Animation is a diverse and wonderful industry to work in. You can work in big-budget movie studios, gaming companies, content shops (like Duke & Duck!), and many, many, more places. Regardless of where you land, the day-to-day life of an animator can seem like a dream come true. That’s especially true for people who grew up doodling and conjuring fantastical stories because, most of the time, that’s the job.
With such an in-demand and satisfying career, of course, it can be hard to get your foot in the door…
Beginning your career in animation and motion graphics can seem daunting, but it is also incredibly exciting. This is an industry full of creative individuals who are all learning and sharing their knowledge with other professionals in the space. Anyone who has a job in this field will have a unique story about how they worked their way into the industry, but most animators do not have a story of “falling into” the industry. It takes skill and knowledge to enter into the industry. With that being said, animators have very high job satisfaction, so if you put in the work and land one of the few jobs, the fulfilling nature of the work will pay dividends.
If you are interested in animation/motion graphics but aren’t sure how to land your first job, this article is for you.
Knowing the industry landscape will be vital for applying to the job that best suits your talents, and it can help you practice the right kinds of skills to impress a potential employer.
Many animators have a desire to work at one of the large animation production companies. Seeing high-quality animated material attracts a lot of creatives to the field, but many find their way into slightly different careers.
For animators working on a Pixar film, everything is hyper-specialized. For example, an animator might specifically work on hair or cloth for a film, and each animator will fit into the team more like a lot of little cogs that help complete a big project. However, this isn’t true with every animation job.
Duke & Duck is an example of a smaller creative content studio. In commercial animation, work is much more dynamic and fast. Projects are significantly shorter, and you work with clients to come up with a creative way to tell their story or message. This type of work demands different skill sets from animators; whereas being very good at animating hair would make you an asset at Pixar. You’ll need a wider variety of skills and techniques to excel in commercial work.
Motion graphics is so new that the industry constantly pushes the limits of what we think is possible. Motion graphics animation goes through “trends” similarly to social media. Specific styles or techniques will burst into relevance and disappear just as quickly. The longer you stay informed and learn new techniques, the more you’ll have to pull from your toolbelt later as styles and techniques become more or less prevalent in the industry.
The industry is growing very quickly, and the most challenging part of being an animator is often keeping up with the competition. Luckily, education is imperative, and the industry values transparency. This is because there isn’t any incentive to hide how you created something, the work itself can be translated into the technique by a good animator. That necessitates a friendly community excited about new and different styles and wants to help one another become better animators.
Animators break into the industry through two main paths. You can either go to college and major in something related to the discipline or you can go the path of being self-taught and gain experience and education on your own. Both approaches are legitimate. Hiring creatives are interested in what you can do and who you are more than a particular degree. Alex, one of our Co-Founders, says that he doesn’t even look at a candidate’s CV until after he first looks at the portfolio. Since 80%+ of candidates are cut in portfolio review (at least at Duke & Duck), this is the place to focus.
For many, the development and structure a four-year degree can provide are necessary, but for others, a trade school, art school, or complete self-study will be sufficient for establishing themselves as an artist. Our other Co-Founder Dave has a degree in Environmental Science and only took a few community college courses to build his skills.
Around 74% of animators hold a Bachelor’s degree in animation, graphic design, or fine arts. In formal education, you benefit from studying with professionals who have experience in the art world. For a Bachelor’s degree, you have the advantage of taking a large course load in your field of interest while practicing/perfecting your skills. Do your research on the instructors and take courses with those who have the experience you’d like to learn from, even if their classes are challenging. Grades are less important than pushing yourself and taking the time to work on your craft. Again, your portfolio is what matters most when it comes to getting hired, and pushing yourself at school is one way to build a great portfolio.
Self-study is doable in almost every creative field. What’s important here is consistency. Remaining consistent in your practice over time will give you the best results. Finding time to practice can be difficult, especially if you’re working a full-time job, but learning something new every day will be a beneficial skill when you land your first job.
The major disadvantage of not pursuing a degree is that you have to mimic the four years of structured practice in the field. Keeping the motivation to stick with it can be challenging, but self-study is possible for very committed and driven individuals. You don’t need formal education, but without it, you have to truly love learning on your own and maintain a drive to improve over a long period.
If you’re tempted to try the self-taught route, School of Motion is an excellent place to start. Most of our staff members have taken at least one course and it’s always clear when a candidate has really invested in doing their coursework well. Their Creative Director EJ was an early freelance partner of ours, and their courses are truly world-class.
The next step in landing your first job in motion graphics is to curate your portfolio. Anybody can create a professional portfolio. You don’t have to have gotten paid for the work in your portfolio to showcase your skills. What’s most important is to create a stylistic portfolio that showcases your work and speaks on its own.
Take your time when deciding how to present your work. You should create a distinctive site that displays your work. Experienced professionals have professional portfolios, and not being a full-time animator is no excuse for sloppy portfolios. For animation, your demo reels should be first, clearly labeled, and easy to view. Easy accessibility is critical when it comes to showcasing your motion graphics skills. If a potential employer has to hunt through your portfolio to find what they’re looking for, you’re already a step behind.
Show that you can work on many different styles. Clients often have a particular image or style they’re interested in, and the best animators are the ones that aren’t entirely devoted to their personal style. If all of your work looks the same, branch out and find new techniques to expand your portfolio. If you collaborated with others on projects, these could also be great additions to diversify your portfolio, but an additional explanation to describe what it was you worked on is needed.
Using Google Drive or any other application that requires a potential employer to download your portfolio files is a big red flag. This makes your work difficult to view, and downloading miscellaneous files from the internet makes most people uncomfortable. Also, if your portfolio site is password protected, it can steer potential employers away from looking at your work.
Using tutorial pieces that you were walked through is also a big red flag. School of Motion is a fantastic resource, but you have to put your creative spin on your projects. If you can show that you learned and adapted a technique to do something new, that’s better than mimicking someone else’s project. With the number of submitted applications, hiring managers can quickly spot which materials are not your own. Tutorials are not bad, but they do not show a lack of creativity in exchange for a polished project.
When you have some skills and have finished your portfolio, you’re ready to apply to animation positions! It’s necessary to prepare yourself for what applying in competitive fields is like. You often will interview for many jobs you won’t get and countless more you’ll never hear back from.
What is important is that you continue applying and interviewing until you’re able to be hired somewhere. Many applicants are selected for an interview, and the first thing they do is stop applying for jobs due to the excitement of getting to the next step. The problem is this can be a multi-week long process, and if you aren’t continuing to apply to other jobs, it can be many more weeks before you’re able to line up another interview.
Instead, applying for jobs is when the real work starts. You should continue learning, working on your portfolio, and applying to jobs until you land your first one. If you do this, you will continue improving your application until someone selects you as the perfect fit for their business.
Landing a job as an animator is a little more complicated than merely being able to do the work. Employers are concerned with who you are, what working with you is like, and how you’ll perform in the position over time. That means you should focus on a few things.
An eagerness to take on challenges and strive for new and different things is essential in the industry. The better you can authentically convey this, the stronger of an applicant you will be. Because the industry is evolving so quickly, showing that you can not only fit in right now but will also keep up with the changing industry will make you a much stronger applicant.
Empathy and compassion go a long way, especially if you’re applying for a position with a small team. Luckily, animation is a field with many encouraging and excited individuals, and showing that you can fit into the kind of community a studio is trying to cultivate is key.
At Duke & Duck, we’re always looking for talented motion artists, animators, illustrators, and more. You can find our open positions here, and please apply as a freelancer if we do not currently have an open position in your specialty! We routinely work with freelancers on our projects.
If you are great and great at what you do, get in touch, sign up for our newsletter, and join our flock! Until then, keep creating, keep learning, and best of luck landing your first job in animation!