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10 Simple Steps To Jumpstart Your Animation Or VFX Career

 

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Are you wondering how to break into the Animation or VFX industries, or how do you take your career to the next level? 

Why should you listen to me? 

My name's Mike L. Murphy and I've worked on Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, Harry Potter, Fast and the Furious, Iron Giant and dozens more.  I want to take all that expertise of working for some really big studios (Disney, Warner Bros, WETA) and reveal what I’ve learned.  

I don’t want you to make the same stupid mistakes I did!  

Hopefully you can make your dreams happen, have steady money coming in, and get the influence that you're hoping for.

It all happens when you follow this proven step-by-step process…

1. Pick 1 ‘Job Title’ to Master the Skills Of

A lot of artists have A.D.H.D… 

We want to do everything all at the same time! 

We want to be the lighter, modeler, rigger and the storyboard artist.  If you're not sure what any of that is, check out this article I wrote on getting started learning this stuff.

The problem with that is if you're not really great at one thing the people that are going to hire you won’t be clear on the value you’ll supply them with.  If you’re trying to apply to every job for multiple skillsets, they’ll assume you’re not awesome at any of them.  

This comes down to how you brand yourself!

What is ‘branding’?  

It’s simply the ‘story’ that is told about you.  

Imagine that 2 studio recruiters (the people who’ll recommend you get a job at the studio) are talking about you. 

One asks ‘Why should my studio hire them?’. 

If the other recruiter can’t say something like ‘they’re the best animator I’ve seen, and always have a great attitude and work well with a team”, then you’ll probably get a job! (Ideally you would have built a relationship with the recruiter and mentioned all these things…essentially planting the seeds on how you wanted people to think about you).

The flip side is if this is said ‘You know, I’m not really too sure what that artist is like…I know they did a lot of things at the studio, and I didn’t hear anything negative about them…”

This ‘average’ description of you wouldn’t stand out.  You’d be passed over for the job that the ‘animator’ with a ‘great attitude’ and ‘works well with a team’ would get.

Make sense?  

You see, if you aren’t clear on WHAT you do, and what VALUE you provide…and then clearly COMMUNICATE that to others, you’ll have no control over what is said about you.  In general, if you don’t control the narrative you probably won’t like what is said!  That my friend is ‘branding’ in a nutshell.

You need to brand yourself for whatever that #1 thing that you want to be known for is. 

If you're like, "I want to be known for being the best character animator and rigger and modeler out there”, that’s too many things. 

In order to stand out you must be known for doing one thing especially well. 

What's Disney's branding? They are family-friendly and magical.  They know their branding and don't confuse their audience.   

The same holds true for you as an artist. 

If you're not crystal clear on what you do, what value you're going to give the studios, and clearly communicate that with your marketing materials; you will only confuse studios.

The confused human mind makes no decision. 

Imagine you need to hire the skillset of ‘lighting artist’ for your new studio.  You are looking at 2 portfolios:  

Portfolio #1:

Bob Smith.  Lighting Artist.  His :90 second reel includes shots of well lit scenes from past professional work.

Portfolio #2:

Joe Schmoe.  Animator, Rigger, Lighting Artist, Programmer, Compositor and all around swell guy.  Reel includes a bit of everything and is 9 minutes long (including his student film and obnoxious techno music).

Who would you be more confident hiring?  The person who is 100% focused on lighting, or the person who seems all over the place?

Sadly, most amateur artists are more like Joe Schmoe.  They think that they’ll impress studios if they include everything they’ve ever done.  

Get the point? 

Figure out what that one job title you want to be known for is! 

It doesn't mean you can't have different portfolios, but if you're applying for a rigging job and you're a really damn good rigger, then send studios to your rigging page. Don't send them to a page that shows them you do everything. 

Pick that one job and be awesome at it.  Then you can create portfolios for different skill sets if you are truly a master at more than one*.  If you're not sure what jobs are best for you, study up on the Pipeline process.

*If you’re a generalist for the commercial or gaming industries you can market yourself as a generalist.  However you should emphasize what your strongest talent is.  Ex: You’re a modeler who can also texture, rig and do particle simulations.

2. Plan What Your Portfolio (Marketing Materials) Will Look Like

A lot of people start throwing their work in a portfolio, and they don't really think about what story (or branding) they want it to convey.  This leads to an unfocused portfolio that gets them nowhere.

You need to have a ‘trinity of marketing’ materials:

1. Website

2. Portfolio

3. Reel 

Let's start with your website.

This must be very simple. 

It needs a home page which should have your name at the top.  This lets recruiters instantly see that they’re in the right spot and they didn't come to the wrong place. 

I recommend a professional photo of you where you’re smiling at camera.  This lets recruiters get an idea of your personality and put a face to the artwork. 

You should also list out what the #1 skillset you want to be known for is.  (Ex: animator, rigger, lighter, modeler, etc.) 

Then you want to have a short ‘about me’ area.  This would have 1 to 2 paragraphs about yourself and why studios would be silly not to hire you. 

Here’s a short example:

"I believe in being the best rigger I can possibly be because I take pride in my work, and my ability to get all my tasks done on time. 

At the age of 7 I saw Transformers 19.  This Oscar winning film made me want to work in the film and VFX and animation industry. I loved how the robots moved, which made me decide that rigging my was main passion in life.” 

This short ‘about me’ area helps studios to get to know, like, and trust you.  Whenever companies do marketing campaigns, they go out of their way to get their intended buyers to know, like and trust them.  If you haven’t figured it out already, YOU are a small business and need to market yourself like one (or see all the jobs meant for you go to artists who do).

Next is you want to have your reel. 

If you don't know what a reel is, it’s simply motion based examples of your work (ex: animations, rigged characters moving, lighted shots). If you're not doing video-based work, you don't need a reel. So if you’re a visual development illustrator, you wouldn’t have any movement based work to put on your reel.    

Next up you need a portfolio of your best work samples.  This includes life drawings.  Keep in mind that no matter what skillset you're applying for, you need to have life drawings.  This shows the studios you can draw!  If you're a background painter, illustrator or texture artist, then you should have examples of that in addition to life drawings.  

Other necessary elements on your site could be a blog (to update people on what you’re working on), contact page (so recruiters can easily get ahold of you), a link to download your resume and a page of references.

PRO TIP: As you wrap each job, ask your supervisor or producer for a short written statement if they’d recommend you to other studios.  If they write one up you sure as heck better use it on your site to promote yourself!  You’ll get no points for being humble!

A lot of people put too much on their site. They clutter it. Remember, your site is a marketing tool to get you a job!

Before you start making your portfolio, envision what you're going to put in it.  Don't just start building that, really think about it. 

Last tip here…you never want to go and reinvent at the wheel. 

What I mean is that you should find portfolios of working artists and analyze what you like about their portfolio and work presentation.  Then make a plan of what elements you’ll need so your portfolio is similar to theirs.  Don’t copy their work…but be inspired by the core ideas and structure they’re using.

A few hours of research to see what studios are hiring for in your skillset is going to save you a lot of aggravation.  

3. Create a 1st Pass of Your Portfolio as Quickly as Possible

After you’ve analyzed other successful artist’s work, and have a solid plan for the exact elements you need to create so you can make a world-class portfolio, you’ll want to crank out a first pass as quickly as possible. 

A  lot of people overthink this.   They think they need to spend 3 years making something impressive.  

The reality is that the quicker you focus on getting a first pass, the quicker you’ll be able to make a plan for what should stay, and what needs to be tossed and redone.

I created a portfolio that got me into CalArts (at the time it was one of the most competitive art schools in the world to get accepted to).  I literally created my portfolio over the 3 day Thanksgiving weekend.  While my entire family was feasting on turkey, I was drawing and following the precise directions that the admissions office at CalArts told me to submit.  I didn’t have the time to overthink things!

Because I cranked a first pass of my portfolio out so fast, I had time for them to give me feedback before the final submission deadline.  This let me toss out the so-so quality stuff and replace it with more polished work.  I’m nothing special…so if I could do it, I promise you can too!

4. Get Feedback on Your Portfolio, Revise If Needed (Always Keep it Updated)

At the end of the day, other people will review your work and form an opinion.  And when it comes to studio recruiters, you only get one first impression!  If you’re submitting your work, and it’s not quite ready for prime time, they’ll pass you up!

For that reason, don’t you agree it’d be better to get as much feedback as you can on your work BEFORE you jump the gun and submit for a job?

If you’re too insecure to ask others for feedback, then how can you possibly accept the feedback you’ll get in a professional environment?

And if you’re thinking ‘I don’t know any industry people to give me an honest assessment of my work’ then jump into forums, or our Moviemakin’ Facebook Group and ask for feedback.  There are a ton of resources you can tap into!

I'd rather have honest feedback from people and who give me clear action steps on what I need to change, rather than just being naïve and applying to studios who might reject me.

So get that first pass up and running as quickly as possible, and then get feedback on your stuff. 

One last thought here…you’re always going to need input so never have the mindset that your portfolio is perfect. Every time you go to apply for a job, look your current portfolio over and see if anything could be thrown out, improved or added.  This is what pros do, and what you should do too! 

5. Build Friendships with Other Working Artists

This is something that a lot of artists don't do the right way.., 

If you are not yet in the industry, you must reach out to people that are working. 

Go to industry events or leave comments on blogs.  Something simple like, "I like the new blog post you did." 

You can call up the local studios near you and offer to take artists out to lunch in exchange for some mentoring (don’t be needy or creepy!).  This will help you find a local mentor who can steer you in the right direction.

Why do you need to build industry relationships?

Because studios are full of PEOPLE!  People want to work with other people that they know, like and trust.  The only way to get to know, like and trust someone is to spend time getting to know them.  

You see, 95% of artists apply to studios and then wonder why they didn’t get hired.  

What about the other 5%?  They knew someone at the studio and jumped past the 95% to the top of ‘check their portfolio out’ list.  

Have you heard the saying ‘it’s who you know’?  This is true not just in Hollywood, but in every industry.

Studio recruiters get a ton of submissions…and it gets very boring watching 30 reels a day and then having to reply back to all the artists.  What is much easier (and what they do) is look at, (and interview) the artists who are recommended by current working employees.  

99% of my jobs happened because a friend recommended me to the studio they were working out.  The 1% job only happened because the head of the studio also went to CalArts!  So even though I didn’t know him personally, the school connection got me hired (and once hired I worked on and off there even to this day!).  

Long story short…it’s who you know!  So start building connections today.

6. Reach out to Studio Recruiters and Ask for Portfolio Feedback (Not a Job…yet)!

Here’s a little secret if you haven’t yet broke into the industry…

Don’t ask for a job!

Instead, call up (don’t email) the recruiter and say ‘I really respect your studio. I love the quality of work you guys are doing. I'm not even ready to apply for a job. I just was wondering could you give me honest feedback on my portfolio? I'd really like to work for you guys one day." 

The magic words here are ‘Can I get feedback so I can ONE DAY maybe work for you guys.” 

When you ask that way, the recruiters are no longer feeling like you're trying to get a job from them. It takes the pressure off. Now they're helping you because you were nice to them and are sincerely asking them to mentor you.

If they have the time, they’ll review your stuff and offer you up some ways to improve your portfolio.  OR, if you’re ready for a professional job, don’t be surprised if they say ”Actually, we're hiring right now. Do you mind if I formally submit you for a review?"  

Don’t expect that 100% of recruiters will take the time to offer you constructive feedback.  However the ones that do will take ownership in your success and want to see you succeed.

7. Be Active in Online Forums and Social Media Platforms 

As you’ve heard me mention, this industry all comes down to building friendships with professionals.   

Unless you live in a major production hub (Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris or Tokyo), it’ll be hard for you to meet working pros.  That’s why you’ll need to invest the time to be active in forums and give value!  

What do I mean by ‘give value’?  

Simply put, don’t be the person who is asking for others to do stuff for you.  Instead, give, give and give some more until the people you’re helping ask you ‘how can I help?’.  That’s when you can say ‘do you know any studios who might be hiring?’

I’m going to assume you’re an introvert (like most graphic artists are).  If so, FORCE yourself to be social.  I was very shy when I was younger, so this step would totally freak me out.  But I can honestly say, in hindsight, it would have yielded the biggest results. 

8. If You Have a Job, Always Ask Your Supervisors for Feedback and Mentoring

When you're at the typical studio, you're going to get laid off when the project wraps.  That means that after each job you’ll have to hunt for the next one.  

The easiest way to stay employed is to keep the same studios hiring you over and over.  In my freelance career I simply jumped between 3 studios.  I always seemed to have work, and sometimes could pick the projects I wanted to do.

Whenever you wrap a project, the producers and supervisors always ask ‘who did we like working with?’  Those are the crew members who get called back over and over again.

When I was supervising and directing, the people that I liked to work with were the people that gave me value. They're the people who said, "Hey, Mike, how can I help you? How can I make your job easier? What do you need from me."  Those are the people that I would continuously bring back on my crews, and help them climb into higher roles.  On one show, I gave our intern Eric a shot at animating.  He did such a great job that he was hired as an artist from that point onwards.

The crew members whose attitude was so-so were the people you forget about.  They’d sound like this… "Yeah, okay, you want me to do this? All right, I'll do it. Cool, man, whatever.”   They didn’t get hired back.

In essence, you want to be the squeaky wheel that requires grease (not in a needy or annoying way). 

You want to be the cool social person who's always saying, "How can I make the show better? How can I help people out?" If you give value, those supervisors are going to really remember you and bring you onto the next show.

Keep in mind that supervisors have artists under them that they hire (they’re the real decision makers), and then when that project ends, they usually get hired at another job as a supervisor. 

You want to be very smart about reaching out to those people and building real solid friendships. You don't want to be ass-kissy or any of that. They're going to see right through it. 

But if you're really genuine and say, "I want to one day do what you're doing, how do you suggest I do that?" they're going to be flattered that you asked them to mentor you.  Typically they’ll take you under their wing and start to groom you for success!

You might think, "All the people I respect in the industry must be mentoring a million people…” 

The reality is most artists are way too shy to ask somebody to mentor them; so if you do it,, I guarantee it's going to work.  I’ve taught thousands of students and only 2 have ever told me they followed this advice.  By the way, they’re both doing well in their careers!

9. Be Professional!  (On Time, Organized, Efficient)

If you're not showing up on time for work, not organized, not efficient, don’t have a great attitude or don't have good hygiene…you’re not going to move up the ranks!  

This is a business, after all.  

The goal of any business is to make money.  As an artist, you make the studio money when you’re at your desk during the hours you’re paid for, organized so it’s easy to hand your work over to others, efficient so you get all your assignments done on time, and are easy going so the rest of the crew finds you pleasant to be around.

Oh yeah…you have to be able to take direction!  

I remember I was directing a commercial, and a very talented artist had a bad attitude.  He fought me every time I asked him to revise something.  Keep in mind I was giving him notes that helped tell the story and improve his shots…not trying to make his life difficult by giving him a bunch of notes for no reason.  He was very defensive and I had to remove him from my team.  

The reality of any project is you’re going to have to make changes to your work…that’s what the studio is paying you for.  So take direction like a pro, and do all your work with excellence, and a smile!  

10. Be Confident!

People want to be around confident people.  Those who lack confidence rarely make eye-contact, always mumble, are passive-aggressive and make endless excuses.  That is NOT someone I want to be forced to work with for 10 hours a day!

You won’t break into the industry if you’re not confident in your ability to do great work, and give value to the crew.  

I’m not talking about having a massive ego and strutting around like you own the place.  That would make you an a-hole, and studios will be quick to fire you (as they should).  

Instead, I’m talking about the kind of confidence where you can take a compliment, take constructive criticism, know what you’re talking about, be willing to speak up if you have a great idea, not be afraid to pinpoint a problem and be authentic when talking to others.

What if you lack confidence?

Then you’d better brush up on your skills and learn about the areas where you’re unclear!  I created Moviemakin’ so you can be totally confident on what the industry expects of you.  After all, it’s a small industry and you only get one first impression! 

Next Steps:

Those are the 10 simple steps to jump start your animation or VFX career. Hopefully you found this helpful.

1. Free Career Map

If you want to go deeper, I have a free Career Map that's going to help you understand what the big career steps are. Just click the button below, then tell me where I can email you the download link. Click here to grab yours now!

2. Get A Job Masterclass

Ready to start applying to studios?  This masterclass walks you through all the major steps of preparing a rock-solid portfolio. Click here for full details.

Wrap Up:

I hope this gave you some insights into how to get started making your dreams happen.

If you've got any questions I suggest you join our Facebook Group. If you're not yet a member, just request to join, and then give us 24 hours (Monday through Friday) to approve you. You can go in there and start geeking out. 

Hopefully, this served you well!  Remember that only you can make your dreams happen.  So commit now and don’t let anything stop you!

All the best,

Mike  

 

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