David B. Levy on guiding artists through Your Career In Animation

David B. Levy is a development and production executive and the author of best selling books about the animation industry, including Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive. David’s current role is Head of Studio at Pinkfong USA. Among his many qualifications, he has lectured and taught at Parsons, SVA, NYU, RISD and Pratt, and served as the president of the New York chapter of ASIFA.

In June 2022, David participated in Toon Boom Animation’s livestream to discuss his book, Your Career in Animation, as well as your career in animation. Our conversation covers work cultures within animation studios, the process of applying for your first job in animation, how to find mentors throughout your journey, as well as exploring changes in the animation industry since the release of his book’s first edition in 2004. You can watch the original interview in its entirety and find transcribed excerpts from our discussion below.

David B. Levy participated in a livestream interview on ‘Your Career In Animation’ in June 2022. For more interviews, panel discussions and live art streams, visit Toon Boom Animation’s channels on YouTube and Twitch.

I enjoyed that your book spends time discussing your own early career experiences, as well as those of your colleagues. How often do you think about your experiences when hiring and working with new talent?

David: It’s important to remember when you were starting out, full of all the unknowns about what your future would be, where your first break might be and what you even could do on your first job. That’s a lot that’s going through someone’s mind as they’re applying for things or doing interviews. 

I really feel like no matter where you go, and what phase of your career you’re at, you can’t forget where you come from. That responsibility of being able to look at new talent that didn’t necessarily do the exact thing you need them to do — they don’t have on their resume that they’ve been an animator on a 2D preschool show with four legged characters, which you need them to animate now. But they might have a reel that had a student film where they did that beautifully. Or they might have great designs, and that’s how they like to draw naturally. There’s so many other things to look at that can make up who that person is, and the sum of their experiences. 

So I think that’s a really good thing to keep in mind. Especially as we’re trying to build more diverse, more inclusive workplaces. When you do that you’re opening a much wider community of candidates that didn’t get in the kingdom yet. Or aren’t the most intuitive choices. I really try as a hiring manager to live by that.

For those who haven’t picked up Your Career in Animation: How to Survive, who is the book for?

David: I think, at a glance, it could be easy to think it’s for the newcomer: the student, the about-to-graduate animation artists. It’s absolutely for them. But it’s not exclusively for them. It’s also for folks like me, that are deep in their careers — I’m not gonna say how deep — but who have different choices to make and have different opportunities based on our careers up to this point. I didn’t want that group, which is a very important part of the industry, to be underserved in a book like this. 

It was up to me to make sure, through the interview process, through collecting all the stories, that there are people at all different stages of a career. You have people who are in supervising roles that have done that for thirty years, there are people who have been recruiting for ten years, animators that are two years into their careers, designers, art directors. Everyone’s at a different point. 

You can research them and learn more about them on their own social handles. I encourage readers to do that. So you’re getting a wide range of perspectives, because I certainly wouldn’t want it to only be my point-of-view or my career to-date. That helped, I think, get a much wider snapshot of the industry today.

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What led to you writing Your Career in Animation, and what was that process like?

David: I have to go back to the first edition, which I started writing in 2004. That’s kind of a fun story, too, because it’s really a career story. I had just gotten the opportunity to teach at the School of Visual Arts for a 15-week class for seniors. It was the class they get at the end of their four years at SVA that teaches them how to get a job in the industry.  

I got the opportunity to teach it. It was one of my favourite classes as a student, so I was excited. And the first thing you get to do as an adjunct professor is write the syllabus. You always throw away the previous syllabus: “They didn’t know what they were doing.” You start over, or at least you look at what they did, and you try to improve it. I made my 15-week lecture topics. And I kind of thought, “Oh, this is a chapter list too. This feels like a book. Why don’t we have this book?” And it was a eureka moment.

And I had already gotten involved with a publisher in New York. I had promoted a few books that were printed locally, just down the block by a small press. I took their publicist to lunch with what I wrote up as a chapter list and a little cover letter. Because it felt like something they would print. They had done a lot of art industry books. And she said, “Wow, I think we’re gonna want this book,” 

The publisher called me and said, “Okay, this is great, but we need to see a sample chapter.” So I just wrote up a sample chapter, for spec. I did it in a couple of weeks and sent it in. I got an email back that had three questions. It said, “Well, how many pages will it be? Are you willing to change the title? And how long will it take you to write?” When I read that email I literally turned white, because you do not ask those three questions if you don’t want the book. So I answered the questions. And then I got an email back: “Check your fax machine. Your book contract is in the fax. Please sign and return.” 

I’m telling you that long story, because that’s how I approach my career. It’s about making those connections. Nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s the hustle that I found really helpful throughout my career in animation. You make your own opportunities, you make your own luck, and you make your own connections.

Work in the animation industry is very often production-to-production.

David: Absolutely, yeah. That sounds very destabilizing and chaotic. But when you look back you realize you are the consistency in that story. You are the one on this journey. You look backwards, and you go, “Okay, so I was here for three years. And I did that. And then that led to this next opportunity.” There’s actually an order to it when you turn around. It doesn’t necessarily always feel that way. But it’s very much there if you take those moments to appreciate it.

The first edition of your book came out in 2004, when Netflix was still mailing DVDs. How has the animation industry changed since the first and second editions?

David: One of the first opportunities I was really grateful to have was to try again, to show that change. Some of the stuff is embarrassing that it had to take so long to happen, like the #MeToo movement and D&I initiatives. Those were not top-of-mind as they should have always been. But we’ve all gotten the message, I hope at this point. And it’s all our collective responsibility to build a better, more diverse industry every single day.

I wanted to make sure that, as I did another set of 100 interviews for the new book, that diversity and inclusion was the mission. Who are the most amazing people I can find, from all backgrounds, that are working in animation? Not just the people I happen to have coffee with and am already working alongside. That was a tremendous opportunity. 

Other changes, like streaming platforms, and the fact that there’s all these niche audiences that didn’t have shows serving them before. And that they’re in season arcs because of the way the content is distributed on platforms where you might binge watch it. You can have episodes that connect and are going to be played in a certain order intuitive to that story. That was never part of the average animation series proposal, and now it’s an expected one for certain audience ages. That’s such a cool thing! 

Then there’s the taboo that used to be around like self-publishing. It used to feel like a stigma. “Oh, I self-published. I tried to get it printed but I went the self-publishing route.” Now self-publishing means self-distribution. Think of all the great comic artists and cartoonists and illustrators and designers and animators that are publishing content themselves, distributing content. They’re incubating their brand, their stories, their storytelling, without any gatekeepers. Without anyone to say no. And with a huge reach. Platforms and the traditional world are watching and learning from that, and trying to pull those people into the mainstream. I think it was an exciting time to refresh the book.

David B. Levy’s interview with Eric Calderon on the Surviving Animation YouTube channel, with guests Booke Keesling (Head of Talent Development at Bento Box) and Jennifer Oxley (creator of Peg+Cat).

With platforms like YouTube, people are able to self-publish animated series, which is revolutionary in so many ways. The success of Lackadaisy, Hazbin Hotel, Helluva Boss, and Ollie and Scoops is really encouraging for a lot of artists.

David: Absolutely, yeah. It just shows there’s another way to develop content where the artists, the writer, the creator can make art just by creating work, by finding the audience for it, by improving in public. It’s an opportunity that was never there. I feel like the closest analogue to it was the independent film world –- the Spike and Mike days — and film festivals where you could have Mike Judge get discovered with Beavis and Butthead, something he made in his basement or the garage as an outsider animator. Now it’s so much more accessible to so many more people.

Throughout the book, you mention instructors, mentors and peers who helped you throughout your career. Would you like to briefly mention some of the artists who had an influence on you and why it’s important to develop professional relationships in the animation industry?

David: It’s funny, because a lot of times when people hear my list, or if I say Linda Simensky has been a mentor to me since college… she never signed a paper to be my mentor. There was no contract. I know there’s a lot of official mentoring and mentees that happen through corporate pairings — there was a thing at Disney when I was there, where I was on both sides of that — But a lot of those things can be unofficial arrangements. 

For me, they’ve always been unofficial. I don’t even know if the other person knew they were my mentor. And that’s probably how it should be. You know, because I was just learning from them, wanting to pick their brain and hear how they did things. And really, it came down to being friends. That was what it always was.

And my first one was Howard Beckerman, who just turned ninety this year. He’s from Terrytoons, Heckle and Jeckle and all those great things. He was my favourite teacher at the School of Visual Arts. Although I was not at all someone who could draw rings around anybody, he took me under his wing, saw I had ideas and encouraged me as a storyteller. And took me really seriously. My self esteem was, like, nothing at the time. For him to notice the one thing I had an aptitude for, which I didn’t even know was true, really just gave me a huge boost emotionally and in my confidence. Knowing that there would be a place for me somewhere, somehow was incredible. 

Then the same thing happened at Michael Sporn’s studio, in my first employer. He put his trust in me to be a studio assistant in a paid apprenticeship. He let me help in every area of production. And that was kind of his way. I really got to try every chair in the studio. And I got to see [the studio] through him and the culture that he founded. That was just something I always have to spotlight when I’m asked this question.

When I worked at Nickelodeon, as my next job, when someone was stuck with a long scene, you know, you’d say good night to them. You leave and poor Dan’s still there. And he’s animating on his scene, and maybe he stayed till midnight that night. That’s the way it is like, a lot of times. But in Michael Sporn’s studio, when you had a stack of things… Let’s say we were all doing storyboards or layouts or cell painting, whatever it was. If you saw the other person’s stack was thicker than yours, and you were done, and there was an hour left in the day, you would say, “Give me some of that.” And you would take some of their work. You would help them finish. 

And then everyone left the studio at six o’clock. We all sometimes went and had a beer on the corner, and it was like this feeling of, “Wow, this is a team sport in all the ways possible.” That was a pretty magical thing to see — that it can be like that. That’s something I certainly learned from him. 

Linda Simensky; she’s been on the forefront of development at Nickelodeon, at the start of the creator-driven era, through building that for the next phase at Cartoon Network, and then taking that to PBS Kids and boosting that for the youngest audience. And now going to Duolingo. She is someone who loves to be there for the formative years. She’s a builder. She’s identified that part of herself. 

When I look at that, I think, “Wow, that’s what I love too.” She had to say it before I even understood that about myself, that that was a motivator for me. It’s so much more exciting to be the underdog. To be aiming for the target than to just be on the winning team and just show up and everything’s great. 

Those are just a few of my mentors. I do think people looking for mentors should remember: keep it casual. It doesn’t have to be this official, awkward process. You don’t have to take everything the person says as this golden ticket. Pull out the pieces that apply to you and what you’re looking to do. And learn from those pieces, because no one is a complete clone of where you’re headed.

Channel Frederator Network’s interview with David B. Levy in 2014.

What might students and aspiring artists not know about applying for jobs in the animation industry?

David: Unfortunately, this is something even those who have worked already need to hear sometimes. I’ll give you a story: I had a former student who’s a great storyboard artist. She storyboarded on a few shows, and then she took some time off to be a parent. And then she come back into the industry. And boy, she should have been hired in two seconds! But she had some trouble. So I asked her, “Okay, send me your cover letter. What does it look like? Let me see how you’re applying to stuff.” 

She was applying to storyboard positions. She sent me the cover letter, and she listed herself as a 2D animator. And then if you read down to paragraph four on the cover letter, it says, “I do storyboards too.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re applying to storyboard jobs! The hiring manager, human resources, whoever’s looking at this, they’re immediately not making that connection that you’re applying for the right job.” She wasn’t getting callbacks, so she wasn’t getting the interviews she deserved. 

Help [the hiring managers] make those connections. Don’t make them do extra work. Do extra reading, do extra research on yourself. Apply for the things that you’re qualified to do that you’re passionate to do, and have done before. Or what you’re learning to do. And make it as clear as possible that that’s who you are. You might be good at five things, but for that application, you have to be really specific.

When we hosted a recruiter panel last month, Allison Mann told us that you want to make sure that your portfolio makes it easy for you to get hired. There’s usually one person sifting through thousands of applications, so if yours is very clear then that can only help.

David: Definitely. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all resume. It’s not a one-size-fits-all cover letter. You can have your template but with each opportunity you apply for, customize it. Make it more relevant to the job you’re applying for. 

My other piece of advice is: don’t apply like a shotgun to everything you’re seeing. Because those are the same people getting all the applications in these positions and they’re going to see, Oh you applied to eight things.” Even if you had eight specific cover letters, eight specific resumes, that’s still going to look really strange and show that you don’t really know who you are or what you want. 

So be mindful. Really apply to the things that are worth applying for. Especially when you have a reference. When you know someone at the studio, you’re not going to go to that person eight times for eight references. You need to be really careful about that. That reference is precious on both sides. When is the right one, and it’s the important one, that’s where you use that reference nickel. Because you don’t want to spread that thin.

That is often challenging for new graduates looking for that first job, looking at different openings at a studio and wondering: “Which one is right for me?”

David: You could basically distill an animation career into two paths. There’s the generalist or the specialist. The generalist is like what I described at my Michael Sporn studio. My first job, where I was expected to be able to help in any area where they needed the help that day. So that meant backgrounds animation, layouts, in-betweening, writing. Anything. 

Most jobs aren’t like that at big studios, because the bigger the project, whether it’s a series or a feature, the more compartmentalized the roles are. You’re going to be expected to be a specialist on those crews. But if you’re a generalist at heart, and you never think you’re going to be the specialist who should work on those productions, then there are great generalist paths at smaller studios, where that diverse skillset is an asset.

What are some of the career paths that you mention in the book, and why might early-career artists not be aware of these roles in the industry? 

David: If you look at Logan Hugueny-Clark and Ross Bollinger, who are both in the book in the indie section — they’re both YouTube creators, and they both have huge followings on YouTube. And they each employ a crew of people to help them create their content. They have staff. They’re making a good living as independent animation studios using YouTube for distribution. Neither of them set out to do that, because that’s not the path that they imagined for themselves as typical students, some twelve years ago when they graduated.

I think they kind of looked at [their situations] and said, “I’m just not a fit for these things.” Or, “I’m not going to get a job on SpongeBob.” And then they found success somewhere else. I think it almost felt like a Plan B success, but I think what they’ve come to understand is that this is an amazing lane. And it’s not second place. It’s really a fantastic fit!

That’s the whole point of a career. If it was as straightforward as, “I wanted this. And I got that. The end,” we wouldn’t be talking at all. It would just be so clear and cut-and-dry. I love that they were open to a different kind of success than they imagined was even available in the industry. I think that’s one way to look at it.

The other thing that’s so funny is when I was writing this updated edition, I was heading animation for socials at Disney+. The main accounts were Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Lucasfilm. We’re doing original content for all three, which is really exciting. I had a team of great folks, producers and animators. In-house people working with Disney, like a little boutique shop. This tiny little blip on the mothership. That’s never on the map for anyone at CalArts. 

DreamWorks Animation has an in-house team, maybe a little bigger than that, where I have a friend who’s an animator. They were animating title sequences for shows, doing revision passes on things, and special promos. All different techniques and with great artistry. That’s a whole in-house team that’s virtually unknown. I feel like each major studio has some version of that. There’s great little secrets out there. You could spend a whole career off of the red carpet and not feel like you missed anything.

Are there any specific early career roles that artists should consider as entry points to the industry?

David: This is a tricky one for a lot of people. The better you are as a student, probably the harder it is to grasp that there’s another world to understand and learn. Let’s say you graduate with a killer student film and you’re ready to set the world on fire. Your level of talent and how developed you are at that age won’t be unnoticed. But there’s also this idea of, “Okay, now it’s a studio. Now you’re working towards someone else’s vision.” There are executives giving notes. And there’s a showrunner. And there’s a schedule and a budget and retakes. 

It’s another whole learning process. As amazing as you can be as a student, and as ready as you can be, there’s a whole other level of learning that starts in that first job. So my feeling is that people should really have that humbleness to appreciate that. A lot of us start at entry-level positions, whether it’s as a production assistant or a storyboard revisionist, or a prop revisionist. Great people have started on a path like that, proven what they can do, gotten their confidence, and built themselves up. So my advice on that is to basically appreciate that there’s a hierarchy in a studio. And that there are entry-level positions for a reason.

Are there chapters of Your Career In Animation that tend to get a strong response from artists, in terms of helping them start their careers? 

David: I think that the pitching chapter is always interesting to folks because it’s so clouded in mystery. It’s not the way it was at one point. Now there’s so many great creators that have been open about their process and have written books. Joe Murray has a book or two about being a successful show creator. And you can really hear it from the horse’s mouth on YouTube. A lot of people have done Comic Con panels and talked about their creation and their process. But there is still this mystery to it. 

I think that one had a lot of myths to dispel — Just the idea of what you need to have. How far should you take a pitch bible? What should you expect? I feel like there was so much bad information out there that it was just nice to kind of try to clear up some of that chaos.

And most of what anyone pitches results in rejection?

David: Absolutely. The things that are really meaningful to me are stories like Mo Willems, who climbed the animation ladder.  He made Sesame Street shorts, and then he had a Nickelodeon series which was part of KaBlam! And then they gave him a Valentine’s special, which was a half-hour. And then he got his Cartoon Network series, Sheep in the Big City that went on for two seasons. Then he was head writer on Kids Next Door after that, but I think he kind of felt like, “Well, this isn’t really for me.” 

He wasn’t really feeling like animation was delivering what he could do best or show who he was as an artist or creator. He ended up an incredible children’s book author, and a lot of his children’s books have become animation. And he just had a new HBO special, Naked Mole Rat, as his latest project. But his success story shows that even when you achieve what you’ve been aiming for, it’s not necessarily the end of the road. I find that really inspirational.

There is a lot of work that goes into careers in animation. In your opinion, what’s rewarding about working in animation?

David: I’m gonna go back again to my first employer, Michael Sporn, who said animation had the potential to be the greatest art form. I really agree with him because it’s a time-based medium — It’s art, it’s colour, it’s movement, it’s acting, it’s sound. There’s just so much in that. And it’s all from nothing. There’s no camera to set up and frame your shot on-location. There’s nothing until you pick up that pencil or stylus and start making marks. It’s intoxicating on that level. There’s a unique aspect to it, of doing the impossible.

I can explain why I do what I do. I love being able to connect with other people. And it’s really an odd thing because animators are not in front of the camera, like an actor or performer who wants to kind of do that with their body. They’re taking that risk of stepping onto the stage directly. But we’re putting our soul frame-by-frame on the screen instead.

And I had this instance when my mom passed away, and I was feeling awful. I had a rare ten days before my next project. And I just wanted to do something with that time, instead of just sitting there feeling sad. I found my friend doing this beautiful bouncy children’s song — it was a minute long — and I just started animating it. And I was doing it straight-ahead. I wasn’t planning it and I didn’t storyboard. And I didn’t figure out how to go from shot-to-shot. I just made it stream-of-consciousness. 

When I was done, I just played it. I was like, “Oh my god! It’s a song about parent and child.” And I’m a parent. It was cathartic. I didn’t even understand it, but I knew I had to do it. I had this outlet, as an animator, as a filmmaker. 

That became the film that put me on the map. It was in film festivals, and Nick Jr. showed it as a morning film for a decade. It really opened the door to me in terms of understanding that — if I listen to the voice of something I need to express, when I make something for me — that’s gonna be way more powerful than a trend I’m chasing, or a style that someone’s doing a Cartoon Network. That’s a unique thing in our hands. And the fact that we can make that film in our living rooms right now on our iPad Pros, or whatever we’re drawing on, is incredible. It’s an incredible time to be in this industry.

What is the biggest misconception that you’ve encountered about the animation industry?

David: We talked about this a little bit earlier. We were discussing a video, a famous one on YouTube: Why I Quit My Job at Disney. You can look up what the frustration points are of people who felt that way. The ones that I’ve seen, where people move on after trying animation for a few years, is they had a very specific notion of what was supposed to happen. And when. I think when we put milestones based on our time in a career, or our time on a particular production, it’s sometimes hard for the universe to meet us.

My feeling has always been to use your time outside the job to get to where you want to go. When I was at Nickelodeon on Blue’s Clues, and I was storyboarding, I wasn’t animating there. And I missed animating. So I made a little film. And when I finished the film, I showed it to my director on Blue’s Clues. And he said, “Wow, you should be animating for us! Why are you storyboarding?” And I said, “Well, that’s the job you had opened when I applied.” He said, “Well, maybe you want to switch.”

I did switch, and I became a director a couple of years after that. It really changed my career. And it was because I went home and I did the hard part. We’re all tired at six o’clock, or whenever you stop. You don’t want to go home and start another shift. But I felt I had something to say. More importantly, I felt I needed to invest in my own improvement and to see where I could go. And I didn’t believe that was Nickelodeon’s responsibility. I thought it was mine.

What kinds of networking events are out there? And what do you think is an effective way to network for someone who’s trying to get into the industry?

David: I’ve enjoyed going to hear speakers and panels, whether it’s like a film festival or Comic Con. Te fun thing is, let’s say you want them to sign something. When you’re in that line at the end of the lecture, the people that are also in the line with you are really cool too. I feel like we forget that. Some people organically start talking to everybody, but a lot of people have this tunnel vision. Like, “That’s Genndy Tartakovsky!” But everyone in that line with you is just as excited at this moment as you are. And those are future collaborators, peers, people with the same interest as you. It’s really great to appreciate those people too.

Take the pressure off. Make a goal like, “This afternoon, on the first day of CTN Expo, I’m going to try to talk to two people.” That’s two people over five hours. You can do it. Start in whatever that comfort zone is for you. And then maybe when you start talking to those two people, their friends come over and then before you know it, you’re in a group and you found your tribe. I love those events!

Networking to me is not something you do at the beginning of a career to set things in motion. It’s something you make time for your whole career because it’s connecting to other people that care about what you like. And making future collaborator connections. It’s really an exciting, fun thing to do.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to enter the animation industry at an older age?

David: There’s no one way to do it. I love that about animation. If you’re interested in the animation industry and you haven’t really dabbled yet, you can create an Instagram page or post some animation tests. Or little self-contained content bits. And just start asking, “Do you have the aptitude for animation? Do you have the interest? The vision? The desire to wake up the next morning and make the next one?” I think those are really important markers of whether you should, at whatever age, enter a different field. And I recommend that to students too.

  • Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive is published by Simon & Schuster and is available through booksellers online.
  • Interested in seeing more from David B. Levy? You can visit Pinkfong USA’s website and follow David on instagram at @DaveTheDadJokes.
  • Students can qualify for discounted licenses and special offers from Toon Boom Animation on our students page.

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