Insights For Getting Started In The Animation Industry

Insights for getting started in the animation industry Achieving a solid start in any industry is difficult, and getting started in the animation industry is no exception. I’ve received great questions from Kendall, Megan, Liz and Jay, all of whom are curious about the journey of getting into animation. Their questions, like those of others aspiring to work in the animation industry, include what you need in a portfolio; what to expect as an artist and a woman; and whether it’s a feasible career path or whether animation coincides with the “starving artist” scenario.

Where to start?

Perseverance. Determination. Love what you do. I’m a big believer in finding your passion in the work.

Draw, draw, draw!!! Whether you’re going into CG or traditional—draw! You will learn so much from life drawing and gesture drawing (see Walt Stanchfield’s books Drawn to Life, Volumes 1 & 2) that will help you have a better eye when you animate or do story.

Know what part of the field you want to be in. Story? Animation? Visual Development? Layout/Camera? Lighting? Backgrounds, etc.? Traditional and/or CG? Do your homework; find what interests you (passion!) and aim toward that goal. When you submit an overly broad portfolio, studios see that as a sign of indecisiveness.

As women, sometimes you have to work harder, sometimes you don’t— it really depends on the studio. The boys club of the film and animation industry has many different facets—some are truly awful, and others are practically nonexistent. You will have to feel the lay of the land in each place and make your own judgments accordingly. Just be true to what you know you are capable of.

I was originally hired back in 1987 at Disney because I was a woman. I was fresh out of CalArts, and Disney was getting flack because they had no women in their story department. I put in my student film as part of my portfolio, with the storyboards—it was unique and showed what I could do at that time. (A side note? I had prepped my portfolio for clean up because all of my teachers said, as a woman, that was the only job for which they would consider me. I included my film and storyboards to indicate that I would eventually like to get into story. My teachers at the time thought that highly unlikely.) Surprises of surprises, I fit Disney’s criteria—I was the right price, because they could hire me as a “trainee,” and I was the right sex to get that particular monkey off of their backs regarding the story department. I didn’t take that for granted, however. I worked hard and almost lost my job because my draftsmanship wasn’t where they wanted it to be, but I doubled my efforts and was able to stay. My fellow story artists were very supportive and mentored me, and that made a big impact. They could see what I brought to the story department—a different point of view.

Speaking of portfolios, yours shouldn’t only demonstrate your skill set, but also bring out your own uniqueness.

Although we in animation consider ourselves artists (and we are), we’re also craftsmen/women. Animation is a commercial business. If you are willing to go with the changes needed in technology, then the “starving artist” scenario does not apply here. You may not get stinking rich, but it is a decent living. There are those worthy and honorable animators who have refused to stop drawing in favor of the more technical approach of animating on a computer, and I know some of them do struggle. But that is their choice. (And, as artists, I respect them for that.)

I hope I have answered your questions—or at least inspired you to dig a little deeper into what you want out of an animation career. I wish you the very best of luck!!

Image by VFS Digital Design via Creative Commons

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this! I’m graduating this year, and you did answer some questions I had! (Specifically about the gender roles in the workplace: a little idea of what, if anything, to expect).

  • Meghan

    As a high school senior planning to pursue animation, this gives me encouragement as well as food for thought. Thanks!

    • Brenda Chapman

      You’re welcome!

  • Nicolette

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share this insight. I’m sure many women trying to get into animation appreciate it. I know I do.

    • Brenda Chapman

      My pleasure. :)

  • Claumarile

    Thank you so much for this! You totally answer my questions! This totally helps me (:

  • Morgan Amelia

    Thanks for this! Its great to hear your insight, you’ve always been an inspiration for me c:
    Walt Stanchfield’s are amazing! He always pulls me from my darkest moods when it comes to being an artist.

    • Brenda Chapman

      I had the pleasure of being one of his many students at Disney. He was a sweet, wonderful and talented man.

  • sianychick

    Thank you Brenda this is so helpful!I hope you do more posts on this. I hope you don’t mind but can I ask you another thing? As you know I can’t afford to do a animation degree at the moment and I took your advice and started art classes which are going so well! http://drawntolife1.wordpress.com/
    It turns out that in a few years thanks to some some family members I may be able to afford it a degree (just about).

    I was thinking of doing it online. Do you know if those degree are seen as valuable? I wanted to do a degree that covers both 2d and 3d so I can find out where my passion really lies and get a comprehensive study. Something like http://online.academyart.edu/schools/animation-visual-effects or http://www.fullsail.edu/ Are these reputable? Is this the best way for me to do this while being a stay at home mum in the uk?

  • Kendall Haney

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! After a rough week of animating, this is exactly what I needed!

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether studios would prefer to see a demo reel of someone trying to “do it all” or if it’s okay, even preferred, to have one focusing on your greatest passion/skill.

    Animation, as with any art, is proving to be quite the up and down roller coaster of a life, but I’m excited and even more determined to continue the journey :)

    • Brenda Chapman

      I think anything we choose to do in life with be that emotional roller coaster. It might as well be something you love to do!

  • https://twitter.com/#!/loverlydarling Sam C.

    Thank you so much for this, Brenda. It’s encouraging to all of us to hear that even you have struggled with the animation beast (and won). The tip of finding your unique abilities is fantastic, too; do you have any advice on figuring that one out? Perhaps it feeds into your point about finding your focus and just working on one aspect totally? Anyways — thanks again for all the food for thought!

    • Brenda Chapman

      What you get the most enjoyment in creating is usually where your uniqueness lies. Glad I could encourage. :)

  • Mcanelly502

    Any thoughts for a lyricist/writer that can illustrate? How does one get a meeting with the big guys let alone finding a composer to work with?

    • Brenda Chapman

      You are an unusual breed, if you are a lyricist, as well! As a writer/lyricist, your only way through to the “big guys” is through a reputable agent. They won’t take unsolicited pitches or materials without going through the proper legal channels. As an illustrator, you can submit your portfolio to the recruiting offices of the studios you are aiming for. But the combination is a tricky one. I think if you want to go in with an idea – then go through an agent. You can then submit the artwork you do along with your script. That’s about all I have for you.

  • Ashley Clements

    Thank you for the insight, Brenda! If I may ask, how was your experience at CalArts? I am currently at Cal State Fullerton in their animation program but debated heavily over whether or not CalArts would be better. In the end money decided as all my school is covered through financial aid but I can’t hello but to wonder if that was the right choice.

    • Brenda Chapman

      I had a great experience at CalArts – although you have to be self-motivated to get a lot out of it. I’m sure that’s true of most universities. I know CalArts gets a lot of notice from the studios, but since the dawn of computer animation, the studios have also widened their range of view. I don’t know anything about Cal State Fullerton, but hopefully it will give you enough to put together a strong reel and portfolio… but again, that’s up to you in the end.
      If your goal is to work for one of the bigger studios, go online or call their recruiting dept and see what they are looking for in a portfolio/reel. That may give you more insight as to whether you are getting what you need in your education.
      All the best to you!

    • http://clockroom.blogspot.com/ Charanim

      If I didn’t get into CalArts I would have gone to Cal State Fullerton. Part of me wonders “what if…” I would definitely be working in the positive instead of having all of this debt! Haha. I’ll never know. I currently work at Dreamworks doing storyboarding, and two other incredibly talented people I work (ed) with went to Fullerton, Joshua Pruett and Megan Dong. Justin Ridge also went there, he is incredibly talented and works in animation. A few other success stories that came from Cal State San Jose are Januel Mercado, Kendelle (Hoyer), Scott Watanabe, Chris Palmer, etc. (google these names, so talented!)

      CalArts is high on the radar still because for so many many years that was the only option for concentrated animation studies, but NOWADAYS!… There are so many schools and online classes you can take. I think as the years continue there will be many many more alumni from different places. I agree with Brenda, you have to be self-motivated no matter where you go. I’ve made lists and lists of pro/cons about which is better, Calarts or going elsewhere, and the only thing I feel CalArts can argue is the magic in the walls (partial eye roll). You can find talented (passionate) classmates elsewhere, talented teachers (professionals), and venues in which to show your movies. They do have a curriculum which enables you to make a film each year, but you can do this on your own if you are self-motivated. There are many Calarts students who don’t turn in a film every year b/c they lack motivation…so… Something else that bothers me about CalArts is that you never know which faculty you will get for teachers, as it changes ever year. I feel fortunate to have had the teachers I did, but they are all but gone now.

      And as far as networking is concerned, I would just as soon recommend a non-calartian over an old classmate if they were more deserving. Talent is talent no matter where it comes from. So I don’t listen to the “networking” card.

      I personally don’t think you are missing much (my opinion). Just work hard, do your research, and like she said…Draw Draw Draw!

      Great post, Brenda.

      -S

      p.s. – Another great online resource is

      • Brenda Chapman

        Thank you for that insight! You answered her with the knowledge I lacked – much appreciated!

  • Mnmears

    since today would have been Joe Ranft’s 52 birthday, what did you learn from him and how was he with female artists?

    • Brenda Chapman

      Ah. I feel bad. Sadly, I remember his death date more than his birth date. It was such a traumatic day for so many of us.
      What did I learn from Joe?
      Integrity. Common decency. Compassion. Passion for the work I do. Try to give back more than I’ve been given. Try to stay humble – arrogance closes off the ability to grow as an artist.
      I don’t remember Joe ever noticing the difference between male and female artists – he just wanted us all to do a great job… and NO ONE wanted to disappoint him!
      Oh, I miss our Joe.

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  • Adanwkworth

    Hello Brenda, Thanks for this article. It is extremely inspiring. I have a BFA from Ohio State, but with only a class or two in animation. Its been 11 years since I graduated and stuffed my dreams deep inside of me. Now, I am ready to pursue my passion of drawing and working for Disney ( Aim for the stars)… Where do I begin?

    Please help!
    Angie Dankworth

    • Brenda Chapman

      I’d recommend getting online and looking at Disney’s website and see what they have to say about what they are looking for in a portfolio. Then look for some art/animation classes (or a school) that could help you get there – comparing what they offer to the skill set you need to acquire.

      I wish you the best of luck! I am always impressed with people when they follow their dreams after giving them up for so many years. I think that takes a lot of courage!

  • maninder singh

    thnx brenda……….. for this helpful update …..now i know wat to do n wat to not

    • Brenda Chapman

      Glad I could help. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/monique.hall30 Monique Feeley

    Good evening, first I just wanted to say thank you for writing the article its definitely inspiring. I do have a question for you. I want to get into the animation field myself. Do I have to enroll in school for that or can I learn on my own? And if I do attend classes what type would you remind?

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  • Guest

    I am a music composer. And I have no idea how to get into the film industry. I decided to practice writing for film and posting the results on youtube. But in order to do this I needed ‘original’ video to write the music for. So I started doing little stopmotion animation videos. Then I came up with an idea and started to write a story for a stopmotion animation webseries. Now it’s a 9 episode webseries that I’ve been working on for a year and a half!! I didn’t expect all that to happen!

    I don’t think I have the patience to become an animator (also I am a terrible artist) but I have really enjoyed working on this project. I’ve always enjoyed watching animated films and I’d love to work in film composing or storytelling.

  • http://twitter.com/themusicalnomad themusicalnomad

    I am a music composer. And I have no idea how to get into the film industry. I decided to practice writing for film and posting the results on youtube. But in order to do this I needed ‘original’ video to write the music for. So I started doing little stopmotion animation videos. Then I came up with an idea and started to write a story for a stopmotion animation webseries. Now it’s a 9 episode webseries that I’ve been working on for a year and a half!! I didn’t expect all that to happen!

    I don’t think I have the patience to become an animator (also I am a terrible artist) but I have really enjoyed working on this project. I’ve always enjoyed watching animated films and I’d love to work in film composing or storytelling.

    Thank you so much for this blog!

    • brendachapman

      You are very welcome. Sounds like you are very inspired to do your work! Passion! Always helps! :) Happy New Year!

  • Char

    Brenda, this is amazing summation of what those desiring to be animators. THANK YOU, especially for including the comment about drawing. So many falsely believe that just because it is CG they don’t need to draw (I know many “animation programs” that miss it entirely!). I’ve posted this and will now have a resource to share. Happy Christmas and may you have a wonderful New Year!

    • brendachapman

      Thank you so much! Glad you liked it! Happy New Year!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephenstillman Stephen Stillman

    I randomly just found this, while searching for a school to attend for animation and/or CG animation. I found the inspiration that I needed to continue with my long quest. Thank you so much! Keep up the great work.

    • brendachapman

      I’m so glad you found it! Thanks for checking in! Good luck with school!

  • Thegabsite

    Thank you so much for writting this, i went to school for animation, graduated a few years aho and just never got my break, also life things got in the way that kept me from trying hard but now im giving myself another shot, my only question now is, as a woman is really THAT hard, i mean eventually i do want to have a family and as much as i love animation and it is my passion, i dont think i could give up a family of my own in the future, any advice on managing or juggling both things?

    Gabby michel

    • brendachapman

      For once I would recommend not planning so far ahead. Honestly, there is never a perfect time to start a family or a career. If you are in career mode right now – go for it. The family will come and you will know how you have to make it work when it happens. Don’t give up on your own life’s wants in fear of how it will affect something you don’t have yet. Trust me – we all have our own way of making it work. You can, too. There is no one answer – and never a simple one.

  • Sorika

    hi! i found your blog really interesting and if its okay i would like to ask you a few questions as you are a professional and its always good to get advice from someone in the know. im currently 21 year old female, just finished my degree in visual arts. ive always wanted to do animation since i was a small child, but im confused as to whats the next step i should take in order to go in that direction. ive been compiling a portfolio and contacting animation studios but i would like to know if there’s anything more i can do? i get a lot of interest in my work on deviantART and other art websites but i still would like to know if im heading in the right way and doing the right stuff to get into the industry. any help you could give would be wonderful and thanks very much for taking the time to read my epically long message :) x sorika.

  • Erin

    HI Brenda, my name is Erin and I still have six animation classes left to graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga in Animation. I’ve been out of school for about two years now because of finances. My passion is so great for animation that I know that I am in no way giving up on my dream. I also am 13 weeks pregnant right now with my first child and decision making is extremely scary at this point even though I am married. I guess I’m just scared of not living my dream. I love your article and I was hoping you could give me some advice because I do plan on starting my own animation studio. I’m 28 years old and would rather have a child this early on so that hopefully being pregnant would not interfere with a future job. If you know of any advice to keep the hope alive; it is greatly appreciated.

  • Ronin

    Hi I live in South Africa and will be graduating next year. I have a few questions about getting into the American animation industry? Can you get a break if you just have a diploma? And do employer’s in the states even consider hireling a person from overseas?

  • heysavvy

    Thanks for writing this! :) I am a filmmaker who just graduated high school (not currently in college… Just working while figuring out specifically what I want to study). I’ve won some film contests so my forte is with the camera, but I’ve always had the yearning to do animation. I love and have done stop motion and want to try 2d animation.

    Any tips on just starting out and making the transition from filmmaking?

    Thanks so much! :)
    Savannah

  • sgreene

    Hello Brenda! I just found your site and am reading your helpful tips and information. Our son was just accepted to 3 schools: SCAD, Ringling and KCAI. He wants to do concept art and/ character development with Disney/ Pixar being his dream job. He did not apply to CalArts because he said he felt it was mainly for animation and he thought he needed to go into illustration instead. Can you give any insight on either of these 3 schools on which may be the best for his goals? He’s received a scholarship from SCAD, nothing yet from Ringling and the highest merit one KCAI offers. We just want him to go the right route. He is very self motivated and moved away for a high school program his junior year. He will graduate from UNCSA in the Visual Arts program this year. He has given up pretty much everything to try and obtain his dream. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! I will read more of your information as well. Thank you!

    • brendachapman

      Hello! I’m so sorry that I missed your post… I see it is from several months ago. I do apologize! There have been a few glitches in getting notified it seems. Those all are good schools. Illustration is a good path, but he should have some knowledge of animation. I’m very curious to hear what path he took! Sorry, again, for the unhelpfully delayed response!

  • Mandy Lee

    Hello Branda Chapman,

    I am very grateful you wrote this piece. Is wonderful to see a woman to be co-directing a film, I very much enjoyed Brave. My family did not approve me going into art; therefore, I spend a few years majoring in something I had no passion for. Misfortune happened and I had no
    roof over my head, I went into the Army. During the time in the Army I was involve in many programs that had to do with art. It was surprising to have met people who enjoy art as much as I did. During that period I was lost because I didn’t know what form of art I wanted to pursuit. After three years of soul searching I finally decided what I wanted to do I want to be part of the animation
    family. Now I just need to decide if I want to go into animation or CG. I am going to school right now at Full Sail but having a family doesn’t make it easy. However, having a daughter inspires me to go further because I don’t think I can tell my daughter to follow her dreams when I don’t follow mine. It would be a big excuse for me to say, “ I had you and I have to work so you can follow your dreams.” And like you said perseverance and determination are all I got right now. Life is funny sometimes things don’t work out the way you want but it lead you to something greater; it might take a lot of tears and hard work but in the end you will realize why life has taken you to a different
    path. Thank you for this.

    Sincerely,

    Mandy Lee

    • brendachapman

      You sound like a great mom… hang in there. Right now, I think it’s wise to learn CG animation as opposed to traditional, if you really want a job in the industry. I only say that as it sounds like time is limited for you as a working mom. It’s very helpful to learn hand drawn animation, because it gives you a deeper understanding of acting and movement… That said, I know many young animators who have never done traditional animation and do a fine job.
      Thank you for the kind words. And if my post was any help at all, I am so glad.

      • Mandy Lee

        Hello Brenda,

        I will take your advice on CG animation and will look into it thank you very much for your reply.

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