The Seven Deadly Job Search Sins
Over the years, I’ve given guidance to hundreds of students and colleagues in search of jobs as digital artists, and I’ve seen many mistakes that could easily have been avoided. I’ll discuss some of these common blunders here and offer suggestions on how to avoid them when you’re searching for work—whether it is your first CG position or the next rung up on your career ladder.
Each of the seven items I discuss in this article are key to landing a gig in this field and are the most common areas where I have seen artists go wrong. You may have personal goals and restrictions that may not allow you to be as flexible in each area described, and that’s OK. The goal is to be open to each as much as possible for the maximum number of job opportunities.
Sin #1: Homesickness
I’ve seen some amazingly talented artists go jobless by limiting themselves to one city when looking for work. Especially early on in your career, you want to be as open as possible to relocating for work.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m very vocal about how much I love Texas and how proud I am to be a Texan. But I left Texas back in 2000 to work for a game company up north. A great opportunity came up that fit with my career goals and I took it, although it meant leaving the motherland.
Your current location will determine the likelihood that you’ll have to move in order to get work. Someone living in Los Angeles, California, is probably less likely to have to relocate compared to someone living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Unless of course you happened to live in California when DNA Productions was hiring artists to work on Jimmy Neutron in Texas.
Remember that you don’t have to move to a given city for the rest of your life. It might just be a temporary relocation, or you might find that you really enjoy living there. A friend of mine from Texas moved up north and was surprised to find that he liked it better. Shame on him.
Being open to relocation greatly increases the pool of jobs that you can apply for and could speed up the job search process. Remember that it’s all about location, location, location.
Sin #2: Greed
We all want to make as much money as possible, but we need to enter into each job search with a realistic idea of what is possible for our current experience level. I’ve seen a recent graduate turn down an amazing first job because he heard that the starting salary was $1,000 a week but was only offered $850. Even if this offer was more than he had ever made before, he was “insulted” and turned down the position.
On the other hand, I’ve seen graduates go to work for companies for free as interns, just to get a foot in the door, and weeks later be offered staff positions working on feature films. Have patience, work hard, and prove to the studio that you’re worth more. Don’t be in such a rush to make your millions, and you’ll get there much faster.
Something I’ve heard more times than I’d like to admit is, “I can’t afford to work for that little pay!” Meanwhile, the artist goes several months, sometimes more, without a job in the field. Ask yourself whether you can afford to not be working at all. Every position you accept builds your resume and your demo reel for the next position. With realistic budgeting, you might be surprised at how far your money will take you. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary when trying to attain your goals. Peanut butter and bread can go a long way (for those with peanut allergies, it’s Ramen noodles).
Being realistic about the wages you can expect will help get you into a job quicker than holding out for the massive salary that may not come your way early on in your career. Wages and experience are directly linked.
Sin #3: Inflexibility
When I first saw what Will Vinton Studios was doing with computer animation, I knew I had to dive head first into 3D. My main passion has always been character work, but there was little or no work like that in Houston at the time, so I spent a few years creating animation for the oil and gas industry.
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but I was excited that I was being paid to grow my 3D skills, and it quickly led to the character work I was after. Too often I see artists pass up great opportunities while they sit and wait for the ultimate job to come their way. Take, for example, the guy who has turned down more offers than you can imagine, holding out for a character modeling job, only to end up unemployed for almost three years. No one is suggesting that you give up your dream of working in a particular area of production. Simply work toward that goal while doing some kind of work in the industry.
One thing I have learned over the years is that you’re more likely to get work if you’re already working. But why is that? It could be that when you’re working, you have a larger social network, or maybe it’s that your confidence is better when you’re working. When you’re working, you are constantly expanding your network of contacts in the industry and staying on the minds of those contacts. When employers have work that needs to be done or a position opens up, you will be on their minds, while the guy sitting at home waiting for a great job to open up may get passed over. Whatever the reason, it’s good to always have employment, even when you’re looking for work. Your first and/or second gig might not be the exact position you’re looking for, but don’t let that keep you from kicking off your career.
I can also tell you that if you have generalist skills, you’ll find that you have more options. Be a skilled digital modeler, but be able to handle all aspects of production. I’ve seen some of the best hard surface modelers take work as technical directors to get in the door and found that they moved over to the modeling department once they had worked for the company for a while.
One last example is a good friend of mine who had always wanted to work in the game industry but was having trouble getting his start. He landed a job at an architectural visualization firm, and his lighting skills improved tenfold.
After a year of being happily employed and increasing his skill set, he landed a job in the game industry, making much more than he had originally been asking for. Again, wages and experience are directly linked.
Being flexible with the type of work you take on early in your career can be a faster route to landing the type of work you have always dreamed of doing.
Sin #4: Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket
When looking for work, don’t limit the number of places that you apply to. The majority of recent graduates send out a handful of reels and sit back to wait for one of those places to contact them. If you apply my previous rules to your job search, you will find that there are an unbelievable number of places that you can apply to.
This doesn’t mean that you should send out hundreds of reels randomly. Make sure that you are a fit for the type of work the studios would be looking for, but if you do your homework, you will find that a lot of options are available. When I graduated years ago, I sent out 75 portfolios and was offered seven job opportunities. If I had sent out seven portfolios I might not have had a single offer. Target the companies that are currently looking to fill open positions, but also send your reel to companies not currently advertising.
For artists new to the industry, make sure the work on your reel matches the work coming from the studios you are applying to. I see a lot of recent grads limiting their reels to Pixar, ILM, Digital Domain, Weta Digital, and other top studios, and they can’t figure out why they haven’t found work. It’s great to have goals of working at these studios, but look at the path that most of the artists who work at those places have taken. You might find that you can start working at a smaller studio doing amazing work, getting your skill set up to speed, and be working towards your end goal of a job at Pixar or DreamWorks. You might also discover along the way that you are quite happy at the smaller studio.
Artists who do their homework and send out their reels to a wide audience will find that more opportunities will arise.
Sin #5: Sloppiness
This sin is the big one! It’s sad to say, but I’ve seen a lot of jobs slip through artists’ hands due to poor presentation. Even if you have the best material on your demo reel, if the case is sloppy, viewers may never watch it. The number one pet peeve of mine (and many companies) is handwritten labels, which for some reason still show up. If you’ve read any information about demo reels, you’ll find this one on the list of dont’s—yet it still happens. Cover letters are another area where artists seem to struggle. Do your homework and create a cover letter that is professional and aimed at the target studio. I hear complaints from studios all the time that “Studio A” has received a cover letter that is addressed to “Studio B.” This kind of mistake speaks to a lack of attention to detail—not a good quality in an employee.
Presentation also includes the personal interview. If you visit the studio, your personal appearance is a factor. Don’t overdress for the studio and the industry, but find something that is business casual and not wrinkled. And although I shouldn’t need to say it, bathe before you go to the interview. No one wants to work with the “stinky guy,” although I think we all have at some point in our careers.
Be prepared for the interview, whether it is over the phone or at the studio. Research the studio before the interview so that you have good questions to ask, and listen carefully to the questions being thrown your way. Listen to the information being conveyed by the interviewer so that you don’t ask a question that has already been answered. Your work is not enough to land you the job in most cases. The majority of studios are also looking for whether or not you will gel with the other artists on the team.
Artists who present themselves and their work professionally are more likely to seal the deal when looking for a job.
Sin #6: Playing Hard to Get
Lack of follow-through is probably the most unforgivable job search sin. Follow-through can consist of staying on top of all the studios you’ve applied to as well as studios that show an interest in you. Keep records of all the studios to which you have applied and their responses. If a studio asks you to get back in touch in a few months, that is an open invitation to keep in contact with that studio. If you haven’t heard back from the studio, a single call (no stalking!) a couple weeks after you send your reel is a good way to make sure that the studio received the reel and to see whether the studio has any questions or would like to see more examples of your work.
If a studio shows interest in you, stay on top of anything the studio throws at you. I’ve seen artists lose the opportunity to work at a studio simply because they didn’t follow through on the next stage of discussions.
If a studio sends you a “test,” you should jump on it. That means the studio is excited about you but wants to make sure you can handle the work they need you to do. I’ve seen more artists drop the ball during this stage than any other, simply by not taking the test seriously or by not taking the test at all.
Drop everything you’re doing to follow up with a studio that is interested in you. You may have to go through several interviews and send additional work or references. Whatever the studio is asking for, make sure you tackle it right away. Think of it as a tennis match. You want to get the ball back in the studio’s court as fast as possible. Remember not to drop the ball at this stage of the game.
Artists who keep records of all communication and follow through with the studios where they have applied are more prepared when job opportunities arise.
Sin #7: Sloth
Energy and persistence conquer all things. Lack of persistence is a seductive job search sin. After you’ve sent out a batch of your reels, the last thing you should do is sit and wait. Continue to research the job market to find new studios and be ready to submit your reel as new jobs hit the boards. Sometimes being quick to respond to a job post is the key to landing the job.
You should also continue to work on new projects to build up your skills. It’s very common for studios that have had your reel for a while to contact you and ask to see what you’ve been working on. Having nothing new is a giant red flag to studios.
Constantly working on new projects also lets you refine your reel over time. Remember that if the fish aren’t biting, it may be time to change your bait. If the company you want to work for just landed the Battlestar Galactica series, it may be time for you to add a Cylon to your reel. Don’t wait for a job posting —be proactive, update your reel often, and stay knee deep in production while you’re looking for work. Enter contests and share your work in online galleries and magazines. Artists who realize that searching for work is a full-time job usually find work quickly.
Get a Job!
The more you can work at not falling victim to the seven deadly job search sins, the more likely it is that you will find work. I’ve yet to see an artist who really wants to work, and works hard at finding a job, not land a gig in this industry. In the end, the ticket to finding work is to be flexible, put everything you have into searching, and be persistent. You can be a success story and make a living doing what you truly want to do.
Excerpted from Digital Modeling by William Vaughan. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.
Photo Credit: Zachary Clemens