While art skills are obviously important to a career in animation, they’re only one thing that influences an artist’s success. As films, TV series and games are large scale operations, often employing hundreds of artists and costing millions of dollars, an artist needs to know how to work in a group and meet the needs of a production. If artists have any ambition, they also need to figure out how to improve their opportunities at the same time they are busy meeting deadlines.
Steve Hickner’s career in animation began shooting pencil tests at Filmation. From this inauspicious beginning, he parlayed hard work, ambition and a good grasp of studio politics to advance himself and produce films like Balto and to co-direct Prince of Egypt and Bee Movie. His book, Animating Your Career collects the wisdom he has accumulated along the way. His advice is field-tested and worth reading.
Part one of the book is entitled “Making Your Dream Happen,” and focuses on having a correct attitude, taking advantage of opportunities, managing your time and seeking out mentors. It’s aimed at artists who are still struggling to establish themselves. The advice in this part of the book doesn’t break new ground, but Hickner backs it up with stories from the productions that he’s worked on, so these truisms are reinforced with concrete examples.
Part two is entitled “Leading and Growing.” While less useful to beginning artists, this is where the book really shines. Artists who are promoted to management positions often find themselves in unknown waters. To quote Hickner:
“Although our new department managers may have spent years training to be at the top of their artistic disciplines, they were expected to step into a role as a leader without any training whatsoever. No wonder so many of them (myself included) were floundering. No reasonable leader would expect a person to grab a brush and paint a magnificent landscape without any previous experience, and yet here we were asking our best artists to become managers without the slightest instruction. Promoting people without any training is absurd, but that same mistake is repeated in company after company.”
Hickner also differentiates between managers and leaders.
“Managers control resources, and that usually means people, equipment and money. Leaders, on the other hand, guide and lift up the employees. They have the ability to focus people on a task and imbue the job with a higher sense of purpose.”
Management has a huge impact on the working environment and the visual quality of a project. Even experienced supervisors would benefit from this half of the book. Once again, Hickner backs up his advice with examples from the many projects he’s had a hand in managing.
In short, Animating Your Career is a manual on how to be a good soldier in the animation army. There are other worthy ambitions in animation, but if this is what you aspire to, Hickner’s book is a comprehensive guide to making you valuable to your company as an artist and as a manager.
MARK MAYERSON has worked as an animator, writer, producer and director in TV animation for 29 years. He created the CGI series Monster By Mistake. He currently teaches animation at Sheridan College. Visit his blog MayersonOnAnimation.blogspot.com.