Veteran animation director and author David B. Levy discusses his newly updated book that’s a must-have for anyone hoping to plan, launch, or refocus their animation career.
Having met David Levy early in both our careers, far too many years ago to comfortably share, my first impression remains true to this day: he’s one of the smartest, most clever and knowledgeable artists I’ve ever known. So, it’s no surprise that when he chose to share some of those smarts with the industry in a book, “Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive,” with a newly revised 2nd edition now available, it quickly became a must-have for anyone not just looking to jumpstart a career, but recharge their creative engines through reaffirmation that their drive to work hard, keep learning, and push ahead towards new challenges is shared by top talent across the industry.
Levy, as they say, is a “seasoned” animation industry veteran – code word for battle-weary survivor. All kidding aside, he’s forged a stellar career working for top studios on numerous hit shows. Currently, he’s the director of animation at Disney+, where he leads a team producing and developing original short-form content for social media, including several series for Lucasfilm. Prior to Disney, Levy worked as an award-winning animation director supervising series and pilots for Nickelodeon (Blue’s Clues), Cartoon Network (Assy McGee), Sesame Workshop (Word on the Street), and Fox Broadcasting Company (Bob's Burgers). He’s been a writer/developer on numerous projects for Disney Jr, DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Animation, and Silvergate Media/Sony Pictures Television, as well as an indie filmmaker; he directed the popular children’s film Good Morning, and a pair of short, animated documentaries Grandpa Looked Like William Powell and Turning a Corner. He’s lectured and taught at Parsons, SVA, NYU, RISD, and Pratt, and was president of ASIFA New York. He’s been busy.
One thing about Levy I’ve always admired is not just the great projects he's worked on over the years, but how in good times, and not so good times, he’s always focused on using everything gleaned up to that point in how he pushed forward in his career. It’s that relentless emphasis on learning, and applying what’s been learned, that has always impressed, and in many ways, inspired me to get more disciplined with my own gig. Goodness knows, I can slack with the best of them.
The new edition of his book is filled with insight and advice from over 150 animation industry professionals, a wide-ranging tome of suggestions, reality checks, and inspiration on how to set your sights and blaze your own career trail. He shares practical tips on building a reel, portfolio, and resume; pitching and selling shows; and taking to heart and learning from on-the-job criticism.
Levy and I spent some time discussing the messages in his book, how animation is changing, rapidly, and that new career strategies are in order if we hope to build and work in a more diverse, inclusive, and meaningful industry.
Dan Sarto: Animation is so intrinsically difficult and time-consuming. Mastering the craft seems like a life-long effort. Is it fair to say that the most successful folks in our industry are the one who always look at how they can better themselves? Personal development to them always means learning, seeing what’s out there, and trying new stuff?
David Levy: Everyone seems to agree, and I certainly do, and it's my POV in the book, that self-development is everything. You shouldn’t wait for anyone to make you anything, to give you opportunities you haven't earned yet. It’s not about what kind of development program Nickelodeon has. If there are things like that out there that can nurture and help grow talent, groom them for key roles in production, or development on creating a show, that’s gravy. That’s wonderful. But you have to do the work yourself, whatever that is for you. If it's Instagram comics, or short films on your own YouTube channel, or scripts and pitches, you must put in that time yourself, regardless of what other structures might exist that can pay you to learn. Work is not just a transactional thing you do for pay. Some of the most important work you do is the stuff you do outside of your day job, whether that's a day job in animation or outside animation. That work you do at home, to get you ready, is really everything.
I use the phrase “staying hungry” to describe what you're saying. It’s the idea that everyone's hungry when they start out. Everyone wants that first break, that first foot in the door at their first job. Whatever it is. A PA, a coordinator, could be anything. It's really what gets us going. That's a hunger we all have. But the people who stay hungry even after they're in the system, working on shows, gaining experience, they're always looking for the next thing. What is the next thing I want to achieve? That hunger, that's what drives you. For me, it was pitching projects and getting rejected three to four times a year, putting my creativity through the ringer in a way that my colleagues who aren't doing that don't get that opportunity to learn from.
As I progress as a creator, and have more credibility, it's all from being hungry. This experience is so valuable that even if it doesn't end in the result I’m hoping for, which would be my own show or directing a big project, or whatever those things are for you, the journey, the time you put in because of that urge to self-develop opens other doors along the way, or takes you on another path to success you didn't even imagine.
DS: Not everyone lives in a city like Hollywood, or Vancouver, or London, or Tokyo, vibrant hubs of animation production. I often hear from people who live far from such creative centers that just feel disconnected, that they just can’t get in front of good opportunities because they’re not there physically. What do you say to them?
DL: Obviously, there are both easier, and more challenging origin stories out there. People who happen to be where the action is have an easier time seeing the potential, just being around the infrastructure, whether it's schools like Cal Arts, internships at studios that can help you get a foot in the door, or other networking at events around town. The key thing I would say to those people you're talking about, who are far away from the action right now, is get in the game in your own world. In your own room. Don’t wait for some expensive education you may or may not be able to wrangle. Just start doing it. Seriously, even flip books will show a recruiter, “Do I have the discipline to do sequential drawings that move?” You’ve got to take your development out of that realm of abstraction and “do stuff.”
It’s like that idea that if you were into fixing cars and maybe you wanted to end up with your own auto mechanic business one day, you wouldn't be saying, “I know I'm going to really enjoy fixing cars. I can't wait to go to a school for that.” You'd be under the car already, right? As a teenager, every weekend, you’d be under that car, covered in grease, with a wrench in your hand. That's what animation is like. Get into it now and see what it's like. See if you have the passion for it. See if there's a specific area that excites you as you try things. That's going to help lead you. And through social media, you can find artists on Instagram and Facebook, look up people on LinkedIn… people are more accessible than ever before. If you ask people, you can start getting some good advice. And there’s huge universe of material online you can access to teach you almost everything.
DS: Is there anything you find folks like Brook Keesling and Linda Simensky are looking for when they take pitches and review reels? I know there are a zillion dos and don’ts. But what are the best ways for young artists to differentiate themselves in the process of showing their projects and skills?
DL: To catch the attention of someone who looks at pitches for a living and sees everything under the sun five days a week, you really need to develop your own point of view. What is it about your point of view, how you see the world, that you can communicate, without being there, in a six-page, or even a two-page document that is so funny, or so compelling, that it makes them want to see more? When I go to festivals, sometimes I'll participate in panels where I evaluate pitches. I'll see, “OK, this person is really in love with Steven Universe.” All this looks like a clone of Steven Universe. You see the imitation, which means that person is just digesting another creator’s vision. You really want to take all your influences, not just in animation, but from all kinds of art, what you read, where you live and travel, your relationships, your mistakes, being a rounded person, and if you have something to say about all those things, start building that up and start making stuff. Gather an audience without Linda Simensky. By the time you're ready to pitch her, you might have followers, you might have a body of work. And people like her will see you as someone with a vision, not just someone who has an idea.
DS: What do you want people to take away from reading your book?
DL: It's the kind of book I would have liked to have when I was 18 or 13, or 22, or 40, and wanted to know more about career paths in animation. What if I could have had lunch with 150 animation artists and professionals? How are people navigating the industry? What keeps them going? What key wisdom have they learned the hard way? Imagine having lunch with 150 of those people and getting that message distilled. The book doesn’t provide one answer from one point of view. It provides a whole swath of information. That's really what I wanted the book to accomplish, to let young professionals know that it's a different world now, and the kind of world we're trying to build in this industry is more diverse, more inclusive, has all kinds of new stories to tell from people who haven't had previously had a voice, based on gender, based on race, where they live, whether or not they went to school, whatever. We need all those voices in the mix for animation to stay relevant and really help the world be a better place.
Click here to get your copy of “Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.