Contract work

My work on Hotel Transylvania 3 wrapped up a few weeks back and I’ve since joined the team at Method Studios for a feature that’s yet to be announced. I figure it a good time to briefly go over a part of the industry that may be not be so talked about in schools.

A colleague at Sony recently remarked:
“I was talking to the interns about how a show is wrapping up and a lot of animators will be going to other studios. They were so shocked and couldn’t understand why people were leaving”.

When I think back to my time at Animation Mentor, 5 out of 6 of my mentors were in staff positions, meaning they were hired as long term employees. I think all had been in their studios over 10 years, the odd one out has now been at their current studio for the past 4 years.

If I think about the group of people I graduated with who are now in the industry, I can only think of one who is in a staff role. Even if I very liberally round it up to include others I possibly don’t know about, I’d still say less 5% of my fellow graduates from 2014 are in staff positions. Comparing 80% of my mentors to 5% of my fellow graduates is a massive gap between my schooling and industry realities.

Most animators are hired on a contract basis. They might be hired for a specific project, a specific time-frame or even hired with an open contract with an end date to be decided. The idea still remains the same, they are a temporary hire. What that means is that when a project is nearing its end date, a studio will evaluate if there’s enough work to keep their current crew, and if not, will go through the process of deciding which animators to offer a contract renewal and which to let go. A studio and its crew can fluctuate wildly, from mass hiring, to possibly no work at all for months. The coming and going of animators is a normality in most studios.

It can end up being a messy process and makes the end of a project a stressful time for those wondering if they’re going to be looking for a job in a couple weeks. I’ve seen people being offered renewals on their very last day and I’ve even seen people being let go and rehired a week or two later.

Here’s a couple tips that might soften that burden:
1. Live in an animation hub. This is one of the reasons I’ve moved to Vancouver, with a large amount of studios it makes finding work at lot easier and takes out the hassle of having to move with each new contract. Montreal, London, Los Angeles are also other cities that come to mind. Paris, Tokyo and Munich also have clusters of studios.

2. Save for downtime Maybe easier said than done, but every month I put some money aside for downtime with an aim of being able to cover living expenses for 6 months. Some countries may have unemployment insurance to help with long downtime, but I like to have certainty that I can take a gap between contracts and not worry about paying rent.

3. Have your reel and linkedin ready First in best dressed, you never know when an opportunity is going to open up or how quickly the role is going to be filled. You don’t want to be delaying things a week by thinking “I need to polish this shot a little more and then I’ll apply”, that’s an entire week a recruiter has been looking through linkedin and/or submitted reels.

4. Help others out  I got my first job in animation after a friend suggested I apply to the studio, my second through a friend who was working at the studio, my third because a friend told me the studio was hiring and gave me the recruiter’s contact information. People have helped me in my career and in return, I try to help others in theirs. Sometimes that is as simple as passing on a link to a job posting or passing on a reel to your supervisor. We’re all in the same boat together, be kind and help those around you.

If this contract nature of the industry sounds daunting, here’s what I find to be advantages from an animator’s point of view:

– It’s easier than other industries to be hired. I often joke that an animation interview usually follows the same pattern: “What are you working on now? Cool, when can you start?”. One of my colleagues remarked “the interview I had for a part time job at SafeWay was harder than the Sony Pictures interview”. Animation interviews are usually fairly casual, short and straight to the point.

– People stay nice. Maybe partly by necessity to stay hired or through studios weeding out their “bad seeds”, I find animation studios to be a supportive and friendly group of people. There are politics, but compares nothing to the stories I hear from friends in other industries.

– Pay rises/career steps. Bouncing between studios is the perfect time to be pushing for higher pay or a step up on the ladder. It might not always happen, but a couple studio changes can end up being quite a large leap in pay.

– Ability to choose projects. With enough experience or a solid enough reel, you may be able to choose between which projects you’d like to work on or which contract suits your situation best.

For further reading, check out Will Finn’s post “WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WANT A JOB IN ANIMATION“. He talks about looking at a career as a whole, rather than individual jobs and studios.

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