

After the non-asshole is hired, he or she works to be a "team player," appears optimistic and enthusiastic even when she or he might not be, and delivers what the supervisor wants, even if the desires of the supervisor seem stupid.

I've had more than one artist come through my office, complaining about how awful their boss was. About how he "wouldn't know good work if it bit him in the ass," how he was a dolt, how his talents were non-existent. Years ago, a storyboarder ranted to me about how his supervisor didn't want nipples on a character, and how that was completely wrong: "You gotta have them! For construction! Guy's a moron!"

I looked at him and said: "Okay, you've got a decision to make. Do you want to keep the nipples on and be right, or do you want to have a job? Because I don't think you can have both."

Summation: Learn how to be a pleasure in the workplace. Even if you have to build a sunny, Potemkin personality around your surly, sarcastic real one.

Three. Connections are important. Networking is one of the better things you can do for yourself. Socialize at work, go to industry functions, hobnob with co-workers after hours. In this project-to-project labor environment, most people move around a lot, and it's a good idea to keep in touch. You never know when that hard-charging assistant you befriended in 1997 might need your boarding skills for that indie feature he's in charge of. Old art school classmates still give one another boosts in the workplace, thirty years on.

Summation: Keep in touch. That dorky friend from high school may come in handy one day.

Four: Keep your skills up to date, keep adding to them, and never, ever stop learning. Background artists today need to know photoshop as much (or more) than they need to know paint tubes and brushes. Board artists need to be able to draw on a Cintiq.

Summation: The more arrows you have in your quiver, the more employable you'll be.

Lastly. Many things in the animation business are beyond your control. The strike zones for getting jobs and keeping jobs continually expand and shrink, based on the way t.v. shows and features perform in the marketplace. The artists who went to work at hole-in-the-wall Klasky-Csupo on a show called "The Simpsons" in 1990 had no idea Homer, Marge et famille would still be earning them a living eighteen years later.

Disney Feature artists who told me in 1995 they'd spend the next twenty years with the Mouse House today ruefully know, even as they pick up freelance work at Nickelodeon while waiting for a staff gig at Cartoon Network, that the rock solid job at the Tiffany of animation studios didn't quite pan out the way everyone (including me) anticipated.

And nobody in his wildest imaginings could have foreseen, back when Ronald Reagan was President, that the video game industry would end up far larger than the entire movie business.

The victories and defeats which the marketplace will bestow one, or five, or ten years from now on the companies for which we work is unknowable, and will always be unknowable. As a grizzled animation veteran said to me decades ago: "What you need to survive in this business is talent, luck and hard work. And if you have a lot of one of those, you need way less of the other two."

His analysis is as true now as it was then. The big three for every mortal are: the gifts God hands you as you slide down the birth canal, good fortune, and a capacity for work. Focus on those things you can control, and ignore the things you can't. Because otherwise you'll make yourself crazy.


Dan said...

Great post, particularly the part about being a non asshole. From experience, its not only uncomfortable, but also really difficult to work with people who think they are above everyone else, and no one but them are right.

And there is never enough that can be said about connections/ networking. As a NY animator, work here is hit and miss, and if it weren't for all the great people I have worked with on other projects, I am not sure how I would have found as much work as I have during the rough times. All the websites, job forums, reels in the world don't compare to a good recommendation or word of mouth about a project (assuming the talent is there to back it up of course...and the non assholieness).

Good luck to all those getting started.

Floyd Norman said...

I'll add one more to that long list, Steve. And, this is one I heard from Will Smith, a young man who seems to be doing pretty well in this crazy media business.

"Don't let anyone outwork you. Work harder than everybody else, and you'll make it."

No guarantee of success - - but it sure the hell helps.

Anonymous said...

Just another item to add to the list - if and when you do make it dont forget how you got their and make it a point to help others obtain their dreams. Make it a point to talk to schools, not just colleges, but all levels of education - be that spark in some middle school student's life that lets them know animation is done by artists and that being one of those artists is one of the greatest careers one can obtain...

Animation is built on a foundation of mentoring.

Anonymous said...

"Don't let anyone outwork you. Work harder than everybody else, and you'll make it."

...but make sure you are getting paid for that work. there's lots of people who will dangle security in front of you if you work a bit for free. so don't be so eager to put your nose to the grindstone at the drop of a hat.

Anonymous said...

"...but make sure you are getting paid for that work."

Ah yes, for heaven's sake don't ever put a pen to paper or click a mouse unless there's a buck in it for you. Don't ever stay after work to bend the ear of an industry vet' to get their advice. Don't ever work off the clock to better a shot - to add some bit of polish that will make it shine. Don't ever sit at your desk animating a shot simply for the love of the craft. You make sure that you are that guy standing their with your hand out, palm up, making sure you get your nut. I am sure Mr. Smith, back when he was a struggling artist, never did anything for a client without getting paid. Or maybe, just maybe, he was smart enough to know that if he worked his butt off and impressed people with his craft and dedication that greater rewards would follow. I am in no way saying that you should not be fairly compensated - of course you should - but you should also keep in mind animation is a competitive industry and that someone somewhere is doing everything they can to secure their place at the afrementioned grindstone.

Anonymous said...

"Or maybe, just maybe, he was smart enough to know that if he worked his butt off and impressed people with his craft and dedication that greater rewards would follow."

Truer words were never typed! I would rather be admired for my work ethic than my bank balance. I'd have to choose the quality of work I produce over an inflated paycheck any day.

Anonymous said...

i never said anyone whould not work for their love of the craft. i didn't say that once. so please... come back to reality.

here's a novel idea:
you have extra time... WORK ON YOUR OWN STUFF.

you aren;t going to be admired for the stellar effort you put into someone else's property. in today's day and age it is all about what you OWN. you. you alone.

i don't care how gratified you get from going the extra mile for free at a job, it isn't half as gratifying as seeing your own vision come to fruition through your own perseverence. the animation community would be a hell of a lot better off with more independent creators and sadly there is a drought of them because of the collective extra effort we have being put into projects pro bono.

of course any job doing is worth doing well, but if you want to talk about admiration, then seeking that out through someone elses project is a dodgy proposition.
you will garner ten times as much admiration by making your own animated short, your own childrens book, or your own screenplay.

think outside the constraints of the studio you work at and DON'T be a company man. please fellow animators, listen to me: don't be a company man. they won't honor your sacrifices down the road. talk to your parents and they will agree.

i think even Steve will even back me up on this.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who says if you believe in yourself or want something enough you will succeed is full of crap. There are plenty of hardworkers who never reach their dreams.
Another reason to dislike Will Smith.
I think I'll just wish upon a star really really hard.

Anonymous said...

"Anyone who says if you believe in yourself or want something enough you will succeed is full of crap. There are plenty of hardworkers who never reach their dreams.
Another reason to dislike Will Smith. I think I'll just wish upon a star really really hard."

Where to begin? So, those who don't believe in themselves and dont want something bad enough to work hard will succeed? Are there plenty of hardworkers who dont realize their dreams? Well, maybe if their dreams are out of proportion to reality. I wanted to play pro baseball, but I realized soon that I didn't have the talent so I took that same drive and applied it to something in line with my skills and I consider myself succesfull. As to Will Smith's success being a reason to hate him - what is that about? Why hate someone who worked very hard at something he was good at and made a great life for himself. You don't hate people like that - you follow their lead. I suspect this blogger is young and may have had a hard slap of reality - you don't lash out at times like that - you step back and learn and then try again.

Anonymous said...

> Anyone who says if you believe in yourself or want something
> enough you will succeed is full of crap. There are plenty of
> hardworkers who never reach their dreams.

You are right about the latter, but you could not be more wrong about the former.

"Hardworkers" who do not believe in themselves, who do not have desire, who do not work "smart", who do not think laterally... indeed typically do not reach their "dreams", if any in fact exist.

If you TRULY believe in yourself, if you TRULY want something... you can have it EVERY TIME. I have seen it. I have experienced it.

And don't let people who post anonymously tell you any different.

Chris Houghton said...

Thanks for the great post! Speaking as a kid who will be graduating art school come May, this kind of information couldn't be more pertinent.

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