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Recruiting Soup: Methods Change, Essential Ingredients the Same

Karen Raugust reports on how digital technologies have changed the recruiting process, but passion, talent and teamwork still rule.

Digital technologies are changing the recruiting process. Digital submissions are commonplace, while digital distribution of entertainment and gaming is opening up new opportunities.

Digital technologies are changing the recruiting process, with more studios starting to rely on digital submissions. At the same time, digital distribution of entertainment and gaming is opening up new opportunities for those who seek work in the industry, especially if they lack experience.

"There's been a great upsurge in not only CG work across the board, but also in Flash productions," says Cary Silver, vp of production at Mike Young Prods. "In fact, Flash is the area where I see a great deal of future work going. The quality being produced for broadcast is getting better and better each year, and it's a quicker, more economical way of working. A recruit who is experienced in Flash and has the design sensibility to execute a creative vision using that platform is going to have a great deal of opportunity."

"New media is an area where we are seeing growth, as animation studios push to get their product out through different media outlets," says Monica Diaz, director of human resources, West Coast, Turner Ent. and Animation. "We will continue to see this area evolve over the coming years, which will continue to provide opportunity to job seekers. In addition, more opportunity will be made available for animators with Flash experience as animation studios limit the use of overseas studios and bring the production process in-house."

Web-based productions continue to represent a strong market. "People say the web is dead, but no, I don't agree," says Ideas to Go's Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, a recruiter and career coach. "These are things people don't think about, but there's a lot of work there."

"Digital media, including gaming, MMOG [massively multiplayer online games] and mobile will continue to grow," says Deborah Fallows, head of human resources at Cookie Jar Ent. "Competition for digital media talent and short-form content will also increase."

"You can get really well-paying jobs in casual games, and it can be equally challenging to design a good casual game as to design a good console game," says Ben Garrison, recruiter at Datascope USA, the U.S. office of London-based Datascope Recruitment, which focuses exclusively on gaming. "In some ways, you have to be even more creative, because of the limitations. And there are so many opportunities there, it's great to get in on the ground floor."

Cary Silver of MYP.

T.J. Summers, principle/senior partner at Digital Artist Management, which also has a gaming focus, notes that the expansion in the number of game platforms creates particular opportunities for new recruits, who can start with casual games and move into more sophisticated platforms over time. "You can get to your end game much more easily than in the past," he says.

In fact, gaming in general is a growth area, especially due to the technology improvements and increased sophistication on the console side. Thompson remembers when she was in the gaming industry years ago, "we would freak out if there were 12 people on the team. Now teams are 10 times that," she says. "So there's growth there, just because of the sheer size of the teams."

Global Growth

Meanwhile, opportunities are expanding globally for all kinds of animation professionals. Countries such as Singapore and India are relatively new and growing markets for applicants, Thompson points out, while there is a lot going on in Europe as well, especially England.

Meanwhile, Canada continues as a growth market. "Job opportunities in Canada remain strong, and I have seen an increase in the number of smaller companies hiring," says Fallows.

"We are seeing a significant growth in Canada, especially in the 2D digital arena," agrees Scott Dyer, evp/gm, kids programming, at Corus Ent. "Most of the growth in 3D comes from the feature business, which has also seen a significant expansion in recent years."

The fact that the animation and gaming businesses are expanding outside of the traditional hubs allows more animators to live where they want to, and better balance lifestyle and career. The recruiting process varies by region, however. Christopher Panzner, a writer and producer based in France, notes that recruiters and even human resources departments are rare in Europe, where the animation industry boasts virtually full employment. The existing artist pool and the studios keep in close, ongoing contact and, for entry-level jobs, studios recruit from European animation schools, which have close to 100% success rates in placement (much of it geared toward North America).

Even as global markets grow, so do opportunities at smaller studios, both in the U.S. and abroad. They are doing a wide range of work, from fx shots for major studios to entire independent films, and offer job and learning opportunities, including for animators who are newer to the industry.

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, a recruiter and career coach.

The same is true in gaming, where indie developers are trying to remain competitive in an industry where a single title can cost tens of millions of dollars to develop. Smaller studios really need to manage their budgets, which means moving away from staffing up and down and relying instead on short-term contract employees, global outsourcing and subcontracting to smaller domestic studios. This trend can benefit applicants as well, many of whom would rather embark on a short-term project than commit to a studio -- even relocating -- only to be let go during the first down period. "The industry is maturing, and so are the ages of the individuals," says Summers. "It's not a young man's game any more."

Digital Artist Management recently started a consulting division, DAM Consulting, that places contract employees in fx and gaming. Summers points out that studios can come to the division if they need texture artists for just 10 to 12 weeks; conversely, the artists can take on the project knowing they'll be able to roll over into something else afterward.

This evolution toward more contract recruiting has occurred on the animation side as well. "Hiring is more project-based now, so talent will move from studio to studio with the projects," says Fallows of Cookie Jar.

Not everyone sees this as a positive trend, however. "The feature industry has created a nomadic work force, almost guns for hire, moving from project to project," says Dyer. "We prefer longer-term relationships with individuals and service companies, as our projects are often years in length. This nomadic trend tends to push salaries and competitive recruiting, which isn't always a good thing for the industry, in my opinion."

Crossing Over

Digital Artist Management's consulting division was formed in part because of the increasing crossover between animation, digital fx and gaming. "The leveling of technologies in videogames and film has created a level playing field and allows people to switch back and forth," Summers says. In the past, "working on games not only wasn't sexy or glamorous, but it wasn't as technically challenging. But that's definitely changed with the new technology."

"As gaming has become more cinematic, more fully featured, more fully rendered, the lines are starting to blur," adds Tom Knott, senior recruiter at Portland, Oregon-based Laika. He notes that Laika has started looking at people with gaming experience more and more over the last year and a half.

Ben Garrison, recruiter at Datascope USA.

Garrison cautions that crossing over between games and film tends to be easier for less-experienced applicants. "For high-level positions, [game studios] want games experience," he says. "At the senior level, they want you to be familiar with the workplace culture, the process and the pipeline."

It is those high-level positions that are particularly difficult to fill. "As the industry matures, it's definitely talent-driven at this point," Summers says. "[Studios] are doing some interesting things to recruit new talent. They want to create an environment that will be a compelling place to work for a long time." Incentives include signing bonuses, enticing bonus plans, including royalty-based plans, and profit sharing.

On the other hand, entry-level spots have more than enough applicants. "There's a huge influx of inexperienced people with game degrees," Garrison says. "Even one to two years' experience will get you a job ten times faster than nothing at all."

Many animation and gaming studios offer internships to give recent grads the opportunity to gain experience. "There has certainly been a push toward more recruitment at the art school/university level," says Diaz. "By offering an internship program, we are able to 'groom' students early on and create a pool of talent for future employment opportunities within our organization."

Dominie Mahl, curator of art and design, and Lewis Kofsky, head of CGI, at Curious Pictures, note that students are coming out of school more prepared than ever, particularly for CG animation. Applicants who are up on the latest techniques -- which includes recent grads -- can be very competitive, they say.

Still, art ability remains just as important as technical know-how. "Obviously, over the past few years as technologies have changed, our requirements have changed as well," says Silver. "We need new hires to not only have the talent required for the given role, but also the ability to be familiar with and work within the new generation of programs in the new digital (almost entirely) paperless realm. We're finding new recruits out of school who have the technical ability but not necessarily the creative talent, and then we're finding people who have the creative ability but not the technical expertise. The candidates who possess both talent sets are truly the ones who will excel in the future of animation production."

"We don't find it very valuable to look for 'operators,' but instead we prefer to hire motivated individuals with a strong background in traditional animation and art," says Dyer. "In our experience, we can train almost anyone to be effective with Harmony, or Maya, or any other software package, but we can't easily train the fundamentals of timing and acting. This has really been our point of view for years."

Some studios prefer to hire specialists and others generalists, depending on the size of the studio, the level of the position, the type of animation and the nature of the production. For example, large vfx studios would tend to look for specialists, but may require generalists for positions within their commercial divisions. Console gaming, much like film VFX, is tending toward specialization, while casual games require more generalists, which makes them a good training ground for beginners who want to discover which tasks they like and are good at.

T.J. Summers of Digital Artist Management.

In general, however, flexibility is seen more and more as a positive attribute. "One change that we have seen is an increasing focus on flexibility -- artists that can move seamlessly from 3D digital to 2D digital to traditional," says Dyer. "Because we are a television production company, we prefer to hire individuals who can contribute in a variety of ways."

"We're looking for people who are strong in one area, but can do two or three other things," explains Knott of Laika.

"It depends on the project, but because our animation work ranges from features to episodic TV to shorts, commercials and special effects, we love finding artists who have multiple skill sets," reports Scott Greenberg, president/coo of Film Roman and Starz Prods.

Silver notes that Mike Young Prods. also is diversified, producing series in 2D, Flash and CGI, and in different styles. "On some shows and co-productions, we need people who have the ability to wear different hats and help fill various tasks, but on others, we're looking for a very specific skill-set. It all depends on the needs of the particular production."

The Recruiting Process

In many ways, the recruiting and applicant-review process has not changed in years. Recruiters are looking for a demonstration of art ability, technical know-how and/or experience, in the form of reels, portfolios and résumés, with specific requirements varying depending on the needs of a given production.

Technological evolution has spurred some changes, however, with an increasing movement toward digital submissions. Some studios want to see DVDs, which have higher resolution and reliability than e-mails or websites, while others prefer the immediacy of visiting an Internet URL. Many prefer a combination, perhaps getting an immediate first impression from a website and following that up by requesting a DVD.

Scott Dyer of Corus Ent.

"In the past, we could manage hard copies of portfolios and demo reels," says Fallows. "Today, we prefer to review digital files. Cookie Jar is a global company and digital files can be circulated quickly to our global team."

"We're open to whichever format best represents the artists' work," says Greenberg. "That said, digital submissions are becoming the standard for us, and we prefer to see a whole portfolio of work."

Mahl and Kofsky point out that CG clips play better on DVD, which allows full-res viewing at a proper frame rate, while a URL works better for 2D animators and illustrators, although Curious welcomes hard-copy portfolios as well.

"It's so much easier for everybody to send in a reel on DVD or e-mail in a link to their work or website," comments Silver of MYP. "This way, it's not only easier to access, but I think it goes a step beyond and also demonstrates a candidate's ability to function and work within the new technology, as well as showcase their design sensibility and their effectiveness at presenting themselves and their material.

"In the past, we could manage hard copies of portfolios and demo reels," says Fallows. "Today, we prefer to review digital files. Cookie Jar is a global company and digital files can be circulated quickly to our global team."

"We're open to whichever format best represents the artists' work," says Greenberg. "That said, digital submissions are becoming the standard for us, and we prefer to see a whole portfolio of work."

Mahl and Kofsky point out that CG clips play better on DVD, which allows full-res viewing at a proper frame rate, while a URL works better for 2D animators and illustrators, although Curious welcomes hard-copy portfolios as well.

"It's so much easier for everybody to send in a reel on DVD or e-mail in a link to their work or website," comments Silver of MYP. "This way, it's not only easier to access, but I think it goes a step beyond and also demonstrates a candidate's ability to function and work within the new technology, as well as showcase their design sensibility and their effectiveness at presenting themselves and their material.

"I believe the major current trends in recruiting are leaning toward completely digital submissions," he continues, "via either personal websites, links to material or even for groups of artists to show their work in online art galleries. This is a more efficient process (for both sides of the equation) and helps the recruit gain access to more opportunities as well as allowing the ability for more people to review their work." At the same time, he says, studios have access to a larger talent pool this way.

Teamwork is one requirement that is becoming more critical than ever in animation and gaming today notes Thompson. Building a reputation for not being a team player can destroy a career.

Digital technologies can assist recruiters in being more proactive, as they troll websites, blogs and YouTube for animation styles that might work with upcoming productions. "It's a little bit easier now, with blogs and websites," Knott says. "It's easier to see materials quicker, and a wider variety. There's also a lot of sharing of knowledge, and that's great for the industry."

Many studios have developed an increasingly rigorous process for hiring. "[Gaming] companies are definitely much more thorough about how they evaluate talent," says Summers. "Talent is a huge investment, and they want to make sure it's a good fit." This means the process can take longer, and that applicants may be required to submit to testing. Summers estimates that about 80% of game companies ask applicants to complete some sort of test. "It's not a slap in the face, it's a necessary component of the process now," he says. "They want to make sure they're getting what they think they are."

The same is true at some animation studios. "For some of our series we have a standard test for board artists and designers, to see if they can fit within the show's style," Greenberg reports.

Essential Ingredients: Teamwork and Passion

Teamwork is one requirement that is becoming more critical than ever in animation and gaming today. "Working on a team is so important," says Thompson. On the other hand, building a reputation for not being a team player can destroy a career. "The demo reel is important, but your reputation and attitude are more important," she says. "You have to have that can-do attitude."

Reputation is critical due to the networking that goes into the hiring process. "A huge percentage of jobs are filled from employees' recommendations," explains Garrison.

Another element that is crucial, but sometimes forgotten, in the job search process is the candidate's level of passion. Summers points out that, in the last year, he has seen several applicants, both new and experienced, sleepwalk through interviews without demonstrating any sort of passion for the job. "They're not employable," he says. "The perception [from recent grads] is that [gaming] will be fun, but they don't realize the commitment you have to put into it." That's why potential recruits need to demonstrate their passion in their résumé, reel and interview.

"You have to really love what you're doing," Garrison stresses. "Those that are most committed and interested will have the best chances."

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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