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Pulling Yourself Together: The Professional Portfolio

Larry Lauria touches base with DreamWorks' Frank Gladstone to learn the latest on what studios expect to see in portfolios.

The tooned Frank Gladstone. Drawing by Frank Gladstone.

I frequently receive inquiries from students and young animation professionals regarding the types of skills they need in order to work in the animation industry. Like most industries, the animation world changes to keep pace with innovations in technology and shifts in the market place. I occasionally call friends in Los Angeles for an update on trends. I put in a call recently to Frank Gladstone, head of Artist Development at DreamWorks SKG Animation, to talk about a few of the "golden questions" these folks are asking. Frank has been working as a professional animator, producer, director, writer and teacher for more than twenty-five years. From 1973 to 1989, he managed his own award-winning studio, Persistence of Vision, Inc., producing commercials and educational films, and has since worked for the feature animation divisions at Disney, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks. Besides his studio credentials, Frank has spoken on animation at schools and institutions around the country, in the Caribbean and Europe and has taught various animation and cinematography courses for the University of Miami, VIFX, Cinesite, UNICEF, Gnomon School of Visual Effects and UCLA. Frank has designed courses and helped train literally hundreds of people who work in the animation industry. So, he definitely has a feel for what the industry is looking for, and as always, Frank was honest and to-the-point.

Larry Lauria: What should portfolios contain?

Frank Gladstone: Portfolios should contain life work, beautiful drawing and excellent design. Every studio has the ability to bring up people and nurture them. But unlike the heydays of the early 90s, when studios ran internships, a candidate now has to have a specific genius in a given area to get serious consideration.

The portfolio should give some indication of strength in the particular area in which the applicant desires to work -- animation, character design, layout, background, 3-D work, etc. It is also very important to include a resume and cover letter with any portfolio submission. A videotape reel is a plus if the work looks professional.

Portfolio no-nos: Copies of cartoon characters, especially established characters, drawings from photographs.

LL: Which basic skills should a student possess?

FG: Very good life drawing -- displaying the structure of figures (forms) in space -- and a knowledge of line. Focus on basic skills, be able to draw well, to render a three-dimensional figure on a two dimensional surface. Demonstrate the ability to stage and compose subject matter within a framed area.

A sketchbook is a must -- filled with studies that display the thought process. Quick drawings which show the ability to describe forms using the most basic gestures.

Always strive to be an observational able to represent different design be a chameleon of sorts.

Keep in mind that, even in digital animation (excluding purely technical areas), it is always a bonus if the fundamental, traditional artistic skills are there. Artistic flexibility is an important element. Students need to stretch themselves.

LL: Where is the industry going?

FG: We're seeing more and more 3-D and stop-motion animation, as well as what we think of as "traditional" work. And there are more hybrid projects; using a combination of disciplines. Web-based venues and TV work are also expanding.

The future will see more hybrid feature productions. And studios are trying to gear more toward straightforward production paths rather than the "crash and burn" methods of the past. Studios want to maximize their artists potentials; have the ability to flow from one project to another. This will keep production costs down and enable the studio to use more focused crews.

The future will also see the advent of animated characters which look and act more realistically and work well (read, without being identified as computer generated) within the environment created for the film project. Even in the live-action arena, we'll be seeing more computer animated characters -- "synthesbians" is a word somebody made up to describe these "virtual" actors.

The digital process will allow a live-action filmmaker to make (or remake) a picture on the scale of Ben Hur, for instance, with a large "virtual" cast for the coliseum and battle scenes. Not unlike the crowd scenes generated today for animated feature films.

LL: What is the number one challenge you have in training?

FG: Keeping up with technology, either "off the shelf" or as it comes into proprietary use. Today's animators have to adapt and be always ready for new information, yet they have to maintain their traditional skills. Computer skills can be taught...and traditional skills have to be brought along, comfortably, into the mix. For the purely technical folks, without the benefit of fundamental artistic approaches -- making good decisions about their animation (as opposed to their software) is much more difficult.

LL: Finally, Frank, how much does attitude count?

FG: Attitude and communication skills are very important...even more so in today's industry. We used to say that some applicants came in " fairy dusted," somewhat starry-eyed about the animation industry. Today the atmosphere is different, perhaps a little more realistic. Rose-colored glasses are not in fashion now, which can mean that folks need to keep their energy up...even in "down" time.

Communication skills are extremely important. Dealing well with other people, working well with other artists...even though your views may differ. Today's artists need to develop good communication skills or they will not advance. Listening, following directions, being able to explain themselves clearly...these are all vital assets for individuals entering today's industry. They need to be able to hear the information, understand it, decipher it and act on it.

Candidates need to be well rounded, too. This might sound a little like heresy, but students shouldn't spend all their time in college drawing and developing a portfolio...that is not enough. A student should take time to develop as a person as well. Take classes in literature, language, communications, history (art and otherwise). Learn something about film and its visual language, light and shadow, perspective, contrast and affinity, use of plot and character. The more an individual brings with them to a studio, the more their chances of success.

I appreciated Frank's generosity with his time. His update was informative and concise. As always, a constant aspect of today's industry is change. Change in technologies, production methods and specific skills. Another constant element is highly developed drawing and artistic skills (whether at the board or on the computer). The "virtual" landscape will continue to change. The concept of one canvas with hundreds of artists working on it, each contributing to the whole, will never change. It is a part of the charm of the art form.

Larry Lauria is an animator/educator with 25 years in the industry. When not working on his current millennium animation project, 2KJ, Larry keeps himself busy working as a free-lance animator and classical animation instructor. He can also be found designing animation curricula, or traveling around the world giving animation workshops and master classes. His Web site "The Toon Institute" is a part of the AWN family.