Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jobs, gatekeepers and tempers

A while ago, I got a call from a an artist who was a bit agitated.

"I submitted my portfolio to [Studio X] and the contact person told me I couldn't submit anymore! What right does he have to do that? And he yelled at me too! You've got to do something about that!"

So off I went to the offending studio ...

I encountered the "contact person" outside the studio's front door. I happen to know him, and consider him a decent, even-tempered guy. He's the assistant to a studio exec, the employee whose job it is to receive resumes and portfolios. He passes them along to directors who are staffing shows, and usually his job goes smoothly.

But he'd gotten into an argument with the artist who called me. The man, it seems, had made multiple portfolio submissions over a three-month period of time, to the point where directors were telling the Contact Person: Hey, enough already! I've seen this person's work four times! I don't need to see it again!"

And the contact person, on the fifth round of portfolio submission, had told the artist he was overdoing it, and an argument ensued.

I suggested to the gatekeeper that if the artist wanted to over-submit and alienate directors, that was the artist's business. ("You're right," he replied. "I'll just log the work in and pass it along. Somebody else can ignore the stuff.") Then I called the artist back, told him I had talked to the studio employee, and that he was free to submit as often as he wanted -- but that the ongoing submissions weren't winning him points with directors, since they were already familiar with his work. After a pause, there was this:

"Yeah, I'm probably pushing too hard. And I was maybe a little ... ahm ... belligerent on the phone. But it's tough, you know? I've tried a bunch of studios, and I'm getting nowhere with getting hired. I need work. It's very frustrating."

I suggested that he might want to revamp his portfolio, since his current samples didn't seem to be getting him bites. He agreed that was a good idea.

I get these types of phone calls from time to time, so maybe it's a good idea for me to dissect where the animation business was, where it is now, and where it's likely going:

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the sleepy subset of the movie and television business known as animation exploded. Disney had wild success with a string of animated features (maybe you remember) and multiple studios jumped into the game. All of a sudden, the demand for qualified employees outstripped available supply, and two things happened.

1) Everybody who could hold a pencil and draw got hired, and

2) Wages went up.

A version of the same thing happened in t.v. cartoons. Syndication got rolling in a major way, the networks were still buying for their Saturday morning slots, and cable networks that used animated fare were being formed. (Cartoon Network, anyone?) There was a magical moment when Disney, Time-Warner and several others were expanding their facilities and output, hiring like mad, and hanging onto hired crew whether they had assignments for them or not. (They were that afraid of losing them to a competitor.)

So what the hell's happened over the last decade and a half? And what does the landscape now look like?

* Hand-drawn feature animation's boom years were short-lived. Disney competitors couldn't replicate Disney's success at 2-D features, and Disney couldn't sustain its run of blockbusters. By 2000, employment at studios doing traditional, long-form cartoons was down by 60%.

* Television animation continued (and continues) to have a good amount of production, but supply long ago caught up to demand. Many displaced feature employees migrated to t.v. work, and the talent pool expanded to the point where studios didn't feel the need to hang onto staff during slack periods. Or pay sky-high salaries.

* Fees for syndicated animated fare shrank precipitously, and the glory years of "The Disney Afternoon" and the Warner Bros. Animation bloc on broadcast television went away. This put more of a squeeze on industry hiring and pay levels.

* Digital technologies surged to the forefront of feature animation. People who were wizards with Maya, Renderman and other software were in high demand (but even here supply caught up to demand.) Artists adept only with paintbrushes and pencils found themselves faced with long stretches of unemployment. In television animation, paper storyboards became a thing of the past -- Cintiqs are now at almost every work station.

Today, almost every studio has screening processes for artist-hires. They want portfolios submitted on-line, and they want tests to be taken. The Animation Guild has no objection to tests in principle -- an employer has the right to ascertain that portfolio submissions are the work of the submitting artist -- but we have strong objections to long tests where artists crank out lots of board panels for free.

It's been relatively easy to get studios' general agreement that long tests are a no-no. It's been next to impossible to get studios to stick to the concept, because upper management pays no attention to what this or that show-runner is doing down in the bowels of production. And if longer tests creep back into the game plan, most execs are unaware (or perhaps semi-aware?) of the problem.

So what we have today is an industry with employment for folks with the right skill sets, but a number of hurdles to jump through before getting onto studio premises and into the cubicle. Artists working in the biz find out about jobs the same way they have for fifty years: some contact us, many network and share information with co-workers, some just march up and pound on doors until one of those doors pop open. Facebook, blogs, and e-mails are now a part of the mix, but the basic dynamics remain the same. There's got to be a job opening, and an applicant has to own the talent and skill to fill it. That was true in 1931, and it's still true seventy years later.

Tomorrow, Jeff Massie's take.


rufus said...

Great post.
Id like to add that no studio ows anybody a job. Especially if your demo /reel and portfolio is not up to par. This is not the first time I've heard of something like the case above. Some guys just think that a studio is obligated to hire them. This is a false sense of entitlement for some, especially for some recent graduates!


Floyd Norman said...

While it's understandable an artist might truly need a job, there's a limit to how hard you can push.

Regretfully, I've been in studios where portfolios were piled in a room and forgotten. The staffers were hired because they were known by the producers.

This is simply reality in the real world of animation production.

aaah...yes said...

Cronyism is indeed common!

Anonymous said...

While I think it was nice of Steve to follow up, I wouldn't have thought this fell into the union's responsibility.

Steve Hulett said...

You'd be surprised what I do.

An artist has a problem, I try to help. Sometimes I'm successful with the trouble-shooting, and sometimes not.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this.

I often wonder if re-applying to the same studio is helping or hurting me.

One thing I do find frustrating is the lack of feedback on tests. I've asked for brief feedback on tests I've completed, and I'm never given a response...not even a "sorry, we don't have time". Is there a reason for this?

Steve Hulett said...

In my experience, applicants don't get much feedback. If they don't hire you, they don't get back to you.

Occasionally people get some word, but not often. When TAG hired someone last year, we had a lot of applicants, and our policy was to inform everyone where they stood. Everybody who applied got letters and/or phone calls.

T M said...

As one who has applied several times to a single studio, I can attest to the frustration of not receiving any information regarding your application AT ALL. Living in the dark is much worse than a simple no, so you reapply to make doubly sure your application is going through. It becomes a double-edged sword.

With internet applications nowadays, it's so easy to be reduced to a piece of paper even if your portfolio is on par with what you would expect the studio to hire. In my experience thus far, information is few and far between on what the studio is looking for, so every time you hit that submit button, you feel like you're peering into the void. Times are tough.

Stay positive, everyone.

Anonymous said...

I think it was exceptionally decent of Steve to help that person. And I hope that person will realize how fortunate he/she was that someone related to the industry took the time to suggest ways in which his/her work could improve. That's not the kind of response you get anywhere in the ACTUAL business; mostly you get that kind of attention in a classroom.

You're aces, Steve.

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