How to Be Yourself and Still Get a Job in Animation

Sometimes I speak to groups of creative college students who are moving toward careers in animation. Below is what I tell them. – Robert Kirkpatrick, President, Lava Studio

When I started my career in New York, I was friends with a talented filmmaker who had won a student Academy Award and expected to jump right into a great film career right out of college. He went from interview to interview and was going nowhere. In one interview, a producer said to him “I meet kids like you every day. I need you to tell me what makes you different from everyone else.” And my friend hesitated, then blurted out,,,”I don’t know.. I wear ladies underwear!?” And the producer laughed, and more importantly, the producer remembered him, and ultimately gave his career a start. So, that’s what you have to do. You don’t necessarily have to cross-dress, but you do need to stand out from the crowd.

Now – What about you? Are you an artist or a technical specialist? 

If you’re an artist who is feeling pressure to be more specialized than you want to be, I encourage you to resist that pressure. I’m always amazed by Animation majors who approach graduation without ever having done any actual animation. “No, I’m a modeler, or a texturer, or a fur guy, or whatever.” And as a business owner who’s looking for innovative creative people, I get very discouraged when I see a demo reel that consists entirely of static models. I swear I have seen the same demo reel from half the students looking for work. So if your demo features a character who has (A) horns, (B) a huge automatic weapon, (C) enormous breasts or (D) all of the above, you may be a great and talented artist, but you are not original. And maybe you have to be a specialist at this age in order to get the job that will kickstart your career, and I’m not putting it down – but if you are a creative person who wants to do amazing things over a long career, you will have to develop a variety of skills, and you will have to make your own mark on the work you do.

I have succeeded in a profession that didn’t exist when I was in college. I did this by never becoming too specialized, and by adapting to new technology and always trying to take advantage of my own creative perspective. I studied painting and film at Pratt, and I graduated one year after the release of Star Wars (now known, absurdly, as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). Now, if you’ve ever seen the original Star Wars, you probably think the effects are pretty funny and crude, and, of course, by current standards, they are. But at the time of its release, it was AMAZING and totally different from anything that had come before it.

The one thing that the world seemed to need in the wake of Star Wars was a lot of titles that streaked and swooshed through space and said (whoosh!) SEARS! Or (whoosh!) CHEVY, or (Whoosh) WHATEVER. So here I was, an artist who knew how to use a film camera, (and yes those effects really did require a camera – there was no real commercial computer animation at all at that time.) So I got a job as a graphic animator. And my career grew as animation technology developed, and I managed to get jobs at the companies that had the latest tools, and I developed knowledge and skills that not many people had, because not many companies could afford the equipment.

I’m not telling you this because I think you’re interested in my personal story. I just want you to realize that the nature of technology is changing all the time, and your audience is getting more demanding every day. You have to be prepared to learn and innovate to keep ahead of everyone’s expectations.

For you, it will be harder than it was for me. Everything is much more democratic now and everyone can afford amazing computers and software. So, what makes you special?