15 ways to sur­vive your dream job in an­i­ma­tion

Chris Oat­ley brings you his in­sider ad­vice for be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful artist in the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try.

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Spring 2007 was when I landed my first in-house vis­ual devel­op­ment gig at Dis­ney. Af­ter a few months of eye­open­ing ex­pe­ri­ences at the stu­dio, I felt com­pelled to cre­ate the pod­cast that I wish had ex­isted when I was try­ing to break into the in­dus­try.

Over the past seven years, eight an­i­mated films and a hun­dred pod­cast episodes, I’ve been help­ing artists make the tran­si­tion from to­tal noob to ex­pe­ri­enced pro. In that time, I’ve ob­served a few com­mon mis­takes and mis­con­cep­tions that could sab­o­tage your an­i­ma­tion ca­reer be­fore it starts.

Even if you feel like a to­tal noob (I of­ten still do), no one has to know. You can – and should – be­gin pre­par­ing your­self to work in a stu­dio en­vi­ron­ment long be­fore you break in. Here are 15 ways to en­sure that you look, sound and feel like a con­fi­dent pro­fes­sional on your first day at an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio.

7 be in­ven­tive… up to a point

Your work must be in­ven­tive and stylis­ti­cally ver­sa­tile. But you also don’t want to stretch so far into ver­sa­til­ity that you be­gin to show­case your weak­nesses. Cory Loftis (pic­tured above) is a great ex­am­ple of an artist who main­tains a bal­ance be­tween con­sis­tent qual­ity and mind-blow­ing ver­sa­til­ity, as his blog demon­strates: http://coryloftis.tum­blr.com.

8 Un­der-prom­ise, then over-de­liver

When pas­sion­ate artists get ex­cited about a new, creative op­por­tu­nity, they of­ten prom­ise too much, be­come over­whelmed and end up hav­ing to apol­o­gise for un­met ex­pec­ta­tions. As my friend Mike puts it, this is, “Writ­ing cheques with your mouth that your body can’t cash.” I’m es­pe­cially guilty of this. It’s a hard habit to break. When free­lanc­ing for a stu­dio (an op­por­tu­nity that of­ten pre­cedes full-time work) or fol­low­ing-up with a re­cruiter or art direc­tor, al­ways prom­ise less than you know you can de­liver by the dead­line. When you de­liver more than they ex­pected, you’ll seem like a su­per­hero.

9 meet the pro­fes­sional geek

The an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try is full of geeks. Our cu­bi­cles are adorned with toys and most wa­ter cooler con­ver­sa­tions sound like film school, but ev­ery suc­cess­ful an­i­ma­tion pro has found their zen. They carry them­selves with friendly con­fi­dence and en­gage in com­pelling, adult con­ver­sa­tions. They aren’t pre­sump­tu­ous and are good at read­ing so­cial cues. Their col­leagues feel both chal­lenged and re­spected. Many as­pir­ing artists haven’t found the bal­ance be­tween geek and pro­fes­sional. Spend time with older, wiser pro­fes­sion­als from any in­dus­try and prac­tise the art of con­ver­sa­tion.

10 Feed your head

Creative ideas come from knowl­edge. Knowl­edge comes from his­tory, past and present. A deep knowl­edge of art, film and lit­er­ary his­tory will fuel your imag­i­na­tion and help you com­mu­ni­cate ef­fi­ciently (and im­pres­sively) with your di­rec­tors. If it’ll make you smarter, read it.

Af­ter you break in, it won’t be long be­fore you’re asked to solve a high-stakes prob­lem, or at least con­trib­ute to the so­lu­tion

11 Hit the ground run­ning

Some young artists break into Dis­ney and start dilly-dal­ly­ing. One of my younger col­leagues dropped by my cube for up to an hour, mul­ti­ple times a day. This artist didn’t get the “notremov­ing-my-head­phones” mes­sage, so we even­tu­ally had to have an awk­ward chat. Yes, you need to make con­nec­tions with your col­leagues, but ev­ery minute of the job is an au­di­tion for the next movie or TV show. Work hard, play hard.

12 Pre­pare to be un­pre­pared

Every­one on the crew has too much to do. When some­thing goes wrong, the pro­duc­ers look for the most con­ve­nient, vi­able an­swer… and that might be you. Af­ter you break in, it prob­a­bly won’t be long be­fore you’re asked to solve a high-stakes prob­lem, or at least con­trib­ute to the so­lu­tion. Stay cool. Trust your tal­ent and train­ing. And don’t let them down.

13 Ne­go­ti­ate a fair rate

The An­i­ma­tion Guild (aka “Lo­cal 839”) in Bur­bank pub­lishes a yearly wage sur­vey for the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try: http://an­i­ma­tionguild.org/con­tracts-wages. Re­fer to it when you’re sub­mit­ting your salary re­quire­ments to an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Your start­ing rate is cru­cial be­cause your fu­ture pay raises will prob­a­bly build upon it. Note the en­try-level rates as well as the ceil­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a fair rate with­out in­sult­ing your po­ten­tial col­leagues. While stu­dios in other cities will prob­a­bly pay a lit­tle less than stu­dios in LA, you can still use the sur­vey as a ba­sis.

14 With great power...

Artists and sto­ry­tellers have an ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to cul­ti­vate em­pa­thy in the world. Much of the pain we ex­pe­ri­ence is caused (or se­verely in­ten­si­fied) by a lack of em­pa­thy across cul­tures, creeds, clubs and be­tween in­di­vid­u­als. Yes, I want you to pur­sue mas­tery of the craft and suc­cess in your creative ca­reer with whole­hearted pas­sion. I want you to get your dream job. I re­ally do. But I want you to con­sider a higher calling, too. How can your art help to heal a re­la­tion­ship, hu­man­ise the op­pressed or awaken self­less love in your au­di­ence? Why not try?

15 The long haul

A suc­cess­ful ca­reer in an­i­ma­tion goes way be­yond your port­fo­lio. In­side the stu­dio, your pri­mary job isn’t to be the best artist on the crew. Your pri­mary job is to make the lives of your art direc­tor, pro­duc­ers, direc­tor and crew as easy as pos­si­ble. Of course, that means be­ing a solid artist and tak­ing art di­rec­tion. But it also means be­ing a hum­ble lis­tener, a trust­wor­thy col­lab­o­ra­tor, a clever prob­lem solver and a gen­er­ous en­cour­ager. I hope you’re up to the job!

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