Today we wrap up our chat with Canadian animator and author Ellen Besen, who’s been explaining the ropes of animation and offering advice on breaking into the industry…
ME: ELLEN, IMAGINE YOU HAVE STAR STUDENT WHO HAS JUST GRADUATED, HAS A TERRIFIC PORTFOLIO, AND IS ABOUT TO LEAVE BUBBLE OF SCHOOL. WHAT ARE THE FIRST, OR MOST IMPORTANT, THINGS YOU WOULD TELL HIM TO DO UPON STARTING LIFE IN THE REAL WORLD OF ANIMATION?
ELLEN: The first thing I would say is: where is your initial skill? Are you stronger in character design? Stronger in animation? People think when they say “I’ll do anything,” it’s helpful for recruiters; it’s actually harder work for recruiters, so be aware of where your initial skills are. Go in and say, “I’d like to start out in the layout department,” or “I’d like to start out in storyboarding.”
It’s also helpful to know where you think you want to go. Are you aiming to be a director? A lead character animator on a Disney film? Those paths will be different.
Have a super-solid portfolio. Show off your best abilities to create artwork, showing your ability to design characters, your ability to do layouts, a little bit of everything you can do.
[Have the right] attitude. Make it really clear you’re ready to get in there. I can’t over-emphasize how important the team-player aspect is. A lot of writing in animation is done by group, and you have to check your ego at the door. You can not worK in this field if you have a lot of ego issues; there’s just no tolerance for it. If you have five people around a table… one person [has] an idea, one person criticizes it, the next person tops it, and that brings around the next idea. Anybody who gets upset about that is going to have a hard time functioning in the field. It’s good to be a little detached from the work. It’s not about you personally—very important.
The next thing is, if you know where you want to aim for, know the studio you’re going to go for. Know their work, because there are different styles and attitudes. What Disney wants is different than what an anime studio wants. So being aware of differences in the kind of style you’re aiming for, and the kind of product they’re aiming for, is helpful.
It sounds vague, but that really is what it comes down to: you can draw, you’ve been to school so you have the outline of how animation works, you have that attitude where you go in and can be part of a team and take direction. That’s the starting point.
It’s that [whole] package studios are looking for. They need people. Every studio head is criss-crossing the world looking for pockets of talent.
SO, LET’S SAY I HAVE ALL THOSE QUALITIES… AND I’VE JUST STEPPED OFF A PLANE IN LOS ANGELES. HOW DO I EVEN BEGIN MEETING PEOPLE WHO CAN HIRE ME? DO I JUST SHOW UP AT STUDIOS AND HAND THEM MY RESUME?
If you’re in that raw position, the better bet is to be in touch with one of the major animation festivals. If you’re in North America, for example, the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), which is a yearly event [each fall], goes back to 1976 and is the major North American animation festival and one of the major festivals in the world.
I’m gonna put a plug in now for another festival I’m involved with: the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International (KAFI).
The big festivals, of which those are two good models, actively invite studios to send recruiters, and studios come expecting to meet people. There will be actual formal activities set up where you can sign up to meet the various studios. In many ways, that’s your best way to make contacts.
Get your portfolio together. Make it look beautiful. Students have a terrible tendency to leave in stuff they did in first year. Strip that down, so it’s [only the best stuff]. Same thing with your resume. I had a really top student who was showing us his resume, and he won an award in the third grade and still had it on his resume! It was really sweet, but we had to explain… make sure you’ve taken that stuff out!
[Also,] if your school has any kind of co-op program, see if you can get an animation apprenticeship. It’s the kind of thing that’s do-able, and if you go to a smaller studio, they may be very happy to have a second pair of hands there. It’s a small field, and very inter-connected, so the sooner you make personal contacts and build relationships, the faster you’ll get work.
Which is, again, why I suggest going to animation festivals. Animation festivals are very low-key; they’re much more low-key than live-action festivals. People are very approachable; there are very few people who are stars like John Lasseter, Matt Groening. Most people are very regular folks in terms of attitude, so… chat up people. Begin to make friendships. That’s the best way to work your way in.
I’m going to say something that sounds really obvious, but it’s a mistake a lot of students make. They sign up [for recruiting events], but then they wait to be courted or they don’t show up on time. Again, it’s a grunt [business], and recruiters are on you in that sense. You have to be on time and highly respectful. [In the real world], you’re working too hard and deadlines are tight; if you can’t demonstrate you’re able to get in there and meet those needs, you’re not gonna make it. They just don’t have time for it. So on one hand, they’re strict about that stuff, on the other hand: remarkably accessible.
Most studios [also] have a website, [so] go to their employment [page]. You’re [probably] going to hear back, because they do need people. But if you’re in schools, most schools will do recruiting for you, and the good schools have studio connections.
[Also,] the big animation website is Animation World Network (AWN). It’s the premiere site in the world for premiere animation information. You can find all the festivals, all the available schools. It’s the professional site of sites, so I highly recommend that.
YOU LIVE IN CANADA. YET FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, THE CAPITAL OF FILM AND TV IS HOLLYWOOD (AT LEAST FOR NOW). SO FOR ANIMATORS WHO DON’T LIVE IN HOLLYWOOD, IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE A CAREER OUTSIDE OF L.A.? HOW CAN SOMEONE OUTSIDE OF CALIFORNIA BUILD AN ANIMATION CAREER?
There are a lot more smaller centers of animation than there used to be, so the first thing is to look in the phone book or go on the Internet and see if you have animation in your area. Toronto has a large-size area. In Canada, you also have one in Montreal. You have one in Vancouver. The same thing will be true throughout the States; you may find you have studios in town. If you want to stay local, your first thing is to approach local studios.
The other thing is—and this may take longer for you to build up, but it’s still part of it—a lot of work in animation—and this isn’t a recent, it’s been going on for years—is done in parts. So in Toronto, for example, there are a lot of studios that are subcontractors. They’ll work on Hollywood features, doing a piece of it in Toronto. I suspect that happens all over the States as well, so seek out studios that work for Disney or big studios, and do it locally
I’ve known storyboard artists who are based outside of Toronto. I knew someone who for many years was based in the British Virgin Islands. [Storyboards are] relatively easily transmittable stuff, so you’ll get stuff shipped to you. So if you’ve built up enough of a freelance ability, you can work from home. You have to be fast, you have to be well organized, but it’s a significant part of the field nowadays.
The guy who did the illustrations for [Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know], for example, is very individually motivated. He’s had a career for ten years doing animated inserts for other people’s stuff. He does opening sequences and animated bits for live-action shows. They prepare the script [and soundtrack] for him… then he, at home, creates the entire visual and sends it back and they insert it into the bigger production.
Part of why this is possible is because this is where the digital part is fantastic. What used to be an incredibly expensive process of having to send stuff to camera services and labs and editing and then back to the lab… what used to be half of your budget—one half was labor, the other half was outside services… now, is [much more affordable]. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mac or PC, you can get applications to get all that stuff very inexpensively. You can get professional quality quite affordably.
I know a number of people whose careers are based on doing exactly that, doing small jobs of various sorts. Again, the key to establishing yourself is to take a piece and finish it. Get it up on the Internet. Your short piece is your calling card. There are tons of sites that have online festivals where they get watched by other animators. AWN is a great source for that information. Enter various animation festivals, actual festivals. Word will get around. It’s a very accepting field; it doesn’t close doors on new talent. So if you’re organized and don’t want to go the studio route, it’s the smaller side of the field for people who do well at it, it can be a great thing.
Then, of course, there’s all the other oddball applications of animation: forensic animation, medical applications. Anything where people need imagery, animation is the tool. So look around for those oddball applications… go to museums, people who are teaching, medical schools. It’s very specialized and you have to bring a different kind of skill to it, but in fact, the technical end of animation is thriving quite well.
THANKS SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO CHAT, ELLEN! THIS HAS BEEN SUPER-HELPFUL AND INFORMATIVE. BEST OF LUCK WITH YOUR WORK AND THE BOOK, AND I HOPE TO TALK TO YOU SOON!