Why are so many people infatuated with Walt Disney? Without a doubt, the studio creates clever films that are enjoyable for the whole family. As well as, the remarkable animation that has the power to remove viewers from their everyday lives into mystical worlds. But above all, what stands out the most in Walt Disney productions? The characters. Disney characters are hard to forget. Belle and the Beast are forever ingrained in the mind of those who grew up with this timeless film, Beauty and the Beast. How can we forget the iconic duo of fluffy, blue and purple-spotted Sully and grinning, one-eyed Mike from Monsters, Inc? Everyone can envision an animated character that made their childhood memorable. Whether the character is from a TV series, a video game, or a movie; a remarkable character can feel like a best friend.
This isn’t just luck, characters are made to form connections with their audience. The people behind these remarkable characters are called character designers. Character designers design for a wide variety of industries, such as books, TV series, movies, and games. They invest time and effort into creating characters that entice viewers to get invested in the story. Although character design isn’t just about selling people on an idea, character design is crucial in the video game and animated television industry to make audiences invest time and money into the production. In order to achieve this, character designers must know what character will look like in different emotional situations and in a variety of positions. Multiple years of education help to ensure that a character design can accomplish this.
A character designer also needs a wide range of skills, some even out of the field of art. Character design is a beneficial and essential career for our world today as they are broadening the field of entertainment by introducing new, exciting, relatable characters everyone can enjoy. The field presents a good career option since there will always be a need for entertainment and the economic outlook is growing.
However, even with this demand, there is still a stigma that you can’t make a living as an artist. Hence, the phrase “a starving artist.” That type of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment of multimedia artists and animators is projected to grow 4 percent from 2018 to 2028.” There are so many things that demand our attention and character design is used as a way to catch the attention of people. For example, in gaming the announcement of new characters keeps consumers interested about future and existing games. Sports, movies, comics, toys, and advertisements, all require character design for businesses. A logo may be the face of a business reflecting and reminding us of its products, credibility, and goals. Similarly, character design can reflect and remind us of a story, game, or franchise (Eggleston, 00:00:24 – 00:01:35). The artistic field presents so many different paths. For example, within character design, designers have the option of being freelance or being a full-time studio employee. Freelance designers are self-employed. Whereas, full-time employees are employed by studios, such as Walt Disney, Pixar, or Blue Sky. With so many opportunities, paths, and the critical need for them, character designers have never had such a wide field of opportunities open to them. Character design has never been so important.
Although there are character designers hired because of their sheer talent and creativity with only a high school diploma (CareerIgniter), a bachelor’s degree in computer graphics, fine arts, animation, and related fields are looked for by employers. These programs give aspiring character designers the opportunity to develop their portfolios and technical skills that employers prefer (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). One college that has a good art program is the California Institute of Art, also known as CalArts. CalArts offers a Character Animation program, as well as an Experimental Animation program through their School of Film and Video. The Character Design program provides a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
Through this program, students develop an understanding of animated storytelling and character performance within a four-year curriculum. Those in the program can also work toward Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in fine arts within the CalArts Experimental Animation program (California Institute of the Arts). The acceptance rate of CalArts is extremely competitive, with an acceptance rate of 23%. California Institute of Art’s acceptance average GPA is 3.34. CalArts also requires applications to take either the SAT or ACT. The average SAT average is 1160. Therefore, you should aim for 1310 to be more likely accepted (CampusReel). Aside from GPA and SAT/ACT averages, other prerequisites are encouraged. Like many art schools, CalArts require portfolios when applying (California Institute of the Arts).
Although not stated, taking an AP level high school art class is encouraged. Additionally, during the application process for CalArts, it is required to have two letters of recommendation (California Institute of the Arts). Laura Price, an animation artist who’s worked for Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, said that attending art school “isn’t a golden ticket into the industry, you have to have the skills to back it up. Art schools can provide the tools artists need to improve quickly, but only if you are willing to listen to critique and put in the work” (Price, 00:07:27 – 00:07:40). Attending art school isn’t in any way required to get into the industry, but it can assist in skills, knowledge, and connections.
In order to become successful, a character designer needs to exemplify certain qualities. Character designers are responsible for taking the concept of a character and making that character come to life. However, in order to get to this, the designer not only needs artistic abilities but also mental requirements. Luri Lioi, in his paper, “Framework for the Development of Schemata in Character Design for Computer Animation” explains, “The activity of designing characters for computer animation demands a great deal of complex problem-solving and decision-making techniques.
It requires combining aspects from the story, subjective ideas and abstract visual elements, such as lines, shapes, colors, in order to generate a character that can be understood and believable” (3). Both problem-solving and decision-making aren’t taught within a college course. Character design requires a specific mental approach needed when designing a character and combining that with the elements and principles of art. Lioi says, “Every decision the designer makes changes the set of possible solutions for the character design” (24). Art is based on decisions, for example, whether or not to incorporate bright tones or dark tones. This is the same for character design, the artist needs to make conscious decisions on how to generate a character that will reflect the end production goal.
Besides mental requirements, character designers need communication skills, computer skills, time-management, and of course artistic talent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). To succeed in this career it is necessary to work well with teams and respond back to criticism and feedback. At times, your design will be sent back by your supervisors for revisions or a complete redo (Price, 00:05:17 – 00:05:59). During these situations, you need to respond in a proper manner and communicate with others on what needs improvement.
Character design is also a group effort. Artists are encouraged to check in with the production manager or their production coordinator on that project or even check in with the other employees with your same job title (Price, 00:05:59 – 00:06:12). Meaning you should be able to work with others well. Animation has moved to the technological age, now more than ever characters are being designed through online software. Therefore, computer skills are important within this field. In fact, Beth David, a Junior Animator for Blue Sky Studio, said she relies on her Cintiq and the industry-standard software, Mia, in order to animate every day. Since character design is mainly for video games, TV, and movies there are deadlines that must be met. Aspiring character designers need to be able to manage their time effectively with these often tight deadlines. Finally, this is an artistic field so artistic talent is required. The ability to understand the elements and principles of design is crucial.
A typical day for a character designer can vary depending on the type of designer, freelance or studio employed. Personally, I will be focusing on studio employed character designers. Employed “character designers typically work in a studio or office for animation studios, video game companies, motion pictures and similar industries” (CareerIgniter). In an interview, Beth David described her work environment at Blue Sky Studio. She said, “I right now work at a studio which is just sort of an office. Everyone has a cubicle and we all have our computer set up. We have different screening rooms and stuff like that. Different workrooms where we can collaborate. We have reference rooms where we shoot our reference if we’re acting out a performance. Sometimes the animators will go to a room and act them out before we start animating it so that we have some point of reference.” Within this environment, daily activities consist of working on creating new episodes, sequels, or game levels.
Often, those in animation will be given a project with a specified deadline. Projects can vary based on your position. Projects include designing backgrounds, characters, outfits, expressions, and more. While working on their project it is typical for them to check in with supervisors to approve their work (David). The job is often full time, however, they may have to put in many overtime hours if they are already in the crunch hours of beating a deadline for a project. Beth David said that at Blue Sky the hours are a regular eight-hour workday. They start at nine, finish at six, with a one-hour lunch break during the day. She also said, “It is pretty common for us to work overtime. So when the movie is in crunch time, often we’ll have a regular forty-hour workweek and then you also have to do ten hours of week at least of overtime. Sometimes there are mandatory Saturdays where you have to work an eight hour day, but that’s only when it gets really, really crazy.” The work can be stressful and demanding but can be very fulfilling especially after they see the final product of their time and effort (CareerIgniter).
Pay differs in terms of several factors, however, the average pay according to the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for multimedia artists and animators was 72,520 in May 2018. That estimate is not the salary data specifically for character designers. It is only the salary information for the broader occupational category of multimedia artists and animators. To truly understand how much animation artists get paid it is necessary to understand how a labor union works. Most of the big studios in Los Angeles are part of the Animation Guild. Such as studios like Disney, DreamWorks, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony.
When you’re hired at one of these Animation Studios in a position under the Guild’s jurisdiction you would join the Animation Guild too after 30 days of employment. There is also an initiation fee to join the Guild and pay dues a few times a year . The Animation Guild is a union that “negotiate wage minimums and working conditions, provide pension, and health benefits” through collective bargaining under a collective bargaining agreement (The Animation Guild). In other words, the Guild makes sure that artists are paid a minimum amount and given things like sick days, vacation days, and paid overtime. In the master collective bargaining agreement, the minimum pay increases with time and your minimum will increase the longer you’ve worked at a studio. “You’ll have a certain minimum for your first six months, your second six months. Once you’ve worked for a year as an artist you get the journey pay” . The journey minimum pay for the last collective bargaining agreement was 2,064 dollars per week for character designers.
This number is before taxes, which decrease the amount of money in each weekly payment. In the entertainment industry, many positions aren’t salaried. Therefore, there isn’t a yearly salary. Animation positions don’t typically last a year and if they do there’s usually going to be a hiatus. For example, on TV there could be a two-month break during the year between seasons and hiatuses are unpaid. It is also typical for TV shows or movies to be canceled at any point, leaving those employed laid off . Overall, 2,064 dollars weekly is just the minimums studios under the Guild will pay, but different projects are going to have different budgets also factoring into your income. However, some studios aren’t in the Animation Guild. Therefore not requiring them to go by the Union minimums. A big box studio we all know, Pixar is not in the Animation Guild. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have lower rates of pay than other animation studios in Los Angeles. With all of this in mind, there is no specific pay and several factors go into how much a character designer can earn.
There are limited hidden benefits to being a character designer, but the few that are available still make the career a great one to be involved in. One of the biggest benefits is the opportunity of being around other creative minds. This means everybody likes similar things and you get to talk about movies all the time (David). One of the other major benefits is paid work trips. Depending on where you are in the career, artists may be given the opportunity to travel different locations around the world to photograph and draw the scenery which will be incorporated within a TV show, film, video game, etc. However, these types of full pay work trips are rare (David). Other times, artists may get the opportunity to attend the movie premiere. In which case, they could meet the celebrities who voice the characters. Similar to other offices, after teams finish a big project there is a celebration or wrap party.
There aren’t any particular issues facing the animation career, but there are disadvantages to being a character designer. The industry is relatively small making the field rather competitive. On top of that, everyone is extremely talented. These combined make it a tough field to get into. As said before, it is common to have overtime. The industry is based on projects with deadlines for movies, games, and shows; therefore overtime is inevitable. An upside to the necessary overtime is some studios provide paid overtime. Studios within the Animation Guild or required to provide paid overtime. However, studios like Pixar aren’t technically required to follow that rule. When deciding a place of work non-paid overtime is definitely a disadvantage since this is a common occurrence. With this overtime comes another disadvantage, a separate work-life balance.
Art is a personal thing for many artists that it is hard to create that separation from work and life. Different studios prioritize this separate more and others value it less (David). Beth David spoke on how Blue Sky Studio values this separation. She said, “Blue Sky does do its best to make sure the artists are working, but not working too hard. That we have when hours are over people go home. They really want to enforce a happy and healthy environment” (David). However, Ms. David also stated, “I have friends who work at places that are kind of pushing insane eight work weeks, which I can’t imagine doing. Though it definitely depends on where you are working and it depends on what field of animation you’re working in as well. There are definitely places where work-life balance is less of a priority for the studio.” The competitive field, common over time, and work-life balance should be kept in mind when entering the profession of character design.
By getting a more in-depth look into the occupation of character design has made me more interested in becoming one. Initially, I was drawn to the field since it involves art and design. Since I was little I’ve always enjoyed drawing characters and watching animated TV shows and movies. After realizing there was an occupation that combined these two hobbies I was ecstatic and new I had to research this topic. This job holds the opportunity to create iconic characters that people will remember for years to come. Pursuing this career would be a great fit for my skills and interests. In general, character designers contain very good communication skills, problem-solving, and decision making.
Being able to uphold these traits in my life currently shows that these skills will continue to advance in this career. The courses one would have to take to pursue in character design, truly interest me. Already having an interest in the future courses will allow me to be excited about pursuing a job. The working hours of a character designer wouldn’t interfere with my lifestyle in the future. In one week, the average amount of hours is forty. Most days are at least eight hours. Although overtime is inevitable, in my opinion it is worth it. Finding an employer that values work-life separation would allow me to spend time with my family and have time for myself during the week. In the future, becoming a character designer would be a perfect fit for my lifestyle.
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