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Animation director: What I do and how much I make

Lisa talks about her role as an animation director for TED-Ed, including key responsibilities and compensation.

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Video transcript

So my name is Lisa LaBracio, I'm 32 years old, I am an animation director at TED-Ed and I make approximately 80,000 a year. TED-Ed is the educational initiative of TED conferences so TED-Ed works with, to pair animators and educators so an educator might be a teacher or a TED speaker or an expert or a researcher in their field and they pair those people with animators who will work to bring their lesson idea to life and to make those into a short, animated video, so they're about five minutes long. I work as an animation director and as an animator there so I actually work with that educator to ideate, so to make that lesson into, that script into a video. As an animation director, what will happen is I will get a script earlier on in the process and from there, it's my job to research all of the information in that script as I'm trying to, of course it's been fact-checked when it's come to me already so I'm not doing research in the typical sense but more in a visual sense, so I'll look at other artists' work for inspiration, I'll spend some time on Pinterest, I'll be reading up a lot of extra information about the topic, looking at all the different theories and communicating with the educator quite a bit to ask questions and get more information. And then from there, I start to put together a style board or a look and feel for the project, so I'll start to decide what method of animation I'll use because I work in traditional animation, so I do stop motion, hand drawn, a lot of tactile elements as well and then I'll start to create characters and storyboards and at that point, decide if I need other people onboard with me to help me execute the project. As animation directors at TED-Ed, we get creative freedom, so we do get to decide what style and what way to execute the project we get to do each time, which is a major perk. That said, if anything that we're doing is not in service of the information, so it's very important that we're creating an overall educational film. So the educator can step in and say, this is inaccurate, you've portrayed this person incorrectly, that color implies this and that's incorrect, whatever, but they can't say, oh I don't like your character design. So that's the line, so we do get a lot of feedback throughout from both the educator and our internal team so that's the other animation directors who work through our producer, our script supervisor, our director up top, so it is, there's plenty of feedback being given but we also work on super tight timelines so you don't really have the option of it not being done, it's kind of just done when it's time to go online, so. TED-Ed produces 150 animated shorts a year, which is a lot, and in house, we do about 20 of those, I do five of those per year, each one is about eight to 10 weeks production timeline, which is actually really short for animation, so short animation, I've also spent on a personal project on a five-minute film two years before so it is, this is a scaled-down version of that production so we start, we basically pick up a script before we finish our next project, so that way, or our current project, so that way, when we finish the project, we dive right into the next one. My most recent project is about this manuscript called the Voynich manuscript and actually it came up in a script meeting and as I had mentioned, it's not a topic that I'm normally interested in but I just quickly googled the book to see the images of it and it's a lot of these weirdly stylistic drawings of plants and creatures that may or may not exist and just was really fascinating stylistically to me and also I really like plants and that sort of thing so it seemed something in my range anyway. And I got kind of obsessed with the idea of seeing the pages of the book actually move and seeing that, this object, which is from, dated to the 1400s, come to life. So I flagged it and eventually took that project on and it was a big challenge because, so this book lives at Yale University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which means that you can't touch it or turn its pages or really interact with it at all so it was our job to do all of that either digitally or some other method, so I knew that I wanted to have some digital animation of the actual book pages from the high-res photographs that exist of it, but I also knew that I wanted to see the book in space and I couldn't have that unless I physically created a small version of that, so we actually made a miniature Voynich manuscript, it's only a few pages long, but that gave us the option of making stop-motion animation and having the actual book's pages unfold in the book. And then that also helped me figure out, because one of the challenges in this project was what method of animation do I use when I'm not in the book pages, and I knew that I didn't want to draw animation for it because I thought that that would conflict with the already existing style of drawing that's in the book itself, but I had to tell a story through history while also showing the pages of the book, so it ended up being really helpful to use stop motion to depict this because it was a very obvious change from the digital landscape of the book's pages to the stop-motion characters, so that part was super fun for me because I got to make small puppets that were all done in pen and ink and then water-colored and very precariously cut out and then those were all moved under the camera with map tacks as their joints, so we used a piece of foam core that was covered with paper under the camera and placed down those puppets and all of their joints were operated from these tacks right here and then I did all of that stop motion animation under the camera, so that was my area, but also this was, so this decision at the very beginning was really an important one because it also dictated that I needed someone else to work on the project with me so I work in after effects and Photoshop in animation all the time but it's not my, after effects is not my strength so I have worked with this one artist before who's really, not just good at making after effects animation but she also really enjoys it, which is where I fall off, I don't enjoy it at all. Really like moving objects under a camera but I knew Catelyn, who came onto the project and helped me, would really just do a great job, so she took over that entire section and that was really fun for me because I was able to let her also have ownership of a piece of the project as well. So I also, in addition to my work at TED, which is my full-time job, I also work as a freelance animation director and I do similar explainer videos, PSAs, short videos or experiments, whatever, on the side and so between the two of those jobs, I basically make around 80,000 a year, that can change depending on the year. But of course, I have the full-time job that serves as something very sure and regular. And it really depends, animation's a very, it's lot bigger of an industry than it seems, it seems quite niche but there's actually so many niches inside of it, so I have friends who work in advertising for animation and that's of course a higher end of income, friends who work for big studios like a Pixar or a Dreamworks or a Cartoon Network and feature film is gonna be different than television. I started in animation in the independent animation world which is the low end of that, working on documentary stuff and short films, festival films, projects, ads when they come in, but that's the lower end of it, so a freelance animator can make, and I know this 'cause I hire them often for projects, can make anywhere from 400 to 1200 a day depending on the kind of animation that they do and also what level they're at, so you have a junior animator versus a senior animator, someone who's been out of school for a minute or someone who's been doing it for a decade. So those would all be different rates within that range but that's typically the range and of course that's a freelance rate, so that doesn't include things like healthcare or benefits packages and it's, you get work when you get work. So there are a lot of jobs within the umbrella of animation. For what I do as an animation director and especially working on educational material, it's important to be really strong with visual storytelling and some of that is something that just comes from having watched a lot of content and some of it's from having made the content, worked under directors who made great decisions that you watched and sometimes terrible decisions that you watched so that way, you can learn from that. But I would say that's the number one important skill is that visual storytelling, which comes with a sense of what's best to have onscreen to tell this story. But in addition to that, there's so much, so animators have to be, have to know a lot about drawing, about cinematography, about how you light a scene, about mood and composition, to be able to storyboard and they have to know at least a little bit about sound design and how to direct other people, how to take direction from other people. I would say one of the things that I've been able to learn thanks to my role at TED-Ed, because we turn over pieces so quickly and we are working just for two months on a project and then it's a totally different style and topic for the next two months, you really learn to get rid of things that don't work and to also not be afraid to share ideas you have when they're in really really really rough places and that's a thing that I was totally afraid to do before I started this job. I would wanna perfect a thing before sharing it and you just don't learn that way and you also don't get the best product that way. So it's a lot about that but I also think it takes a lot to know what your strengths are, so for me, I learned pretty quickly in school that I really wanted to have my hands on the whole process, and I also, in learning that, learned that I'm not the best character animator, for example, but that does mean that I can identify someone who is much better than me and hire them to come on to the project and everyone benefits from that, including the project that you're making.