Preparing for a Career in Animation

Preparing for a Career in Animation
Written by Arielle Emmett for CGW Magazine

© 1996 CGW, by PennWell Publishing Co., Tulsa, OK.
Reprinted with permission.

Whether your field of choice is TV/feature film, industrial design, or games, certain schools and backgrounds are more desirable than others

Sidebar: Sheridan College: A Hot School
Sidebar: Some Top Art and Animation Colleges

If you’re quick with tricks and can model and animate the Incredible Hulk beating up the Ninja Turtles using as few polygons as possible, if you enjoy animating hubcaps or Coke bottles or prefer grinding out scenes of the monsters that ate Chicago, don’t worry: The computer animation industry has a paycheck for you.

If, on the other hand, you draw like da Vinci and cartoon like Disney but have little or no computer graphics experience, your search for a high-tech animation job may be daunting. Here’s hope: Hollywood studios, game houses, and industrial design boutiques claim they’re begging for artists, modelers, programmers, and skilled technicians–and will make unconventional hires and nasty high-stakes steals when applicants show a record of outstanding fine-arts achievements, even in areas outside the computer graphics arena.

“The industry is desperate for talent,” says Gregory MacNicol, a computer animator and owner of Gregory MacNicol/Computer Graphics (Santa Cruz, CA), a 3D computer graphics development and production facility. “There are times in the industry when there isn’t enough work for animators and times when studios are desperate for animators. But there’s always a high demand for creativity.”

At Industrial Light & Magic (Venice, CA), a leading US producer of special effects and computer animation for TV commercials and films, the search for top-flight animation talent is international. “It’s sink or swim now. The pool of talent is very limited,” says Ken Maruyama, ILM’s digital technologies development manager. “For everything from technical directors to animators to modelers to computer graphics supervisors–and also for people in traditional disciplines, such as rotoscoping and view painting–we recruit from US-based specialty colleges and universities that have graphics programs, plus we recruit from Europe, the UK, France, the Orient, and a lot from Canada.

“Although we prefer people who have real experience on the computer, who know its languages and how to program [ILM’s people need to know shell scripting for Unix]” he continues, “we have hired artists who have little foundation or background in computers but are strong in other areas, such as illustration, cel animation, or sculpture, and we’ve taught them computer skills.” Like other large and diverse production facilities, ILM will take calculated risks on new hires when necessary. “Many people can make that leap to computers, but not everybody,” he says. “Some people just can’t adjust. We’ve had a lot of failures.”

Somewhere between rare strokes of genius and the daily grind of animating monsters or hubcaps, young artists and beginning animators who have little career experience are finding themselves in a brave new world. Today, that world is segmenting rapidly–along with job requirements, skill sets, and artistic needs–into three distinct fields: TV/film animation, industrial design, and gaming. Specialization is almost a fact of life from the beginning of a young animator’s career.

For example, TV/film animation has become a distinct world of its own, with the slickness and intense pressure of Hollywood production and the requirements of storytelling and brilliant use of color, movement, and light. That world co-exists (some might say in a parallel universe) with industrial design, which makes surfaces bright and mechanics heart-stopping, and which relies on traditional high-end animation techniques, such as single frames, exploded views, and ray tracing. Finally, shoot-’em-up games and interactive entertainment represent the highest areas of growth and opportunity for new talent.

“The differences in all three fields are dramatic,” says MacNicol. “In games, for example, animators must rely on speed and trickery. They must have insight into the mechanics of the game. They can’t use too many polygons. There are a lot of tricks required to move things quickly, to create illusions in low resolution and color count using simplified hardware.

“By contrast, industrial design animation is typically in high resolution–1000×1000 pixels at least–and tries to convey as realistically as possible what a design looks like. You don’t limit your polygons,” MacNicol observes. “Most industrial design jobs don’t require complicated animation,” adds David Roznowski, a spokesperson for CDI Computer Services Inc. (Troy, MI), an industrial design and animation firm with big automaker accounts, including the Chrysler dealer network. “You’re asked to produce more single frames for clients, more single images, turntable-style [spin around] and exploded-view animations. That contrasts with games, which rely more on character animation that’s short and repetitive,” he says.

The third category, TV/film animation, is more closely aligned to gaming than industrial design, Roznowski suggests. “TV/film animation also uses character animation and logos, but I see no limitations in design,” he says. One distinguishing feature of “animated entertainment” is its emphasis on a story well told. For instance, says MacNicol, in many 30-second commercials “animators combine live action with animation; they study documentaries and video and take film or advertising courses. From the beginning, they must understand the process of story telling–humor, anticipation, the beginnings and endings of stories. They must learn how each image is used to sort the overall process of the story.”

A few years ago, getting a foot in the door was easier than it is today. “Just about all an art student had to do was boot up the computer to get a job,” notes Tim Forcade, president of Forcade & Associates (Lawrence, KS; Evanston, IL), a graphics and animation production company. “Today, though, it’s a much more level playing field. Everyone uses the tools now. The emphasis is shifting away from the tools and back to the artistic experience of using them.”

In addition, “TV/film animation is becoming extremely competitive and hard to make money in,” says Michael Limber, chief of operations and director of production for Angel Studios (Carlsbad, CA), a company that has recently switched from focusing on TV animation to games and interactive entertainment. “Games are exploding,” he adds.

“The gaming industry is now bigger than the entire film and video industry combined. And everyone in games is really short of animators,” adds Tom Reyburn, a marketing communications manager at Wavefront Technologies (Santa Barbara, CA), whose business is now 25% gaming. “Many of the games houses are pirating animators away from post-production facilities and film and video studios. The games companies can afford to offer incredible salaries to young animators. An entry-level games animator, for example, can make from $50,000 to $70,000 a year.”

Some industry experts worry that big-time games companies are actually high-end sweatshops, forcing young animators to specialize in only one type of skill set and repeat it day after day. “Some people animate monsters or burning buildings all day long,” says Evan Hirsch, president of Acme Animotion Group (Hoboken, NJ), a firm specializing in providing 3D design and support for industrial design and animations. “It reminds me of the old-fashioned industrial design firms where people drew hubcaps all day long.” Others, however, believe gaming can represent real opportunity. For example, Angel Studios’ Limber says his company requires people from many different backgrounds–some with training in animation and many with strong software and artificial intelligence skills. “We need everything from artists who can conceptualize 3D objects in beautiful color to modelers to programmers to lighting people. Our strongest employees, in fact, can bridge the gap between art and technology: They can discuss aesthetics and implement their ideas technically,” he says.

Virtually every source interviewed for this story argued that a young animator requires an extraordinarily well-rounded education–both artistic and humanistic. On the artistic side, Hirsch says that a classic fine-arts background is more desirable than a few technical courses in computer graphics. “I want to see the basics–sketching, portfolio examples that show me how the student thinks and understands light, form, and function. I don’t want to see a lot of slick computer graphics that don’t show me anything; I’m after good fundamental skills.”

“The ideal student has a grounding in basics such as sketching, modeling, painting, rendering, design, story development, use of color and light–plus at least some knowledge and experience of programming [Unix knowledge and shell-scripting knowledge of software like Wavefront and Alias are desirable] and use of graphics software tools,” ILM’s Maruyama affirms. David B. Fisher, a manager of training and demonstration at Wavefront, argues for classic liberal arts: “If a student wants a career in animation, I’d recommend going to an art institute, reading literature, and getting a broader education; it’s an enriching thing. Most studios are looking for someone who is well-rounded and has a good bit of time on a [computer graphics] system. You can’t take a class for that. What studios really need is time in the saddle–only time lets people develop deep skills.”

But which courses to take? And which schools? Which approach? Animators almost uniformly shy away from describing a sequence of courses that are necessary, but Hirsch argues that young animators do best by studying in the “Bauhaus schools”–art institutes that teach an aesthetic based on “form follows function” (he cites the Pratt Institute in New York as one of the most outstanding). These schools emphasize intensive work in color theory, lighting, sketching, painting, and design skills. After that, some specific computer graphics training, including familiarity with 3D modeling, animation, or paint programs, may also be desirable. “I’ve yet to hire a computer graphics institute graduate,” Hirsch says proudly (he doesn’t necessarily represent mainstream opinion on this point). “A lot of them are so technically oriented, they would do better in slide houses. What I’m really after are creative skills.”

The shortage of good animation programs has necessarily created a “hot list” of the few desirable schools and tactics for getting into them. Almost invariably, top schools are magnets for leading Hollywood studios and corporate recruiters ranging from DreamWorks to Disney, ILM, and Fox. Schools frequently mentioned for their strengths in art and animation include Pratt Institute, Sheridan College, Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, School of Visual Arts, Ohio State University, Minneapolis College of Art & Design, Ringling School of Art & Design, Rhode Island School of Art & Design, and Texas A&M. There are several other emerging programs, and competition can be fierce.

In fact, most schools have applicant ratios that far outstrip the numbers of available spaces. At Sheridan College, for example, one of the most highly rated in North America, the ratio of applicants to seats is more than 10:1, and successful candidates are judged on the strength of portfolios (see sidebar). Those who survive the grueling sieve of competition–the school accepts only 250 students into its undergraduate three-year classical animation program, for example–must compete again for a separate eight-month post-graduate program in computer graphics or computer animation. The number of successful applicants now drops to 25 in each Sheridan class, but the school has announced plans to double enrollment next year when it adds a gaming component to the curriculum.

Some animators believe that students are not tough enough on colleges and universities: “They should be enormously demanding of their teachers, the tools the universities provide, and the curriculum itself,” says Forcade. Many students over-romanticize their mission and underestimate their competition, he adds. They don’t understand the intensity and the number of hours, days, and months it often takes to turn out a quality animation or demo reel.

“In many cases, schools are very resistant to new media and ways of learning, and students ought to bust their chops to push like hell on these people,” Forcade continues. The piece de resistance of students’ academic work–the demo reel–should be considered tantamount to an audition. “On a good demo reel, less is more,” advises David Shirk, a former freelance animator now working for Softimage. “It’s important in the reel to select a couple of short pieces that show your strongest ability. Don’t end up with a reel showing 14 different flying logos; nobody cares. Keep the collection as diverse as you can. Stick to the kind of animation you want to do. Reels should be kept to less than 5 minutes. Show only original work you’ve done yourself.”

In searching for that first course or first job, the idea is to network–literally and figuratively–in as many ways as possible. “The best sources I know of, besides scanning the classifieds and periodicals,” Shirk continues, “is to follow the news groups on the World Wide Web. It’s a terrific way to stumble across things. For instance, there’s a news group for Softimage. You can find jobs popping up here and there. In addition, the ripest area to find employment is SIGGRAPH. In the last few years, there’s been an explosion in hiring there.”

Animators can also resort to time-honored techniques to get first jobs: among them, volunteering to do a studio internship (many companies will not pay a salary, but will pay a stipend and expenses) and asking a company’s animation department for an information interview. “If you’re serious and don’t spend you’re time popping too much bubble gum, chances are someone will give you an opportunity,” according to one animator.

Fledgling Don Bluths and Disneys can also assure themselves of one astonishing fact: In a world otherwise glutted with talent and aspiration, young, can-do computer animators who can bend with the times and learn technology lightning-fast are still hard to find. “The field is definitely wide open for people who have highly artistic backgrounds,” says Softimage’s David Shirk. “The computer is really just a tool. We know almost anyone can pick up a paint brush and make a line. It’s a lot harder to pick up a paint brush and make a picture.”

Sheridan College: A Hot School

To get into a top-flight school such as Sheridan College (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), applicants need drive, talent, and an extraordinarily promising traditional portfolio, according to Robin King, Sheridan’s chair of media and communications. “What we look for is not necessarily any accomplishment in computing technology, but strong evidence of talent in other areas of visual arts, such as illustration. Our preference is for people who know characterization and storyboarding,” he says.

The school offers a traditional three-year Canadian degree in visual arts and a special three-year undergraduate program in cel animation, which invites 250 students to participate. Like many other art schools, Sheridan stresses fundamentals over technology. “Our philosophy has always been to concentrate on design, storyboard animation dynamics, and characterization; these will always remain the fundamentals of highest quality,” King says.

Because Sheridan graduates have filled many of the major animation jobs in Hollywood studios, the school is a hotbed for recruitment. Steve Williams, for example, the head of Industrial Light & Magic, trained in cel animation at Sheridan. Bill Matthews, a senior recruiter at Disney, is also a Sheridan graduate. Last month the school entertained visitors from Time Warner, DreamWorks SKG, ILM, and Disney, to name a few. The academic program is so successful that it has been subcontracted to a school in Ireland. King does not rule out the possibility of other cooperative deals and franchises to help jump-start programs elsewhere.

Interestingly, Sheridan offers two separate computer graphics and computer animation programs as a post-graduate experience for the serious (and lucky) few. Eight months of intensive training is the result. Who is getting into these programs? “Illustrators, architects, graphic designers, and, in some cases, fine artists,” King says. “We’re looking for a creative mix of people.

“The most important thing for companies seeking animators is to look for those who can take inanimate objects and give them real character,” King concludes. “Our people must understand the media and the role of technique within the broader area of commercial production. Technology is only part of the issue. The real issue is content.”

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