So a number of you have asked me questions lately about how I got my job at Walt Disney Imagineering and if I could offer any advice on how to break into this industry. Honestly, I don’t feel I’m the best person to ask since I never actually sought out this job (I was head-hunted), but I have learned a lot over the last few years about this industry and the people in it that some of you may find helpful.
First of all, a few of you expressed some anxieties or concerns about your own skill levels or the difficulty of getting “the dream job.” So let me just start off by saying that we ALL have those anxieties! You are not alone! Everyone I have ever known in the animation world has experienced those feelings, including me. When I was finishing up college, I was stressing and worrying all the time, thinking I was never gonna get a real studio job, up until the very day I got my internship at Disney Interactive. We never think we are good enough until all of a sudden we have that job. And even then, you continue to feel like maybe you’re not quite up to the task! But it turns out, everyone feels that way! So don’t worry so much! And know that you are your own harshest critic. You are doing much better than you think you are doing.
Several of you have also asked about what you can do now to help you get a job in the future. I think one of the most valuable things you can do is to connect with people. Every job I have gotten so far has been the result of some connection I had, whether it was a professor, classmate, friend, or even friend of a friend. I got contacted about the job at Imagineering because one of the artists there went to the same school I did and our old professors referred her to me. Of course, you also have to have the skills and talent to do the job, but if no one knows you, they’ll never know to consider you in the first place! Those connections were definitely some of the most valuable things I took away from my college experience. And if you don’t have the opportunity to make those connections through school, you can always use the internet! Every cool artist you admire is actually just a totally normal, nerdy person. And most of them are super nice. So don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you need advice or help or just want to connect.
Also, I think every aspiring artist should watch this:
It’s a speech given by Neil Gaiman about being an artist, and he addresses a lot of the anxieties we all face in our careers. I can honestly say that this speech changed my life. I know people say that all the time to be dramatic, but I’m serious. It changed the way I think about my art and my decisions and my goals for the future, and I’ve experienced significantly less anxiety since then.
Also, while I’m pulling from the wisdom of others, I want to share a passage from a book appropriately titled “Art and Fear” which also had a significant impact on me. It reads:
'Often fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student - well, David Bayles, to be exact - who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.”
To which the Master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”
That’s why they’re called Masters. When he raised David’s discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution - and it should be. Vision, Uncertainty, and Knowledge of Materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.’
In simple terms, things will always look better in your head than you can get them to look on paper. And that’s good! That’s what pushes you to work harder and improve and that’s how it should be! Your skills of execution will never catch up with your vision, because the better and better you get, the more awesome your vision will become! Once you understand that and really accept it, it stops being frustrating and becomes a powerful motivator! Seriously, ever since I learned that, I have felt so much better about my work. Because now I know that when things don’t turn out quite as I had imagined them, that’s okay! And that’s normal! And ironically, I feel like I have improved a lot faster since I accepted that fact and stopped being so hard on myself. Like I said, you are your own harshest critic. And you’re doing much better than you think.
Just don’t give up, and don’t get discouraged. I know it can seem impossible at times, but also remember that there are no time limits! Some people get the dream job when they’re 20, some people get it when they’re 50. There is no deadline! The important thing is, as Neil Gaiman put it, that you’re always making progress towards “the mountain”, even if your steps are small. And also remember that the dream job, that “mountain” doesn’t always come with a super-well-known name attached to it. You may end up getting a job doing character design or animation (or both!) for some tiny app game studio no one has ever heard of. And that job could be just as fun and exciting and satisfying as working for Disney. (Some people even prefer the small studio scene!) So don’t be so focused on getting into one of the big-name studios that you fail to recognize other potentially awesome opportunities. If you end up working for Pixar or Dreamworks, great! But if you don’t, you can still be deliriously happy working somewhere less well-known. That’s what I always thought would happen to me. (Seems ironic now…) But my goal was never “I want to work for Disney.” It was always “I want to get paid to draw.” And with a goal that open, it was pretty easy to feel happy and satisfied with whatever work I was doing.
So keep practicing, keep studying, and always be nice to people. Work hard, but don’t stress too much. And be diligent, but don’t drive yourself crazy. There’s a lot more to life than just making art, so don’t forget to live the other parts too.
Most importantly, just remember that there is no secret ingredient (just like in Kung Fu Panda) that magically makes someone a successful artist. Anyone can do this. It’s like they say in Ratatouille. ”Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”