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Crafting A Career In A Time Of Change

Gregory Singer sits down with industry veteran Frank Gladstone and learns that it isn't all gloom and doom when facing a career in today's market. The trick is to be flexible.

Frank Gladstone.

Frank Gladstone.

As the head of artistic recruitment and development at DreamWorks SKG Animation, Frank Gladstone, along with the Animation Training Department, has had his hands full these past months helping DreamWorks' talented artists in Glendale, California become even more versatile, by introducing and making them fluent with digital tools. A figurehead in the industry, Frank is consulted time and again by artists for advice, perspective and wisdom on the state of animation ... and its possible futures.

Gregory Singer: Rumor has it that the animation biz is in a slump, a downturn -- what should folks be doing to survive these lean and mean economic times?

Frank Gladstone: It's funny. At the same time that we're having a slow-down in hiring and lay-offs at some studios, with other studios closing, we also have two of the most successful pictures of the last year; Shrek and Monsters, Inc. did exceedingly well. Even the smaller budgeted, outside-of-Hollywood production, Jimmy Neutron was a solid hit. So while we are seeing a downturn in studio hiring, we are also seeing good success at the box office -- and the first year that the Motion Picture Academy has established an Award for [animated] features. So, there's a bit of a dichotomy in the business right now...

Be that as it may, the question is how do people survive? That can be a difficult question to answer in any specific way. I think the first thing is that people who want to stay in the animation business need to increase their skill sets, so that they do more than just one thing. Or, if they do one thing, they do it more than just one way -- that may be a better way of saying it. In other words, a traditional animator will want to get some CG under his or her belt, so that when jobs come about that require CG, they can take them. And vice versa: CG animators who have been doing effects and props may want to get some traditional training, so that they can better handle character work. People who have been doing CG with motion-capture, not animating using the primary principles of animation, may want to get some classes in that -- because a lack of flexibility and fundamental understanding may be what separates them from the better jobs down the road.

People should be prepared with their portfolios and reels. They should know how to submit their work in a professional manner. When we get reels and portfolios [at DreamWorks], I am constantly surprised at how unprofessional some of them are; and the most flagrant are often from people who have been in the business for many years. Of course, it may be that they've had a job at one place for a long time, and now that they're looking again, never having to have put together a portfolio, they end up sending in this kind of mish-mash of stuff.

People ought to know what they want to do when they are applying for a job, and know something about the studio that they are approaching. Try to be specific about the kinds of things for which they could be valuable at that studio. Realize that, in bigger studios they are likely to have a very specific job, but in smaller studios they may do more than one thing, have a wider range of duties. So, I think one should approach the bigger studios for a particular job, and the smaller studios as more of a 'generalist,' as they like to say nowadays.

Another thing to realize in the job survival game is that one may have to accept a job that may not be as high on the totem pole as the last job they worked. People need to be flexible about the kinds of jobs they're willing to accept. Somebody who was a supervisor on one project may not be a supervisor on the next project -- and to wait for the job title they may have held before may keep them from getting the job that they really need to survive. It is important to be open to taking different status level jobs from one show to the next.

And finally, we should come to grips with the fact that this has, for the most part, become a market of working show to show, or project to project, and not, for most people, a situation where you have a job forever. Most contracts, most arrangements, most agreements, for most people, are going to be on a per-project basis, perhaps with an option for additional projects. Once you come to terms with this, I think you can survive.

One other bit of [practical, failsafe] advice is to save your money!

GS: Given today's economy and evolving technology, where would you suggest are people's best bets for finding work?

FG: It depends on how much experience they have. Even if there seems to be a downturn in the business, there are more opportunities now. Looking back, anybody from my generation can remember times when there were less opportunities, fewer venues than there are now. Today, if you want to, you can cast your net much wider, and you can look everywhere, whether it be visual effects houses, animation or gaming studios, Web interests, television, even project-built companies: small places that are doing a single project. I think in this day and age you have to be open to all opportunities, and not say, "I'm only going to work for the big studios." I don't think it is particularly wise to limit your opportunities. You should be able to say, "I can take any of these jobs seriously and apply my craft as best I can," and then throw your net wide to stay in the business.

GS: How would you advise artists -- just graduated and seasoned professional -- to train for the likely opportunities of future employment?

FG: I think they have to get a broad education, actually. I am always saying a college degree is important. To a lot of folks I know that might sound odd, but I think a college degree helps people to survive, and be flexible enough to make career adjustments. Further, the challenge of getting a degree really makes a person foster and develop the communication skills that are about 50% of the skill needed to do any kind of job nowadays.

Within that degree, if they are actually studying animation, I'd make sure to get a taste of all the disciplines, and then focus on what really turns them on. And then learn how to do it more than one way... in other words, the traditional approach first, then augmented with solid computer skills. Those people who have both skill sets are much more marketable than people who don't. So, I would say that people who are preparing to get into the business should define what they're best at, and then study that discipline from every angle that they possibly can.

For instance, if I wanted to be a background painter, I would be able to paint and illustrate traditionally as good as anybody ... I would also learn how to use Photoshop and other computer tools to do some of those things. If I was an animator, I would learn to animate the traditional way and I would also learn how to use some of the new animation software, so that I could animate in CG as comfortably as animating with a pencil.

Most people, no matter what they do, can't expect to stay in one place, either geographically or job-wise for their whole career. They're going to need to be adaptable, which is why a degree is helpful -- though not absolutely necessary. I don't think people get hired into artistic positions because they have a degree. Initially, people get hired because they have a good portfolio and/or reel. As their experience grows they get hired, at least in part, because of their expertise and reputation. Nevertheless, there is the argument that they may survive in the long view because of the skills that a post-secondary course of study prepares them for. Whatever the degree (or non-degree), it's important to make sure that ones art training, animation training and education in general is really well rounded.

GS: In terms of where folks might find work, or helping them to train for other opportunities, do you think Flash is something useful for traditional artists to learn? Is that something to take seriously?

FG: Absolutely. There are a lot of traditional animation artists experimenting with Flash now. There are some jobs to be had, especially as the program gets better and more versatile. People are actually able to do some pretty decent animation with it now. The Internet will eventually figure out how people might actually be able to make a living working with it, and then Flash will become an increasingly attractive alternative. It's also a nice way to do your own personal work.

GS: Having been in the industry for so many years (said affectionately), do you feel that the 'gloom and doom of today's marketplace is part of its natural episodic ups and downs, or do you anticipate a brave new world of animation on the horizon?

FG: Both. 'Gloom and doom -- I've seen a helluva lot worse in the business, though I do think people have a real reason to feel at 'sixes and sevens right now, not only in light of lay-offs and so forth, but just the general timbre of the country. With all of the things that have gone on in the last few months that have made people feel, just in general, very vulnerable ... added to the possibility of being laid off, or down-sized, things can seem pretty daunting. We are probably going through one of our cycles. For many years we've had a continuing and profitable run of films-- escalating employment and escalating salaries -- and right now we're looking at what the stock market might call a correction. That is probably as it has to be; nothing just goes up forever. Some people are prepared for it, some people aren't. Those people who have been in the business awhile have seen it before. Those who are animation historians can point to other high spots, plateaus and dips. So, though we may be in one of those valleys now, as we regain direction it'll move back up again.

At the same time, there is probably going to be somewhat of a -- well, I don't think I would call it a 'brave new world,' where we're suddenly all automatons, or space invaders or Captain Kirks trying to follow the prime directive -- but I think that the way the animation business will look ten or fifteen or twenty years from now will be somewhat different than what we have today. We'll probably produce somewhat differently; there'll be more hybrid films -- meaning, combinations of 2D and 3D, or 3D and live-action, and various other amalgamations. I suspect that one of the brighter spots is that we'll see more independent films in animation, because technology will allow small groups of people to do amazingly finished work. Actually, the day that we see a high quality animated feature produced by a very small group of people is not too far off. In fact, I believe people are working toward this now. I am expecting the results any time.

GS: As a corollary to that, perhaps given the Internet and different models for distributing or receiving films -- for example, Waking Life was produced in Austin, Texas -- do you see these centers outside of Hollywood, outside of New York, becoming more of a presence in animation?

FG: Absolutely. Somebody smarter than I once wrote that Hollywood is a walled community that does things and then throws them over the wall for the rest of the population to look at. If that was once true, it is not the case anymore. We can no longer be isolated. Animation is produced everywhere. You know, the reality is that people do animation because they love it. They have a drive to be part of it in some way -- whether they're writing it, making it, or managing it. And loving animation, wanting to make animation, is not exclusive to Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York. It's a human desire, and people can make it anywhere. The tools are readily available in many, many countries now, and there are populations that can learn and use those tools as well as anybody can. It's international. We have to be aware of that. I say, more power to it. There's no way to say, "No, only we do animation. The rest of the world are pretenders." The animation genie is way out of the bottle and available to people everywhere.

GS: Because off-the-shelf hardware and software are so powerful and accessible now...

FG: And there's always paper and pencils. They are also readily accessible. That the world draws, and can do it as well as we can if given the opportunity, should not be a surprise to anybody here. And there's no way that we can, or should, protect ourselves, or isolate ourselves, from that.

GS: What is the likelihood and financial viability of working from home, freelancing, on a project-by-project basis, on teams whose members are as far flung as Texas, Brazil, China and Australia?

FG: It's been done and it works okay, up to a point. Somebody working by themselves, say working on a commercial, where the animator's in New Mexico and you're doing a thirty-second spot for a client in Miami, has been happening for years. But when it comes to feature films, I think you have a problem, because feature films are much more like a philharmonic rather than a solo act. It is a group effort. And while you might be able to have animators scattered all over, at some point everybodys really got to be in the same room to hear the vision and to understand what's going on contextually, and to get a feel for how the other animators are performing. Technically, producing a feature long distance is becoming increasingly easy, but from what I have seen of long distance producing, it is even easier to lose the feeling of context and performance. Maybe with increasingly better telecommunications this will become more plausible, but I think for features you're still going to get a hodgepodge that has the real possibility of being flat or perfunctory. Commercials, short films, independent films, those kinds of things, can be done much easier long distance.

GS: Any last words of wisdom or advice to offer?

FG: Animation to me is a big, interesting story. And what we're in now is just another chapter in the book. To force the allegory a little, I feel that we are still in the first few chapters of that book, and while weve been reading for some time now, the story has quite some longer time to go. The next chapters are all about change, and then everything is going to look different. Twenty years from now, forty years from now, the young whippersnappers in todays technology are going to find themselves thinking, "What happened? What're they doing now?" ... just as when the young whippersnappers of my generation who were drawing on paper suddenly wondered, "What is this MAYA thing?"

And that's the way it should be. That's evolution, and that's one of the best things about this story...this most spectacular art.

Frank Gladstone 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 Emmy 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. In addition to his studio credentials, Frank has spoken on animation at schools and institutions around the country, in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia, and has taught various animation and cinematography courses and workshops for the University of Miami, VIFX, Cinesite, UNICEF, Gnomon Digital, Nickelodeon, UCLA, San Jose State, Stanford and USC. Frank has also designed courses and helped train literally hundreds of people who work in the animation industry. Additionally, Frank serves on several school advisory boards, philanthropic and educational organizations, produces public service television commercials and is a member of the City of Glendale Arts and Culture Commission.

Gregory Singer is a freelance writer, residing in Los Angeles.