Finding the Way to Real Money - Full Time
COW Library : Business & Career Building : Tim Wilson : Finding the Way to Real Money - Full Time
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, "How can I work with tools like After Effects (insert your favorite tool name here) full time?"
You might expect me to get the question from students, or others just starting to make their way into professional production. Actually, I hear it at least as much from seasoned geezers.
Judging by the frequency and fervency of the question, I may be making the answer more complicated than it needs to be by assuming that people would like to get paid for full time AEing.
In any case, that's what I assumed. To find the real world, real money answer, I asked some of the industry's most talented and respected artists how they got their first jobs and how they built their careers.
From there, we covered every aspect of the business you can imagine: education, experience, sharpening your reel, favorite features of working pros, and much, much more.
Get out your pencils and start taking notes. Even if you've never used After Effects, you'll find tips here that you can start using today to have your best year ever.
An Introduction Before We Dig In The single unifying trait in the backgrounds of the people I spoke to is that all of them cast their educational nets much, much wider than computer graphics. Many of them also came into the game late, as second or third careers.
"I have, perhaps, one of the most useless degrees one can get," Lars Bunch told me, "a BA in Theater."
Actually, the most common college major among the people I spoke to: theater. Not computers. Not graphics, although graphics was number two. Not TV. Theater. You know, with people and everything. At least theater is one of The Arts. Several studied something not even remotely related.
Although Mylenium (at right) enjoyed animating for fun as a youngster, he studied dentistry. In addition to his full-time After Effects job today, Mylenium has composed just over two dozen tutorials for The Creative COW. It all started with an internship at an industrial design company. "All my compositing knowledge is self-taught," he says. "Beyond my internship I had no education in the field. I learned it all as I went along."
NEW YORK CITY
The highest-rated After Effects podcast at the iTunes Store is Creative COW's AE podcast, hosted by Aharon Rabinowitz, (at left) the Creative Director of All Bets Are Off Productions. The company's client list includes Nickelodeon, HBO, Showtime, MTV and many more.
Aharon had a double major with theater (see?) and psychology. He interned at Kohler Memorial Hospital, which inadvertently provided the first step in his After Effects career. Barely into the internship, Aharon said "No way I'm going to do this."
Barend Onneweer (right) is an animator and filmmaker in the Netherlands who uses After Effects for his work, while also teaching After Effects at the Art Academy in Rotterdam. He came closest to having an education in the kind of work that we generally associate with After Effects – his second time around.
After his first four years in college, he earned a second degree in Audiovisual Design, but even there, he received only the briefest introduction to After Effects. "It was a fairly broad program," he says, "ranging from dynamic typography - which we started doing as cutout stop-motion - to documentary and drama fiction."
His first degree was in Art Education, and offers an insight into the advantages of a broader focus than computer graphics alone. "I've always felt really glad I took the ‘teacher training in Arts Education' detour," says Barend. "It gave me such a thorough understanding of human visual perception, color theory, composition, perspective and a good basis in art history."
So don't hold yourself back because you think you're getting started with the wrong education, or starting too late. Or too early.
Several folks I spoke to went pro straight out of high school, including Sean and Scott. Another was Andrew Kramer.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
Andrew Kramer (left) is the author of one of the industry's all-time best-selling After Effects tutorial DVDs, a series of DVDs with AE projects for design elements such as loopable backgrounds, dozens of video tutorials and the Serious FX podcast for The Creative COW. Before starting his own production company, he worked as a compositor for several major Hollywood movie studios.
To prepare for all that without college, he surely went to one of those arts high schools, right? "I had a video class in high school," Andrew says, "but the teacher didn't know what a computer was."
The moral of the story: start where you are. Just start.
Call it bluffing. Though you know what your mother would call it. But your mother isn't paying you. Want more? Here are three stories....
FROM WALL STREET TO ADOBE
"In the mid ‘90's I was working in the Art Department of a big Wall Street firm in New York City, creating interactive CD-ROMs," says Bob Donlon (right). "One day, the head of the video department came into my office wanting to know if I knew After Effects, and asked if I could create some animations for one of his videos. "I said ‘Sure, no problem,' despite the fact that I hadn't a shred of an idea of what After Effects was.
"Leaving work in a panic, I ran to a bookstore and picked up the ‘Adobe Classroom in a Book for After Effects,' and spent the next 24 hours soaking in the basics of AE. That gave me enough to get started."
There were some steps for Bob after that, of course. User groups, forums, more training, and lots of experience led to him becoming his company's art director. From there, Bob started his own production company. Today, Bob is Adobe's Senior Marketing Manager for Digital Video & Audio.
Antony Buonomo (left) worked for The BBC as a researcher, producer and director. An early design job was on the Royal Television Society (UK) and Emmy® winning documentary, "The Plot to Kill Hitler."
"At some point the producers said they also needed some animated maps, and asked could I handle that?" says Antony. "As we all do, I said ‘Yes' - knowing that After Effects would do the job but having never touched it.
"This was Tuesday. I took a gulp, bought AE 6.5 Pro on Wednesday, and had a mock-up animating by Saturday morning. It was a very simple and badly put together animation - lots of redundant layers and keyframes, etc. - but it looked good. I was amazed."
As Bob did, Antony put in plenty of work to get to the next level. He recently did the title design and graphics, as well as exercising his refined map animation skills, for the BBC series "Terry Jones' Barbarians," with another series on its way.
OTTAWA, ONTARIO, CANADA
Sean Cusson played an even bigger opening bluff because the job he landed was more than just a onetime gig – it was on a national animated TV series!
"I had some idea what After Effects was from a friend who showed it to me."
"Yeah, a friend of a friend pointed me to the job. They asked me if I knew AE, and I said yes."
Sean, too, did what it took to actually deliver on his bluff, and has become one of Canada's most respected motion graphic artists.
As you contemplate this path, remember that this kind of bluff always, always gets called. If you choose this strategy, prepare to deliver. Fast.
You probably already know the person who's going to help you land your first full-time After Effects gig. They're not just business contacts, either. They're often part of your network of family and friends.
Barend was primarily an editor until a friend on one of his projects introduced him to the producer, who wanted a cinematic feel for the finished project. Barend achieved it with a combination of Premiere and After Effects, and has spent virtually all of his time since then in After Effects. His expertise with both film look and greenscreen techniques have brought him as a speaker at conferences around the world.
"Actually, one of the cameraoperators was my girlfriend's friend's sister," recalls Barend.
"It turns out that all my work has come to me through friends of friends, or people I've met personally," he says. "For a long time I felt my work should speak for itself, so I didn't put any effort into networking. Although I did get some work that way, it wasn't a reliable source of income.
"The reality is that people hire me after they've bumped into me at parties, or talked to a friend of a friend," says Barend. As technical as the business can get, in the end it's really about people working with people."
More examples: Aharon's brother-in-law connected him to his first job in television production.
Sean's cousin-by-marriage ran a production company that brought him in. He eventually left to go solo, saying "I made two calls to say ‘I'm on my own,' and haven't made a call since. It's all word of mouth."
Scott Rocha (left) is part of the progressive design company Project Rooster. "A friend called and said I don't have time do this, can you do it? I got my second job from another friend who didn't have time to do it himself.
"That's how it started with me. You meet people, and all of a sudden they know you and start throwing work at you."
Wait a minute! I have friends! I go to parties!
Lars Bunch (right) says it's not just knowing people. It's knowing people who know you're a reliable professional, who know that you do highquality work. Even if it's another kind of work.
He saw his motion stand animation business slipping away as former clients did more of their own stills animation in After Effects. Rather than lament being passed by, he saw an opportunity to make a new future by learning After Effects himself. He knew that his experience in art photography and even theater gave him tools for success that others lacked.
Just as he felt ready to make the leap to full-time After Effects animation, "an old client walked into my shop just to say hello after picking up some photographs at a nearby lab. I asked him if he needed any computer graphics." The client did, and soon, says Lars, "I was getting as much work as I could handle."
You may recall that two of the three people who bluffed their way into After Effects animation were editors first. You'll see this pattern continue in the rest of the article, too: about 2/3 of the group I spoke to started as editors.
For those keeping score, Premiere is the most commonly used NLE in the stories I heard. Its interface and integration make Premiere an obvious choice for AE artists who want to use editing to open AE opportunities).
Mark Allen (left) agrees that editing is the shortest path to a job using After Effects. "Editors sit with clients for weeks or months, and eventually have a great deal of weight in the post production process."
Scott is also one of those who came into compositing through editing. His first foray into After Effects wasn't exactly promising. "I was 17 and doing grunt work at a post house. I got on AE the first time and took three hours to make a title move from right to left."
How did he get from there to the job a friend handed him for the Robert Mondavi Vineyard based in the Napa Valley? From internships across LA, he'd built a reputation for reliability. "My friend would never have handed it to me if he didn't think I'd handle it like a professional," says Scott. "If I messed up, he'd be the one that would look bad.
"There are so many people who are awesome at motion graphics, but don't understand the professional side of it – it's a business. You have to be good at what you do, but you have to be the kind of person that other people want to work with."
Sean observes another advantage of a referral that covers both technical skills and personal professionalism. "If I come to a client having already been recommended, I'm already qualified. By the time we're ready to get started, the deal is done."
It also puts Sean in a stronger position. "I'm not asking for work. I'm taking work that's offered to me."
DREAMS SO REEL
Although they all had very different takes on the specifics, nearly everyone agrees that a reel is important.
At the same time, nobody I spoke to, or heard about from them, got even a single job from sending an unsolicited reel.
Aharon tells a great story why: "I was a producer at Noggin on the night shift. It wasn't a paid gig as an AE artist per se, but I did interstitials for my show to keep the budget down so we could keep going.
"One of the managers at Nickelodeon's Digital Animation Lab asked me for my reel. I told him, ‘But I've already sent you my reel a bunch of times!' He said ‘Follow me.'
"In his office he shows me a pile of disks that looked like that mountain at the end of Close Encounters. It was unbelievable. "
GETTING YOUR REEL SEEN
Connecting the dots between The Matrix and reels, Chris Glawe (left) got his first After Effects job with the help of both a friend and a reel. He was new to Hollywood, and all of his work until then had been strictly editing. "I was referred to a smallish production company by an editor friend of mine. He said ‘you should give these guys a call' - which I did. Took a meeting and showed my reel.
"The project came a couple of weeks later. The guy who gave me the job said ‘y'know, do your After Effects kung-fu on it.'"
As Aharon puts it, "My reel doesn't get me a job by itself. What it shows is that I'm a guy who's done real work." Or not.
"The work done while I worked on Wall Street was pretty dry," says Bob. "A demo reel of that stuff was not gonna cut it, so I decided to create my own projects in the vein of the type of work I wanted to do - high-end broadcast design.
"I recorded many hours of commercials, show openings, and promos - the types of things that rely heavily on After Effects - and studied them frame-by-frame to see how they were put together.
"Then, I conceived my own 30- second spot for a major soft-drink brand, an opening animation for a show on a major news network, and some promo pieces for a pay/cable channel.
Bob is quick to add, "To keep things honest, I labeled these as ‘spec' on my reel, meaning that they weren't actually created for these clients, they were things I'd done on my own. Even though I had to bake everything myself, my reel was now good enough for me to land my first freelance jobs doing broadcast design for TV using After Effects."
Andrew's first job also came from a spec project. "I took stock footage and graphics, and that was about it. It had no real content, but it looked good."
Not that his next job was so much different than that. It was editing a local cable spot for a minor league baseball club. "The footage was already shot, I used sample music from a software disk, took it into After Effects to add a little Trapcode Shine, and that's really all it took."
As he built a professional reel and started showing it around, Andrew found that "the people doing the hiring often aren't visual. Don't overdo it, but it can be very helpful if you use the reel to help them understand what they want."
Scott gets most of his work via word-of-mouth, but he uses his reel as Andrew suggests, to help prospective clients understand what they want. The conversation can get tricky when - as has happened to Scott - clients know exactly what they want, and they're certain that nothing on the reel is even close.
"They say ‘you're very good at what you do, but how can I trust you to do what I need?' I have to go into pitch mode, tell them that I also understand how to give them what they want. By that point, I better have gotten some idea of what they want," he laughs.
"It's not enough to be a designer," he says. "You're two people: one that's creative and artistic; the other, the one who tries to get work."
It's worth pointing out again that the most common step into a compositing job is editing. "It's both easier and more effective for reels to come through editors," says Mark.
"One of the managers at Nickelodeon's Digital Animation Lab asked me for my reel. I told him, ‘But I've already sent you my reel a bunch of times!' He said ‘Follow me.' In his office he shows me a pile of disks that looked like the mountain at the end of Close Encounters. It was unbelievable. "
A remarkable After Effects artist himself, Mark also hires After Effects artists in his frequent roles as a producer and director. "I've received a tremendous education by hiring the best artists and learning from them," he says.
If you'd like to see an especially striking example of this, be sure to check out his short film for MTV, "The Least Likely," posted below his reel on markallen.net's movie page. For an image from the show, please see the next page.
He's also learned a lot about helping animators create a reel with more than technical expertise - a reel with passion. "I always encourage people to find some print ads that they really respond to. Maybe five. And then create a motion graphics piece from scratch inspired by those ads. Do this a few times," he says, "and you become intimate with the mechanics of what made the original image create your aesthetic reaction."
Since he sees so many reels, I asked Mark how he likes to see them presented. "I used to only consider people's work if I saw it on DVD," he says. "I wanted to make sure they had a basic understanding of how to manage interlacing. But almost nothing we do is interlaced anymore. Instead, we create for film, 24p HD, and LCD projection, so I'll view work on the web.
"No tiny movies, they don't tell me enough." As he's done for his own reel, Mark insists on at least DVD resolution for web movies, but adds, "If I get serious about someone's work, I'll also want a DVD."
Like others I spoke to, Steve Roberts is an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects. Both from his own After Effects work and from his AE students in Toronto, Steve has also seen his share of reels. "One thing about a good reel: put your best stuff there at the start," he says. "These guys don't have time to see the whole thing. They don't want to see a reel that builds slowly. Many guys fast-forward through a reel first, and only watch at regular speed if they see something interesting. So make sure your reel looks good in fastforward!"
How do you make a big impression with such a small reel? The same way you always do, says Aharon. "Start by thinking of each segment of the reel as a complete project, with a beginning, middle and end."
Andrew is a compositor, and relies heavily on before and after shots. "When most people look at a composited shot, they have no idea what they're looking at. The thing that catches their eye might be something that has nothing to do with what you'd do for them. But even the most inexperienced viewer understands before and after shots, especially when they include green screens."
You can see a variation of the same before-and-after technique on Barend's site at www.raamw3rk. net. Rather than greenscreen keying shots on a stage, his effects often use rotoscoping and masking on location shots. His reel also shows how he incorporates 3D elements into those location shots.
Every reel I saw while writing this piece was inspiring, but Scott's jumped out as a surprising approach to a difficult challenge. While he's pleased with the work he's done, very little of it is the traditional show open / high-end advertising / film compositing glamour jobs that most people think of when they think of After Effects. "Everybody wants to be at the top," he says, "but there's a lot of people doing really good work and making a living at it doing other kinds of work."
He began working on his reel as Mark suggested, using what moves him as a starting point, rather than just the projects. "My inspiration is drawn from all forms of media: Flash, 3D, print, even music.
"That's when I thought of combining different elements to tie the whole reel together, using After Effects and Premiere."
One example of this is how he treated what most people have at the center of their reel, the movies themselves. Rather than showing them full-screen in sequence, he scaled them down and animated them as only one element among others that include Flash-inspired graphics and 3D animations.
The movies are shown fullscreen for only a few seconds, but it works: the graphics used as transitions also incorporate flashing frames that tease the next clip.
Together, they create an organic piece that shows off more than what Scott has done in his client projects. "I wanted the reel to show off my work," he says, "but I also wanted to show more of what I could do. My reel became the work. "
IF IT WAS EASY, EVERYONE WOULD BE DOING DO IT
If we take anything from the stories these folks tell, it may not be shockingly hard, either. Be reliable. Be creative. Keep your eyes open. The specifics of the work may not be what you think they'll be, and you might take a different road to get there than you planned. But you can get there.
As Stephen adds that every challenge you face is ultimately a creative one. "This work centers on a problem-solving mindset. The problem that has been presented is the new context." And from there, the only question is how you're going to approach it in a creative way. You've just read some of the best advice you'll ever get on some first steps in that direction.
Tim Wilson would like to thank each of those interviewed who freely gave of their time and offered such great, real-world advice. There was a lot of great stuff that just wouldn't fit due to space constraints and so watch the CreativeCOW.net website for additional material drawn from these interviews.
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