You Want to be a Hollywood Artist


(Revised and Updated & Expanded Edition)

UPDATED: 16 NOV. 2007

The following is a compilation of answers to frequently asked (real) questions from many earnest students of art, or young professionals simply eager to initiate a change in their line of work. It occurred to me that the things that people inquired about were not only always the same, but that they reflected a fundamental lack of knowledge about the rather dismal realities of the film world. After many repetitive answers, it was suggested that we cut and paste it all into a Web Page for all to read, once and for all. Presented here are my humble opinions, gathered through little love, and much pain - take from them what you will; I hope this will not be seen as discouraging, but my feeling is that you might as well know the facts, since few of them are being taught in art school. Similarly, fewer even are being offered in Interviews. I will always gladly answer questions but please, read all this before asking anyone anything. This is what I wish I had been told some decades ago…

I know I want to be a Hollywood Artist; what do I do?
Currently, it is impossible to land a job on a major (studio) picture without prior experience, because the various unions make sure that non-union competition stays out as long as possible.

The Art Directors Union, a.k.a. Local 800, recently swallowed-up the former 790 Illustrators Union’s 200 or so members; technically there is no longer a Union which is strictly-speaking representing artists and their interests, however, this is a mere formality since there never really was.

Artists now belong to the same union as that of the people they are likely to want to complain about – a clear sign that the status of the profession is in grave decline.
Keep in mind that, out of the 200 or so illustrators and artists in question (numbers vary,) only about 25 are considered "desirable" by production designers and directors. Out of those, only about 10 make the cut to the "A-list"; most members are ALWAYS out of work: Only so many movies are made per year.

Do I need to move to Los Angeles in order to get a job?
Unless you're a "celebrity", yes. Go to Los Angeles. It is very difficult to gain experience working in movies outside of Los Angeles. Conversely, it is very difficult NOT to get a job sooner or later in Los Angeles.

If you can't go to LA, because you are European, go to LONDON.

(For non-US citizens) Do I need to have Work Papers to work in the Los Angeles Film Industry?

Should I attend Art School?
Art Schools are businesses; their trade consists of selling a dream and taking your parent's money. If you keep that in mind, then you can survive Art School and take it all with a pinch of salt. Another "truth" to keep in mind is majorities of teachers of art (or any craft for that matter) are failed professionals - you might then surmise that what a school can best teach you is how to prepare to be a teacher yourself. On the positive side, an Art School can slap you into the reality of harsh competition and force some good work out of you. It can also expose you to techniques that can help you grow. Ultimately, it is up to you and your own discipline. Have a laugh and go read Daniel Clowes' Art School Confidential (it's all true!)

Is there a standard path to a career in film arts?
There is no path to a career in the film arts, or any kind of art, for that matter; this should be the first thing art schools ought to tell their students: "We haven't a clue; no one does". The problem for a student or young professional is three-fold:

a) Acquiring experience, to become competitive.
b) Making money just to live, in a way that remains at least on target.
c) Breaking into the "gated community" of show business.

What can I expect from Agents?
Basically, agents are great to get you those first jobs, provided that they really have connections to big time players. Agents, on the positive side, will get you work, and give you the opportunity to get your stuff seen. They will take a percentage of what you make, on the jobs they find you; so far, that's fair. Sometimes that percentage will be very high -- as high as 50%. This is still worthwhile.

The negative bits are this: Agents can lie about how much they are really making from the deal (especially on commercial jobs, especially if they know you will have no contact with the people concerned) -- ALWAYS demand to go present your own work, and always demand to deliver your own work.

Agents will frequently demand of you that you sign exclusive deals, which means that they become entitled to a percentage of ALL the money you earn, even when the job had nothing to do with them. Agents often try and trap you into exclusive contracts that bind you for years beyond the time when you sever your relationship with them. In order to do this, they invoke the most ridiculous concepts -- like suggesting that you OWE them the contacts that you have made, etc... Of course they say nothing of the respectability you have brought them, if you are any good, nor do they say anything of the liability carried by the lesser artists that they represent.

My advice: simply laugh at them on this, and tell them to go f*** themselves, and the pig they rode on. They won't bite. They were just testing your artistic lack of guts. If you've met artists, you cannot blame them.

The most important thing to consider is that agents have many artists, and their own agendas. You must never delegate the "running" of your own career to someone else, if you want to understand why things happen on your path.

If you must sign with an agent, try like hell to strike out the "exclusive clause" and keep a paragraph that allows for a clean exit; or, sign under a fake name.

NEVER, EVER, delegate discussions about your employment to someone else, if you can be there to do them yourself; ultimately, only you will be able to really help you get ahead. If you let someone do all the work for you, it's not your own "muscles" that get strong. Like at the Gym.

What should my Portfolio contain?
It's a good idea to understand whom it is that you want to impress.

If you want to be a Film Illustrator, you are likely to be recruited by a Production Designer or an Art Director. Your Portfolio should show samples of Set Designs, Architectural Illustrations of Exteriors and Interiors. It might show Concept sketches, Prop Sketches, etc.

If you plan on working on science fiction movies, you should demonstrate that you can visualize Futuristic Concepts; if you want to work on historical movies, you should adjust your samples in that way, etc.

If you want to do storyboards, which is altogether another job, you will be recruited by a Director. Your Portfolio should show storyboards of sequences pertaining to the kind of work you're going after. Not much use bringing Transformers Storyboards to a job interview with Neil LaBute. (I was once asked by director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, while he was looking at my work, if I could draw Black People -- you get the idea…)

Generally, even in situations where intelligence is involved, you should never assume that people will trust you to do things that you haven't shown you are suited for.

Experienced Directors and Designers will judge you by the worst pieces in your Portfolio, knowing that they probably reflect your most stable level of draughtsmanship.

If you do not have real jobs to show, you might want to imitate real jobs, as best you can, again, to demonstrate that you understand what is required.

You might want to avoid including in your Portfolio drawings that are NOT related to Movie Work (e.g.: comics, animation); the more you stay focused, the more professional you will look.

Ultimately and sadly, be prepared to be asked for your resume. Unfortunately, most filmmakers are more interested in your credits than in your ability (which frequently they cannot judge because they themselves lack the discernment).

How do I get into the Union?
Bad News: Local 790, is a sort of private club. You are not likely to find a more protectionist environment than a Film Union.

Technically, every member would have to be employed before you could stand a chance of being "let in". This would only happen with the Sponsorship of a Director or a Production Designer. You get the idea...

Filmmakers do not want to hire you on a Union movie, unless you are a Union worker, because film crews have snitches; if a production gets caught, they get fined -- rather heavily.

The best bet is to look for work on Non-Union pictures, which is getting easier these days, as more and more movies go "offshore" to get the work done. This drives Unions crazy because they have, in part at least, created this exodus. Use it to your advantage.

Also, sometimes a Non Union movie that begins in Los Angeles can "go Union" in mid-flight. When that happens, everybody gets offered a Union Card.

Can I help you?
Beyond this, no.

It 's simply impossible to help people "get in" because of the sheer volume of people who want to do this kind of work. It is probably impossible for a film artist to take you on as an apprentice, because he does not earn enough money to take you on. Also, the production companies cherry-pick their staff; they would never agree to let someone "tag along" on a film whom they haven't approved. You have to get your own gig.

I was asked a couple of times to do a "How To" book on storyboarding, and I have refused; indeed, my feeling is that it is wrong and irresponsible at this stage to encourage anybody to get into this line of work. There is simply not enough work around; you'll notice books on the subject are quite poor, badly drawn, and not done by true "working artists." They mostly offer nothing that is of any use (this is a good thing ;)

I'm happy to tell you what I know, but you have to be aware that simply feeling ready to hit the workforce is not a guarantee of immediate entry into a job.

This industry works entirely on acquired reputation, and the trust people put into you over the years.

Being ambitious is nice, but you must not forget that before you, stand many people with talent who have been playing this game for some time, and have been trying to get in as well; art schools, in fact, churn them out by the truckload every year -- without any regard for the limits of what the industry can take.

Bottom Line: Be patient.

You may miraculously jump over the heads of everyone, but then again, you might be called upon to wait for your turn. You must have a strategy to make a living while you improve the quality of your work.

Then, there will be the Unions, then, the problem of acquiring a résumé that people will pay attention to.

Sadly, talent alone doesn't seem to be quite enough. There's too much of it around.

What practical knowledge do I need?
Technically: How to draw, of course…

Don't buy into theories that suggest that storyboarding is not about drawing. These were invented by benign seminar teachers who were afraid to discourage their unskilled customers. You need to master drawing because your competition does already. Develop strong skills in anatomy, perspective, and architecture.

Beyond that, some psychological skills can help:

Most young artists are not interested in the inner workings of studio politics, and the mechanics of movie production; therefore, if you learn a lot about "who" really makes movies, and "how" they're "really" made, you may gain a tremendous head start on the pack.

Go to your film section in the local bookstore, and buy a few books on Hollywood-style productions -- Learn who's who, and what your place really is. Also read "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" by Peter Biskin, for a clue as to whom your future employers truly are. (Other nifty testimonials: "What Just Happened," by Art Linson - "Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman," "Bambi vs. Godzilla," by David Mamet, etc.)

Finally, ask yourself if this is really what you want to do as a job.

Most people who pose as storyboard artists are in fact stowaway directors or director wannabes.

If this applies to you, do yourself a favor: Save yourself the grief of a dead-end, 20 year trek in Movie Art Departments. Just BE a director. Win or lose, this is what you'll be spending the next few years doing and learning about. There are too many grumpy production artists in this industry as it is.

At least, you'll be happy shooting home movies, and you might just make it-- Not a bad thing after all.

OK, I got my first Hollywood film job, but I didn't get a credit; what can I do?
Producers a reluctant to give guarantees of credit to their employees.

Typically, all the "below the line" (look it up) crew depend on the kindness of strangers if they hope to see their name on the silver screen. Producers often complain that credits are too long, and they are often willing to eliminate names from all departments (other than Production.)

You can help your cause by choosing to work in the office, if the option to work at home is offered; this way, you can visit the Production Office frequently, do little drawings for the office staff, and make sure people remember your face, when the time comes for them to update the Crew List. Never underestimate the power of schmoozing.

Receiving a "Proper Credit" is essential to your survival in the business. The issue has been brought up to the Union's attention a number of times, and I personally have expressed to them my bitterness over the fact that they show no interest over defending the idea that credits should be guaranteed. Nothing, since the time this page was first posted, has ever changed on that level, and I continue to wonder what truly compels the union's decisions when it comes to choosing causes to go after. ( more on that regarding DVDs, below.)

Basically, you are on your own.

I'm being offered a job today, but I want to hold out for a better one that promises to begin soon; what should I do?
This is a Jedi Mind Trick; the better job may manifest, sooner or later, but most likely, it won't. Common wisdom says that you might consider taking whatever job is in front of you - even if only for the time being. Look out for you; no one else does.

How much money do I charge to do this kind of work?
This depends entirely on your experience, and personal charm. There is no standard fee.

The best artists command the highest prices, but as you might expect, often can price themselves out. You must stay informed as to what the standards are, and where you fit.

The country in which you work plays a big part in determining how much you can charge, also. You should know that the business establishes precedents and that you are often held to those precedents.

How can I be sure I will get paid for a job?
A job for a major movie studio is sure to pay promptly. No worries.

Where things get tricky is when you are asked to work for amateurs, or small time productions. Always deal with the payment issue immediately - With "amateurs" you can perhaps ask for half your fee upfront, when you start, as security.

A safe rule of thumb is that working for small timers presents all the inconvenient of the big time, without any of the advantages. Be careful.

Also, do not assume that working for a famous actor or a famous director, or writer, who is paying you out of pocket, is a safe situation - some of the worst payers are celebrities. What you need is to speak with a production accountant, or a production manager. If one has not been hired, then, assume that the money situation is foggy.

These nice people say that they have no money, and that their offer is the best they can do; should I believe them?
No. You might, however, decide to go with the job because you need whatever little money they are offering.

People who start a film ALWAYS have the money you would feel happy with, but they are biologically wired to screw everything they come in contact with. To check this theory out, engage in a thorough accounting of the money they spend on their own comings and goings (cars, business class seats, hotel categories, etc.) - Look at their surroundings, and then look at your own… You will soon see that the sacrifices they talk about are always involving other people.

Will talking about money reflect negatively on me?
You bet it will!

You are expected to behave like Van Gogh.

The industrial world relies on Artistic low self-esteem for its survival. The hunched-back, Igor-like, image of the drooling Artist-Geek, chained to a drawing table, is a staple of our business. To complete that image, you need do nothing more than be ashamed of your need for money. People will be delighted.

Learn to identify the euphemisms of the trade:

"We want people who are excited about the project": We are looking for suckers.
"We would like to send you the script before we discuss money": We are looking for suckers.
"We want team players": We are looking for suckers.
"You are so talented": Are you a sucker?
"He's a trooper": He's a sucker.
"We getting a crop of young artists": We are looking for suckers.
"He's High Maintenance": He's figured us out.

Only then, can you identify the only sign that you are dealing with a professional outfit:
"Are you available; what is your rate?": We mean business!

What happens to the original artwork?
Usually, Movie Studios ask you to sign away all connections to your own work. It happens that on smaller pictures, they can sometimes forget… It is really up to you to be clever in keeping track of what you create, so you can build a body of work to show.

There is no better opportunity than when you are right then and there; don't count on people sending you anything once you've left.

The digital era has finally reached art departments, so, mercifully today, an artist can resort to endless trickery to refrain from leaving any original work behind on a movie.

With all this talk about residuals for creative people, I sure as hell expected to be paid for the use of 500 of my drawings on a DVD; what's with that?
You must already have done quite well for yourself for this to be an issue of concern.

The idea which artists are supposed to accept is that a DVD provides exposure and notoriety - a sort of personal trade-ad… and that anyone featured on a DVD should be grateful.

Newer technologies are the Wild West, and exploitation runs rampant.

The DVD situation is another thing which one would expect would ring an alarm bell among fellow artists whom for years have experienced seeing their work published in books with mentions such as "illustrator's rendition of…" None of the entities endowed with the mission of protecting our trade have ever proposed to do anything about this and similar issues.

The fundamental truth about this line of work, is that film artists a considered a "low-status" bunch. Any illusion suggesting otherwise should be dealt with using a strong household cleanser. Please remember that as you make your career choice.

Are computers necessary in the practice of Movie Design and Storyboarding?
More so than ever, but, this profession still allows leeway. Storyboards can still be done entirely on paper, and production sketches and paintings can arguably still be done by traditional means, however: Computer skills are becoming essentials to almost anyone who wants to be a commercial artist ( if only to be able to scan and send out art.)

With respect to the professions discussed here, tools like Photoshop should be considered basic skills, nowadays, and many Concept Artists work with Maya in order to create 3D environments onto which they build their paintings digitally.

You should be aware that becoming too reliant on software for your style can prevent your identity from emerging…you then run the risk of becoming a "computer artist". What is in demand today may be useless tomorrow. The basic skills are still the most important to hone.

Someone showed me a computer program that does Storyboarding; do I need it?

It is unlikely that such a program will ever allow the flexibility that it promises, and in fact, most directors delight in seeing pencils hitting paper - the fast and dirty grit of a sketch still wins out… People still like the feeling that they are buying "art" first and foremost. Save your money!

Why this page of FAQ's?
Things are becoming perversely bad; the only hope for the future of the craft lies in young artists who may develop a spine and improve the image of our profession. The hope is to make novices more conscious of the risks involved in being too innocent, and too foolish for too long, in too large numbers.

I'm still NOT scared away -- what CAN I do?
There's no sure-fire thing, but you can try calling production companies around LA, or in your town of choice. Most people have nothing to do and will always enjoy staging a meeting for you - something might even happen.

I don't recommend you call Advertising Agencies because that's altogether another world. Working in an Advertising Agency will not "connect" you to a production company or a director.

Again, this all relates to what I suggested earlier about picking up some books on the business to understand who is who, and who does what.

Begin by seeking out Productions who work on commercials and music videos -- both non-union areas for artists -- since many directors who come from those fields graduate to motion pictures. For names of Production Houses, you can buy a copy of 411, or some other directory that lists all of the LA companies related to production.

Do whatever you can to build a good pro-portfolio, by opposition to a "student portfolio" -- this means one that smells and feels real, with real jobs in it.

You need friends, in LA, who can show you what they work on, what a good portfolio looks like, even if you think yours is great.

They can recommend you, and give you "heads up" on jobs that come up. The same will eventually be true in films when you get there.

Persistence is good, so long as it's not confused with "nuisance".

You'll find that when someone is really interested in your work, they call back within minutes. They don't keep you waiting.

I also advise you not to buy into offers to work for cheap under the promise that "There will be a lot of work for you in the future." It's one of the oldest tricks in the book. Pay no mind to compliments; they are cheap - take the money.

Remember: Nothing is personal. Perhaps that's the hardest thing for artists to grasp; we work from the inside - we tend to give the benefit of the doubt, and we naively expect that people always favor craft and perfection…

The business of pro-illustration is a greedy trade floor with people going through motions and saving a buck wherever they can. Most of the people you meet in film don't know a good drawing from a bad one, and ultimately, only fellow peer artists, and mentors can serve as your guides. If in doubt, look at the situation of the advice giver.

Be very careful whom you accept advice from.

© 2007-2008 Sylvain Despretz. All rights reserved. Reproduction is forbidden without the permission of the author.