Timing Is Everything or, How To get Into the Big Animation Studios by Melissa Bouwman

For animators and animation students who desire a job at the most progressive and prosperous studios in the industry, the time and the place to be was at the Ottawa International Festival of Animation.

Not only would you have been able to see hours of inspiring animation, attend enlightening workshops, see retrospective programs about some of the animation industry's most respected artists, you also would have had the opportunity to network with recruiters from almost every major studio in the business!

Studios such as Pixar, Pacific Data Images (PDI), Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Disney were all HIRING at the festival! But if you weren't there, you missed out on the opportunity to find out if you had what it takes to be their future employee, right? Well, maybe not, the time is still now, and I'm here to tell you that they need people.

I was fortunate to be at the festival this year and I spoke with gracious representatives from Pixar, PDI, Dreamworks (currently working on a feature animation with PDI), ILM, Disney, Sony Pictures Imageworks (in-house visual effects company for Sony Pictures Entertainment), and Laceworks Productions (a growing animation company based in Ottawa).

I asked them questions about what it is they are in search of in future employees so that I could pass the information along to you. So what exactly does it take to be an animator for one of these companies? The expectations vary based on the position for which you're applying for. What do they want to see from people who want to be animators?

According to Jack Bossom of Walt Disney Feature Animation, "First and foremost, we are looking for drawing skills, we want good artists to train on technical tools." His sentiment was consistent with every recruiter I spoke to.

More specifically, they are looking for animators who possess strong life drawing skills. These studios are looking for people who have a background in art (potential employees should at least know the fundamentals) and have traditional animation experience.

If you lack traditional animation skills, but your drawing skills are exceptional, some companies such as Disney provide training for prospective animators.

To be successful in any of these companies, one must also have the ability to function as part of a team, especially during times of stress due to deadlines.

Some of the studios mentioned they look for additional qualifications. PIXAR studios stress the importance of story telling. In fact, their handout entitled "Opening your door to PIXAR" places story telling at the top of their list and describes it as "of utmost importance" at their company. Also of great importance to PIXAR is "good character acting" according to "Toy Story" animator Jimmy Hayward.

Sony representative and Character Animator, John Clark Matthews said, " Although traditional cell experience is a plus when seeking employment at Sony Pictures, We are actually looking for people with stop motion experience...they are generally better at 3D design and stop motion reveals their sense of motion better."

In addition to the aforementioned items, most studios list a college degree as qualifications for an ideal candidate. Most even have a list of recommended colleges which include schools such as Cal Arts, Sheridan College, Ringling School of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute, and School of Visual Arts.

Of course, they also want to stress that their lists of schools aren't all-inclusive, they are simply schools who have a reputation for a strong curriculum in animation, art, and technology.

What if you don't have a college degree yet you have obvious talent as an artist and animator? Across the board, all of the studio representatives agreed that while having a college degree is helpful, and they strongly encourage people to continue their education, ultimately an applicant with skills in drawing and animation will find employment. I think the statement at the bottom of Pixar's recommended school list says it best,

"...the making of a great animator is largely a mysterious process. If you make a great movie, nobody is going to care what school you attended or what grades you got. The world will be yours."

Is it important to have previous work experience in the field before applying to these studios? Not necessarily, in fact, many companies are sending scouts to schools such as Cal Arts, Ringling, and Sheridan to recruit people to work in their studios. For any talented applicant, work experience certainly would be helpful in getting the job.

"A professional background would be very helpful in the case of a non-college graduate," said Beth Sasseen of ILM, "but what it really all depends on is personal potential. Most often, people that apply don't always present the exact resume of the person you need."

What about experience using the computer? It depends on what job you're applying for. Generally, it's useful for all applicants to have experience using computers, especially high-end hardware and software such as SoftImage and Alias.

Mr. Matthews of Sony mentioned the importance of "mess around time" on the computer. "Its important that they are familiar with the tools. If they want to gain experience with 3D software and can't get access to high-end software, there are some really nice programs that run on lower end platforms such as Lightwave 3D and 3D Maxx that can allow them to gain exposure to animation in the 3D world."

However, while computer experience is beneficial, most of the people I spoke with said for animators, it isn't a must. From a number of people I heard that its easier to train an animator how to use the computer than vice versa.

For those of you who are interested in being a technical director, the expectations are quite different. Technical director is defined a little differently by each studio, but in general, the responsibilities range from modeling and creating motion, to lighting and shading, to development of CGI tools.

While animators aren't required to have a college education, its the general consensus that technical directors must have a college education to get a job at any studio. Considering what they need to know, I can see why college education is so important. Obviously a technical director should have extensive computer experience. They also need to have skills in 3D computer graphics. Experience using high-end software (SoftImage, Alias, Wavefront or proprietary software), knowledge of UNIX, C programming and shell scripting, and training on SGI workstations are also requirements for technical directors at most studios. Previous experience is beneficial when looking for a job as a TD.

Of course these studios are hiring for positions in addition to animator and technical director. I do know that some of the companies test applicants for Inbetween, Background, and Layout skills. Employment in these and other positions depend heavily on your portfolio or demo reel.

What do they want to see in a portfolio? Each company's requirements differ so I'll give you an overview of what the are generally looking for in a portfolio.

  1. Portfolios should generally have the following items in them: Samples of current work . Life Drawings and sketches of gesture drawings of humans and animals in motion . Work that shows color and design sense
  2. Beyond the elements of the basic portfolio, other items included should be very specific to the job you are applying for.
  3. Label everything in your portfolio with your name.
What do they want to see in a demo reel? This also depends on the job your applying for. In general demo reels should be short, no more than 4-5 minutes, and the shorter the better. It should show your best work, rather than a little of everything you've done. Also, it is very important that you include a credit list or a short synopsis of what your contribution to each piece was and the software used if applicable. Your demo reel should also be clearly labeled.

Does it help to know people who currently work for the studio you wish to be employed by. The majority responded "No, it doesn't matter who you know, what matters is what you can do." James Rice of Lacewood Productions said, "It might help to get your foot in the door, it can't hurt to have contacts, but ultimately it doesn't matter if you don't have the skills."

What kind of advice would these representatives like to give animators and students that are or will be looking for a job? Leigh Nikolaieff, Industrial Light and Magic Advice for students, "...become involved with what's going on in the animation circuit, attend festivals such as Ottawa..its a wonderful opportunity for students."

Jack Bossom, Walt Disney Feature Animation"If you're seeking employment at Disney, learn about our product, feature animation is a peculiar beast that involves long processes and a lot of energy. Watch our films and make inquiries."

John Clark Matthews, Sony Pictures Imageworks"Send a little something along that could be displayed such as a color post card, something that shows a frame or scene of your work, something that will set you apart from the crowd. Work on what you do best and do things you can finish."

Catherine Foulkes, Dreamworks"One of the main things in getting into the animation industry is good timing, timing is everything."

Every studio I spoke to has materials that you can request if you are interested in applying for a job. These materials generally give you very specific requirements for what they want to see in the basic portfolio along with additional materials for each of the positions available. Some companies such as Pixar (www.pixar.com) and PDI (www.pdi.com) have very extensive information available on their web sites about jobs that are currently available and how to apply to their company. ILM has a job hotline (415-258-2100) that lists all the positions currently available in their company.

Mail in portfolios for Walt Disney Production to: WDFA, Attn. Artist Recruitment, 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521-8934 or you can FED X or UPS Portfolios to WDFA, Attn. Artist Recruitment, 3100 Thornton Ave., Burbank, CA 91505-8934, Phone: (818) 560-8314, Fax: (818) 526-3890