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A Day in the Life of a Animator

Nearly everyone has seen some animated sequences in their life, whether it was in a science class filmstrip or a Saturday morning cartoon. Animators create sequences of motionbased art that tell a story or communicate a message. Some animators are graphic artists who draw “cells,” which are individual pictures that are strung together to create the illusion of motion. The majority of animators are computer or “technical” animators, whose jobs require less graphic design expertise and more familiarity with animation programs such as the Macromedia Director and other, less commercial ones than those of graphic artists. Nearly all animators work as part of a team and have a specific area of specialization. The low pay can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. Another more formidable obstacle is the constant pressure to produce work to others’ specifications and then rely on their approval. For creative people, this can be constraining. An animator works on certain characters, scenes, or sequences; but others have the job of assembling these pieces into a coherent whole. Scripting and planning are critical to success for the “large picture” animator. Most animation jobs are in commercials (of which more than 20 percent have animated sequences) and cartoons. Many animators spend their own money (between $5,000 and $125,000) to produce short animated movies that showcase their talents and then enter these in animation competitions with the hope of gaining exposure and financial rewards. These festivals have grown in reputation and importance over the past 10 years, and it is considered a significant feather in one’s cap to have received an award at one of them. Some animators begin their own production companies and recruit funds to develop their own animated products, usually for either foreign markets, sample shorts, or animation festivals.

Paying Your Dues

As in most fine arts fields, no formal education or training is required; if you are talented and are able to get your work viewed, you stand a reasonable chance of finding a job. But it is extremely difficult to achieve the level of professionalism expected in this industry without study. A bachelor’s or graduate degree in graphic design with an emphasis on computer skills is extremely helpful in getting interviews or portfolio reviews. Certain universities offer specific semester courses in computer animation on Oxberry Animation cameras (the kind that filmed Fantasia) or using Silicon Graphics computer workstations with 2- and 3-D software. Most important for an aspiring animator is that your work be of exceptional quality, and to that end, many aspiring animators intern or work for little pay to learn the craft from established animators, game designers, and programmers. As with most creative fine arts fields, the number of people wanting to become animators exceeds the demand; therefore, open positions are competitive. The rate of success in the field is low, but those who do achieve it are extremely satisfied.

Present and Future

It is impossible to mention the history of animation without mentioning Walt Disney. His popularization of the animated form, through such groundbreaking strips as the “Steamboat Willie” character (which later became Mickey Mouse), and the classic features Snow White and Cinderella, defined the form and intertwined a sense of magic with the American entertainment experience. Disney Studios still produce what are regarded in the industry as the top-quality commercial animation products. The marketplace success of Monsters, Inc.and Corpse Bride has spurred the production of more animated features, and the trend in that direction should continue in the next few years. The majority of projects in the industry, however, lies in commercial work and animating small sequences in limited portions of 30-second spots. Animated commercial sequences have been entering the marketplace at a substantial and increasing pace; the future of animation will be determined by how far technology can progress and how receptive audiences are to the influx of better-produced animation.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many animators learn the necessary skills traveling from job to job. Exposure to the various sides of animation-sketches, drawings, computer skills, voice-dubbing technology-lead the young professional to a greater understanding of how the whole film is developed. The skills critical to success in this business-understanding the technology, working with computers, and film production-are learned while assisting with responsibilities such as production coordination, background design and progress tracking. The pay is low and the hours are long, but this period of “dues-paying” is critical to learning the process.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Animators begin to get real and complete areas of responsibility. Full animation, individual client responsibility, and concept design are all part of the job. Animators hone their filmmaking skills-story development, directing, cinematography, and editing-as they apply to the task of animation. Many are in charge of location-scouting for the preproduction work that marks many of the larger-scale projects, such as Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast. Hours skyrocket; pay increases and can rise significantly for those with a strong record of achievement.

TEN YEARS OUT

Those who have survived ten years in this occupation (around 20 percent of those who began in it) run projects and have complete responsibility for final products. Many find their advancement moves them from the nuts-and-bolts of animating to more of an oversight and administrative position, where responsibilities include budgeting and scheduling. Industry reputations and networking are the lifeblood of smaller, more commercial houses that produce small animated sequences for commercials in about three months; large houses produce feature films, which may take two to three years before release. Pay increases significantly, but tends to level off after this. Satisfaction in the profession, at this level, is high.