Character Artist/Story Artist... How to break in?

  • Hi Guys!

    Long time no chat. Sorry for the sporadic nature of my participation here. I've been having some serious conversations with myself lately--caught up in my own head. I was hoping that you could offer some help/advice/reassurance. Get ready for a stream of consciousness over-share.

    I'm a graphic/web/product designer. I went to college for graphic design and costume design (because I was too scared to choose illustration and too stubborn to let go of my love of theater and storytelling) and have been unenthusiastically designing websites/magazines/graphics since I graduated in 2010. It sucks, guys. I'm now the Art Director for a retirement investing startup and while we are about to launch a pretty cool product, I COULD NOT CARE LESS ABOUT THIS INDUSTRY. I became a designer so that I would never have to look at numbers or talk about investments. How did I end up here?! HOW?

    Sunday was my 29th birthday. I'm almost 30. It's time to stop pretending that "the next design job" will be better. I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil. As a kindergartener, I claimed that I wanted to be a "Disney Cartoonist." As an almost-30-year-old, I realized that my 5 year old self was right... still is right... and my avoidance of the topic is based on fear and the imposter syndrome. Every time I think I'm going to start building a portfolio to "do something with illustration or animation," I'm stifled by thoughts like "Well I'm starting this too late." or "You should pick which kind of illustration you want to do before you start." or "What if you get there and you don't like it?" or "GOD I'M EXHAUSTED, I can't draw tonight. It's pointless anyway." or "This field is too broad and too oversaturated and you are a late-bloomer in an already difficult industry." Well those thoughts are awful. And you know what? The pain of staying stuck where I currently am has become worse than the perceived pain of maybe-possibly failing at something that I have 1000% more passion for. Why the hell shouldn't I at least try? Worst case scenario, Pixar never hires me and I continue getting paid a lot of money for work that I don't really care about. I AM CURRENTLY LIVING MY WORST CASE SCENARIO.

    Light bulb.

    So, let's go. Though I don't know specifically which job-title is best suited for me, I know that I am drawn to Pixar and Disney because of the work they produce and the feeling you get when you finish one of their movies: that feeling of wanting to go out and be better, do better, save someone, help the world. I also know that I am drawn to characters/story creation. Great. So character artist or story artist. I have 2 potential employers and 2 potential titles. BIG goals. Scary. But scary can be good and specificity is better than meandering waffly-ness.

    My question: How... HOW... does one break into this industry with 10 years of graphic design and 0 years of professional illustration/character/story art on her resume? It won't be easy, but I'm willing to put in the work. That said, I'm not sure of exactly what "the work" entails. I was wondering if any of you had any ideas about some steps I might take.

    Things I've done/am doing:

    • Despite my job as a designer, my entire professional Facebook as well as my Instagram and a large portion of my website/portfolio is devoted to illustration.

    • I'm currently working through a "draw 100 somethings" project where I'm drawing characters requested by various friends and family. (See @moniquecucchi on Insta for progress there).

    • After the 100 (or when I decide I've had enough), I'm going to start creating some model sheets to show an ability to draw a character in the round as well as the ability to show a range of emotion.

    I think I have a pretty clear idea of things I can continue to add to my portfolio to show expertise in this(these) areas but what does one do when the portfolio is ready? When there is enough to show, how do I get in the front door? Will they take one look at my resume and say "Is she applying to the right company?" It's like the whole "how do you build credit if you've never had a credit card and no one will approve you for one?" problem. I have a feeling that saying to them, "Hey, trust me. I really want to do this and I promise I'll do good work." probably won't do the trick.

    Anyone have any experience with this?
    If you made it this far, thanks! Are you crazy? Am I crazy? Perhaps we all are..

  • This is where I am at right now too. Seriously. I started learning Graphic design in 2002 at a community college, but I still had more love of drawing characters. Then I studied Graphic Design again at an art college from 2005 to 2007. I had a few animation classes, but I couldn't get my head around the programs even though I got A's. I've never felt Graphic Design was for me, and I kick myself every time I think that I should have studied more Illustration. My husband and I recently moved to the other side of the state (MI) since he got a new job. So I am trying to take this time applying to illustration jobs and working on my portfolio.

    I'd say check out some of these videos at SVS:

    • How to Perfect Your Children's Book Portfolio
    • Visual Story Telling Techniques
    • How to get Freelance Work

    When you're portfolio is ready the best to do is send out postcards of your work to publishers. You can get the publishers addresses from this book "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 2017" on amazon or your local Barnes and Noble. (I still need to do this lol! But I don't feel ready...) Also, you could join and go to local meetings in your state. I have both my illustration and graphic design work on my website, but I think I want to get rid of it all together and start over with just my full name . com and have illustration be the focus. Anyway, Good luck! I'll follow you on instagram! 😃

  • @mallette Ugh, so hard, right? At 17 years old (when choosing a college major), you're at such a weird point in life. So many people telling you what you should and shouldn't want out of a career.. and yet you're so young that you don't truly know what your values are yet. Then we spend thousands of dollars learning a thing that may or may not be for us. The system is a mess. Thanks for the kind words! I'll follow you on instagram as well!

  • Pro SVS OG

    I studied Visual Development because I wanted exactly what you want: work for family film animation. I am in love with animation and particularly with the preproduction work (character design and co...). I may add that I started my MFA In Visual Development at 39 (yes, you read right) after a completely different career, and run my course of study while I was working full time doing something else. So there is a potential option for you. I studied at the AAU cybercampus, so completely online, and it was awesome in many different ways - but yes, it is not cheap.
    Though I have done and still do preproduction work for both film and animation, I have never seeked work in family animation at the end...but here is what I can tell you about the industry, as I have learnt it:

    • Character artist and story artist are two very different jobs. I do not know if this is what you are talking about, but a story artist is a storyboard artist (think Ian McCaig). Your portfolio does not contain anything that would be defined as storyboard work at the moment. Story artists need to be really fast and have a solid grasp of cinematography techniques and animation. You never do finished work or color work, 99.9% of your output is screenshot sketches, and you need to do them really fast - 20-50 panels a day is a very typical output range.
    • Character artists work in visual development, often years before the film is scheduled to produce (in short animation work, like the one I do, is just maybe a week before ;-)). They may produce anything from rough sketches to polished illustrations. 3D modeling is becoming more and more a part of their toolbox - so much so that they introduced a course in the VisDev curriculum at the AAU the year I graduated (I did a course, but had to obtain approval to do one from the Games department). There are character artists that specialize in series cartoons (like Stephen Silver) and have a style that fits limited animation. Standard skills to show in a character artist portfolios are turnarounds, expression sheets, character lineups as well as loads and loads of full-figure character drawings.
    • Nearly all character artists and story artists work as employees in studios - especially in large studios. There is nearly no freelancing in the big animation world (I think it has something to do with copyrights as well). This is the reason I never pursued that line of work at the end: I cannot relocate and I really want to work from my home studio...
      So, getting this kind of work - if you have the right portfolio - is mainly a matter of doing job applications. There are several places where you can find open positions: on the studio´s websites or on dedicated forums, like ArtStation. Games is probably a bigger job market for character and story artists than animation - there is a million different styles too. Large and medium studios run internship programs - normally starting in summer. If you are looking at Pixar or Dreamworks, though, the competition even for those few hundred internships is unbeliavable - and of course the majority are not paid. All things I could not do with a family: that is probably the one and only drawback of being a "late-bloomer": you do need to make a living not only for yourself but for the people that depend on you.
      Sorry for the lengthy and somewhat subdued answer - hope there is something of use for you in there.

  • @smceccarelli So useful!! Thank you so much for this wonderful insight.

    A few responses:

    • You are absolutely right. I have no story art work to show at the moment. If I decided to go into that, I'd be building from scratch. Characters tend to appeal to me more. But, I am open to learning new skills... I'm on the fence there.

    • Great info about the online courses. Thank you!

    • Games are certainly on my radar. I know how hard it can be to break into Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks. Definitely keeping the door open.

    • At this point, I can relocate and my boyfriend and I are planning on moving in about one year. Destination is open... I just want to get out of DC. So geography is not an issue. And we don't have kids (nor do we want them)... so the time is now!

    Thank you again for your advice/information!

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