081. Advice from a Pixar director about breaking into the industry
3 tips for getting a job in animation
Every year in college, Pixar would come recruiting on campus. You’d think for someone like me, that would be a good thing. After all, I grew up drawing and making films, and I started learning computer science in college – Pixar would be the ultimate combination of all my interests!
Unfortunately, Pixar only recruited on-campus for their software engineering department, while I was more interested in their story/art departments. After taking one computer graphics class, I realized I’d rather be doodling than staring at C++ code all day.
So it was a welcome surprise when a storyboard artist came to campus instead of a technical recruiter for the first time. It was even more exciting when I discovered that her path to Pixar was a circuitous one – that meant I had a chance too!
She did her undergrad in biology, decided she wanted to do art, went to Academy of Art for two years, and worked in mobile gaming for two years, all the while applying for Pixar. She was finally hired in 2011 as a storyboard artist.
After her visit on-campus, I corresponded with her over email for advice. I recently went back to find the email thread, and her responses still feel relevant to me as I’ve been figuring out my next steps. So, I thought we could chew through three bits of advice she gave:
I’d say keep working hard and drawing, and try to hone in what specifically you want to do (i.e., storyboard, character design, paint, or animate).
Even if it seems artsy and creative from the outside, the animation industry is still an industry at the end of the day – you are hired for a specific role. If you’ve ever noticed how long the credits roll after an animated movie, you’ll know how specific these jobs have gotten.
Designing what the characters look like is separate from figuring out the plot, and there are even more niche roles, such as designing background furniture, simulating hair physics, and coordinating the film’s color palette. Video game companies also have similar roles for concept art, environment design, etc, so there’s a whole other industry one can specialize in with the same skillset.
I must say, try to open your options beyond Pixar, because I cannot stress enough how important it is to get experience working for other studios. I got a lot of experience before working there, and I think that made my job and perspective much richer because of it…
I would set my goals on getting experience first. Anywhere, everywhere, that requires you to design/draw/paint on a daily basis.
I definitely had one-itis in college. At the time, other studios weren’t producing films at the same level as Pixar was. Why would I want to work anywhere else? Nowadays, other studios have been innovating while Pixar seems weighed down with sequels imposed by Disney.
Off the top of my head, Sony has shaken up the aesthetic status quo for the entire industry, and Netflix has been dumping money into unique properties in a bid to capture new demographics.
So it’s one thing to draw & paint in your free time, because that’s a love that’s pure and awesome… But to draw/paint as a day-to-day job, you gotta love it enough to deal w/ all the ups and downs, working in production pipelines, time management, sometimes not feeling creative but still having to produce work, and finally working & compromising with other people who are vastly different from you…
Part of the artist’s life will be to sell your work, and cater it to different clients.
I used to scoff when adults told me that art could just be a hobby – what did they know if they’d never done it themselves? But I understand where they’re coming from now. At the end of the day, a dream job is still a job with ups and downs. There are other ways to find meaning.
A final wrinkle: the Internet
This is all great advice for getting into the animation industry, but the Internet has changed the game. I grew up watching indie animators who drew, voice-acted, and published their original work online, and this sort of permissionless, one-man show has always appealed more to my DIY sensibilities.
That storyboard artist I corresponded with is now directing a feature film at Pixar, but it took over ten years for her to reach that position. Am I willing to put in that sort of time and compromise at one company, or would I rather just do my own stuff online for a smaller audience and keep my autonomy?
What’s more, indie animators have started to gain traction in the mainstream industry. Michael Cusack made weird stuff on Newgrounds and YouTube for years before he got his break via Rick and Morty’s “Bushworld Adventures”, and now he’s co-created three ongoing series: Smiling Friends, YOLO, and Koala Man.
Whichever path I choose, the constant is that third piece of advice: commitment. Whether I’m working for a studio or myself, I need to focus on output to see if I really can ride the ups and downs.
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