If there’s one thing we learn in art school, it’s that art is subjective. If artistic merit is in the eye of the beholder, what makes a ‘good’ portfolio? Simply put, one that lands the work! Whatever your specific career goals, the proof seems to be in the pudding. However, until landing that dream job in animation, it can be difficult amassing feedback that is consistent and free of contradiction. This article will explore some of the conventional wisdoms regarding portfolios, weeding out myths and arriving at a universal baseline. Though very little about art is definitive, consensus is alive and well!
After graduating Art Center’s Illustration Department in Dec, 1991, I spent twelve years working as a background painter and Visual Development artist at Disney Feature Animation. Almost immediately, I began working with the Artist Development department, presenting in the public arena and helping train younger artists through FODA—Foundations of Disney Animation. Working for Disney’s Paris studio and Animation Lab Israel among other overseas studios exposed me to a cross section of portfolios from art schools the world over. But the bulk of my advice comes from participating with other artists and recruiters in endless portfolio reviews for CTN Animation Expo and teaching Art Center’s Portfolio Lab, which landed twenty years of students at major studios like Disney, Dreamworks, PDI and Pixar.
Academic Proficiency plus Unique Voice
Few would argue that foundational skills are a key factor in a successful portfolio. A character animator’s reel should demonstrate fundamentals like squash and stretch, anticipation and action, and secondary action (drag, follow-through and settle.) But the ring of truth these principles betray must be rooted in observation of life and a love of breathing that life into a character through storytelling. Similarly, the foundational skills showcased in a Visual Development portfolio, for example, are best complemented by a unique flair I call ‘voice.’ This quality, however intangible, is what will make a reel (or a flatbook or online portfolio, for that matter) stand out from the crowd. Do not confuse voice with ‘style.’ One’s portfolio may showcase work from various projects, each with its own visual style, but the artist’s voice can inform each one of them. Think of it as the thumbprint or soul of the artist on paper—his or her worldview, emotional imprint, values and opinions. Simply put, an artist’s voice could be equated with the ‘why’ part of the equation: why one is drawn to visual storytelling in the first place.
This essence can and should be reflected in every page of a portfolio. Though it evolves over time, taking stock periodically and asking the big questions can result in a brand that speaks to people, that makes an art director wish to bring you on and share that magic on their project.
My students design a personal logo that captures their essence as a visual storyteller and brands everything from their portfolio pages to their business cards, leave behinds, and websites or online portfolios. Whether a humorous caricature or a conceptual graphic that engages in an interactive way, a pneumonic image may stick in the mind’s eye of those with the power to hire you, especially if it reflects your essence as an artist!
The Myth of a Catch-all Animation Portfolio
Even a Visual Development generalist usually leads with props or character design, or specializes in story beats and color scripts. A portfolio that seems to have no understanding of the production pipeline or the departments therein can be alarming. My best recommendation is to do the research. Know what niche in production you are best suited for, and cater the portfolio content to the requirements for that position. It may be supplemented by academic or personal work, but the bulk of the content should be relevant to the position for which you are applying. Many artists are versatile and adaptable, even straddling genres and formats, vacillating between television animation and feature, or even feature animation and gaming. They edit and gear their portfolios toward a specific opportunity or have supplements (like a storyboarding portfolio as an insert, e.g.) but knowing what to include and what you are best suited for still boils down to the former convention: know thyself.
Resist Showing the Kitchen Sink—Edit!
On a related note, many artists have a personal attachment to an older piece because it represents a milestone in their growth, or they have an emotional attachment to it for whatever reason. And yet, to others, it is obsolete and sticks out like a sore thumb. This is where objectivity about one’s own work comes in, and regular feedback that can help create that objectivity. Get a variety of opinions regularly, and be judicious about them. If you hear the same bit of advice repeatedly, you should probably heed it!
I Just Want to Be Loved; Is That So Wrong?
It is always alarming when in addition to the position-relevant content, an artist cannot resist showing graphic design, album covers, school work, personal work, fine art, etc. An academic section (plein aire paintings, figure studies, still life, e.g.) is quite normal. But beyond that, you may want to consider the following advice when editing content: if there is enough of a given vein to justify a section in the portfolio, keep it; if not, weed it out. An inability to resist showing an aspect of one’s self can seem needy, or at best, naïve with regard to the professional arena. In other words, if you’ve taken a single Maya class and learned to produce two low-poly models that are crude at best, they may not be worth including as they will represent a liability and not justify a section. Having said that, a trend of late is for concept artists to also have a skill that will allow them to see a title all the way through production.
Less Is More
This conventional wisdom is a bit of a myth; I’ve found its relevance to be case-specific. One artist may be served by minimalism, whereas hoards of quick and dirty film studies in another case may demonstrate a prolificacy that’s impressive due to sheer volume, leading one to think: ‘Man, this guy could crank out these comps in his sleep,’ or equally important, ‘Man, this guy loves to draw!’ However, less is indeed more if all the work is not equally competent. Which leads to:
You’re As Strong As Your Weakest Link
It is not worth including a piece that demonstrates a technical liability, or even a lapse in a well-developed voice, no matter how attached you are to it. Each new piece in a portfolio can and should demonstrate a new skill set or flavor, without redundancy. In that way, flipping through a portfolio can be thought of as a journey, an experience over which you have the control. You manage the pacing, the flow and the rhythm, the first impression and the final, lasting impression.
Start With a Bang, End With a Bang!
This phrase gets thrown around quite a bit, and is akin to the sayings ‘first impressions are indelible’ and ‘leave a lasting impression.’ If either are true, does one just ‘cruise’ for a while in between? And if you’re as weak as your weakest link and the caliber is consistent, what falls between your first impression and your final ‘bang?’ It’s simple: what is usually meant by the elusive ‘bang’ is simply a large, full color piece, maybe even one that spans the gutter as a double-page spread. People, whether trained artists or not, really are captivated by shiny objects!
Creating and Organizing Content
Once the dream job has been identified and portfolio requirements researched, there are often gaps that must be filled in a portfolio—more storyboards, more color story beats from those storyboards, more props, vehicles weapons or other assets. I recommend taking night classes as a structured opportunity to create the needed content with feedback rather than creating in a vacuum, no matter how disciplined you are. Then comes the task of organizing the content once you’ve edited it.
Many artists organize by Intellectual Property, or title. They create a title treatment for each project, identifying it in no uncertain terms. Then they scroll through the assets, first showing props/vehicles/weapons, moving on to character designs then environments and finally story beats/moment paintings. Others organize by asset, scrolling through each title thereunder. In other words, they begin with a prop section, first showing their Peter Pan props, then their Monkey King props, etc. The above represent the two main approaches to organizing content.
To Show Or Not To Show Ideation?
Many artists are unsure whether to show the ideation that led up to a finished design. There are as many answers to this question as there are artists. My opinion is to lead with what you are proud of, and that which identifies you. If you are an excellent draftsman with a lively drawing style relevant to animation, raw sketches will not feel like dirty laundry to you. You will be proud to share them, knowing they show a rare talent beyond motor skills, an imagination full of ideas. Another artist who prides him or herself on finished, polished renderings, may not wish to lead with raw drawings but rather full-color pieces carried to a finish. Though the odd art director or production designer (depending on the position) may like seeing how an artist works from start-to-finish and therefore appreciate the inclusion of photo reference, I personally tend to advise against squandering valuable real estate on it. But again, most choices are case-by-case based on what best markets an artists unique skill set!
To Show or Not To Show School Work
I have often heard recruiters and art directors advise against showing schoolwork, saying that it is innately inferior conceptually. I could not disagree more; depending on what school one attends, school assignments that are more blue sky and less production-oriented can be the strongest work one will ever create. You’re not fooling anyone anyway; if you don’t have an IMDB page showing familiar titles, masquerading as a seasoned veteran will be a dead-end road. The good news is, being fresh out of school is a PLUS! Animation has always been youth-oriented, and that has not changed. In fact, internships and fellowships that require one be registered in a program are a great way in to many companies. And after graduation, I would use the phrase ‘recent graduate’ as long as possible until you land that dream job! I would follow that advice myself, but one glimpse of Pride Rock or Rafiki’s tree in my portfolio and I’ve given myself away!
I hope some of these tips have been helpful, helping to clear away the veil of contradictions. There will always be opposing opinions, especially among artists who pride themselves on thinking outside the box and resisting conformity! I recommend taking it all with a grain of salt, a degree of receptivity, and synthesizing what you hear in a judicious way. Kind of like everything else in life.
Now, go get that dream job!