Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Always Give Something Back, Part 1

Back in April, I was invited by Ferris State to review portfolios and give advice to students of their Digital Animation and Game Design program. The following is some advice that I gave the students (and some advice I wished I had the time to tell them):

You are going into a field where the competition is incredibly fierce, both locally and globally. So you need to stack the deck in your favor. The three best ways I have found to do that are: 1. know someone on the inside, 2. adopt a professional image, and 3. commit to mastering your craft.

1. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Go to animation festivals and get involved in animation societies. Just to name a few in the Great Lakes region: we have the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International, the East Lansing Film Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Toronto Animated Image Society’s Summerjam, the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Branching out a little you can find dozens of animation festivals in other States and countries. While festivals like ELFF, AAFF, and TIFF don’t specialize in animated film like the others I mentioned, they do show animation and will often have special programs dedicated to animated film.

If you are serious about working in the industry, then there’s no excuse not to visit at least one festival with several copies of your portfolio and a stack of business cards. And that festival is the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Think about it: the second largest animation festival IN THE WORLD is only a ten-hour drive from Lansing. It will cost you $45 to get an enhanced Michigan driver’s license which will allow you to enter Canada by car, bus or train (in place of a passport/passport card). There are inexpensive youth hostels to stay at right down the road from the festival (or several of you can pitch in for a hotel room). The Ottawa fest is held every year, they’ve got student rates on their passes, and they’ve got a student category so you can submit a film for competition. They even have student portfolio reviews with some of the larger studios. When you’re there, you can meet industry professionals from Disney/Pixar, Starz, Nelvanna, Dreamworks, Laika, and many others—including dozens of smaller studios in the US and Canada.

Here’s the trick: while you’re standing in line to see the films (or waiting to get some grub at the animator’s picnic) you turn to the first person you don’t recognize and ask them one of the three most common questions:

1. So when did you get in? (translation: when did you arrive at the festival?)
2. What’s your favorite film so far?
3. Are you screening anything this year?

There’s your icebreakers.

So there I am in 2008, at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I'm first in line to get into the evening competition screening and I'm standing there with my brother and his girlfriend. About fifteen minutes before the doors open, the festival organizers march a gentleman right in front of us and ask him to wait there. Eh, it happens. He had a film in the competition and they needed him to be in his assigned seat shortly before the program started. No worries. I glanced at his badge and the resulting conversation started out something like:

"Excuse me sir, are you THE J.J. Sedelmaier?"

"Why yes, yes I am."

Charles Wilson, J.J. Sedelmaier, Ted Wilson (l to r)
Over the next fifteen minutes, I had a wonderful conversation with a veteran animator who was genuinely interested in my forensic and historical animation work as we discussed our careers. When we were done, my brother asked for a photo, Mr. Sedelmaier graciously obliged, then he asked me for my business card and gave me his. Folks, it is THAT easy to meet people in these festivals.

If you want to work in this field, don't shirk those interpersonal skills. Take a Dale Carnegie course, join ToastMasters, take public speaking classes, spend time meeting new people whenever you are stuck standing in line at the grocery store. Interpersonal skills are often neglected by students as they focus on their studies (or are surrounded by people who just don't 'get them'), but they will pay dividends if you keep them polished, whether it's getting a job, talking to clients, or just communicating with co-workers.

One of the criteria by which I judged students was their presence. I asked myself one simple question: would I feel comfortable putting this person in front of a client? In our minds, we're larger than life. But looking at ourselves outside of the little worlds we construct for ourselves, we look a lot different--sometimes dramatically different. More on that in part two. For now, jump on the internet and start looking for animation festivals around you.