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Building Your Career from Getting In to Getting It All

Steve Hickner’s 5 Rules for Animators: Insights for Longevity in Your Animation Career



If you are having trouble viewing this session you can view directly on VIMEO at: http://vimeo.com/37779709
Filmed on Location CTN animation eXpo 2011
November 19th, 2011

As with any life goal or aspiration, anyone can start, but staying in and finishing well is what’s important. In the CTNx 2011 workshop, “Building Your Career from Getting In to Getting It All,” industry veteran Steve Hickner shares a wealth of wisdom and experience about how to become and stay relevant in your career in animation.

 Steve asks the question, “What happened to all the people that started when I did (32 years ago)?” He noted that there were few of his original peers who are still in the industry, with the exception of his friend and colleague Tina Price (Founder of CTN), who entered the field the same year Steve began his career in animation. He went on to share a wealth of information that anyone in the animation industry would love to hear.

Steve Hickner has spent the past thirty-two years (since 1979) working at some of the most fabled studios in animation including: DreamWorks, Disney, Amblimation, Aardman, Hanna-Barbera and Filmation. He has worked on such films as: American Tail II: Fievel Goes West, We’re Back! A Dinosaur Story, and Balto. His director credits include Bee Movie and The Prince of Egypt. In addition, he has contributed to such feature films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Little Mermaid, The Great Mouse Detective, Antz, Shark Tale, Madagascar, Over the Hedge and others. His television credits include such favorites as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

At the opening of this workshop Steve shares some funny and real stories of famous Hollywood actors lives before they had their big break. George Clooney, for example, was in 15 failed pilots before getting a decent gig. He used to make calls pretending to be his own agent, and didn’t have a real agent until he was on ER at age 35. 

”This is part of the game,” says Steve. “There is a struggle to get in. It’s hard.”

Here are 5 Rules Steve hits on and key points regarding each rule: 
(Notes: I’ve included quotation marks wherever a quote is cited verbatim. Because of the casual nature of the workshop presentation, I combined and reordered some of the information for organizational flow.)

Rule #1: Know the Players in the Field
•    Know the key players and their filmography.
•    Steve clipped Disney executives pictures from trade magazines and made a chart on his wall of names and roles as each new person was hired. This helped him recognize them and proved to be pivotal years later when many of them left to go to Dreamworks (where Steve currently works).
•    He did the same thing in London during production of American Tale II.
•    When Steve was at Disney, he came in at 6:30am and even though he was just an in-betweener (working on the Black Cauldron), Jeffrey Katzenberg knew him by name because he saw him early every morning in the parking lot.


Rule #2: You Must Become A Student of Your Discipline

•    Watch the classics. Know your field. Make it a lifelong commitment.
•    ”You are a product. You have to sell yourself.” (Personal note: I’ve seen this first hand as we’ve pitched shows to studios. You are pitching yourself WAY more than you are pitching your IP!)
•    If you are a college student, take advantage of this season of life. You will never have the opportunity to dedicate so much time to your craft as you do now (before you marry, have kids, etc.).
•    His first day at NYU Film School he realized how well seasoned the other students were. “If you can’t find the weakest guy in the room‚ it’s you! You don’t want to be that guy. Because that guy is the first guy out!”
•    Discipline means you have to study. (Personal note: Discipline is agrarian, not microwavable. You plant now and harvest later. You have to sacrifice. The pay off comes after the pain.)

Rule #3: Know the Culture
•    People in the industry will talk in short hand. You need to know history. If someone says, “Real Steel is Rocky meets Transformers,” you need to know what that means.
•    Everyone says “No” in Hollywood. You have to persevere. You have to do what it take to move the needle from “No” to “Yes.” Breakdown every reason someone might say “No.”
•    Alpha achievers…decision makers in Hollywood have egos. Be sure to let them talk about themselves.
•    Don’t be difficult to work with.
•    Don’t think a studio will be around for ever. He cited Tom Sito who said, “Every studio is 2 flops away from being out of business.” Most places have a shelf life.
•    Don’t miss deadlines! “If you deliver, you will start separating yourself from your peers. If you say you’re going to do something and do it, you will start to separate. Drive and ambition are the gifts you give yourself.”

Rule #4: You Must Have Skills That Are In Demand
•    Go to school. The national unemployment rate is around 10% but for those with a college degree it is only 5%.
•    Constantly be a student of your field. Reinvent yourself every 3-5 years. “In five years time, if you’re doing the same job you were doing five years previously you are on the road to extinction.”
•    ”If the ship is sinking, bail out. This is not the Navy.” Find relevant skills.
•    ”Only 6 of 30 films (Transformers, Hangover, FastFive, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2 and SpyKids 4) last summer were seen by more people under 25, than over 25. That’s a monumental shift. For years movies were made for 14-22 year olds.”
•    The movie industry seems to be leveling or even declining. Age demographics show movies core demo (14-22) moving from cinema to gaming for their entertainment. Gaming is becoming more narrative because of this. Call of Duty 3 made $850 million in 1 week. This is unprecedented.
•    There’s a bigger market for animators now than at any other time. He predicts the bulk of the work will be CG (because of the combination of CG films and games.)
•    He saw the 2D decline at Disney after Lion King. After working as a director on Prince of Egypt he went to work for Aardman to have something additional to 2D on his resume, then he storyboarded on SharkTale to break into CG.
•    ”Be the canary in the mine shaft. Watch what’s going on in the biz.”
•    Steve also hit on the current state of the economy (as did the CAO workshop leaders [link to previous post]). He only worked 10 weeks in 1982 after the recession of 1981 created a 10% unemployment rate in California. He mentioned that (at the time of the CTNx 2011 workshop) the unemployment rate in California was at 12%.

Rule #5: Follow Opportunity, Not Money
•    Work hard and bide your time. Wait for the right opportunity. “I built my whole career this way.”
•    “ I would work hard then ask for an opportunity, even if it had less pay.” The opportunity is more important than the pay.
•    Surround yourself with the best people you can find.
•    Take opportunities where you are the “last chair in the band” (referring to his high school days trying out for the school band) so you have plenty of others to learn from. If you have a choice between being the top guy in the “B” band and the bottom guy in the “A” band, pick the latter.

I really enjoyed this workshop from Steve Hickner. One of the things I love about CTNx is that you get to hear a variety of perspectives from different artists and industry veterans. The key things they all have in common are a love for their craft and a determination to persevere and succeed regardless of any barriers to entry. I’m thankful that they choose to give back by sharing their wealth of knowledge and experience!

The above written by: Todd Hampson
Todd Hampson founded an animation development and production company called Timbuktoons, LLC in 2003, was the Executive Producer for 5 independent direct to video DVDs, has produced over 30 hours of animated content for other companies, and has developed several show concepts, licensed characters, and has been a professional artist for over 20 years in both the Washington, DC, and Atlanta, GA metro areas.

Thanks Todd!

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