This is the final collection of anecdotes about my trying times between graduating from a completely useless accelerated animation program at a community college, and trying to find work with a crummy demo reel.
Flew the Co-Op
The first tip i give to many students is that if your school offers a co-op placement, be very careful where you place, because you’ll likely end up there for the next few years. This was true for me and many of my classmates. The girl who placed at her uncle’s trucking company is probably still working there to this day. My own three-month placement at an elementary school led to a job at a technology summer camp with the same board of education, which led to a year-long position as a technology tutor at another school within the board, which was probably followed up with another board summer camp, for all i can remember.
The last thing i wanted to do after spending sixteen years of my life in school was to end up back there.
Throughout this time, i really felt like i was stuck at these elementary schools, and i felt that teaching computer skills to kindergarten-to-eighth-grade kids was degrading. (In retrospect, i’m thankful for my teaching years. What, at the time, felt like a completely disconnected diversion from my chosen profession has turned out to be a complement to the work i currently do creating software for young children).
Do the Hustle
So during my stint at the schools, i was constantly out hustling and putting my demo reel into as many hands as possible. This was when there were actual hard costs to duping a VHS tape, and every time i parted with a reel, i heard that cash register “ca-CHING” sound.
Here’s four dollars for you to throw in the garbage. Enjoy.
One of the aspects of being a grad that i try not to forget is that unless your school did their job (and i guarantee you, they didn’t), you’re completely clueless about the local companies that could potentially hire you. You’ve heard of Disney and Dreamworks and Digital Domain, and once you’ve exhausted those choice leads, you’re in the dark. It’s very difficult to apply to places when you don’t know they exist. (This is why today, i try to help grads out by creating things like the Ontario Interactive directory.)
i clearly remember three crummy experiences from my life as a recent grad – three indignities, each suffered at the hand of a different villain: The Doubter, The Liar, and The Cheapskate.
When you apply for jobs out of school, nobody replies. That’s why i try to reply to everyone who applies to work at Untold Entertainment, even if it’s just to say ‘no thanks’, which it often is. Sometimes i’ll get applications that are so misguided or terrible that i’ll respond with (hopefully gentle) advice on how the applicant can improve the offering, because i hate to think of that applicant continually wasting everyone’s time (and his own). If an application has bad grammar and spelling errors (especially if the applicant is a programmer), i’ll usually speak up. If it’s a 3D artist applying to our 2D shop, another common error, i’ll say something. If someone applies with a form letter saying “i love your studio’s work”, i’ll call bullshit and ask the applicant to name something we’ve done.
But i try, through all of this, not to be a giant dick about it. Because one Wednesday afternoon many many years ago, i found myself in the Hudsucker Proxy-esque office of The Doubter, and i don’t wish to inflict his treatment of me onto others.
The Doubter was a high-ranking guy at CBC. He needed someone to develop props for the Canadian “comedy” series Royal Canadian Air Farce. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Air Farce is to comedy as a plate of steaming corn-speckled dog turds are to food. And here, for once, i do not exaggerate.
Air Farce cast members pose in front of the chicken cannon. Stop, stop! My face is hurting from laughing!
The job was this: let’s say the wacky Air Farce cast wanted to shoot their Gallagher-style chicken cannon at the target of the week – say, rude drivers or the Ontario Premier. They need a prop image to put on the chicken cannon easel. CBC was hiring a prop artist to create that image. Or if the cast needs a prop newspaper or a set needs window signage, the prop artist creates it. On a computer. Using Adobe Illustrator.
i’d used Illustrator in school, a whole lot. i was the top of my class at using the software, and was regularly praised by the Illustrator teacher. My demo reel did not showcase any Illustrator work (except for a few textures here and there), because why would it? It was an animation reel. i popped the tape into The Doubter’s VCR and showed him the reel.
After it had finished playing, The Doubter tented his fingers and looked apprehensive. “Hmmm … yeah. This job is for someone who knows how to use Illustrator,” he said. “i know how to use Illustrator,” i said. “i used it throughout my program. i’m very good with it.”
“Your tape doesn’t show any Illustrator work.” “Yes, that’s true, but i DO know how to use the software. The job posting wasn’t very specific – otherwise, i would have brought more Illustrator work to show you.”
And then he paused, looked at me skeptically, and said “Hmmmmyeahhh. Even though you say you know how to use Illustrator, i don’t think you know how to use Illustrator.”
Then, he twisted the knife: “Your portfolio makes it seem as though you’d like to become an animator. Have you considered taking animation at Sheridan?”
“i … ” i stammered a little. “i just came from school. i did attend Sheriden, and Seneca College after that. i just completed an entire animation program. i’m OUT of school. i’m looking for a JOB.”
“Hmmmm….well,” he purred. “Good luck in your search.”
Of course, hindsight it 20/20 – if i could go back, as people later suggested, i would have said “i don’t know how to use Illustrator, eh? Put me on a machine NOW, bitch. i’m about to ROCK this.”
Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Find out as much as you can about a position before showing up for an interview. If the posting is vague, a phone call is not out of line. 3. It’s okay to suggest that someone improve the quality of their portfolio, but suggesting the applicant go back to school is insulting.
The most audacious interviewer i met was named The Liar. He actually liked my work and brought me back for a second interview. During that interview, he marched me around his studio and introduced me to everyone, saying “This is Ryan – we’re bringing him on as our newest animator.” Then he SHOWED ME where i would be sitting, and said “This is where you’ll be sitting.” i went home after that interview, and despite frequent follow-ups, i never heard back from him.
Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Don’t listen to a word anyone says until there is INK on PAPER, and even then, be wary.
The Cheapskate worked in the interactive department at Much Music, which was Canada’s answer to MTV before MTV Canada, which is Canada’s answer to TLC. The Cheapskate wanted me to do some interface design for some sort of music player. i worked remotely, having never been in a client/freelancer relationship before. i also had no idea what proper UI design was all about – this was years before it was a subject Ontario colleges would think to teach. i didn’t do a very good job, and i worked for a few weeks on it before The Cheapskate said that it was all going in the wrong direction and he needed to “cash out”. i felt absolutely sick making out my invoice for my work that he obviously wasn’t going to use.
The bottom line on that invoice? $120.
Lessons Learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. What seems like a lot of money to a recent grad usually isn’t a lot of money to someone at a large media shop. 3. If freelancers need a little hand-holding due to inexperience and because their schools didn’t do their bloody jobs training them, be gentle. That’s why you’re paying ten bucks an hour instead of forty.
The caveat to this is if the current year is greater than 2000, don’t hand-hold for NOTHIN’. i recently had a graduate working with me on a game and she didn’t know how to write an invoice, so she asked me instead of doing a Google search. This, dear friends, is a no-no. Don’t embarrass yourself. Type the phrase “how to write an invoice” in the Google search field and save us all some embarrassment.
She was far from being the first graduate from a particular Ontario college who didn’t know how to use Flash or write an invoice. i actually wound up writing to the school and requesting they get their shit together and properly train their students in this.
Righting Wrongs at $0/hr
During this tricky time in my life, i would have killed for an opportunity like the one i currently provide to students and grads. i don’t pay grads, because they usually suck, and i don’t end up using most of what they produce. i mostly put them on make-work projects, like populating the Ontario Interactive site that i mentioned above. But they get to sit in a studio and see me struggle through client feedback and revision requests. i show them the financial realities of running a studio. i show them my invoicing process. i talk to them about my strategies for keeping the lights on at Untold, both short term and long term. It’s a very valuable opportunity (despite what certain people have to say about it). When i was a recent graduate, that’s all i ever needed – just to be able to sit in a studio and get a feel for what was expected of me if i was going to contribute value to the industry.
And i halped!
Much of how i conduct myself these days, from the way i act at industry mixers to the internships and mentoring i provide through Untold Entertainment, are due to the lousy treatment i received after i graduated. It’s a tough time, especially as Ontario’s lacklustre college system continues to churn out a gross number of poorly-trained graduates well beyond what the local (or even national or international) video game industry can bear. i only hope that i’m able to ease the passage a little bit for students and recent grads, and that in return, i am simply able to enjoy the bounty of their sweet virgin bumcakes.
Further reading: TENure.