May 15, 2004

The Next Step

It’s that time of the year when I hear the perennial question from animation novices; “How do I break into the animation industry when I have no experience and how can I get “real experience” with no job?” It’s the “catch 22” of leaving behind one path and trying to enter the animation marketplace. The commercial world of animation, which includes feature production, television broadcast, computer gaming and commercial production, needs skilled workers to produce specific jobs. It’s a rare situation when a production company gambles on an inexperienced novice for a paid position if that novice does not display amazing ability and skill, incredible drive, and the tolerance to take the lowest job and corresponding pay. Is there hope . . .? Yes.

The ultimate answer comes with hard work and persistence. The marketplace is always looking for that “new talent” that it can exploit. Original ideas, complete expressions (i.e. a finished animated film) and a passion that takes the form of hard work are attributes that are most attractive to potential employers. Since the animation industry has seen a continued growth in the last decade the competition has become quite steep. Schools are now becoming training grounds for both creative and technical aspects of animation. There will always be someone out there who is better than you, technically, and there will always be someone with an idea that just “blows your mind.” You’ll wonder why you didn’t come up with the idea yourself.

 But these are all issues that you have to ignore as you approach your future in animation. The animation novice has to look inside him or her self and discover the first step forward into their future of animation. You have to forget the marketplace and start to think about what you want to say and what you want to produce. If you can get lost in your process and build a passion in your work then you are headed in the right direction. Once you forget about getting that job and what the marketplace wants then you are free to explore your ideas. This can often be more challenging than what the marketplace requires because you are working with an empty canvass. If you feel you have already done this and have work that shows your sensibilities then you have to take the next step.

If you have a film or examples of your work that clearly demonstrates the direction and interests you have in animation then you need to ask yourself ; “What sort of working environment best suits my sensibilities?” Do you prefer to work in small groups and want to wear several different hats? Or do you prefer to work in large groups specializing in one area. There are a whole range of approaches to commercial production and you need to know a little about yourself before you can commit to a preference. If you are not sure which direction you want to go and you would just be happy “getting your foot in the door” then you should try to set up some information seeking interviews. This can be a tricky situation because many production companies don’t want o “waste time” just talking to people and give information. That sort of response tells you something about that production company. You do need to go with polished examples of your work and have a sincere interest in what’s going on with that company. That tells the company something about you. The web is the first place to gather information. There are numerous animation websites with news and job opportunities. Look up the company you are interviewing with and put together some appropriate questions. Ask for a tour of the facilities and state that you are just gathering information to give you a better idea of the animation industry and how you might fit in. Often times you may see something that you don’t like and that can sharpen your focus.

Stability in the animation industry is somewhat elusive. This is a career that can pick you up in an instant and drop you off just as fast. Many smaller companies work and hire project to project. With this knowledge in hand, you may want to consider locating into an area that may offer more work possibilities in the animation field. If you lose one job you have a better chance finding another job close by. Usually this means being in or near a large city. The animation industry has started to branch out geographically in the last decade but there still remain many large centers of animation where 70 to 80 percent of the work is produced. This is true in most countries despite the possibilities of “farming out” work via computer networking. It is usually only the extremely talented and experienced few that can work from a mountaintop home. Human contact and face to face communication still rule in this world. Moving from location to location for work can be extremely exhausting financially and emotionally. It’s fun at first and then it quickly can become a burden. There is a growing group of more experienced animators that choose a place to live and then travel away from their home-base for good paying projects. At the end of the project they return home. Your home becomes the stability not the work. This freelancing tactic allows an animator to work on some interesting projects. Soon this “band of gypsies” finds that the animation industry is a small world and certain individuals keep crossing paths. The novice animator can get caught up in this migratory work but generally beginning wages prevent this travel from being a real possibility.

The best advice I can give is; Start locally. Most novices are not concerned about the money. We all need to pay our bills but usually many novice animators have few bills. This is an important quality. In this industry it is important to live within your means because you never know when you may lose your income source. If you are already established in a local community whether it’s near your home, school or present place of work then you should look no farther. There are always local businesses, schools and other community groups that would love to consider using animation or offering a venue to teach animation. These situations often pay little or no money, but if you are already living in the community you will save travel money, you can often use local resources for free, and you can barter for goods and services for your animation talent. For example, many years ago my partner and I had a small new business (just the two of us) that we named “Sculptoons” in San Francisco, California. We were experienced in animation but we were a brand new business and very few potential commercial clients were willing to take a chance on us because we had no track record as a company. We started out by producing subcontract work for other more established studios but we were never given proper credit to help establish our name. I am a baseball fan and the San Francisco Bay area has two professional baseball teams, The San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. I thought it might be fun to tie together two of my favorite passions, animation and baseball. We gathered information about both baseball teams and discovered that each team had a mascot. We realized that we could animate one of these mascots for television or any other promotional venues that the teams might use. After being turned down by the Giants we approached the Athletics with a “cold call.”  We had no proper introduction, but were able to get through to their promotional department. We pitched them the idea of bringing their elephant mascot to life through animation. We said that we would sculpt a model of the elephant in the baseball uniform and put together a few storyboard ideas for free to help pitch the idea to them. They were interested because they already owned the character and we put them under no obligation to accept or pay for any ideas or work we did. They proclaimed early on that they had very little money. We all accepted these parameters and my partner and I set to work over a long weekend. After all, we had nothing to lose and nothing else to do. When we made our presentation the following week the Athletics promotional department were so delighted with our work and enthusiasm that they gave us a small project right away. The pay was small but we were able to negotiate two season tickets to the ball park for the season to help offset the low financial compensation. We were happy because it gave us a chance to build our portfolio, create some of our own work which we were credited for, and we got to see all the baseball we wanted in great seats. We ended up developing an ongoing relationship with the Athletics for four years. We were in a big city, we looked at our interests and created a need that was never there before and we were willing to try others ways of being compensated. It was a great success.

The bottom line is “don’t get discouraged.” In a society that is becoming more and more visually centered there are numerous ways of applying the art form of animation. Entertainment, instruction and information are only a few of the areas that animation can be applied. There is no limit, only your imagination, when it comes to taking the next step into your future in animation.

Tom Gasek
Director/Animator, OOH, Inc.


Published in  May 2004