Killer tips for perfect animation portfolios

"For a character design position, I look at their drawing, painting, and design skills, and for a variety of styles," says Aaron Blaise

It doesn't matter how talented an animator you are. If you don't have a killer portfolio to showcase your skills, that job you've dreamed of is unlikely to materialise. So what's the secret to success?

We asked leading animators to share their pro tips on portfolio strategy. Whether you want your digital portfolio to work harder or to make your showreel sing, there are some best practice tips that can be applied, whatever field you're targeting.

01. Target your audience

Golden rule one: know your audience. Who is your portfolio or showreel aimed at, and what do prospective employers, viewers or visitors want to see?

"Whether you're applying to a games studio, effects studio or a character animation studio, you have to tailor your portfolio to the studio you're applying to and the type of work you aspire to do," says Andrew Gordon, a directing animator at Pixar, who's worked on everything from A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3 to Pixar's Academy Award-nominated short film Presto.

Oscar-nominated animator Aaron Blaise agrees: "Know who you're interviewing with," he advises. "If I were looking to get hired at Disney, I wouldn't show them a reel of Simpsons animation, and vice versa. And if you don't have the type of work you think a studio is looking for, then it would be in your best interest to do a shot or two in that studio's particular style."

02. Hook your viewer

Park City (Wasatch) is one of a number of images in Ty Carter's portfolio that shows his understanding of design and colour

"Keep in mind that we have seconds to evaluate your work," explains Disney in its exceptionally helpful portfolio and showreel application guidelines. That means putting your best work first and closing strong, as Pixar's Gordon explains: "Realise that people will fast-forward through your work. If they don't see something really quickly, they'll turn off."

It also means being original. How? By injecting personality into your portfolio. "Good character animation is the art of bringing characters to life – not moving them around," points out Blaise.

He's currently working on an original 2D animated short film, Snow Bear, with business partner Nick Burch, and urges animators not to sacrifice personality by focusing solely on movement and mechanics. "Often a shot requires little to no movement to get an emotion across," he says. 

"It can be just a look, an eye movement, a blink. I also advise animators to include performances where there's a change of emotion or idea: angry to happy or fearful to brave. That's when it becomes real and the viewer is pulled in."

03. Show your skillset

"Game animation is competitive," says Jonathan Cooper, who worked on Uncharted 4. "Even veterans need to keep pushing the quality bar to get that ideal job."

When it comes to specific skill sets, different disciplines require different portfolios. For Gordon, who specialises in character animation, this means showing an understanding of the 12 principles of animation – squash, stretch and so on.

For Naughty Dog video games animator Jonathan Cooper, however, this means showing actions and a relevant style. Cooper is the brains behind video animation website Game Anim. He's currently working on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and says that for the games he makes, he wants to see navigation around a complex environment, including jumping, climbing and vaulting, one-on-one-combat, walk and run cycles, and so on. 

"Dialogue and acting scenes are a huge bonus as we're always blurring the lines between gameplay and cinematic storytelling, and game animators are typically expected to at least have a hand in both aspects on the job," he says, adding that camera work also helps you stand out.

04. Present a fresh demo reel

As Cooper explains, it's essential to have an up-to-date demo reel to keep up with the fast-paced games industry. "A personal website is the easiest to share with the studio involved in hiring, but a link to your latest reel in your resume is enough," he says. "I prefer Vimeo to YouTube, because of the final render quality and overall cleanliness of the site," he continues. "And ArtStation is fast becoming the standard for pre-made portfolios. But I recommend adding your reel everywhere – even LinkedIn. As for a physical portfolio, I don't think I've seen one in years."

Lisa Allen, an animator at Blue Sky Studios and recent portfolio reviewer at November's CTN animation expo, echoes the sentiment: "Your showreel is really the only part of your portfolio that matters for getting a job as an animator. 

"Ideally, the pieces in your showreel demonstrate your eye for acting, posing, design and composition. If you've done work in any other categories like life drawing, or illustration, that's great – but keep them in a separate part of your portfolio website instead. Also, less is more. For me, the perfect reel is between three and five clips and around a minute long."

05. Create one major focus

"At Blue Sky we look for animation with entertainment through character and personality," says Lisa Allen, who worked on The Peanuts Movie

Another golden rule for a successful portfolio is to create a clear focus. If you're showcasing a number of core abilities, make sure the direction in which you want to take your career is clearly presented. "Successful portfolios are specific, organised and contain original ideas," says Blue Sky Studios visual development artist Ty Carter. His film credits include Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, Epic, and The Peanuts Movie, and he shares all kinds of useful tutorials and teachings on his Patreon page

"It's good to see one major focus like character design, set design or colour. If you do each of these at a high level it doesn't hurt to show them all, but be careful not to include too much. What's most important is showing you're a creative problem solver. Ask yourself, what do you bring to the table that nobody else can do? Is your own life experience reflected in your art? If not, how can you do that?"

06. Entertain your audience

Most importantly, it's about storytelling. "Don't fall into the trap of being a shot animator," warns Gordon. "People don't just want to see great animation: they want to see if you can tell a story. You have to put together the pieces so that you're showing you understand cutting, continuity and staging. You don't need complex rigs to get noticed. Just great ideas."

"At Disney we would talk about portfolios that stuck out," agrees Blaise, "and they stuck out because the work was consistently entertaining throughout. We are in the business of entertainment," he smiles. "I want your portfolio to entertain me."

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 145; buy it here!

Related articles: