What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

This is a repost from August 2012, but I feel it is raises a good point in regards to animation and education. With the debate regarding both heating up, there is an alternative in apprenticeships that harkens back to the olden days of yore, when a formal education was out of reach for most people but accreditation of skills was still necessary.

So there was a bit of a furrow last week as a post by Brodoof on Tumblr concerning the various “Art Institute” colleges run by the Education Management Corporation made the rounds (itself brought on by another story of an Art Institute teacher facing termination because he refused to comply with a policy to require students to purchase books). Anyway, it got me thinking about animation and education and whether or not it is being taught in the right manner. That is to say, is a degree or other kind of formally taught certification the best or even right approach to take and would apprenticeships work instead? Let’s look at the facts.

Animation Isn’t A Formal Skill

Now when I say ‘formal’, I mean in the very strictest sense. You can go to school and study animation. You can be called an animator by the studio or Guild and have a cert to prove it. But in the legal sense, there is no such thing as an ‘animator’. I draw this conclusion because as a civil engineer, that is considered a formal skill; one that is legally recognised when you become Chartered, or a Professional Engineer (PE) in the States.

Why even mention it? Well as the recently departed Tissa David once famously said, “Animation is….animation.” Absolutely anyone can be an animator, or a concept artist, or a background artist or a prop designer. Yes, you need the artistic abilites and some experience before you can make a career out of it, but the point is; you do not need a formal, legally recognised qualification to become an animator.

Now this isn’t to look down the nose at our favourite technique, but it does lead to the next point.

Certifications Are Worth Much Less Than What They Are Sold At

If you receive a formal education in animation, you normally receive a sheet of paper saying as much. This piece of paper is accredited by someone so it guarantees a minimum set of skills to potential employers. So why are they almost worthless?

Well, this is America, where a degree from CalArts is ostensibly the same as a degree from another art school but in reality, the two aren’t even close. Pile on top of that the fact that portfolios are also a must for any graduate, and you have system that more or less cranks out graduates but leaves them little notion of what to do next. (I’m keeping in mind Elliot Cowan’s advice to graduates that quite frankly, should be known to them before they even receive their mortarboard.)

The real issue here is that employers like to see degrees and certs because it gives them a quick and dirty way of classifying job candidates. “You want this job? Sorry, you need a bachelors. Why? Because we’re too lazy/understaffed/pressed for time to properly grade you based on your employment history/portfolio.” This leads nicely into the next point.

Climbing the Ladder With Experience

Experience counts for a heck of a lot in the job market. Naturally graduates have next to none, so their options are extremely limited. However, plenty of people (in fact, most of the really successful people) start at the bottom and work their way up the old-fashioned way. It’s tougher than slogging through 4 years of school, but the results are just as good for those who truly work at it. Once you get even a short way up the ladder, experience takes precedence over education in any job application.

Moving Away From The Current Approach

The current method of hiring a team for a project and letting them go once it is over is tremendously inefficient. Think of all the hiring and firing that must go on for such a system to function. How many man-hours and HR resources are spent acquiring workers, potentially training them and then letting them go just to repeat the cycle again.

Now think of the old days, when someone might enter the door of a studio and stay there for 20, 30 years or more! That’s unheard of today, but that person not only acquired a ton of experience over the years, they were normally pretty eager to share it to! The same practices continue today, but it is hard to build a rapport with someone if they are switching jobs every few years.

So what’s the solution?

The Apprenticeship Proposal

The solution is a return to apprenticeships. The notion that younger animators and artists are trained by the older ones is a tradition that has dated back centuries. It might be tricky to implement, but there are numerous benefits for all involved.

Why People (and Studios) Benefit

Firstly, the people. That should be obvious. Learning in a practical setting from someone who’s worked in the industry for years can’t be overlooked.

Secondly, studios benefit because they have a set of young artists who are trained and familiar with the studio setups, systems and methods. This is a priceless asset to have. Think of all the know-how that remains within the studio!

However, some sort of formal system for all of this to work. There needs to be set, recognised steps in the process so everyone knows where they are, how far they have to go and what is expected of apprentices. Furthermore, there needs to be mutual recognition among all studios for the system and its skills. Why do this instead of keeping everything in-house? Well the days of the career job are long gone. People will move around between studios as a result of the nature of the business. Wouldn’t it make sense if they all agreed on common skills to have? They stand to benefit too as they will be able to quickly tell what skills animators have.

Ah, but I hear you say, isn’t that what a degree does already? Well yes, but the difference is you must go to school for a couple of years and then start working. Sure, the likes of Disney run summer apprenticeships, but they are too short. Think about the old Disney days, when students might have worked during the day, gaining practical experience and then attended night classes to learn the finer techniques and concepts.


Art in any form is an astonishing skill to have. It’s an innate skill as much as it is a learned one, but with the recent controversies about art education, it makes more practical sense to acquire or hone skills based on an apprenticeship approach. At the end, not only will apprentices have the skills, they’ll also have the personal relationships, the work experience and a qualification to prove it all.

Animation Skills: Supply and Demand

Mark Mayerson recently published a blog post entitled ‘The Don’t Want You’. A short but compelling declaration that studios see aniamtors and artists as more a tool than at any time in the past. The paragraph below is the kicker:

They don’t want you.  They want your skills because they can profit from them.  But if they can get your skills from software or find somebody with your skills (or almost your skills) who will work cheaper, they’d prefer that.

That’s the absolute truth. Animators are expensive to hire, maintain and run. They’re also cranky, have off days and are not near 100% productive like they could be. That said, they’re also people, and people tend to be like that no matter where you go or what you do.

What Mark touches on is the fact that animators aren’t hired because they are people, they’re hired because they have skills, valuable skills. The relative scarcity of such skills, and the fact that they are not easily replicable on an computer means that real people continue to produce animation.

The Supply of Animators

People are a finite resource. There are only so many animators out there and only so many new ones coming into the field every year. However, if more enter than leave, then that creates a larger supply of talent from which to pull from, and the result is that studios can (and do) pay lower prices than they would have to if supply was tight.

Consider Brown Bag Films; they consistently have to look overseas to find artists with the skillsets required, and the result is that they have to pay more than if they could source local talent in Ireland.

A topic that is brought up in the comments is the fact that new animators are being produced at a high rate; more so than what the industry is increasing by every year. This is a problem that stems from a couple of reasons but the main ones are the fact that tuition = money and universities always want more of that. Secondly, there is no (or very little) co-ordination between studios and schools in regards to training, skills and potential demand.

If both camps co-ordinated, then students with the correct skills would be graduating and prepared for future careers. As it stands, plenty of 2D animation is being taught despite the fact that CGI has rapidly rendered (no pun intended) the style obsolete as far as mainstream productions go.

The Animation Skills Needed

The key here are skills. Creativity is a small aspect of labour, and studios, while ostensibly looking for creative minds, are also looking for skills. Skills drive their businesses; the very entity that animators and artists depend on for a livelihood.

As with any industry, more does not necessarily equal better. Specialisation does not necessarily equal higher pay. Rather on both counts, variety and scarcity matter more than anything.

Put simply, the greater variety of animation skills you can have, the better your chances are. The downside is that you may be a jack of all trades but a master of none.

If you are a specialist, you will be scarce, and companies like to (and have to) pay more. The risk is that you may be specialised in the one area that may be scarce, but for which their is no demand; e.g. 2D animators in southern California.

So what’s the secret to skills? Well, the secret is to specialise, but to constantly and continually improve and develop them. Always be hungry to learn something new. You may not be a specialist immediately, but you can at least put those skills on your resume in the meantime.

The Determining Factors Are Far Outside Your Control

What angers a lot of people is that they see jobs going abroad when there are perfectly capable people available locally. While this is an understandable situation, you, the person reading this, have to realise that globalisation has enabled not only work to go abroad easily, but also vastly increased the number of people you must compete with for jobs. You cannot control it and more importantly, you cannot stop it.

If an Indian animator can produce the same work as you can for a tenth of the price, there is little you can do about it save bringing him to the States. What you can do, is be a better animator than him, be a faster animator than him or produce animation that he can’t. Those are the kinds of aspects that you can (and should) do something about.

The Life Lesson

The takeaway lesson is that there is no such thing as a job for life any more. Similarly lifelong learning is now a mandatory part of any career, animated or not. Only by staying one step ahead of the competition can you hope for steady employment.

Paul Briggs on How He Made A Career in Animation

Over on his blog, Disney story artist Paul Briggs answers the question of how to make a successful career for yourself in the animation industry. I won’t repeat it here because you really do need to read the full post. However, suffice to say, hard work absolutely plays a part. Much more than just hard work, a deep desire and long-term goals can help get you where you to where you want to go.

To add on to Paul’s points, I can honestly say that luck also plays a factor. Although I hasten to emphasise that when I say luck, I mean to say that you have to be receptive and open to opportunities. Sometimes you may have to seek them out, sometimes the end result will be hardly connected to the decision that made it possible in the first place, but either way, if you can spot the opportunites and act accordingly, you will become an exceedingly lucky person.

I say all of this from experience of course. 🙂

Dan Santat on Breaking Into The Business

Dan Santat is a cool guy. Besides creating the Disney show The Replacements, he’s also a full-time illustrator with many books (both personal and c-created) to his credit. He recently talked with Rob Sander’s over at the Picture This! blog about his creative process and how he got his start in the business. Here’s the really important part:

Rob: What three things have you learned that illustrators breaking into the picture book biz need to know?

Dan: First of all, I have to start off by saying is that I hate networking and meeting art directors and trying to solicit my work. Personally, that experience for me feels like it’s less about wanting to get to know someone and more about trying to get something from someone for work and the whole experience feels insincere. I took the route of trying to expose myself as much as possible on the internet. Share your work with every site you can, and be consistent. So, my first piece of advice would be that if you’re not working on a paying job then just keep working to grow your presence on the internet. Just keep making art and be consistent about it. It’s that simple.
Second, you should share that work. Post it on your blog or Tumblr account be consistent about posting something every week. It’s the consistency as much as the quality of the work that keeps people coming back to see what you’re doing.
Third, I would advise a person to really focus on their art not for the sake of making a buck, but instead to fine tune your style until it really speaks about how you think and do things. If every illustration you do is money driven and you constantly find that you’re asking yourself, “Can I sell this?” then you’re not being true to yourself and your work is suffering because of it. When you constantly worry about being able to make a decent career in the arts many folks tend to rely on imitating the big names out there who are making a big splash with their work. More often than not, their own work suffers because it is derivative.

While Dan is primarily an illustrator, the quote I’ve plucked could be equally relevant to animators, especially those just starting out or are still in school. It’s funny how a lot of what Dan says is common sense, but is still overlooked by a lot of people.

5 Signs That It’s Time For A New Job

So today is a bit of a momentous day for me in that I start a new job; only my second real one. Yes, I’m still a civil engineer so no need to change the title of this blog just yet.

Changing jobs can be difficult, and for me a lot of it was psychological in that I really did like where I worked but still had to pluck up a lot of courage to hand in the notice.

So below are a few indicators that it may be time for you to do the same.

1. The People You Work With Are Nuts

We’ve all been there, when co-workers and bosses are just not nice people. Unfortunately, there are horrible people all over the place and some are inexplicably in positions of power. However, job satisfaction is hard to come by when there is someone who is making your job a living hell. The bottom line? The stress of dealing with such people isn’t worth it, no matter how much you earn.

2. The Place You Work At Is Horrible

While your office/studio may not be comparable to, say, a coal mine, that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant place to work in. Cramped conditions, lousy air-conditioning, smelly toilets are all signs of a terrible office, but they are not the limit. You might also have to deal with constant noise, poor maintenance, you name it. If spending 8 hours a day in a building takes effort, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to find a nicer place to work.

3. You’re Not Challenged Any More

Work should be challenging on some level. It doesn’t have to be a constant burden, nor does it have to be a walk in the park. Moderate challenges are part of career growth and should be welcomed by anyone who wants to get ahead. If you feel your job is too easy and you’re not being stretching the brain muscles like you should, then it’s time for a change.

4. Your Over-Worked

Too much work is bad. Everyone knows that. But the funny thing is, people will tend to work longer and longer without thinking about when they should stop. If your boss came to you and asked you to work 70 hours next week, you might laugh. But what if he asked for an extra 5 hours? Sure, you could do that, right? Well if you got comfortable doing that, then another 5 on top of that wouldn’t seem near as bad. Before you know it, you’re up to 70 hours and all your free time has disappeared. Sure, you might make good money, but it isn’t worth it in the long run, as this cautionary tale details.

The standard work week is 40 hours for a reason. Putting in a lot more than than consistently is bad for your health and a sure sign that it’s time to switch.

5. A Combination of All Of The Above

Funnily enough, I learned that you don’t need just one reason to switch jobs. In my case none of the above were an issue on their own. But a little bit of one and a little bit of another combined to give me enough reasons to say yes when the question came along.

This will be the case for most people, and only you can decide when the time is right. Either way, it’s up to you to make the change, very rarely will it come to you.


You’ll notice that pay isn’t on the list. The simple reason is that almost everyone is aware of how much they earn and it’s a natural trait that people want to earn more. The result is that people will be acutely aware when they are being under-paid and as a result, will more than likely look to switch when they are.

Dan Schier Distills the Essence of a Crafting A Career

You may remember a post by Daniel Schier (a.k.a. Waveybrain) from earlier this year where he talks about how to get started on your career in animation. It’s a very good post and well worth your time reading if you have not done so already.

However, the one part that stuck out for me was the following:

One thing you may learn as I have, is that predicting where you’ll be is futile.  You’re better off living in the moment while aiming for your goals.  But, having goals and taking the right steps to attain them has been pretty key for me.

This is the 100% absolute truth. You can try to map out a career (think Carton Banks’ master plan of his life) but in the end, circumstances are constantly changing, and you may end up spending more time trying to plan around them that you neglect where you’re currently at.

Daniel’s right in that you can’t predict where you’ll be either. I certainly couldn’t. Five years ago if you’d tolf me I would be where I’m at today doing what I’m doing I would have probably laughed at you (in a good way). But that’s the truth. Life has a habit of throwing challenges at us that can pull us in different but ultimately satisfying ways. Don’t be afraid to take those challenges on you will probably surprise yourself with what you achieve.

Having a goal is an absolute if you want to have a career. Saying you’d like to work in animation is one thing, but what if you said you wanted to become a feature film director. Well now you have the necessary direction to know that you first need to get either the education or experience together and then to hone your craft while playing the political ball game. In time, you’ll be well placed to helm a feature.

Without a plan or goals like these, you might well flounder in a lower position, and animation becomes a ‘job’ rather than a ‘career’.


Why Your Bookshelf Was Made To Hold “Directing Animation” By David B. Levy

Bill Plympton's Cover giving Mona ideas.

They say God created the earth in seven days although I have a sneaking feeling that if he hired David Levy, he would have got the job done in five, and still found time to write a book about it.

Theological jokes aside, David really is that hard working. Besides being an animator, he’s also a teacher, President of ASIFA-East and if that wasn’t enough, he’s also managed to find the hours in the day to write three, count ’em, three books over the last couple of years. Suffice to say, he puts those of us who take a full 8 hours of sleep to shame!

Directing Animation the third part of the Holy Trinity installment of animation books written by him, the previous two being Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive and Animation Development: From Pitch to Production. If you haven’t already read those, they are an absolute must, even if, like me, you don’t work in animation on a day-to-day basis.

With those two successful and critically acclaimed books under his belt (and under my bed), David has unleashed his third masterpiece where he zeroes in on a very important position in the animation process.

As a seasoned director on [Adult Swim]’s Assy McGee and numerous shows before that, David is well placed to write this book. Sure there are the technical aspects to the job like laying out a scene, timing shots, etc. but there was definitely a gap on the bookshelf when it came to managing the human element of the process.

Thankfully, that gap has been filled thanks to Directing Animation. Chock full of sage, professional advice from the best in the industry and plenty of tales of both the good and not so good side of the job (but mostly the good side).

With a focus on what it takes to be a director, being dropped in at the deep and and devoting a chapter each to indie films, commercials, TV series, feature films and the internet, Directing Animation covers all the bases you could expect to meet as an animation director and then some!

With such a broad range of topics to cover, one might think the books skims over one or two of them. Not so! The utmost attention has been paid to every aspect of the book and with such a broad range of folks interviewed, there is no doubt that you will be thoroughly prepared to direct once you have finished reading it.

As I was reading the book, I realised that when it comes to animation, there is much more to it than just TV shows and films from the big boys. The prevalence of indie shorts and flash animation on the web has made it so that anyone can become a director, even if you’re only just out of school! Directing Animation is excellent in its coverage of these slightly less well known areas of the animation landscape.

David’s conversational writing style makes the 240 pages fly by with ease and yet everything he has to say is easily absorbed. Add in to the mix his impeccable sense of humour and wit and you have an altogether excellent read from start to finish.

Directing Animation is not a book to be glossed over, even if you don’t think of yourself as a director, you will realise you are taking away much more than you expect. It is thoroughly recommended for anyone even remotely involved in the animation scene.

Directing Animation can be purchased over on Amazon.com.


Three Solid Steps To Encouraging A Kid To Take Up Animation

Via The Animator’s Survival Kit.com

Animation is kind of a funny industry in that a vast majority of its ultimate customers have no idea about the nuts and bolts of the products or even the industry behind it. OK, granted, that could be true about any industry, for instance, do you know how roads are designed? Perhaps, but could you tell me how to lay out a road profile, complete with PVC, PVT, K, SSD, HSD and e values? You could! Oh I see, you were pulling my leg, well, shame on me.

One difference is that adults can generally go and read about how to do it but the real difference is that adults have a choice about whether they go and read about it. Kids (for the most part) do not care.

This morning as I sat down to write this post, it occurred to me that the path to my current career was pretty much laid out in advance, school-wise at least. I mean, civil engineering isn’t a spectacularly complex career; it’s not like we’re competing with the medical or law colleges for the best minds in the nation so planning for a career as one was fairly simple.

Which got me thinking, how would you encourage a child that seems hell-bent on doing animation? It’s a bit of a tricky one because plenty of kids love animation but only a select few can understand it and reproduce it.

The first way would be to find the signs. Do they enjoy watching cartoons? Do they doodle all the time? Do they make rudimentary comics? Have they created a universe for their comic/characters? These are all traits of a creative mind at work. I distinctly remember the kids at school who were always drawing or doodling. During the intensely competitive newsletter market in 5th class, there were one or two comics floating around trying to lighten the atmosphere a bit.

Now that you’ve noticed the talent, how do you go about building the foundation for a career? It can vary, but most animators I am aware of (and have talked to) strongly hint that their parents had a fairly large bearing in their early days. This ranges from buying the necessary supplies to, in Brad Bird’s case, driving two and a half hours to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a hokey-poke cinema in Oregon. So the answer would seem to be to encourage creativity and to ensure that the kid has plenty or opportunities to experience the artform.

The third and I suppose final way would be to ensure that the kid receives some sort of formal education in the field. I mean, it is one thing to have natural talent but more often than not, such a skill can run wild and some instruction can go a long way to channeling that energy into something truly creative. There are plenty of good schools out there, both expensive and not so expensive. What matters is that the child at least has the option of going to one.

The ultimate point of this post is that you sometimes hear the stories out there of how parents almost admonish a kid for drawing or doodling in the false belief that they could never earn a living from animation or the creative arts. Such a mindset is defeatist and such discouragement is a sign of ignorance on the part of the parent.

I kinda feel like I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but as a non-animator, this is the kind of stuff I see animators complaining about or regaling in stories about themselves or people they knew. There is no excuse for it so hopefully this post will serve as a bit of a reminder to everyone that we should be encouraging kids to take up the skills if they have an interest in it.

Why Animators (and You) Need To Create A Network

Last night I attended a networking event put on by Loyola University here in Baltimore, where I currently undertake an MBA course of study. Now I’m not one to readily go out and ‘network’, I can be tremendously shy and nervous at events like these, however, I did find last night a great help insofar as persuading me that I need to attend more events like this (if that makes sense).

The most important lesson I took away from the evening was that relationships can matter a whole lot when it comes to business. Although this is kinda sad in a way, it is the truth, and thankfully, there is plenty you can do about it to help yourself get where you want or need to go.

For animators, creating a professional and personal network should be one of their highest priorities. You’ll likely already have one from school, but it is important to create one outside of that, either from the neighbourhood you live in, organisations like ASIFA or the Animation Guild, a drawing class, or even just the folks you work with.

One of the points that was hammered home last night was to build and maintain relationships. One of the panelists put it like this:

It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

That’s a great quote and pretty much sums up how you can determine your place in the labour supply pool. If no-one knows you, then there’s a good chance that you can become isolated professionally and that can have detrimental consequences when it comes time to look for a job or even climb the career ladder.

ASIFA-East President and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, David Levy, often mentions networking over on his blog, Animondays. His reason is more practical than most. As a New Yorker, the tight-knit animation community flourishes because of personal relationships. There are no really large ‘faceless’ corporations operating in the city so a fair amount of the time, he is working directly with an individual or small studio. In such a situation, personal relationships can (and do) count for an awful lot. Animondays has plenty of advice so check it out (if you don not do so already).

Relationships are also something that can slip away easily. I know myself that I am a horrible communicator. If you ever get an e-mail from me, I can come off as whiny, needy, hyperactive or just plain ignorant. If you don’t receive a reply from me, I more than likely neglected to take the 5 seconds to reply.

I know these are things I need to work on, and it can be hard when you’re working or going to school full-time to justify spending an evening or afternoon schmoozing with other people in the field. However, once you create a relationship, it is imperative that you take the small amount of time to maintain it. E-mails now and then, or even the occasional lunch can work wonders.

However, it would seem that the benefits are well worth the time put in, and like a couple of the panelists were saying, the more people who know you’re out of work, the greater the chance they know someone with an open position that needs to be filled.

So quit making excuses for yourself. That TV show or computer game can wait this evening. Head on out there and meet someone in the same boat as yourself! You’ll be surprised at they great kinds of people you’ll come across.