Recently, I received some questions from a young up-and-comer in the industry, asking for some specifics on how I got started and looking for tips on getting noticed by clients. Instead of just replying directly, I’ve decided to share the responses in a fresh new post here, so that others may benefit from my blabbermouthing and self-aggrandizing.
The Q’s in bold, with the A’s following:
1. How did you get so good? Having the ability to draw is one thing, but learning the art of Sequential storytelling is a skill not easily learned. I know you had a huge advantage with your parents and all but jees’.
Not to discount the wonderful influence of my parents, but almost everything I’ve learned about storyboarding was through real work experience, via freelancing, not on account of any of my parents’ connections. My parents work in animation, whereas I’m a commercial storyboard artist, which requires a far more versatile skill set, if I may be so bold as to say so.
Consider that an animation storyboard artist that works for a month on say, the Simpsons, draws only what is within the Simpsons universe, which was created by designers and layout artists before him. Day in, day out, drawing the Simpsons, and that’s it. A commercial artist, in the same amount of time, may work on as many as 10 or more commercials, and must start from scratch each time; each commercial advertising a completely different product, which new sets, characters, and actions. New clients, new directors, new producers, new writers. One day you’re drawing car chases, the next it’s toy dolls, the next its cereal, the next it’s lottery tickets. Sometimes you don’t even get a script. Sometimes you don’t even get a desk.
You will get, however, a ticking clock. Typical turnaround on a :30 commercial is 8 hours. 8 hours to final completion, meaning you have to have about 21 frames of good black and white artwork ready in 6 hours, leaving two hours in reserve for final tweaks and revisions. And it has to be done on time- doesn’t matter if you’re sick, tired, or broken. Perhaps you can see how this kind of work can produce a lot of anxiety- and let me ask you this- how well do you draw when you’re anxious?
Even the best artists will break under this immense pressure- happens every day. Under these extreme conditions, wheat is separated from chaff and only the best remain. Rough edges are worn smooth and streamlined, and in no time, you’re drawing really well, really quickly, and making money in an exciting industry.
I’m good because I survived- the work molded me this way, to be extremely versatile and fast.
And to bring the point home: Truly great sequential storytelling is a byproduct of being an extremely versatile and fast artist. You have to be able to see the story from all possible angles and be able to draw them, any and all of them, quickly, accurately, and with a sense of focus to the design. From the millions of variations, you distill them down to only what is necessary, and right, to tell the story. That’s it.
2. When did you know you were ready to take on real professional work? I mean that is a BIG and SCARY move, quitting your job and going the freelance route.
I touch on this in my Bio, but I left out a little bit as well. So to fill in, I quit my computer repair job (I was repairing Macs out of high school and making very little money), and took the money I saved and enrolled in a master painting and drawing course at the now-defunct Associates In Art school. I was, at 21, one of the younger students there, and had proved myself very talented and advanced for my age. “Have you ever worked in the industry?” my teacher asked one day. “No,” I replied. “Well, you should,” he said.
That was good enough for me. I made a portfolio (not a great one, but a decent one) and ran around town dropping it off at every studio I could. Never hear back from anyone- except that “I could come in and pick up my portfolio now.” Undaunted, I made a rinky-dink website, and started advertising on craigslist, as a freelance artist for hire, pretty much willing to draw anything for a check. Logos, storyboards, t-shirts, and some other really god-awful stuff. Really small, semi-professional gigs, most of which paid about $100-200. But these were honest, humble beginnings, and I’m really grateful that I capitalized on being a craigslist artist instead of holding out for interning for a studio position and advancing from there. Instead of being an employee, I was a small business owner, fully accountable for my own success or failure. And it taught me to “hustle”- no job was permanent- so every day is game day. Win or go home. I wouldn’t have learned these invaluable lessons in a studio environment.
But, craigslist is craigslist, and I knew I could do better. In 2007, I began submitting to illustration agencies- 29 of them, in fact, in a single evening. Cast a wide net, you know? Just to make it an even 30, I submitted to one final website, and went to bed. The next morning, not a single agency bit, except for the last one, Frameworks, the storyboarding agency which now represents me.
I remember my first conversation with them. “Well Max, your work isn’t very good, but there’s some potential, and you work digitally- that’s something a lot of clients are looking for. We’ll see if we can send something your way.” That’s how it started.
3. Any tips on preparing my portfolio? or getting started? what do clients look for?
Absolutely the best thing I can recommend is you make a website or online portfolio (NOT deviantART) and make it inviting. Don’t overload it to the point if breaking- clients will click away from a website that loads slowly. Show a bit of range. Keep things simple- you want to make it clear that you can deliver on time and not get too caught up. Include a list of clients/references. Write a small Bio and list your contact info. Then keep everything updated.
As far as a physical portfolio, goes, well… I never had any luck with mine! As mentioned above, I dropped it off at multiple studios and I’m pretty sure nobody ever even opened it. Its sad really. I watched as the receptionist tossed my portfolio onto a huge pile of others. It’s not a great strategy, in these digital times, to put much stock in a physical portfolio.
Clients look for… recommendations, primarily. If a client doesn’t know a good storyboard artist, they’ll call someone who might, be it a producer, director, or agent, looking for a recommendation. You may know what you are doing, but no one is going to take your word for it. So always do a good job, and your reputation begins to work for you. Once a client finds a good artist they like, they’ll stick with that artist for a long time. That said, most commercial storyboard artists are NOT that great, so if you have skill, you can squeeze them out.
Getting started, just be prepared to work for a cheaper rate than other more entrenched professionals- the only reason a client would take a risk on a newbie storyboard artist is if the price is right. It’s really hard getting started, but once your career gains momentum, leads start coming in from all over. And for me, getting representation was a huge factor in really “going pro.” But it’s a catch 22 situation- you have to already be successful to gain that advantage.
In short, work hard and be patient!
Hope this helps.