Animation: A picture perfect career

Work in animation and illustration and you'll draw on all your creative skills and have a job that'll give you so many options, says Charlotte Moisson
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The Independent Online

Within the world of animation and illustration, there is a growing trend towards finding new ideas among graduates, which can only be good news for an industry which has historically commissioned only the well-established. For those who like the idea of having no boss, it may be a particularly appealing career since nearly half of all UK animators are freelance, and the figure is much higher for illustrators.

The animation industry operates across many sectors including television, feature films, commercials, websites, computer games and the web. Animated films are enjoying a huge popularity right now. The film industry took this on board in 2001 by introducing a whole new category at the Oscars, Best Animated Feature, which was won that year by Shrek. This is, of course, particularly good for the job market because animation is labour-intensive: Wallace and Gromit's The Curse of the Were-Rabbit took two years to complete with 30 animators - one animator producing only three seconds of film per day. What's more, the UK leads the world in pre-school storytelling and design - another area attracting investors.

Animation has three disciplines: 2D drawn or traditional; 2D computer-generated stop-frame; and 3D computer generated. Work involves developing animation, creating story boards, designing models, backgrounds, sets and characters, and the timing of a character's movements. Jobs can be found at production companies, studios, computer-generated postproduction houses, and computer games developers. In 2D animation, work begins as an "inbetweener" then progresses to a key framer. In 3D animation the start position is junior animator, then senior animator and finally design manager or art director.

Typical starting salaries are £12,000-£15,000, while freelance commissions start at £5 a frame and animators are paid from £300 a week for television work. But despite these initially low salaries, this changes with experience. Senior animators earn over £40,000-a-year, and experienced stop-frame animators are paid over £600 per week.

Illustrators use the technical side of drawing to communicate ideas. "The market for illustrators is broad, from editorial pieces for newspapers to character development for animated films and the games industry," says Silvia Baumgart, manager of the Association of Illustrators (AOI).

Indeed, markets include editorial for magazines, newspapers and comics, book publishing, design (greetings cards, home computers and board games) and advertising. Illustrators work with clients, editors and authors, building an understanding of styles, analysing a brief's specification, providing roughs for approval, using computer-aided design (CAD) packages, creating images by hand and pieces for self-promotion.

The current editorial rate is £250-£450 for a half-page illustration to £350-£800 for a page to £1,000 for an advert. Daily rates are in the region of £150 to £250. Freelance rates are higher, although agents (when used) may take up to 40 per cent commission. It's important to be aware that earnings in the first year can be unpredictable and many illustrators take part-time jobs elsewhere.

For both illustration and animation, BA (Hons) degrees ask for five GCSEs and two A-levels. For budding animators, subjects such as animation, graphic design/illustration, 3-D design, art and design at degree or HND level will stand you in particularly good stead. When choosing a course, check out Skill Set's website for a list of accredited degrees.

Entry without a degree or HND is unusual, but exceptions are made for those who are very talented. Students need to show a show-reel or portfolio, good networking skills and commitment to previous projects. A postgraduate qualification may also enhance employability. "Our MA takes graduates or those with three years' work experience. The course is practice-based with students making films, organising film screenings to potential employers, working with students from other disciplines and learning business skills," says Joan Ashcroft, professor of Animation at the Royal College of Art. "Graduates go on to setting up their own businesses, or form companies attached to larger organisations. Many work freelance and for agencies so that they can keep their own style. Animation is unpredictable and you have to be upbeat to cope with its instability. Work can be fragmented but you gain transferable skills working in different areas."

As for illustration, studying graphic design and illustration, fine art and visual art or fashion increases your chances of getting into the industry. However, qualifications are less important than illustrative skills. "The market is competitive and illustrators need to be good at self-promotion," says Baumgart. "It's the quality of work and presentation of your portfolio that wins commissions."

Candidates need to show evidence of their ability to market skills and knowledge of CAD techniques, including computer graphics and research skills. Work should be marketed to art directors, publishing editors or design studio managers, and students should remember that it generally takes illustrators up to six years to become established. Many illustrators stay freelance, some teach, some progress from freelance illustrator to art director or work as agents.

Animation studios and production companies are a growing source of employment. The games industry is expanding and includes companies such as Sony, EA Sports, Codemasters, Activision and Rockstar. US companies that recruit animators include Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, Disney and Trouble TV. Many animators also work as independent film-makers, producing their own short films and trying to win commissions from Channel 4 and the BBC.

Meanwhile, illustrators generally work as self-employed freelance artists but use agents to generate and market their work to advertising agencies and design consultancies. Other markets include corporate communications, children's books, film posters, billboards, greetings cards and government information services.

"We are looking for people who break the mould," says consultant Mark Shelkin from the Purple Consultancy. "Those who have qualifications as well agency experience - it's important that people can use their skill-set commercially. We place people in digital or advertising agencies, or get them a short-term contract animating part of a website."

According to the AOI, although the market has a much greater value now, with illustrators' fees generally increasing, there is more competition. This means that many are prepared to work for less, contributing to fee erosion. "Young people need to be aware of the need for business skills as well as the uncertainty of employment. If you only thrive in a secure environment this is not for you," says Roger McIntosh, an Animation Director but also careers adviser for Skill Set. "The animation industry needs those who are talented, patient and aware of what they are getting into. It has to be a passion."

But if it is your passion and you go in with your eyes open, you will reap the rewards. Children's book illustrator Helen Cann says, "I don't think there are many people who can honestly say they enjoy their work so much that it's not a struggle to get up in the morning. There's the constant excitement of starting a new project, of learning about something completely different."

CASE STUDY 1

Melanie Barnes studied Graphic Design at Leicester and Liverpool Polytechnics. She now works as a freelance illustrator primarily for a Manchester-based design agency, doing a variety of direct-marketing projects.

"Illustration appealed as I love bringing text to life with images. A freelance life is never straightforward though, and good business and motivation skills together with creativity, self-discipline and drive are essential.

"I studied illustration at degree level, and business skills were not taught; there was more focus on creativity. However, we were encouraged to undertake professional commissions towards the end of the course, which gave us some experience.

"My work tends to come via the advertising I do, as well as via my present job. The work experience that was the most beneficial for starting my career involved helping out in the offices of a London-based agency.

"I enjoy being my own boss and love the variety of work. There is pleasure in finishing a piece of work and knowing that you have done everything possible to complete the brief.

"My advice would be to think about why you want to illustrate, who you admire and also who you would like your work to be commissioned by. Always be professional and stick to your side of an agreement. Never promise artwork sooner than you are able to deliver. Be motivated and, finally, be thrilled when you see your work in print!"

CASE STUDY 2

Martin Peers has a German and Linguistics degree from Southampton University. He is a self-taught cartoonist studying 2D Animation at the Bristol School of Animation.

"Cartoons have always been a hobby. I did A-level Art but never thought of using my talent as a career. It was only in the last couple of years that I have decided to work freelance. After university I designed logos, advertisements and cartoons while travelling round South East Asia and New Zealand. I set up a website, www.toastcartoons.com, which included cartoons based on my travels.

"My first freelance job was a cartoon strip for the Student Times. I also worked for Christian Aid producing animated PowerPoint presentations. This summer I am studying 2D Animation to learn how to animate to an industry standard. The course is excellent for boosting my experience and contacts, learning new techniques and gaining an insight into the industry. It's a privilege to be accepted on the course as there were only seven places. By the end of it I will have a show-reel of my best animations for potential employers.

"Traditional 2D-drawn animation requires constant tweaking and re-design, and a great deal of patience. Once a sequence is animated there is a real sense of achievement seeing the characters come to life. Animation is all about learning techniques, which are continually refined and developed. A good animator can adapt skills to new techniques and cope with an increasing learning curve as tastes in animation change. One of the main ways of getting on is through contacts and networking. You have to keep pushing and trust in what you do, and get as much of your material out there as you can."

USEFUL INFO

Websites:

Skill Set - the national training organisation for broadcast, film, video and multimedia. See www.skillset.org for a list of accredited courses and advice.

The Association of Illustrators: www.theaoi.com

Animation UK: w ww.animationuk.com

Animated People: www.animatedpeople.com

Online directory of creative services: www.contactacreative.com

Publications: Writers & Artists Yearbook

Animation UK Directory

The Creative Handbook

The Association Of Ilustrators Annual

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