Saturday, August 7, 2010

Virtual Animation Studio 101

*above image from a series of six shorts I directed for the wine-themed cable series "Uncorked" in 2006 & 07, which laid the groundwork for my virtual studio. Storyboard and design by my pal Jason McDonald.

I didn't set out to work this way, but it's been a fun and artistically stimulating three and a half years. It used to be that a person working from home was usually a freelancer, bouncing from project to project, and hoping to take in enough work to sustain his or herself. Today it's very different because the computer puts a potential full-service animation studio smack into a corner of the living room. This doesn't mean that any animation artist with a computer is the owner and operator of a virtual studio. There's a bit more to it than that. Although it happened gradually without me planning it, I've become the operator of a busy home studio, so I thought I'd use this post to round up the ins-and-outs of this fairly new animation production model.

1-Get experience first.
It helps to have production experience, working in various areas of animation. That way you'll build up your skills, understanding of techniques, mastery of programs, and experience working in a collaborative process under a schedule. By working in studios you'll make friendships and relationships with your co-workers, both of which will come in handy when you need to hire trustworthy off-site workers for your virtual studio. Augment your studio work by taking on freelance work wherever possible. This will ensure you get used to being responsible for the completion of a job, not just in one step of an in-house studio assembly line. It will give you experience with contracts including negotiating time and money, and the experience of communicating directly with the client during the duration of a job.

2-Location matters, even in an off-site virtual studio.
Part of the success of my virtual studio is being only a few subway stops away from Manhattan. This means I can jet into the city to sign contracts, attend meetings, and pick up and deliver work that can't be easily or effectively exchanged on an ftp site. Being able to attend in-person meetings allows you to create a personal connection with the client, which can be key to getting future work.

3-Be ready and able to delegate, expand and contract your operation as needed.
The key difference between a freelancer and the operator of a virtual studio is the willingness to grow their operation according to the needs of each project. For instance, at my leanest periods, sometimes I'm my only worker, but during busy periods (like I'm enjoying now), I might have a half a dozen subcontractors or more. To find them, I rely on the contacts and friends made in 12 years of working at in-house jobs, in addition to the occasional recent graduate from one of my animation classes.

4-Have a client base.
This could be the hardest part. A client has to trust you and your virtual studio to be able to tackle and deliver on a job. Part of it is reputation, a history of successfully delivering similar work. For me this happened in baby steps. Inbetween in-house directing gigs for Pinky Dinky Doo and Blue's Room, I landed a series of six one-minute animated films for a wine-themed cable series called Uncorked. To meet the order, I had to bring in a few subcontractors––storyboard artists, BG artists, designers, and animators––all of whom worked off site. This first toe in the water of my virtual studio became a splash when, a year later, I got the gig to direct a full-fledged TV series for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The Uncorked films helped give me and my new employer the confidence that I could pull it off. Another secret to getting work is a willingness to take on some smaller jobs because they can sometimes lead to bigger things. For instance, I recently took on two small animation jobs for a very nice client who had very little money. Happy with the job I did, the well-connected client recommended me for a large animation gig for a state agency.

A nice thing about a virtual studio is that you don't need an agent or rep to get work. Part of it is just keeping in touch with people you've already worked with, something that's not only fun and pleasant when you like your clients, as I do, but also has a way of leading to more jobs. It also helps to stay connected to the larger community by attending animation events. Visibility is important: without making that effort, a virtual studio can be virtually invisible.

Another advantage is that you can expand and contract as needed, without buying a single piece of furniture or a second computer station. Paperwork and bookkeeping are super simple––I use my iCalendar to mark the start and end of projects along with the hire and end dates of my team. For bookkeeping I keep a folder for subcontractor invoices, send out 1099 forms to them during tax season, and keep track of money coming in and out week-to-week. With experience, you get a feel for how many people you need based on the difficulty of the work and the schedule and budget.

In conclusion, the virtual studio might be the most "you can too" model of animation business in the history of our medium... and the only one where you can work in pajamas.


Brett W. Thompson said...

Great info!! :)

Unknown said...

This is a good dissection of moving forward in the animation industry and a great outline of 'next steps' for freelancers. I'm wondering if you have found any drawbacks to expanding yourself into a virtual studio, or is bigger always better?

I currently live in the mountains because my husband is ski instructor and work for me is much harder to come by (and usually doesn't pay as much!). Location does count! Any tips for us animators who can't move to within a few subway stops of NY, LA or SF?

David B. Levy said...

Hi Corrie,
Glad you enjoyed the post.

I have found some drawbacks to being a virtual studio, but they are mostly just the usual responsibilities of being in business, the unfun bits. For me, that's when I make a mistake with a hire, or in communicating to my team or to the client. Happily each day is a chance to do better. Bigger has its limits, even with a virtual studio because after a point it could get so big I'd need an in-house assistant or possibly a rented space. I like to operate just shy of that. It keeps it at maximum efficiency without having to shake it up.

In answer to your other question I think it's that much more important for a far off freelancer to create their own works that can travel for them, perhaps to festivals where they might be noticed by agents, distributors, or potential clients. Also, viral videos can work great for that too. Dan Meth got a bunch of great breaks after he had several explosive videos on youtube... Get your work out there and let the clients come to you...

Also, make some of your vacation time traveling to animation hub cities where you can do in person networking, or simply attend a festival like Ottawa and do it all in one broad stroke.

Hope that's helpful.

JKAPS said...

Hello Dave,

I recently found your blog. I'm an SVA alumni of Graphic Design, but recently have been studying animation on my own with the use of 'Animators Survival Guide' and Preston Blair's animation book. I've been using a software called Animate & my tablet to pretty much replicate the system used in those books. I appreciate your insights in this post, though I feel like I'm not at the place to take clients for my animation, however I am working on a project on my own. I look forward to reading more of your posts. I found out about your blog from my mother Julie, who works at Orzac Medical Center and cared for your father.


Chris Silvestre said...

Wow, what a great post/blueprint. Very insightful.