Should I Specialise Or Generalise As An Animator?
We can’t count the number of times that we’ve been asked this question by aspiring animators at events, FRAMES meetups and online. It’s often the most important crossroads of your animation career, and screwing it up feels like a very real threat.
This week, we’re taking a look at what can be gained by specialising your skills and what you can expect from going down the generalist route. This is a decision that influences not only how you go about your animation education but also dictates the direction of your whole career.
Specialists provide a degree of experience and domain knowledge that their generalist counterparts struggle to replicate. These people apply an increased level of polish and professionalism to their niche, enabling them to even coach and advise other animators in their area of expertise. As such, they’re able to increase the quality of output in their particular project step by an order of magnitude.
In practice, this means refining your craft and working only in your chosen niche. You might want to pour your time and effort into being a 3D, 2D, hand-drawn, or stop motion specialist. Each of these mediums present an opportunity for even further specialised roles: lighter, rigger, texture artist, modeller, compositor – the number of ways in which animators nowadays can specialise are huge.
What you lose in task variety, you more than make up for in extensive knowledge in your chosen topic. People will come to you with their questions or challenges that involve your discipline and you’ll relish the opportunity to flex your specialised muscles in providing the solutions
The chance to be upwardly mobile in your chosen skill is certainly better but exploring other areas becomes harder the longer you’re in your role and the more specialist you become. You could lose the ability to market yourself as a super skilled lighting technician if all you’ve been doing for the last 5 years is texture art, for example.
Specialisation tends to favour a quicker career progression and is thus more lucrative – if cold, hard cash is your primary motivation. There just tend to be more jobs for specialists because the larger studios hire a majority of them rather than generalists – they want to ensure the highest level of skill and knowledge within each step of the production’s development.
You should generalise if you want to keep your role fresh. Ideally, you’d enjoy switching your focus to different processes and software – all whilst maintaining consistency and continuity between your various tasks.
Generalists have more time and opportunity to explore where their strengths and affinity lie – you can decide where you’d like to concentrate your efforts and start climbing there. You’re not ‘locked in’ the way specialists are, with your more varied base of knowledge, you can readily branch out into a plethora of different production and post-production tasks.
Often, generalists are the glue holding together smaller to mid-size startups and even some projects for larger studios too. Their ability to slot into more positions to support a project makes them able to complete the skillset of the entire studio, enabling that studio to realise their vision, meet their deadlines and exceed their expectations.
Often smaller studios will hire you because of the financial limitations of hiring all the specialists they need for a project. It’s much more time and cost-effective to get one animator in that has the ability to take projects from concept to completion. Not to mention that space is sometimes a factor – you can’t have animators knocking elbows at their desks, right?
Speaking of a smaller studio (they say to write what you know after all!) there are some real and varied benefits to joining a small to mid-sized studio. A smaller studio often means a better working environment leading to a longer term of employment; generalists are less likely to just get hired on as an animator for a single project.
So which do I pick?
Frustratingly, there’s no clear-cut answer to whether you should specialise or not. An exercise that seems to be useful for deciding is:
Think about where you want to be 10 years from now – is it at a smaller studio with a permanent job where you get to influence entire projects? Are you always in the meetings, with your hand guiding the project from start to finish? Consider broadening your knowledge and skill set to become a generalist.
Or maybe you see yourself getting your foot in the door at one of the larger studios, you like the sound of shorter, perhaps freelance trades. You want to be regarded as an expert in your chosen field, perhaps headed towards an influential, senior position which is held in high regard by the rest of the studio? If that’s the case – better start looking for a niche which you enjoy.
Whilst we think that specialising in the skill you think you enjoy and are best at is probably the way to go; this amazing industry thrives because of the incredible diversity and flexibility of its generalists, too.
Your personality and your career goals(th). Remember that whilst at these crossroads, the roads you’re considering may meet again, you can become the other in future.
Check our Types of People in the Studio post to give you an idea of some of the roles you can specialise in or our How to Stand out as an Animator one for a breakdown of what you need to consider when marketing yourself as an animator. They might just help you come to a decision on whether to specialise or generalise in animation!