Friday, May 27, 2005

It's a very small business indeed

I got to thinking about just how cool it is that I get to do what I do for a living. It got me to thinking just how small this niche really is. Check this out…

Based on various conversations and public data this is my very rough estimate of the number of professional character animators working in feature film animation/service studios in North America:

Disney Feature: 60
Dreamworks-Glendale: 40
Dreamworks-PDI: 40
Pixar: 80
Sony Imageworks/Animation: 60
ILM: 50
Digital Domain: 20
O-mation: 30
Blue Sky: 35
DNA: 30
CORE: 30
Rhythm & Hues: 20
Other feature film service shops (Tippett, Wildbrain, Orphanage, Hydraulix, Blur, Vinton, Warner Bros., ReelFX, etc.) approx 150.

Rough Est. Total: 650
Of course I'm not right on the money with these estimates, but as a ballpark number, I think this is a pretty good first whack. If I were to include other animation film studios outside North America like WETA, Animal Logic, Aardman and more my guess is the worldwide total of character animators working on top end film projects is less than 1,000 max.

Compare that to...

Number of professional football players on NFL team rosters: 1,696
Number of professional baseball players on MLB team rosters: 750
Number of professional basketball players on NBA rosters: 450
Number of air traffic controllers in the US: 675

On the other side of the coin, consider this:

2,000 Secret Service "special agents" in the US
7,250 jobs at sound recording studios in the US
15,600 locksmiths in the US
22,200 winery jobs in the US
28,600 taxi drivers in the US
35,000 jobs at nuclear power facilities in the US
69,900 graphic design service jobs in the US
71,000 museum jobs in the US
115,000 jobs in broadcast radio in the US
127,000 jobs in broadcast TV in the US
530,000 mining jobs in the US
593,000 insurance agents in the US
1mil law firm jobs in the US
2.58mil grocery store jobs in the US
2.9mil fast food jobs in the US


The numbers don't lie. I'm sure there are millions in this land who would love to be film animators. Only a few hundred are. Our work will be judged in the crucible of the market and under the unflinching review of our peers. We need to be at the top of our game, collectively and individually. Just like being a professional athlete is a special privilege and honor it's an equally high honor to work at this level in this field. It takes commitment, serious effort and a driving desire (on top of your God given talent) to be the best you can be. The ones who make it are among a special group. We should take that honor seriously, consider what it takes to not only get to this level, but to stay at it, succeed at it and excel at it. We are the very, very, very few who can say that we make animated films for a living. Take pride in that and work hard to maintain that honor.

OK, that oughta get your engine revving!


Anonymous said...

So, if film animators are equated to MLB, does that put us game animators in the minor leagues or something? Boo! :) Seriously though, I've learned it takes some serious skill and strong fundamentals to sell fast action in games and I've become a better animator for it. Plus we have to do it in less than half of the time in most cases.

Don't forget 'bout us game guys!

Keith Lango said...

Well Adam, you're free to draw your own conclusions :o) I wasn't trying to put anybody else down, just noting how special it is to do what I do for a living. Any perceived slight is on the receiving end of the transmission, not the broadcasting end. :o)
The majority of my career has been spent in video, not film, so I know what life is like out there. Much of that was by my own choice. Yet some of it was the fact that there was a time when I wasn't good enough to be in film. I'm willing to admit that and I'm more than OK with it. I needed to get better, and those video gigs were great places to learn and get better. (and make friends and have a great time while you're at it). Sure there are plenty of good animators not working in film. I know many of them. And it's not like working in film validates you as a human being, that's something no job can do for you. And I never said that you can't learn or grow or do something fun anywhere else. I know that's not true. But it's pretty difficult to deny that working on high budget A-list feature animated films isn't a rare honor that many, many people wish they could have. Judging by the number of demo reels that film studios get at SIGGRAPH, I'm willing to bet that a large number of game animators would love to be working in film themselves, if they are totally honest with themselves. Certainly not all of them, maybe not even a majority (though I suspect a majority of them would). But enough to note the trend, for sure.

But to help you clarify your own question in your own mind, I'll ask you another question: If Disney or Dreamworks or Sony or Pixar offered you a job as an animator today, would you give staying at your game job even a moment's thought? How you answer that tells you the truth about your own ambitions and values. And that truth is something that exists, so there's no use pretending it doesn't. :o)


Anonymous said...

Absolutely Keith! There's no question that many game animators actually want to be working in film, and its no secret. I would say that ultimately someday thats where I want to be too. (we just had a guy from our studio go to Pixar in fact) However, the game industry is very stable (which is attractive for animators with families, unlike FX studios), growing, and because of advances in hardware, have potential for more capabilities and games with much larger scopes and artistic styles. In other words, (like its been said a million times) games will be more like film. And there are many animators who LOVE to work in games, and artists that are so talented it boggles my mind.

But yeah, I remember the first crit you ever game me (you might not) and it inspired me to work harder--and now Im at a game studio and am learning bucketfulls. Im sure you understand, I just had to represent my game animator peeps. :D I also think it is healthy to say that you aren't good enough yet, because it shows you have a commitment to quality, and can be objectively self-critical. I think that's essential to being a good animator.

Keep up the great blog, I read it regularly!

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith!

So it turns out that it's a bit easier to become a special agent than feature film animator? Hehe..

On the side note, personally I don't think I could ever work at place like Pixar. Because everytime I'd see a person like Ed Catmull (this guy is living and walking legend and icon of CG, at least for me) for example, I'd kneel and bow down and mumble something in lines of "I am not worthy" then I'd not be able to say a word for many days.

At ILM I'd play with those props and miniatures all day wearing Darth Vader full costume (I am rather big so it would fit probably) and they would fire me very quick.

Adam I told you few times (probably you didn't notice me and my responses) you will end up at Pixar or somewhere smiliar sooner or later. And yes, games are getting better when it comes to animation, I've been in games from 1996 till 2003 and progress of what you could do animation wise was amazing. People start to except more advanced animation from games and some acting and more dramatic stuff breaks in. Also I still say that animating for games is one of the best ways to learn physics.

P.S. I am in Keith fanclub too :)

Goosh said...

Hey Keith..

I have to agree a bit with Adam here. Sure, what you say it's true and working on film would probably be the ultimate for most animators, but by your numbers it looks like just the worthy people are the film animators. But not only that, it just seems that there are just lest than 1,000 'true' animators out there.

As you know, TV is also pretty big and there are tons of animators there too. I think the gaming industry has tons and tons of extremely talented animators.

So, even though I understand and you are only mentioning animators in the film industry, (and that's fair enough) there are a lot more animators out there.

I would actually be interested on knowing how many animators (film, tv, games and misc) are out there.
I/we would probably be surprised at how many


Matt Kelly said...

*Immediately gives up... walks off whistling into the sunset...

*Comes running and screaming back to his desk..

back to work

great post Keith... engines definitely revving

Anonymous said...

Your numbers are interesting, but skewed. You're specific to character animators in the industry, but extremely vague in the others, like "grocery store jobs". That includes, checkers, stock, management, baggers, custodial, produce, butchers, bakery.

If you're gonna do comparisons, you should include TD, developers, writers, painters, scanners and oodles more involved in film making, not to mention the gaming industry.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Totally true. Those of us working in the film industry are not necessarily more talented or hardworking than anyone else. What we are is very, very lucky. Persistence certainly helps, but if I hadn't gotten a lucky break at just the right time, I would not be where I am. Remembering that keeps my head from getting too big. I thank my good fortune every day for the amazing people I am privileged to sit next to and learn from.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, but as far as I know(and I've worked in both TV and Features), virtually all TV animation production is animated outside of North America. Really. maybe CN and Nick do a tiny bit of Flash...oh! and WB--is that what you're thinking of? Because the number of "animators" in TV is how many? I'm not denigrating them, believe me, but every single show I worked on, including Direct to Videos, was animated either in the far east or Australia.

As for the other comment about the comparitive numbers-yes, well, you're right--he was being pretty generalised and vague with the numbers of non-animation jobs, but his estimates of character animators--the point of his post--was on the money. The point is well made: it's an incredibly rarified industry. That said, in my experience a person with just a fair amount of talent--and a LOT of work, sweat and plain old plugging away--has a 90% chance of making it in animation. I'll allow 10% for luck. ; )

Anonymous said...

Woah... I knew it was a small, close-knit field, but I never thought it was that small. Soo... I either need to give up learning animation now 'coz I'll never get a job, or give up my regular job and devote all my time to learning animation. Since neither is really an option, (must... animate...) I guess it's no more sleep for me!

Inspiring post, if a little frightening. I better get back to this week's assignment! :D

Keith Lango said...

Cassidy basicaly sums up my point: it's a blessing to be involved in this biz. You can extrapolate that notion to any arena that you find animators involved in- games, TV, video, film, whatever. It's a special thing to be a professional animator. I spoke of films simply because it was something I know about, something I could quantify with some degree of accuracy. I don't have game numbers simply because I don't know them, nor do I have any way of narrowing it down to find out the numbers. But even so, it's a real priviledge to be a person who gets paid to animate for a living, no matter what the medium. And if you enjoy your work and are moved to be motivated and thankful (and humble) about your position, then the post has done its thing. :o)

Adam Green said...

True dat

Anonymous said...

well... I think Keith is right about narrowing down the numbers. What Goosh argues calling anyone involved in TV, games and other media an "Animator" is in my opinion being too generous.

Lots of people, including so-called "senior" artists are nothing but glorified software operators, with little or no artistic merit. Grouping them together with someone who understands his craft like an experienced film animator is not a true representation of what I could call a high calibre animator.

interesting thread...

Josh Bowman said...

Wow, I had no idea film animation was so small. Interestingly the first thing that popped into my head after reading your post was "I have to be one of those" and instead of being discoraged I really felt pumped and challenged to get to that point.

Anonymous said...

It makes the point that its one tuff industry to enter.

Anonymous said...

My reaction is kind of like Bowman's and Matt Kelly's.

It puts me down and picks me up. I didn't know the Feature Character Animator world was *THAT* small. Sjees.

But do not fear people. I will walk among you guys.... Some day... (mantra, mantra)

Adam Green said...

To bring it back a little...

Being an animator is an amazing job, but it's still just a job. Im as passionate as the next guy, and nothing gets me off more than nailing a piece of animation and entertaining an audience, either at work or through personal work. Its probably the biggest thrill for any animator. But real life is family, kids, pets, cookouts, weekends at the lake, skiing, clubbing, going out with friends, movies, etc etc etc. And animators are just people with their share of flaws, not celebrities or demi-gods, even though there are plenty of worshiping fanboys who say otherwise.

Yes, it's tough to get into the business. And trust me, there are good (nay, GREAT) animators working in games, TV, and multimedia, or not working at all. Its a blessing to be doing what you love to do and get paid for it, but it doesnt make you super-human. And even super-awesome animators have bad days at work. (just ask Mr. Navone who spent a week perfecting a shot, only to have Lasseter tell him it wasnt funny in a room full of non-laughing co-workers) So the thing is, as long as you work hard and get good at animation, you'll get in. There's room for everyone. Maybe not in the blockbuster film of the year, but as long as you have your personal priorities right, you'll be happy making cool stuff wherever you are.

Anonymous said...

and now compare the salaries

I always hear people say if you wanna get rich don't become an animator or artist or whatever.
It's funny when you want to work in a multi billion dollar business and people keep telling you that innit?

so can you actually get rich (not rich as in rich like I can buy 2 mansions and 7 cars) but rich as in I can take care of my family without counting pennies??

what are the salaries like anyway? I'm sure film animators get more than game animators etc., especially if you work for EA :)

Anonymous said...

Intersting discussion.

Adam, as far as stability in games goes...depends on the company, but of the 3 places I've been at, 1 was a project based sweatshop, the other folded, and now, well, knock on wood ;)

As far as salaries go, it seems like games are more comparable to film, especially places like EA that actively recruit from film, so there is at times a convergence.

What I'm curious about, Keith, is how many animators are at big shops on a per project basis. I've known a fair amount of film animators that were rarely staff, but would work on something at rhythym & hues for a while, etc. It seems like it's a standard business model to hire per project- games are also headed that way, it seems, so I'm curious what the numbers are at full production.

Hey, I got my film dreams too, so sharpen that pencil and float me some happy numbers :)


Anonymous said...

Might need to adjust those numbers a bit Keith. According to this month's wired - Dreamworks employs 1000 animators, both full time and otherwise.


Anonymous said...

that is a perfect example of misinformation... the WiReD article calls animators anyone who works on the computer at Dreamworks and who is not an accountant...

It is definitely NOT 1000 animators.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Keith.

One could debate about whether game industry jobs should factor in to those numbers, but I take it that you are focusing on an ideal, the sort of jobs that starry-eyed kids dream about. I'm going to be teaching animation this Fall at the college level, and I will keep those numbers in mind. What a great way to motivate students to take their studies seriously. Thanks.