Monday, January 08, 2007

How To Get A Job In TV Animation Without Hardly Trying - Part 2

PART II: Presenting Your Work

I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.
-Marcel Duchamp

If you hear a voice within you say "you cannot paint," then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
-Vincent Van Gogh

Family. Religion. Friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.
-C. Montgomery Burns

This is the one I know you’ve all been waiting for. How do you put together a portfolio that will get you a job and where do you take it?

I’ve put together many a portfolio in my day, and more recently I’ve looked at dozens and dozens more. Your portfolio is probably the single most important asset you have when trying to get a job in TV animation. All of the good contacts you’ve made by raiding the Nickelodeon lunches and the good word from Uncle Pappy at Cartoon Network won’t mean squat if you don’t have a great portfolio to back it up. You’ll be competing with a huge number of other people, many of whom have a lot more experience than you do.

Two years ago while “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy” was looking for a new character designer, Cartoon Network was swamped with portfolios from out-of-work Disney feature animators who’d been let go when Disney erroneously suspected that their crappy films were crappy because they weren’t CG. I sifted through a baker’s dozen large, leather-bound portfolios full of gorgeous life drawings that certainly surpassed anything I could do. These people had page after page of solid, well-crafted characters from some really great, classic Disney films that stretched back for decades. It turned out that I didn’t pick a single one of these amazing artists to fill the position, however. Instead, the job went to a 22 year old from New Jersey who happened to be out visiting friends and also happened to have a photocopy packet of his favorite drawings.

What Phil did through an accident of good timing you can do by design, which is tailoring your portfolio to the studio and show you’re applying for. The Disney animators may have had loads of gorgeous animation drawings and life drawings, but "Billy and Mandy" is a weird, rubbery, surreal cartoon and we don’t actually animate anything here. That’s not to say that life drawing and animation aren’t vital skills to have in the TV animation industry. Far from it. But the person who’s looking at your portfolio isn’t going to care if you can render out a photorealistic elephant if you’re applying on “Dora the Explorer”.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re planning to apply for a job on “Chowder” that you should obsessively fill pages of your portfolio with drawing after drawing in “Chowder” style. A few drawings or pages of drawings will do. Just prove that you can draw the way that the show will require you to. And never use the actually characters from the show you’re applying for either. The contents of the portfolio should be your work, and until you’ve actually been paid to work on a particular series then you can’t claim that you’ve worked on it.

Basically, your portfolio says, “Hey, this is what I’ve done and it shows what I’m capable of.” If you put characters from “Dexter’s Lab” in your portfolio and you’ve never worked on “Dexter’s Lab”, several things will happen. And none of them are good. First, other studios around town will assume you have worked on “Dexter’s Lab”. While this could get you a job somewhere, eventually someone will out you and you’ll get a bad reputation. Second, if the creator of “Dexter’s Lab” were to get a hold of your portfolio, he could be very upset that you’re trying to pass yourself off as someone who’s worked on his show. At best, he’ll probably be super nit-picky with your drawings and tear them up worse than he would’ve if you’d just done other characters in the style of “Dexter’s Lab”. So feel free to draw characters in the style of a show, but never use the actual characters from the show and never claim that you’ve worked on something you haven’t. Don’t pad the resume’. The resume’ doesn’t matter. What’s inside the portfolio is the only thing that counts.

So you’ve got a few pages of drawings that resemble the style of the show you’re applying for. What goes in the rest of the portfolio? What I look for is variety. I want to see that people are adaptable and can learn to draw in different ways. You don't have to be all over the map, just show a range. Maybe you do want a single page of life drawing in there. Just draw like you like to draw and fill a few pages with that. Then try to draw like you work for Klasky-Csupo. Then try something completely different. If I can see that a person can take the time to learn to draw in different ways, I believe that they can learn to draw like me and that makes me want to hire them.

You should not only have examples of different drawing styles, but also drawings of different things. If you like drawing bikini-clad ninjas or axe-murdering hermit crabs you should definitely have some of that in your portfolio to represent your interests. But have some other stuff in there to. Have backgrounds and landscapes and characters and props and animals and vehicles. When you drop off a portfolio, you’re often doing it blind to the jobs the company might have to offer. If you want the character design job but you’re willing to get a foot in the door doing prop design, that should be reflected in your portfolio.

Physically, your portfolio should be easily accessible. That means that a stapled pack of photocopies is preferable to a huge leather case full of gorgeous original drawings that I can’t get to because the zipper doesn’t work. I think it’s easy to have too many things in a portfolio. I can’t say what too long is, really, but I’ll say that you should keep the portfolio to just your very best work. Five pages or ten drawings is too small. Tease, but prove that you can put out. The portfolio is usually just a prelude to a test, so you’ll get a chance to really show them your stuff later.

Aesthetically, there’s always something to be said for an eye-catching cover. Don’t have everything in your portfolio totally cleaned-up and glossy. Have some rough stuff and quick sketches in there too. It’s good to see how people construct their drawings. If you’re a freak like C.H. Greenblatt and drawings somehow just form from the tip of your pen… well, then you’re screwed.

Should you include your showreel or student film? If you’re planning to be a timer, director, or animator then a reel a few minutes long is vital. If you’re applying for anything else, it’s totally optional.

Don’t forget that humor is always a good thing. Have a gag drawing or a one panel funny cartoon. It’ll help your work be remembered later, even if you’re applying on an action show.

So, in short, have drawings in the style of the show you’re applying for, have drawings in a variety of other styles, draw many different kinds of things, have drawings representing other shows or projects you’ve worked on as well as things from your own imagination, and have something funny. Make sure your portfolio is easy to flip through, and eye-catching enough to invite the flipping to start. One thing my father taught me is that you should always put your best piece of work and your second best piece last. I find that works out for me pretty well.

There’s more TV animation now than ever, but nobody will call it an “animation boom” like they were when I moved out here. That’s because with layoffs in other areas of animation and the huge new crop of young animators coming in there are more people than there are jobs. When I’m looking at portfolios, it’s almost overwhelming. They don’t come in one at a time. They come in batches of five or seven every few days. Your portfolio is your foot in the door, so don’t underestimate the importance of making it a really pretty foot. After submitting your portfolio, let it sit for a week before calling to check on its whereabouts. Always have copies. I submitted a portfolio to a studio that lost it for two years. They found it and called me, but by the time I got over to the studio they’d lost it again.

If you get passed on, just take it in stride. Rework your portfolio and try again in a few months. There's a lot of competition for TV animation jobs right now, but the jobs by their nature are short-lived. It's not uncommon for a series to go on hiatus every nine months or so. Invariably, people leave and new people need to be hired.

Below is a list of studios and how to contact them. I’ll expand on it as I get the information on other studios. If you know any, feel free to chime in.

Cartoon Network Studios
300 North 3rd Street
Burbank, CA 91502

Portfolios at Cartoon Network are often passed through every show in the studio, insuring that you get some good exposure. And zealous Linda Barry makes sure that every portfolio gets seen. Adult Swim is based in Atlanta, and not part of Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank.


Blogger C H Greenblatt said...

Mr Atoms, you put it better than I could have. The only thing I would add is that your portfolio should show how you think. This is where you can really display your individuality as an artist. As a character designer, you have to do more than draw - you have to come up with new character designs all the time. You have to be imaginative. It's a fine line between being able to creatively emulate a show and being derivative.

10:12 PM  
Blogger NICK DOWNING said...

thank you and billy and mandy reely got me going with this cartooning stuff im serious i always have been drawing but i've never stuck with anything that i've reely lik for instance i have liked comic things like marvel and dc then video game stuff and anime like dragon ball z but when billy and mandy came out i reely got into catooning i tried making up some of my own charicter that could be in billy snd mandy or trying to put together charicters and a story line as unique and as creative as it, and i have a couple of ideas i have worked up but you are definatley by far my number one influence in cartooning and now your helping even more with this man your a legand thanks for everyhting .

6:48 PM  
Blogger Uncle Phil said...

That's ME you're talking about in there! I'm happy you thought my foot was pretty. Seriously though, you've put some great advice in there. I'm totally going to pass this on.

And thanks Maxwell.

9:03 AM  
Blogger tirui said...

great great advice! you answered lots of questions i've had. thank you! my portfolio thanks you too :) more advice please!

6:19 PM  
Blogger Cedric said...

Wow, thanks for the terrific advice. I've been a professional illustrator for ten years but have been thinking of moving to LA, so this was really helpful. Thanks!

If you have time to post the contact info of some more studios, that would be great.

10:07 PM  
Blogger martin wittig said...

I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for posting:))

7:50 AM  
Blogger Ian J. said...

Wow! Thanks for writing this. It's probably the most honest portfolio advice I've read so far, and it came at the right time for me.

Please keep up the writings :D

10:04 AM  
Blogger burgerlog said...

well I must have pulled the wool over your eyes when you hired me, because I can't draw jack squat! but I can draw a picture of jack squatting, or jimmy squatting.

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful insight into the industry Mr. Adams.


2:14 PM  
Blogger David Germain said...

That's some good advice.

Would you say that putting several works onto an online blog is a good idea too?

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Atoms, your blog is wonderful. Someone at Toon Zone mentioned it and out of curiosity I gave it a look. Thank you for your honesty and humor regarding the joy and pain of pursuing a career in animation. I'm one of those "artsy gals" you mentioned. Wish me luck. And I wish YOU luck in all your current and future projects!

8:48 AM  
Blogger Todd Kauffman said...

that's alota words.

5:59 PM  
Blogger I.M. Weasel said...

I've just been browsing your blog, and it seems as though you at least a good a writer as you are an artist. I hope you take that as compliment!;)

As you can tell from my incredibly nerdy screen name, I'm a huge fan of Dave Feiss, especially the "Cow and Chicken/I am Weasel" stuff. And while Feiss overall was my favorite, it was usually the episodes that you worked on that were my personal favorites. I watched Billy and Mandy when it first premiered years ago, and while I don't catch it much anymore (blah blah blah, job, real life, all that to contend with), I still really like it. Keep up the good work!

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like billy & mandy a lot.i heard that they were canceling the show i beg you to stop them pleeeease!!! i am getting the dvd,the video game-i evan record the episodes sometimes on VCR-!!!
i made a billy,mandy,grim and fred fredburger website at!!
i hope fred fredburger is on the movie....once again please put billy & mandy back on air!!PLEASE!! I AM ON THE FLOOR NOW BEGGING!!!PLEEEEEAASE!!WAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

11:40 AM  
Blogger Mukpuddy said...

Man I'm stoked you have a blog dude!! I just found it and I'm gutted I'm such a late comer!!
Theres some really intresting and inspiring stuff here so please please keep posting!!

I gots ta gets me that Billy and Mandy movie off of Amazon, we'll never get to see it on tv down here in New Zealand!

5:44 PM  
Blogger supersammyteam said...

Thanks. Now I can start getting MY series ready for Cartoon Network.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Steven Rodriguez said...

Wow! I'm glad someone like you has put up a good article like this! I'm glad that you're willing to share your knowledge in animation and how to get a job animating and whatnot!

Since I do some webcartoons, talking to other artist on the web is... Pretty hard. (most are jerks, sometimes) :0

Whenever I'm an animator, or get my own cartoon on CN, I'll always thank, Maxwell Atoms! Heck, even put you in the credits on the end of the show! (If I get a show. No! I will get a show! Just wait! 15 or more years from now, A new cartoon on CN, by Steven Rodriguez!!! JUST WAIT!)


Thanks again Mista Atoms!

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Mattitude said...

But, Maxwell, what about those of us who are writers, as well? Should our portfolios contain a brief playwrite?

10:50 PM  
Blogger Maxwell Atoms said...

I'll get something about writing up eventually. and I'll update parts 1 & 2 with some important info that isn't included already.

But writing for animation is a hard road. A lot of shows (like Billy & Mandy) don't really even have "writers" in the traditional sense...

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I suppose you only need a storyboard?

And thanks for replying.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous deadkitty said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up - i love hearing the scoop from the inside. Along those lines I was wondering some things about art school.. i'll be going to either mica or risd in the fall, and though illustration is my first love, i'm very interested in animation as well. I might find myself taking classes in it or even switching over. I was wondering what, in general, the classes were like-- lots of life drawing? did you have to create 2-D animations or is it all digital now? You said you don't animate anything where you work; is that what you were expecting from what they taught you in school? You don't have to answer my questions if you don't have time, I'm just very curious. Thanks!

3:36 PM  
Blogger Maxwell Atoms said...

Hmm. Well, it's not that I never animate anything. Storyboarding is basically doing key frames, and the skills are useful to have when you're designing models or doing mouth charts or directing or whatever it is you want to do.

As for school, nothing we did when I was in school was digital. We even had to use a giant, ancient Oxberry to shoot everything. That's one of the reason I love digital film now.

I know several people who were illustrators in school and switched to animation midway through. Certainly being able to draw illustrations helps when you have to draw animation...

3:54 PM  
Blogger born2draw said...

WOW! This is AWESOME: not only did I get the "pearls of wisdom" from THE MAN himself, but the possibility of him (well, you) actually reading MY comments!? The only thing better then this would be to actually get to "pick your brain" in person!!! LOL!
I HAD to thank you for the advice, AND for Billy & Mandy (she's my "God"= I LOVE her!!! we're so much alike!) As soon as I'll be off- I'm going to work on MY portfolio! I love your show so much= I'd be willing to work on it for free, JUST to get my "foot in the door"! So I'll be SURE to use your advice, and hopefully it will get YOUR attention when I'll send it in to CNS!?

5:27 PM  
Blogger Tiger said...

I won't apply for anything, still doing a portfolio containing all those things might be a fun thing to do. And probably if I'm ever gonna apply for animation, I might as well dig out my portfolio. Though after seeing what the heck of a crap I did a few years earlier, I'll throw it into a nearby trashcan and change the name to anonymous. Also I wouldn't wanna have my foot in a door... someone elses foot maybe. LET OTHERS SUFFER THROUGH THE MADNESS OF CLOSING STEELDOORS, WHICH SORTA TEND TO HAVE BITS OF TOES ALL OVER THEM!!!! MUAHAHAHAHA... ahem... sorry, about that. didn't mean to threaten anyone, my plans should be kept secret, else people won't trust me. Man, that'd suck.
Anyway there's some golden Advice you've given out, and I'm about to take it some day, but for now i'll stick with my seldom updated webcomic.
' Hope to meet you some day, take over your life and force everybody you've never known to become my slaves and servants... Oh, man... Me and my broad mouth...

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow u just made my futer alot more easier thanks atoms thumb up

8:42 PM  

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