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Book Review: 'Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive'

In the latest excerpt from The Magic of Houdini, Will Cunningham discusses developing 3D concepts.

Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive.

Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive.

David B. Levy has written a highly readable book at a very affordable price called, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive. Its one of those books that should be in every animation library. Written in a friendly style, with lots of funny cracks and personal anecdotes, Levy goes right to the source and asks animation pros what they think on dozens of subjects. He gets advice on all phases of production to art to school to pitching. There are so many quotes in this book you wonder how he got all those okays to print them.

Levy starts in the introduction telling you how hard it is to get anywhere in the animation biz, and then proceeds to tell you how you can overcome the obstacles if your heart is really in it and you have the talent. He has ample background, as he is an award-winning independent filmmaker, animation director for Blues Clues and has lectured at Parsons School of Design. You can read the book in any order, delving into any chapter that seems to apply to you, but you pick up a lot of little hints from other disciplines by reading it all the way through, because this industry is so interdependent.

The author introduces each chapter with a relevant quote from a well-known professional, and generously illustrates the book with his own and others art work. When he talks about a certain artist, there is usually a representative piece of that artists work near, and you find yourself looking for them. Some of the chapter titles are cute, like Stretching and Squashing Into a Job. Some are quite serious, such as Surviving Unemployment.

School or No School?

Levy admits that many of our top artists didnt have a lot of schooling, but then tells you about his own education, and how he was influenced by the animation pros who lectured at his various classes. He cites the advantage of your student peers, saying, The seeds you plant or the bridges you burn set the direction your career will take The kids you work along side in school (and the teachers, too) may be the ones who hire you somewhere down the road, and vice versa.

Levy is president of the New York chapter of ASIFA, so it is no surprise that he is enthusiastic about the benefits of belonging. This is an industry where networking is very important; as people tend to hire people they know and trust. Ours is a tight knit group, and networking organizations like ASIFA (ASIFA-Hollywood on the west coast), Women In Animation, SIGGRAPH, and all the others play an integral part in getting your name out there. Levy says, this is a people driven industry. People who know people who recommend people who hire people. And, Relationships require energy and effort. Relationships lead to jobs.

Ah, That First Job

His advice on getting your first job goes on for 16 pages, and includes how he got his first job in New York. He talks about getting the meeting, making the call, cover letters and résumés, tests, desperation, the hard sell, casting a big Net, and face-to-face versus the Net. He peppers the book with bulleted lists of dos and donts (including the dont trust your spell check that every list should have).

Advice from Their Own Careers

Chapters three and four break up animation career paths into two sections. Three starts with the all important storyboard artist. Here pros like Diane Kredensor, Scott Cooper, Liz Rathke and Dev Ramsaran give advice from their own careers. After each name is at least one credit, so you know what these people have done. Here also you first run into a list of recommended reading, one of several interspersed throughout the book. This chapter then talks about animation designers with more quotes from people in the field like Dagan Moriarty, Debra Solomon, Elanna Allen and Jason McDonald. They give advice from what design is to what to put in your portfolio (my favorite is make it easy to handle I used to lug around a three-foot-square leather thing that weighed a ton). McDonald says, dont fall in love with what you create... it is taken from you and can change into something else. Be willing to let go.

Levy talks with big time industry insiders like Fred Seibert to get their advice.

Levy talks with big time industry insiders like Fred Seibert to get their advice.

Next is background artist, where names like Kim Miskoe, Mike Lapinski, Beatrice Ramos and Liz Artinian pop up. Incidentally, if you dont know these names, better start reading the credits closer. Artinian recommends not getting typecast. Its important to constantly remind people that you exist outside the realm of animation background painter, she advises. After that is character animator, where Jim Petropolis, J.P. Dillard, Chris Conforti and a lot of others (a complete list of all the people quoted in this book would be a bit unwieldy) give advice that roams from duties (wear many hats simultaneously Petropolis) to technology to the Internet to your sample reel.

Okay, now comes the stop motion animator. Eileen Kohlhepp and Elanna Allen tell you not only to not rely on it for a living, but then take you through the entire process. You have to really love stop motion to do this! Both of these gals say most of their training came on the job. Jimmy Picker says, you have to be an engineer and know how to deal with lights, camera, etc. He cites how much the introduction of the digital camera has helped. The last of this chapter is devoted to the freelancer. Animator Dean Kalman Lennert describes a day from 4:00 am to 10:00 pm. Lennart, Doug Compton and John Serpentelli all rely a lot on the latest technology, but keep up their personal contacts, attend festivals and do a lot of computer backup.

Writers, Directors and Producers

Chapter four deals with writers, directors and producers. Writer Erika Strobel contrasts live action and animation writing. Eric Weil says write as much as you can and enter contests for the exercise and to practice your craft. Sheet timing (sometimes known as assistant director), is one of those unsung career paths in animation, but it is one no production can do without. Celeste Pustilnick describes how she works to break down a scene. Karen Villarreal and Dev Ramsaran both started as animators, which is a real help in visualizing the sheets.

Animation directors have to know so many things it boggles the mind, but most of all they have to know how to handle people. David J. Palmer says, The most important quality for a leader is to be able to stay calm, cool and collected. Yvette Kaplan describes her job as being a part of everything.

Directing and producing are two very different jobs. Animation producer Melanie Grisanti describes a days work that sounds exhausting, and says, Its a fast-moving freight train. Levy explains that there are several different types of producers and gives a brief job description of each. David Steinberg jokes that, as a producer, he doesnt have to know anything. He says, the one thing that all animation producers must know is who to ask. Fred Seibert says, Story sense helps and a visual flair, too. He also says, The biggest mistake a producer can make is not trusting the talent Al Brodax adds, If its not in the genes, Im not certain it can be taught.

Been on the Job a Year?

In the chapter How to Get the Most Out of Long Periods of Employment, Levy points out how jobs of a year or better can lead you into coasting on the job and other bad habits. It can leave you complacent and thinking you are entitled to your job. Better be sharpening your talents for the next job! Levy advises getting more training, maintaining your drawing skills and getting your work out to be seen. J.P. Dillard says, Ive often found that it was my more personal work that made the greatest impression in interviewers mindsThis may be your first opportunity to show that you have director potential. Levy also advocates freelancing in your spare time, citing the experience you get in business negotiations. Levy also says to save copies of work you have done each week and back up your animation on discs for your own use to build your reel. Do not neglect your networking.

The next two chapters have to do with attitude. Choosing Your Battles on the Job has some very good advice for getting along on the job, including negotiating pay. It has a Choose your Battles Checklist at the end of the chapter. Chapter seven has more really good advice for survival. Neither of these can be summarized in a few words. Youre just going to have to read them.

Additionally, Levy captured the wide range of possible careers in animation by talking with independent artists like Bill Plympton.

Additionally, Levy captured the wide range of possible careers in animation by talking with independent artists like Bill Plympton.


The next section is on the independent animation artist. Which is an oxymoron because you cant be totally independent in this art field. Levy says what he is referring to is a creative independence. He cites Bill Plympton as an example. But even the best take on commercial jobs from time to time. A long series of quotes from stop-motion filmmaker PES describes how he started out, ending with the statement, I took out eight credit cards and quit my job. Wow. The chapter goes on to talk about promotion, distribution, festivals, representatives, rights and buy back. It has Plymptons Three Rules for Success. John Serpentelli says, With the freedom of making an independent film, you can explore approaches and techniques that can become an invaluable resource for doing commissioned work. The chapter ends with Levys Indies for Dummies, three pages of basics that you really should know if you want to make an independent film.

Now Surviving Unemployment

Levy explains in this section how unemployment in the animation field is the norm, that we are gypsies, going from job to job and town to town. He covers sympathetically the subjects of dry spells, using time off, networking, unemployment insurance and how to prevent another dry spell. He gives you lots of quotes from people with experience in layoffs. Then he gives you more quotes from people about their mentors and heroes, advising you to know your animation history.

The chapter on networking is subtitled, People Who Need People, and this is very true in an industry where we tend to be self-absorbed isolationists. Levy talks about how small an industry this is and to be careful not to trash relationships. Erika Strobel writes, I have burned a few bridges in the past and the plumes of smoke still waft in to choke me occasionally Levy promotes going to industry festivals and events and schmoozing with fellow animators at every opportunity. He discusses leave behinds, holiday cards and the business card. He advocates phoning, lunching, emailing and even writing letters, and do it all year long. Volunteer and belong to animation groups. Levy gives you some networking donts as well.

Starting Your Own Business

This chapter deals with the ins and outs of owning your own studio. His advice runs from where the work comes from to agents, lawyers, partners, promotion, finding a crew, clients and contracts. John Hays sums it up: If you feel that the true joy of artistic creation can only be fully experienced when everything you have is at risk then starting an animation business is the way to go.

The Networks Point of View

On pitching, Levy gives you a discouraging list of what you can expect when you pitch. He explains the process from the networks point of view as well as the artists, explaining the development agenda and demographics. He says you can talk to development executives and they can be helpful. There is often a one-sheet explaining what they are currently looking for. Eric Colman says he has to sell your idea to his bosses and, It is crucial to develop show with the audience in mind. Everyone quoted says they have to be excited about a project to sell it. Levy then takes you through the optimal three-minute pitch and goes into practical step-by-step detail on how to present your work. He talks about pitching styles, partners, test footage, budgets and the all-important focus group. He discusses when to walk away from a deal.

Near the end of the book is a section of practical, general advice, quotes from animation pros. One of the best in my opinion is from Scott Cooper, Get sleep now! I cant believe how many late nights are involved in animation. The book winds up with an appendix of animation industry resources neatly divided into sections: organizations, websites, blogs, trade publications, festivals, recruitment, grants and funds, supplies/equipment and schools, plus an index. Well worth the read.

Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive by David B. Levy. New York, NY: Allworth Press, 2006. 241 pages. ISBN: 1-58115-445-3 ($19.95).

Libby Reed started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren..