On Wednesday, July 12, 2023, TAG members Kimson Albert, Amber Hardin, and Paula Spence participated in a Q&A about career longevity, led by TAG Member Programs Coordinator Jackie Huang. Panelists discussed how to sustain an enduring—and satisfying—animation career, as well as shared experiences from their own multi-decade careers in the industry.
Timing Supervisor, Disney Television Animation
30 years in the animation industry
Art Production, Model and Effects Design
27 years in the animation industry
Art Director, Nickelodeon unannounced feature
25 years in the animation industry
The following Career Longevity panel discussion has been edited for length.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you started your career?
Kimson: Going digital. I started on paper. We knew digital was coming. But that was 20 years ago. It’s kind of an old transition, but it’s the biggest in terms of the craft itself—trying to do it quickly and seamlessly and get the same results.
Hardin: I learned traditionally and also went digital … know there’s a way through. I dragged my feet. On the show The Mighty B! we were given three months to transition to Cintiq and Adobe software. Three months to get acclimated. Nickelodeon gave artists time. We were really fortunate. That’s how I jumped.
Spence: I started when things were still done on cel. The first season of SpongeBob was done on cel. Everything was pencil on paper. Amber and I both worked at Nick when the order came down that we’re going to be paperless. That was about 2006 or 2007. I thought, oh the hell we are! I didn’t want artists who weren’t going to be able to transition swiftly to be adversely challenged. … But it really helps to make your career long by taking on those tech changes and mastering the new technology so you can choose what’s the best way to advance.
Albert: I started in New York with no union. It was a wild west situation. Your sense of survival, of sink or swim, was part of your career. Cheaper, faster, quicker was always the mantra for New York studios. We started going digital in 2000 or 2001. That’s the way we were able to produce and learn the software. Unfortunately, some people did not transition quickly or at all. I saw people go by the wayside. Stay adaptable. That’s really important now with everyone looking for work. Adaptability and longevity are very connected.
How do you stay motivated?
Hardin: There’s always going to be [down] cycles in the industry. To stay motivated, I’ll paint my own stuff or draw. Spend time with friends and family. Live life because when I’m on a job I fully commit. Refresh. Drink in all the stuff that makes you happy. Fill up on joy! Get your fill of humanness. That can propel you. And you should aways plan to have six months of expenses [in savings] in this industry.
Spence: Never say no to freelance. But if it’s something I don’t want to do, I’ll jack the price up. Often they’ll take your weird crazy price. I always try to do anything that comes my way that I can do, even if it’s on the side or overlapping jobs. Not only does it help you build that 6-month emergency fund, those [side] jobs turn into networking connections when your current job ends.
Albert: Beavis and Butt-Head was my first animation job. A month in, I just felt the weight of studio work. I was an artist. The studio system—you’re not drawing for yourself anymore. The way you draw is being criticized. You can’t take it personal. I was internalizing the machine. I went to my animation teacher from college and asked, how you stay inspired when you work at a studio? You’ve got to find inspiration outside the studio. Find whatever it is for you: whatever community you have, church, walking in park, drawing. The same applies when you’re not working. You have to have a reservoir. Most people who work in this industry have [something on the] side. Self-care. A hobby. For me personally, it’s community and tapping into my art and music, and trying to come up with more ideas.
Hardin: My last job was with Paula. A pilot. I finished as a vis-dev artist in February. It took months to rest my wrists [and I was] looking at starting another job in September. In the meanwhile, to make things happen, a friend I worked with years ago lives in Venice. She was doing a remodel. I have tech design skills. I wound up doing all the elevation drawings for her remodel. Totally unrelated [but you can] take creativity and apply it in other ways.
Albert: Fortunately, I have been pretty consistently working those 30 years. To the point of who you work with: working on Beavis, I had a friend in storyboard, Chris Prynowski. I started making hip-hop beats for my own sanity, and I started giving him tapes. When he got his first show at MTV, he asked me to do the music for it. I transitioned into a brief music career to supplement my [animation] career. Also, it’s a passion of mine and something that I still do. Whatever it takes, as long as it doesn’t crush your spirit, side hustles are great.
How important is building relationships?
Hardin: Relationships are big.
Spence: You never know who you’re going to come across years later.
Albert: I moved to L.A. because of someone I worked with in New York. I was never moving to L.A., but he offered me a job. He had been an intern on a show in New York. In my eyes, everybody’s equal. You never know who’s going to be up, who’s going to be down.
Hardin: Hyper-talented people, but nightmares to work with, can get jobs because of talent. Maintain a skill level that is competitive, but it’s not just about [artistic or technical] skill level. It’s about social and professional skill levels. Managing your deadlines and how you interact with others on a bad day. Focus on gratitude on how lucky you are to be doing something creative for a living. Vibe with other people showing same kind of gratitude. Reputation is part of it, as well. Go all in if given the opportunity. Bring your very best to everything that you can. Definitely show up. And definitely dance.
How did you evolve your career?
Spence: My first job was Background Designer on SpongeBob. When you get your first job, master that job. Look around and talk to coworkers in other crafts. Go out and ask: Do you want me to help? That helped me learn to do other crafts. Doing that led me to art direction because it’s really good if an Art Director can do the jobs they’re supervising. Always look around and see what you can do. Don’t stay in your lane unless you love your lane. If you want to make room to go higher or go somewhere else, you have to send yourself in that direction or tell people you are willing to go.
Hardin: There was a Hanna-Barbera storyboard competition in the paper. A friend from high school was there. … Six months later I got hired at startup DreamWorks TV. There were a lot of high-powered people. I started learning on the job. I was told by other people where they saw my strengths. I doubled down on that.
Albert: What I really appreciated when I first started was the unstructured kind of mentorship happening among artists. When I was first taught to do this a particular way, it was important, having a mentor or somebody you can talk to. Being young—how do you make your Kung Fu better? How do I make it faster or better so you master it, and you can worry about other things?
When do you start looking for your next job?
Spence: I’m always looking. I will overlap jobs and start freelancing. I’ve overlapped from three weeks to four months. Or start putting feelers out a month or two ahead.
Hardin: It’s important when you start [a project] to fully commit and immerse yourself in that world. You have to go 100%. People can tell if you’re not. [If you’re looking for other work], be very diplomatic. Have a lot of discretion.
Albert: One, you’re always looking. Two, there are recruiting departments at studios. Within two months I’ll say, hey I’m wrapping up, is there anything coming up? If nothing happens within a month, I go hard looking outside the studio. Then I know I need to focus. From 90 days out from my wrap, I start taking the temp.
What about leaving one job to take another job?
Hardin: What does lateral mean? When you move to the same position. If you jump from one job you’re not done with to another job with the same position, it’s lateral. That’s frowned upon. If you’re going up, that’s considered more understandable. If you leave a production [before it’s done], always offer to cover every single base.
Do you notice a difference in your bandwidth looking for jobs now from when you started?
Spence: Try to know what’s going on in the industry. It’s easier when you stay involved through the Guild, reading communications. Read the trades. If you know what’s going on, you’ll have better options.
Hardin: My bandwidth has grown. It’s my intention to blow people’s minds with my output on the show. Everyone’s been out of work. We’ve all been there. Creative hunger can propel you to expand your bandwidth.
Spence: My bandwidth depends on what the needs are. It’s based on the industry. Do I need hunger right now?
Albert: Schedule, pay, and people. If two out of those can outweigh the other, I’ll take job. If it’s a full-time in-studio gig but the pay is really bad, especially if I’m currently working—it’s definitely a refusal there. In terms of bandwidth, it’s one of the things that keeps you in this industry. You always have to challenge yourself to see if you can do it. But when you develop that ability and pass that threshold, you look back and think wow, I did all that. Anything moving forward a piece of a cake. Do your job well. Earn the trust of people you work with professionally. That goes a long way. You’ll always be on somebody’s employment list. Take on as much work as you can withstand for your mental health. You’d be surprised at what you can do.
What are your thoughts on networking?
Spence: Try to meet people in person. Even if you’re on a show, if it’s happening in Burbank, if you can get there, try.
Albert: Get to know your producers. Try to be on a first name basis, face-to-face, with producers. Networking is a bunch of things. Connecting with artistic peers who are working. Put your portfolio out there. Once in the industry, the best way to network every job I’ve had in L.A. has been word of mouth. Earn the trust of your coworkers and show’s producers.
Hardin: Often it’s not studios that hire people. I advise everyone to know who’s actually hiring you. Often for designers it will be the Art Director. Sometimes it comes from the Line Producer. Ways to access info, if you hear about production: ask who’s the EP, Line Producer, Art Director. Check the trades, social media, IMDB. If you know the person, great. If you don’t, find a way to meet them.
Spence: Use slower times to have extra meetings. Have conversations that are purely social, meetings to just say hi. Relationships carry on. Even if you haven’t seen a person in months, they might think of you for a job.
Hardin: As delightful as it is for introverts to work from home, [when you work in-person] you get to explore so many other aspects of people aside from just the job. There’s the social element. Being there when people need help. Being helped.
What do you do when your network starts to dwindle? Leave the industry? Retire?
Albert: Diversify your interests, abilities, and contacts. Don’t be reliant on just one person.
Hardin: You always want to be building your network.
Spence: Keep getting to know the people you’re working with. They get younger as you get older.
What is one thing you want people to take away about career longevity?
Hardin: Be a decent human being to everyone you meet and work with. Operate with kindness. It’s not that complicated. Be grateful. Be humble. Don’t take it for granted.
Albert: Don’t give up. Keep going.
Spence: Adapt, hit your deadlines, save for the hard times, be kind. Be somebody who others want to work with.