From Animation School to the Real World

Last week, I flew out from Los Angeles to New York to attend the annual Dusty animation screening at the School of Visual Arts. I watched forty thesis films from this year’s graduating class—a very solid year, I might add—and witnessed many of the students experience pre-show jitters and post-show relief. It was a fun night getting to see a lot of my old classmates, friends and teachers again, but most importantly it made me reflect on my own experiences since my own thesis screening two years ago.

While graduation was a big deal, the thesis screening was really the big night for us. The films we put a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears into were going to be shown in front of an audience on the big screen, and for most of us, that was a completely new experience. Some of us felt that our thesis films were like big flashy business cards or “HIRE ME” signs, so if there were any industry people in the audience that night, it just might be the ticket to having a job lined up after graduation.

A few days later at the Dusty Awards ceremony, my film ended up winning the Outstanding Traditional Animation award (tied with my friend Zach Bellissimo’s Blenderstein, which was featured here on Cartoon Brew), so in a way I felt validated that I was a decent enough animator to go out and make a living after I left school.

There were times that I felt my future was uncertain, and that having a career in this field might not work out for me.

But after college, the excitement of working as a professional animator gradually began to fade. I went through many ups and downs (mostly downs). I had long periods of busy work, and even longer periods of unemployment. And some of the jobs I had, while keeping me busy, barely supported me. There were times that I felt my future was uncertain, and that having a career in this field might not work out for me. I became disenchanted with the medium, felt emasculated by my peers and started falling into a depression. And seeing a lot of my friends and classmates in equally dire straights filled me with even more trepidation about my career path.

After dealing with this for over a year, I finally made a very big decision to pull up stakes, leave New York and move to LA. It was risky because I didn’t have a job lined up for me when I came out here. Luckily I had friends who found a place for me to live and I got a job in the industry almost immediately upon arrival. Even though I’ve been in LA for only three months, I consider it the best decision I’ve ever made. I feel like I’m in an environment where creativity and appreciation for the craft is never-ending, and I’m the happiest I’ve been since I graduated two years ago.

Be hopeful, hone your craft, push yourself out there, and eventually you will find your place.

And being back at the SVA Theatre watching these incredibly talented young animators go through the same reactions and emotions filled me with both excitement and concern. These students, as well as the hundreds upon hundreds of other graduates coming out of animation schools all over the country, will be put through the same paces as myself. After graduation, that safety net of college life is gone, and despite what your professors or friends tell you, nothing can really prepare you for what happens after you graduate. But the important thing that I want to express to these soon-to-be professional animators is to be hopeful, hone your craft, push yourself out there, and eventually you will find your place.

Don’t let ANYONE or ANYTHING disenchant you. Everybody goes through these motions at one time or another after leaving school. Some of you might have jobs lined up right after school, and some of you might have to wait a little longer. It’s a very scary thing to go through, but it’s all part of the experience. You appreciate things more when you experience the bad alongside the good. It’s something you learn from, and carry with you for the rest of your life. Never wait for opportunities to come along, but instead seek them out. It’s different for everyone. I had to move from one coast to the other to find what I wanted, and I’m glad I did. Keep doing personal work, develop your skills up and surround yourself with people who love and support you and what you do. If you do that, everything will be okay.

With that, I want to congratulate and wish the best of luck to all the recent and soon-to-be graduating animation students. Don’t let employment statistics fool you. The world is chock full of opportunities waiting for you to snatch up. So go out there and keep this industry alive and thriving!


  • Jess

    It’s quite refreshing to come across articles like these :) I’ve finished my course and thesis animation last month (just waiting for graduation this July!) and I’ve been feeling nervous about finding my place in the animation industry. It didn’t help when my own animation professor wasn’t very encouraging when I asked about the local animation industry and mentioned that I wanted to get in it, and I keep reading all these forums with “realistic” albeit really gloomy descriptions of what an animation career is like, all of which are very off-putting :(

    • http://www.facebook.com/michael.j.ruocco Michael J. Ruocco

      I understand completely. At school we had an “Animation Law” class, which was really just our teacher expanding his network of connections by bringing in artists in the industry to the class and telling us about their careers, or companies telling us what projects in store and then saying they’re not currently hiring. And out of the entire semester, about half of them said “Do something else.” or “Go into dentistry” or something along those lines. These were TOP industry people (or so we were told), and since we didn’t know much about the industry outside of our little protective college zone, it was frightening. But luckily, we soon realized that most of these discouraging voices were people who ruffled too many feathers by being jerks throughout their careers and ended become embittered old jerks who couldn’t get any more work because of their attitudes.

      But we also had a “Career Opportunities/Outlook” class the same year taught by David Levy, where it was pretty much the same class, but I personally felt that it was much better in encouraging us to continue pursuing our careers, and the guests were just as encouraging. I left that class learning a great deal, and despite my ups and downs after coming out of school, all the lessons David taught us were invaluable, and helped me get through each interview, job and just life in general. It all depends on how a person packages things and gives it to you.

      The world is full of negative, pessimistic people who love to relish in the idea or belief that “Everything is terrible today” and that everything is going downhill fast. Somebody drops a pin somewhere in Hollywood and half of them go “Well, that’s the end of an era. The industry’s dead. Pack your bags and go home.”. You have to be positive and look at the situation in a much broader light, rather than just focus on the bad. Be a positive and hard-working individual in the workforce and there’ll be a place for you. And make sure to stay informed about the doings and goings on in the industry your in and work through those obstacles you come across.

      Nobody said it would be easy or fun, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and MAKE it fun for yourself.

      • z-k

        “Somebody drops a pin somewhere in Hollywood and half of them go “Well, that’s the end of an era. The industry’s dead. Pack your bags and go home.””

        Is usually portions of the industry go through a pruning process; some parts stick around and some parts die off. Compare traditional animation positions today with 20 or even 10 years ago; mediums (analog vs Cintiq; Oxberry vs. Flash), etc. And some would say the kind of films or series that are being made.

        Whether any of this is ultimately for the better or for worse, it can be subjective and difficult to see while in the moment. I will say though that I notice outsourcing has moved most anything traditional – and a good deal of vfx – overseas, with preproduction art positions sure to follow to whatever degree. Traditional animation as it was – apart from indie or student films – seems next to dead at the moment; though something like Flash did temporarily create a new set of jobs (and kinds of animators and animation sensibilities) over the past decade – as well as creating new expectations in scheduling, budgeting, and the kinds of shows being financed.

        Again, is left to be seen whether this is a beneficial permutation to the industry insofar as the artists are concerned, whether it will favor sprinters over marathon runners.

  • John Nevarez

    Amen!!!!! Well said Michael! This industry can be tough, but you said something which I frequently have to remind myself: Don’t let anyone or anything disenchant you and that at times we have to create our own opportunities. Always stay hungry, always strive to learn and always look for what’s ahead. Sometimes it can be lonely and many times it can be rough, and quite frequently one can have doubt in themselves and their talent. Heck this happens to me still and I’ve done this for 16 years. But no matter what, do what you love, and love what you do! Stay humble, keep learning and always take care of yourself! Good luck to all the graduates of 2013!

  • Jens

    I had a similar experience. Pretty much out of the blue my grad film was accepted in the student section of the cannes fil festival. I thought people would be lining up to hire me after that, or at least that it would not be too difficult to get a job. However that’s not really what happened ;)

    It was in the following months that I learned that awards and festivals mean very little in the industry in terms of jobs. -You’ll get pats on the back though.

    What I did learn was, -Keep making stuff! Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you don’t listen to the voices in your head that tell you you are worthless. Landing the first job has as much to do with luck as it has with skill.

    A great piece of advice I was given when I was parading my grad film around studios was. -’People forget you very quickly in this industry’ Meaning, that if your grad film has not landed you a job in the first couple of months, it probably won’t do so a year later either. -Move on and create something fresh, maybe just 10 secs of really great animation or a series of illustrations, whatever you like -and send it out. It’ll be enough to make you pop back into potential employers minds though.

    keep doing this and you’ll find work

    good luck to all new talent

  • wolfram

    Sorry, somehow it sounds like the conclusion of the whole article is: Move to L.A. What about all the other Artists in other regions and other countries?

    Might be that L.A. is a paradise for creative people, but in other regions of the world the Animation Industry is not doing well. Safety is not guaranteed, and I find myself and many of my friends asking themselves if they have chosen the right career.

  • daniel

    I would also say learn how to DRAW. That’s probably the single most asset you *need* to have to work in animation, especially if you are interested in going in to visdev or story. The time to learn how to draw is in school not at the work place. Even with the increase of animation schools and programs, in my opinion 99% of college graduates can’t draw.

  • James

    While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the author, I’m often reminded of some wise words from Brad Bird himself. “The work is the reward, everything else is just noise and BS”. Meaning, if you love animation enough, you’ll do it anyways, even if means picking up menial work during tyhe day, and animating for 30 minutes at night. It’s what most of us did, and what a lot of us still do.

    No one deserves the “industry jobs”, no matter what your alma mater. You just need to concern yourself with creating great work!

  • http://www.justingoran.com/ Justin Goran

    I’m still hoping that I will eventually find my place.

    While I don’t have a masters in animation I still work hard to learn as much as I can fueled by my own drive and love for the CG Animation Medium and animation in general. This might not have won me many favors compared to other artists with Bachelor degrees and such but I do what I can. The couple years I did attend college I found my passion in animation and really built up my artistic confidence. From college I found an internship at a local independent animation studio doing CG Generalist work and really began to hone my craft and find my area of interest in the wide world of CG Animation.

    I was living in a city where the arts aren’t very active. In Canada there isn’t much work outside of Vancouver or Toronto. I wasn’t happy living where I was and wanted to take a chance to try and get into the industry, so when the studio went on hiatus I took it as an opportunity to uproot and move to Toronto to find work.

    I moved in hopes of finding work when I got here. I spent a lot of time building up a new reel to apply to studios. At this point I’ve already found my focus, I’ve really started to dive into CG Lighting and have really found a love for it.

    In my downtime I just kept my nose to the grindstone, learning as much as I can until I can get good enough that someone will be willing to hire me. I’ve been taking master classes and reading books and just practicing making work to keep pushing my skills.

    As well as building my skills I’ve also been taking every chance I can to network and meet other artists working here, putting myself out there every chance I get.

    Moving to a new city has made a world of difference. I feel so much more energized creatively and I’m excited to be around other artists that are as excited for the craft as I am.

    It’s been seven months since I’ve made the jump, I still haven’t found work at a studio but my personal work has made big improvements over these last seven months. I have had my share of self doubts and fears if I’ll ever find work, but I am confident that as long as I keep working on my personal work and pushing myself to improve I will eventually find the job I’m looking for and get the opportunity I want. No one ever said taking this path was easy, and I sure didn’t expect it to be. While it’s been a challenging seven months, it’s also been very rewarding. My future is very uncertain right now but the only thing I can be certain about is my willingness to work hard and keep pushing myself to improve.

    Why am I sharing my story? well I just want to share my story of going through the challenging part of getting a career going in this difficult industry. We often hear of the success as the failures get swept under the rug, but hearing the challenges that other artists face that also reflect our own challenges suddenly make things a little less scary and help that small ray of hope shine a bit brighter.

    Thanks Michael for sharing your story!

  • Sir Ingenious

    Pick yourself.

    Disney isn’t going to pick you.
    Pixar isn’t going to pick you.
    DreamWorks isn’t going to pick you.
    Sony isn’t going to pick you.

    Hell, even the smaller studios aren’t going to pick you.

    Sorry Mario! But the princess is in another castle.

    So, what should you do in this (or any) case? Pick yourself.

    Or wait for a long, long time to get picked. Screw that!

    Why voluntarily give these big studios all the power to pick you? And actually, they aren’t as powerful anymore (and they’re rapidly losing power being in the position of picking); YouTube, Vimeo, various animation programs, and various modern tools have given YOU the power to pick yourself.

    Make animation, make art, become remarkable. That’s it.

    The problem isn’t the animation industry or “lacks of jobs” or “getting laid off” but the problem lies in that YOU need to produce better art. And that takes slog, dedication and sweat.

    Jessica Borutski, Marlo Meekins, Katie Rice, Nick Cross and many more others didn’t wait to get picked. They picked themselves. They got to work. They became remarkable. Then and only then, they reaped the rewards.

    Oh and at last but not least: if Walt Disney didn’t pick himself when he was initially rejected then there would be no Walt Disney Studios.

    Thanks for the article, Michael. It was inspiring that you’ve decided not to wait but to pick yourself and move to LA. Good luck!

    • Murd0ck

      Totally agree!!

  • coolzone

    Actually the industry is a soul crusher, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. It’s just a job at the end of the day. Cog in the wheel of making factory cartoons. Same stories, same styles, same acting, same sh*T different studio. Don’t mix business with pleasure and if drawing is your pleasure well then…

    On the bright side the studio system is not the be all end all. thanks to the internet you can do your own THANG and make $$$

    heyo!!

  • TStevens

    Unfortunately there are more kids being turned out of the schools than the industry can handle. It use to be there was CalArts, Sheridan, and a few other schools that would turn out a few hundred graduates at most. Now there are hundreds of schools turning out thousands of graduates every year. The reality is that many of them are producing kids who have no way way of getting in to the industry. I have people send me links to portfolios all of the time who say they made the Dean’s list at a given institution in an “Animation” program and many of them couldn’t even model a basic character let alone draw one…

  • Strong Enough

    “There were times that I felt my future was uncertain, and that having a career in this field might not work out for me.”

    Really? try being an aspiring screenwriter. Animation was always my fallback! lol

  • canimal

    Thanks for this article. I’m a current animation student at Ringling, with very little financial aid, so needless to say my debt is going to be through the roof once I graduate. I absolutely adore animating and the program at the school is fantastic, but its a constant struggle with trying to decide if attending this school was a smart decision, and after hearing all these stories about successful animators attending cheaper schools/not attending animation school at all or struggling animators with an expensive degree, I’m starting to think not. I’m not sure what I’m going to do at this point. Anyway, this article gave me a little to think about, so thank you.

  • recent grad

    There are so many colleges that are allowing kids to graduate who shouldn’t even have been admitted in the first place. At SVA it’s “required” to finish a 4th year film to get your degree yet I was sharing the stage with about 20 classmates who never even handed in animatics. Sure makes it seem like busting my ass was worth it.

    • Animation Guy

      It’s an unfortunate scenario, however the reality is that education institutes are often required to fulfill specified student numbers in order to get their government funding.

      Even without government enforcement, a school still needs to meet financial thresholds simply to keep itself running.

  • Axolotl

    The general advice is good. The specifics may be misleading and/or unreliable because they only reflect one guy’s experience.
    (He’s right about LA being better than NY, though.=p)

  • Taylor

    Your advice in a thread about surviving after Animation school, on an Animation website, is to essentially just not pursue animation professionally. Brilliant.

  • Jacob

    Amen.

  • lol

    your advice is more solid than that the article itself

  • Test

    I have to admit I cried when I read this.

    I have to have made the biggest mistake ever and that was to become disenchanted with this field when I was a kid. I remember watching and saying “I want to do that” when I saw animation. It literally was what kept me in art for a long time. As I got older, in high school mostly, I was told how “stupid” of a dream it was to want to do this and how I was going to fail. In the end, I believed it and instead went off to study something I kind of like, but was never my dream.

    God to anyone out there who reads this, please please please fight for your dream. Don’t give in to your peers and their “helpful” advise when it comes to your dreams. If you know you want to animate then do it. Don’t lose your skill in it no matter what you hear and embrace the career. No one has a 100% guarantee in life no matter what they do. Just don’t focus on that and focus on making your art. It’s what matters.