Tips for the Aspiring Animation Artist

What advice would you give to a budding artist who’s considering entering the lucrative and glamorous animation industry? It’s tough telling someone where to start, but I’ve rarely seen better advice than this blog post by “Waveybrain”. The artist who wrote it has experience in both feature and TV animation, and his advice is grounded in hard-earned personal experience, which he generously shares in the post. With the school year kicking into gear, it’d be a good idea for students to read Waveybrain’s post as a reminder of what they need to learn if they want to end up with a job in the industry.


  • MarkT

    This Wavebrain blog has some useful advices, very detailed and professional/technical in nature.
    My biggest advice should be: Forget about animation being “lucrative and glamorous” – it’s not how the actual experience of working in the industry feels like at all for the most part. Choose this path only if you would love doing the actual work (for very long hours), not expecting to bathe in the perceived “glory” around it, because that is not going to happen. And get some life experience and general culture before becoming an artist, there are enough adult animators out there with adolescent mentality.

  • Geo

    I find that the majority of people wanting a career in animation aim towards the most talked about position of “animator”. Most people don’t know that animating characters is just one job of many at the studio. Schools like Animation Mentor tend to cater to this desire, creating programs that produce a glut of character animators. Character animation is also one of the first jobs sent overseas, so that compounds the issue.

    I’d strongly suggest new people take a broader view of the business. Look at areas like art direction, background design, color, character design, and most importantly, story and storyboard. In television, storyboard artists are usually the ones that get promoted to director, and many feature directors got their start as television directors.

    • http://dtoons.com/conroy Failed Art Student

      That’s interesting, back at SCAD, a lot of people want to be character design and storyboarding, and we’re told that’s the hardest to get into.

  • Totally Depressed Animator

    It’s absolutely great advice, but things aren’t the way they used to be. Companies only want animators who can make something move – very anti-Chuck Jones. If you can make something move you’ll get a job.

    • Whippersnapper

      Well yeah, if you’re working on a Flash show. And that does suck in those cases. But I wouldn’t say that’s the case for places like Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, etc.

  • Karl Hungus

    My advice is to be as well rounded as possible – and although I like the school and all of its graduates – I wouldn’t put CalArts at the top of the list to achieve that goal for yourself. CalArts is more of a trade school than a liberal arts education, exemplified by the horrendous lack of art history in their curriculum. Its of the utmost importance to learn about whats been done by those before you before you embark on a career where creating new ideas is valued so much. Most CalArts grads I know and work with graduated without a comprehensive knowledge of art history.

    But besides all that, be EVERYTHING. Don’t aspire to be a designer by learning only about design. You work in films so make films that feature your designs. The alternate to that would be like designing tires without ever having driven a car.

    And work everywhere. The more companies you work at, the more experienced you become and the better you are at your craft, the more valuable you grow to be, the more friends you acquire the less insulated you are.

    The world our parents grew up in, with job security and stability is “bye bye”. Tell your parents that, when they try to advise you.

    • michaelhughes

      They know more about “film history” than “art history”. Animation is part of the film school.

    • Daniel

      Karl,

      I wouldn’t just talk about CalArts curriculum unless you yourself actually went there. Great, you have a couple friends who went to the school, but that doesn’t speak to everyone who graduated from it

      In my *personal* experience, CalArts was more a art school then a trade school. They did have excellent liberal arts classes, and great film classes where your exposed to different films from around the world. CalArts also has one of the best libraries about art around LA, most of the books were handed down by Chouinard (where a lot of early disney artists went to school). I also had Corny Cole as a teacher, and just learned a lot about who those famous “animation” artists were stealing from!

      “You work in films so make films that feature your designs.”

      This is probably why CalArts is the best school to go to for that very reason. CalArts helps it’s students to become film-makers and not just animators. And the way it does that, which no other school has yet done, is to force it’s students to do a film a year. There is no way to grow personally as a film-maker unless you have the personal experience of making a film each year by yourself and show it to a wide audience.

      Most schools will be able to teach you other specific skills, but it will never give you the opportunity to grow your sensitivity, taste, and voice as a film-maker. While at most art schools you are trying to please your teacher into getting a letter grade and somehow follow his personal narrow aesethetic goals on how to succeed in the industry, at CalArts you can personally experience how it feels if your film just isn’t as funny as you thought it was in your head (especially in the open show!)

      In a really general sense, I find a lot of NON-CalArts graduates often have cheesy taste, untested assumptions about animation, and regurgitate statements that they have memorized from their teachers, books, or blogs. The reason being they haven’t actually had any personal experiences with making a film all by themselves for FOUR years, so they’ll always need to fall back on someone else’s assumption on it!

      ..granted there are exceptions to this, but there is nothing that can replace making your own personal films a year for four years!

  • http://www.wardjenkins.com Ward

    It’s Nickelodeon Artist Daniel Schier who wrote the blog post. And it’s a very comprehensive piece. Excellent advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry.

  • http://deleted Waveybrain

    It’s been an interesting day for me today having the Brew drive traffic to my little blog. At the very least I have become aware of other cool Tumblr blogs. I’m a little overwhelmed by the exposure: I generally stay low key. But, I hope the information is useful. Maybe I can append other good insights raised in this particular thread. And, I appreciate all the pats on the back I got today. It was a relief and better than noogies. Btw, that isn’t me up above. @Ward, that was funny. I felt like I was being outed all of the sudden. I’ll be “Waveybrain” in this thread. Thanks Amid for making this day memorable. Too bad I couldn’t have bought stock in myself today.

    • http://www.wardjenkins.com Ward

      Oh man, I’m sorry if I drew attention to your name – I just happened to follow along the contact info you provided on your tumblr blog. Sorry about that! Just thought it would’ve been good info in case anyone cried foul about your experience & such. I do appreciate you posting your thoughts, though! Good stuff.

  • Toonio

    Like everything in life I’d recommend getting some books, learn on your own to see how much you improve. If you feel like “yeah I like this stuff” move forward into specialized studies.

    Watch out for the flourishing fly by night animation schools all over the place. All they want is your hard earned cash and nothing more. Like dealing with con artists, put them to the test to see if they’ll care about you and your career.

    Too bad animationpodcast is not being updated anymore.

  • http://downindeep13.blogspot.com JerRocks2day

    Great advice on creating a portfolio! :)

    I should remember to make sure that all of my BEST work, and nothing copied from another artist, is tucked inside that portfolio for people to see. :)

  • ZigZag

    Here’s a top ten list for aspiring artists wishing to get into the animation industry:

    1. Have a back-up. I will forever remember the day when a former story professor of mine—whom I used to idolize—called me when I was a Character Design Supervisor at a second-rate independent (non-union) shop, and asked me for a job. This was a gentleman who was a lead story artist at a major studio, and not six years after I graduated from CalArts, he was looking for work. The fact is, the industry has no trouble laying people off, regardless of their experience and portfolio. So, have broad design skills so you can fall back and make a living while you’re still looking for studio work.

    2. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Take the garbage jobs as much as the great ones. You never know which job you do for whom at what crappy studio will lead to something later.

    3. Always play nice. This industry is tiny, so a fellow story clean-up artist one day could become your supervisor within a year or two. No one likes a whiny pain in the ass who just complains about how life isn’t as good as how things were for the Nine Old Men.

    4. Stay fresh. There is not enough tar in the world for all of the animation dinosaurs. If you stay up on the industry, you’ll see technological and style trends. Study them, learn them and master them. If you don’t, you’ll soon be replaced by a fresh upstart right out of school who is single, eager and cheap. So, master your craft. Try to always be the best at what you do, and what you want to do. Try to do better than the stars of the industry, in whatever area you choose. And always expand beyond your focus. Take direction well. Think through your work. Go to conventions. Visit Cartoon Brew and other blogs. Take notes. Pay attention. Go the extra mile. And really study all of the masters—yesterday’s and today’s. People will always reward the silver-medal artist with a good attitude and strong work ethic over the gold-medal artist who’s a pain in the ass.

    5. Develop a long-term plan. Look around the industry. How many people employed in it are over fifty? Not many at all. But retirement doesn’t happen until 65+. So, wise up and don’t expect that you can just teach figure drawing for the rest of your life and make a living at it. In addition to your back-up plan, develop plans C, D, E and F.

    6. As a graduate from the program, I can easily say that CalArts is borderline over-rated. That said, I had such a wonderful time and such singular experiences there that I will forever cherish my time there. But I know more of my fellow grads who are not working in the industries than those who are, by a long shot. So, if you get in, go. Just know that the work coming out of there is being greatly surpassed by the work from other schools like Gobelins, for example, where students learn fundamentals, and are forced to work with others on a large-scale project. But the networking and street cred of CalArts still persists, oddly enough.

    7. Animation happens elsewhere. Film, games, online, virtual worlds, commercials, corporate presentations and even legal demonstrations. The gigs may not always be sexy, but sometimes they pay better than the industry gig. And you can use that in-between job to brush up on your skills even more.

    8. Listen to yourself. I thought I wanted to go into animation—and part of me truly does yearn for a studio gig once more. But the thing I loved most about it was storytelling and design. Both of those things happen all throughout other related industries. I’ve since made a very successful career for myself outside the animation industry, and it’s all because I apparently have a decent head for problem-solving—both in design, and storytelling.

    9. Get representation, if possible. My friends who have an attorney or an agent are almost always employed. Those who don’t…aren’t. I’ve watched rock stars become nobodies because they didn’t know how to leverage their last gig into the next one. And since most artists are terrible business people, they often fall on hard times.

    10. Ask for informational interviews. This is perhaps the best advice I can give. You’d be surprised how many people in the industry at very high levels will happily sit with you for fifteen minutes and talk about themselves. And the info they give is enormously helpful. A good friend of mine started off in the mail room (literally) at Disney Animation, and was just absolutely persistent about asking everyone who would talk to him as many questions as he could. He is now Art Directing a series, and has been a Character Design Supervisor and Vis-Dev artist for virtually every major studio.

    Bonus: Don’t be naive. Life is hard. Things don’t always work the way you hoped or intended. I was one of four people interviewed at CalArts by Pixar in my entire class. I thought I was off to the promised land…but it didn’t work out. And while I’ll always hope to get another crack someday, I’m making a good living as a creative pro, and doing my own stuff on the side. So, be a professional, and a grown-up…but never forget the kid inside.

    • http://www.mr-dunn.com mr-dunn*

      superb post Zig-Zag!…you nailed it.

    • Paul N

      Outstanding post. I especially like #7; something that many people (including those that run ASIFA-Hollywood) frequently forget.

    • http://www.caricaturesbydave.com Dave Stephens

      Great advice is often painfully realistic… True artists should always be willing to embrace infinite rejections in exchange for the non-guaranteed payoff of an actual career in animation…

    • Tak

      So few folk in this industry are truly genuine & open about it & their experiences, while still being amiable & honourable. ZigZag is clearly one of them. Floyd Norman, Keith Lango, Mark Mayerson & Paul Teolis are four more.

      Most are either morally pandering self serving cowards who spout politically pleasant “on the fence” drivel that means nothing to no one. Or are jaded old hacks filled with scowling hate who rant & rave for about as much true sense as the others. Wait… there’s a 3rd type, those who are simply quiet, but I guess they’re the smart ones. We need more good people in this industry, but at least there are some.