Of Mice, men and Motionographers…

We need more honesty about the reality of animation work today. As animators, we are all responsible for the people that we work with and the health and success of the community.

I love that {a comprehensive article on the topic} [http://motionographer.com/2018/08/06/mograph-goes-through-puberty/] was recently published; I don’t love that it’s highly biased. Joey’s article reflects neither my own path to success nor the reality most common within the industry.

At this point in my career, I run a small motion graphics studio, YellowLab. It’s a virtual studio, with team members in Canada, Australia, Brazil and England. My journey here has taken me almost two decades. While I can’t say that my experiences are universal, we all share personal hurdles and struggles to get to where we want to be, but I also don’t believe it is too far from reality. It’s never easy, hard work, persistence, and dedication need to be acknowledged as the road to success.

I got my first real industry job at Fatkat Animation Studios in Miramichi, NB back in 2003/2004. My boss at the time, Gene Fowler — fantastic guy and someone that I consider a mentor — concluded my initial interview by telling me that he couldn’t afford to pay me.

(My original mentor and first boss in the industry — Gene Fowler)

So let’s stop right there. That not getting paid thing, it happens! In our industry, as in other industries that require experience and mentorship makes it not that unusual. What do you do in such a situation? You offer to work for free, which is of course what I did. Gene didn’t have a computer for me, nor a desk. So I provided those things. I knew that I needed to make it happen for myself, to find a way into the animation business and learn to grow, to understand the processes and the work.

(2004 Animating my first 3D commercial work to play in theatres. Eating DQ Flamethrower like a boss)

Some people are in a position to work for free without too much discomfort; many are not. I was among the latter. Part way through my career I had to scrounge in the most literal sense of the word: I had to fish food from garbage cans and raid grocery store refuse bins in order to eat. I struggled.

After six months of picking up all the scrap jobs at the studio (I did eventually start to get paid), Gene told me that he would have to let me go because he needed to hire an animator right away. I was using up a government grant that he had to allocate to an animator to grow the studio as an animation house. It was an emotional moment for both of us. So I told him I was an animator. This was on a Friday. He didn’t believe me, but I swore that I was and told him I would show him my work on Monday. I was totally bluffing, but it was my only option. I immediately went and spent all of my savings on the books I needed and shut myself away for the weekend. On Monday, Gene couldn’t believe it. He asked me who had done the work, that it was top end. When I finally convinced him that the work was my own, I had a job again. I worked at Fatkat for five years.

I eventually left for a new job and a woman and moved to St. John, NB. I worked for Hemming’s House pictures for six months, the relationship ended and shortly after I lost my job. I moved back home to Lyndhurst, ON in late 2009 and took to Twitter to look for work, took up boxing, and bussing tables to make ends meet.

While in Lyndhurst I started to co-author a book on After Effects. I then moved to Ottawa where I finished the book and worked for a year with CrowdWave Games. I lost the job because they moved to another city, got a job at Blackberry, lost it after six months due to restructuring, and spent the next two years taking odd jobs and eating out of garbage bins. I spent a year working at 99cents, an app development company, and moonlighting as a freelance Art Director.

I became a full-bore freelancer in 2010/2011 after trying to be an employee for seven years. I took the leap because I cared about the final product too much. I care about the details and the many of the places where I was working wanted production volume. As an animation artist, I had to have that end quality. To me, it proves that you’re capable of doing good work. It’s also intensely satisfying.

After four years going it solo, I built on the equity I had created to form YellowLab. My career path feels like climbing a mountain. I would make it up a few steps, then I would fall off the cliff face. The higher I got, the more rarefied the air, the more difficult it became to go further.

I know my story is not unique. But through all of the trial-by-fire, I learned the processes I needed to succeed on my own, and how to be accountable. One would hope that the unreasonable men that you find on the tops of tall mountains — I’m paraphrasing Hunter S. Thompson here — would at least be trustworthy. That they would provide good guidance.

It’s a very turbulent time in our industry. Thanks to an ever-lower cost of entry, we’re seeing a flood of would-be animators doing low quality work for peanuts. We’re seeing offshoring driving prices down further. In this environment, we don’t need entrepreneurs using short course education as a way to take advantage of the naiveté of others and as some type of magic pill. It’s not cool. In our industry, people are genuinely interested in the best ways to problem solve, to find a flow. Tricking aspiring animators into thinking that there is one book or course that can position them for long-term success is, in my opinion, taking advantage of the naiveté.

First, you simply can’t learn everything you need to know from a set of courses or a book. Second, you shouldn’t follow the book. You don’t want to end up designing just like the person who wrote the book. You need to interpret the book and find your own style…and that doesn’t happen quickly.

People that write articles like the one mentioned above are doing our industry a potential disservice to further their own agendas. Never mind that a video ad for the author’s become-a-pro-and-earn-six-figures-lickety-split service dominates the top of the article, effectively turning it into clickbait. It is egregious that the article talks about how easy freelancing is (it’s not), how profitable it is (it’s not) and how freelancers can come out of school and build brilliant careers from the get-go (I have yet to see that happen without hard work and sweat equity).

From the many comments on Joey’s article, it seems I’m not alone in my thinking. Good thing the article was modified after the initial outcry, which included removing “Joey’s Chart”:

People, listen up: your career is made by the work you do and the people you inspire, not by chasing clickbait. Snake oil is the same everywhere: it promises to fix what ails you and paves the road to success. There’s no success unless you make it for yourself with commitment, hard work, and dedication.

Freelancing as an animator is a vocation. It doesn’t come out of a box or a book. The more you do it, the better you get. You trip, you fall, you have good clients and bad clients, you learn processes, you learn the game. At the end of the day, you need to be confident that what you provide has weight — that you provide more value than just the completed work. The value you’re creating doesn’t reside exclusively in the final product, but also in the future work that you’re building for yourself, that you’re putting forward to a new client. From experience, I can tell you that as a freelancer or a studio you always need to be building up to the next level of excellence. Because that’s what’s going to dictate whether you fail or succeed.

Excellence is something that’s rarely discussed. The top 1% of animators end up with wonderful careers. Their work is generally pretty damn good. Guess what it takes to get there? Time, energy and passion. You have to dedicate yourself, you have to choose. You have to be okay with taking time away from everything else in your life. Time is precious. I’ve lost relationships and time with people that matter the most to me because that’s what it took to succeed in my career. That’s the blood offering that you have to be ready to give.

Thinking you can find success just by putting in the hours is a fool’s game. Yes, it’s about putting hours in, but it’s not just about the hours unless you’re an employee. That’s the comfort in working for someone else. You don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from; you just need to put in your hours and do a decent job. There’s no concern about hunting for business, about where your billings are going to come from next week, next month or next quarter. You don’t have to worry about overseas clients deciding that they’re not going to pay, or what happens when you or your child needs expensive dental work.

That part of freelancing sucks. But that’s the reality. You are 100% accountable for finding the business, winning the business, and producing the quality of work — on time and on budget — that’s going to get you asked back. Being a freelancer, you have to take care of all the steps; you have total responsibility for your livelihood. And you never know what’s coming up next. That’s what concerns me the most about the Motionographer article. Freelancing is not easy, it’s not cheap and it comes with lots of risks.

One of the most important things in your career is learning how things work in the best design houses. It’s not just about learning software. It’s about learning story structure, pitching, budgets, client management, finances. And lots more. No one should go straight into freelance. You don’t know enough. Go work for a studio, come to understand it, learn the processes, grow by osmosis. Only when you have internalized this knowledge can you strike out on your own, either as a freelancer or as a virtual company.

After working full time in the animation industry for the last 17 years, seven of which were as an individual freelancer, I can tell you that my earnings were never pure profit, as the Motionographer article suggests. Running my current studio, {YellowLab}, [http://www.yellowlab.tv] I still struggle. From the sales I bring in over my business year and remember, I take all the risk! I find the work, hire the talent, deliver the job. After paying everyone for their work and paying taxes, I keep less than $100,000.

Having a virtual studio is not a glamour move — it’s just what it takes to do kickass work. When I don’t get paid, the people I work with still do. I have several colleagues in Brazil, England and Australia, and I take care of them. We succeed and grow together.

The people you work with will give you 100% if they respect you, and if you’re looking out for their interests, you’re on top of the business.

The work we do is good and I know we inspire lots of people. At the end of the day, that’s your career: the work you do and the people you inspire. So fair warning: getting there is a long, difficult journey…but very rewarding if you can make it work.

Special thank you to my family, my friends and this wonderful community that continues to grow and develop.

(Illustation completed by my old friend Justin Lee find him here: instagram.com/justinianlee)