After a string of animation jobs where I was working so hard that I had to schedule time for washing my clothes, whilst managing people who were struggling in other ways, I realised that it was time for change. The jobs provided great experiences in so many ways, but the workload took its toll. I started to educate myself on mental health and in 2017, I gave my first industry talk on the subject.
Shortly afterwards, through conversations I had with university students and teachers during guest-lectures, it became apparent that many upcoming graduates were concerned about wellbeing and mental health and that many of them felt ill-prepared for what lay ahead.
With the input of colleagues, I have developed a talk for students that integrates their concerns and questions with our experiences of the highs and lows of the industry. This talk forms the basis of all that follows, and includes:
- The challenges and the good stuff
- Finding work
- Ways to cope when you’re out of work
- Mental health and wellbeing
- Resource list
Although my experiences are mainly from an animation perspective, much of what has been written can also be applied to VFX.
YOUR CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS
Prior to giving talks at the Arts University Bournemouth and Norwich University of the Arts, I offered students the chance to complete a short survey that allowed them to express their concerns and questions about joining the industry. These usually fell into one of the categories in the table, with some of the specific questions (summarised and anonymous) shown in the bullet points below.
SPECIFIC CONCERNS RELATING TO:
- Mental Health
- Chronic illness
- Low self-esteem
- Skills gap between study and the industry
- Visas and Brexit
- Financial struggles
- Lack of Security
- Moving home for work
- Work-life balance
- Gap between role they want and the one available
WILL THE INDUSTRY LIVE UP TO MY EXPECTATIONS?
As a child watching cartoons on TV, animation was magic created by people in far-off lands. I drew and imagined and made little flip books, but I didn’t think that I would really work in this industry because it seemed like a dream too far. Yet after travelling down a varied path, here I am and very grateful for it. In my naivety I thought the process of creating animation must be like its outcome; simply wonderful. Whilst parts of it are of course, there are many challenges, some of which are quite unique to animation and the creative industries.
At a high level, there are some simple steps we can take:
THE GOOD STUFF
Be aware of it
Add more of it
THE NOT SO GOOD
Be aware of it
Cope better with it
Learn from it
SOME OF THE CHALLENGES
At the time of writing, we are in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst I do not have enough information on its potential impact, it is deeply concerning for all of us and it may well overshadow many of the other challenges we face for some time to come.
In the meantime, below are some of the hurdles that my colleagues and I have experienced:
- Irregular work and frequent job searches; it’s unpredictable
- This can be especially tough for people struggling with mental health conditions, or chronic illness, for example
- Potentially long hours
- Being asked to work for free/low pay
- Stressful and intense working environments, or even a dull, uncreative environments
- Not getting work in preferred role/frustration at lack of creative input
- Limited on-the-job of training
- A lack in self-esteem due to competitive nature/our own expectations
- Feeling we’re not able to speak up about issues/lack support
- Issues relating to diversity, inclusion and equality
- Not having time to work on our own projects
- Struggling to get our projects funded
Many of these correspond to the concerns raised by students. This highlights not only how much we have to do to develop happier and healthier working practices, but also that many people starting out are already aware of some of the challenges they will face. Awareness is a good starting point.
We may not be able to solve everything, but collectively, we can do better.
THE GOOD STUFF
The glorious thing about animation is that it rolls many art-forms into one, bringing together storytelling, sound, music, visual images and technology in a way that can feel almost limitless. As such, our career paths may be highly varied if we so choose, and technological advancements are frequently opening up opportunities that previously would have been unthinkable. It’s true that you may be asked to work for a low pay in the beginning, but ultimately you can make a good living, with many roles well-paid.
Although often seen as entertainment, animation and VFX offer much more than that; an expression of ourselves, of our dreams, a way to bring up complex topics. Through a well-developed character, we might learn more about ourselves and our relationships. The potential to impact the lives of others is huge, whilst we get to practice our art.
No one is sure how Brexit or Covid-19 will impact our freedom of movement, but there is the potential to work in studios across the globe. And equally, the option to work from home is becoming more frequent, and in present circumstances, quite necessary.
There are some long-term employment contracts to be had, but we often freelance. This may sound difficult, but the variation that this brings can be truly exciting.
And while there is much yet to be done on how we best support each other, the many creative, open-minded and inspiring people in animation and VFX are a joy to work with.
Finding work in a fluctuating industry can be daunting, especially when you are trying to get a foot in the door, but there are key steps that will get you there:
1. Prioritise your best work on your websites and reel
2. Take small steps to improve
3. Keep up to date with the industry
4. Don’t give up
It is important you show your best work, and that means asking for feedback. Remember though, that your areas of perceived weakness can be built upon, and small incremental steps are the perfect way to develop your skills.
In order to find jobs, you can stay ahead by signing up to networking events, groups such as Access VFX and Animated Women UK, attending festivals, following sites such as Cartoon Brew, and following the work of fellow practitioner’s on Instagram, Twitter and similar sites. It’s also good to follow studios on Linkedin, where you’ll see plenty of job postings. Get to know these studios, the specifics of their work and the software they use.
- Applying by email: make it short and friendly but professional; include a link to your work, ideally one folio and one reel, with a CV attached
- If you have a direct contact, great, but jobs’ email addresses do work
- Tests are common in 2D animation, potentially from home; interviews not so much
- In CG and VFX, you’ll likely have an interview
- It’s OK to follow up on enquiries, even if you’ve had a ‘no’ previously
- If you can, move closer to where the work is
- If possible, purchase software whilst you can get it with a student discount
- Find courses that supplement your skills (some really good free/cheap ones online)
- Look for paid internships (free work experience should be avoided/short)
- Some VFX roles offer an apprenticeship, which offers paid training and experience
- Short-term and part-time jobs are fine and sometimes necessary (all jobs will give you valuable skills, e.g. organisational skills)
AND FINDING WORK AGAIN
Once you’ve had that first break, what are the attributes that will contribute to you being hired again by your new industry contacts?
Neil Gaiman gave a wonderful talk that said as long as you’re two of these three, you’ll be seen as an asset; good, pleasant and reliable (link to the talk on the resources page). I tend to agree, but for those starting out, if you are keen and show a willingness to learn, are pleasant to work with, and show a degree of humility, then you are someone who I would want to work with again. Quality of work is of course important, but when I see that people are working on improving their skills, then I recognise that quality will follow.
HOW YOUR JOURNEY MIGHT LOOK:
5 YEAR JOURNEYS FROM GRADUATION TO TODAY
Five years ago I was involved in training a large group of graduate trainees in 2D animation assist. Assisting is an area that some have thrived in, whilst for others this role provided a way in whilst working towards a different career goal.
Your career path may not pan out as you expect, but a winding route may expose you to experiences that you unexpectedly enjoy, or allow you to develop new skills that place you in a better position when you finally start in the role you’ve been working towards.
Here are the career paths of a few of the Ethel and Ernest trainees, between 2015 and now.
HOW WILL I COPE WHEN WORK IS HARD TO COME BY?
You’ve emailed countless studios and have received only two replies, both rejections, whilst three friends have been hired for a feature film. None of the big players seem to be advertising their creative roles, so by the time you hear about a music video you’d love to be part of, the places are filled. You then go for a role advertised by an individual on social media and they tell you’re good to start, but it’s a self-funded project paid only in exposure. Besides, you’d have to work at home, and you can’t afford the software needed.
Your family questions your career choice (you question your career choice!) and you lose self-esteem; you feel ashamed, useless, worthless, an imposter. And not surprisingly, your mental health starts to suffer.
Many of us have been there. Please remember that this situation is normal from time to time, but nothing lasts forever and things will change. We all have periods of perceived failure but it is from these times that we learn and grow. All of the former Ethel and Ethel trainees whose career paths feature here failed to make the grade at their first attempt at the test we set them, but their determination meant they passed second time round.
There may also be times when it seems that no matter how hard you try, your efforts don’t pay off. Sometimes it’s simply out of your hands. For example, it may be a quiet period for the industry, or the person you wrote to is swamped with work and replying to your email has slipped down the priority list. Don’t give up; again, these times will pass.
YOU ARE MORE THAN YOUR WORK
Please remember that you are a valuable human being, regardless of your current work situation.
- Keep making and enjoying your personal projects – it will pay off in time, and besides, you love doing it!
- Take care of yourself and enjoy the other things that life has to offer – relationships, hobbies, mindfulness
- Have fun!
- Get off the social media grid for a bit if needed
- If your mental health is suffering, reach out to a mental health professional, for example, your GP, a counsellor, or a mental health first aider. Mind and Samaritans offer excellent helplines, along with many others
Below are some of the ways I actively improve my wellbeing, particularly during times of struggle.
MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING AT WORK
The results of a recent survey by the Film and TV Charity, which included respondents from animation and VFX, were deeply concerning, and brought to light the need to take more action in terms of mental health and wellbeing. You can find a link to the report in the resources below. It is so important that we learn as much as we can about mental health, its impact and how we can support ourselves and others. Mind’s online resources are a great starting point.
“Good mental health means being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. But if you go through a period of poor mental health you might find the ways you're frequently thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with. This can feel just as bad as a physical illness, or even worse.”
MENTAL HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE - SOME INFORMATION
(Source: Mental Health First Aid Line Managers’ Resource)
Whilst it appears that the creative industries experience a higher rate of mental health issues than others, mental health first aid training provides some more general information:
- One in four people will experience a mental health issue in any given year
- Between one in five and one in six working age adults is depressed, anxious or experiencing stress-related problems at any one time
- Work is beneficial to physical and mental health
- A mental health issue is not a sign of weakness; in fact it can be just the opposite. Determined, energetic, purposeful high achievers can be the most vulnerable, because they push themselves so hard
- Nine out of ten people with mental ill health experience stigma and discrimination
What would an ideal workplace look like? Overall, our studios would be willing to grow and change. Harassment, bullying and discrimation would not be tolerated, people would feel they could speak up about tough issues, and there would be good support systems in place when they did. Stigma around mental health would be stamped out.
Our workforce would be diverse and inclusive in terms of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, chronic illness, social background and age.
We would be able to work to the best of our ability and feel valued and supported in our development, with the offer of training in a broad range of technical, artistic and interpersonal skills where possible. Working hours would be flexible, with reasonable working hours and pay; pay inequality would be a thing of the past.
And to top it off, we’d work in thriving creative environments (even if that’s your front room) whilst continuing to make great work!
HOW CAN I SUPPORT MYSELF?
Looking after ourselves first is so important. Here are some suggestions if you are struggling:
- Open up dialogue on any concerns you may have when you feel able to do so; reach out to friends, peers and/or your manager
- If you don’t want to disclose a condition, such as anxiety, you may wish to bring up certain triggers instead, for example asking to work in a quieter area
- Listen to others and perhaps see things from a different perspective
- Research interpersonal skills that may support your personal growth such as:
- Resilience - helping you cope better and feel well in challenging times
- Communication - for example, finding the best way to approach conflict
- Assertiveness - helping you find the confidence to effectively speak up
- Talk to a mental health first aider if you have access to one
- Seek professional help. This could range from your GP and therapy to careers advice
- Ask your company what support may be available, including training
- Make time for the things you love and for self-care
- Draw it, animate it and write about it!
HOW WILL THE INDUSTRY SUPPORT ME?
Below are organisations that offer support, some of which have helped me along the way:
- Film and TV Charity - offers a free helpline and information
- Access VFX - events, podcasts, mentorship and more covering diversity and inclusion
- Mental Health First Aid - increasingly, studios are training team members in mental health first aid; it provides a confidential and safe space at work to raise any issues related to your mental health, and you will be provided with guidance on how to seek further support
- Employee Assistance Schemes - several of the larger London studios provide this service. As well as a helpline, it entitles employees to a small number of free counselling sessions
- Human Resources (HR) - often only in larger studios, they may be a first point of contact if you have workplace issues you would like to address
- Animated Woman UK - workshops and events to support your development in the industry
- ScreenSkills - offer numerous training schemes and all sorts of information
- Festivus and Access VFX mentorship schemes - if you would like an industry mentor, check these out!
SUPPORTING EACH OTHER
No matter what your role is or where you sit in the hierarchical structure, your voice and your actions count. Every individual can play a part in how the industry shapes up in the future.
We can best support each other by learning about people and how we humans tick. Podcasts, websites on human rights, books on psychology, taking a course on interpersonal skills, and attending talks, are all great ways to go about it.
Listening is so important because it’s an opportunity to hear what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Besides what inherently makes you you, experience has much to do with our perspective and we can collectively grow by understanding one another and being open to change.
As your experience grows, you may start to mentor others, give talks and run workshops. But even in your early days in the industry, just by being aware and supporting yourself and others, you will be making a significant contribution. Let’s keep building on the good whilst finding ways to tackle the challenges, and collectively we can help our industry to thrive.
If you have any comments or questions on anything you have read here, please feel free to contact to me at email@example.com
There are many resources that apply to the topics covered, but here are just a few:
The Film and TV Charity (helpline and all sorts of support):
Mindful Employer (Useful guides for individual as well as employer):
World Health Organisation
WHO – ‘I had a black dog, his name was depression’ on Youtube
Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ speech at Art Matters Live