How to Get a Job in Animation

1. Animation is one of the most competitive jobs on Earth. Survival is difficult, and the whole field of animation is evolving at incredible speed. Your book,'How to Get a Job in Animation (And Keep It)' sounds like almost a contradiction in terms. What are the keys to a successful career in animation?

The title 'How To Get A Job In Animation (And Keep It)'comes from two sources:

1. You can learn from my successes and my mistakes.

2. You can learn ways to make yourself indispensable,so you are last laid off at the end of the season and the first hired back. I have a friend who stayed with Ralph Bakshi through two pictures without being laid off, because he could do whatever they needed done. That is what I did on the Gumby TV series. When they had a problem trying to make Denali the mastodon spray water from his trunk, I came up with a way to do it (Saran Wrap wrapped around a wire) and became thespecial effects animator. When the sound reader quit, I volunteered to do that too. Pretty soon I was doing voices, building characters and sets and props.

2. Animation also has a lot of different applications in media and advertising, which are tough fields in their own right. How do animators learn the businesses they're working with, in employment terms?

The first part of the book is about working in Hollywood studios, which means belonging to the union. The Animation Guild takes care of all the business and negotiations so you can just concentrate on your art. That can be a great relief because artists are notoriously bad at business. When I moved to Hollywood my first call was to the Animation Guild. They got me a job the next day on Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings. (Timing is everything. You can find out from them what part of the year the TV series are hiring). After that I was in the union and went to work at Hanna-Barbera on The Smurfs where I met animation legend Tex Avery.

The second part of the book is about working for yourself, dealing with difficult clients, figuring what to charge so you are making a profit for all the work you put in and scheduling so you meet deadlines. I learned that the hard way. There were no books about the animation business or animation schools when I started out. When I decided to go out on my own, it took me two solid months of making cold calls to ad agencies and production companies before I got a steady gig doing storyboards for a special effects house. I knew roughly how much the union salary was and I priced my freelance jobs accordingly. If a client knows exactly what they want and there won't be any changes, you can charge a flat rate for the project. If the client doesn't know what they want and keep changing their mind, charge them by the hour so they don't waste your time and nickel and dime you to death with endless changes. Figure out how much you think you are worth and then double it, because everyone has low self esteem.

I was desperate which makes you learn fast. I learned from working weekends two years at the Suicide Prevention Center that people won't change until it is too painful for them not to. They have to hit bottom. So if you want to change your life, you have to engineer some way out of your complacency so there is no choice, but to change your life for the better. Take classes or do something to make yourself more valuable in the workplace. Jesse Jackson said when your back is against the wall, there is no place to go but forward.

3. Creative people sometimes tend to start careers and walk over the first available cliff through not knowing enough about the employment market in their field, which is no holiday when you're not working. How do animators keep it real?

Somebody said the difference between madness and genius is that the madman falls off the cliff into the abyss. The genius JUMPS off the cliff into the same abyss, but has a rope tied to him so he can climb back out. They both cover the same unexplored territory, but the madman lets it overwhelm him. I guess it's like not having a Plan B. Another analogy would be to measure the depth of the canyon and the length of your belt before you bungee jump. You should keep up on what is going on in your field. (Animation World Network) is a great source of current information on animation and special effects. Joining ASIFA (the international organization of animation fans which has chapters all over the world) and subscribing to their newsletter is another great source. In this age of the Internet with all the information at your fingertips, there is really no excuse to remain ignorant.

As I said about making yourself indispensable, one way people walk over a cliff is to specialize. If this year they want strawberry and all you have is vanilla, you are stuck. Learn 3D animation. Learn 2D animation. Learn live action. Learn storyboarding. You never know which way the wind will blow. Be flexible enough to work no matter what the climate is. One year when animation dried up, I worked in live action for Roger Corman. Being skilled at storyboards lets you work in live action as well as animation. When there is no work in movies or TV series, there is work in commercials, music videos, or games or industrials, or the Internet.

There is a blockbuster mentality in Hollywood where movies cost millions and have to make it all in the first weekend or they are considered a failure. But in this age of the Internet you can do what you love and keep yourself in rent and groceries. In the sixties we talked about 'alienation' how we felt all alone in the world, but with the Internet, no matter what you are interested in, just type it in a search engine and you will find 10,000 web sites on the subject. About 95% to 99% of the sites are fans and only 1% to 5% of the sites are producing the product that the other people are fans of. So if you produce something you have a built in market. You may not be a millionaire, but you will be doing work that you love, which is its' own kind of riches.

4. We have a lot of younger people interested in media, and animation is a potentially good career, working across just about all media. How should they approach a career in animation?

If you want to work in Hollywood (which is what I recommend), contact the Animation Guild Local #839. They can put you in touch with classes at various schools in L.A. that teach the skills needed in Hollywood. The union also has its own American Animation Institute that has excellent classes with teachers from inside the industry. Their phone number is 818-766-7151. They know which studios are hiring and will put you in touch with the right people.

If you want to be your own boss or stay away from Hollywood, I recommend making your own short film and enter it in film festivals. That will prove to potential clients that you can finish what you start. gives you access to most of the major film festivals. Take a lot of classes in film making, animation, acting, screenwriting, and editing. Or take the money you would spend on college, buy a good computer and some software and make a film.

When you look at some horrible show on TV and wonder 'How did they get this garbage on television?'. It's because they FINISHED it. If you finish a film you have a much better chance of selling it. Don't wait for funding. Make a good film on the cheap and show what you can do.

5. In any job advertisement for animators, there's always a range of software, qualifications, and sometimes specialist skills. If you want to be a good all round animator, what are the basic skills and qualifications?

Software changes but the fundamental skills do not. Learn the principles of animation, such as squash and stretch, the wave principle, anticipation, follow-through, overlapping action, slow in and slow out, staging, timing, and good solid drawing and sculpting skills. Learn the skills of good storytelling.

6. Many graphic artists feel limited by software, platforms that don't do what they want, or are too complex for basic drafting and experiments with ideas. Can you recommend any good software for people wanting to start from basics and develop their own animations?

After you are living and breathing the principles of animation, you can apply them to some computer programs such as Flash (Use a graphics tablet and avoid motion tweening and shape tweening as much as possible. That is moving furniture. It's not animating. Use the onion skin so you can in-between the traditional way) or Maya (which most of the 3D studios such as Pixar use) or After Effects for live action special effects. With Flash you can make your own 2D films very cheaply and send them off to festivals or upload them to YouTube or your own web site. If you want to make a film in 3D, Maya is very expensive. A less expensive 3D alternative is Hash Animation Master. It is usually , but at MacWorld they had a special for . Look for specials or student prices. is a good source of inexpensive software for students.

7. For animators, what are the important things to avoid in their careers and in job searching?

I will get more into this later, but avoid ads that say 'deferred pay', or 'interns wanted', or 'on spec'. These are all code words for 'no money'.

8 Animators need portfolios to show their work to employers. What's the basis of a good portfolio?

There are portfolios and there are reels. Portfolios are for showing your drawing and painting skills. They should be full of drawing the human body from life. If you are up for an animator job, the studio will want to see that you can draw the body from any angle in any position.

The reel is where you show off your animation. Keep your reel short. The client or art director usually has three minutes or less to look at it, so don't save your best for last. Put it up front. Edit it down so you are only showing your best work. They probably want to see some characters walking. Showing lip sync dialogue is important. Show that you can make a character act and give them personality. If you show finished and painted 2D animation, also show the pencil test so they know you did it. Sometimes if they see something totally finished and slick they will wonder what part you did. If you are sending a reel to Disney don't animate Mickey Mouse. They want to see something new. Don't animate Buzz Lightyear and send it to Pixar.

9. Your web site,, includes a piece of advice on the home page for freelancers which sounds like the voice of experience, 'The golden rule of freelance animation- never work for free'. What are the traps for freelancers?

Actually my own web site is where your readers can e-mail me if they have any more questions. carries my book HOW TO GET A JOB IN ANIMATION (AND KEEP IT), my DVD: CARTOONING SHORTCUTS, FORMULAS, & CHEAP TRICKS and my PROFESSIONAL CARTOONIST KIT from Toysmith.

Yes, never work for free. This country has a history of slavery. We started out importing slaves from Africa. When they wouldn't stand for it we turned to the Chinese. Every time a group got tired of working for nothing, we turned to another group of people. We send work to poor starving countries with no unions or human rights. Now we have a new group of people to work for nothing. They are students. We call them 'interns'. But an internship is meant to be an apprenticeship that starts low paying and increases in salary as the person learns the job. It isn't meant to be working for nothing and being let go when you ask for money. Nobody should stand for that.

People take internships because they think they should start at an entry level position. That means starting at the bottom and working your way up. I was given a great piece of advice when I was young. I was told to aim for the top. You can always hit bottom. But if you aim for the top and slightly miss, you are still pretty high.

10. The freelance concept also opens up another aspect of animation careers people may not be aware of- freelance work in creative media can be a real business, and a very lucrative one. What are the basics, what are the pros and cons, and what should aspiring animators look out for, if they want to go that way?

The pros are that you are your own boss. If you are independent and don't like working for others, it gives you freedom. The cons are that with freedom comes responsibility. You get all the credit, but you also get all the blame. You have to go stir up clients until you get to the point you are well known enough that the clients come seeking you out.

In the old days you could work for the same studio for years and then retire. Not anymore. Like most corporations, studios don't really care about their employees and most employment is short term. So you are really on your own anyway, so get used to it. As your own boss, you are going to treat yourself better than another boss will. In a corporation you will be a small fish in a big pond. As your own boss you will be a big fish in a small pond.

Either learn some math so you can price jobs, or partner with someone you trust who knows business better than you.

You need to hire an accountant who will tell you to keep track of receipts you probably would have thrown away. Going to the movies, or buying videos and comic books that would seem frivolous to someone else, are research that can be taken off your taxes. You will probably at some time need a lawyer to check contracts for you.

I have worked in Hollywood studios and I have worked for myself. They both have their upsides and downsides. Either way, I recommend starting out in Hollywood. It is where all the jobs are. It's really a small community. and you can network through the Animation Guild and ASIFA-Hollywood to meet all your heroes and work on lots of fun projects. Then if you decide you don't like Hollywood, you can always move to a part of the country or world that you like and have Hollywood on your resume.