Happy 4th of July!
I’m now officially independent from DreamWorks Animation. So not only will I be celebrating the United States’ Independence today, but also my own. This week has been great because for the first time I have been able to be open to tell people what my plans are, and I have been getting some interesting reactions. Some people look at me like I’m crazy, and you can see the eye roll and thought bubble saying “never going to happen!”. On the other extreme are the people that get really excited, and start talking about exchanging contact information so that they can come work with me. Most people seem to fall somewhere in-between these two extremes. I guess these reactions are to be expected, since most people do not try and start their own animation company. I also ran into some people that opened up to me about their own entrepreneurial efforts that they are secretly working on.
I started this blog by saying that I have a job at a dream company, and that I planned to leave that company. Well, that time is upon us, and next week will be my last week working at DreamWorks Animation. I have been keeping the name of the company I was working at a secret until I made them aware of my intentions. Now that they are aware, and my end date is official there is no longer a reason to keep it a secret. I have worked at DreamWorks Animation for over 6 years now, and in that time I have worked on the movies Monsters vs Aliens, Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar 3, Home!, and several shorts. It has been an amazing experience that gave me the opportunity to work for a great company with some of the most talented people in the industry. It is these amazing people that I will miss the most… closely followed by the free lunch. I’m currently working on the feature film Home! as the modeling and surfacing production supervisor. Home! was scheduled to be released this November, but was pushed out to March of 2015. I knew when I started on Home! back in March of 2012 that it would be my last film I would work on at DreamWorks, and have been planning around that these last few years. It always seemed so far away, and it’s hard to believe that I only have 1 week left.
When I was younger and first started to dream about doing what Walt Disney did I always thought I would name my company as he did. I built my dreams around the idea of Eric Miller Animation, so now that I’m actually starting my studio there was never much thought about what it would be called. Although, through my experience in the industry I have heard of downsides to naming it after the founder. At this point it is hard for me to think of the studio as anything else, and there are a few reasons why I still plan to name my studio Eric Miller Animation.
This Sunday I attended day 2 of the Produced by Conference that was held at the Warner Bros. Studio lot. It was a great experience, and I’m very glad I was able to attend. The Produced by Conference is a conference for producers by producers, and is put on each year by the Producers guild of America. This is the 6th year of the conference, but only my first year going. It is made up of different guest speakers and panels of industry experts, and I signed up for 4 panel discussions that I would like to share with you.
Credibility: the quality of being trusted and believed in. Getting my first client will be one of my biggest challenges due to a lack of credibility. Most people want to see what you can do, and in this field that normally means your portfolio of past work. Starting a new studio I won’t have a portfolio to show prospective clients. Yes, I have 6+ years of experience working at a major animation studio, and in that time have worked on 4 animated movies and 3 animated shorts in different production capacities. The problem is I can’t use these projects to show what my studio is capable of. Sure, I can use them to give credibility to my experience in managing a project, but I won’t be able to show what we as a new studio can do artistically. I will either need to get a client to blindly take a chance with my studio, or find a way to create a portfolio. I like a challenge, but I’m not going to set myself up for failure by believing anyone will blindly take a chance on me. I have talked with some artists that know of companies in this situation that had used work from the artists they will be working with to make a demo reel from the collective body of work. After all if the studio finds work that also means work for those artists. This brings up a new set of challenges, but this seems to be my best option. I will need to check with the artists I’m working with to see if they are comfortable with this idea. After the studio creates its own work we will be able to update the demo reel with work done through the studio.
Now that we know what the journey is, let me tell you where I’m currently at. In order to do this I will have to rewind a little first. I mentioned earlier I went to school at the University of Toledo to study animation. Although I’m very happy with my time there it might not have prepared me as well as a school here in Los Angeles might have. The animation program was really just one animation class, and it was saved for seniors. The rest of it was graphic design and web design courses. After my first semester I was able to prove to my instructor that I was ready for the senior animation class, and took it my second semester. For the classes final project I made my first animated short called “ChessMate“. It was a story about a chess pieces that came to life after the people left. The king did not appreciate what he had (his queen), and after seeing the other queen and her fallen king he got an idea. His greed to have more then he needed left him with nothing. After taking the only animation class my first year I ended up with nothing to move up to. I talked with my professor, and he basically created a class for me. It involved me coming up with another idea for an animated short, and then spending the semester working on it. Since I was going beyond what they taught I ended up having to teach myself. This turned out to be very valuable to me, since it forced me to figure things out on my own. I had to think outside the box to find better, faster ways of getting it finished. It also taught me to set my own goals, and milestones. At the end of the semester and many hours of late nights, and many computers rendering my shots for weeks I was left with my second and final animation I would do in college. I called this animation “Mediocrity” and it was about a creature that was not happy with his current life(I’m only now starting to see a underlining theme in my projects). He imagined his reflection in the mirror had a better life then he did, and thought if he could only get to that other side of the mirror things would be better. In the end he realized that he has to make his own life, and take action in improving the life that he has instead of trying to live someone else’s life. After college I moved back home to Canton, Ohio with my parents to get things in order before making the move out to Los Angeles.
It took me several years, and a lot of hard work, to land a job at a dream company, but now I plan to leave. It was almost 9 years ago that I packed up my 1999 Toyota Camry with as much as I could fit in it, and left my home in Canton, Ohio for my new home in Los Angeles, California. My plan was to get a job at an animation company, and I knew this journey I just set off on was not going to be an easy one. I did not have a job, and barely had a place to live. The only thing I did have was a hope that it would all work out. Within that first month I was able to find a less temporary place to stay in a spare bedroom of a friend’s sister’s apartment, and a job at an Apple Computer Store as a sales specialist. I wasn’t having any luck getting a job at an animation company, or even getting an interview for that matter. I was beginning to realize that my training in Ohio left me ill-equipped to land a position, and the reality that I knew nothing about this industry was starting to set in. In Ohio, where I went to college, my professors told me that if I wanted to become a producer in animation I would have to become an animator, and work my way up. After taking additional animation classes out here in Los Angeles at UCLA my professor asked me what I was trying to do. I replied “an animation producer”, which he replied back with “then why are you trying to be an animator?” He explained that I should be trying to get a job as a production assistant, and move my way up that way. This was a real eye opener for me, and I had to completely change my strategy. I now was trying to get a production assistant job, but that did not seem any easier than getting a job as an animator. To make things worse, my limited savings were starting to run out. There was a few times I feared I would run out of money, and would be force to move back to Ohio. I would have to put my hunt for animation jobs on hold to take work that was not in the industry to pay the bills. I had several different jobs out here from cold-calling home owners trying to get them to refinance their mortgages to an assistant store manager position at Walgreens. I actually was making great money at Walgreens, but hated the job. I made the decision to leave my position there to continue on my journey and take a risk of running out of savings. Eventually I was able to get a position at a large production company, and that eventually lead me to my current position at a major animation studio. How that all worked out is an interesting story for another time, and a later post. I have now been working at this company for almost 7 years, and as mentioned I plan to leave.