Thursday, December 23, 2010

There's Always More We Could Be Doing

Above image by PES, pre-production sketches for his indie film which doubled as a commercial directing spec, "Roof Sex."

I'm still seeing a lot of newcomers to the NY animation scene having difficulty finding work. That's not a big surprise, given the state of the economy and the fact that NY animation production levels have been at fairly low levels since 2007. The first couple of years of a career in animation are the toughest. That's when you are building up your network of contacts, reputation, and skills, and that simply takes some time. My only periods of unemployment, in my 16-year (and counting) career, totaled four and a half months and occurred in my first two years. Here's where I have to write the obligatory "knock on wood."

For an 8 year span or so I was in the protective bubble of employment at Nick Jr's Blue's Clues, but that ended in 2004, so I've now had as much time away from that series as I did on it. One thing is certain, whenever I hear tales of newcomers (or even from some veterans) that are having trouble finding work, there's always a few common factors.

Here's a round up of what's missing in some of these job hunts:

1-You don't know the software
I know of some Flash animators that get snapped up for every flash job in town, but that only takes them so far. During some periods half the character animation work in this city is After Affects work, and the fact that these Flash animators don't know the program means that half of the available work won't be available to them. Knowledge of both programs are key to nabbing steady work in this town. Throw in a knowledge of Toon Boom, or Maya, and you'll be a triple threat.

In a related issue, I see some students graduating from local schools and listing themselves as "traditional animators." As an employer I read that as "I don't know Flash or After Effects." I think the term "traditional" is not doing a would-be worker many favors. True traditional work on paper is very scarce in this city. Most of that work moved to the digital realm of drawing with a wacom stylus on a cintiq. Of course, traditional skills are used in all animation, but to sell yourself as a throwback doesn't make you very marketable in today's Big Apple animation scene.

2-Networking at Events
Boy, this one's a biggie. If you don't make time to go to animation events, such as the kind presented by ASIFA-East, and actually stick around to talk to your fellow attendees afterwards, then you're basically saying, "I don't want to meet the animation community or start building the valuable relationships that will keep me happily working and busy for years to come."

Need an example? I often hear about a recent grad who lands a job at local studio, where they were lucky enough to be employed for a year or more. But, the job inevitably ends, and then all of a sudden that worker is left out in the cold with no large network of contacts to turn to. I collect several stories like this a year. Too few seem to understand that the best time to network is when you don't need to. When you're on that nice year long gig, it would behoove you to stay plugged into the larger community. That's what I did by joining ASIFA, and it led to my employment at Blue's Clues shortly after being laid off from my job.
A still from one of Elliot Cowan's successful "The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead" shorts.

A good example of someone taking advantage of what ASIFA-East provides is Elliot Cowan, who as a new comer to our animation scene had to build up his New York contacts from scratch a few years back. What did he do? In addition to making films, and taking lunches with local talent, he became a regular at ASIFA-East events and board meetings. ASIFA-East was able to help him make the concentrated effort he wanted to make to meet as much of the community as possible. It was a great and inspiring sight to see, and I'm truly surprised that more don't do as he did. Not only did ASIFA-East help connect him to work opportunities, it also helped him foster friendships. Not a bad thing when you're new to a city. And, like any smart and sincere networker, Elliot gave back as much as he got. He volunteered on the ASIFA-East board of directors, became our first communications officer (starting our e-mail blast and Facebook group), and created a postcard design and signal film for our film festivals.

3. Not being specific enough
Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas told my SVA career class that they should create the type of work that they'd like to be paid to make. I think that's a good start, within reason. Obviously there has to be some degree of commercial or industry appeal to the work for it to be magnet for getting jobs. But, I like the focus that his advice necessitates. Another example is PES. He had a low-level job in an Ad agency (he made popcorn in the agency lobby), and on the side he created three very short films that doubled as commercial specs. In short, he made samples of the type of work he'd like to be paid for. I don't have to tell you that for both Karacas and PES the gamble has more than paid off.

A wall-sized illustration by Christy Karacas on display in a past 2Art for TV art exhibit.

Most students struggle through a thesis film even though their whole final year of school is structured for their success. Despite the fact that these films are graduation requirements, many students find it difficult to stay motivated through them, so it's not a big shock that most students will not go on to make another film of their own post-school. But, does that mean that they can't create new samples of any nature?

A good place to start is to look at one's reel. What are you lacking? There should be acting scenes (with dialogue) as well as walk cycles, etc. I'm amazed how many reels I see with no lip synch dialogue on display. An odd thing since lip synch has become one of the entry level jobs on an animated series. To not show an understanding of lip synch on a first professional reel is another hinderance to employment.

4. Waiting for perfection
I can't even count how many former students emerge six months to a year after graduating and announce "I just finished my reel or my website!" Upon further questioning, I usually discover that the student didn't look for any work over that year, but instead worked on their portfolio materials. In other words, they were in hiding, putting off the uncomfortable: the job hunt.

There's nothing wrong with fine tuning a web site or reel, or making new samples to feed them. But, to have to get all those ducks into a perfect row before you can step out into the world is a huge mistake. The better way would be to fill your evenings making those new samples, and your days by going out and showing them to the studios. You'll NEVER be done building you reel or updating a website. That's a lifelong pursuit.

Everyone gives the same advice about reels, resumes, and portfolios, but what we seldom hear is that you should also personalize your presentation. When I first looked for work I only showed my thesis film and a resume. I left the big clunky portfolio at home because I didn't think it represented me. I'm not a slick guy with a fancy black portfolio with every piece of art neatly pressed into its plastic pages. That didn't feel very "Dave Levy" to me, so I didn't do it. And, tailoring what I showed and how I showed it made the interview process feel honest and personal to me. For instance, when I applied at Blue's Clues all I showed was clasp folder full of storyboard samples. I simply opened the envelope and spread the pages across the conference room table. There was nothing fancy about it. It was authentically me.

Since Blue's Clues ended I've never made an animation reel, in a traditional sense. Shocking, isn't it? Instead, when I'm up for a job I show a couple of loose renders attached in an email, all of which are good matches for what I know the potential client is looking for. It's never failed me. Nobody has ever said "this is unacceptable." Or "Where's your reel?" But, obviously, I've built my career to the point where I can do this. But, isn't that precisely the point? You should be steering your presentation method to work for you. It doesn't happen over night, and you would be well advised to start a career by having the expected materials like a reel, portfolio, resume, and website, but it's never too early to nudge the presentation to being as personal as possible.

5. The industry is only an impersonal as you make it.
A huge mistake I see recent grads making is that in behaving as if this is a very closed and impersonal industry, they make their experience just that. Is this a difficult industry? Absolutely. But, the reality is that most people that work in animation from producers to interns are very nice people. And, compared to other arts industries, such as film or TV people, animation folk are often described as being very supportive of one another with a strong sense of community spirit. By not building relationships with actual animation people at events or through informational interviews, they put themselves at the mercy of gatekeepers. The gatekeepers don't really exist unless you give them power of you. If you believe the gateway to a studio is its general phone number or email address, then good luck to you. You're in for a long wait because if you try to reach out to a studio that way because you'll just be one of the hundreds of emails unread, reels unwatched, and phone calls not returned.

Only people can help people, so you've got to make relationships with those at the studios. That's how you'll be able to get in the door, and start growing a network of people that will be on your side in the job hunt.

6. Increase your own odds for success.
When I went looking for my first job in animation post-graduation, I beat the pavement with VHS copies of my film and resumes. When I dropped off a tape with Michael Sporn I asked if I could come back later that day for some feedback. He happened to be a very generous man, otherwise that might not have gotten me far, but I think he respected the effort I was making by personally knocking on doors. When I came back later that afternoon, he offered me a job! And, all was trying to do was to see if I could get people to look at my film that day.

In another example, a recent RISD grad was having a lot of trouble finding work. The problem? He was only able to work legally in this country for a year, not being a citizen. And, he was telling all possible employers this when he met them. I advised him not to tell them that. After all, so much animation work is short-term. Why scare off a studio by telling them you won't be around in a year. That's not even their business to know. He listened to me and began a new round of job hunting following my advice. The other day I was leaving the lobby of the Sesame building after dropping off some work deliveries when I heard someone call my name. It was the former RISD student. He informed me that he got a job in the building doing CG animation for another department at Sesame. It came through contacts I had recommended him for, but more importantly he got the job after heeding my warning to not mention his year-long residency issue.

Whatever your particular circumstance, there has to be a way for you stack the odds better in your own favor. You are the expert of you.

I hope this list serves as a shot-in-the-arm to anyone struggling to break into this business. Best of luck to everyone in the New Year!


roconnor said...

An employer has the right to ask "Are you legally allowed to work in the US?"

If someone told me "yes" but didn't say "on a visa that expires in XX months" I would possibly send them packing as soon as I found out -which would be the first day they reported and filled in their I9.

Hiring non-citizens is a serious drag on a business' resources, an artist puts an employer in a potentially painful situation if they're not upfront about their work status.

It's basically an employee version of changing the employment rules after work parameters are set.

David B. Levy said...

Richard, read my post again. I didn't suggest that he lie or cover up his status. The fact was that he had a right to legally live/work in the U.S. for a year. Nobody even wanted to give him a day of work when he volunteered that fact in advance. Of course, I advised him that he had to tell the truth if the employer asked, and he was going to tell that truth anyway... but, the point was it was doing him no favors to explain his situation.

Employers, such as you or me, can't usually hire someone beyond a job to job basis, but this poor guy wasn't getting the chance to work because of his approach. He couldn't get a single day's work. I stand by my advice.

Michael Sporn said...

A good column.

Too bad I didn't take such a route. I've never been good at mingling with other people and have had to force myself to do it. That problem hasn't helped me very much. I also am not sure it's hurt me.

I'ave been out of work for about a month since Oct 1972. (Of course, hsving my own studio has had lean years where I've created my own work.

Elliot Cowan said...

Not wanting to derail the direction of the blog post but Richard is correct that as soon as this fellow filled in his paperwork he'd be scuttled.
I've had a greencard for some time now and even with that most employers still require endless reassurances that I'm allowed to work here.
Richard would know better than myself but I would guess that there are some robust penalties for hiring people of questionable status.
Employers seem to be very prickly about it in New York.
This guy is here on a work visa, I would assume.
He'd be better off waiting tables and networking in his off hours with the intention of returning at a later stage.
He should have been networking long before he arrived in the USA, really.
That way folks have a heads up on who he is before he arrives and the work visa situation is of less concern.
Lastly - Although he has the right to live in the USA for a year, he possibly only has the right to work for a small portion of this.
There are few circumstances that allow you to work as you please for your entire visit.

Otherwise, thanks for the shout out : )

David B. Levy said...

Good perspective on the matter Richard brought up, Elliot. Thanks for that.

Without knowing all the details of the story I shared, it's obvious that Sesame, knowing the guy's situation, was able to work with it.

Phil Willis said...


Brilliant advice.

I've got probably another six months left before the show I'm working on wraps, so it's good to hear this stuff with plenty of time to do something about it.


Unknown said...

I've never considered general demo reels as overrated when looking for specific work, but now that I think about it, your comments certainly fit my experience!

I don't live in a city where I can walk into a studio and ask someone to look at my demo reel. All my work comes to me virtually (usually from networking I've done at festivals and animation events) and my clients usually have something very specific in mind based on what they already know I can do. Since I work in several experimental techniques, I have a general demo reel up on my website that showcases my artistic repertoire, but really where the reel is most practical is when I'm trying to explain what I do to people who don't know much about animation (sand animation? huh?). It's much easier to whip out my phone and show them my reel than try to explain. But most clients that come to me, come because they already have a grasp on my artistic style from seeing one of my films in a specific technique and realizing that's the look they want. And usually, if they are unsure, I will point them to specific films or samples that fit what I think would work well for their project.

David B. Levy said...

Michael, that's an amazing record to have only been out of a work a month since '72! And, it speaks to your particular blend of skills, talents, and energies. I'd also argue that you are much better at mingling with others than you give yourself credit for. I've always enjoyed your sense of humor and take on the world and on animation. How lucky we are that we've got your daily blog to enjoy. Best to you in the new year!

David B. Levy said...

Howdy Phil. Glad you found this helpful. Go get 'em!

Corrie, good point that a general demo reel is overrated when aiming for specific work. One of the reasons, I've not made a proper reel in ages is that I'd be making a new edit of my reel for each client anyway, so I can't be bothered making a new reel each week. It makes so much more sense for me to target a client with 2 or 3 clips that well match what they are looking for.

Elliot Cowan said...

Dave - It would probably be a good idea to have some kind of reel online.
I've sent a lot of guys your way over the years who want to know where your reel is.
I always tell them to call you.

David B. Levy said...

I don't doubt that it would be good for me to do, Elliot. I have a website under construction that will focus on my books, films, and events, so I will certainly include animated bits and samples there. But, I'm fairly certain that I won't be making or posting a traditional style reel. I find putting together clips like that very unenjoyable. Don't know why... it just seems so fussy to me––trying to line up shots and cut them together in some pleasing sequence with audio or what not. I can't be bothered. So, instead, I have steered the job hunt to work for me.... just like we should each do.

Thanks for recommending those folks to me, Elliot. When I get the website up, I'll give you a shout.

Elliot Cowan said...

Nobody enjoys putting a reel together.

David B. Levy said...

That actually comforts me to hear! : )

roconnor said...

I love making reels.

David B. Levy said...

Interesting, Richard. I can see that as a producer it would be cool to cut reels together. And, there is an art to it, for sure. But, as an animator, I hate it. There's something about it, putting clips back to back out of context, that seems to suck the life out of my work. It's my own hang up, I know... but, its a big reason why I don't do it.

roconnor said...

I like editing. To me it's the most fun part of filmmaking.

Building a reel is the ultimate Eisenstein-ian exercise. You're constructing an emotional and intellectual experience from unrelated elements -culminating in an integrated new piece of work.

Unknown said...

Awesome article. Fortunately, I stuck to most of those points when out in the real world. I'm guilty of not adhering to some of them (going to ASIFA events). My situation wasn't the norm, however. I'm a former SVA student and I didn't get the chance to make a thesis or graduate (finances). I was suddenly thrust into the job market. I was fortunate enough to get a full time job at the studio where I first started as an intern and then worked part time. I've always felt like I missed out on somethings by not finishing school. I didn't go through the joy/anguish of completing a thesis film and I missed out on certain courses. However, I've learned a great deal while working and have been fortunate to mostly work consistently. The hardest thing to do is trying to draw and animator for myself and just not for work and freelance.

Liesje said...

As an animator I'll throw in my two cents: I love making reels but then again, I guess I've always been more of a filmmaker and less of an animator. Editing, especially to music, is a blast.

Oz said...

Ah networking...I love the idea, in fact I remember asking this guy David Levy out to lunch when he was in Portland giving a talk and selling books for a nice little event that has yet to have a second round.

Nice write up David!