Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Keith Lango dropping some knowledge

Keith Lango made some useful posts over at 11sec, since he didn't throw them up on his blog too I'm copy pasting em in here so I don't lose em.

on building a team

I have no idea if this is interesting to folks, but I've never read this process described anywhere else so I'll offer it up here....

I've had to assemble an animation crew on more than one occasion. Here's how I (and many others who've shared this responsibility) approach it:
No budget exists that will allow you to build a team of 100% 15yr+ pros to get your film done. Every animator on a film needs to contribute footage, but not all footage is created equal. Many shots frankly don't need a superstar, and other shots can't be done by anybody less than amazing. You build your team in sections accordingly. The percentages may fluctuate some, but in general here's how you build a team, going from most expensive to least expensive team members--

First you try to find a few top of the line killer animators (most lower budget films can't afford or attract these guys, though). These are not necessarily famous or well known animators, either. A lot of amazing animators aren't internet superstars. But these people are so good they need no hand holding and next to zero creative supervision. Almost every shot they do comes back beyond good- it's fantastic. Their choices and execution are sterling. These guys often have 15 or more years, but not always. If you can get two or three of these kinds of animators you're in good shape because the toughest, most important scenes can get done for your film. It's terrible feeling to have a scene in your project and to look at your roster and not know if anybody could nail it 100%. Next, you get your solid senior level people. Try to build at least 20-30% of your team out of these guys if you can afford it. Some of these will end up being your team's leads and supervisors. These are pro's pros. Good footage, decent quality, low headaches. They know their jobs and do them. They're not superstars, but they don't drop the ball either. No bad shots, lots of good shots and occasionally they nail a shot so sweetly that you just smile. Typically 7-10+ years experience, but a lot of career animators with 15-20 years or more live in this space, too. (they've settled into their careers and survived even if they never rise to the level of an Eric Goldberg). If in this senior level group you can find one or two footage beasts then you're very happy. A footage beast is an animator who can literally go twice as fast as the average animator on the team and give you footage that is still equal in quality to your average team member. Guys like that are a Godsend, especially toward the end of production. When you can get 9-10 seconds of film quality animation per week out of a guy you are a happy, happy anim director. Then you try to get about 30-35% of your team made up from young pros. Often they'll have 3-5 years of character anim experience with at least one film-like project under their belt. Even if they've been in CG or the anim biz for longer they've only got these 3-5 yrs doing character animation fulltime. They are experienced enough to rely on (mostly), but not experienced enough to always give you top rate performances or full footage quotas. If you're lucky in general they will be decent, but they are still developing their skills and workflow. Occasionally you'll get one who is dropping the ball on a shot and the shot needs to be re-assigned. Sometimes they'll miss a deadline or deliver a merely acceptable shot. On the rare occasion they give you something inspired, but they have a hard time repeating that success regularly. These are your meat and potatoes guys- a big portion of a film's footage gets done with these guys. Sadly this is often the highest point a LOT of animators reach in their careers. They end up with a few credits to their name but as time goes by they can't compete and they filter out of the animation biz. This is the group that churns the most. Some stick and make it to the senior level, a lot of others don't. OK, then to fill in the remainder of your staff you look for junior level people. Fresh graduates, people making their first jump into film from games or commercials, background or technical animators (people to do things like prop or set animation, crowd scenes, etc.). These people do the stuff that don't require top level talent or skill. It's a waste of resources to put a superstar animator doing a shot of a cart rolling down a hill or an object falling over (for example).

Just as no professional sports team can afford to hire only all-pro superstars, no animation team can, either. Plus the typical film has 1200-1400 shots. Only a few of those need superstars. A lot of them need good senior pros. The bulk of them need only adequate work and the rest are so rudimentary in nature that it's a waste to have anybody but a junior level person doing the work. And yes, this is the way it works everywhere. The only significant difference between one studio or the next is the percentages and the relative skills of the juniors.

So what does this mean for you and your career? Pretty simple: climb the ladder I've just described. If you want to have a decent career for longer than a few projects then you'll need to rise into that senior level group at the minimum. If you can be a footage beast that's a huge bonus. If you can expand your skillset into other disciplines like rigging that's even better. If you can handle complex action scenes and subtle action scenes with equal ability then you're good to go. Once in that senior group you can decide if you want to move into more managerial positions like lead, supervisor, animation director, etc. Those managerial positions can be fairly fluid, too. Move into and out of them as you or the studio needs/desires. The occasional few move on to superstar animator status or become directors (but being a director is often more a political skill than an animation one). Of course many people cross over into other aspects of the biz, but by then they're not really animators anymore- they used animation as a bridge to something else. Which is also completely viable. Competition is always fiercest at the bottom levels, but that doesn't mean it gets easy later on.

and on rigging
Break out the shapes into sub-groupings. Rather than have the body modifiers AND the facial expression targets all pipe into the primary mesh in a blendhspape node with a zillion targets (or worse have multiple blendshape nodes that will fight for deformation order) break things up into their own sub-rigs and then pipe those results back into your main mesh. Have the body modifiers affect a duplicate mesh, then have the facial targets modify a second duplicate mesh, then pipe those dupe meshes back to your primary mesh in a single bs node. That way the primary mesh only has one blendshape node on it with very few targets (body mod, mouth expression, eye expressions, etc.- all of which are always set to 1) and all your working blendshapes are quarantined off onto their own duplicated meshes. Your animation controls will then drive those targets off on the sub-rigs (all this would exist in the same file, you'd just hide and lock off the sub-rigs). This separation will allow for the expressions and the body mods to play nice together since they'll all be piped back into one blendshape node, but they can be worked on and built in sections (even by multiple people). Not sure I explained it in a way that makes sense- some things like this are easier to show than explain in text.

and on wages
It's been a while since I've really had to find out all the wages, but here's a brain dump of my understandings based on personal experiences, conversations with friends and co-workers through out the biz over the years. I'm sure that people could find cause to quibble, and some numbers may have shifted a bit here and there- but in general I think these assessments are in the ballpark. These numbers are for 'just animators', not supervisors or hybrid TD/animators. Those folks make more and are, in my opinion, a different breed of staffer. Anyhow, onward...

Dreamworks in the Bay Area often makes a standard offer in the $70k range for character animators. If you want more you pretty much need to negotiate for it, even if you have previous experience. The good thing is experienced people often are able to successfully negotiate some more. DW in LA is a union shop and they pay union scale, plus more for experienced people. DW in La is generally considered to be a good paying shop. For info on the union wage scale do a search for "Local 839 wage survey". Journeyman animator wages for union studios is low to mid $70's last I knew. However if you're younger you won't get offered a journeyman position, but a junior offer instead. That's somewhere in the $60's. If you have previous film experience and work for Sony in Culver City you can expect to make about $80-90k, more with OT (and you will work OT). Senior level people can do better than $110k. However if you're fresh out of school the same Sony will start you in the high $30k's or low $40k's. SPI's New Mexico unit will generally pay about $10k less than their LA studio for the same person, unless they are senior, in which case they might pay more to lure you to that one horse town in the desert. Now that's not a knock on Albuquerque- I think it's a great place to live. I love visiting there. But there's only one studio ('horse') there- Sony. If they go under or the project ends and you get laid off then you need to move. Moving costs money- lots of money. Even if your new job pays some relocation costs, nobody ever pays 100%. Moving eats into your wages more than you can imagine. Ok, back to the original point... Rule of thumb says that R&H and Digital Domain in LA are usually a little under Sony, but still competitive. Disney is under the same union deal as DW in Glendale and their wages are pretty similar, maybe a tiny bit lower. They used to overpay for talent, but not so much anymore. They still have a very few superstar big money guys like Andreas Dejas (who makes several hundreds of thousands per year), but they don't do that for normal folks like you and I. Pixar doesn't pay that great, generally- especially when you factor in the cost of living in the Bay Area. Last I knew animators there do between $60 to $85k, depending on experience. Key people get more, but that's true everywhere. The hard part is being one of those 'key people' at a given studio. Typically it means you've been there forever, are supervising, are a major superstar talent, or have other core skills they don't want to do without (ex: you can also do TD or story work). Haven't heard in ages about ILM, but the general word on the street is Bay Area studios don't pay as well as LA studios. This may or may not be absolutely true, but it's the conventional wisdom. I'm sure exceptions abound. ILM is also a union shop, but it has a different contract than LA area union shops. Smaller LA studios have a harder time competing with the big ticket studios for experienced talent, so they get younger guys on the rise or folks from overseas. Blur used to have folks from the $40's up through the $70's for the more experienced guys. Probably more by now due to inflation and whatnot. Other small to mid-sized boutique shops will have similar wage scales. ReelFX (in Dallas) was similar. When I was there as anim director I was generally given a budget to hire experienced animators in the $60's. I had to really push the book-keepers to get the money to pay anybody $70k. Young guys out of school typically were offered high $30k's to the low $40's. They may have loosened that up a bit since I left since they seem to have some higher profile work the last few years. When DNA was still alive and doing the Jimmy Neutron TV shows they paid in the $40's to $50's for animators, but when they did Ant Bully feature film they bumped people up to $80's-$100's. To recruit more experienced people they had to pay even more. As noted above in my thoughts on Sony in NM, studios outside the main industry centers like LA or SF will usually have to offer more to lure senior level talent. $115+ normally. But those positions rarely last very long. Blue Sky used to start people in the low to mid $50k's, but for experience would pay in the 70's. Fresh out of school they'd offer in the $40's. Those numbers have probably gone up a bit since then (this was some time back). Wages overseas in Asia are generally less than half that of the US it seems (some places like Australia seem to be a little better- but still not on par with the US). WETA in NZ pays well, but they're pretty unique over there. Framestore in UK pays OK as well, but again they seem to be unique. Film studios in Europe seem to pay along the lines of the lower end LA shops from what I can gather. Globally film animation has transitioned to the point where pretty much all jobs are temporary. So the wages in the bigger shops have settled up a little bit in order to attract experienced people, but the typical person will have to offset those numbers with regular periods of unemployment and moving costs. $7000/month doesn't add up to as much when you factor in being out of work for 2 months of the year and you need to spend $3000 or so in miscellaneous moving costs to get your family to the next town. On the lower end it's pretty ravenous and wages are pressuring downward. The schools are pumping out a lot of candidates and it's a buyer's market for junior talent.

Games I know less about. EA used to pay experienced senior level film people absolutely crazy money to get them to come over. That was in the early 2000's. Not sure they still do that or not. Typically a game studio will pay in the $40's to $50's for animation talent, $60's, sometimes even $70's and higher for experienced talent. Like film, some game studios are cheaper, some more generous. I don't pretend to know who is cheap or not, though. I've heard Bungie pays well- typically on par with film. Seems UK game shops pay on the lower end of the game scale, while Australian game studios seem to be right in the middle of the range. I get these notions from my previous attempts to recruit animators and riggers out of those regions, so I had a decent idea what they were making. Outside of that I don't know as much about games. The rule of the land in both film & games though seems to be ramp up and ramp down. Animators are interchangeable cogs in the machinery of content creation, so the typical business approach of trying to get that commodity at the lowest possible price rules the day. To break outside of that cycle you need to find a studio that thinks about and assesses the value of their staff from a more long term return on investment approach. Honestly there just aren't very many of those kinds of places around.

On a personal note, my first ever full time job in Cg animation was supposed to pay me $24,000, but because it was a start up I was only paid $12,000 per year until the company hit some sales milestones. I had to bring my own computer to work. No kidding. Of course we never hit those and the company went under. I worked the last two months without pay. Welcome to the industry, kid. That was 1994 and I was 25 years old. From '95 to '97 I did mostly freelance CG generalist work and a lot of other non-animation industry jobs. Animation was not something that I could support my family on, but I kept working at it, getting better. My next fulltime job in CG animation paid me $28,000 (for real) in '97, but they quickly gave me a raise to $33k after 6 months of seeing my work. By the way, my daily commute for that job was 72 miles. One way. No kidding. When I went to Big Idea in early 1999 they paid me $50k to start as a Cg artist/animator. That was the first time I didn't need a second job and my wife did not need to work fulltime for us to make it as a young family of 4. I had been doing CG art and animation for 6 years by then- all self taught. 6 years from deciding "This is what I want to do for a living." until the point where I could actually really make a living doing it. ** Let that sink in. ** And the funny thing, my path was not unique. I know a LOT of other people who had to walk similarly long roads to get to be where they are today. I remember when I worked with Aaron Hartline back at Big Idea. He had drive and perseverance way more than he had skill back then. Didn't matter. He stuck with it, did whatever he needed to do and ended up where he wanted to be. Mark Behm struggled with developing his skills on crappy low end work for years just like I did before he came to Big Idea (which, by the way, was definitely not the 'big time'), and then after that went to Blue Sky. The names and the stories could go on. When I see people take an online course for animation for 18 months and then talk about giving up because they can't get a job right away I just shake my head. They'd never have made it back in the 90's. Making it in this business takes a lot of time, a lot of sweat, a lot of patience and most of all- a lot of perseverance. There are very few overnight wonders in animation. The rest of us take the long way

1 comment:

Frank said...

Good catch Alonso.