Monday, April 25, 2011

The Juggling Match

As part of my School of Visual Arts Animation Career Strategies class, which I teach to graduating seniors each year, I ask them to bring in two questions each week based on the assigned readings. The texts cover just about every aspect of building and maintaining a healthy career in this industry, and the questions they inspire help to shape our discussion in class. One interesting thing that has come up time and again is fear or stress at the idea of having to do more than one thing at a time. In other words: while you’re going on interviews and looking for work, you should also be creating new samples (maybe specialized samples tailored to a project you’d like to work on), and networking by attending animation events/keeping in touch with your peeps online.

When I mentioned that it might be a good idea to volunteer at groups such as ASIFA, WIA, WICM, Animation Block Party, etc., a few students expressed concerns with fitting that into their schedule. Volunteering (in the context of animation organizations) is not a full time commitment, but an hour or two here and there, maybe spread over a month. I have to admit that I’m a little baffled by these fears, because my assumption is that this current generation would be experts at multi-tasking. Aren’t they the ones that are watching TV while texting, tweeting, and checking their e-mail? Maybe this modern-age skill for multi-tasking usually only serves frivolous purposes? I don’t want to believe that. But, there sure seems to be a gap in understanding that you need to juggle to earn and keep your place in this biz.

Time is among the most precious things we have, at any age. But, when you begin a career in animation, how you spend that time is especially critical. In this post I’m suggesting that its absolutely essential to be juggling things like the job hunt with networking, volunteerism, making new samples, etc., and for many newbies that may also mean adding working as interns for free or little money. Some will advise you to NEVER work for free under any circumstance. Others, such as successful newcomer Jake Armstrong, advises that its okay to work for free upon graduation, but insists you must set a definite limit at two days a week. That’s how he began (in an internship at Augenblick), and in only two years since, he’s become one of today’s most sought after freelancers (on both coasts!).

But, be careful in your internships. I just heard about a recent grad working at a studio where most every employee is an unpaid intern (all of them graduates), working for free, five days a week. She confessed that she hadn’t made it to ASIFA-East events in a long time because she just can’t get away. Now, as much as it’s true that no experience is wasted, I’d say this is still a very unfair situation. Not only is five days a week too much to ask of an intern, these free workers have been "working" this way for five months! Not only does this smack as illegal to me, it also robs the intern of the time he/she needs to use to find a REAL job, network/volunteer at events, and create new samples.

I don’t know that this kind of thing happens in other industries. I can’t imagine an oil rig opening up and asking oil workers to intern for free on the rig for five months/five days a week. Can you? But, animation artists line up for this shit. It boggles the mind. Yes, you have to pay your dues––we all did. But, paying your dues doesn’t have to involve being ripped off and abused. If you’re going to build a career of your own invention, you can’t do that without looking out for your basic needs and rights. You can’t juggle if your hands are bound.


Charles Kenny said...

You're absolutely right David. No-one should ever be in a position where they feel hamstrung in a position that is not earning them a living.

At the same time though, the decision is up to the individual. There's no way I would accept a 40 hour week in exchange for "experience". Now maybe that's just me (or my stubborn Irish nature) but in the civil engineering industry, you'd be very hard pressed to find students vying for non-paying work. Why should the attitude of animation students be any different?

It is hard to juggle things, I know that (work, school, blog, Gealic football, gym, dog) but what I've found is that the more things I do or participate in, the more efficiently I do everything a a whole. As a result, I have much less 'wasted' time during the day.

What I've learned is that a lot of people say they don't have 'time' but what they really lack is a set schedule or the discipline to keep to such a schedule.

Michael Sporn said...

You're exactly right about having to volunteer at a number of different organizations where meeting new, key people will be essential. Excuses don't pay off in the long run.

As for interns, I wish that part of the story bad been covered in a bit more depth in the Plympton book. I'd honestly have liked hearing about the use of "free" labor on the low budget films. It's always been difficult for me to accept free employees, and I usually don't take on any free interns. (I really have to be talked into it.) This is a tough subject to discuss.

David B. Levy said...

This is a tough subject to discuss, Michael. And, there's lots of grey area. The studio I mentioned that was enlisting a whole staff of long term free labor is really a failed business model pulling in unwitting recent grads. Maybe some will get something out of that experience, but at what cost? Was the only way to break in to the biz? I can't believe that. Those newbies would have been better off making their own short for five months for no pay. At least they'd have something of their own by the end.

On the Plympton studio, I don't really have the full data on that, in terms of internships. But, I know that a large percent of Plympton interns were subsequently hired by him, and at the very least, interns at his studio know they are interning for THE world's most celebrated indie animator. That means a great value to be gained (experience, resume points, etc)... unlike the ripoff studio I was talking about.

Stephen Macquignon said...

There are a lot of sharks out there all looking to take someone for a ride. Interning is not bad; working for free that gains you (the intern) some kind of experience in the field you want to work in is a good thing as long that there are clear rules.
If you are answering a post on Craigslist that says can’t pay you but! Build your portfolio. I would be concerned, working for companies like Plympton studio or Michael’s that have a good reputation is a different story. I have done work for “free” to gain experience I was missing. But I held the copyrights to my artwork not the company I was working with.

(Funny I found this post on craigslist)

Unpaid internship: When is it legal?

An unpaid internship must meet six tests to be legal:
1. it must be an educational experience, the equivalent of vocational school.
2. It must primarily benefit the trainee.
3. The intern cannot do work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee, and must work under the close supervision of a manager.
4. The employer cannot profit from the intern's work.
5. The employer must not promise upfront a paid job at the conclusion of the internship. It's OK to offer a job once the internship ends.
6. The intern and employer must agree if no wages are to be paid. It's best to put this understanding in writing, and have both parties signed the paper.
Sources: Jay Zweig, a Phoenix labor lawyer; U.S. Labor Department

intern said...

Heya, it's me, the intern! (Gonna stay anonymous on here, even though you know who I am...) I agree with everything you said...I'm choosing to try and stay positive, though, by telling myself I have more on my reel, more experience with flash, more to put on my resume... It was a good learning experience, but it would be an understatement to say some of the stuff going on going on wasn't 'Kosher.' And the rest will hopefully make a good story... because, holy cow do I have stories...

intern said...

oh- and it's actually been just under 4 months, which is the approximate duration of the internship. I suppose at the end, the current round of interns will leave and new ones will come in. Wouldn't it make more sense to actually hire people and have a cohesive team, rather than having a constant conveyor belt of interns?