Friday, March 21, 2008

What Qualifies You To Get Into The Animation Biz?

1st year student Dana has asked a great question in the comments of a previous post, I think its worth an answer in a post of its own.

She asked, “I have a question for you Ian. My Dad really wants me to have degree in animation but how much difference does it make to have a diploma instead of a degree in the animation business?”

If you’re a young animation student still living at home this might be a good one to share with your parents, friends or family, I’ll upload a word doc version you can download from HERE and print if you have people you would like to share this with who don't get to the computer much.

My personal opinion is that in the local business it makes little to no difference.

Having a Degree can make it easier to get a working Visa in the US (but its still no walk in the park), and give you an extra year to get your act together, but that’s about it.

I come across this situation of parental pressure to get a degree quite often, and I have to be careful not to take it hurtfully. I know we teach as much and probably more than they do at the Uni down the road. Not because we know more than their teachers, but because the Tafe system is better suited to teaching animation, more time for practical activities instead of theory (some theory is good, but it takes so long to make good animation that every second you can get for actual production is precious), and much more face to face time between teachers and students for starters. Last year I did some tutoring for students studying a Degree in Animation at University, when we discussed the differences in the structures they were green with envy because they only got about 12 hours a week to work with a teacher, in a class of almost 30 students, the rest if the time they were left to their own devices. This approach may work with some other vocations, but is totally mismatched with animation, there is so much to learn and it takes a lot of time to do. You need to have a go, get feed back, redo it, get feedback, tweak it, get feedback and so on, for as long as possible in order to cover as many possibilities and learn from as many mistakes as you can, every second with a teacher counts.

But I can understand a parents point of view because there has been a change in educational philosophy has been a generational thing. When people studied years ago, universities still existed for the good of society (to a degree), but over the past 15 years there has been a huge change in public thinking. Now people (in general) aren’t willing to have their “hard earned tax dollars” spent on something unless they can see a tangible result (thank you very much Today Tonight and A Current Affair). Something vague like “the good of society” that may require some money for just sitting around and thinking isn’t acceptable to voters any more. So Uni’s have been getting less and less money (or no increases in money to match inflation and changing technological demands), and it has become all about bums on seats, and satisfied customers who will tell their friends and write nice things on the customer satisfaction surveys handed out each year ($$$). Students can bludge their way through any of the Brisbane animation courses if they choose to, doing the bare minimum at every stage and still get the qualification at the end. Funding systems are based on how many students are passed, not necessarily on the quality of the graduates. Those graduates who get their degree, but shouldn’t really have it, go out and apply for jobs, if they get one and can’t do the work, then the employer thinks something along the lines of, “The teachers over there at Thingy University are useless!” I used to think that when I was involved with employing, but now that I’ve been a teacher I know its not necessarily the teachers fault. Modern educational systems are set up so that its very hard to fail a student for not caring enough, or just not having the right stuff and it is reflected in the quality of their graduates. Its quantity instead of quality, I’d be stunned if any of the local Animation Schools, Universities or Tafe’s manage to get more than 15% of their graduates into long term industry participation (some are good at getting their students in the door, but then not many last because they are poorly prepared which is probably cruller than them not getting a job in the first place). They know most of their graduates are not good enough to get a job, but are willing to pass them anyway to look after the bank balance.

So where dose this leave employers? The answer is simple. Looking at your demo reel. If the piece of paper you have can’t be trusted then employers want to see proof that you can produce animation that they can use in their product. They stopped trusting any of the Australian qualifications at face value years ago and now they won’t believe it until they see it with their own eyes. This is where I concede there can be an advantage to a degree, it gives you an extra year with access to facilities to produce and polish your reel. If I had my way, our Southbank course would be three years long, but its already twice as long as most diplomas and my understanding is that it has been stretched as far as we can get away with. If you feel you might need the extra year then I think the best way to go at the moment is to take the extra subjects in 2nd year that enable the pathway into the 3rd year of the Griffith Uni degree, then at the end of the course if you feel you need the extra time to work on your reel you can take the option, or if you feel you have it all happening you can take the plunge straight into the industry after getting the diploma. But as counter intuitive as it may be for parents, you can make no mistake, its all about the reel, not the qualification.

I can tell you from personal experience that while working at Disney we employed graduates from most of the educational institutions around Australia, some were great, others were useless, you just couldn’t trust the qualification to know. I’ll never forget the time an applicant came in from one of Brisbane’s most respected universities and during the interview asked, “what’s an inbetween?” Thats like someone who wants to be a builder asking what a brick is. We couldn’t believe someone could study for 3 years, pass the required subjects, have a degree and still have to ask a question like that. With us, the reputation of the institution or the qualification counted for nothing more than the fact that they had been around animation for 3 years and hadn’t gotten board with it yet, which is hardly justification for employment.

Some offshore quals may be different, you can do Animation Mentor online for a similar cost to uni, and it carries some serious credibility among industry folk, there are schools like Gobelins and Cal Arts too, but it’s a long way to go to study.

Another thing to consider is that I don’t break ties with students when they finish at Southbank, you can continue working on stuff and contacting me for feedback and advice. I still work with several students who have already graduated via email and some have come in and seen us at the campus. The main thing that stops this from happening more is that many student seem to loose momentum when they don’t have a structured learning environment. But, if your highly motivated then there is no reason why your journey towards employment can’t continue beyond the official 2 years of the course.

More important than any qualification is this determination to “keep moving forward” (Walt Disney), I make no secret of the fact that study is often just the first step toward a career, only a tiny percentage of students are (in my opinion) actually ready to enter industry when they finish study (at any institution). This is an important thing for students to accept and communicate to their family, loved ones and supporters. Two years ago one of my more promising graduates who wasn’t quite ready for industry at the end of the course informed me that her mother had told her she would have to get a “real job” now. Man that hurts, and what a waist! It represents a huge misunderstanding of how technical and complicated animation is. We are talking about a craft that encompasses an in depth understanding physics and complicated computer programs and joins them in an unholy alliance with creativity and performance (acting). Its complicated and takes time, no-one ever learns everything there is to learn about animation in a whole lifetime, let alone in a 2 or 3 year course. Its what makes it so intensely frustrating and rewarding at the same time. The journey is the destination, the best thing parents can do to ensure their child’s success is to encourage and nurture a continuing, constructive and hard working mind set, that is worth a hundred times more than a piece of paper with questionable credibility in the industry.

If anyone is going to make it in animation it takes hunger, and passion by the bucket load, traits that are considered most uncool by the “crazy kids” these days, especially if there is a chance of pears seeing you fail or fall. Its easily the biggest problem I face as a teacher of animation, and used to face when managing employee’s. Those who don’t make it usually have the ability, but just don’t care enough, or run out of steam part way through the journey. As a teacher I try to set the tone, I’m loud and expressive, highly animated and passionate, dedicate large amounts of my spare time (I’m writing this on a Saturday arvo), I’m trying to set the tone, I'm saying, "this is what it takes!". Its trench warfare, teeth gritting, fist pumping, get knocked down and crawl back up again, don’t take no for an answer, screaming at the top of your lungs stuff. Students need to invest deeply of themselves if they are to have any chance of making it, its high risk but potentially intensely satisfying. It’s a big ask made easier if you’re supported by family and friends. If a student has this it will be apparent in the work they produce and show potential employers in their reel, then the qualification pales in significance.

Creative Commons Flickr image by terren in Virginia