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How to Get a Job as a Digital Animator/Artist

After 22 years as a design professional, I've seen just about everything when it comes to the ways people get jobs in this field. And it might shock you to know that there are poseurs in the entertainment industry. Yes, I know that this seems unlikely, but it's true—some people try to bluff their way into a job for which they are not qualified. So, it becomes a simple process that comes down to two things when I consider a candidate: the look in their eyes and the work seen in their portfolio and reel.

Going to national conferences, such as E3, SIGGRAPH, GDC, NAB, and so forth, is a great way to make eye-to-eye contact with potential employers. However, don't offer your portfolio or reel unless you're invited specifically to do so. Have your resume ready, and, if asked, have copies of your reel with you to give to companies that you would consider working for that genuinely seem interested in you. Be prepared for all the possibilities.

I invite people to interview based on the quality of the work seen in the reels and portfolios that they submit for consideration. The rest of the reels are returned. Some companies don't return reels; make sure that you're clear about that when you submit your work. Having several copies of your reel will keep you from being held hostage by slow art directors.

Perseverance Is Key

Reels and portfolios are always sent with some prior notice, usually a phone call, to make a personal connection. I like to know in advance that someone's work is on its way for my review; this tells me that it's important enough to them to make the effort to let me know they're sending it. However, making a personal connection can be very difficult sometimes and will test your perseverance. You might have to work through a receptionist or human resources representative to get to the person who will make the hiring decision.

The test is how badly you want to work for the company you are trying to get into, and how long you will persevere to get the job you want. That's the question—only you know the answer. Opening the door takes time and effort—and maybe dozens of phone calls and months of waiting.

The Interview: Two-Way Conversation

I invite artists to interview based on their portfolio and reel; it's what gets my attention. I hire artists based on intangibles, which I refer to as the look in their eyes. I want to know what an artist thinks about when he doesn't have to think, what he reads that he has found interesting; who his heroes are, and who he has been mentored by. Most of all, I'm trying to gauge whether that person can get along with other artists in the pressure cooker of production and if he can take art direction.

The interview is a two-way conversation. Be ready to ask the same questions asked by your interviewers; they are hiring you, and you are joining them. It's the same thing, really. The questions are these: Will these people get along with you? Are the art directors and artists people that you can admire, respect and take direction from?"

Some companies send you through a gauntlet of interviews looking for a consensus from the artists who talk with you about your work and your aspirations. This is a very good idea, and it builds consensus in the team that you will be joining. It is very appropriate to ask to speak with some of the artists you will be working with if it hasn't been previously arranged.

Here are some guidelines to follow when you interview:

  • Be clear about what you want and your goals for the future. Take some time before the interview to write down the characteristics of your ideal job. When you interview, compare the position with that list and ask yourself if this is the kind of place where you can create the job you dream about. How your career progresses is your responsibility.

  • Arrive on time, and bring your reel and resume. Don't assume that the interviewers have it handy for viewing. It's buried under a pile of other reels and resumes in the art director's office.

  • Don't be too impressed with titles, projects, or company history. This is a job; your long-term satisfaction in it will come from the company's creative process and the daily working relationship that you'll have with your peer artists and the production leaders, not from fancy offices and titles. Be respectful of the success of the company and the individuals in it—just try to get over the wow factor of what they've accomplished; it won't serve you to walk around with your mouth open, agog at their credit list.

  • Ask questions about the company, its goals for the future, how you fit in with those plans, and what projects you'll be working on.

  • Be respectful. Don't talk too much. Listen.

  • Be responsible for asking for what you want. Don't expect that the interviewer will know what it is you are looking for.

  • Let your work speak for itself—no need to explain anything before they see it. Just show it and answer their questions.

  • When the interview is over, set a clear understanding of the next step. If they say, "We'll call you!", you have just been invited into the ranks of the persevering. Get business cards during the interview, and, if this is a place you want to work at, call often.

  • Be open to temporary, freelance, or intern positions. Taking advantage of these opportunities gives both you and the company a chance to see each other in action and often leads to a full-time, permanent position on staff.

  • Dress appropriately. If you don't know what the dress code is at the studio, find out. You might be an artist, but this is very much a world of professionals. You don't have to wear a suit and tie; just spiff up a little. (I personally wouldn't work at a place where I had to wear a tie for the interview.)

  • The keys to getting a job as a digital artist are simple: work hard, learn your tools well, creative an effective reel and portfolio, create your ideal job mentally, be clear on what you want, and persevere until you get it. If you do this and take responsibility for getting what you want, you will certainly be successful in your job search.

So, you want to be a digital artist? Fantastic. Your talents, vision, and passion are needed and welcome. And there has never been a better time to start on your path. The important thing to remember is that being a digital artist is more about who you are than it is about what you do. It is out of the wealth of your learning and experience, especially your life experience, that your own unique genius will shine and your artistic vision will be created. Good luck on your journey.

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