I was a professional animator and animation director for television series and major motion pictures for thirty years and I was the Instructor of Character Animation for the Freshman class of Cal Arts for a couple of years. As an independent producer of animated films I followed my muse and made award winning* animated music videos. So I have some experience in the Animation Industry.
My students at Cal Arts would occasionally ask how one gets rich as an animator. Back in the Second Golden Age of Animation newspapers reported that Disney animator Glen Keane made a million dollars and the students came to believe this was the going rate. I pointed out that Glen Keane’s salary made the news because it was the exception, not the rule. Also, the papers didn’t give details. The million could have been a potential if the films he worked on became exceptionally profitable, he might have been given royalties and his million may take the rest of his life to accrue. It made a big impression on the students never the less so I tried to answer their question of how to get rich in animation.
The quick, easy answer is; you don’t. Again, Glen Keane was an extremely rare example and very, very few individuals will ever attain his status. He rose to the top of his field when the field was blossoming into what became known as “The Second Golden Age of Animation” and was during the economic boom time of the 1990s. Like the good old times of the Clinton years, the Animation Industry in America is long gone for pen and pencil artists but I did develop a plan to give the students back then that I would still recommend today.
To get rich in the field of Animation one must own a character that becomes a “star”. Please notice, I said “own” and not “create” since there is a not too subtle difference. Most of the famous and successful animation legends we remember from our youth did not actually create their signature characters but hired a designer to do it for them. Does anyone remember who actually designed the character of Fred Flintstone for Hanna- Barbera?
First, you need to have a character with “star” potential which means a unique enough concept that is readily identifiable. An example might be my former Cal Arts student’s creation for Nickelodeon Studios, Dexter of Dexter’s Lab. Take one quick look at him and you can instantly tell he is a “child scientist”. Or another student’s show, The Power Puff Girls who are super heroes that are in Kindergarten. In both of these cases they took a simple character; a little boy and three little girls, and gave them “jobs” traditionally belonging only to adults; scientist and super heroes. Instantly understandable and funny. It is also extremely important that these characters are of very simple graphic design, easy to animate, easy to recognize at a distance and easy to print onto a Happy Meal cup.
In the world of animated music video, the studio that created Paula Abdul’s cartoon costar, MC Scat Kat tried to catapult him into his own cartoon show. The attempt wasn’t successful but they had the right idea. More often it’s the live action musicians who get their own cartoon shows when turned into animated characters themselves.
Back to the plan. Secondly, don’t even try to pitch your new character to animation producers, they pay good money to have employees working in nine to five jobs to come up with show ideas, they’re not going to buy one from off the street. The best you’ll get is a show that looks amazingly like yours coming out a year after you pitched it and were told, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
So, what do you do? You do what a professional would do if you in fact did have a show. You would create merchandise based on your character and sell it as many ways as you could. You could start by publishing a small children’s book starring your character, print up copies and give those copies away for free to every daycare center, pediatrician’s waiting room, pediatric dentist’s waiting room, grammar school library and anywhere young children are given books to share. This way you “test market” your character and when you then take T shirts, other articles of clothing, toys, lunch boxes and whatever other merchandise and products on which you can print your character’s likeness to the local children’s clothing boutiques you can claim that every kid in the city already knows, and hopefully loves, your character. Of course, you’ve also included a website address in all the books from which the parents can buy more products directly. With sites like Cafe Press it isn’t even necessary to produce these products yourself. It can be done on demand with no up front costs at all.
Sure, beside the talent needed to create your star and write and illustrate his adventures you’ll have to bust your hump distributing your freebies, soliciting vendors and collecting whatever moneys are owed to you which is about a half dozen separate full time jobs, but once your character proves his power as a product spokesman, or spokeswoman, or spokesturtle or spokesrabbit or whatever it is, television producers will come to you. Think of a cartoon show as just another revenue stream for your character, and one of the last.
* The Gold Plaque in Music Video from the Chicago International Film Festival