How to get a job as an animator in games...
The competition for jobs in the gaming industry is getting increasingly fierce (many companies receiving 100's of applicants for a single position), yet many applicants consistently make the same mistakes which hurt their chances of landing the gig. I'm going to cover some of the more common mistakes I come across, as well as provide some insight into what I (and most others) look for when reviewing an applicant.
There's no shortage of cover letter, resume, and interview "help" articles and services out there, but anything that really covers it from start to finish with information that is specific to games (and more specifically, game animation) is scarce. Much of the advice offered for cover letters and CV's is geared towards a corporate position and the demo reel direction is often targeted at a job in film or TV, which could put animators at a disadvantage.
I'll run through this in chronological order from a hiring perspective: cover letter, resume, demo reel, interview. So, let's get started!
I'll be honest, up until recently I didn't write cover letters. They were never requested and rarely read. They seem to be coming back into fashion lately, though, and as part of a well presented application, deserve some attention.
I'm going to say this a few times throughout this article, as it's one of my biggest pet peeves and a mistake I see in at least 80% of the applications that come across my desk. NAMING CONVENTIONS! We make software for a living and as such, are detail oriented and slaves to organization. Especially naming conventions! Don't name your cover letter "cover letter.docx" or "COMANY NAME - cover.pdf". In the folder full of potential applicants sorted alphabetically, those will get lost in the shuffle. I have to open and re-read it to find out who it belongs to (and probably rename it as well, so I don't have to do this again in the future). Don't make people do extra work to hire you.
Here are the three rules you should follow:
- Your name is part of it (preferably first, as this will group all of your documents together when sorted)
- The document's name/type is called out (resume, cover letter, references, etc.)
- NO SPACES! Use underscores, dashes, or capitals to separate words visually. If I send a link to your resume via email, the link will be broken by your space.
A couple of examples of what that should look like:
There are a couple of exceptions. First, if a company has specifically requested on their site that you name it a certain way, do that instead. Second, if your cover letter is submitted in the form of an email or web-based form. In those cases, make sure to get your full name in the subject field (and possibly the position you're after too) to make it easier to find on their end.
So, what should be in the cover letter? I'm sorry to say there is no right answer here as it's a subjective topic. Generally speaking, it should be short, flattering (to the company or project), confident (without being cocky), and highlight what you bring to the company/project. Make sure your contact info is on there and easy to read/find. If possible, maintain some kind of design continuity with your resume and other submissions (contact info in the same place, same font and layout, etc.). If the job posting described some specific skills and requirements (they usually do), pick a couple of key ones and illustrate how you meet those criteria.
What I'm looking for here is a sense of your personality and your motivation for wanting to work at the company in this role. I have never heard of someone getting turned down for a job based on what they said in their cover letter, so I wouldn't sweat this one too much. Just make sure it represents you authentically, has been spell checked and proof read by at least a couple of people, is named correctly, and isn't more than a page in length.
First off, name that resume properly! Follow the three naming rules above and just change the words "cover letter" to "resume" and you're all set.
A recent study suggests that recruiters spend an average of six seconds reviewing a resume before putting it on the "keep" pile or the "trash" pile. I tend to spend a bit more time than this, but I can also assume that the applicant has made it past the HR filter and is worth considering in more detail. I imagine that six seconds isn't too far off for some of the more actively hiring companies. Regardless, this means you need to use your time wisely.
I love facts and data, and the study suggests that 80% of that six seconds is spent looking at these six things:
- Current Title/Company
- Previous Title/Company
- Previous Position Start and End Dates
- Current Position Start and End Dates
So make those things easy to find and read!
Besides the six above, the main thing I want to know is: What do you think were the biggest accomplishments in your previous job(s) and what did you do to add value to the team/project/company.
In the spirit of keeping your resume easy to digest, do whatever you can to keep it to one page. Six seconds is not enough time to read two or more pages and 90% of employers will probably never read those extra pages anyways (they might even leave them on the printer!). Keep it short, keep me interested, and leave me wanting to find out more.
A great tip I received from fellow #AltDevBlogADay author Alex Darby is to have a few people skim through your cover letter and resume quickly and summarize it back to you. This will give you a good idea of the type of impression you are making and what your strong and weak presentation points are.
Beyond that, try to avoid using photos or getting too fancy with the design. You will use up your valuable eyeball time on that stuff (up to 19%, apparently!). That said, make it appealing to look at and comfortable to read. I have put down many resumes because they were complete messes and too difficult to get any information from. Here is a great collection of minimal designs that read well and look nice. Deviant Art has tons so check there too!
Once again, name that bad boy properly! Don't slouch on what is the most important asset when looking for work and often the only thing being passed around the studio for consideration.
ALSO, make sure you have your name and contact info (email is good enough) at both ends of your reel. Make it easy to find and see.
It goes without saying that content is king here. Always choose quality over quantity. I try to make it a point to watch all the reels that cross my desk in their entirety, but sometimes they are just too much. I don't need to see every little thing you have ever animated; only the things you are most proud of. I'd rather you leave me wanting to see more, than the feeling of seeing too much. This is a tricky balance so my best advice would be to seek out feedback on it as often and as many times as possible (something you should be doing with every piece of animation anyways).
Years ago, I had edited together what I thought was a totally sweet montage of awesome animation and quirky and humorous clips from my favorite 80's movies. I thought that no company could resist its charm and I would be beating away offers with a stick. After showing it to some people whose feedback I respected (they all hated it) I re-edited it to something more agreeable and the world was a safer place. If you have a limited arsenal of people to get feedback from, reach out to leads and senior animators in the industry. You should be able to turn up a few dozen in no time on LinkedIn and I'm sure many would be happy (flattered, even) to throw a little critique your way. Bonus points for making a new contact in a very network-centric industry!
Now, that stuff has all been said before many times. What I want to cover is some stuff I don't hear being told to animators enough. The kind of stuff I am looking for when watching a demo reel.
First, and I'm just going to come right out and say it, it's ok to have mocap on your demo reel. BUT, I want to see what you did TO that mocap if you want to impress me. Take a basic walk loop and adjust it a few different ways to make it have a limp, look more masculine, more feminine, have some emotion...the possibilities are endless. Maybe grab a big action shot and make it more exaggerated with stronger posing. Show me the before and after. There is no avoiding the fact that we use mocap as one of our main tools to create game content, show me you are comfortable using it and bending it to your will. I need people who are comfortable with and good at using mocap. This is a great example of a demo reel using mocap, explaining what is and isn't capture.
Now, that said, do NOT try to use mocap and claim it as keyframed animation. I, and many others, have been using mocap for a long time and can tell the difference 99% of the time. I have had people actually claim in an interview that certain scenes were keyframed when the movement was clearly full of mocap artifacts and impossibly detailed movement compared to the rest of their work. You just end up looking silly and I would be far more impressed if you told me about how you used this tool to achieve your shot and the challenges you faced doing so.
Adding music is another subjective topic. Personally, I have had some really great conversations in interviews about someone's choice in music. It tells me a lot about your personality and, ultimately, that's what the interview is really for anyways. One of my current animators had fantastic animation and effects on his reel, but I just HAD to have him in for an interview so I could ask him what the hell he was thinking putting explicitly hard-core gangster rap on it. It was a funny interview and he has turned out to be one of my favorite people I have ever worked with.
Some people suggest having nothing on there, thinking that it detracts from the animation. I say go for it. Just make sure the soundtrack dips sufficiently when the dialogue is happening. Don't worry; I won't turn you away because you put Lady Gaga on there.
A note on rigs: I, like everyone else, have become really tired of seeing the same few characters in every demo reel (I'm looking at you two, Bishop and Norman). I also understand how limited the selection is out there and how much time it takes to make and rig your own character. Hell, I'm in the same boat as you guys. I have asked every character artist I have ever worked with if they had a character I could animate with and have always come up empty handed. You should be spending your time getting better at your craft. It takes several lifetimes to master animation; I don't expect you to be a master character artist and rigger on top. So, I'm not going to write you off because you're using a standard school rig (and anyone out there who does needs to get their priorities straight), but it is always refreshing to see something new in a reel, even if the character is a little rough. Like my old animation director was fond of saying, "A good animator should be able to do good animation on anything".
Besides solid character movement, what I am also looking for is a good understanding of staging, composition, timing (from an editing standpoint), and at least a basic understanding of how to use a camera. These are all key skills in games and will become even more relevant as we continue to push the medium. Storytelling and communication are the main pillars of gameplay and cinematics and these are some of the tools to achieve them.
For film, you are highly specialized as an animator. You're there to follow very specific direction to execute someone else's vision. Camerawork, lighting, and editing are usually someone else's job. In games, animators tend to wear several hats and work a little less specifically directed. Often an animator is responsible for an entire section of the game, from inception to implementation. The way the engines and tool sets are being engineered, animators are fast becoming "movement designers" and not simply content creators. Showing you are a well-rounded artist will help you immensely.
At the end of the day, great animation is great animation. BUT, a well-polished, lit, and properly edited demo reel with good animation will always win over a default-rendered, grey, static demo reel with good animation.
Here's the thing, when I look at the whole package (cover letter, resume, demo reel), I take time out to consider the presentation and level of finish of the whole thing. I expect animators to be empowered and to take ownership over their respective areas. How you have represented yourself is indicative of how you will deliver an assignment on the project. The level of care you have taken to present yourself is equal to or greater than the level of care you will take when executing a task. This may or may not be 100% fact, but it is what you are communicating to me in your application. If it's sloppy and unorganized, I can only assume you conduct your work the same way as well. Consider this when submitting your application to a company.
For inspiration, check out THIS channel on Vimeo.
Understand going into the interview that the process itself is fundamentally flawed. Most of the people conducting the interviews have not been trained to do so and it's a poor way to gauge your ability to do the job. Still, It's part of the process (you have to meet the team sometime), so you might as well be as prepared as possible going in.
There are two main types of people you're going to run into in these interviews and both are trying to figure out the answer to two basic questions: Out of all the people applying, are you the best qualified to do the job, and are you the best fit with the current company and team culture. It's a balance of the two factors and the person with the highest score in each column gets the job. Personally, I would rate the importance 60% ability and 40% personality. Every company places different values on this though, and that's where preparation comes in. A company like Valve probably places much higher value on personality over immediately applicable skills than a company like EA, for instance. It does have some wiggle room. A team will usually make allowances for some personality issues with a person who is exceptionally skilled and someone who is really easy to work with and takes direction well can be lacking a little in the skills department (I have found it's more often the former, so don't assume your witty personality will get them to overlook the fact that you can't animate).
Who are these two types?
First, there's the hyper-aggressive interviewer who, subconsciously or not, is trying to get you to fail at the interview. They try to overpower you with ridiculously overwritten questions and problems, trying to trip you up and find your weak points. My best advice on dealing with this type is to remain as positive as possible. I spent several years doing customer service work before games and you learn quickly that you have to fight fire with water, not more fire. Preparation and a proactive attitude are of high value in this industry and ultimately what this person is after anyways. I'm not saying to turn every possible question into rainbows and kittens; you need to remain truthful and honest in your answers. Just remain upbeat and try to find the positive takeaway from each blemish they bring up. The only lessons we learn are through mistakes, right?
The other kind of interviewer is also, thankfully, the majority of people you will encounter. These are people who are clearly not trained in it, don't have a lot of pre-written questions or standard "where do you see yourself in five years" or "what's your biggest flaw" type questions. What they're after is to gauge how you will fit with the rest of the team. You won't get to this point if your reel didn't demonstrate your potential to do the job anyways, so that's the only missing piece of information. You are likely going to spend more time with these people than your friends and family, so it only makes sense that their primary concern is if you will all get along.
Again, the best thing you can do is be as ready as possible for whatever you encounter. How do we prepare? As I mentioned earlier, I am an info junky. I like to go in with as much information as possible. When I have an interview with a company, I will spend at least one evening (often many evenings) finding out everything I can about the company, their employees, their products, and their culture and values.
If you aren't familiar with the games the company makes and don't have time to play them (I have a family, I totally understand this), YouTube is your friend. You can watch a full play through of almost any game out there and become well-versed in all of a company's products in relatively little time.
Start with the company's website. Check out their "About" page, media pages, and the staff page if they have one. Look for interviews available online. Even press they did for game releases or E3 can give you a useful look at the type of people who work there and what their values are.
If you can, find out who you will be interviewing with and get a little info on them as well. I'm not saying you should e-stalk someone to the point of knowing their kid's name and wife's social security number (and please, if you do happen to find out some personal stuff, don't bring it up. It's just creepy), but a little background information can be really useful. I have, on several occasions, filled dead spots in interviews by striking up conversations about common backgrounds, mutual acquaintances and so on. Don't think for a second that they aren't doing it to you.
That leads me to a small side note. It should be common sense, but be careful about what you put out into the internet. A company will research you before deciding to talk to you. Google yourself and look at the findings objectively. Would you want to hire yourself? In my opinion, you don't have to be a saint online. Having an opinion and a personality are requirements in my book, so use your own best judgement on what crosses the "bad taste" line.
Speaking of personality, I know several incredible animators who are slow to get excited and to someone just meeting them, come across as uninterested. They have been passed over for jobs and companies have missed out on potentially amazing co-workers. It's not that you shouldn't be yourself in the interview, but be aware of how your personality might come across to complete strangers. Even saying something like "Listen, I'm a super mellow guy and I usually come across as disinterested to people who don't know me well. I am very interested in this position and I wanted to make sure you didn't get the wrong message."
When I interview someone, I'm really looking for a few key things that are important to me as a lead. How much direction did you receive to create the work on your reel (how much of that work is your own and how much required some heavy hand holding), how do you take criticism and feedback (I might even give you some in the interview to see how you respond), and are we going to get along when we're working 60+ hours a week together. If you've got a good personality, a bit of talent, and a proactive attitude, I would be more than happy to work with you.
Lastly, don't come to the interview empty handed. Bring a few extra copies of your cover letter and resume (in case someone hasn't seen them yet or forgot to print them out). Also, bring a thumb drive with a copy of your reel on it. As I said at the start, don't make people do extra work to hire you. Bonus extras to bring: artwork, storyboards (I LOVE animators who can storyboard well), work in progress, reference videos of yourself or others you used for the shots on your reel (again, I love this stuff), or anything else you've done. Everyone loves to work with and be around people who are passionate about something. Bring that to the interview.
Be prepared, be organized, be polished, and be yourself. I hope we get a chance to work together someday. Good luck!