CAREER STRATEGIES

In the late 1990’s, CG and FX driven movies made billions at the box office and 2D-hand drawn movie production waned. Traditional artists wondered if they would have to cross over and use a computer instead of a pencil to keep their jobs. Many 2D animators willing to use a machine to animate found themselves at Pixar – a studio that welcomed their skills (outside of working on a computer) in the late 90’s.

At the same time, CG animators who had spent a good part of their career invested in animating on the computer were going back to school to learn traditional animation principles to stay marketable and employed. Ironically, the CG animators had to return to Universities to learn how to animate on a computer! Bridging the Gap was never more important than in the late 90’s into the millennium.

I hope some of this outline helps you on your path today in the world of FX and animation. This outline is written loosely for character animators, but the content is applicable to any digital artist.

I. Intro. What makes a good artist?

  1. “Good” in the sense of artistically mature, second, in the sense of technically proficient and savvy, and lastly, “good” in the sense of relatively stress-free people doing what we love doing.
  2. The term “digital artist” was almost nonexistent as few as ten years ago. There weren’t tools to do what we do today in visual effects and animation ten years ago. The industry has grown large and fast in a very short period of time.
  3. People running around with no idea what digital artistry is all about. Because the field was so new, people were being hired with no experience or even worse a varied experience in a lot of things.

II. Some History

  1. Specific ideas visible in the history of digital artistry important to understand.
  2. In the 80’s, one artist and one programmer made one digital artist having entirely different minds and backgrounds.
  3. In the early 90’s, entire scenes in film and television projects began to merge sophisticated computing knowledge with the basics of visual design and aesthetic problem solving.
  4. The approach to digital art had a new set of problems that had never been applied to art before. This new relationship between a supervisor and the artist is not similar to the film industry’s long-term apprenticeships approach to cultivating production talent. Expectant clientele and fiction are created from pure intellectual problem solving. Enter late 90’s, the digital artist began to be strongly affected by purely economic forces – quality and well-roundedness is replaced by skill sets gained in 3-4 months of training. In the early 90’s the software skills became more important than the actual artistic talent and acting skills that take years to develop.
  5. More selective hiring criteria for digital artists begins. The entertainment industry and the general public grows more expectant of first-rate, realistic digital effects. Full circle. Now the public and the industry are educated on what is good digital art and the expectations are higher. Understanding of the basics and fundamentals of the profession are now equally important to the software.
  6. Find out what you need to know and learn it somehow to get the job. Forget the hype and grounding yourself in the arts and computer sciences. Go back to school if necessary to get the tools, skills and talent you need to land that job.

III. Defining Yourself as a Digital Artist

What Type of Digital Artist Am I?

  • This term has different meanings and expectations in different segments of entertainment production.
  • Digital Artists build their careers by moving from one type of digital production to another.

What a Digital Artists Is and Is Not.
Anything associated with the entertainment industry uses hype to define itself. Unfortunately, this is a fact. Especially in Hollywood, people tend to concentrate on what software or technology (can anyone say mocap?) they completed the work with instead of what they could do no matter what software they are using. This point reflects on grounding yourself in the arts and computer sciences.

IV. “Core and Glitz” skills.

A core skill is a body of knowledge associated with either a professional degree and or long term association with a specific body of knowledge. A glitz skill is a specific set of abilities for a specific software package on a specific piece of hardware. Core = Basics and Fundamentals. For example the full understanding of the “Principles of Animation” and their use in CGI. Glitz = Software specific Issues. For example: Setting up skeletons, sliders for expressions, etc. in order to animate in CGI.

  1. The hybrid digital artist – both technically and aesthetically savvy. You have got to have a balance of both sides of the coin. Work on the part of your core and glitz skills that need development.
  2. Ability to work within a rapidly developing profession.
  3. “The noodler” – merges art and science on time and budget. “Noodler” is an important term. This is someone who is not afraid of crossing platforms, software and skill sets in order to get the job done. The noodler is a more valuable person. “A noodler ” is NOT to be confused with the guy who tells people on the interview “Yes, I know ‘X’ software,” or “I know how to rig” and after a week working on a show, it becomes painfully obvious they don’t. Don’t be that guy! Learn on your own time.
  4. Self Assessment. You have got to be your worst critic. You have got to be able to trash something you have worked weeks on because you know you can do better.

V. How to Get a Job

Know what you want to do, where you want to go. Defining your path is simple, but KEY to getting there.

Finding ways to distinguish your talents with core skills.

  1. Know yourself and your capabilities. Generalists don’t stand out – find out what you need to know, learn it, try again. Just knowing some software, and little about animation will not cut it in today’s market. The expectations are too high. Shamus Culhane said in his book Animation, From Script to Screen, “…over 90 percent of any group of workers are unwilling to further their abilities by study — unless it happens during working hours and the boss supplies the means.” So, for the ambitious neophyte, these figures should be reassuring: The competition consists of less than 10 percent of the animation profession.”
  2. Have others critique your work so you can find out what skills you are lacking.
  3. What else do you bring to the company besides your computer skills?
  4. Things to do to accomplish this: Go to Professionally accredited Characters Classes; Life Drawing is a must, Traditional Cel Animation studies.
  5.   Digital artists – getting more technical all the time. Continually raising your personal threshold of understanding of aesthetic or technical issues. Raise your technical skills. Got back to school and buy books at college bookstores. Special classes specific to the work you want to do. If they want UNIX, learn UNIX…If they want you to use a LINUX machine, use it…period.
  6. If you want to do something specific in this industry, you must find a way to prove it visually first. If the companies want to see 2D cel, you must show it in some form. If they want to see Lighting and or T-Maps, you must show it. You have to be an expert on 2D cel animation, for instance, (unless that is what you specifically want to do).  It means you need to show that you can do it. Use the tools you have such as paint or 3D programs to create a 2D styled animation.
  7. Attacking your weaknesses, based on your background.

VI. Transferring from Another Career?

  1. Your largest obstacle will be convincing others that you have enough skill to sit in front of a three to 8 thousand dollar workstation/software and help keep the company afloat. People in this particular situation should promote their work ethic and maturity as additional skills to sell themselves.
  2. Getting through the door with support positions such as: Tape operators, network support, computer support and render support. Get access to a computer like describes in a. and then use it during off hours to get the experience.
  3. Already enrolled and focused in digital artistry? If you do intern, take it seriously, and you’ll have a very good chance of getting a real job there. Interns: be reliable, respectful, professional, DO NOT give off a sense of entitlement. Many times a company will be in the position to hire a new person and have the choice between an intern who already knows the set-up, software, and structure of the company, or an outsider. If you were an intern they looked upon as reliable, they will call you back.
  4. While you submerge yourself in all the great tools, learn to ask yourself “how?” and “why?” – All the time. Resisting to expand your knowledge of computer graphics will work against you. Actively pursue and appreciate all forms of time-saving an experimental pursuits. Buy trade magazines and go to conferences that so you understand why a new dynamics plug–in works and not just how to make the software run for your purposes and your purposes only. Ask questions about different software and what makes one better than the other, and then try to find a creative way to emulate that function in the software you are using.
  5. Got a computer science degree? Get your nose out of the shader you’re hacking and learn to paint a texture map. Those with programming experience have the capability to leapfrog their competition simply because they a creating a tool, not just using it. You determine how far and for what purpose you use your talents. Push yourself and let the good digital artists push you as well. The new digital artist of the 90’s must have both great programming skills as well as an understanding of motion and the arts.

VII. Finding Work and Getting Hired.

  1.  When starting out, saturate yourself with information about the industry. Magazines, books, animation festivals, trade shows, and conferences.
  2. Networking. Go to user groups like 3D Pro, Siggraph, Women in Animation, ASIFA, The Animation Guild Events, etc. Meet everyone you can. The briefest encounter could have the most profound effect on your career.
  3. Collect and maintain contacts. Reach out to these people, show them your work, and listen to their comments and criticisms. Ask to see their work, their work environment, their work habits. Send new work to your contacts all the time. Jamie and I respond very favorably to you AFTER you’ve quit talking and created something. Continue a dialog with HR people, mentors, supervisors, etc. to show that you are improving and taking their criticism seriously. Through these activities, you will gain much-needed skill and reel material, earn the respect of those in a position to recommend you for jobs and critique your work.
  4. When a human resource director tells you something specific they are looking for, go out and learn it, polish your reel, and then try again. Listen to what they ask for and DO IT! If you don’t enjoy doing that part of the job then maybe you are trying to get a job at the wrong studios.
  5. Do not get frustrated, simply WORK to get your job. When you put in the hours and act on the criticism your reel and resume receives, people will know it. The absolute worst thing you can do is nothing except talk. The digital artist may spend much time writing and using code, but all that’s important is the image you produce, because that’s what companies get paid to do.
  6. The Resume.
  7. Keep it simple, one page. Find entertainment related resumes and use these to format yours. Call headhunters and HR people and ask for them to forward the resumes they found to be the best with the name of the individual blacked out for you to reference.
  8. The cover letter should be professional, yet also give a sense of what kind of person you are. Keep in mind your distinguishable core talents. Attention to detail is important! Remind them of your core skills.
  9. Remember, part of the reason they’re hiring you is for your visual skills and attention to the finest details. Please, no grammar or spelling errors!

VIII. The Portfolio And Demo Reel

  1. Should convey a sense of professionalism through the quality of the printed or sketched image.
  2. Copies Only. Do Not send Originals. 8.5″ by 11″
  3. If hand drawn, the images chosen should be the best of your best. Eight to Ten images is usually enough to inform the viewer on the level of your visual skills. Ask the HR dept. If they want a portfolio or a reel and resume…different companies want different things.
  4. A simple black book centers the viewer’s attention on your work.
  5. The Demo Reel: Very simple. Again, only your best work here please. If you feel you need to explain something about your reel at the interview – dump that piece. Nothing is worse than hearing, “We only had three weeks to finish that spot, so it doesn’t look as good as it should.”
  6. When finished, give to mentor, get criticism, re-render until blue in the face. *Be extremely hard on yourself here*.
  7. Most reels have similar ceilings of creativity and technicality.  Find a way around this fact. Less and Better Quality is a great ruler to measure your work against making it on the reel or not.
  8. The reel should make very limited use of filtered effects. No Page Curls, Lens Flares or 1-minute sweeps of your name in big extruded chrome fonts, please !!!.
  9. The reel doesn’t require fancy editing, but should exhibit a high degree of professionalism in how you choose to represent yourself. Finished product centers around your work and your work only! Basic structure: Plain title card and then the animation, the title card, and animation, and so on. Another solution to clean and easy to read credits is using the letterbox overlay. Place the information about the shot outside on top of the black letter box explaining: what you did, the studio that owns the material and the show title.
  10. Only use Metallica if your animation is a strong and bold as Metallica is. Music? Keyword: tasteful.
  11. Make sure the reel centers around your sequences and not someone else’s audio tracks and cheesy filtered effects.
  12. Label everything, send no masters, most recent work first, and include credit list of what you did using what tools.

IX. Keeping the Job and Time Managment

  1. Acknowledge the difference between your time and your employer’s time. Always guesstimate it taking four times as long as predicted for the “what-ifs ” and “downtime.”
  2. Make internal deadlines. AM and PM expectations.
  3. ALWAYS look for ways to streamline your work.   Learn to savor the task of “time-related” problems.
  4. Learn to respect your employer’s needs first – using your personal time for personal discovery and self-advancement. Do not confuse your employer’s time with the time we mentioned earlier concerning your endless personal development. Realize that sometimes home life is just non-existent after working 60 hours at your regular job.  You must make time to work on your self-development, especially when you are first starting out, trying to break into a new sector of the industry or trying to move up the ladder.
  5. Some Things We’ve Learned Over the Years.
  6. Be solution oriented!
  7. Never assume you are “above” a particular job description or category. Your ability to solve problems depends on the skill sets you build over years of investigative problem solving in many different job positions. Your success as a digital artist requires solid problem-solving based on previous experience and your knowledge of the tools you use or can create.
  8. Complaining about doing jobs artists think are “below” their abilities? Stop, these are job opportunities to learn more.

X. “Pigeon-holing.”

Pigeon-holing is a condition which many employees feel themselves because of their lack of willingness to be aggressive in an aggressive industry. If you want to animate and you are stuck in the tracking department, on your own time make an animation that will convince your supervisors it’s worth investing in you as an animator.

  1. Being a digital artist is about keeping pace with the endless developments.
  2. Natural selection. It’s that simple. The people who get the jobs will be the ones with the most core AND glitz skills and a sense of reliability and maturity. In addition, any skills they have to push them past those who can “animate on a computer” such as a background in architecture, photography or painting.
  3. Advancement in this industry – about putting yourself in a position to advance. Earning the respect of your boss and your peers technically and artistically. More specifically, enhancing the breadth of your knowledge outside the scope of your current job title. Again, what skills can you offer above and beyond the average Joe animator?
  4. Platform – The industry is less about the platform distinction and more about the computer graphics knowledge. Learning to sell yourself outside of the platform that puts you on the edge, helping you to stand out. Focus on producing noteworthy work on anything you can. Spend your time beefing up on concepts about WHAT you do, not what you are doing it on.

XI. Conclusion

When you complete a project, you’ve only just begun. Successful digital artists demand more from themselves technically and artistically with each successive project. “Front Loading.” Learn to live comfortably with these aspirations by planning for the extra time required. Stick to your guns on what you want to do and make it happen.