I (Flip Sarta, BFA Film) had the pleasure to attend a panel with Nickelodeon recruiters where they covered industry edict, portfolio prep, internship tips and even how to get a work VISA! Here is what I learned in a Q and A format.
Q: As a freshman, where should I start?
A: Watch everything – watch every single animated show – Disney, Pixar, Nick Jr., Dreamworks. Find that wide variety and find what makes you happy. You love drawing, you know what you love to do and from there find the artist on each of those shows and study them. Research their path and their work and take inspiration from that. Google their portfolios and be honest with yourself and be really really objective with your own work. If you are reaching for that level of work – be honest with yourself and know if you are at that level yet or not. Don’t get defensive during critic and know that is not given to tear you down. It is given to help you know where you need to improve to reach your goal. Being open to feedback is part of the job in the animation industry.
Stay organized with your work and your website. You can join groups like Women in Animation, this is for anyone in animation (not just for women). Go to those events and get to know those people. Most people build their network through an internship.
Q: What are things you would like to see on cover letters?
A: Keep them short and specific to the position. I typically have my form letter that has an introduction of me in the first paragraph, all the work that I’ve done that is relevant and why you would want to hire me in the second paragraph and then a brief summary. You’ll have to vary it depending it on your audience. Just think “why would I be beneficial for you to hire”.
For the Nick internship, we don’t expect you to have a lot of work experiences so we really put weight on the cover letter. Keep the letter to half a page to two-thirds of a page. The focus should be “what I want to get out of it” but “what I want to contribute to the team at Nick”.
Think about what the person reading it is looking for. They are looking for interns that are going to help producers, casting directors and HR directors do their work. So they are really interested in how you will help contribute to that.
A: When you’ve connected with somebody and it’s somebody you think that could advance your career, you’ll get an email correspondence going. Let’s say the correspondence petered out and has gone silent for a little while, that’ll happen you can’t keep a conversation going every day of the year, and then you have a new question you wanna follow up – please find your original thread and continue that. Otherwise, I’ll get an email and it’ll be like “Hey it’s Jack, just wanted to follow up.” and I’m like “who?”. I personally am notoriously bad at names and you are setting me up to feel embarrassed and you don’t want me to have psychologically associated with you. On the other hand, if you follow up on an email thread and I can go down and be “Oh yeah, that Jack!” I’ll be thinking to myself “that god this person did that”.
Q: How to structure an e-mail? What should you ask in an email?
A: The biggest mistake I made when I sent emails was that I knew that I was a good writer and I would try to impress these people with my flowery language. Now on this side of thing, I see the scroll bar is tiny meaning there is a lot – and I immediately have a panic attack. I feel horrible because I know what this person went through to compose this email … that I will never have the time to read.
Write a short email, where on a regular laptop screen I won’t have to scroll. It is just a one sentence intro – here is who I am and why I’m reaching out to you. A line break and then one question and then a nice little salutation at the end. Be sure to have your links (to your website, LinkedIn, ext.) under your name. Then I will respond to that question with a short answer. You can then ask another question and we will have a sort of volley of emails back and forth. Unless you have a good question try not to send email more than 4 times a year.
Have enough emotional intelligence when I’m trying to politely signal that the conversation needs to fizzle out for a bit because I need to get to other things.
If you send a follow up after a while, make sure you are giving them new information – like that you have new work on your website or have just finished a major project or that you are graduating soon.
Q: How to use LinkedIn more effectively?
A: LinkedIn, much like other social media networks, are using it to stay connected to folks they have actually worked with. So, quite often you might reach out to people and find that they are not connecting with you. Similarly to if someone random tries to connect with you on facebook and you’re like “I don’t know you”. So when people get an unsolicited request to connect they may or they may not connect – and it depends on that person entirely. However, recruiters, development executives – we’re actively using LinkedIn to meet new people. So if you are coming up against a wall with all of the artists, writers, directors, and producers that you would like to reach out to and you are not succeeding at getting a response from them – try hitting up the recruiters. “Recruiter” “recruitment” “Talent acquisition” “Talent development’ “Development executive” all of these titles. Find us, because part of our job is to find new people.
Switch over to emails after you connect.
A: Networking is really hard for everyone. You just have to put yourself out there and it is scary and really vulnerable but everyone has been there, everyone understands what its like and most people will be very warm and welcoming. Occasionally you meet someone who isn’t – but you wouldn’t want to work with them anyways. Ask them about themselves – things that you actually want to know. Most people like to talk about themselves and that takes the pressure off of you a bit.
You should definitely have your own story about yourself worked out so that you don’t meander and ramble. Think about if you were writing a story about yourself and your career how would you want that story to be told. Then ask them those things about themselves. “Where did you get started?” “How did you end up at this studio?” “What advice do you have?”.
Try not to leave a meeting without names of other people you could be meeting with. Some people will give you 20 people to contact and other people will be like “I don’t really know anybody…” So it really depends – but just try. It will help expand your network. Go in outlined exactly what you want to get covered. The worst thing is one someone schedules a general with you and they sit down and are like “okay, give me all the knowledge”. I want you to talk about your work and what your passionate about that way it can help us give you that general knowledge that you’re going to want. Come to the general meeting with your portfolio, with your work samples and show us what you can bring to the table. Also, download your work samples on a local drive. Do not count on wifi, it often doesn’t work. Don’t count on the person you are meeting to have a computer because we aren’t allowed to plug anything into our work computers. Be prepared. Be ready to talk about your art. Know what you want. And if you don’t know what you want you can say that but there are opportunities such as production assistant opportunities that might be right for you. Stroke people’s egos but don’t be a doormat.
Q: What qualities do you look for in an intern?
A: Since our studio is unionized our interns cannot do creative work that will appear on the shows. Quite often our social media interns will be doing artwork or animation for other platforms for us. On the whole, the internship is designed for you to be an assistant to the department that you are in. So it is more the production internship. About half of our interns are working on a series and the other half are supporting other departments such as development, casting, HR, original movies and so on.
What we are really looking for is honestly a great attitude. We don’t expect any major work experience but you can list any major projects you’ve worked on at school as experience. So if you have a film that took you a year to make, or worked on someone else film – credit yourself on that. Mostly in your cover letter expressing a good attitude and that you are interested in a specific direction – but also indicating that if you don’t get that specific internship that you’re gunning for that maybe you would still be happy just to come and learn. Treat your internship as a 10-week interview because it really is. We have the highest rate in the industry of hiring our interns within two years of them having the internship.
Q: What do you look for in an animation portfolio and a demo reel?
[Note: This response is quite long]
A: So similar to a script, your, voice, and your design is what we really look for. Are you more of a 3D artist or more of a 2D artist, are you more of an action adventure, what’s your comedy or your drama in your drawings.? I like to see someone whose true to themself as an artist. When you look at a wide variety in a portfolio it is great if you have a wide range but if you want to work on a show with us we want to make sure you can stay consistent on that show. One thing that I look for personally is consistency.
When you have a website make sure it is really easy to navigate. If you are more of a generalist and you do backgrounds and you do character designs and you do illustrations and you do everything – make sure that you can link to all of those things separately. If you are going to email or send a LinkedIn note make sure you send the link related to the exact position you are applying for. Don’t just give the home page. We get a lot of emails and a lot of submissions. You need to make it as easy as possible for us to review your materials. If there as a part of the websites that is password protected – give the password. Don’t just say “password provided upon request”. You need to make it really really easy.
One of my pet peeves is someone giving the link to their tumbler and it is just an unorganized blog. Make sure your contact info is easy to find. Make sure that your work is really organized. The things that you feel best represents you are at the top because we are not going to spend a ton of time combing through your work. If your stuff is really hard for us to look through we are just going to skip it and go to the persons whose is easier.
I really wanna stress consistency of quality because what will happen is that I’m going through a portfolio thinking “this is great, this is great, ooh what happened there,this is great” but I’ll get hung up on the “what happened there” not because I’m a jerk but because what that signals to me is that in this stream of really awesome work you included this piece that is not up to par. This makes me question if you think that this piece is the same quality as the rest – which then makes me doubt your ability to objectively edit your own work. That means that your art director would have to micromanage you, which no art director has the time to do so that’s a warning signal to me. I would rather see fewer pieces of great quality. Don’t show me your progress of where you were 10 years ago and how you’ve grown – just show me where you are now.
Also, you go to talks with us presenting, with Disney, with Pixar and you’ll hear a lot of different advice that sometimes contradicts each other. Portfolios are not a one size fits all – different studios are looking for different things. You really have to know who you want to cater to. Like when you go into a job interview – you can’t go in and say the same thing at every job interview. The person who is interviewing you wants to know that you’ve done your homework and that you know what they are looking for in a candidate. If you are catering to different styles then just section them off into different nested pages on your website and just send us the link that will be most applicable to us.
Relatability of tone, content, and style is also important to us. Because at the end of the day I need to be able to show an art director or a supervising director, those are the guys who are in charge of storyboards, I need to show them that I am sending them artist that can work on their project specifically.
You really have to know who you want to cater to. Like when you go into a job interview – you can’t go in and say the same thing at every job interview. The person who is interviewing you wants to know that you’ve done your homework and that you know what they are looking for in a candidate.
Art is subjective and every show we have is a little different so always be true to yourself in your work. If you don’t get picked on a project its not the end of the world. You may love that project but you as an artist might be perfect for a different project. The right project will come to you. Don’t try to force yourself on a project that is not right for you. Sometimes when we get portfolios that are not a great fit for Nick but I’ll get on the phone and call my friends who are recruiting for Disney and ill say “I think I found somebody that is really great for you.” – and they do the same for us. It’s called reverse recruiting. So you might get a rejection on they and then an offer from a different studio or a different production in the same studio – because behind the scenes we recognize talent.
In terms of specific pieces of animation – acting and action are really important. Make sure your animation reel has dialogue, lip sync is going to be really important. You can’t work as an animator unless you have demonstrated some sort of lip sync in your reel. How you compose the shot is also important. If everything is sort of awkwardly shifted to the right try to work on your composition as well. Know how to direct your camera in addition to your character. Keep it short – reels should not be longer than two minutes because we will probably only look at 17 seconds.
Q: What do you look for in a storyboarding portfolio?
A: You are posing everything out in a storyboard sequence, whenever a character sighs, shifts their weights, has a thought. Everything is beaten out – even more than it would have been 5 to 10 years ago. We are moving away as an industry from X sheets and getting all the timing directly from the storyboards and the animatics. So the storyboards really are like keyframe animation now. So if you were to go through a slideshow of the storyboards, it would feel almost animated.
When recruiters are reviewing your work we are looking to see if you can tell a story with an arc and the overall look of the boards. If a director is looking at your work they will pay more attention to how you pose things out, your camera angle, much more technical. You might have to tailor it depending on who will be reviewing.
For a studio like Nick, we are honing in on 6 – 11, action adventure comedy. Big comedy big heart. On the preschool side, every show has to have an educational element. The comedy is typically very sweet. There isn’t really a bad villain. There might be somebody who makes the mistakes and has a bad attitude but always learns the lesson in the end.
You should show a few different sequences. One that shows that you can do SpongeBob style gag comedy, broad comedy broad poses. Another one that shows you can direct the camera in intricate ways. Maybe it’s an action scene where you have Spider-Man swing through the streets and the camera is following him in really dynamic ways. A different sequence that is still funny but a bit more tender – with more close-ups. The characters having a moment together. Maybe one sequence that is a little more cleaned up.
Most of our storyboards are somewhat rough but on-model. They can be rough but they have to be clear. Sometimes studios demand we send really clean boards to them where everything really has to be tight. So maybe one short sequence to show that is in your toolbelt.
I’ll typically spend up to 2 minutes per sequence and look at 3 sequences tops.
Q: What do you look for in a character design portfolio?
A: We will look for a wide range but at Nickelodeon, we still have a look and feel to the studio. We want to see art and stories that will work well for Nick shows. We don’t wanna waste your time and we don’t want you to waste our time. Not that you don’t have a great portfolio but it just isn’t a fit for the Nickelodeon brand. We look for a nice squash and stretch cartoony characters. We are also always for that think that will stand out but also fit the brand. It is very hard to articulate what that is until you’ve seen it.
When you see a show and you are like “Wow, I really love this style.” – do some research on who created the show. Find out who their influences were because when they set out to create the style for this show, they didn’t copy the style of this show because it didn’t exist yet. So they have their influences. You will get more success on getting on the project you want to be on if you are not copying the project but learning from what influenced the project.
Q: What advice would you give a writer who wants to break into the animated television scene?
A: Creating a spec script of a few different varieties. Look at the different genres, 6-11, preschool may be a little bit older and find your voice. Find who you are as a writer because there is nothing worse than someone saying they love
I look for an original sample that shows your voice and a spec of a show that they would want to work on – to see if you can write in the style of that show and in the voices of those characters.
When your working on a show it is like writing specs every day – so you really have to learn the voice of that show and stay true to it. It helps to show that you can work under someone’s direction.
For writers, Nick does not take unsolicited submissions – they may look at spec scripts and put you in the writer database. If it fits they may bring you in for a general interview.
Representation changes that process.
Another career latter that a lot of people do is that they start as a production assistant just to get a feel for the animation production pipeline. Then from there, they become a production coordinator. Then from there, they would become a script coordinator, which is kind of like the PA of the writer’s rooms. This didn’t use to be the case 5 to 10 years ago – but now when they are looking for script coordinators they are looking at people’s writing samples. They are looking for that person not just to be able to be an assistant but for that person to also be a potential writer that they are grooming to work on the show. You are coming in with that sort of expectation that you will become a junior writer. So a lot of people follow that path.
Q: How do we know as an animator who needs a VISA, what studios are VISA friendly and will provide one for an extended amount of time.
A: VISAs are an interesting situation. We would face the same situations if we went to work in Europe or China. There are a limited number of standard work VISA that the government gives out every year. I believe right now it is 60,000 – 65,000 for all companies for all industries for the United States. So it’s not that many. So what every company has to do is that they have to present a case to the government – because the government wants to see a good story for why we are “taking a job away from a US citizen”. So there has to be a compelling story. So if you are interning at a company that can be a great start. That way we can say “This isnoto just somebody from off the street this is somebody that’s been working for us, who knows our culture.”
If you are back home in your home country and perhaps in your country, there are vendor studios that are animated Nickelodeon shows – so a large part of our pipeline the actually animated portion we send overseas to Canada, India, Japan, Korea, France, Italy, lots of different countries. So you could be working on a Nickelodeon show but under a different company name – and that also builds a great story. Then we are also saying again “This isn’t just somebody from off the street this is somebody familiar with this property and that has been doing it for a long time.”
Typically those who are here on student VISAs are hear on an OPT VISA and that will follow you a year after your graduation. So during that year, you can work for a studio. It is harder for us to justify to the US government why we would sponsor somebody for an entry level role – so if you want to be qualified for a storyboard artist or a character designer or lets say even director – the you really have to be top of your game. Because typically somebody right out of school will be taking a more entry level position such as a storyboard revisionist or a prop designer or a color stylist rath than panter. So if you really wanna qualify right out of the cage for those top level positions that you really have to be honest with yourself and appraise your portfolio with other working artists and make sure that you are top of the game so that you can get that position which will make it easier for us to justify sponsorship.
There are two main VISAs – the H1B VISA and that one has the limited cap of about 60,000 per year for the entire country. The government does favor STEM subjects. Then the is the O1 VISA is what they call the artist, scientist and athlete VISA. There is no cap on it but it is really hard to get because you have to prove that you are a cultural asset in your home country. And the way you can do that is if you have a film and it’s making the international film circuit and it is gaining some awards or your portfolio has been written up – you save those clippings. If you can get in good with a major animator or artist in the US and that person writes you a recommendation, that’s a great way to qualify for the O1 VISA… You are more independent as an artist with this VISA.
A H1B VISA costs the company between $6,000 – $10,000. A company will have to fill out paperwork in April to get you approved for October, so it is a 6 month waiting process.
And that’s everything folks! Hope you learned a whole lot!