Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Advice on Getting into Animation

I had some trouble with my webmail account and lost a recent message from someone who emailed me asking for advice on working in the animation industry. Whoever it was, I'm sorry I didn't reply, I try to always reply to people who email me to try to repay some of the help and kindness I got when I was starting out. As I get that question a lot, for that person, and anyone else who has the same question, I thought I'd type up the same answer I always give.

Advice on getting into the Animation Industry:

When I was young and starting out someone once told me, "You're not going to believe me, it sounds too easy to be true, but I swear to God this will work. Do good work and be nice to people. That's it."

I didn't believe them, I still remember the constant feeling of frustration and hopelessness as I couch surfed and worked minimum wage jobs and stayed up all night every night drawing trying to make a portfolio that would get me a job. I remember not understanding why no one would hire me and feeling like the cards were stacked against me, and that i deserved a job but for some strange inexplicable reason was not getting one. Then eventually after years of going through that cycle I finally got a job.
In hind sight 20 some odd years later I have to agree with them and have to pass on the same advice. It is that easy. Well… "easy" might not be exactly the right word, it is a little deceptive, the "do good work part" is easier said than done.

It didn't take but for a year or so of having worked for me to look back at my own work and see that it was no mystery why i did not get hired before I did. The answer was I was not doing part A of the formula which is "do good work".  I thought I was, but I wasn't. I've found that most of the time, myself included, when you're young and starting out you can't see your own work the way it is, you're too easy on yourself and you haven't started looking at your work with the critical eye that is necessary at the professional level. You've had a lifetime of being the best in your family, or the best in your class or even the best in your college, but then you get into the gigantic pool that is the whole wide world and you're now in the same labor pool as people who are famous and who you studied in college plus thousands of people you've never heard of who are better than you will ever be. It's a big world with shitloads of breathtakingly talented people in it, and they're all available for the same jobs that you'e applying for. That's how they make a living too. So the first thing you need to do is put your work next to the very best working in the industry and see how it stacks up. You don't need to be better than those people, you never will be, unless you're one of them but you would't be reading this if you were. I wasn't. If you're one of those people you're like a drawing Mozart and you figured shit out when you were a teenager and are now well beyond where I'll ever be. I'm writing this for more normal people. You just need to be in the same ball park, like there can't be any shitty hands in your drawings or weird broken construction, your drawings have to work and function and not look like student work, if you haven't achieved that level of craft you will never get hired in the animation industry, there are just too many people who have the knack for it or have put in the work required or whatever, but that is the bare minimum requirement. I've found that, again myself included, people are always looking for shortcuts to get around the bare minimum requirement. "If i had an expensive portfolio to put my drawings in" or  "a better looking business card", or "if I connect with enough people on LinkedIn" i'll get hired. Whatever it is, anything to avoid the 10,000 hours of drawing it takes to do the work required. There is no shortcut. So that's what you need to do to get hired in the animation industry, do good work.

One side note to "doing good work" is, if at all possible be unique and interesting. Even if you achieve the level of drawing you need to do the work, it can sometimes be easy to get lost in the absolute ocean of amazingly talented, devoted people who have also achieved it. In that case it can really help to be unique, I think the reason I've stayed employed all these years and keep getting hired is that I bring to project something that no one else can, my own sense of humor and my take on the world. I think sometimes the animation world can become a little self referential and incestuous, where people only draw from things that are already in the realm of animation. Old Disney movies, Anime ripoffs, etc. It pretty much always seems to me that animation projects are desperately in need of outside influences to make them interesting, so travel around, read weird books, embrace whatever strange things you find interesting and try to use them to inspire your animation work. When I started out, not knowing this probably added years on my path to doing good work. I spent a long time in the beginning drawing what i thought other people wanted to see and what i thought would get me hired, sexy girls, motorcycles, cute characters, none of which i gave a shit about but it was just stuff i had seen people draw and what i thought was expected of someone working in animation. I spent years doing this and all of it was bad, it wasn't until i started drawing things i felt passionate about (filthy gnomes, medieval beasts, funny things i saw in the world) that I started really doing what i considered to be ok work.

To stay hired you just need to be nice to people, that doesn't really require any explanation. Just treat people the way you want to be treated. The one situation I've seen nice people become un-nice is when they're in charge for the first time, they get their first show or their first movie or whatever and they think that "i've finally made it, this is my big chance" and they take everything way too seriously and start riding the people around them because they think those people are fucking up there chance. Or they're just not used to the pressure of multitasking a thousand things at once and they get flustered and take it out on the people around them. If you find yourself in that situation watch out for those pitfalls. There is no "big chance" if you're going to become rich and famous in this industry, as some people do, it will happen whether you are nice or mean, it will happen based on your ideas and your take on the world and your devotion, not on your ability to crack the whip. And it won't happen at once based on your first show or movie or whatever, it will happen slowly over the course of your career, so just settle down and be nice to people. everyone around you wants to do their work well and make their bosses happy and they're more able to do that if they're treated nicely and appreciated. I think of animation like a jazz band where you go around the circle and every gets a moment to solo. Sometimes you are the boss and it's your turn to solo, and other times it's someones else's turn and your job is to back them up.

So that's it "Do good work and be nice to people."

One more piece of advice I might add to that would be that after you're work is where it needs to be, join the community. Start a blog, or Instagram or Pinterest or whatever the kids are doing these days, put art in the group shows, go to the openings, meet people. It's a small community of people who do this and if your work is good it will be recognized and you will find yourself working faster than you can believe possible, and if you don't your work probably isn't there yet, keep at it and don't get discouraged, just try to be honest with yourself about your work and figure out why it's not there yet, what's holding you back and jump in and fix it. It's hard, hard work, but it's worth it.