My Path into Animation: A Juggling Act

by Anna Hollingsworth

Let me start by saying, it has been hard to find the time to write this essay.  It’s been pieced together during toddler nap times, desk lunches, and after sleepy evenings chasing around a two-year old after a 10 hour work day.  As a student, thinking about having a family probably feels far off or may seem like an impossible notion.  If you are a woman entering an already male-dominated workplace, you may find navigating those waters to be challenging enough. If you think you can’t have it all, take heart. You can, but with help.  This is not a how-to article based on my experiences.  I find most people’s path into the animation industry has more to do with contacts, compromise, and coincidence than any paint by numbers advice I can give.  What I can tell you is how I how I found my path, and what I have learned along the way.

For me, it started with Jurassic Park.  This was the first scary movie I was allowed to see, and I was completely entranced – not only with the movie, but with the monsters.  It was amazing how they performed this magic trick.  You didn’t need to suspend disbelief, you believed they were real.  When I first heard stories about audience members ducking in reaction to the earliest animation of an oncoming train, or responding to Gertie the dinosaur with such amazement, I found it hard to believe because the drawings seem so obviously primitive. But Jurassic Park was Gertie 2.0 on the big screen in 1993, and I was hooked.  That’s when I decided I wanted to become a 3D animator.

I went to a state school in Georgia because I had a scholarship, and because they had been awarded the student Emmy for 3D animation the previous year.  They had a unique program where I could create my own major under the umbrella of Digital Media that included classes in acting, painting, stone carving, video game creation, as well as 3D animation – basically anything that I could justify benefiting my education in this area.  I took full advantage of these classes, learned a lot, and had the classic college experience along the way, all paid for by a full-tuition scholarship called “HOPE.”

I made a student film and got a job that was really more of an internship working on Adult Swim’s show Sealab 2021.  This was great!  I drove into Atlanta every day, and worked in this weird, little converted apartment with Adam Reed and Matt Thompson on a show I actually watched and enjoyed.  I was learning how to draw on a digital tablet and cleaning up props and characters in Photoshop.  It wasn’t 3D, but I was working in television!  Doing that as well as a few 3D freelance jobs right after graduation gave me the courage to move to where I knew I needed to go if I wanted to make it in the animation industry: Los Angeles. In 2004, I was Hollywood bound, and drove all the way across the country with my Dad and everything I owned packed into my Honda station wagon.

In Los Angeles, I had just started applying for 3D jobs, but had heard the hours were grueling and was, admittedly, intimidated.  I was not even thinking of having a family at this point, but I wasn’t sure this was the quality of life I was searching for.  In the meantime, I met some animators working for a small studio called One Red Room making 2D Flash-animated interstitials for Disney.  I had never worked in Flash, but one of my new animator friends took me under their wing and showed me the program.  They had an opening and I took the test which, if I recall, was a spinning ballerina hopping up and down and doing a balletic pose.  I made one of the classic mistakes during the test by thinking “I’m really going to impress them and go above and beyond what they are asking for.”  The result was that my animation was a bit off-model, and, in a production, would have stuck out as being different from the surrounding scenes, which is a problem.  As a director frequently in the position of reviewing tests, I see examples of this all the time.  A novice animator might not realize that their scene needs to be cohesive with the rest of the surrounding scenes.  That’s why the first thing one should do before jumping into a scene is to review the animatic or watch the show you are testing for so that you can try to match their style.  My test was still good enough to get me the job where I learned a lot about animation and time management which set me up for success at all the other jobs that followed. Other things I learned from that first job that are good to keep in mind when you are trying to get your foot in the door are:

  • Be on time. Work your eight hours (or even more) at the beginning if you feel you need to. There is a fine line between being taken advantage of as someone entering the workforce and paying your dues, so make sure it is the latter rather than the former. But remember – your first job is as much a learning opportunity for you as it is a service for your boss.  I would regularly take scenes home from other artists that I admired and reverse engineer them to try to figure out what was working so that I could later employ those techniques in my own scenes.
  • Hang out with your co-workers. Talk to them! Start a lunch drawing session.  When it comes to finding your next job, most likely it will be from your friends in animation.  Whenever I am looking for new talent, I ask my best animators who they know that they can recommend. It’s tempting if you are an introvert (as many artists are) to keep to yourself, but socializing is a crucial part of the industry, and besides that, it’s fun! And by all means, be nice.  Animation is a small industry in some ways and you will find yourself working with the same people over and over again.
  • Try not to be defensive. It’s really hard as an artist not to take each note personally.  Many of us are already sensitive, and getting notes telling you what you are doing is wrong can make you feel the need to explain yourself, or even to argue that your way is better.  Let me tell you that as someone giving notes, nothing is more ingratiating than a person who receives notes well.  You never know why a note was given; it could be due to something beyond your supervisor’s control, like a legal note or a note from a higher up.  It may not even be a good note, but it’s not your position to make those decisions. Even if you have your own show someday, you will see that you will be the recipient of some notes that you just don’t agree with – which brings me to my next point
  • Make a short. Make a few! I was always so busy working on other people’s projects, I regret I didn’t make more of my own work.  This is where you have complete creative authority with no notes.  Challenge yourself to make and complete a short.  It doesn’t have to be overly ambitious.  Enter festivals.  Going to festivals is a fantastic way to make new contacts across the globe.  Paint, enter art shows, or just create art for yourself.  Investing your time in yourself and your talents is possibly the most valuable way you can spend it.
  • Finally, keep taking classes.  Or watch tutorials.  Just keep learning and improving.  There is always room for growth.  Being an artist is a lifetime ambition, so keep challenging yourself.

Years later when I found out I was pregnant, I was so nervous to tell my boss about it – worried I would be letting them down by throwing a kink in the works of the company I worked for.  Imagine my relief when they were not only happy for me, but told me that they had me in mind to be the Animation Director of a new project as soon as I returned from my maternity leave.  I had been so worried that, during my leave, I would be left behind, or that my skills would atrophy and I would forget all that I had learned over the many jobs I’d had at this point in my career.  The fact that somebody believed in me, a future me, a MOM me that I didn’t even know yet, was beyond comforting; it was profound.  I know that fully paid family leave for Moms and Dads is a negotiation point with our union, one that hopefully will get approved.  Women already, by biological necessity, not only have to put their career on hold, or take steps backwards if they want to have a family, but the playing field was never level to begin with.  The ability to multitask and to use time towards maximum efficiency, (as well a number of other hard-won parenting skills) is an asset and should be seen as such.  I was lucky enough, at a critical moment in my life and career, to have my employer recognize these values. Until the skills of a mother are seen and treated as an advantage rather than a detriment, achieving gender parity will remain incredibly difficult.

After spending nine months at home with my little guy, I was ready to return.  It took me a few weeks to get back into the swing of things, but I did get back up to speed, and, if anything, I knew I was a stronger person with a little more perspective.  It was difficult leaving my baby in the morning, but I found a nanny that I trusted, and had additional help from my parents who moved across the country to be close to their grandson.  With their assistance, and the support of an amazing partner, I have developed a routine that works for me.  I find that I have to manage my time very carefully after having a child, because every spare moment is spoken for. Every naptime is an opportunity to draw, paint, or catch up on work from the week. Every weekend and evening, I have to remind myself to be present to make up for the missed hours during the day (something I don’t always succeed at). With help, patience, and hard work, I feel like I’ve been able to achieve my version of work-life balance, which often feels more like a juggling act than a balancing act. Though rarely easy, being a mother has strengthened me personally and professionally. Motherhood didn’t knock me off of my path in animation, just made me more focused on the direction I’m headed. Things I took for granted before have become solidified with intention, or have fallen by the wayside.  And as my son grows up, I hope he can be proud that his mother made time to pursue a career she was passionate about and spend lots of quality time with him as well.


Artist Bio:

Anna Hollingsworth is an alumni of University of Georgia with a BFA in Digital Media and a graduate of the Animation Mentor program. She is a Los Angeles based animator who has worked creating content for television, film, and music videos.  Among them, she has directed animation for Netflix’s critically acclaimed series BoJack Horseman, Fox’s Emmy award winning series Cosmos, and the Emmy award winning series The Ricky Gervais Show. Her film credits include animation on The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water, and music videos for bands The Gossip, Jakob Dylan, Cut Chemist, Danger Mouse, Kid 606, and Minus the Bear.  She currently directs animation on Cartoon Network’s show Unikitty and lives in Burbank with her husband, Mike, and son, Avery.