Are animators in exile?

Yes, as well as all the other positions that entail production for feature animation.

August 2000 was my entry in the industry, the tail end of in-house traditional feature animation in California. Los Angeles had been the mecca for feature animation production and I moved from New York to be a part of it. Those days did not offer civilians GPS, rather the Thomas Guide, a thick book of map in every Californian’s car. Moving far from home, as what I consider a kid now, became a life I hadn’t anticipated. I worked harder than I realized I could and held a career in L.A. for ten years. I jumped around studios at the beginning and spent my last seven years at Disney. College graduates are ready and willing to relocate however I can say from experience that people really are strange when you’re a stranger. It took time to understand the societal norms and I learned by offending some sensitive folks. I still managed to keep employed despite my initial ignorance to politics in the industry. Looking back I’m not sure I could’ve properly prepared myself however I know my work ethic is why I stayed employed all that time.

I worked with many people who had uprooted their families from Canada, England, Ireland, France, Spain, Australia, Japan, etc. to work in California. They were “animators” in exile with a long-term contract from one of the large union based studios. Moving the family and buying a house for the sake of a job in animation was reasonable during the 80’s and 90’s.

Los Angeles is no longer the hub it once was. The big studios are still there however they’re starting to send their employees out of state or country. California isn’t giving animation studios a big enough incentive to completely produce in state and although I find it depressing I can’t really blame them for leaving.

Most of the foreigners I worked with were later laid off. The difference between them and Americans was their work visas. Even if they owned a house and lived there for years, they still had to leave the country after a short span of time if they couldn’t find employment. I worked with a Canadian at Disney who was let go and with no success finding a new position he packed up his family and left his house vacant until it sold.

Relocating is either a nightmare, an exciting adventure or simply not possible. Younger people just out of school are typically willing and consider working on shows all over the world. Others with a spouse and children are usually forced to figure out a different plan. Although there are so many animation related opportunities outside the entertainment industry they aren’t as obvious and sexy as seeing your work on the big screen. An animation student’s goal is working in entertainment but it’s time to start opening our minds to the broad range of animation work in other fields.

There are so many uses for 3D animation other than the entertainment industry. Do you really need to see your name in the credits? Is it worth all the trouble when educators spanning from the medical industry to elementary schools are using 3D animation to convey topics to their students? Ted Ed located in New York City uses animators from all over the globe. Graphic designers, interior designers, landscape designers, automotive designers, the pharmaceutical industry, sports and many other industries rely on 3D animation. Are animators really in exile? If animators are limiting themselves to entertainment then most likely yes, they will find themselves in exile. For those who are ready to look outside the “glamorous” box, you just might find work in your own neck of the woods.

Lauren Carr is an Assistant Professor in the Animation / Illustration Department at Montclair State University. She lives with her husband Mark and their daughter Dakota Rose in the Hudson Valley Region of New York. Lauren worked in feature animation as a character technical director for 14 years prior to her position at Montclair State University.