Creating An Effective Portfolio For Animation

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Every now and then I get an email or two from students and recent graduates asking for advice and feedback on their portfolios. It’s probably a question I get asked the most, along with what brushes do I use… (I use Kyle T. Websters’ PS brushes btw, they are the best!). I really want to be able to help people, but going through work, reviewing it and writing specific and actionable feedback is time consuming and I’ve noticed that many times I tend to come back to the same comments and suggestions over and over again. So I thought I’d write a brief post to elaborate a bit on the subject. 

I’m assuming you’re a student or a recent graduate, wanting to land your first job in animation whether it be as a concept artist, character designer, background painter, storyboard or visual development artist, but you don’t know if your portfolio is good enough. You’ve probably already asked a few industry pros to review your work and got a few pointers, but perhaps don’t really know what to do with them. A normal problem to have, when you don’t know what’s expected of you and where your skills measure in the industry. To tackle this issue I’d like to give you some tools for planning your career, reviewing your work and designing your portfolio. 

In my experience, there are four key points to consider in creating an effective portfolio for the animation industry, which are: Set a goal, do great work, tell a story, mind your presentation. Whenever someone asks me to look at their work, pretty much every time I’d first find out if these four aspects are in order and only then I’d go into more detail about specific stuff. Let me explain each topic in more detail.

Set a goal

Before assembling a portfolio or applying for a job, do your research. What company/studio do you want to work for? What kind of work the studio is already producing? What projects do you want to work on? What role do you want to be hired in? It’s important to map out a clear career goal for yourself and have that as your guide when developing your work and portfolio. An ambiguous goal will likely lead you into ambiguous results, but a clear and specific goal will help you stay focused in creating work that’s relevant to the role and company you want to apply for. A focused portfolio is as much about what you choose to include in it, as it is what you choose to leave out. 

A focused portfolio is as much about what you choose to include in it, as it is what you choose to leave out.

Don’t hold your hopes up for landing a job as a character designer with a portfolio tailored for editorial illustration. That’s why it is important to decide your goal first and stay focused. There’s going to be setbacks and detours along the way for sure, but you’ll be able to figure out the path to get there, unless you stop trying or change your goal altogether of course.

I understand that as a student it can be challenging to clearly define a goal as you don’t necessarily know what you need to look for in the first place, or you might find it difficult to decide between different career paths. Luckily most of the information you need is already out there, you just need to find it. Research the internet, read the books, go to industry events and talk to people, ask help from your peers, teachers or industry professionals to help you build knowledge about the career paths that interest you. Ultimately it’s your decision and if you choose to change course at any point, that’s fine too. 

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Do great work

Easier said than done! And what is a great work anyway? Well, depends on context and what you are applying for. Assuming you’re a student or a recent graduate looking for an entry level job, a great portfolio showcases not only your technical abilities, but also your design thinking and storytelling skills. It should also tell something about yourself, who you are as a creative and what aspects of your craft you are passionate about. A great portfolio is also specific to the role you’re applying for - hence deciding on a goal early on. 

So, let’s assume you’ve now decided what company/role you want to pursue. Perfect! A great student concept art portfolio for example would showcase solid understanding of the art fundamentals of form, perspective, composition, value, color, lighting, human and animal anatomy… You don’t have to be a master, but the foundation has to be there. 

The fundamentals alone won’t get you very far however, you need to be able to show your ability to apply them in practice. Depending on what kind of studio and job you’re looking for this could mean slightly different things. For example a concept artist for live action film and animation (e.g. Marvel movies) would likely be required to showcase skills in realistic level designs, lighting and rendering, whereas a concept artist for cartoony animation (e.g. Disney, Cartoon Network) would likely be required to showcase more stylised designs, lighting and rendering. Research the role you want to fill and find out what skills and abilities you’re required to demonstrate and be sure to work on those.

It’s also a very useful skill to be able to evaluate your work objectively. Take a look at your work and ask yourself: does your portfolio match the role you want to apply for? Is there something missing? Where can you improve to match the level of the work or style the company you want to work for is already creating? Of course you don’t want to just create a generic portfolio mimicking what the studio has already done. Chances are when the studio is hiring for a role, they’re looking to bring in new talent with fresh ideas and approaches, which is an opportunity for you to show a bit of your personality and personal experiences and passions in your work.

Tell a story

Animation is not just pretty characters moving around aimlessly, at least not when talking about feature animation or TV cartoons. Animation is fundamentally about story and the art of storytelling through sequential pictures appearing as moving images. You can tell a story through many mediums, but the quickest (and cheapest) way would probably be by writing or telling someone a story in a conversation. 

However animation adds another level to that. With animation we’re telling the story through visual imagery (and sound) which this means all aspects of the final look of the project have to be thought out and designed by somebody. That means characters, environments, props, color, lighting, textures, materials… Everything basically. Furthermore, all of those visual elements have to support telling (and selling) the story to the audience in a compelling, memorable and effective way. So as a designer, concept artist or any creative professional in the field it is your job to combine your knowledge of the art fundamentals with your understanding of storytelling in order to be able to design the visual elements for the animated project in question. Ultimately design has to serve the story and demonstrating your understanding of this concept in your portfolio is essential for landing a job in the industry. 

There’s many ways you can add story to your designs. You can take an existing book or story from public domain for example, or use folklore or a myth as an inspiration to create something new. You could also think of your own worlds and characters and start building visuals around those. The key is not to just draw something that looks cool or pretty, but to actually have some meaning behind your design choices and ideas. All visuals in an animated project have to support the story and you want to make every design decision intentional.

Ultimately design has to serve the story and demonstrating your understanding of this concept in your portfolio is essential for landing a job in the industry.

Mind your presentation

Finally please arrange and present your portfolio in a way that is clear, easily accessible and easy to look through. If you have a portfolio website or PDF, only show relevant work to the role you’re applying for. Never just dump all your work you’ve ever done in your portfolio. Be picky about what you choose to show and only show your best work. 10 excellent pieces is better than 50 mediocre ones. The people reviewing your portfolio can tell from the first few pieces whether you have the skills or not - the rest are really just to back up and prove that assumption.

Conclusion

So in conclusion. Your portfolio is pretty much the most important thing when you apply for creative jobs in animation such as character designer, concept, background, storyboard or visual development artist… The four key points are not limited to only these roles however, they can be just as well applied to a showreel for an animator or 3D portfolio for a character artist. The key is to be clear and intentional about what you choose to do and put effort into a good presentation as well. It really shows!

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