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Mind Your Business: School of Hard Knocks

In this months edition of Mind Your Business, Mark Simon channels the advice of Principal V. Ery Hytuition, regarding the School of Hard Knocks when getting a job.

Pseudo professor Mark Simon. All images courtesy of Mark Simon.

Students, welcome to the School of Hard Knocks (SHK). Im Principal Hytuition and todays lesson plan includes straight talk about the value of higher education and if it can help you get a job.

As you decide whether or not to enter the doors of our colleges and trade schools, I thought it was time to have a frank discussion about the birds and the spelling bees. Will getting a higher education help you get a creative job? Will it help you earn more money?

Im sure a few of your friends are foregoing a formal education to jump right into the marketplace. Some think its risky to wait for a few years before joining the workforce and incurring huge school debt while others think its risky to brave the uncharted waters of production without a degree backing you up.

Im here to tell you that both views can be correct, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

Our belief here at the School of Hard Knocks is that your best bet is a mixture of work experience, a formal degree and art schooling. If you would care to follow along in our curriculum guide, well discuss the benefits, negatives and results of your different options.

Creative industries do not hire their creative workers because of their education. Creatives are hired because of their skills and their credits. Our pseudo-associate professor Mark Simon has worked on over 1,800 productions as an art director, storyboard artist, animator, producer and director and was never asked if he even had an education until he was approached by a corporate headhunter to be an animation studio executive.

The obvious assumption is that you dont need an education for a creative position. In fact, having a bachelors or masters degree does not guarantee employers anything about your creative abilities. It just shows that you can complete something, which is, in itself, of some value. If two people apply for the same creative position and one has a degree and the other doesnt, the job will always go to the one with the better portfolio regardless of his or her education.

Some naturally talented and ambitious artists are able to develop outstanding portfolios on their own. These talented folk are likely to get jobs. During the same amount of time that a student is in school, a working artist can gain a number of production credits. The downside to jumping right into the marketplace is a potential lack of understanding of the industry, naiveté of business and potentially not having as good a portfolio as they thought they had.

Generally, only executive positions require degrees. The easiest way to determine whether your dream position requires a degree is to simply look at the requirement of job listings.

The School of Hard Knocks.

Even when you do need a formal degree for a potential career move, your grades rarely matter. Employers are more concerned with the fact that you have a degree than whether you had any Bs, Cs and Ds on your transcript. That permanent record doesnt look so frightening now, does it?

This doesnt mean that you should slack off and not care about grades. The main purpose of higher education is to learn and become a better artist. When your purpose in school is to learn, the grades will easily follow. The more you put into your education, the better prepared you and your portfolio will be to advance in your career.

Another important aspect of education is where you get your degree. The top schools in any industry carry the strongest cache. Some schools are known in any industry as being strong and some are known as being weak. The trick is determining which is which. You can ask experienced professionals in the industry about the schools they consider to be the best. You will find that some are more highly regarded for gaming and others are respected for character animation, illustration or special effects. Here at SHK, we specialize in belly button lint still-lifes.

Lets not forget teachers. One fantastic teacher can affect your abilities and career. Most of us have at least one standout teacher that really helped us. Mine was a hard-ass illustration teacher who was brutally honest about my work. His words stung at times, but they kept me from getting comfortable and pushed me to get better. Whichever school you choose, meet the teachers, talk to the students and request the teachers that you prefer. You do have a say in whose classes you take.

If you prefer to have people say only wonderful things about your work, save your money, stay at home and just show your work to your mother who will say, Oh honey. Thats wonderful. You are so talented. It may be easier to hear than harsh criticism, but you dont learn anything from it.

Besides the importance of which school you choose, the city in which a school is located is also important. Schools in major production cities offer benefits to students that others dont. Internships at the best studios are usually only open to locals. Its easier to make great contacts when you live in the same city as the studios. The success of many careers is due to the success of their classmates careers. Students in production city schools are more likely to have successful parents in the industry, thus assisting their careers and those of their friends.

Thats not to say you cant get a lot out of other schools, you can. You just have to work a bit harder to get your break into the industry.

During your search for the perfect school, you will want to speak with graduates. If you call us about SHK, we will give you a pre-approved list of graduates who will read from our pre-approved sales script. Please do not contact other SHK graduates. They may give you an honest, err, different answer than those we prefer.

So the real answer is that its not the degree thats important from an education, its how much better you get and how much you learn. In order to be competitive in any industry, you have to demonstrate what you can do. Schools are often the best place to learn software and techniques and develop a top-notch portfolio and demo reel.

Is it possible to learn software and techniques and then build a portfolio on your own? Absolutely. But you have to be honest with yourself about whether its realistic or not and how long it will take you. Plus, many people teach themselves bad habits when there is no one to correct them. Most people need the extra push of outside deadlines and the help of teachers to get solid criticism and to learn the new complicated softwares.

Your college courses will largely be determined by your professional track. If your goal is to be a CG character animator you will likely take different courses than if you want to produce animation. Layout artists have different needs than game designers.

The one thing common to every aspect of the animation business is that it is a business. Every artist should understand their legal rights on jobs and productions. You need to understand where your money goes and how to track it. Whether youre hired to run marketing on a production or you are marketing yourself to potential employers, many of the same business elements are the same. At SHK, we always recommend taking business courses.

Most art and trade schools do not offer a full regiment of business classes. You can supplement any education with business courses from community, state or private colleges.

Mark Simons latest book, Facial Expressions.

So, will having an education help you make more money? It can, but only if you use the opportunity of being in school and having many options and tools available to make yourself better. Schools are some of the few places in which you will have the time to experiment and see what you are best at and what you enjoy doing.

If you are one of those naturally gifted artists and animators who feels like you dont need to go to school to learn more, why are you here listening to me? Prove youre good and go get a job. Although, I still suggest taking business courses.

I hope youve enjoyed your tour and decide to give us your tuition, err, to enroll in SHK. We could really use the money and youre bound to be the most popular kid in class. In fact you may be the only kid in our class. Hmm. I really need to work on our sales pitch. Can you recommend any good business courses?

Mark Simon is an award-winning animation producer and lecturer who is also the author of Facial Expressions, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation and Storyboards: Motion in Art. He can be found lurking around at and may be reached at Marks books may be found and purchased at