Here are the primary bullet points which I will expand upon in future posts. I really hope that you are reading this at around age 20 instead of age 30 when the wonderful obligations one accumulates during life has started to slow you down. Everything is easier when you are young and you have more time to commit to passions instead of mortgages.
Start yesterday. Not when you get your portfolio where you want it. Not when things slow down. Not as soon as you finish that last level of Kill Em All X. Now. I dont care what field you are wanting to work in. Illustration, design, VFX, production, IT DOES NOT MATTER. Start looking for freelance opportunities as soon as you have a more than vague idea of what goal you are looking to hit. If you dont think you are good enough yet then give them a bargain basement price (or no price at all) and use the experience to get better.
Make sure your portfolio is focused on the specific job you are applying for. Dont send a folder full of character designs, backgrounds and still life drawings to Nickelodeon. Decide if you are applying for the position of background artist and make sure whatever you submit is full of backgrounds and then maybe a random piece or two to show other marketable skills. And always remember, Quality over Quantity. The same goes with an animation or effects reel. If you want to be a modeler then 90% of your reel should be models. Texturer, lighter, rigger, effects, compositor, etc. Someone who doesnt really know anything is going to tell you that employers want you to do everything. Maybe, but they are going to hire you for ONE thing.
-dont put video copilot in your demo reel, keep fan art to a minimum
Andrew Kramers tutorials are amazing. However, everyone in the effects industry watches them. We can spot a texture from his Action Movie Essentials pack a mile away. Learn from his tutorials and then make them into your own. Unless you are creating for local television, you will never be reproducing one of them exactly anyway. Same with art. If it looks like you could have copied it, it will probably be assumed you did. The internet will catch you.
-credits, you need em. the ole catch 22
Unless you know someone (see networking), anyplace that hires you will want to see you have some recognizable titles on your resume. How can you get a credit if you cant get hired onto a big project? You could lie, but its a small community when it comes down to it and its easy to get black listed. There are a couple ways, outside of catching a leprechaun (which is how I broke into the VFX industry) none will really pay the bills. This is the reason to start when you are young and your bills are minimal. You can afford to---
-work for cheap---but not for long
No one wants to take a risk on an unknown when there are so many seasoned pros out there looking for work. If you really want that first credit, offer to work for as minimal as you possibly can in order to get experience and that first credit on the resume. However, know your worth and do not make a habit of this. On my first feature film credit, Winters Bone, I couldnt get out of my day job (which was also in my career path, so not expendable) for more than a week. They couldnt hire me for that short of a time period. So I offered to work for credit only. I got on IMDB and they got a strong back to haul cables and fetch coffee. Win Win. But I only worked for free the one time. As shocking as it is, the world is full of scheming douchebags who love to tell the artistic that all work should be done for 'the love of the art' and by asking for money you are 'showing how little you care about fill in the blank'. They want cheap labor because it means more money for them and not because they want to help you get your foot in the door. Once you have a few credits on your resume, charge a fair price for your work. If you are good, someone WILL pay it.
Within the first 6 months to a year after graduation from college you are eligible for so many artist development programs it makes me weep that I didnt hear about them until too late. Companies enjoy grabbing up fresh faced grads to train in their business model before bad habits are learned. Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network as well as countless others offer these programs. Start applying your senior year and do not stop until you are told to stop. Also, just about every company in Los Angeles has a few interns (sometimes known as Production Assistants) on the payroll. Repeat after me: I am not too good to be an intern or a PA. If you want to believe that its likely you will end up being a waiter or barista for a lot longer than you need to be (and still likely making less money than the intern).
The internet is awesome and the best tool you have. Instead of trolling forums, post in them. Start discussions. Become involved in the society that forms around the job you would love to have. Its incredible the number of people I have met who ended up getting offered a job because someone knew them on a forum, linkedin or meet up. When you are looking for work, you need to be the most charming, chatty, and helpful You you can be. Post WIPS, throw your demo up and ask for tips and recommendations. Then actually use them. Post it all up again. If people can see your progress and you become recognizable, you will get hired.
These two sites are the most often used tools I have in finding work. Many companies have twitter and linkedin accounts and they will not only post job openings but what they look for in employees or you can find current employees and look at their online portfolios. Both of these sites are also incredibly helpful in finding freelance work. LinkedIn has the added bonus of making it easy to find out the names of their recruiters and HR reps. These folks are the gatekeepers! If you can find a name and an email address to get your resume straight to them instead of an online application you are already ahead of the game.
-get out there
Go to every job fair, meet up and casual bar gathering you can find (again, using twitter and linkedin are the best resources). Let people see your face, talk to them and become more than a generic looking resume or online portfolio. Again, its all about becoming a part of the community. After a little while, even if you havent done anything significant, people in the community will think you belong and will start referring you to jobs and opportunities. The major hurdle to this is in order to see your future peers socially, you have to live where they do.
-moving verses telecommute
Getting hired in LA from Springfield is almost impossible unless you have a fantastic resume and portfolio. It means to hire you on they will either have to worry about paying moving expenses or be fearful you wont show up for an in person interview (that will likely be tomorrow and almost definitely rescheduled). I set up a google voice account with an Los Angeles area code to put on my resume and website a year before I moved just so businesses wouldn't see an out of town area code and skip to the next applicant.
If you are telecommuting it will make finding work a lot harder and for a long while the pay will likely be smaller, but that could be worth it if you want to stay where you are. Again, if you are young, single, without kids and a mortgage the time to live dangerously and move is now. It will only get more complex the longer you wait.
-moving to LA
Yay! You committed to the dream, packed your life up in the back of your $800 car and moved to Hollywood. Swimming pools, movie stars. You were brave enough to get here, success should flock to you like flies to apple pie, right?
Nope...this is when the hazing begins. Hopefully you have a friend out here whose couch you can occupy for a little while (or in my case space by the washer dryer and longer than a little while.) You will need to have a lot of money saved because even the crappy day jobs will be hard to get. LA is full of production kids, actors, artists and hobos all in between professional jobs and they all have to pay that ridiculously high rent (hence all the hobos) so becoming a barista, waiter or angsty sales clerk at the mall will be a process rife with competition. If you get that first steady day job within the first two months you are ahead of the curve.
Temp work is a great way to bring in the odd paycheck or start making connections. The Glendale branch of AppleOne, for instance, is the company Disney uses for its short term office staff. An incredibly talented friend of mine started boxing files for Disney through AppleOne and within a few (Im sure exhausting) years through the connections she made and her innate awesomeness, she is now a big time visual effects coordinator. Also, since every film and tv show need people milling about in the background, registering with Central Casting to be an on screen extra is a great way to see how a real set operates, get paid and see some big time celebrities up close. Its LA, you might as well try to get into a movie.
But, Caveat Emptor. LA is full of hidden fees. Anywhere outside of the valley will cost you to park your car, pretty much a $4 minimum. Beer will cost you $6 for the cheap stuff and a pretentiously named mixed drink will cost you $12 (you are meant to be seen with it, not necessarily enjoy it so sip and make it last). Everywhere you go there will be legendary traffic that will eat your gas and your tires. If you make it a month without a $75 parking ticket you must still have that aforementioned leprechaun. This is the land of the confusing parking regulations.
But personally, I think this is all worth it to live out here. When you have work its one of the best places in the world to live.
-finish your projects
My biggest downfall. If it isn't finished, it doesn't exist, so it does not matter. Even if you aren't 100% happy with it, wrap it up and send it out into the world. Its finished, which puts it above 90% of everyone else's projects out there.
This is the most important mantra in an artists life. Whatever your passion is, work at it every day. You will only get better and you need good portfolio pieces anyway. If you aren't working at it every day, someone else is and they are likely going to get the job you always wanted.