Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Animated Thoughts: Three Cautionary Tales

It's June. By now a plethora of animation students have graduated from college and are (hopefully) working at their first job. So, I'd like to share three cautionary tales for those who are either embarking on their career in animation or are looking forward to taking their first college class on animated film this Fall.

Cautionary Tale #1:

At the last Ottawa fest, I was told of a student who plagiarized someone else's work to get a job at an animation studio. And when the (former) student was on the job, it became very apparent very quickly that they lacked the skills to produce work of sufficient quality to create the artwork in question--much less produce artwork necessary to hold a job at that studio. Some detective work later and it was discovered that the portfolio material was plagiarized. So, as it was nearly the end of the person's contract anyway, rather than deal with the hassle of firing them, the studio paid off the remainder of the contract and the person in question was let go. 1

There are so many lessons to be learned here: promote your own work, make sure that the person who is interviewing you knows exactly what you did for that clip on your demo reel or that artwork in your portfolio--oh and most importantly, don't steal other people's work! But the thing to remember is that this is a relatively small industry. Sooner or later, everyone meets up at the festivals and talks to each other. If you're misrepresenting work that is in your portfolio/demo reel, WHEN you get caught, word will travel fast and you'll find yourself in an industry where no one wants to take a chance on you. So, if you're producing work as part of a larger project, be sure to denote EXACTLY what you did in that video clip. Don't try to pass yourself off as the lead animator if all you were doing was clean-up work. And never plagiarize work that is not yours. You WILL be found out eventually. I don't work in feature animated films, broadcast television, or the gaming industry. My forensic animation work for court cases and museums puts me squarely on the fringes of the animation macrocosm--so when "I" hear about an incident like this, you can bet that every HR Director at every animation studio in California, New York, Ontario and British Columbia knows the details. The risks of cheating do not outweigh the benefits. Show your own work and make sure it's the best work that you can produce. And if you're not good enough right now, work harder and try again.

There are no shortcuts in this industry. Either you can do the work or you can't. So make the decision right now to master your craft.

Cautionary Tale #2:

A couple years back, I was asked to do portfolio reviews by a local college. Quite frankly, I enjoy doing them. While you don't get reimbursed for your time, it's a great way to give back to the community and help up-and-coming animators avoid some of the mistakes that you've made. During the review process, the other gentleman and I went through something like twelve or fifteen students over the course of a couple hours. They walked in, showed us their portfolio and demo reel, discussed it, we asked questions, and then we had time to write a review with praise for what they did well and suggestions for where they needed improvement. All the students were Sophomores, so at this point in their education, we expected that the quality of their work and interpersonal skills would be all across the spectrum--and there's nothing bad about that. Everyone has to start somewhere and college is a good place to learn what you don't know, as well as a good place to sand off the rough edges. And we were happy to help these kids out.

So a smartly dressed kid showed up about halfway through the four-hour period and proceeded to show us his portfolio and demo reel... well, it wasn't actually "his" portfolio or "his" demo reel. It turns out that both of his older brothers were in the animation program and the three of them wanted to start their own company when they had all graduated. Nothing inherently wrong with that, however, during the entire session, he didn't show a single piece of work that he himself had produced or had even worked on. All he did was blather on about how his brothers did this and that and they were going to start a company when they all graduated. I was floored. Now all the students had varying levels of preparation for this portfolio review, but this kid had absolutely NOTHING of his own to show us and behaved as if he expected us to be excited about his two brothers' work and the future they had in front of them. Honestly, I've never had a student be that insulting. In my opinion, all he did was waste an opportunity that would've been better given to another student who deserved it more. Fortunately, the Dale Carnegie training kicked in and I did my best not to condemn or complain and left behind only that criticism which I hoped would be constructive.

Afterwards, when I was writing my evaluation of his presentation, I held my 'poison pen' in check and stated that he had shown none of his own work and that the work his brothers were producing wasn't relevant as "he" was the person we were reviewing. While he was honest about the fact that he didn't produce the work that he showed us, how can we, or any human resources director, evaluate whether or not we should hire you if you don't show us anything that you yourself have produced? Clearly, this young man had either not understood the assignment or he just didn't care enough to do it--either way, the lack of preparation speaks volumes to a potential employer. When you're going in for a job interview, you want THEM looking for excuses to hire YOU, not YOU trying to give THEM excuses to hire you. The job market is tough, especially in the animation industry. You want to stack the deck as heavily in your favor as possible. If you don't have enough of your own material in your portfolio or demo reel, then apply the advice of NFB Director Michael Fukishima while you look for work or during that rare free time:

"Make a ten-second film and send it to the festivals. Next, make a 30-second film... and send it to the festivals. Next, make a sixty second film... and send it to the festivals..."

You get the point. Whether you're in school or during a hopefully rare gap in employment, you should always be working to improve your skills. Gaps in your employment can either work for you or against you, it all depends on what you do while you're looking for that next job.

Cautionary Tale #3:

Earlier this year, I attended an anime and Japanese culture con here in town. One of the panels I sat in on was all about improving your art. Well, the start time came and went and no one could find the presenter. So, something dynamic happened: people started posing questions to the crowd. As there were a couple pros in the crowd as well as a bunch of students, we all started answering the questions together. For thirty minutes, every question asked was something that either one or a couple people in the crowd had encountered before. There was an energy in that room that I don't see often as most people are content to absorb information from the speaker, whereas this was truly a collaborative environment.

Well, the presenter showed up after a half hour and then preceded to give some of the worst advice I have ever heard. I got the distinct impression that she was a very disappointed (or disgruntled) art student (or former art student). For the remaining twenty minutes, it was "no one in Japan likes anime, it's just a fringe thing", "Art schools in America hate anime", "Anime cons in Japan are just glorified shopping trips", "don't try to get a job after art school, there aren't any". It's honestly been a while since I've seen someone suck all the energy out of the room like that. I sat there after she was finished with her presentation and watched Middle School and High School-aged kids walk out of the room with deflated looks on their faces.

What a wasted opportunity.

It did, however, get me to think about next year's convention and to make some decisions about my future participation. In the past, the con organizers have invited me to present a lecture or host a panel discussion at their con. I left the young lady's event thinking that it was time that a professional animator did a little research on what skills, backgrounds, and interests that animation schools are looking for in applicants to their programs--and how that information could be presented in such a way that these kids could maximize their chances of getting accepted to an animation program.

Sometime in the future, you will be in a position where you are called upon to share your experiences and your knowledge with a bunch of bright-eyed students who are envious of your career path. Having performed this role in the past, I lean towards being the honest yet cautiously optimistic speaker. I'm honest about my successes and my failures as well as the current state of the industry. However, I'm not about to stomp on anyone's dreams just because they want to take a career route that I have not or because they don't seem to fully comprehend the fickle nature of the animation industry. One of these kids may have the developing skills and the drive to work at a major animation studio working on feature-length animated films--or create the next 'My Little Pony' or 'Venture Bros' for television. Yes, we should be honest about the challenges ahead of them as well as the amount of work it's going to take to be proficient in their craft--to say nothing of holding down a job as 'a creative'. But we should always phrase our lectures as a series of challenges to be overcome, not as a series of jackboots waiting to crush their spirits so that they walk away wondering why they should even bother trying to become an artist/animator.

There is a man from my hometown of East Lansing, Michigan named Justin Leach. His father owns the video rental store about ten minutes from my house. He graduated from college in 1997, worked in Japan on Production I.G.'s animated feature film "Ghost in the Shell: Innocence" and the anime series "Last Exile". He performed modelling and rigging on such films as "Ice Age". "Rio", "Epic", and the TV series "Star Wars: the Clone Wars", among others. 2 And, "In 2012, Justin produced his first short film entitled, "Kick-heart"; Japan's first crowd-funded anime directed by Masaaki Yuasa in cooperation with Production I.G." 3

If one guy from a small-ish mid-western city could get a job working in Japan's anime industry and then go on to work on blockbuster animated feature films here in America, you can't convince me that others couldn't do the same thing. It all depends on how much work you are willing to invest in your goals. We, as older animators have a responsibility to inspire the next generation through our films, our being a part of the global dialogue on animation, and through our example every time we're asked to talk to a bunch of kids about our jobs.

Don't waste any opportunity you are given to inspire that next generation of animators.

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1. Out of respect for the studio in question and the person who told me this cautionary tale, I'm not going to reveal which studio it was or who told me this story, so please do not ask.
2. Source: IMDB http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0494838/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
3. Source: IMDB http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0494838/bio#trivia