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How Small Studios can be your BIG break

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I love sushi. Three years ago I thought I knew what awesome sushi tasted like, because I’d never been to Japan; I was completely wrong.

It’s the same with animation. When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to be in awe of big studios like Pixar, ILM or Disney – you believe they are the only answer to your dream career. Like my Florida Sushi, I grew up hearing all about Pixar and thought that was all there was, but after two animation schools, four years of learning, and one full year of waiting for a ‘big’ studio gig I finally woke up. After a series of chance events, a small studio unveiled a much better world than I ever imagined.

I like doing everything. That’s why I came to Pixar as opposed to Disney or any other studio – it’s small. At the time I started I was, like the tenth person in the animation group, and we all had to do everything. That’s the way I like it, keeping it fresh

– Pete Docter, back when Pixar had fifty employees

Then it hit me that I didn’t need Pixar to have a dream animation career, in fact I realised that there is a huge sea of animation opportunity and life-changing experiences out there (including mind-blowing sushi). To get started in uncovering what small studios have to offer, let’s begin with rethinking what you think you know about ‘big’ animation studios:

Pixar_Animation_Studios 1

Disney – a place so magical everyone who works there must float on clouds. Imagine all the bragging rights! These thoughts are so powerful a lot of people get lost in trying to find a poorly-defined dream that doesn’t exist or impress others through their movie credits. This is all surface level, don’t get caught up in it – you became an animator to make amazing art and to have a career that always challenges you, to never be bored of your work even when you turn 98. To make a little kid cackle in the theater or a grown man bawl. I’m not saying give up on your dreams, but do challenge your fantasy. ‘Big’ studio dream goals like Pixar or Disney are totally worth having, going for, and getting but they aren’t the only options to get what you’re truly after. Smaller studios are perfect, especially when staring out, and in a lot of cases have more advantages.

How Small Studios Enable Big Opportunities

Pixar dominated my mind for all five years of education. After school ended my applications to Pixar, Disney, and BlueSky were all met with silence – I knew I had to go somewhere else. I needed experience, to keep learning – and getting out of my parents’ house and living independently would be a nice plus too. So I opened up all possibilities to small studios anywhere in the world. Opportunity arrived where I least expected. Singapore, at a studio of about fifty international and local artists creating long pantomime skits with Looney Tunes style gags. The tests for the project were entertaining and it were supervised by a veteran animator, so I jumped on a plane, saw two sunrises from the air in thirty hours and found it was far better than anything else I could have done. Not just for my career but my life. Flash forward a year later – I was completely changed.

Small Studios Enable 1-on-1 Mentorship and Growth

The most important thing you can do as your career starts is become a better artist. Raising your game to a high professional level ensures job after job down the line, and having a mentor will accelerate your skill. When a veteran sits down time and time again to pick apart your work, you learn to spot what they look for. The lessons they have learned through years of struggle are distilled down for you in months or even weeks. This is effective learning. Smaller companies are more capable in this regard not because their veterans are necessarily better than those at Disney or ILM but because they have less on their plate; When there are approval screenings, in-house meetings and hundreds of people on staff to look after one-on-one mentoring doesn’t make sense.

Other approaches you can take are internships and apprenticeships. Studios like Disney have an Apprentice Program where you can work under the guidance of a mentor, provided you’re a recent graduate. These I’m sure are amazing for new artists and, if you have the opportunity, make the most of it! It may land you a permanent position or at the very least one hell of an experience. But there are a few downsides to this approach as well.

  • With big name companies like Disney or Pixar there is huge competition, probably just as much as – if not more than – regular openings. Students all over the world prepare killer art to land them, thousands of demo reels a week from people already animating at a Disney level.
  • Assuming your internship goes fantastically and they have room to hire you after those three-to-six months, then you may still be at the low end of a totem pole you’ll need to work your way up, among a lot of talented artists.

I wouldn’t suggest avoiding internships, but small studios can skip all of these downsides. Provided the supervisor understands the power of fostering a strong team, you’re bound to learn a lot more from them – constantly. It’s the difference between animating on Tangled with Glen Keane assisting the entire forty-plus Disney animation crew and being one of the three Animation Assistants with Glen Keane on Duet. Imagine how much more you would absorb being one of three animators next to Glen Keane. How often could you see him work, hear him talk, get his feedback?

Just listening to this master talk for a few minutes, as with the interview above, and you start thinking on a whole new level. These are the kinds of opportunities that come and go right under our noses. It doesn’t have to be someone as renowned as Glen either and frequently it wont. Simply look for someone who has more experience than you in an environment where you can interact with them constantly. In Singapore, my first supervisor, James Chiang ensured I became a better artist. He held me to a higher standard, squeezed every ounce of emotion out of a pose, saw my personal struggles, hosted after-hours breakdowns of Woody Allen movies, and took thirty minutes out of his day to draw over my animation frame by frame. That kind of repetition day to day, month to month, makes anyone excel. I reached out to James to get his opinion:

This would all have to be qualified of course, but yes, I believe that in a small studio, you have a much greater opportunity to grow and learn. However, the atmosphere must be designed to enable artists to grow – if the mindset is still that of a robotic production facility, size won’t matter. If done right however, smaller teams allow for much greater collaboration, more innovation and chances to think outside of the box. In larger teams, supervisors are often overburdened with meetings and their own production quota to allow for more personal relationships and richer development. Even as a director, I found that I could grow with a team, rather than just guide the team when the staff count is manageable. I was also able to work with younger artists personally, helping them advance their skills or when needed address unique issues because I made room for one-on-one mentorship. After all, you’re not just setting an example for learning skills for a career, but for life too – helping and giving is a concept to be learned and applied. I think for young artists starting out, they’ll get a better picture of the whole picture.

– James Chiang (Supervising Animator, Director, Character Designer, and Animation Mentor Instructor)

Small Studios Can Give Better Shots

Mentorship compounds your growth when you get challenging shots. Animations or work that pushes your ability in complexity, speed, or entertainment is what takes you to a higher level. Like bench pressing – the struggle to go from lifting 160lbs to 200lbs is what makes you stronger. The same is true for shots – you have to take the opportunity to push yourself but also have a challenge ahead.

Pixar_Animation_Studios 2 Brave

Let’s assume you’re a new animator arriving at Pixar, where there are loyal pros who have spent literally decades earning their position, learning from their mistakes, and gaining the trust to work on the most crucial, complex shots. In your first weeks, who do you think is going to get the money shot, You or them? Great shots work down the chain of trusted employees. Out of eighty artists, the most senior people will get the pick of the litter, and by the time it reaches you there will only be table scraps. Sometimes these scraps (eye blinks, head turns) are exactly what you need starting out, but you’ll quickly outgrow them. Being part of a smaller team lets you sidestep these growing pains. You don’t have to spend years proving yourself before getting a chance. If you’re one animator of twelve instead of eighty, you instantly become more indispensable to the company. There is more work available because there are only a few of you to get it all done. This typically means longer, more complex or just more mouth-watering shots. All of these will showcase much more appeal and skill on your demo reel. Back in Singapore at One Animation, a crab fight shot I did on Oddbods was a great example of something fun, challenging and fairly long, a seriously rewarding opportunity for an entry level animator.

Recap and Whats Coming Next

To sum it all up, here are four questions to ask yourself when considering studio jobs in the industry:

  1. Take a hard look at your ‘dream’ studio – why is it truly your dream?
  2. Are there other studio options?
  3. Who can you learn from there and will they have time to mentor you?
  4. Will you get great shots?

These questions will make you look at your future in a new light and clarify what’s truly important. In Part 2 you’ll discover even more benefits of small studios, such as how they can give you a better demo reel, enable adventure, and be more innovative. By the end you’ll have a clearer understanding of where you want to truly work and why.

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  • chrislesage

    Very true. Early in my career I was working for a very small company, (we started as 4 and grew to maybe 14) and I had the early opportunity to be animation supervisor and then technical director as I learned rigging. They weren’t just titles. They were an enormous opportunity to take more responsibility and learn far more than I could have as a junior in a bigger company, doing shot after shot after shot. I got to be involved in the hiring process, organizing an internship program, scheduling, and even rendering and lighting when the need arose. And I delivered my own animation shots on top of it all as well.

    This experience shaped my career more than any other.

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