I have worked in three main types of work-spaces: at home (which is what I am doing now) in a big, company studio (either as a freelancer or on staff) and in a shared work space with other freelance artists. Each has something to be said for it. For me, the best thing and the worst thing about working in animation is that it is a collaborative medium. It is genuinely a great experience to be working in a team where the end result is greater than any of you could have achieved alone. Yet sometimes I do need to be able to close the door, have some thinking time, and get away from the politics. I have learned that a certain amount of “alone time” and communal time is required for my best work, and finding the balance between the two can be very tricky.
Working at home
My apartment is my studio these days and there is certainly plenty of freedom and alone-time but I generally don’t enjoy it very much. Part of the problem is not having any separation between work-place and living-place (sometimes I never change out of my pyjamas all day) but the main issue is the lack of inspiration that comes from the company of creative human beings. No structure and no stimulation makes for some pretty powerful stagnation sometimes… In a perfect world I would be one of those creatively self sufficient people, but I’ve learned that just isn’t me… I like seeing other artists working around me as I work, and that is just as true even when I am working on my own personal projects.
Working at a company
I have spent a lot of time at big animation studios and for the most part they can be really fun places to work, even in those places where the quality of the work itself isn’t so great. I recently read an essay by BRAD HOLLAND (actually, his introduction to an old edition of LOVE and ROCKETS) where he theorised, in some very funny writing, as to what kind of hack would choose to work in a factory like an animation studio… which made me laugh even though I am the butt of this particular joke. (By the way, many years after he wrote that piece, I worked with Brad Holland briefly at Colossal Pictures. He had illustrated a print campaign that we were turning into animated commercials. His horror at seeing we animation monkeys attempt to ape his painting style was palpable…)
The very first animation studio I worked at certainly felt like a factory, but even so, It was exciting to be surrounded by other people who were drawing, painting and making things and ever since then I have really enjoyed working in studios surrounded by other artists, hacks or otherwise, because I find it very inspiring to see other artists’ way of working. I have learned so much just from having the chance to see how other people work and it never ceases to re-energise me.
For me, the downside of working in big studios is the inevitable politics that exists wherever there are more than 2 human beings… those little frictions and micro-dramas are the small price you pay for the many benefits of human company. Also, immersion in company culture can sometimes wear me out over time. I start to take the deadlines so seriously that I can lose perspective on life… For example:
Years ago, I was working at a studio making TV commercials, while my brother Jo was working in Mombassa, Kenya. Every few months he would propose that I should visit and accompany him on another of his adventures. Each time, I very much wanted to go but would put it off because of the “very important” work on my desk… That went on for almost two years until my brother finally left Kenya… so I never ever went. Now, these many years later, I cannot remember what was important enough to trump an African adventure with my brother… Probably a long since forgotten commercial featuring dancing sausages or singing candy… But if I had gone to Kenya and seen Kilimanjaro with my bro’ I would surely have remembered that experience for the rest of my life…
So while solitude leads to stagnation there can be problems working in a creative “village” as well… Sometimes a bit of detachment is a GOOD thing… it can give you a much needed perspective. I like working in big studios very much indeed, but sometimes I need to make sure that I can walk out the door and leave work AT WORK.
The best balance I have ever found is to share a work-space with other artists. There is some of the camaraderie and creative stimulation of a big studio but with a minimum of the company-politics to deal with. There is a measure of detachment, as you work on your separate projects, yet there isn’t too much isolation. There is the freedom of being “freelance” but with a certain amount of structure. There is also the stimulation of other artists and the networking that comes from their contacts. When it works well, there is also a great blend of working on paid jobs and personal projects (working on your personal projects while at at big companies can lead to intellectual property grey areas). When the mix of people is right this is my favourite working situation. You can also get the best of both worlds if you do some freelance work at a big studio but have your shared workspace to go to for your personal work.
There are a few things required to making this work. The first is to get the right mix of people. Hopefully you have a shared understanding of the Manifesto (Artists tend to hate the word “rules” so I think of it as the manifesto) which means that you have to have some overlap in what you consider the ground rules to be. Is it OK for me to have my buddy sleep on the couch at the workspace or hold a party there… that sort of thing.
The other thing to think about is the right ratio of people to the size of space that you are sharing. If it gets too crowded then it can become a raucous place to work and also you have to worry about the infrastructure stuff.. the chores.. who paid for what, who took the trash out etc… that can be a hassle. My experience is that the more members there are the more of a grey area that becomes..
But some of my best work experiences have been in shared work spaces. I hope to do it again someday.