Job Security – The Times have changed.
Companies like Disney Animation used to hire painters and then train them to do animation, background design, cell painting, or whichever job the artist needed to perform. Once you became their employee they took care of you. They trained you, they give you a secure retirement plan, and you had a secure job for the next few decades as long as you could keep up with the necessary skills. The great hope of our parents’ generation was to land a, “Good Job.” That’s why our parents told us to make, “Good Grades,” go to a “Good School” and get a “Good Job.”
But the times have changed. Disney now hires and fires their employees on a project to project basis. And they don’t really care whether you went to school or not. All that matters is how good is your work, and where you have worked in the past. No artist there has any job security whatsoever. Their retirement is their own responsibility. This is the case for most artists in the industry. And many of the jobs that Americans were hired to do in the past now go to India, China, Korea, Japan, or any other nation that will do the work cheaper and/or faster. Professional artists know to keep their portfolio ready because even though they are busy working now they know they may soon be looking for more work. A good presentation of your artwork is one of the keys to success in this industry and going to school may or may not help you get that far.
One major difference between the old system of on site training and today’s college education training is that back then, they paid you during your training period and you were trained by the best in the business. They considered you a long term investment. Today we have to pay for our training and our teachers may or may not even be as good as the guys working at the big companies. We have to invest and we don’t start turning a profit until we’ve worked long enough to pay off all of our school loans. From the business man’s perspective this model is perfect. The young artists will pay for their own training, and then the employers can pick and choose which students they want to hire. The employer also gets to pay lower wages because the students are then competing against one another. The employer can hire whichever one is willing to take the lower wages, which is his only real motivation to hire someone as inexperienced as a student in the first place. An employer could even fire some of their well paid artists and replace them with younger artists. The reason he might choose to replace some of his staff with inexperienced students is because the students are easily intimidated when it comes to negotiating pay, and they are willing to do more work for less pay to earn that long desired entrance into the industry. Over time this undercutting competition between artists causes a very detrimental effect on the average pay rate for production work. Production schedules are also getting tighter and tighter as producers want the work done cheaper and in a shorter amount of time. In the meantime the production artists are working harder than ever and working longer hours than in the past, and for significantly less pay overall. This process I’m referring to is often taking place without the artists knowing it. The younger artists are especially ignorant of the market effects.
My life as a Production Artist.
Beware of production studios that hire mostly students. When I was close to graduation I began working for a flash character animation studio that hired almost entirely students. There were only 3 people in the whole company who weren’t hired directly out of school with the exception of the owners and a couple writers. I was expecting to get paid $15 to $20 an hour which by the way is not considered very much. They offered me $8 an hour. I was shocked. Minimum wage at the time was a little more than $6. I was very confident but I was also very much in need of money. I told them I’d need to think about it. They gave me an assignment and I got started right away. The next day they called me into the meeting room and offered me $10. I had a strange and subtle feeling of wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. That is on the inside of course. I smiled and accepted the low rate and returned to my work. I liked working there and my boss was really cool. I think he would have liked to have paid me more but he was only one level above me in this hierarchy of power meaning he didn’t really have any control over the going rate. I was surprised to find that half a year later when I took on a web design job in orange county I was paid $15 an hour. And the work I was doing did not even use any of my college training. I taught myself webdesign long before I started school. And now I was being paid almost twice as much to do something that required half the training. It doesn’t make sense to a well trained artist, but it makes sense from a business perspective. The flash animation market was not doing that well, but the web design market was flourishing. The business was making more money so the standard pay for it’s artists was more.
I now realize that school has very little to do with how much money you will make. While working at that studio I found another example of someone making money without college training. The youngest guy working there was also the most talented. He had not gone to college but he was by far the best programmer, and flash animation action scripter. The older, college educated programmers were going to him for help. And the most shocking thing was that he was not a prodigy or any different than any other kid I’ve met. If I had ran into him outside of work I would have thought him to be your average high school cool kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also making much more money than me because his work was much more difficult to learn than mine was.
Find a Job Doing What You Love?
Most people do not get excited when they hear the word, “job.” It sounds like something you have to do, not something you want to do. In the best case scenario it is doing something you do whether you like to or not because it gives a reward that you want. If you wanted to do the work for it’s own sake then it wouldn’t really be a job would it? Maybe it’s called a job simply because you are being paid for it, so in that case it could be work you like to do in the first place. But even if you like the work, if you are doing it for money, then money is the reward and not the work itself. The difference is that once money becomes the ultimate purpose, doing the work to your own satisfaction becomes secondary and easily becomes sacrificed at some point because it can’t take priority over the satisfaction of the person paying you for the work. This isn’t always the case, especially for many independent artists, but for nearly all students entering the world of production it becomes a grim reality. You end up turning what you love to do into a job.
This is the other problem I found working in the industry is that you don’t really have much creative input when doing the work. Our clients and producers always shoot down our first ideas and our best ideas. Even if you give them several different versions and put in extra effort on the ones that you like the most, somehow their tastes and your tastes never seem to line up. So you always have to redo your work in a way that maybe you don’t like. It’s very rare that they accept your initial work. If you could make all the art decisions on your own then their job would not be necessary. So even if it will not make the work any better your supervisors are always likely to ask that you implement their suggestions. Every working artist knows this and is used to redoing or completely discarding their work. This is why professional working artists always say things like, “Don’t get attached to your work.” Very few artists have decision making power, so the majority of professional working artists learn to be very detached from their work and lose most of their passion for their projects. Having their precious creations rejected on a regular basis makes artists very calloused. The experienced artists know how to get the job done to get paid. Young artists come in and wonder why the older artists have lost their individuality or emotional investment in their work. If the artist is an idealist and longs to do work to please their creative side then they often have to make a choice. They very often have to choose between taking jobs that offer more creative decision making power and less pay, or jobs that pay better but leave you disliking your work.
Remember the flash animation sweat shop I mentioned earlier? I like doing flash animation, but they were paying me very little to do the work. And on most of my assignments I was paid for how much work I produced, not by how many hours I worked. So I had to balance between getting the work done fast, and getting the work done well. I could try to please my creative self by producing top quality work as an artist, or I could try to get the work done as fast as possible to get the small amount of pay that I would receive regardless of how well done the work was. I was paid so little on a particular assignment that my boss even told me when giving me the assignment to just get it done. I figured I could just do it really quickly and get paid. But when I showed her my work she then told me to redo parts of it. I redid it as quickly as I could but she still wasn’t happy. I kept up with how much time it was taking me to do the assignment and I quickly found that I was making less than minimum wage when comparing the hours I was putting in to the amount of pay I was receiving. In the end she made me completely redo many of the items more than once or twice which made me feel really awkward because I prided myself on turning in satisfactory work. When pay day came around she suddenly told me that I was only going to be paid half of what I was originally told because much of my work had to be handed off to a coworker to be redone since my work (which I had redone more than once) was done so poorly! On the inside I was shocked, but I smiled, took my pay, and hoped the next assignment would turn out better. I tried to assess my losses and I decided that my financial situation was so bad that I had better keep working there even if the pay was minimal. I learned to become detached from my work and my job. So much for doing what you love.
On the other side of the spectrum we had a Disney animation veteran working at our humble little flash studio. She had made huge money back in her days at Disney, but like many Disney animators she had been fired and wasn’t likely to get hired back due to the changes in the market. She always did her best and put in long hours, but on many occasions she ended up working many hours and getting the same pay. She often claimed that it wasn’t made clear to her that the assignment would be paying so little and that she would have finished sooner had she known. And the only reason she said anything at all was because she wanted the pay to be adjusted after putting in so many hours. During one of these assignments I was working with her and she kept returning my work to me with subtle comments about how it needed more of this or that. I understood what she was implying but I also knew that I had already put in as many hours as I wanted for as much as they were going to pay us. Without telling me she redid some of my work and put in her long hours. When payday came our producer got tired of hearing her complaints and asked to adjust my pay so that she could be paid more. I knew that she was still not getting paid nearly as much as she worked so I smiled and took the lesser pay. I assessed my financial situation and decided that even if I was steadily losing time and money it would be wise for me to continue working there a little longer until I could find a more ideal job situation. In a situation like this one you also have to consider that your bosses will be deciding who gets what assignment next, and which assignment you have plays a huge part in how much you will like your job for the next week. So complaining to the supervisors also has it’s drawbacks. It’s a constant give and take relationship.
Every production artist has to find a suitable balance in their life. Everyone has trouble balancing their work life with their personal life. But as long as the two are separate I find that a person will always have to neglect one to truly fulfill the other. For the artist who works for someone else this is always the case. To find freedom we must dig deeper, but I’ll say more about this later.
Growing up I’m sure you heard people say, “The best thing is to find a job doing what you love.” Maybe this is why art students are willing to pay so much for school to enter a career that pays them so little. But once I saw the reality of working in the industry I found that this saying is very misleading. Working for someone else to please their tastes and bring their ideas to life so that you can get their money ends up being a job you can’t love. I tried to think of many different scenarios where I might be able to work, make money, and do what I love, but it was very difficult to find any such path in the industry.
The Ideal Job – What does it look like?
I thought that if I got a job at a great studio that appreciates its artists then that would be the way. I watched Pixar films hoping to maybe develop my skill enough to get that golden opportunity to work for Pixar. At the time Pixar was one of the few studios that was most famous for protecting its artists and making a good creative work atmosphere. In my eyes it was also the only studio producing truly memorable and meaningful animated films. I want to do something meaningful with my life and I know I can’t be happy without doing that. I’m the kind of person who makes decisions by looking at the end of my life and how much I will have done if I go that particular route. I chose to pursue animation because I knew I could do this form of artwork and always be challenged. It’s by far the most difficult form of artwork I’ve ever heard of. But if I were to spend my entire life learning to animate and animating films, would I be happy with my work at the end of my life? This is how I make all my decisions. When I die I figure God will ask to see the receipts on how I spent the time that He gave me. One day I was watching Pixar’s film, “The Incredibles” and I was excited to find that they had an animators’ commentary. Listening to the commentary I found the answer to my question. The animators talked about how they worked night and day for 4 years on this film demanding more of themselves than ever before. Their families had to be understanding while they worked and toiled at their computers everyday pursuing the perfect animation in their scenes. They also mentioned that because it takes so long to produce a scene of animation perfectly that an animator on a film like Incredibles would on average produce about 2 minutes of character animation to be seen in the final movie. Some animators could produce a little more than 2 minutes in that 4 years, some even less. At first I thought about how noble it was to pursue something so demanding and so publicly unrewarding (no animator ever really receives much public fame like other artists), but then I thought about all the other things I could accomplish with the same amount of devotion. I’m hoping that at the end of my life I can offer God more than a few golden scenes of animation. But by working in this industry it wasn’t likely. That was the day that I started considering my other options for finding happiness with artwork.
I also knew that I had many good ideas for my own stories which I wanted to pursue, and that by working for a great studio like Pixar the likeliness of developing my own personal ideas would be extremely unlikely. In any business there are really only a few decision makers and by working for a well established company like Pixar I was not likely to become one of them. I would be pretty far back in a line of animators pitching their own stories, and it would have been a miracle if I had ever even set foot in a studio like Pixar. All the best animators in the world want to work there right now, and I may not even have the potential to be as good as one of the animators who wants to work at Pixar. I believe in miracles, but even if I could accomplish the miracle of miracles by becoming a director at Pixar I still don’t think I’d be happy before God at the end of my days. At this point I began considering more independent ideas.
This was my case so it is entirely possible that working within the industry will make you perfectly happy. If you want to work at a good studio that apreciates it’s artists then I would encourage you to keep pushing your skills. More than anyone else you will need to educate yourself and gain the necessary skills to get such an incredible job. I would also suggest that you find an innovative way to show them that you can add something valuable to their company. Such companies often have huge competetion for their employment opportunities. Keep in mind that they aren’t looking for what they already have. They are looking for something fresh, so don’t fill up your portfolio with reproductions of their own work. Show that you can match their style, but you should also show them something fresh and innovative. Show them something interesting so that they won’t throw your work away the instant they see it.
If you have recently graduated from college and are getting constant mail asking you pay back your loans then you would probably be more than happy to work at the flash animation sweat shop I mentioned earlier. For anyone looking to enter the industry and get a production job, I suggest you skip the next chapter and go straight to chapter V. For those of you hoping to make your own path and develop your own ideas, I suggest you read chapter IV and open up your eyes to the freedom of being an independent artist. I myself shed many tears and found myself on my knees praying so many times for God to make a way for me to pay my bills and allow me to do what I love. After years of research I have found that the path of independence is far more rewarding. It relies almost entirely on self discipline and motivation, but as long as you believe in what you are doing it can lead to freedom. But since I havn’t completely made my path yet I will show you some independent artists who have found their own way and I will show you how.
Chapter 3 – My Experience in the Industry