Becoming an animation producer is no easy task but Gerard Raiti offers a few pointers from the folks at Duck Soup Studios, Renegade Animation and Wild Brain, Inc., on how you can get in the door and start to succeed.
The animation industry, like much of the entertainment business, is hard to break into. Despite the various credentials one might have tagged across a résumé, there are few written qualifications that can easily land one a job in the animation industry, especially in production. The situation is even bleaker for younger individuals who do not have experience in the field. Even with an undergraduate degree, MBA or Animation MFA, there are no academic programs in the country that provide an education for would-be producers of animation. The closest academic options are undergraduate and graduate programs in animation; however, those are tailored mostly for artists. Some West coast universities offer graduate programs in producing, like the University of Southern California's Peter Stark Producing Program, but none are geared specifically toward animation. So alas, it is quite an academic conundrum to become an animation producer.
In order to discern the best way to get a job producing animation, Animation World Magazine has interviewed the executives most responsible for hiring at several smaller animation studios, namely: Duck Soup Studios, Renegade Animation and Wild Brain. While many ambitious students may yearn to produce shorts and animated features at the likes of Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, beginning one's producing career at a smaller studio is arguably better due to their faster production schedules of shorter projects like commercials. Jeff Fino, co-founder and executive producer of Wild Brain, advocates the advantages of smaller studios: "Producing commercials is much faster than producing cartoons or features. It is swift and it is crazy and it is rewarding, but it is eight to twelve weeks. The best sports analogy is the sprint versus the marathon. You have to be well conditioned to do both. Commercials are great because they teach you a variety of styles. On any given day, you could be doing radically different stuff... Not to mention that it is easier for the cream to rise to the top in a small studio than to go through all the levels in a large company."
A frame from a Rice Krispies spot entitled Billboard from Renegade Animation. © Kellog. Ad agency: Leo Burnett, Chicago, IL. Duck Soup at work. Photo courtesy of Duck Soup Studios.
Of course, if one had the ideal academic credentials (even though an MFA in Animation Production does not yet exist), the most important qualification for both large and small studios is experience. Another facet to the conundrum of becoming an animation producer is the adage associated with getting experience: No matter for what job you are searching, you cannot get a job without experience and you cannot get experience without getting a job. Again, it is the chicken and the egg problem. (I still question why Chuck Jones never made a Looney Tunes short on that subject.) Nevertheless, when you set off in search of experience, namely your first job or internship at an animation studio, there are three abstracts that will help distinguish you from the herd of other applicants: an organized and diligent work ethic, connections and luck.
Timing Is Everything
The easiest of the three to explain is luck. The animation industry is a business based on the economic consumerism of supply and demand. So for small studios in particular, the amount of animation jobs is dependent on the studio's workload. At any given time, a small studio could go from a maximum capacity of work to near stagnation. According to Mark Medernach, executive producer at Duck Soup: "There is not as much work out there as there was three years ago, but that does not mean there are not jobs out there. Hard work and persistence is going to get you the work. The economy is weaker right now, so people are less inclined to spend money on animation."
Consequently, depending on the national economic scene when you submit your résumé or make an inquiry at a studio could determine whether you get a job. Ashley Postlewaite, executive producer at Renegade, concurs saying: "Everything is cyclical. The whole economy is nuts right now. It only makes sense that the animation industry is part of that. It always goes up and down, so you have to be prepared to weather the downtime."
A scene from Naptime, a series in development at Wild Brain. Image courtesy of Wild Brain, Inc. Mark Medernach of Duck Soup suggests that job hunters polish their people skills. Photo courtesy of Duck Soup Studios.
Jeff Fino advocates similar ideas for starting at the bottom and working your way up: "Do not expect to start at a level that is too high. Animation more than many businesses requires you to do a bit of an apprenticeship to learn the process. It does not matter if you are an artist or a producer. You have to prove yourself. If you are an artist, show that you have the talent. If you are a producer, show you have the wherewithal to make a highly collaborative process work. You in essence become one link in that chain, and you have to prove that you are strong with the other links. The good side to that is that your talents are recognized quickly and your value is judged pretty fast. Good people can rise up through the ranks in relatively short order."
It's Not What You Know...
Connections can really help getting that first job or internship. Of course, being connected does not mean that your father is John Lasseter, though that probably would help. One can build connections simply from meeting recruiters at job fairs or establishing a professional rapport by phone with individuals at a studio when inquiring about work. "If you call a small studio and there is no work available there, mark your calendar and in six months time call again," suggests Ashley Postlewaite. "Don't give up. My current assistant called for months before we had a position available for her. At that stage, she was the first person to come to mind because she had been so interested and thorough in following up with us. You should not stalk people, but there is an appropriate every-couple-of-months check in time. Find somewhere that will hire you at any level. Keep your eyes and ears open and work your way up. I would encourage people not to give up."
SpongeBob SquarePants appears in the New Home spot for Target by Renegade Animation. © Target. Ad agency: The Martin Agency, Richmond, VA. Wild Brain's Dan McHale at work. Photo credit: Julia Tortolani, Wild Brain, Inc.
One of the problems of getting a job as an animation producer is that the job itself is rather vague in its responsibilities. Unlike the live-action film industry, animation producers are essentially the middlemen; they are the captains of their respective projects, and their responsibility is to be the glue that holds together every aspect of production. Consequently, one's organizational and people skills are the bedrock of being a good animation producer. For Mark Medernach: "The best thing is someone who is well organized and has a good phone manner. Those are the two key elements. If someone has a strong animation background, that is a real plus, but organization is the biggest thing. I cannot stress that enough. It is a people business. The more people skills you have, the better off you will be."
A Can-Do Attitude
Irrespective of my earlier harangue on the necessity of experience, Jeff Fino is not in full agreement: "Experience is not at the top of my list. It is relevant for sure, but I think intelligence, organization and enthusiasm are all great qualities that a producer should have. Animation is a bit more specialized. It helps to have some experience, but if you find somebody who is exceptionally smart and enthusiastic about what they are doing, with the proper amount of instruction you can make them into a great producer."
Careers in animation and most of the arts are eclectic. A certain amount of unbridled enthusiasm and love for the genre is mandatory and should be expressed during interviews. One cannot devote one's life to a facet of the arts without love for it. Consequently, experience in any of the arts can be beneficial to working in animation. "A love for animation helps," Ashley Postlewaite explains. "Skills in either animation or computer animation can also help a producer. I came from live theatre fourteen years ago, but I was always in the arts producing and I was able to make that transition. I hope others could make that transition as well."
See a QuickTime clip of The Snowman, Duck Soup's first fully CGI animated short film. This marks the company's departure from the commercial advertising world. © 2001, Duck Soup Studios. Avid editor Ellen Schade at Wild Brain. Photo credit: Julia Tortolani, Wild Brain, Inc.
Becoming an animation producer is difficult, especially these days. If you do not live in California, you are at a clear disadvantage in terms of networking at conferences and being forced to relocate in the summer if you find an internship. All of the small studios failed to mention that finding a paying internship is nearly impossible. Consequently, moving to California for a summer while not being paid is not financially pragmatic for most students. A better alternative when looking for a paying summer position is to inquire about summer employment rather than internships. Another downside to summer internships is that in order to receive credit at most universities, you will be forced to pay the university comparable tuition for the summer hours earned. Therefore, in addition to losing money on rent and relocating, you may have the added burden of paying up to several thousand dollars in tuition.
Considering the difficulties in becoming an animation producer, why would anyone want to subject oneself to such an ordeal? Despite being a neophyte in this regard, it is fair to say that it is for the same reason that people yearn to be musicians, Broadway dancers, economic analysts, sports commentators, talk show hosts, and even doctors. The paths to success are not easy. Few roads are simple. If you want to become an animation producer and you work hard enough, you will find a way to achieve that. Being hired by Disney cannot be harder than getting into Harvard Medical School. Everyone who wants to go the distance must face a challenge along the way. The animation industry is no exception to the rule.
Gerard Raiti is a junior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee where he is majoring in English, Music and Computer Science. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and has spent extended periods in England and Australia. He was recently employed by the law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy where he assisted in the federal trial of Brenner v. Johns Hopkins University (CCB-97-313). He holds the diploma of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, U.K. in classical piano. He has been writing about animation for various publications since 1997 because he loves animation and all things Disney.