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How Small Studios can be your BIG break – Part 2

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In Part 1 we explored how beneficial a ‘small’ studio can be for you.

Four Major Points were covered:

  1. The wishful assumptions we make about our ‘dream’ studio
  2. That there are other opportunities you may not have considered
  3. How small studios foster mentorship and growth
  4. How small studios can provide better shots to work on

Now we’re going to explore how they can give you a better demo reel, enable adventure and be more innovative.

Small Studios Can Give You a Better Demo Reel

Great Mentorship + Great shots = Better Reel.

Animation freelancers are digital nomads usually changing companies year after year. You get hired by how impressive your demo reel is. This means you need to appeal to supervisors who are watching thousands of reels a month. It also means appealing to HR, who aren’t typically artists. But both of them are looking for something unique, something entertaining.

If you’ve been guided well on a smaller team and have made the most of great shot opportunities, chances are your reel will stand out. Imagine how interesting your work would look if it showcased a piece from Duet or The Gruffalo:

You don’t have to be Glen Keane or Andreas Deja to pull this off. Showing projects that have a refreshing new style unlike anything seen before can land that next job, and small studios excel at doing things differently. My good friend Joseph Holmark landed a gig at Blue Sky Studios on Rio 2 after showcasing shots from Singapore like this:

Joseph shares his whole jawdropping transition from One Animation to Blue Sky in this podcast, exposing all the lessons he learned at a small studio, his animation workflow, how the job offers came and so much more – in great detail.

Small Studios Are Nimble and Innovate

Perhaps the greatest allure of a young studio is the fact that they are different. This will be what gives your demo reel a unique feel. These places are like a young Pixar doing Toy Story, trying to create what they’ve always wanted to make, not somebody else’s vision. They were taking risks, pushing the envelope, discovering their message and style.

In Pencils to Pixels John Lasseter even points out how Disney rejected 3D and that’s why he went to Pixar. That was back in the 80s when they had fifty employees. While everybody was squabbling on the path to Disney, John traveled the road not taken.

Today, as much as I personally love Disney or Pixar, I have a certain expectation for how their movies will look now, as do the parents who take their kids to the movies, for good reason: Those companies have found their bread and butter, the problem is they are now dependent on it; Asking Pixar to make an R-rated animated film would be too big a risk for anyone there to take.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, this is where small studios can be especially exciting. They are nimble, blazing a trail, taking leaps into the unknown instead of careful steps. Amazing things can happen, and you can be at the ground floor when it does. Or, worst case scenario, you walk away with unique looking artwork.

Think of Moonbot Studios and their Scarecrow Short Film for Chipotle:

Or their vastly different video game project The Golem:

Each project is both appealing and vastly different from the other, challenging the status quo and daring to venture into unknown territory. Even if you only join a studio for one project, when you leave you will be refreshing in the eyes of HR staff and Supervisors at other studios upon seeing your demo reel, because you were part of something unique.

Small Studios Are Fun

Are Nerf gun fights in the office more fun at Disney or at a company of fifty? Probably about the same. There’s a strong illusion that everything’s better at your dream studio, but don’t fool yourself into assuming you’ll be missing out on fun. In a small crew setting you’ll get to know everyone extremely well. It’s the difference between trying to reserve a dinner for forty vs. nine – if you could even get enough seats for everyone, how difficult would it be to schedule? Would you even get to talk to more than ten while eating? By knowing everyone in the office, it’s just more likely you’ll enjoy any project you’re working on, from all the inside jokes and support during stressful overtime to all the shared experiences outside of work. You’re fostering lasting friendships for life that can be crucial to landing new jobs in the future.

Small Studios Enable Adventure and Don’t Have to Be Forever

Another point new artists forget is that we are contract/project based. We can be on a project for three-to-twelve months and then travel to another city or country to work at a new company. Staff positions are a rare commodity these days, and to take full advantage of this you can travel all over. For twenty-four years of my life I lived in Florida, and in three years of animating I’ve either visited or lived in nine different countries. This can lead to a very exciting life if you stay open to possibilities. With smaller companies in vast numbers scattered all over the globe you can literally base your next job on where you might like to live for a year.

Japan? Sure, let’s give it a go for 6 months.
Germany? How about a year?
Argentina? Let’s do it!

Think of the new hobbies you can explore, cultures to soak in, friends you could make across the planet – the doors are wide open. If you ever get tired of some country, or you don’t mesh well with a company’s philosophy, you can move on. Maybe it will be a time then to try out a big studio and see what it’s like with a fresh perspective after your travels. Or maybe you’ve found a country/studio you absolutely love and want to stick around. Staff positions will be more readily available to you, because there’s less competition and you’re valued talent who won’t be running off to Pixar for a while.

Twenty-year VFX Supervisor Veteran Alan Mckay has a great podcast on ‘Traveling the World as a Digital Gypsy’ – check it out for detailed info on getting the adventure into your career.

Ditching BIG Studio Envy

Some of the greatest pressures we put on ourselves can stem from what our family or friends say and do around us. When I graduated from my first animation school I never found animation work. When I graduated from my second school I finished and feared the same would happen all over again.

I saw awesome friends literally go off to Pixar, Sony and Blue Sky. They deserved it, yet at the same time I couldn’t help but be jealous. With a gnawing hunger to succeed as much as they did, when I accepted my first job in Singapore as part of a small team I doubted its worth. Instead it changed my life. Slowly, as I lived the experience, the jealously evaporated and I became extremely grateful. I realized my dream was to be a great animator, and create amazing art for the world. I believe that’s what you are here for too, and you can find a way.

How to Choose Your Path

It will take some research to choose the studios you’d like to work for and then decide how best to prepare for them, but it’s worth it. To help with your journey, here is a free PDF with a list of studios big and small all over the world I have compiled, some you may not have even heard of.

Remember to ask yourself these questions when deciding on studios:

  • Who could I learn from?
  • Where could I learn the most?
  • How much stronger will I be after?
  • What kind of a demo reel will I have after?
  • Do I want to travel?
  • What experiences do I want to have?
  • Where would I like to live for a year?

If you’re still thinking you have to choose big studio or small, remember the world is not This or That – it’s ALL of the above, so try everything – you’re not stuck anywhere.

Feel free to ask any questions (I’ll respond to all of them) and share in the comments what one studio you would like to start at, and why?

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  • Jonathan Lyons

    I couldn’t agree more. I have worked at big name studios and small family run studios. I had the most fun and had the most opportunities at the small places.

    • Appreciate you chiming in. Curious – which studio was your favorite?

      • Jonathan Lyons

        This in the US. I had the best experience at a studio now known simply as “DUCK” When I began they were Duck Soup Produckions. http://www.duckstudios.com/ They do commercials, which is great work for the constant variety and quick turn around time.

    • chrislesage

      Yep, same here. I agree. Plus, I love the explosion of indie animators and artists and authors these days. Especially because technology and online distribution is so accessible now, we should all be experimenting more! Great article.

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