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.
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!