Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Unofficial Truth about The Animation Industry

  It is almost that time of year, again,... when animation hopefuls will soon graduate from their various animation schools, and people are looking to apply for animation jobs, etc., etc.  Schooled in technique and process.  ... Yet! ...
... for these individuals, and others, there are still MANY questions about the "animation industry" that have gone...
... unanswered!!!  

  So... to help answer these questions, and indeed many others, here is a TON of great info which answers a LOT of the typical questions about the animation industry one might ask, and more. ---- Which, for those interested, I thought I would share.
Copied from a forum post on CGTalk (, written by Joe Harkins
NOTE: This should be treated as opinion, and therefore not necessarily fact, but still... awesome.

I give you...

The Unofficial Truth about The Industry 
written by Joe Harkins 
(Originally posted 06/21/06, updated 09/13/10)

  Some of this will seem like information you’ve heard before, like common sense, like something someone should have sat down and told you. Maybe that’s the case, and maybe this is just affirmation of what you already know, but either way, I think you should read this.

   I realize that you might not be a full-time student, and you might be working in the industry. In fact, some of you I know from work, and you’re just here to brush up or learn a new skill. Your continued education is evidence of the dedication you have, and that’s such a great thing to have! I admire those who want more when they already have what they need.

   I believe that no matter what and where you choose to learn, be it at a public institute, a private school, or even in front of your computer at home, you should feel comfortable with your decision. You should feel like you're learning and that you've been given the tools you need to succeed in this extremely tough industry.

Do you need to go to college to get a job in this industry?
  --- No, but it doesn't hurt your chances to have a degree, and it won't be frowned upon if you don't.

Do employers require a degree to get a job?
--- Yes, some of the larger studios do require a degree for some of their more advanced TD, software engineering, and infrastructure related jobs.

What about non technical jobs, do those require a degree?
--- No. While some schools hold a certain amount of clout with many large studios and their degrees are in fact well respected, like Ringling or Cal Arts for example, artistic jobs do not require a degree.
(Blogger's note: "And of course Animation Mentor")

Do I need to be artistic?
--- Yes. Hands down it all comes down to your natural, raw, artistic talent, your eye for detail, your ability to take criticism for your own work, and your ability to critique others.

What if I’m technical though, do I still need to be artistic?
--- At the end of the day, the answer is yes. While it’s acceptable to not have any artistic talent and be completely scientific in many of the job functions, if you truly want to excel in Computer Graphics, you need at least basic artistic abilities to get by. It will only make you a stronger technical candidate.

So should I go to college or not?
--- Are you talented enough to get a job without it? Are you completely sure about your artistic ability and what you want to do? Do you need more time to work on your portfolio? Do you have the discipline and determination to get a job with your current abilities? Keep asking yourself questions, and eventually you’ll figure it out.

What if I get a degree in something else?
--- That’s fine if you want to have something to “fall back” on, so to speak. Conservative people recommend this option to avoid pigeonholing yourself. I personally think that you should get a degree in whatever it is you want to do as a career. You can minor in something else, like business, while still majoring in art or computer science, for example. Either way, it’s not a bad thing, but it does raise a question as to how determined are you to make it in this industry if you’re already making a backup plan?

How do I know if I am getting what I need out of school or not?
--- “I feel lost…” I’ve heard that one a lot. I honestly want to tell you to consider doing something else with your life if you feel lost and are already taking classes for your major. If you’re just wondering whether or not you’re getting what you need from school, then you should probably ask yourself what it is you expect. You’re only going to get out of it what you put in.

Should I focus on art or science?
--- That’s for you to decide. Unless you’re absolutely sure you want a technical job that requires a degree, the B.A. vs B.S. is not worth arguing over. You need to pick something that fits your goals, but remember that it’s probably irrelevant later on anyways.

My school seems more interested in my money, is this normal?
--- Many schools are cashing in on students desire to learn. They are almost all the same as far as what you end up with on paper. As far as actual teaching quality, instructor experience, and overall reputation, that all depends on your school.

If you feel like your school is just seeking a profit, then your hunch is right, it is. The difference will be in the graduating students. Look at where grads are working, not so called “job placement” numbers that the school puts out. Just remember, it’s your responsibility to teach yourself and get a job, not anyone else, no matter how much money you spend on school or how much they promise to help after graduation.

What software should I learn?
--- First and foremost, forget about the software for a minute. If you are interested in the technical side of things, then you are going to need a strong background in math and science. You'll also need programming experience.

If you're mainly an artist then you need to focus on traditional skills such as drawing, painting, and sculpting, among other things. Work on your 2D skills before trying your hand at 3D.

The software is only a tool.

To answer the question though, the software most commonly used for 3D in the industry is Maya and 3DSMax. PhotoShop is a standard application to know. For compositing you're best bet is to learn Nuke. For rendering, Renderman and Mental Ray have the strongest markets. Houdini and 3DSMax are popular with FX artists. Also, many larger studios have proprietary packages that are very unique to their pipeline.

It can matter what software you learn, because they are complicated packages that require training and time to understand. The less experience you have with the most commonly used software, the less valuable you will be.

I am about to graduate, what should I do?
--- There are a few steps to preparing for graduation and entering this industry.

  • Look at job openings and preparing your resume
  • Put together an online portfolio and/or demo reel
  • Make contacts who can review your work
What should I have when I graduate?
--- The most important thing you need is a demo reel and online portfolio with your work on it. You need a resume, obviously. Almost everyone gets reviewed solely on their demo reel, so, you’re going to need that demo reel. If you don’t have that when you graduate then you essentially have nothing to get a job with!

I graduated, now what?
--- Now is when you flood the market. You are new, you are unknown, and you need a job. Flood is the key word here. Send out as many hard copy reels and e-mails as you can. Take time and make cover letters for each one, and make them specific to each company. Don’t write generic cover letters. Don’t overdo it either, simple and to the point. Cover letter, resume, and demo reel, 3 things, that’s it.

As far as demo reels go, here are my rules:
  • 3 minutes or less, anything more is too long
  • Your best work goes first, never repeat anything
  • Don't focus on your soundtrack, it’s on mute, sorry.
  • Name, phone and email all over the place, don’t forget contact info.
What to put on it?
--- Only your best work. If you don’t think it’s great, no-one else will.
You should really get as much feedback from people as you can before you cut your demo reel. You need to find out what your best work really is. It could be that one piece that is really great that gets you a job, but if you throw in five others that are terrible, forget it.

Tailor your reel to the job that you would like.
  --- If you’re a modeler, show models. If you want to animate, show animations. Don’t try to show more than one or two skills, even if you want to do everything. You cannot possibly be good at everything, and your weakest areas are going to shine through, not your strongest. Be aware that all of your work shown is being judged, not just what you say you want to do. Not fair? Then don’t put it on your reel!

How much is your demo reel worth?
--- Technically, it’s priceless. A foot in the door in this industry is tough to get, and you are up against many willing and talented people who want that opportunity as bad if not worse than you do. So, it’s priceless. If you spend one week hacking together a reel, it’s obvious. All the talent in the world won’t make up for rushed work, laziness, or procrastination. Be proactive, and don’t doubt for a second – there is competition.

So, how much money can you make?
  --- It depends on the market that you’re in. Let’s take LA for example. An entry level artist at a 3D job might work for anywhere between $18 and $22 an hour, depending on the company, the work required, and your negotiating skills. That could be a 3D tracker, modeler, character TD, animator, lighter, or even a compositor. At this point, it’s almost all the same; you’re looking at equal pay across the board for most entry level jobs.

What if I don’t get a job right away?
--- That’s normal! You’re going to have to keep trying, and be persistent. Keep applying, keep making phone calls, writing e-mails, and keep refining your reel. Cut a new version of your reel every week if you have to, just keep making it better and better until you get that first job. The first job is so important and so hard to get, you have to really want it.

How long does it take to hear back once you’ve applied?
--- Unless they’re interested, you won’t hear anything. If they are, usually a couple of weeks at most unless there’s an enormous amount of candidates or someone else fell through. Calling HR a week after is acceptable, but don’t call everyday.

It’s been a really long time, should I send in another reel? --- Call them first, ask them what the status is of the position. Ask if you can reapply. If they say yes, then go for it! If not, then don’t waste the postage.

I got an interview…so what do I say?
--- Just be yourself, take extra reels and resumes and be on time and prepared. Most importantly, be honest; don’t lie about what you can do. Don’t dress up, but at least look presentable. Be confident, they’re interested in you; try to sound interested in them.

What should I ask for as far as money goes?
--- Ask them what the job pays when they ask you how much you want. Ask them what they feel is fair. If you feel it is just too low, then ask for more, but be careful with your approach. The ball is totally in their court, not yours. If this is your first job take what you can get, hope for more, but take what you can get!

Is it ok to take an unpaid internship?
  --- Yes, and in fact many colleges will give you credit for doing so. You should try to do this while you're still living off of student loans or are still living at home. Unpaid should be no longer than 6 months. If they ask you to work longer than that for free, then it's not really an internship. This is a good way to get your foot in the door, make contacts in the industry, find out how much you really know, and helps you build your experience and demo reel. Look at it this way - unpaid now equals paid later.

How do I get experience when all the job ads require experience and I have none?
--- This is the catch 22 of any industry. Students looking for work are two things to employers A) unknown B) cheap. Since you are cheaper than everyone else, you actually have a shot at filling in an entry level position, even if you have no experience and the ad says seeking experienced artists only. It's a way to weed out candidates, but companies know that students are still going to apply. Just make sure that whatever job you're applying for, you can actually do! Your unknown factor makes you a possible liability, and so they are taking a risk by giving you a chance. You should be thankful for the opportunity to prove yourself.

What about after this first job?
--- You can expect to suffer for a little while during your period of being a grunt. It will be hard. Don’t expect them to hand you anything important, and don’t expect them to give you a huge raise. Just do the best you can, everyday, and learn what you can. You’re building your resume, that’s it, bottom line. Live with roommates or friends or family if you can’t afford the market you’re in, but don’t quit just because you can’t afford it! The job experience is more valuable than your pay. Think about your career long-term, not the job short-term.

After your first few projects, you might have earned enough respect to do a few things. A) You might have enough experience on your resume to get a job at a different company with a better position or B) you might get a raise at your current company and more responsibilities or C) You might get to try something new at your current job that allows a shift in position. This could take anywhere from a year to two years, but you should see results within that time, otherwise you’re in a stale environment and need to move on.

What about later on? What is my earning potential?
--- Honestly, the sky is the limit. In LA there are unions for some of the larger shops, and the rest is pretty much standard hourly rates or salary. Many places require overtime to finish projects during deadlines. The lifestyle will be quite comfortable if you reach your earning potential. Supervisor and lead roles pay better, but also require very experienced talent, and companies are willing to pay for that experience.

Keep in mind there are dry spells, periods where you won’t have work. Almost all CG work is project based, even full time employees have to worry about projects at their place of employment, because if there’s not projects coming in, it could mean staff layoffs. It’s not uncommon to save two or more months of rent and other living expenses just in case. In fact, you’re playing a risky game if you don’t. Even the most talented artists get laid off from time to time.

The result is a tighter knit community. Many of your future job opportunities will come from past relationships with other employees. As you work at other companies, so are they and you will likely cross paths again. Remember that burning bridges in this industry can hurt your career, not just your current job. Chances are good that you’ll work with many different people, and many of them will know you and each other quite well.

What are people looking for in a candidate?
--- We don't care where you went, how long you went there, if you were top or bottom of your class. Show us you can do it by showing us a great demo reel and portfolio. Follow that up with a great humble attitude that shows a willingness to learn and the ability to take direction. Then, show up everyday, on time, and do the best you can until it’s time to go home. Show us that you are resourceful and can find answers to problems on your own before asking those around you. Show us you how bad you really want it, and above all, show us the passion, and remind us of how we felt when we were first looking for a job, were filled with energy, and didn’t know what was going on. That’s what everyone really wants in a candidate, entry level or not.

It’s all about your demo reel, your attitude, and of course your talent.

====== UPDATE: 09/13/10 =====

I am always amazed that this thread continues to live and thrive on CG Talk, and am glad it may have helped you along the way. While some of the information never changes, there is some that needs updating, and so I am going to go through my original post and make some tweaks here and there to try and keep it as current as possible. Since the original title was “unofficial truth”, I wanted to add a few more observations I have had over the last few years in this business.

Our industry is shrinking
Over the last few years, the amount of places that create Computer Graphics work has diminished, and has become a more difficult business to break into. Those places that are established, and have reputations, are in a position to grow with the changes that are in store for the future. There were many smaller shops that were doing commercials, and small amounts of FX work, and they are now gone. When money for advertising was crunched by Wall Street, this market essentially was cut off at the knees, and some buckled. What is left are well-established places that are doing great work, but there are some big changes.

The industry is world wide
Los Angeles and San Francisco might be the two places with the most employers related to Computer Graphics, both in film, and in video games, but the reality is that more companies are going international. Vancouver now holds divisions for most of the major U.S. film companies, and some game companies. London is now home to a large branch of VFX houses that are now working together to get large projects and complete work. New Zealand and Australia have a strong footing as well. Ironically, the foreign shops now have smaller shops in the US that are supplementing them, and also obtaining new work, giving back some of the jobs that have moved.

Pay scale changes
There is not much of a middle-class artist or technician these days. You are either very senior, and therefore expensive, or you are cheap, and able to work more for less. The middle-of-the-road artists are gone. They have been replaced by Jr level talent that can exceed most mid-level workers. Sr. level and lead level workers are now ensuring the work is completed. A team comprised of all veterans, and no Jr’s would be an exception, not the rule, in today’s industry. This in turn creates a wide pay gap. Artist rates are suffering as a result, as middle-class workers are squeezed out, and Sr. level workers are having to go longer between projects. The irony is that Sr. level workers are able to get a higher rate than usual, as there are less of them.

Time vs Money
Work is now expected to be completed faster and faster, and for cheaper and cheaper. This continues to push smaller places out of the industry. An acceptable quality can be achieved in less time, and therefore has caused those paying for the work to demand it be done cheaper, because it is being completed faster. Anything to the contrary would again be the exception, not the rule.

Supply vs. Demand
There is an overwhelming number of graduates who are finding it difficult to obtain employment. There is, equally, an overwhelming number of highly skilled artists and technicians who are currently unemployed, and/or have changed industries altogether. It is a direct result of the current economy, and the above mentioned issues. They all add up to equal less jobs and more skilled workers out of work.

Entry-level work has shifted

As of today, entry-level does not mean what it used to. I now expect an entry level artist to be able to do the work that a Senior Artist of 5+ years ago was doing. This is especially true of modeling. Because the tools are difficult to keep up with, students are now being exposed and learning technology, and surpassing their Sr. level counterparts. They are, in turn, replacing them.

Less skilled technicians
Similarly, there are now less skilled technicians available, and the entry-level market for this arena has diminished significantly. There are plenty of artists coming out of schools, but very few scientists and technicians who are interested in more technical jobs. Therefore, those technical jobs are difficult to break into, as they are held by more Sr. counterparts with a vast amount of experience that is difficult to match in most instances. It is assumed that technical people are more difficult to replace than artists, but more-so lately, as artists seem to be piling up and becoming more and more talented and effective.

Too much experience can hurt
Those artists that are “set in their ways” and have too much experience on their resume, are now having a difficult time finding work. Those Sr. artists/technicians that are choosing their colleagues are now opting for less experienced, more moldable candidates, and generally are shying away from those that are as or more experienced, as they do not want competition for their own job.

Apply online ONLY
There is now an online application process for almost every studio. E-mail and web based portfolios are standard. Mailed-in DVD’s and resume’s are piling up in the “never gonna see it” pile, and those candidates that stick out in their “electronic profile” will most likely be forwarded around (again, now via e-mail), for review and consideration. Those candidates that make the cut, again, will be e-mailed about a possible job interview. Sometimes, not even until the actual interview, is there a real conversation. Most candidates are screened out long before they get the chance to make an impression over the phone or in-person.

Interviews are different
There used to be several rounds of interviewing that would occur, and then several more rounds of recruitment, and excitement from recruiters to get new candidates. This has also changed. Interviews are now short, to the point, and because candidates are so well screened before ever making it in, there is little to talk about. Mostly it is a meeting to see if people actually like each other, or if it’s a bad fit. Employers are not interested in discussing their benefits and other incentives anymore, and do not use that to entice. They assume they have the upper hand (they do) and that whatever benefits they have you will gladly accept (and you will).

Just because you’re hired doesn’t mean you’re hired
There is now this weird thing happening where people are being “tried out”, instead of hired. It is more frequent and causes some confusion. Also, sometimes 2 or 3 people may be hired for the same job, only to find out later that only 1 of them will be kept. It has become somewhat brutal at some smaller places who are looking for the best of the best entry level candidates, and are willing to pit people against each other in order to find a match.

Ground-breaking work still exists!
There is a common myth that no boundaries are being broken anymore in CG. This is simply not true. The industry continues to do more complex and difficult work, and so there is ample opportunity out there for those who want to be truly challenged. There is no reason the work will stop continuing to break new grounds and continue to impress us all, and that to me, is the best reason to keep doing what we do. If we can do something that you did not think was possible, then it must be done. We can only hope for a stronger industry, filled with more opportunity in the future for all.

Either way, “the show must go on“, as they say…

Good luck out there,
Joe Harkins
If you wish to check out more from the original CGTalk forum thread, here again is the link:


  1. What's it like to work as an animator? Through reviews and other posts from Disney and Pixar animators (most were former employees, but I think a few were current), I've read that they aren't being paid enough for all the hard work, and that the business is too "high school clique-y"? What do you have to say about working as an animator?

  2. I agree with this article. Thanks to share your nice information and the blog.

  3. Thank you for this article, Joe.

    Recently, I was told by the bank I've been employed with in Minneapolis, MN for almost ten years, that my position is being eliminated on 03/18/2014. At first, I felt unappreciated for my hard work, worried about how I would pay the bills, how long will I be unemployed, and what do I do now? Today, your article found me when using a search engine for Animation, and entry level Animation jobs. After reading this article, in addition to noticing other 'signs', I feel strongly that this is an opportunity, born out of what some may perceive to be a horrible misfortune. Its time to really dig down deep into the soul of what I've always loved to do, and that is creating art.

    I live and breathe art, but have never been to college to expand my knowledge and tweak my God given talent to draw and sculpt. Like others I know, certain life situations led me into working for a corporation to pay the bills and the job eventually became a career. I'm now in my 30's, in search of the change I've always wanted, which is to work as an artist. I realize artists may not be paid much, but a decrease of 'things' in life is worth living and working my dream.

    Even though I do not have an art degree, or any other degree for that matter, I now have hope and more understanding of the industry. I only have a portfolio of ink, pencil and charcoal sketches. I've never even made a demo reel, and now I'm going to make time to do it!

    Its a small world after all...
    Please keep writing these articles.

    Christina Goltare
    Minneapolis, MN

    1. All the best of luck in your dreams. If you have any questions I'd be happy to help!

  4. Thankyou brotha

  5. We can only expect that 3D animation technology will continue to change and develop at a rapid pace. With so much potential, and so many industries that could potentially benefit, 3D animation technology will only improve.

  6. I realize artists may not be paid much, but a decrease of 'things' in life is worth living and working my dream.

  7. Wow. Thank you for sharing this experience with us...........and for the challenge.

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  10. Hi! I am a studnt attnding the art institutes. I have run into a problrm. I'm starting to not find intrnships, and I had a teacher who told me that 80% of people get in by internships. Am I screwed or do I still have hope after graduation?

  11. I went to the Art Institutes as well. I was told the same thing as you, about how 80% of people get in by unpaid internships. I graduated 11 years ago. I worked in the field for 2 years and then decided to get a "normal job" to pay my bills and quit animating. It's been 9 years and I regret my decision every day.

    You have to realize that they don't control what you can do. There are opportunities out there, but you will need to seek them out and work harder than you've ever worked in your life. "They" will not help you; job placement efforts from art schools are a joke. Find your OWN path and work like hell until you get what you want.

    If animation is something that doesn't feel like your passion, run…run far, far away. This industry is too hard on someone that is not sure of their path. But if it lights you up, and you can't think of anything else...don't ever let it go. Keep fighting! Take it from a relic who wishes she never would have stopped.

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