Friday, March 18, 2011

The Trouble with Your Own Studio as Your First Job

Aaron Augenblick shares an anecdote about running his own studio at a panel on Careers in Animation thrown by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting. R to L: Arron Augenblick, Catherine Branscome, me, Debra Solomon, Norma Toroya.

With every new crop of students I meet each year, there are always a handful that want to open their own studios. I think that’s a great goal, but the trouble is that most of these students want to go into business right upon graduation. That’s a very problematic plan. Bill Plympton often advises that any one with such ambitions should wait 7 years and instead work their way up in the studio system, learn programs, stockpile ideas for films/projects, make contacts, and save money.

Plympton knows what he's talking about, but I’d like to add some additional reasons why it might be a good idea to put your studio dreams on hold, if only for a while:

1-Examine why you want your own studio.
When someone plans to begin a career with their own studio business it might be because he/she is fearful about getting a job, or being able to function within a studio environment under someone else’s direction. You’d be unusual if you weren’t a little worried about all that. At the start of a career everything is unknown, so it’s easy to feel insecure about whether you can make it in a field as difficult to break into as animation. But, others have done it. You can draw upon countless examples of newcomers that enter the animation field each year. I’d be willing to bet most of them were nervous about the job hunt and about succeeding on the job once they scored one.

It could be that you want your own studio right out of the gate because you want to avoid competing with other new hires and avoid the risk of failure. The trouble is that if building a studio is the answer, you’re just trading one risk for an even greater one. Why would it be easier to be the person who has to do the job AND get the account? The freedom to be your own boss is the part that hooks students into this fantasy, but to operate a successful studio is actually a far more difficult proposition than you might think.

2-Why would a client give you work?
Savvy students put some attention towards networking and relationship building while still in school, so some might have ready connections that could come in handy when beginning a studio right upon graduation. Likely, recent students would know some fellow students they would want to hire, for example. Yet, the trouble is, they won’t have tested the working relationship yet. It’s one thing to collaborate in art school, and quite another to work together in the real world as professionals.

The bigger problem is why would a client trust a brand new studio with no work or industry experience? Having no track record of producing professional level animation on a budget, to a client’s expectation, and to a deadline, makes such a studio a risky proposition. Besides, there's other choices in town. Why wouldn’t a client bring their job to other studios that are proven producers? And, it's not a matter of who will do the job cheapest, because many studios work at different prices, and no client will see a untested studio as a bargain if they think there’s any risk of the job not being done properly. And, if a client doesn’t care about that, what kind of client would they be anyway?

3-What it takes to make it work:
Aaron Augenblick started out working at MTV Animation for a couple of years before he embarked on his own studio business. Even with his considerable talents, his company struggled in its first five years, and during that time, one could assume that Aaron could have found far more lucrative employment working for someone else. But, he was as determined as he was skilled and hung in there. Some five years into his company it really starting to take off, as his studio began tackling series orders such as Wonder Showzen, Superjail, and Ugly Americans. Clearly, Aaron had what it takes to tough it out, and he proved it with his commitment, sweat, and tenacity during those early years. But, not all studio end in success stories like Augenblick.

After 13 years working for other studios and individuals, I created a virtual animation studio in 2007. I don’t have a company reel (or even a personal reel), a website (it’s still under construction), an agent or a rep, nor stationary or a company logo. Despite the fact that I'm advising not creating a studio at the start of a career, once you are properly ready to dive in there's no one way to do business. There's a lot of freedom to put your spin on it. So, what works for my personality is to market myself through networking at events as well as online through emails/facebook/linked-in, through making films, writing books, and creating pitches. What keeps my virtual studio humming is relationship building, repeat business, and the ability to expand and contract as needed, as well as the ability to work in different models of workflow.

If what is required to get business (no matter how conventional or unconventional your method) sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. It would be far simpler if I just got a job working for someone else and showed up each day and waited to be told what to do. But, despite how much more work it is for me to set my life up this way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the freedom of choosing which projects to take on and then surrounding myself with awesome, fun, and talented co-workers. But, I can’t even imagine how poorly my business would have gone if I’d have started it right upon graduation. I would have had no production experience, no connections to the work stream, no practice dealing with clients, no business skills, and no clue how to staff/schedule/manage a project.

At age 21, right after graduation, I didn't even know who I was yet. I still lived with my parents, had never travelled outside the U.S., and had no idea what it would be like to live in the real world with the responsibility of paying my own bills. That sounds like the worst qualifications for a studio owner to me. I couldn’t have been less ready for that, and upon working in the industry I saw just how much work it was to run your own business.

From my perspective, the Plympton advice is sound. You’ll have a far greater chance of success with your studio plans if you pave the road ahead of you, however many years that takes.


Unknown said...

Perfect summary and advice. I remember feeling like I wanted to go my own way as early as possible. Only a few years into working for others and an actual studio do I realize how lost I would have been, and how uneducated in the work field I was (and still am). I've learned invaluable things so far.

Phil Willis said...

Great advice.

I think you hit the nail on the head describing the panic a new animation school graduate feels not knowing if they'll get hired or not.

Starting your own studios sounds like the next, best option. Except it isn't.

Thanks for the post.

roconnor said...

Most graduates are barely equipped as animators.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

The thing that complicates this is that at 21, or whatever our age upon finishing school, we think we've paid our dues and learned all there is to know, but nothing could be further from the truth.

piratefish said...

I'm with Phil (about being with you, I guess). The post-collegiate panic commonly experienced in animation is definitely something I can relate to. Your "there is light at the end of the tunnel" interpretation of the topic is definitely a stress-reliever that I would recommend newly graduated animators never lose sight of.