Monday, October 27, 2008

Canaries in the Coal Mine

In 2005 and 2006 my SVA career classes graduated with a large percentage of them finding employment. By 2007 the local industry was beginning an undeniable downturn. Less TV series were in production and, since TV series make up the bulk of our jobs, there was less work to spread around. In particular, students graduating in large numbers (the SVA graduating animation classes alone have numbered over 40 students per year since 2000) depend on TV series jobs more than other more-seasoned animation artists, which have a broader range of opportunities to call upon. TV series require a large workforce with a great deal of assistant work tailor made to newcomers.

I’m amazed at the power the Disney films of the 1990s have held on the current generation of wanna-be animation artists. The success and influence of The Little Mermaid to Tarzan is what has packed the SVA animation department since 2000. I’ll never forget the rows and rows of long faces staring back at me when I taught my first SVA career class held after the announcement that Disney was shutting down their traditional animation department. What I read as merely another headline in Variety, the class took as a deathblow.

Beginning in 2007, there has been a large rise in unpaid “internships” going to students post-graduation. For me, SVA’s graduating class has provided a yearly glimpse into the relative health of the local animation industry. Many of the last two graduating classes have struggled to land even a first break in animation. Some have asked me for help and advice. In each case, it is advice I had dispensed over and over again during my 15-week course. The only problem is, the students weren’t ready to hear it then. I’m not sure they are ready to hear it now.

In each case I ask them to describe their job hunt. The answer is always the same:
"I search on line and apply to ads on craigslist."

That would be fine if it represented 10% of their job hunt, not the summation of it. Some students wait until they are done creating the perfect reel. Others simply let their “dream” fritter away and allow themselves to get swallowed by the easiness of their part time or full time jobs outside of animation. Breaking into animation and securing one’s place in the industry takes as much passion and effort as it might take to learn this artform's craft. One has to network and creatively develop themselves. It’s never enough to be “into cartoons.” This industry eats people alive who are merely “into cartoons." You have to have a hunger for animation. You have to know that you can’t imagine a life working in any other capacity.

Do students lacking imagination and drive in the job hunt make this “canaries in the coal mine” analogy useless? I don’t believe so, because during busier periods in animation, even those who are only “into cartoons” are often swept into jobs (perhaps after being recommended by their more ambitious friends). The fact that this hasn’t happened in the last two years is an indication of a continuing slump.


Charles K. said...

Right you are Dave. I was (and still am) surprised at the attitude of some of my classmates upon graduation. All they wanted to do was find a job rather than the job. I couldn't see the point of doing just that if you wanted to go places with your life. If your not truly motivated and ambitious to achieve what you want then you'll never meet your goals. I guess that's the difference between the successful ones and the mere 'cogs in the machine'.

George said...

Do you think that it's possible that the schools, while teaching the art and craft, are not training students how to get jobs?

I am not sure of the curriculum at SVA, but a trade school that I attended had two mandatory courses: 1) reel, resume, and interview skills; 2) career realities. Having been educated at universities, I have never seen such courses before.

However, it seems that if students do have expectations to get work in the field after school, such course may be just as necessary as the skills and craft courses. I think that some schools take it for granted that people have the adequate personality and skills to find a job; and that goes for any industry!

Elliot Cowan said...

I think it is relatively easy to teach someone how to look for a job.
The method is straight forward - the practice is difficult.
It's very hard to teach someone how to be enthusiastic without being irritating, how to be personable without being an arse kisser, how to be confident and not arrogant.
How to be persistent but not a pest.
How to be easy going with people you might be very excited to be around.

You pose some thorny questions here, David.

Uncle Phil said...

It's just like Milt Kahl said, "Either play, or get played".. ... i'm sure he said that.. c'mon... he said it once... yeah.. .. probably

But yeah Dave, I totally agree that for some people good advice just doesn't sink in. Maybe they're not ready to hear it, and maybe they'll never be ready.

We work in a professional field and it takes the attitude and knowledge of a professional to land a job. Alongside a dash of luck and a sprinkle of timing. But I find that there is really no excuse for a lot of people.

And what I find very interesting, and counterintuitive to some extent, is that the people that I know, from SVA or professionally, that are the best artists happen to also be the best business minded people. You would think that there would be this wealth of talent out there that lacked the business skills to get a job, but that just isn't the case in my experience. There are a few exceptions on both sides of course, but I really do feel that's the status quo.

I just used the phrase "status quo" .. in case you missed that.

But yeah, I love being able to help people land work. Or even just giving out advice about ones art or how they'd like their art to grow. I'm constantly seeking the advice of my peers and I strive to learn every day. And as long as people are willing to give me the time of day, I will certainly be available to help others.

It's great that you're available to the students at SVA, I hope they really take advantage of all of the experience and knowledge you have about making life work in animation.
.....i'm rambling... so that means it's time for bed. cya!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100% David. So far your advice has helped out tremendously. I haven't landed that first gig quite yet, but I'm getting closer and closer. Made a few connections and more importantly, a new friend (also a cat fan. ;p).

I think the biggest problem for most artists graduating college (I'm DEFINITELY a part of this number) is that we're so eager to just jump in the business. Most people who AREN'T in the industry don't seem to understand that simply graduating college isn't going to land you an entry-level job immediately. It's definitely true what you said about the process: it takes a certain amount of creativity, effort and patience.

One other thing I've learned is that despite this sound advice, it's REALLY REALLY hard to follow. When I look at all of these great seasoned animators, I wanna cry my eyes out because their stuff is just so damn great! I think when we're discouraged, we (like you said) just wanna stick to our part time/full time office jobs or retail jobs. To some degree, I feel for the people who DO give up because this business IS so strenuous. Granted what they're doing isn't necessarily the best choice, but I can't scold them when I've been in the position myself. We just gotta support each other. :)

One of the things I've tried to do recently is look at other people's works and learn from it. How was it done? Who was it for? What am I expected to work on in the future? Also, looking at other people's resumes gives me not only a good idea how a GOOD resume should be set up, but also it gives me an idea of what steps to take to jump right in. For example, I saw this one resume that listed experience from when they graduated (I think 2004 and 2005) to now. The steps I'm taking are fairly similar (internships, etc), and right now I'm just hoping for the best with my process. Simply talking to Aaron a few months back and showing him my portfolio and resume has done wonders for how to better present myself. Sometimes the advice is better than a job at certain points. :)

David B. Levy said...

Hi All!
Thanks for the comments...

Agreed...but, there is some gray area here.. even being a cog in the wheel can be a great experience for someone in the early years of a career. One needs to get savvy with production. Careers never (or very seldom) develop only by going up, up, up... there's often lateral movement too, and that's natural.

Each school has a different method of training students how to find jobs. Some bring in guest speakers. Others, such as SVA and Pratt, have whole 15 week classes devoted to the subject. I don't think the subject is ever covered enough, however.

I think its easy to teach someone how to look for a job too, but, I can tell you that this doesn't mean that the student will take this lesson and apply it. Most often, they try it their own way, and all too often, their own way is hiding behind a website and not putting their energies in the right place.

I'm not surprised about your conclusion that those who are the most accomplished in the craft are also the most business minded. I think the seriousness of intent in both areas compliment each other. Both take a singular focus. Cool observation.

I think the advice is only hard to follow because students are all individuals and each have their own ideas about the job hunt that they want to work through. My feeling has always been that one has to stay true to their personality but at the same time push themselves into new territory by trying creative ideas on the job search. Most students stick to their comfort zone, which is all too often a bad place to be.

mira said...

The lyrics from the Police song "Canary in a Coal Mine" I think fits our current professional state of affairs and ties into your essay..."First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect..."

Nelson Diaz said...

Students often don't try hard enough, but they also sometimes look at things the wrong way.

Their are so many different creative positions in animation and it's really a blessing (especially in NYC,) because you can animate for one job, storyboard for another, or character design.

And while this may not be the case in LA, it's most certainly going to happen in NYC if you so choose.

Some students out of school only want to do one thing, and see their strengths only in one thing. But I find that one should always keep their minds open to what their strengths and weaknesses truly are.

You may apply for an animation job, and take a test for that, but the same studio may ask you to take the storyboarding job as well, and who knows....maybe you'll enjoy that even more.

Unknown said...

I'll definitely second the need for students to have a wider range of skills. If you lock yourself into one piece of an enormously collaborative workforce (which is what animation IS), you're going to limit yourself dangerously in terms of job prospects. I've never hesitated from working in clean-up, compositing, inbetweening, scanning frames, or just being an assistant. You're NOT going to be stuck in one spot forever if you don't want to be!

I'm totally guilty of being a craigslist searcher though, but like you said, that's a 10% deal of how you really should go find a job. I was SUPER lucky to land ONE really nice job on there, but that's so incredibly rare I still wouldn't recommend it.

My animation classmates and I from Pratt must have had a rare social bug, because I was always surprised to meet other students who wern't going out physically to make contacts, calling studios, just SENDING SOMETHING in the form of a reel and info to potential work places, even in a minimalist way. They'll always ask for more if they like what they see.

It might not be much of a "canary" analogy, but possibly the sheer number of animation artists trying to get into an already tight work force. That, and I'm thinking the idea of "easily" searching for jobs, posting profiles, etc online is becoming an opiate for some, and not really doing what it's supposed to do - getting you OUT THERE.