Editor’s note: Most people in our industry can attest to the fact that it seems very much like a young person’s game. They’ve likely found themselves wondering “Where are all the old people?” There are many different hypotheses surrounding this question: Is it simply that our industry is so young? Does everyone burn out? Also, where does everyone go?
Thankfully, Joey Korenman of School of Motion is here to shed some light on this topic. In this month’s Guest Post we asked Joey to do some investigating into this issue and he received some great insights from many of those in our industry who have found themselves asking the same question, “Am I too old for mograph?”
Oops. Wrong Mountain.
It’s the Friday before Easter in Boston, and things are quiet around the studio. Two of my Animators were finishing up some client work and getting ready to head home early to hang out with family. I was looking forward to seeing if I could fit 3 Cadbury Eggs in my mouth, sleeping late, and playing with my kids.
Around 2pm the phone rings. Our producer takes the call, and afterwards informs me that one of our biggest clients has a rush job that absolutely HAS to be done by Monday. We’ll need to work the weekend to do it, and I’m supposed to go tell my team that they’ll have to juggle Easter around this turd of a job that will have absolutely no redeeming qualities other than the fact that it will be a favor for a good client. I go to my business partners to discuss the situation, and immediately suggest that we say “no” and turn the job down. I thought this was a reasonable course of action.
My partners didn’t. “It’s just how this business works,” they said. “We’re doing it.”
That was my “Wrong Mountain” moment.
I was 32, and I was the Creative Director of a studio I’d helped launch. We were doing national work for major brands. Our clients loved us. I was paid very well, and had an amazing team to work with. My 22-year-old self would have been thrilled to know that all of these goals had been achieved. Unfortunately, my current-self was miserable, and could not imagine how my 45-year-old self would be able to keep going down the path I was on. Worse, I didn’t even know any 45-year-old Motion Designers who weren’t in Senior Management on staff somewhere or running their own studio. Were those my only 2 options? Honestly, I didn’t want either one anymore.
I loved doing Motion Design. I hated running a Motion Design studio.
So basically, I’d spent the past decade climbing a mountain only to reach the top and realize… oh crap… I climbed the wrong mountain.
It’s not just me. Is it?
It turns out that this is a very common story in our industry. Motion Design is a difficult field to have longevity in… the energy required to sustain a strong work ethic and constant improvement of one’s skills can be a difficult thing to muster when you start to approach mid-life, start a family, develop other passions, and change your goals. I wondered if there was something unique about my story, or if there might be a legion of MoGraphers out there struggling with the same issue. Was it possible that I would have been happier stopping halfway up the mountain? Should I have stuck to freelancing, having less stress at the expense of some of the “glory” of running my own studio? Was I too obsessed with always getting to the “next level?”
I posed this question on Mixed.Parts (check out the full thread here), on Twitter, and to the School of Motion Alumni group, many of whom are in their 40’s and 50’s already. This article is my attempt to incorporate the many, many viewpoints that I was exposed to by asking my peers these 2 questions:
- Is it harder to age gracefully in this industry than in others?
- How can MoGraphers make sure they find a career path that’s right for them?
Where are all the middle-aged MoGraphers?
Do artists just burn out of this industry after a while? Or is the industry still so new that we just need to wait a few more years before there are plenty of 40 and 50-something artists working in Motion Design? Is the only path to retirement as a Motion Designer to survive long enough to become a Creative Director or open your own studio?
It seems like there’s a combination of many factors going on. Burnout in Motion Design is a very real prospect, and something that artists who’ve been in the game for long enough have to fend off. Long hours and late nights are sometimes part of the gig, which isn’t a huge deal when you’re younger and have less responsibility (I’m generalizing here, of course.) But when you’ve got kids and a mortgage, you can’t burn it at both ends like you used to.
“We are a small studio with 4 partners/animators running the show. Two of our partners are mid 40s and we are all aware of the bias that lives within the industry, and even engrained in ourselves. It’s not JUST because of age, but also the practicality of a middle aged person burning the midnight oil every week. At some point, you want to progress out of that standard, and move on to something that is more conducive to a family life, or just simply a better life. This certainly isn’t true for everyone, but it is for the majority of humans.”
Amanda Russell, Cream
Becoming Time Poor
When I hit my limit I had 2 small children who were generally asleep by the time I got home each night from work. That takes its toll on you as a parent. On the flip side, when I was 24 I had no problem sleeping under my desk at a studio if we were doing something cool. As my family and other interests started to overtake Motion Design as priorities, I worried I’d get left behind in the industry because I couldn’t obsess over it for 12-14 hours a day.
“I’m now 35 and doing relatively well. I’m finally able to make enough income to pay my student loans, and eat decently enough and enjoy some fun time. However, how long can I keep this up? I just recently joined a “MoGraph Accountability” group, and it was glaring realization of “How can I keep up with all of this???” I would step away for a few hours, and tons of conversations and chats about industry and work happened that I missed… Which, to me, feels like how the MoGraph industry is… FAST.”
You tend to become more “time-poor” as you get older because you take on more responsibilities. Maybe you get married, you have kids, you buy a house, you sign up for a marathon… all things that are wonderful but that take time away from your career. And my career was built by constantly pushing myself to get better and do more. As embarrassing as this is for me to say, I was so concerned with career growth that I never even considered the idea that I could just… ya know… be content with where I was. Several artists who are wiser than I was figured this out.
“I’ve made my life goals rather than work goals a priority, especially when my daughter came along. Does this mean that my studio isn’t growing as quickly as I had planned at the start? Yes. Does it mean I see my daughter every night before bed? Yes!”
“I’m fortunate enough to work in-house at a young tech company that values balance, but still offers me interesting work. Now, I’m not working on Nike spots, but I also learned early on I wasn’t interested in the trade off to say I worked on high-profile campaigns.”
Your Perfect Day.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take an hour and write down, in detail, what a “perfect day” would look like for you. I actually did this while in the throes of self-loathing and Wrong-Mountain-Syndrome, and found that my perfect day was the complete opposite of my current day (more on this later). That clarity helped me realize that that I would probably be much happier with a smaller salary and less glory, but with more time-freedom. I realized that when you’re chasing a happier life, it’s ok compromise career-growth… no, really, it’s ok! And others have found this out, too.
“My solution? Make less money, unfortunately(?). Our house is modest, our bills are low, and well, we don’t travel that much… We can’t all be Creative Directors, or managers, and not all of us will end up starting our own studios. That means, a lot of us will have to learn how to keep working in this business as, well, “bricklayers”. Maybe that’s me? I’m not sure yet. I’m fine with it though, as long as the work keeps coming, and the clients are happy, and well, I get to pay the bills, take care of the family, and have a cup of coffee every morning.”
I love Dave’s advice because it reminds me that we don’t all have to be big shots in the industry. Motion Design, as amazing as it is, is just a small piece of your life. Sometimes it’s nice to take your foot off the gas and coast for a while.
Blindly pushing oneself forward towards the “next level” is something that I’ve seen many artists do. Sometimes, though, it’s not even their idea! Their company may have a system in place where junior artists become senior artists, then leads, then Art Directors or Creative Directors. Chad Ashley from GreyScaleGorilla recently talked about this phenomenon on the GSG podcast. He used the example of a CG artist who is happiest when sitting behind a computer making work, but then gets promoted into management:
“You’ve got a person who is frustrated, that artist you moved up because they’ve never had to [manage] before. And they can’t be on the box to “make it happen,” so then they end up hovering over some other artist and saying, “Ehhhh just do it like THIS, gimme the mouse!” And it’s just bad all the way around.”
Chad Ashley, GreyScaleGorilla
Even though I was the one who pushed myself into a management role, I can totally relate to what Chad said. I was happiest sitting behind dual-monitors slaving away on an After Effects comp. When I had to manage 2 or 3 other artists I just wanted to push them aside to do the work myself because that’s what I was best at and what made me happiest… doing work. Now, I certainly wasn’t the best manager, and a GOOD manager would never push an artist aside to just do the work themselves, but I also realized that I LIKED doing the work myself… far more than trying to wrangle others to do it for me. Unfortunately, by the time I realized this I had become a manager.
Beware the Ladder.
Al Boardman had the same realization I did. He chased the “run your own studio” dream because he saw it as a viable way to keep progressing into your 50’s and 60’s. He saw it work in the Graphic Design field and figured it could work for him.
“The path is well trodden [in Graphic Design]. It’s easy to see yourself as a Creative Director or studio owner at 55, that can work well. It didn’t work that well for me, however, I didn’t like managing people that much, the tough schedules and deadlines. I wanted my life back and the freedom I had when I was first starting out, not endlessly generating new business, long meetings and business admin.”
That’s the problem with moving up the ladder. You end up with a bigger paycheck and maybe some more authority, but you’re not doing as much of the thing you love that got you into the game.
“We have this idea that you have to progress and the entry point is designer and the trajectory is designer / art director / director / creative director / studio owner. Of course, you can bypass some of those but it’s supposed to be the path you take. What I have learned is with each step up the ladder you do less and less of the actual making.”
So, for some people moving up the ladder is a good thing. They thrive on the new challenge of managing a team and running a studio, and there are plenty of examples of amazing studio owners in their 40’s and 50’s to look up to. But what about for the rest of us? Where’s the 55-year-old working After Effects Animator being featured on Motionographer? Do the opportunities just dry up for you once you hit a certain age?
Abundance, not Scarcity.
Often two people can see the same situation very differently. I looked out at the industry and saw what I interpreted as a scarcity of older artists which led me to believe it must be difficult to be an older MoGrapher. It turns out, there are plenty of “seasoned” artists out there in the field, and some were gracious enough to share their thoughts and experiences with me. Mike Beckman, a great Nuke / C4D / After Effects artist and father from Boston gave me a rundown of his current situation and where he’s headed.
“Traditional freelancing (going into a shop and trading hours for a rate) is fundamentally inefficient. The model works ok for younger artists who can operate at a low rate, but it’s a career path with a pretty low ceiling. So for me personally, working as an “artist” for someone else has been off the table for quite a while.
Luckily, media production is one those industries which works well for sole proprietors and micro companies, and this has never been more true than now. Personally, the tradeoff for me (as opposed to having traditional employment) is the life this industry affords me:
I work from home. I walk my kids to school every morning, pick them up every afternoon and kiss them goodnight EVERY night. But, to your point, what will my place be in this industry when I’m 50, 55, 65? I haven’t got a clue. In the next 20 years technology and industry will change just as much as it has over the past 20 years. So rather than think of being at the top of the wrong mountain, I see it as being on a mountain, looking up and not even seeing the top; unlimited potential and opportunity. “
Mike’s outlook really inspired me. Where I saw scarcity, he saw abundance or, as he put it: “unlimited potential and opportunity.” He made me realize that I was being very shortsighted to worry about the ability of this industry to support older artists as well as it supports younger artists. By narrowly focusing on “growth” as a career strategy, I was missing the fact that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep getting promoted or open your own shop. Your client base as well as your work can evolve over time to better fit the stage of life you’re currently inhabiting. And there’s more than one “right’ way to do that.
“I’m on board with the concept of retirement being a worst case scenario. The path I see myself on is one of creativity, curiosity, connection, coaching and courage. With that ridiculous alliteration leading the way, I think anyone can have what it takes to sustain a fulfilling life in an ever-changing career and personal landscape.”
Retirement, as it’s typically thought of, might just be an old-fashioned idea. Why retire from Motion Design if you love it? If you get fired up up every time you sit in front of After Effects to create something, you never have to stop. As long as you can learn, you can be relevant in the industry. And you don’t have to follow the “typical” career path, you can blaze your own trail.
Job Security is an Illusion.
“Career path conformity creates a sense of security when you are young…but later, you may come to realize that you can create security in anything…and now that you’ve amassed an amazing skill set…what ELSE can be done with the knowledge that will bring you not only money, BUT JOY, FULFILLMENT and security? AND FREEDOM?”
Heather’s words are powerful, and I wish I’d heard them earlier in my career. I think a lot of young artists confuse the appearance of job-security with actual job-security. There are no guarantees that your “secure” job with a big company will still be around in 10 years… that secure feeling you have about your employment is an illusion. As you get older and this illusion is broken, you can create your own work situation that’s custom tailored to fit your life goals and ambitions. Once you realize that you can also feel secure by being confident in your abilities to find and create good work, you’ll see that there’s an abundance of opportunity out there for an older Motion Designer with a great skill set and years of experience.
More, more, more.
One of the toughest lessons I learned was that there’s hefty price to be paid for chasing the monster named “More.” I wanted more clients, more national spots, more high-end work, more dollars, more accolades… There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but when followed blindly it can lead you in the wrong direction. If you’re a type-A goal-oriented MoGrapher, how do you measure your success if not with awards, fancy titles and bigger checks? I asked the wise-beyond-her-years Lilian Darmono for her thoughts. She told me something that another artist had said to her:
“When a client pays you for your service, and you maintain a healthy income year after year for decades, that is success. Although you have no trophies to show for it, nor ‘prestige’ in the traditional sense of the word as seen in this industry. I feel that if we encourage more of us to think of things this way, you’d have less frustrated, broken hearted, run-down (health wise) people working in the Motion industry regardless of their age and family situation.”
This message resonated with me big time. What it made me realize is that I had been quite successful for most of my career and had just been too focused on “More” to realize it. I had felt like I was living my life daydreaming about the future, about the time where I’d finally “made it” and achieved whatever the thing was gonna be that would make me feel like I’d won. I wasn’t paying attention to the present, where I actually WAS successful. Had I taken a moment to reflect on the reality of my situation… I was a working Motion Designer that made a great living and had happy clients… I might have stopped a bit further down the mountain and avoided burning out.
Frank Walters, a 51 year-old MoGrapher told me this:
“I’m just happy every day that I get the chance to use animation to help people tell their stories. Maybe the work I do isn’t sexy or trendy, but I do have a decent work-life balance, and to my way of thinking, I feel blessed to be able to say that I truly have the coolest job in the world. “
Frank isn’t chasing “More.” He’s happy with his life and career, and what else can you ask for, really? Another beautiful thing happens when you ignore the “More Success” demon and stop chasing artificial symbols of prestige: You find a better More to chase… More Knowledge.
“I’ve seen a lot of my friends already peak in their non-creative careers and start to look a bit bored. I only started doing Motion Design 2 years ago and (with a little help from School of Motion) I’m totally addicted and plan on dying with my Wacom pen duct-taped to my old-man hand/claw. But it’s quite liberating to know I shouldn’t ever need to worry about peaking, there’s always something new and cool to learn and I should just embrace doing it.”
Compulsive Makers can’t be stopped.
Designer / Animator / RubberHose Creator Adam Plouff has a neat way of looking at career progress as a “Motion Designer.”
“Rather than ask what it would mean to be an aging Motion Designer maybe think in terms of motion being one aspect of how you make stuff. Because limiting yourself might mean you miss out on work that could lead you to your next job which could lead you to a whole different profession that would really benefit from skills you’ve learned from practicing the craft of a designing motion.
I feel that believing Motion Design to be a true profession unto itself might do a disservice to you as a person who compulsively makes things. My current job is a full-time Motion Designer, but before that I freelanced for 6 years and before that [I was] a broadcast editor, and before that a magician. I don’t think Motion Designer is my final form because what you do when you’re 32 is rarely what you are doing when you’re 64.”
If you are a person “who compulsively makes things,” nothing will stop you… certainly not age. As the industry itself gets older, we will undoubtedly see a rise in the number of artists in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. There will be, I hope, a Motionographer post one day in the future about a MoGrapher in their 70’s still kicking out the keyframes and running circles around their younger, less experienced peers.
“We will see the age of the average motion artist go UP over the next few years. Why? Because we love what we do and although the ways that we make animation will change, animation will remain the same complicated mess it is now. I am pretty sure I will die animating a scene… I will always be the doer, the one in the trenches getting my hands dirty and getting the F-ing work done. I love it – for all its torture it seems worth it.”
Finding your “Why”
So what happened to the 32-year old Motion Design burnout from Boston, MA? In the end, I found my path. Teaching was the calling that led me to move to sunny Florida, to eventually stop doing client work entirely, and to launch School of Motion which now has over 2000 alumni all over the world. I’ve never been happier, and I can see myself doing this for a long time. The path I took to get here was twisty, and there were plenty of wrong-turns along the way. But I did learn some very valuable lessons that I hope can be useful for anyone grappling with the issues I’ve written about.
When I started writing this I was hoping to give you ACTIONABLE advice. So, in that spirit, I recommend these 3 things.
1. Do the “Perfect Day” exercise.
If you’re not into the self-improvement thing, this one might feel a little “woo-woo” but I have to say that this exercise, more than any other, helped me gain clarity about which path I should pursue in my career. The exercise goes like this: Imagine a nondescript Tuesday ten years from now. Write down, in meticulous detail, everything about that day. What time do you wake up? Where are you? Do you have kids? Are you married? Do you have a long commute? Do you bike to an office? What are you doing for work? How much are you making? How much is in your bank account? What does your home look like? What are you wearing? The more detail, the better.
The interesting thing about this exercise is that, once you’ve done it, you’ll know almost instantly if the path you are on has a chance in hell of arriving at the perfect day you described. If your current path won’t get you there… well, you’re gonna have to choose a different path. After doing this exercise I moved to Florida and started teaching. That’s how powerful the realization was for me, and for my family.
Graphic Design legend Debbie Millman talks about this exercise and lots of other eye-opening topics in this interview with her from the Tim Ferriss podcast.
2. Ditch the “Scarcity Mindset”
We humans have this annoying tendency to think that our life experience will be limited to what we see immediately around us. If you have a job that you don’t like, you’re afraid to leave because you think that job is your only option… possibly the last job you’ll ever have! If you’re freelance, you get that sinking feeling when you haven’t been booked for a week. You think, “Ruh-ruh… I don’t think I’ll ever get booked again… I’m gonna lose everything!” But, of course, neither of these thoughts are true. There are ALWAYS companies looking for Motion Designers, and there are ALWAYS clients looking for freelancers.
When you’re in that Scarcity Mindset, you tend to cling to what you’ve already got instead of looking for new opportunities. The thing is, you’ll never know just how many cool options you have until you ditch the thing that isn’t working. You need time and headspace to change direction, and you’ll have to do the scary act of letting go before you’ll be open to the next amazing thing in your career. If your Perfect Day includes you working from home and picking your kids up from school everyday, you might have to let go of that “secure” job to open yourself up to the opportunities (like freelancing) that will let you live the way you want.
3. Stop blindly chasing “More.”
This one really hits home for me, because I ended up at the top of the wrong mountain by constantly chasing “more.” I was a freelancer making $100K a year. I wanted more. I started double-booking myself and hiring my friends to help out. I jumped to $160K a year. I wanted more. I opened a studio with some business partners, hired staff, pitched ad agencies, learned to manage a team, made $200K a year. I wanted more. I wanted us to be a “top” studio like the ones I saw on Motionographer so we pushed ourselves every day to get better, to take more risks, to invest in spec work… and that’s when I finally broke.
In hindsight, had I been content when I was making a very comfortable living as a freelancer, I could have done that forever. But I clung to the fallacy that there always has to be a “next thing” for your career. So, my advice is to figure out what makes you happy, and then to do it. That’s it. If you love animating in After Effects more than anything, you may not like being a Creative Director. You may HATE owning a studio and being a business owner. So don’t be either of those things. It’s ok to say, “I don’t want to go any higher than this on the food chain.” You can continue to improve as an artist for the rest of your career, to be fulfilled creatively, and to pay your bills without becoming the thing that your 22-year-old self thought was a great goal. Be happy with “enough.”
I want to thank everyone that responded to my Mixed.Parts post or who e-mailed me with their thoughts. Digging into this topic has given me a ton of confidence that our industry will be around for at least the next 100 years, and that we will soon be surrounded by plenty of happy, older MoGraphers in their 50’s and 60’s who can be examples for the younger generation. I feel strongly that Motion Design will continue to mature and evolve as an industry, and that we’ll mature and evolve with it.
Figure out what makes you happy, and do it. No more, no less. That’s how you have a long, prosperous career in Motion Design.
And finally, to the young, ambitious 20-something MoGrapher out there who wants to start the next Buck one day, I say: Take it one day at a time, enjoy the journey, and look up once in a while to see if you’re still on the right mountain. Your older-self will thank you.
For Further Exploring…
Here are some resources, conversations and ideas that have influenced me while thinking about this topic. If this essay resonated and you want to dig deeper, check these links out:
Mixed.Parts: Too Old for MoGraph? (Original Post)
Are you too old for 3D? (GreyScaleGorilla Podcast Episode)
A Short Lesson in Perspective (A devastating read… be careful with this one)
How to Design a Life: Debbie Millman (Tim Ferriss Podcast)