15 Tips to Landing Your First Job in the Animation Industry

15 Tips to Landing Your First Job in the Animation Industry

I often get approached by aspiring animators wanting to know what it takes to land one's first job in the animation industry. Since it is commencement season and a fresh batch of new hopefuls are looking to start their professional journeys, I decided to lay out my thoughts on the topic in hopes that many out there find them timely and useful. Whether you have recently come through a traditional college program, one of the online schools, or are self-taught, these tips represent the steps you need to be thinking about if you hope to secure and maintain employment in this industry and set yourself up with the best possible chance for a long and happy career.

For the past 13 years, I have been a 3D character animator in a number of U.S. studios, so most of my advice is tailored to this specific role and region, however, some of the tips apply to all disciplines and locations. I have divided my thoughts into 3 sections, covering each stage from student to professional animator: getting yourself ready, how to go about finding work, and things to keep in mind once you are hired that will enable you to craft a successful career. Let's go!

Getting Ready

1. Create a Great Demo Reel

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to securing animation work, the demo reel is king! Your reel will be your calling card and the number one thing that determines whether you get hired or not. All of the eloquent cover letters, perfectly formatted resumes and prestigious school credentials mean nothing if you can't quickly and effectively convince employers that you are capable of doing great work. With that in mind, I have laid out some basic thoughts regarding making a great animation reel that will get you noticed. I won't be going into too much detail about the specific types of shots you should include, as that topic alone could fill an entire article, rather the types of things that you should be thinking about.

If you are fresh out of school, challenge yourself to make a cut of your reel that is no more than one minute long. By forcing yourself to keep it brief, you not only make it more likely that hiring managers and supervisors will actually watch the entire thing, but you also force yourself to remove anything that isn't your very best work. When in doubt, leave it out! I like to put my 2 strongest pieces in the opening and closing spots so I catch their attention right off the bat and leave them wowed at the end. That is not to say that the middle should just be filler. Remember, you are only as good as your weakest shot. Try to show a variety of types of shots (i.e. acting, mechanics, naturalistic, more stylized, etc.) There is no need to have 4 shots in a row of a person sitting and talking. Once you have shown that you can do that type of shot, move on and use the rest of your time to show them what else you can do. Avoid cliches both in terms of acting choices and shot setups. Part of your job as an animator is to entertain, and reel reviewers will be much more engaged if they don't feel like they have seen all of your shots before.

Breathe life into your characters, don't just make them move. Even mechanics heavy shots can show a sense of character, story, thought process and context. If your reel consists mostly of class exercises, try to find a way to bring something interesting to your shots to make them unique and memorable. Remember that the people doing the reviewing see the same rigs on hundreds of reels every week. Anything you can do to show some extra thought and make yours stand out will benefit you. This is not to say that you need to reinvent the wheel or break the mold with every exercise for the sake of shock and surprise, but making thoughtful, believable choices that suit the character or scenario will go a long way in terms of setting your work apart.

There is no need to render an animation demo reel. Do not waste your precious time making great looking renders. That time is better spent polishing your work more or planning your next exercise. If you insist on having pretty lighting, have a friend do it for you. That being said, I think it does make sense to make your work as presentable as possible even in playblasts form. Turn off ornaments, use Viewport 2.0 (if you're using Maya) to turn on anti-aliasing and maybe ambient occlusion. Turn off the grid, blast at a high enough resolution, smooth your characters, etc. These few clicks will add a more refined look to your work by removing distracting artifacts, without wasting a lot of your time. I like to add some sort of environment for context, but will typically just grab assets from turbosquid.com or throw an image from Google in the background. While not completely necessary, adding these simple details can help ground your shot so it feels less like an exercise making it more memorable.

Know your audience and cater your reel towards the type of job you are applying for. It is fine to have a couple of different reels with different focuses to improve your chances of getting noticed. The reel that you send to Blizzard or ILM, for instance, might be different from the one you send to Sony or Blue Sky. One might have more realistic creatures and naturalistic mechanics while the other might have more of your cartoony work prominently featured. It is fine to have one that has both as your general online reel, but if you are sending your reel off for a specific job at a studio, you don't want to risk them turning it off too soon because they think you can't execute the type of work that they do.

Another thing to remember is to indicate what you contributed to each shot. If you only did the animation make sure that you are clear about that. You can add a shot list in the comments section of the video, but since it might get embedded, downloaded or passed around, having that information included in the video is even better. In terms of online hosting, Vimeo.com has long been the platform of choice for animation reels. Do not forget to include your contact information at the beginning and end of your reel. Email is fine if its an online reel and you don't want the whole world having your phone number.

One last thing I will say about animation reels: they should be just that. If you also model or rig, now is not the time to show off those skills with model turntables or rig demos. Only include your best animation and save the rest for another place. Which brings me to my next topic...

2. Specialize

We have all heard the phrase "jack of all trades master of none," right? Failure to focus will be your downfall. Animation is hard; It takes too long to get good enough at animating to be employable to also try to get to a professional level at other disciplines at the same time. The bar for entry-level talent keeps rising higher each year. If you do not keep up, or you allow yourself to become distracted learning too many other things, you can easily get left behind. If you are not sure exactly what you want to do yet, then it's fine to dabble in all steps of the pipeline while you sort out what suits you best. Traditional 4-year programs have historically been good about providing this type of broad exposure education, where you get a chance to try your hand at many things. There is much to be said about the ongoing benefits of a traditional fine arts degree, like how much easier it makes the process of trying to get hired in another country, but I will save that for another article. Once you decide to pursue animation, however, it is important to focus as much of your time as possible on reaching the level that studios are looking for. If you find yourself in a 4-year program, this might look like working on a group project for your final film instead of doing one on your own, so you aren't bogged down with having to make character rigs or model sets and can focus your time on animating as much as possible. The online programs tend to already be pretty discipline focused, so those are a great option or supplement as well.

You will notice I have not mentioned software. Your goal is not to become a Maya, 3DS Max or Blender expert, for example, but rather to learn what makes good animation and the principles required to effectively execute good animation consistently and in a timely manner. Many of the major studios like Pixar and Dreamworks have their own proprietary software anyway, so they are really looking to hire people capable of bringing characters to life, not software experts. Any additional skills you happen to pick up along the way, modeling, rigging, scripting or lighting, for example, will just be a bonus. You can list them on your resume as additional competencies, and you might occasionally come across job posts from smaller studios that call out additional skills that are considered a plus.

3. Reach a Professional Level

This one seems a little obvious, but some people might be a little unclear on what it means exactly. It will be up to you to get real with yourself or seek out honest feedback to discern whether or not the work you are currently capable of producing looks anything like the work that the studio you are hoping to work at produces. One of the primary skills of an animator is observation. Take a long hard look to the left and the right and ask yourself, is my work as good as that yet. Now, I know that as artists, many of us are our own harshest critics, but you would be surprised with how many reels I see that have light years to go on the very basics, yet for some reason the animator thinks they are a contender to get into studios producing some of the highest level content in the world. We all have to start somewhere, and that is ok, but it is important to know at what level you need to be playing to have a chance.

Anyone reviewing demo reels at a studio is looking for someone capable of producing work at or near the level that the studio produces or at the very least, someone who shows potential that they could reach that level with some guidance. Additionally, you need to be able to produce this work quickly and consistently to remain employable. If you think about it, there is no way someone can tell from your demo reel if the shot they are watching took you 6 days, 6 weeks or 6 months to animate. They also can't tell if it took you 100 rounds of notes from a teacher to get it to that level. Since studios operate on schedules and budgets, it is imperative that you be able to crank out work within a reasonable time frame and at the same high standard every time.

To that end, it is up to you to continually develop your workflow so that you maximize your productivity and ability to carry out the assigned work in a timely manner. This is not to say that anyone's work comes out perfect on the first pass. High-level animation is iterative and often takes a village worth of feedback before you get to the final product seen on screen, even for veteran animators, however, the ability to process and implement these notes, and plan effectively from shot launch to minimize wasted time as you move closer and closer to the director's vision is a huge part of what it means to be a pro in this industry. If you aren't quite there yet, no need to panic, but you might need to take another online course or seek out a mentor who can work with you through some assignments with a focus on workflow and speed.

A good way to increase your speed is to enforce a deadline, one of the primary benefits of competition sites like 11secondclub.com. Imposing a time constraint will push you to plan effectively and to make choices that will allow you to finish on time, a skill crucial to making it at a studio.

4. Get Involved in Projects

Say you have completed your schooling but have yet to secure your first paid employment in the industry; one positive way to pass the time as you continue learning and forging industry connections is to get involved in other people’s animated projects, even on a volunteer basis. Sites like Artella.com are a great place to seek out opportunities to get involved in cool projects that will help you continue growing your skill level in a remote studio style environment. The added benefit of getting on board with these types of projects is that you can do them from anywhere, a major plus if you live in an area without much of an animation industry presence. You will receive free, high-level feedback on your shots, often from industry veterans who have set out to make their own shorts or pilots. You can make meaningful, long-lasting industry contacts from the comfort of your home, and get an opportunity to show them what you are capable of and what it is like working with you. Another bonus is that once the project is completed, you might get some great looking lit and rendered shots for your reel without having had to do any of the non-animation steps yourself, not to mention the sense of achievement that comes from being involved in a special project with a passionate team.

5. Find a Mentor or Coach

As with any pursuit in life, you can fast track your success and avoid a number of pitfalls in pursuing animation by seeking out a qualified and dedicated mentor or coach. Someone who has already done what it is you are trying to do will be an invaluable resource as a guide on your journey. Beyond the obvious surface level stuff like getting notes on your shot, which you can get from a number of places these days, a good coach can help smooth your path with everything from demo reel planning and structuring, properly formatting your resume, Linkedin page and cover letters for maximum response rate, helping you with interview preparation, setting your day rate, salary negotiations, and so on. They can also be a treasure trove of industry connections and introductions that might otherwise be difficult for you to obtain. Having someone vouch for you goes a long way at the beginning of your career. A caring mentor can even provide deeper level insights on more difficult life decisions like whether or not you should move for a specific job, or which job to choose when you have 2 solid offers on the table, and a myriad of other possible benefits.

So now that you know how useful it can be to have someone in your corner showing you the way, how does one go about forming such a relationship? That's a bit trickier, for sure: but if you are sincere and approach people humbly, showing them respect and that you are willing to do the work, I have found that many people in this industry are very accommodating with their time and wisdom. It will be up to you to seek them out, never the other way around. Do your best not to pester them so they don’t shut you out or regret responding to your connection request in the first place. Again, be respectful of their time and knowledge, and you will be surprised how willing many industry veterans are to help guide you along. To sum it up, I'll quote John Crosby who said: "Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction."


Finding Work

6. Know What Work is Out There

So, now that you're prepared and ready to put yourself out there, I want to go over some of the most effective ways to go about actually finding work; the obvious first step is to know what studios are currently hiring animators. Hands down, the most comprehensive and streamlined resource I have come across in my past job searches is the Animation/VFX/Game Industry Job Postings Google doc originated and curated by Chris Mayne. Chris is a remote freelance animator who originally started the sheet as a way to keep track of postings during his continual personal job searches, but a few years back he decided to make the resource available to the public. It is updated almost daily with seemingly every global listing for roles in the industry aggregated into one tidy spreadsheet. This one-stop shop will save you hours of having to comb through dozens of different job boards and sites looking for the latest listings; and it even includes fields for where the work is located, whether or not remote work is an option, and lots of other useful information. There is even a tab with an ever growing listing of studios, regardless of if they are currently hiring or not, which is useful for locating studios that you might not be aware of in your neck of the woods. I cannot overstate how valuable this resource is: so definitely check it out and bookmark it if you haven't already.

Some other useful resources for your job hunt include vfxworldmap.com, www.gamedevmap.com and this list curated by Angie Jones on her Thinking Animation blog, which sorts the studios by the type of work that they do. These and other similar directory sites are helpful tools for identifying where the largest clusters of studios are located if you are considering relocating and for identifying lesser-known studios that might be in close proximity to you. Another way to stay abreast of up to the minute job openings is to follow and connect with as many animation recruiters as possible on Linkedin. A quick search, filtered by job title, will give you a good list of recruiters to start with. It is very common for recruiters to post roles they are looking to fill in a hurry on Linkedin, and because they are always on the lookout for talent, they will usually connect with you if you reach out to them politely. I literally see dozens of "we’re hiring" posts on my home feed daily as a result of strategically following recruiters from a host of studios, effectively turning my LinkedIn feed into a job board that is updated continually. By streamlining your job search strategy with these tips you will save tons of time and will be well on your way to securing a position by staying on top of what jobs are available, enabling you to get your reel submitted quickly when opportunities present themselves. 

While submitting through online job portals and recruiters can occasionally get your work noticed if your reel is strong enough, the far more effective way to get your work seen is to have someone on the inside pass your work along to the relevant people at the studio. Oftentimes, before a company even makes a public post about a position they are looking to fill, they will ask within their ranks if there are people they would recommend and can vouch for. This method is very common, and saves the studio time and money, while also giving them confidence that the individual is pleasant to work with, professional, etc. I have personally landed multiple positions using this method, and have also helped many animators get seen and hired, often without even having to interview. You might be asking yourself at this point, “what if I don't know anyone working at any of the studios?” This is a valid concern and brings me to my next tip: Networking.

7. Grow your Network

You have heard the adage, it's not what you know, it's who you know? Well, that's not entirely true in this industry...but it's not entirely false either. While your work will always need to be strong enough to show that you can perform the role a company is looking to fill, it is immeasurably easier to land a job at a studio if someone there can get your work in front of the supervisor or hiring manager, essentially leapfrogging the stack of faceless applicants from the cattle call. While it is obviously better if your contact on the inside has worked with you before, as they will know first hand about your work ethic, etc., it is not entirely necessary, especially if you are just starting out. This is where forging relationships through effective networking comes into play. Now, I know some of the introverted animators reading this are cringing a little at the thought of having to "skin and grin" with the expressed intent of landing work, and that is why I suggest re-framing your view of how proper networking actually works.

First of all, you have to intentionally put yourself where other working animators are. This can be done either in person, at local meetup groups, alumni events, or larger events like CTN and Siggraph, but it can also be done by becoming active in online communities like forums and facebook groups. Even leaving honest feedback on someone's shot on Vimeo can sometimes strike up a meaningful conversation. In my experience, most people working in this industry are very passionate and generous with their time and will gladly talk animation at length with little prodding. Getting your work reviewed as much as possible in these types of settings, posting your progress online and asking for help will get you out there in a way that shows that you are hard working, hungry to grow, appreciative of feedback, able to take direction, etc.

By reframing how you think about intentional networking interactions, shifting it away from "How can this person help me get a job" to simply going in with a genuine desire to know more people in the industry, grow as an artist, and share a mutual passion, you can quickly cast yourself in a good light, gain meaningful exposure and improve your work by leaps and bounds. And hey, should it lead to a job right away, great, but never underestimate the serendipitous nature of timing. I have had great conversations with people at conferences that led to incredible opportunities more than a year after the fact. Forming such relationships is definitely more akin to planting seeds and nurturing them than anything with a guaranteed immediate return on investment. While it is certainly ok to be honest and open with people about the fact that you are looking for work, people can see through you pretty easily when it is clear that your only reason for talking to them is trying to get hired. Instead, try showing an actual interest in getting to know the other person and see what you can do to help each other so the relationship isn’t one-sided.

Here are a couple of quick practical tips for in-person networking events. Always be prepared to show your work. Don't go around forcing your reel on people, but if the opportunity presents to get some eyes on your work, you want to be ready. Be sure you have a fully charged device with an offline version of your reel on hand. I can tell you from experience that you don't want to get caught with a low battery or spotty WiFi trying to stream from Vimeo or something. Also, many of these types of events can be very noisy, so if you have audio on your reel, but sure to have a set of "over the ear headphones" for them to use, not earbuds, because that's kind of gross.

It's also a good idea to have business cards on hand. While some people will just put your info in their phone should they chose to keep in touch, I find at the larger events that it's still easier for me to do a quick card exchange and then enter in all of my new contacts at some later point. Doing this will also allow them to jot down any notes about where they met you and any relevant clues from the conversation to remind them who you are later on. This also prevents any incorrect spelling or data entry. I personally have a simple caricature of myself on my card to help jog the recipient's memory in a way that would be difficult from a cell phone entry alone. When I get home from any networking event, I go through all of the new contacts I collected and make sure to send a follow up message, typically in the form of a LinkedIn invitation, touching base, thanking them for their time, reminding them briefly about our conversation and offering to be of service to them should they ever need anything.

One other note about networking, you should not only focus on the established, accomplished artists, recruiters from the big name studios, or the hotshot veterans when you are at these kinds of events or on forums. Even your peers, other students with little or no professional experience, can be great people to know and have in your network. They might get hired before you and can then refer you for entry-level openings or vice versa. Plus, getting fresh eyes on your work and getting to know someone new that shares your passion for animation are always beneficial, so don't overlook the "little guys," which brings me to my next point:

8. Swallow your Pride

One thing that is important to remember as you embark on your career journey is that great opportunities for growth are everywhere. Don't fall into the trap of being so narrowly focused on landing your “dream job" right out of the gate that you overlook the myriad of opportunities that exist at smaller, lesser known studios. I don't say this to sway you from your goals and dreams. Goals are important and they push us to continually improve ourselves. I am not here to be a dream killer, however, it is statistically improbable that you will land at one of the major feature animation studios as your first gig right out of school. There are simply too many people studying animation graduating each year and too few positions opening up at the 6 or so major feature animation houses for this to be the case. Sure, I know people who have landed these coveted positions right away, but for every one of them, I know 100 others who got their start at a smaller studio. Many people who set out with that goal end up taking a more winding path before they end up at one of the major players, and there are others still who lead fulfilling and satisfying careers without ever ending up at a Disney or a Dreamworks. My point is when you are first starting out, be prepared to have to earn your stripes at any place that will take a chance on you. Remaining humble in this way, whilst not losing sight of whatever it is you ultimately want to be doing, will maximize your chances of growing into the best animator that you can be.

The industry is booming right now. With the announcement of several new streaming platforms, mobile gaming on the rise, and breakthroughs in VR and AR happening all the time, the global demand for animated content is at an all-time high. There are many facets of this industry hungry for animators. From TV shows, VFX films, AR and VR projects, gaming studios, commercials and yes, feature films, there are such a vast array of opportunities to learn and grow your craft, that it would be shortsighted to sit at home, unemployed waiting for Pixar to call you because you failed to apply to anywhere else. Get out there, get some experience, and resist the urge to feel like any position is beneath you. You will often find that you have more freedom, creative input and quicker paths for advancement at smaller studios anyway, so don't discount the rich centers of learning that they can be. It can be tempting as you watch peers land glamorous industry jobs to want to look down on other types of positions, but this is a mistake.

Another truth you should come to grips with sooner than later is that you may have to relocate to a place with more job opportunities. Companies that allow remote work are few and far between, and when you are just starting out, I wouldn't recommend doing much remote work anyway, as you miss out on a lot of the energy and learning opportunities that on-site collaboration in a studio affords. It is also easy to get burned on the billing if you aren't experienced in calculating how long something will take for you to complete. Unfortunately, the industry has required more and more animators to become itinerant in recent years, so the people willing to move wherever the work is, typically on their own dime, will often find an easier time securing and maintaining employment. Freelance work and "run of show" contracts seem to be more common these days than long-term, stable staff positions, so "following the work" has become a fact of life for many animators. I would not recommend moving anywhere in any permanent fashion without at least a few months of gigs lined up. You wouldn't want to sign a lease in LA for instance without work lined up, just to get a call a couple of weeks later from Blue Sky and then have to move all over again. If you are in a part of the world without much industry activity and want to try your hand in one of the hubs, try to at least line up some freelance bookings or move there on a temporary type of “couch surfing” basis, allowing you to test out the waters, network, etc., without putting down any roots that might inhibit you from taking other work that might arise elsewhere.

Another valuable experience that might require you to swallow your pride for a season is being an intern. Everyone knows about the prestige internships that virtually every animation student on the planet applies for, but many companies offer internships, even if they don't have a formally announced structured program. If you approach them correctly, they might just take a chance on you for a short period of unpaid or low paid work. This can often be a great chance to prove yourself and get your foot in the door. Brief stints at a studio can also give you a taste of a specific sector of the industry so you can see if it is one you think you could see yourself pursuing. One thing to keep in mind is that an internship should primarily be about learning and observing. If you find yourself in an extended "internship" where you are doing full production work but aren't being paid as such, you are likely being taken advantage of and it's probably time to start looking for something else.

The final thing I will say about remaining humble on your journey is to be patient. This is a timing game. If you don't get a call right away, don't lose hope. If you see your friends getting scooped up left and right and no one has called your number yet, that's ok. Ensure that you are filling your downtime with continued growth so you will be ready when your time comes. Continue leveling up, networking and remain humble and hungry. Your time for paid professional work will come, and when it does, you will need to ensure you are properly compensated, which leads to our next topic.

9. Know your Worth

This is one of the topics I get asked about the most as it can be tricky to come by good reliable information, and many find it taboo to talk about money. At the end of the day, animation might be your passion, and dream and all that, but if you want to make a career out of it, it will also be your source of income. This is why it is very important that you know your worth. Your value as a human being is immeasurable, your worth as an entry-level animator, however, can be approximated. There are many variables that will determine your market rate starting out, size of studio, country, type of project, etc, but it is up to you to do your homework and know the basic range you can expect to be paid for a specific type of work in a certain market, so that you go into interviews and negotiations prepared and confident. Many people get tripped up when asked on their first call about a freelance booking "what's your day rate?" Blurt out something too high and you can kiss that booking goodbye; too low and you will be kicking yourself for the foreseeable future as you struggle to make ends meet.

So how do you make heads or tails of what you should expect to be paid when you have no experience? One useful resource is glassdoor.com There are other similar sites, but I find myself going to glassdoor first, as I find their information to be robust and informative. They have actual, user-reported income ranges and averages for actual job titles at actual companies to help guide you as you determine your range. They even break down the benefits packages and bonuses for some positions and have a section featuring employee reviews that can prove helpful. If the company you are considering has no available data, find a similarly sized company doing the same kind of work and see what range they have listed for junior animators or other entry sounding titles.

This is another place where having a coach or a strong network will pay dividends as you can get actual data from the horse's mouth if you ask correctly. Approaching someone and asking "how much money do you make?" is probably not the best way to get guidance on this topic from people in your network. Instead, try something like "I was contacted by such and such company about a 4-month contract working on blank. This is my first job out of school, what do you think a reasonable range for that type of entry-level work would be?" I think if you ask this politely and have done the necessary groundwork building a 2-sided relationship with the person, most won't hesitate to talk actual numbers with you.

Vfxrates.com is a valuable resource from Allan McKay for calculating what your day rate should be based on a number of variables like experience, job title, etc. It is geared mainly at the VFX industry but should give you some insight into the appropriate range you can expect based on your skill level. Another resource, if you are in the Los Angeles area where many of the studios are unionized, is the Animation Guild (IATSE Local 839) website. They have a Wage Survey .pdf file where you can see actual reported data for every imaginable position, which, even if you aren't in that market, can give you a basic starting point if you have no clue what people in that role make.

The main types of pay structures I have experienced are salary, hourly rates, day rates and in some remote freelance instances, flat project rates. Most of these are basically just different ways of calculating the same thing with slight nuances, like how they calculate overtime pay which depends on the state and country, company, etc., but your overall pay range should still be roughly the same, regardless of structure. I have seen pay cycles run the gamut from weekly checks, to bi-weekly, to monthly and even as much as net 90 for some freelance projects (an absolute nightmare scenario where they have up to 90 days from when you invoice them for the work to pay you). Be sure to ask all the necessary questions up front to ensure that you understand the payment terms. Another thing to keep in mind is the type of employment agreement. For instance, a staff position or contract that includes benefits like vacation days, health insurance or access to 401k plans, etc., will typically pay less than a freelance gig as an independent contractor where you might receive your full gross paycheck with no deductions at all and be required to withhold your own taxes. This gets complicated so I will save the details of all of this for another article.

At the end of the day, while it's not all about money, especially starting out when you have little to no bargaining chips, getting this part wrong can make a big difference in how much you enjoy your career, especially if you have student loans or mouths to feed, etc., so sorting things out properly and having an idea of the types of payment you can expect before you start going on interviews will be well worth the time spent researching. Land on a number both parties can agree upon and you've done it: secured your first industry job...now what? On to section 3 where I will discuss some things to keep in mind once you've been hired.

 

Crafting a Career

10. Be Efficient

Congratulations! You have gotten your foot in the door, now it will be important to shift your focus towards becoming the type of professional that can remain employed. A big part of this will be improving your efficiency. Be sure that you pay close attention in your shot kick-off meetings and get all of your questions answered before you jump in and start just moving things around in your shot. I cannot stress the importance of planning enough. Approaching each task with a clear understanding of what is expected of you, and by when will minimize mistakes and wasted time going in the wrong direction or having to redo work. Take notes in dailies. Do not count on the notes that the production personnel in the room might take to send out later. They are often unclear, confusing or unintentionally misrepresent what was said by the directors or supervisors. I find it very useful to jot down my notes, as I interpret them, in a way that is clear to me, asking any clarifying questions while I have the ear of the supervisor or director so I don't waste any time addressing the note in the wrong way.

Show your work in dailies early enough that you don't lose any time going down the wrong path. Don't waste the room's time by presenting your work in a state that requires a lot of disclaimers. Do your due diligence to get your shot in a spot where the ideas you are trying to sell read so they can see where you are going with it and spark useful discussion. Also ensure that the previously discussed notes have been addressed so they don't have to repeat themselves, or think that you just forgot to do something because you weren't taking notes before. With that being said, resist the urge to hold on to your shot for too long without getting it reviewed. You don't want it to be "perfect...but completely wrong." I struggled with this a lot myself early on; wanting to impress them with how good my first pass was, etc. Do not get too attached to your work. I can almost guarantee you that at some point your beautiful, completed shot will get cut from the project, shots will be reassigned and that shots will change without fail. This is just a fact of life and part of the job, so it is best to learn to deal with the pain of "killing your darlings" early on.

Do your best to always hit your deadlines. If it looks like you will have trouble hitting your target date for whatever reason, your own fault or delays from another department, flag your concerns to your supervisors and production personnel sooner rather than later so they can make adjustments. This is ok, not that uncommon, and way more professional than waiting until the due date and dropping the ball without proper notice, causing everyone to have to scramble and affecting the timelines of the other departments. Establishing this type of transparency and open communication with your supervisors, managers and production personnel will serve you well. If you are not comfortable communicating or asking for clarification or help when you need it, this is a skill that is definitely worth cultivating. Ask your coach or mentor if they mind working on this with you.

Always try to work in a clean and organized manner in terms of your shot files, in case someone else ends up having to jump into your shot down the line. This is easier said than done, especially in the heat of production when things move fast and can get a little messy. I have been personally guilty of this on occasion, but have found that whoever ends up inheriting your mess will greatly appreciate you taking a few moments to do a little housekeeping ahead of time. Simple things like clearly naming your display layers, animation layers, and constraints and unhiding the appropriate items can go a long way in helping whoever inherits your shot to reverse engineer it to make adjustments. Also adhering to good clear shot naming conventions and taking time to fill out comments and notes fields in whatever shot submission or production tracking software is being used can save people hours of guessing what is what. Also, make sure image planes, texture maps and references required to load the shot are being pulled from their proper locations on the server, etc. so that no links will be broken if someone else checks out your file. You don't want them to be cursing your name as they try to track down some necessary file that's pointing to some random folder on your desktop.

Develop an understanding of how your shot will be used by others down the pipeline, and the types of things that will cause your shot to be sent back to you, and always work with these other departments in mind. Preemptively constructing your shot in a way to minimize kickbacks from other departments (lighting, hair, cloth, etc.) will help you to stay on schedule. Geometry penetrations, gimbal flipping on sub-frames, motion blur pops and cheating to the camera that causes weird shadows or simulation issues are some of the things that will frequently get your shot sent back to you, eating into your precious time to complete your task. By always keeping efficiency in mind, consistently hitting your deadlines and keeping the lines of communication flowing smoothly, you will be a production manager/coordinator's dream and barring any personality shortcomings, will be the kind of person that people want to retain or re-book as often as possible, which brings me to my next point.

11. Don't be a Jerk

This is another one that should seemingly go without saying, but if you plan on lasting long at any studio, you need to be the type of person people like having around. Being courteous, reliable, punctual, humble and focused is just as important to your longevity in this business as skill in many ways. You should treat any shot that you are assigned with the same level of care and importance. If you show that you can consistently handle even menial background shots with care and a good attitude, supervisors will, in time, be confident in giving you meatier tasks. Leave your ego at the door. If you roll in on your first day like some sort of hot shot, expecting to only receive hero shots like the world owes you something, your time at that studio will likely be short-lived. If you get assigned an awesome sequence, great, but if not, even the most mundane task deserves a level of professionalism and should never be "beneath you." This is a team sport after all, and even an "assist" helps the team win.

You should feel comfortable to speak your mind, with grace and tact, but avoid whining or throwing tantrums. This is often a fine line. Get it into your mind ahead of time, that no studio or project is perfect. As a student, it is common to believe that once you get to such and such studio, everything will work great, Maya will never crash, rigs will be flawless and everything will be smooth sailing." Nothing could be further from the truth. Some things just seem to be an inevitable fact of life. Crashes, lost work, the server going down, slow or broken rigs, power outages, etc., are realities at even the most prolific of high profile studios. Understanding this going in can help you resist the urge to complain too often. Avoid getting swept up in office gossip or politics. It can be tempting to engage with that jaded employee at the water cooler, but this won't serve you in the long run and might sour your experience. You are there to do the best work that you can, on time, and to grow and learn as much as possible.

This industry is very small, so throwing someone under the bus or burning bridges will almost certainly come back to haunt you. Everyone in this entire global industry seems to be connected by no more than 3 degrees of separation, so the person that you are bad mouthing now might very well be the supervisor at the studio you are trying to get into at some point in the future. When conflicts do arise, resolve them quickly and respectfully, seeking out a 3rd party, neutral mediator when necessary. Your overall goal, put simply, is to be the kind of person who gets asked to extend their contract, offered a staff position or who gets brought back for future bookings when work is available.

Another aspect of this principle regards deciding when it's the right time to leave a company. Coming back to the basic idea of being respectful, should you chose to leave a company where you are on staff, be professional and do your best to give a proper 2 weeks notice. This will allow the company to make any necessary arrangements. During that time, you should endeavor to carry out any outstanding tasks to completion and tie up any loose ends as is reasonable. If you are contracted through a certain date, do your very best to not break the contract. I don't really condone breaking contracts, and I feel like if you burn companies in this way more than once, word will quickly get around, and no one will trust you anymore. Be a person of your word as best you can or your word will quickly cease to mean anything at all. Being unreliable is a tough reputation to shake, however, if an opportunity comes along that you absolutely cannot pass up, think about the position you are leaving your current company in, and do your very best to make the transition as painless as possible for them. If this means working some extra hours your last week to get all of your affairs in order or train someone new, you owe them that since you signed a contract. Speaking of parting ways with a company brings me to my next point:

12. Stay Ready

I will not sugar coat the fact that despite the robust state of the industry, we live in volatile times. Industry trends are constantly shifting and as more and more countries announce generous tax subsidies, studios are capitalizing on the discounted production costs in ways that can lead to uncertainty for artists. Studio closures are becoming more and more frequent. This past year the gaming industry seemed to be hit particularly hard with multiple sudden large scale closures. Basically, layoffs happen, and that is why I recommend always keeping your demo reel, your resume, your Linkedin profile and IMDb page current, even when you are not actively looking for a new position.

The benefits of staying prepared are two-fold. For starters, should an unfortunate event lead to your being let go with little notice, you will have a head start at getting back into the fray and securing your next position. This is particularly important if the layoffs are far-reaching and the market is suddenly flooded with many skilled animators looking for work all at once. Timing is everything, and other studios with availability will be looking to sweep up that newly available talent. Imagine a scenario where 10 experienced animators are all let go from a company on the same day and only one of them is prepared to start submitting reels and reaching out to recruiters immediately. The couple days the others will lose in having to track down the necessary files to cut a new reel and update their Linkedin and resumes might just cost them an opportunity that you will be able to jump right on. Not to mention, they will have to perform this scramble while dealing with the emotional shock that a sudden layoff can produce.

The other less obvious benefit is that, often times, recruiters will come across your work and approach you with opportunities even when you are not actively looking. By making sure your online presence reflects your most recent and very best work, you might just get an offer to explore a new opportunity at a different studio that you might otherwise have missed out on by letting your reel lapse. It is also worth noting that companies do, in fact, keep your information on file, so just because you didn’t get a call for that position you applied for last summer, it doesn’t mean that they might not reach out to you at some much later date. This happens to me all the time, getting emails out of the blue from studios I sent off to years ago. Another useful benefit of hosting your reel on Vimeo is that you can easily update your reel to a newer, completely different video without having to change the link or break any connections to embedded files on other sites. It will even retain your view count, likes and comments. This will allow you to update your reel seamlessly, and should a company come seeking you out, their link from years ago will still bring them to your latest reel. This mindset of always staying mentally ready should the worst occur flows into my next point, which is to never stop learning.

13. Be a Sponge

There is basically an infinite amount of stuff to know when it comes to animation, with new tools, information and workflows always becoming available. This is why it is imperative for someone just starting out in the industry, and for veterans alike to always be learning and improving as an artist. Einstein said it best when he observed, “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Resist the temptation to become complacent just because you landed your first job. There are always new students coming up right behind you who are more tool savvy or who have access to more information than you ever did who can quickly pass you up if you take your foot off of the gas. Just because you landed a job, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do whatever you can on your own time to continue to improve and grow, especially in the areas where you are weakest. Attend conferences, expand your network, read blogs, frame-by-frame through animations, work on personal shots or short films, etc. Take advantage of being at a studio, surrounded by people who will likely have far more experience than you. Soak up all of the knowledge and information that you can, and feel free to share things that you know, that others around you might not, as well.

This continual improvement shouldn’t just be limited to the obvious animation related pursuits. Consume classic films, write fiction, study photography, dance, sculpture, theater, etc. Whatever keeps you excited and passionate about creating and developing as an artist. Don't discount the benefits that a holistic approach to your continued growth as a creative mind will have on your animation work. This perpetual hunger for learning and growth will take you far, so once you find yourself surrounded by talented, like-minded professionals, don’t squander the opportunity. As you continue to grow and progress in your career, you will find that the tables have turned and that there are now aspiring animators looking up to you, which flows well into my next tip.

14. Reach Back

You don’t have to be a 10-year veteran to have something to offer aspiring animators who are coming up behind you. In fact, in many ways, there is a great benefit to things being fresh in your mind when it comes to offering advice to students who will now look to you as someone who “made it,” and want to know your “secrets.” It would be selfish and shortsighted to hoard the information you have obtained rather than passing it along to the next generation of young hopefuls, especially considering the number of people who likely helped you to get to this point.

Helping someone along their path can be deeply rewarding, and watching others grow and reach their goals can be a lasting source of joy. Offering encouragement, giving people feedback on their shots and exercises, etc., can all be great ways to not only ensure that there is a strong crop of talent coming up behind you, but also develop your own eye and leadership skills which will come in handy as you advance in your own career toward more mid and senior-level positions. Getting involved in alumni outreach with your school to talk with prospective students, speaking on a podcast about your journey toward landing your first position and being active on forums even after landing work are all great ways to give back and inspire budding artist with the hope that they too can achieve their dreams. Learn to see your ultimate goal as more than just landing work at your favorite studio, and take advantage of these types of opportunities to lift up others beyond just securing work for yourself, which brings me to my final point.

15. Live a Well Rounded Life

Notice I did not say a well “balanced” life: true work-life balance is a myth, at the very least a misnomer. There’s really no way around the fact that this is not your typical 9-5 industry. There will undoubtedly be long hours and seasons of crunch throughout your career, however, I feel that it is important to your longevity in this field and your well-being as a person to make sure that work does not consume your entire life. There is so much more to a life well lived than just landing your “dream job” at studio X. Don’t make the mistake of letting life pass you by, only focusing all of your energy on animation to the detriment of your physical and mental health, relationships, etc. Make sure that you have other interests outside of animation. This can be anything really, music, cooking, sports or just spending time with loved ones. Anything that helps you escape when the pressures at work are high.

Don’t be afraid to take all of your allotted vacation days. Should you find yourself with some downtime between contracts learn to embrace it and enjoy the much needed mental break. Live life, experience things, see the world. All of these adventures will inform your choices and enhance your observational skills, making you a stronger and more well-rounded animator. While there will definitely be sacrifices made and intense amounts of energy and focus applied to stay employable in this industry, time is too precious a resource to neglect the other things that also bring you joy. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “Life is a journey, not a destination,” so be sure that you enjoy the journey!

So that’s my two cents about what it takes to break in and stay competitive as an animator. It is my hope that you gleaned something from this article that you can take with you, wherever you are on your journey and pass along to others coming up behind you. Please share this guide with anyone you think might find something in it useful. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or any topics you would like to see covered in the future. See you out there!


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