Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Career Q&A, part 2

Q: How do I get a job in the field of computer animation?

A: This IS the big question, isn't it.


To begin, you probably have a lot of research to do if you're asking this general of a question. Computer animation is all over the place, and though the tools and techniques are similar, the work can be very different. Take, for example, these four big pieces of the industry: feature animation, special visual effects, commercials, and games.

In my previous Q&A post, I write a little bit about the difference between working for an outside client (which happens generally if you are in VFX or commercials) versus working within a feature animation studio. That is certainly one concern. But what about the jobs themselves? Do you want to be working on jobs that turn around every few weeks or months (commercials) or longer term fare (games, movies)?

Do you want to be in a smaller studio, which means you could wear multiple hats more easily, or do you want to be a specialist in a larger organization?

Here's a big one: do you actually know what this or that studio actually calls the job you want? You might answer my questions above with something like, "I'd like to work in a small games company." Okay, so what kinds of jobs do people actually have in the companies that fit your description?

A while back, every studio had a different name for the same job. Depending on which company you were looking at, you might be applying for a digital artist position, or you might be applying to be a lighting TD, or something else entirely. Things are stabilizing a bit more, as far as I've seen, and TD (technical director) is a fairly standard term for non-character-animators who work on production. Of course, as I write this I'm sure there are "camera artist" jobs at one place which would be called "layout TD" jobs at another.

Comb the job boards and try to get a picture of what the actual positions are. See if representatives of the companies you are interested in have sponsored speakers at conferences and/or schools, see what they had to say and how they described themselves. You may find that you want to do position X at company Y, but the same job at company Z is called something else. At various points in my animation career, I have been referred to as: production support programmer, developer, animation software engineer, TD, generalist TD, shading TD, lighting TD, effects TD, tools storyboard artist, and director. My responsibilities while wearing many of those hats were the same--it was the hats that changed.

In short, know what you're aiming for. Know the places and the people, and know specific job titles to watch for.


My second piece of advice is to try and find internships. I've written about them before, but their importance in the hiring process is truly under-appreciated. Some studios hire half of their interns to full time jobs, whereas those same studios get 100 resumes and reels a week. I like the intern odds much better.

Think from the studios' perspective: they want good people, but 1) it's hard to know who's good and 2) they have production needs that fluxuate. So they don't want to over-commit to someone who might not work out for any number of reasons. Internships and other part-time arrangements are strategies to get people in the door at a very low-cost and with little risk. If it doesn't work out after 3-6 months, goodbye.

There are internships, typically for current students and sometimes for recent grads. Some places have apprenticeships. Some have residencies (or the equivalent). Cast a wide net early on and see what you can find out. For most studios these programs peak when they have a lot of work coming up (they need more bodies, after all), and they may vanish when times are tougher. So you may need to be flexible and agile, ready to respond quickly if and when these things are posted.


The third thing to keep in mind is your materials. By this I mean your reel, resume, reel breakdown, cover letter, and possibly letters of recommendation. There are lots of pieces of advice about these things online (I particularly appreciate Pixar's How to Create a Demo Reel webpage), but the thing I'll mention here is the cover letter. I don't really know how important the letter is in the scheme of things (I do think the reel is king), but I know that if I were reading a letter I would want it to be clear that the applicant has done his or her research about my company. In other words, given the variations between even the feature animation studios, you want to be sure your letter is tailored to the place you're applying.

For example, I just peeked at openings at Pixar and DreamWorks (PDI). There is a "Technical Director" position in both. At Pixar, based on the description, the TD generalist can be expected to do modeling, articulation, shading, maybe some software, some effects, etc. At DreamWorks, the TD reads as more of a production support programmer role, focused more on tool development. However, it does say that the TD supports and works with multiple departments too. These sound close, but are they?

You should know the answer by the time you are applying so you can target your materials to the job that they are actually offering. I think the best way to find the answer would, of course, be to actually speak with TDs from both organizations. What do they do each day? What are their responsibilities? This is where conferences, presentations, and the web come in handy.


When you can actually speak with people in the organizations, and preferably in the positions, that you are considering, you will be the best equipped to apply for those positions. They can tell you what good reels in their areas look like, they can tell you what points you might want to emphasize in your other application materials. They can tell you what the jobs actually are like and help you understand whether or not you actually want those jobs.

The annual SIGGRAPH conference is a terrific way to chat with industry folks in a relaxed atmosphere. You can actually thumb through a book full of presentations and pick the things you want to see by the name/title/organization of the people giving the presentations. There are evening parties, gatherings during the day, etc.

I think that the SIGGRAPH student volunteer gig is the best way to get folded into the SIGGRAPH community. You spend half your time working the conference, the other half hanging out with the other students and the industry folks you've met, going to talks, screenings, etc. The deadline for student volunteers for the annual summer conference is generally in February; watch for it.

This career thread came up on a mailing list I maintain recently, and I wrote more there about the importance of building community, aka getting to know and work with people. Former colleague and now Imageworks TD Eric Wilson has kindly posted his comments and mine on his own website, so instead of elaborating here I'll refer you to that page where my comments can be found after Eric's.

Good luck.

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