Breaking Into Animation

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Animation is a big field involving creative people from many different disciplines. Making an animated film is similar to making a live ...

Animation is a big field involving creative people from many different disciplines. Making an animated film is similar to making a live action one in that it requires the services of a director, writer, actors, producers, production designer, editor, sound editor, etc. Additionally, an animated production employs animators, computer software engineers, storyboard artists, layout artists, sculptors and modelers, and more. Here are some animation job titles:

Modeler
Animator
Painter
Technical director
Layout artist
Inbetweener

While film and television are two major areas that employ animators, there are animation jobs to be found in such areas as CD-ROM design, game design and web design as well. With so many hopefuls applying for so few positions, how does one get started? Like many other aspects of the entertainment industry, persistence is paramount. With solid preparation, the ability to hang in there despite tough odds, and a few practical pointers, you could soon be gaining a foothold in this exciting industry.

Here are some things you should know about a career in animation:

1) As I mentioned above, just as in the live action world, there are many different careers in animation, from screenwriting and editing to orchestrating the music. While some professionals in the film business move between live action and animation, many people who work in animation find their niche in the field. Animators themselves obviously work exclusively in animation, and this guide will focus primarily on this aspect of the business. If you are interested in one of the more standard positions in film making you can refer to my guide Breaking Into the Film and Television Industries. Most of what is written there applies to a career in animation as well.

2) Most animation jobs are freelance. Animators sometimes land more regular jobs at big studios such as Disney or Pixar, but, as in the entertainment business as a whole, much of the work is on a job by job basis. And increasingly, due to tax breaks, animated production takes place overseas in countries from India to Canada to Luxembourg. One major animated film released by Disney was produced entirely in England with a crew that was half American and half European Union. At the end of the production, most crew members were off to other parts of Europe or Canada to work on their next animated production.

3) Because it is a mostly freelance industry, getting work is all about who you know. Staying connected to the community is paramount to success.

Get training

People who hire animators know which schools are the best, so do your research and if at all possible, go to one of them. If a top private animation design school is beyond your reach, get training however and wherever you can. Study design, life drawing, motion graphics, 3D modeling and animation. Animation is the art of bringing a character to life with a pencil. With the advent of computer animation, there is more to learn, not less. You still need to know how to draw. The animators responsible for the old Disney classics didn't use computers, but their work is still the gold standard of the business. Learning software such as Maya is not the same as learning to animate any more than learning to use a chisel is the same as learning to sculpt. What the artist makes with his/her tools is what counts. Because animating has been referred to as "acting with a pencil," you should take an acting class as well as directing, editing and screenwriting. Learn all you can about filmmaking.
RIngling and Sheridan Animation Art and Design are two of the best animation schools, but may be out of reach for many. Other top rated animation schools are The Art Institute Online and Full Sail. Some of these programs have financial aid. If you can’t afford one of these, get training wherever you can – community college, art school, trade schools. Check out your local community college and continuing studies program. Go to
animationschoolsreview.com. Animationarena.com has a wealth of invaluable information from training to putting together a reel to learning web animation as well as a short list of schools.

Do it yourself

Whatever your area, practice and then practice some more. Writers, editors, actors, directors and animators can all do their creative work in preparation for seeking employment and in between paying jobs. Practice the principles of 3D animation on your home computer. They are useful no matter what hardware or software you end up using, so get good at them. Learn how to model or buy models on the web and play and explore. Learn your strengths and interests. If you're interested in comedy, then work on something that makes you laugh. If action/adventure is more your thing, create accordingly. Make a little animated movie of your own collaborating with those with different strengths. Teamwork is an extremely important aspect of getting hired in any aspect of animation. There is very little alone time in an animation project, even in editing, a classically solitary part of filmmaking.
An experienced live action editor I know who worked on a major animated feature had to adjust to a very different environment, with many scheduled screenings and a crew of fifteen working under him. People want to know that you are a team player who works well with others under pressure.

Keep working. Offer to work for free on a project. Get as much experience as you can. Getfreesofts.com and 3drt.com are two websites that offer models and modeling downloads. Stay educated. Some suggested reading: Timing for Animation by Harold Whitaker and John Halas, The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams and Acting for Animators by Ed Hooks, Brad Bird and Mike Caputo. Read about the principles of animation at animationarena.com.

Get a demo reel together

Animation reels need to be short and sweet, no longer than 4 minutes and with your best work up front. Many people who look at reels only watch past the first minute if something has grabbed their attention. What grabs attention? Good work, not gimmicks or too much flash. The single most important thing about making a reel is to be really creative. Nobody wants to see a good imitation of something that's already out there. They want to know that you can make an original character come alive. They want to see something inventive. Make sure you identify what you did on each segment of your reel. In other words, did you do the shading, lighting, modeling? Make sure the viewer knows what he/she is looking at. Lose the music. Many people in animation say they watch reels with the sound off so don't spend time on it. Collaborate with others and put together something that really shines.
Keep cost in mind; if possible, complete your reel at school as digital to video transfers can be expensive.

Go to Pixar for a helpful guide on creating a demo reel. Show your reel to others. Remember, you must present your work well or it won’t matter how brilliant it is to begin with. Presentation is everything. Make sure your contact information is clearly presented especially at the end.

Get a job

While animation is a tough business to break into, producers are always on the lookout for fresh new talent. Once you have a stand out reel and enough confidence-building experience under your belt, check out job listings and send out your material according to guidelines. Stay in the loop by reading the industry trades and by networking. Look into internship programs at Pixar and Disney, the two Goliaths of animation. Keep in touch with your colleagues and friends in the business and stay connected. The entertainment world is all about word of mouth and who you know. You never know who might put you in touch with someone who can give you a job. Stay in touch with people you've worked with and those you meet at screenings or parties and who are active in the field.
Pixar.com/companyinfo/jobs and disneycareers.com have information on hiring and internship programs. The Pixar site has some especially useful information on applying for work in animation. Creativeheads.net has job listings and allows you to create a profile and attract potential employers. Entertainmentcareers.net, hollywoodreporter.com and variety.com are other sites with job listings. Once you have submitted your material, stay organized and follow up. Make polite and brief inquiries as to the status of your application. Use Entourage or Outlook to keep track of your submissions and contact information.
  • Stay informed. Go to animationmagazine.net and keep up with the industry trades. Go to movies, watch games and videos, keep up with what is new and interesting in the field. People tend to move around a lot in the entertainment industry, so make sure you keep all contact information current.
  • Be professional. No matter how talented you are, you must show that you can work with a group and be flexible and professional. That means dressing appropriately for interviews even though this is a more casual industry than most. Do your homework. Know something about the company you are meeting with.
  • When applying for work, stay within submission guidelines, but be creative. I once visited Pixar where they have a wall displaying some of the more interesting pieces sent to them by those seeking work there. It was fascinating to see the great lengths people go to and how original and creative some of the work was. Also know that you may have to apply numerous times to a company such as Pixar.

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