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How to Take Control of Your Animation Career Like a BOSS

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Whether freelance or full-time, an animation career takes passion, drive, and intestinal fortitude. Luckily, we've talked to a few experts on how they took control of their careers

Every animator is different. Maybe you dream of the office life, surrounded by the best tech and a dream team. Maybe you want to freelance, bringing your unique voice to dozens of studios and hundreds of projects. In any case, you need to take control of your career to achieve your goals...because no one is going to do it for you.

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We recently had a chance to sit down with animator, show runner, and all-around awesome dude JJ Villard to discuss his new show on Adult Swim, "JJ Villard's Fairy Tales." In our conversation, we covered his journey through the industry, and talked about how he carved his own path and career.

While there is no "one size fits all" approach toward success, we've asked the experts and compiled a few tips that popped up along the way.

  • Define Your Destiny
  • Make Your Work Work For You
  • Failure Only Happens When You Give Up
  • Know Your Weakness, Play to Your Strengths
  • Get Some Sleep
  • Live a Full Life

So grab some snacks and break out that notepad, it's time to take control of your animation career...well, you know.

Define (and Refine) your Destiny

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JJ Villard set out to define his career very early on. Even as a student, he was a creator first. He entered contests, submitted to prestigious festivals, and never let his age or experience define where he belonged. JJ recognized what he wanted to get out of a career...and what he didn't. When he found himself in a dream job, and that dream turned into a nightmare, he left.

Defining your destiny means setting high goals and working tirelessly toward them. Don't just have a vague sense of "wanting to be an animator or motion designer." Pick a dream studio or a dream client and work to get there. Set milestones that show your progress. Most importantly, don't be afraid to take a hard left turn if you find yourself on the wrong path.

For some people, the student-studio-freelance journey is everything they need. For others, it might be building their own company, or diving headfirst into an entirely new career branch. Set your sights high, but be ready to refine that vision as you go.

Making Your Work Work For You

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There is one rule to be an artist: you actually have to create something. If you want to be a writer, you write. If you want to be a director, you direct. If you want to be an animator, you better believe you should be animating. Art is helped by talent, but success comes from hard work and perseverance.

Until that idea in your head exists in the real world, it can't do anything for you. Once it is out in the world, the sky is the limit. Seriously. JJ Villard took a student film, "Son of Satan," and submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival...and it won! CalArts didn't push him to do that; he took the initiative himself.

You don’t need permission from school or your studio to make your work start working for you. You are more than a sum of your assignments, demo reel, or day rate. Enter contests, share that portfolio, and show your growth as an artist.

Failure Only Happens When You Give Up

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JJ created a labor of love in the pilot for King Star King—a show that was radically different than anything Adult Swim had put on air to date—yet it wasn’t picked up for production. Imagine spending so much creative capital on a project only to see it die at the last moment. It's easy to take that kind of loss personally.

Rather than viewing this as failure and killing his creative momentum, JJ came to terms with what happened and viewed it as the next step he needed to find success. Not only did he get JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales on air, King Star King was recognized with AS’s first Emmy!

Failure and rejection are common in creative industries. It's easy to say, "you need to get thick skin," but the reality is that losing stinks. I'm not here to tell you to suck it up, rub some dirt on the wound, and get back in the game. I just want to remind you that it only takes one "yes" to turn your career around. The only way to truly fail is to give up.

Know Your Weakness, Play To Your Strengths

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JJ doesn't consider himself a good animator—he openly admits that he “sucks.” Rather than focusing all his effort at character animation, he recognized his true strength was in storyboarding. Once he accepted his limitations, it turned into his superpower. He was able to exert more creative control than any one single animator would wield. By creating more boards per episode than any other production—something he said comes easy to him but looks “crazy” to his producers—JJ is able to drive exactly what he wants to have happen on the show, while simultaneously delivering work on time and under budget. And the show still animates beautifully, by the way!

You might be a wizard with character design, but your movements look jerky and unnatural. You could build life-like character models, but your rigs never quite work out. First, understand that you don't have to be perfect at everything. There will always be someone better, and you should surround yourself with those people. Instead, focus on the areas where you feel strong and confident.

Get Some Sleep

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There is a common belief among artists that suffering makes for great art. In order to be one of the best, it's commonly thought (and taught) you have to live through hell in some way shape or form. Jewel lived in a van writing her songs, actors have to struggle as waiters, and we'll sleep when we're dead. While we hate to burst anyone's bubble (JK, we love doing that), the reality is that you don't need to suffer to be a great artist.

Self-care is just as important to your creativity as gaining new life experiences. This means eating healthy, giving your body time to rest (and making it work from time to time), and getting some sleep.

There are numerous reasons to get a good night's rest, but let's just focus on your career. Sleep boosts your creative output. While you might come up with a great idea at 2AM, you're in no shape to take action on it. Write it down and go back to bed. JJ makes sure that not only does he get enough rest each day, but so does the rest of his creative team.

There's nothing wrong with loving your work and putting in the extra hours, but don't make that a regular habit. Wake up, get after it, and give yourself a break.

A Life Well Lived

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JJ stresses how important it is to have a wide range of interests and activities outside of the narrow bounds of animation. Besides sharpening his voice with a sketchbook full of daily drawn ideas and observations, JJ really feels the importance of living a well-balanced life. He’s developed the ability to pick an artist out of a lineup when all they’ve learned and lived is animation. To stand out, you’ve got to GET out.

Experiences breed art. You no doubt have heard the expression "write what you know," which seems to imply that you are only capable of telling stories you yourself have experienced. A more accurate line is "write what you understand." You don't have to go out and build a skyscraper to understand the difficulty of manual labor and immensely large projects, but you need to understand hard work and overwhelming breadth.

Give yourself time to get outside and see the world—even if you only go as far as the other side of town. Take up hobbies that push you outside of your normal comfort zone. Read voraciously, and consume the type of media you hope to create. Most importantly, connect with your friends, family, and community. With a refined skillset, rounded experiences, and a healthy support system, you can take control of your career like an absolute boss.

Your Success Is In Your Hands

JJ's advice on taking control of your career is valuable, but it's just one path to take. If you need inspiration, we've compiled some awesome information from the top-performing professionals in the industry. These are answers to commonly asked questions from artists you may never get to meet in person, and we combined them in one freaking sweet book.

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