Staying employed in the same place is really tough these days. I'm not sure how much the California tax incentives are going to help. They won't make a dent at Sony Imageworks, because Sony doesn't pay state taxes anyway. Others, it will help—but not like the massive incentives elsewhere.
Staying employable in the same city involves several factors. First, if you can stay where you are, that is likely your best bet, but only key people can do that. So become a key person. Second, the game industry in L.A. and other cities is, for the most part, reasonably stable. You might get hired for a single game development, but it can take years and if you're a good, desirable employee, you're going to be kept on for the next project. If your game catches on, you could be employed on it for years. It's expensive for companies to develop new people. So make yourself desirable. I talk about how to do these things, so read on.
Motion graphics is a booming field and can offer reasonable stable work. It may lack the glamor of working on a big picture, but hey…maybe you'll see your work on the next Super Bowl.
Because of the high number of transferable skills among visual media industries, you can, with a little tweaking, make yourself employable across genres.
There are a few things that you don't have much control over, and these are the natural talent areas. Do you have an eye for design? An artist's sense of proportion? A feel for technology? And lots more. So, first off, and most difficult/least fun: you have to do an honest inventory of your personal skills. Where do your talents lie?
Few of us are really good at accurate self assessment. Our egos get involved with our passions, and that can distort our perceptions. It is also almost impossible to get a good assessment from external sources. Friends are often the worst source of honest critique. So it's up to you. If you find honest criticism too painful and it puts you in defensive mode, you have a serious problem.
I am often asked to give my honest critique of animation and VFX work. If it's not positive, I get one of two responses: anger or thanks. The ones who are appreciative, and understand that I'm not trying to hurt them, usually do exceedingly well. The ones who get angry or hurt, and feel attacked, rarely go very far at all. Learning what you're good at is key to survival. When I ran a multinational company several years ago, I had a rule: nobody is to work in areas of weakness. As employees discovered what they were not good at, often due to supervisor feedback, they were given learning opportunities to improve, but it was not made a condition of employment. This approach was very successful. Perhaps you find ways to refine your skills through honest self-assessment.
A major mistake many of us make is trying to work in the more glamorous parts of the industry, where our talents do not lie. Armed with a reasonably accurate self-assessment, you will be in a better position to judge where you would be most wise to invest learning time to expand your repertory of skills. Put aside your need to work on the cool stuff unless you truly have talent in those areas. Perhaps you can develop skills you need to capture the glamor.
Know how to sell yourself across genres
I often teach a seminar on "how to get a job in animation or VFX." Some of those essential points will help you, even if you have a lot of experience under your belt. Some of the most poorly prepared demo reels I've seen were from talented, veteran VFX people out on the market again. I saw one today in fact.
Here are a few suggestions.
- Only show your best work…ever.
- Keep it simple and short.
- Clearly identify your specific contribution to shots, if not originally yours.
- Do not assume that whoever is seeing your reel can figure out what you did. They won't make the effort. (Trust me. I know.)
- Never imply you did work that you did not. You will get found out.
- Target your demo reels to the job you're looking for.
Target your Reels
Yes, in this market you may need two or three demo reels targeted to specific areas within our industry. You have to decide where your crossover skills lie and where you are developing. For example, three areas that can strongly overlap are VFX animator, motion graphics designer and game animator. These are just examples. There are many more overlaps that you can look for, and some of the employment groups like Zerply can help you work these things out.
If these three areas interest you, it would be wise of you to lay out a spreadsheet, identifying crossover skills that fit you. Next, lay out skills that interest you and that you know you can handle. For this latter area, you should start building professional skills. For example, if you mostly work in 3D and know those tools well, but work is scarce, you might want to consider learning After Effects for motion graphics work. After Effects is now a full-bore 3D application with plugins like Video Copilot's excellent Element, and C4D Lite is actually included with AE. Conversely, if you know AE, you might want to learn Nuke or Avid. More crossover.
Immerse yourself in online learning from places like Video Copilot, Digital Tutors and Lynda.com. Bring all your creative wisdom into the new application. With your professional experience, you should be able to create a killer targeted demo reel specific to the motion graphics industry. Read that again. Pay attention to the “killer” part.
There are thousands of mundane motion graphics demo reels online. Don't let yours be one of them. In my experience, you could go to YouTube and learn all about what you don't want out there. There is so much boring motion-graphic crap online that it could rot your mind. So much of it all looks the same. Watch some of it and don't do it.
But every once in a while you come across a motion graphic gem that is in a class by itself. "Ascension" by Chris Lavelle is an abstract music video I came across. A beautiful, lyrical, personal project in AE, it shows that Chris has talent. Just watching it, you may even be inspired.
Learn what the different genres are looking for, and what skills you'll need. Here's a great web reference from Rendaa Studios that will help you prepare to switch to motion graphics.
Tip: Avoid copying Video Copilot Andrew Kramer's brilliant work. Thousands of people have already done that. Also, never put the results of a Kramer tutorial into your demo reel. They're all well-known. Put your own Ideas to work. Take the time and effort to be creative. Be different, make it difficult, and do it well. Difficult will be noticed. Make them wonder how it was done.
Want to be creative? Get inspired! If you've been in the industry for a while, you may well be stale and not realize it. As implied earlier, Google gives us many opportunities to be inspired by brilliant work amid the dregs. They may open up new channels of creative thought in you.
Be a great employee
Let's say you have, or just landed, an interesting job. Be a good employee. In talking recently with HR people in games, animation and VFX, I discovered that there are a fair number of toxic employees out there who have a lot of talent and manage to keep getting employed, but they don't stay long. You may be one of them and not know it.
I honestly believe that most of these people have no idea what a rotten apple they really are. They cause problems, especially when they get into a position of supervising others. What are their characteristics? They are usually charming to your face and smack-talk you behind your back. If you do that to people, you'll get discovered and dumped. Toxics tend to use social media to bad-talk people at work as well as the studio or house or game company itself. They tend to gossip a lot on the job, especially talking trash about other employees and the supervisors. They often do it anonymously … but you can sort of tell who's doing it. They depend on their often-exceptional skills to keep them employed, but that only goes so far. They are often self-righteous and moan about being underappreciated. Last but not least, some Toxics tend to find ways to avoid actually doing their job and take credit for others' work. They are great at putting on a show of how valuable they think they are.
It can take a year for a company to discover a clever Toxic employee but, when they do, they will take steps to eliminate you. So if you are this kind of person, either make some serious changes to your personality or get used to frequent job changes and eventual blackballing. It won't be official, but word passes between studios and houses on this kind of person. I mentioned that I knew two toxic VFX supes and, seriously, I had dozens of people text me with their names.
What's a desirable employee? It's someone who is a team player, who identifies with the local corporate culture. This person gets along with colleagues and avoids bad mouthing anyone. They do their work skillfully and in a timely manner. If they really like their job, they might send an email…okay, maybe a little kiss-ass…to their supervisors. Iif you're really ballsy, send one to the owners—even if they're overseas.
It's relatively easy to be a desirable employee. Show enthusiasm, participate in company teams and events, volunteer to help with company parties. Make an effort to really get to know your co-employees without being annoying about it. Be proud, wear the studio “brag-rags” at parties, avoid talking with others about problems at work. (There are always problems; keep them in-house.) In fact, avoid all gossip about the company it is purely poor form.
It's your job to make sure you're paid appropriately. Good employers should be okay with you discussing your need for an increase. Be reasonable. When you're given a job offer out of house, go to your supervisor and mention the offer. If you'd like to stay, say that and ask them to match it. This is regular business and is not bad behavior.
Use common sense about being a good employee and you will get noticed. Perhaps it won't be in a big way, but when reduction-in-force time comes, you may just find yourself elevated to core staff. We all strive for that coveted designation. All studios strive to find those best, most valuable employees. It means we are valued and finally have regular employment—at least for a significant time.
If you find yourself walking the streets looking for work, remember this stuff. Make yourself valuable. Bring your skills to a new venue. If you've done major effects on blockbusters, you may think that motion graphics won't be very interesting. Not true. It can be just as exciting and engrossing as crashing alien space vehicles in a Marvel movie.
This is a great soapbox for me and for you. If you have ideas about how your colleagues can stay employed in the same city, please share them here. We really all do need to work together to save the film industry in L.A. and to keep ourselves in a stable living situation. Hell, you might even find yourself in a workable relationship!
I wish you all the best of the Holiday Season. I'm taking a break until mid-January to visit with family and friends. However, I'll be looking at situations, software and new creative platforms that we can use to build a better career. Remember, please share your ideas below. You will be appreciated.
P.S. This just in: for any readers who are just getting started in their careers, here is some wisdom from artists at The Mill.