Originally Posted: Monday, 28 May 2007

So this weekend my lovely wife, gorgeous baby girl, and my homely self headed over to Florida so I could speak at the Digital Media Arts College 2007 graduation, and receive an honorary doctorate of animation.

It was a really great time.. the college put us up in this swanky resort (the Boca Raton.. WOW!), & treated us really well.  The size of our bungalo sweet was actually larger than the main living area in our house.. AJ loved it.  So much space for her to crawl around & play.  It was really nice. 🙂

On Friday, we met the ever-helpful LaRee who took us to the graduation site where we met Scott, Cynthia, Tony, Andres, Lesley, and a number of other really helpful and nice administrators & teachers.    I donned my cap and gown (and cape), and got ready to give my speech.  Waiting outside, I met a couple of the students, including one incredibly talented masters graduate, Carlos, who was kind enough to give Shrek 3 a plug during his speech.

The graduation started & I was quickly introduced by Cynthia (the president of the college).  I was a bit nervous before speaking.. it’s been a while since I’ve given a talk w/out any visual aides.  But it went well.. there were lots of laughs, and I had a great time giving it.

What follows is the speech I wrote.. it’s a bit different from what I delivered, due to the nature of how I give talks.. kind of off the cuff, rambling, full of random assides & ad-libs.. but you get the general idea from it.

Digital Media Arts College graduating class of 2007, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you here today!

I’d like to offer my sincere congratulations to every graduate.  You’ve worked incredibly hard to come this far, and it’s a feat of which you should all be proud!  You deserve to celebrate today. You’ve stayed up late, worked crazy hours, learned the joys and hardships of “crunch time”.  You did your homework, forgoed parties, and drinking.  You flossed daily, ate three well-rounded meals per day.  And probably developed an unnatural addiction to coffee.   Mmmm… coffee..

You can officially add the title “Artist” to your business card.  It’s a powerful addition!  Imagine introducing yourself at the next party.. “Hi, I’m Joe.  Artist.  Good to meet you.  If you need anything.. you know.. ‘artistic’, just give me a call.  Artist here, happy to help”.

It works great as a pickup line, too.  “My gosh, you have beautiful eyes.. what are they, green?  Yeah, I can tell.. I’m an artist.  I’m good with pigments.

You’ve started your career off on the right path, by following your passion.  You’ve graduated, you’re now an artist, and you’re ready for the next step:

becoming a successful artist.

Success can be many things.  To some it’s having the ability to create whatever art they want.  To others, it’s being able to financially support their families.  And to some it’s a combination of those and other reasons.  Each of us has a unique definition of success.  But I’ve found there are at least two things that every successful person has in common.

First, they know what it is they want.  Whether it’s being a photographer, animator, set decorator, photoshop-ier (it’s a word).. whatever it is, they recognize that there’s a goal they want to achieve.

Second, they work their butts off to get there.  They look for opportunities.  If they can’t find an opportunity, they make an opportunity, and they work like crazy until they achieve their goal.  Whether it’s an hour, 10 weeks, or 15 years, they work until they get there.  It may be a straight path, it may be kind of a meandering path, but eventually they will get there.

In short, they take personal ownership of their careers.

It sounds surprisingly simple, but not many people actually do it.  What tends to happen is that we all work hard to get into a good school.  Then we work all throughout school, doing our homework, skipping parties, studying until all hours of the night.. eating a well rounded healthy breakfast, staying away from drugs and alcohol..

Then we go out and find a job.  Maybe it’s the dream job, maybe not, but we work hard, get hired, and then proceed to do whatever the boss tells us.

So far so good, right?

But then what?  Most people settle in and work to prove themselves to those around them, to show that they’ve got “it”, they’re passionate, talented, and are a valuable asset to the team.  Fantastic!  That’s exactly what people should do when they get a job.

But then as time goes by,  they sit and wonder why they aren’t being considered for the “Johnson account”, or why they keep getting pigeon-holed into the same style of work over and over.

They’re waiting for someone to notice all their hard work and give them that promotion, the raise, the chance to really shine.

They’re letting someone else own their careers.

I remember when I was 14 years old I used to have this dream that I would be the best car window washer in the world.  No, seriously.  Whenever we would pull up to a gas station, I’d jump out of the car and wash the windows.  I would scrub and wipe and flick and scrub.. all the while daydreaming that somebody would notice and go “hey, that kids a great window washer!  Hey!  Kid, do you want a job?  You’re hired!”

Of course nobody ever offered me the job.. I never asked for a job.  I just washed windows assuming that someone would eventually notice and offer a job.  That’s not taking personal ownership of my “career” or goal.  It’s just being hopeful, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly no guarantee that I’ll get what I’m after.

Let me give you an example a bit more relevant to my current career.

When I graduated from university in 1996, I got a job as an intern for a 3d animation software company called Alias|Wavefront.  You may have heard of them, they created the software Maya – one of the most popular 3d animation software’s around.   I worked there for a number of years, working my way up from an intern that had to share a desk and computer with someone else, to a Product Specialist – an in-house animator that got to travel around the world, demonstrate Maya, and create mini in-house productions.

After working at Alias|Wavefront for three and a half years I realized that I was doing what I wanted.. I was making shorts, doing internal production work, having a lot of fun travelling, but I felt like I was lacking in actual film production experience.  Some friends were talking about a company that was going to be making a movie out of a series of books called “The Lord of the Rings”.   I had heard of the books, but never read them.  But I wanted some more production experience, so I filled out the online application form stating my experience with Maya, and then promptly forgot about it.

A month or so later I got a call from the recruiter.  They were looking for people with extensive Maya experience & were wondering if I’d be interested in coming down to LA for an interview.  I was in the middle of crunch preparing for a trade show called NAB, National Association of Broadcasters.  It’s an event that’s held every April in Vegas.  I had been working 7 days a week for the past month in preparation for it, and was really swamped trying to get ready.

I declined the invitation, saying that I was just too busy to come down.  They insisted, I declined again.  They said “come on.. it’s just a half hour on a Saturday.  Just drive down & see what we’re doing.”  So I said “Oh, okay…” (thinking back now I almost want to smack myself for being so blase about it).

I went down and had a half hour interview with the visual effects producer & the digital effects supervisor.  They showed me some amazing video of sculptures they were working on.  We talked a bit about the project & about my experience.  At the end of the interview they said they’d be in touch and I drove back up to Santa Barbara ready to work like crazy for the next month and a half to get ready for NAB.

At NAB, I was doing a “back room demo”.. it’s not as salacious as it sounds.  It’s simply a demo for “key customers”.. i.e. those spending a lot of money.  I was on my second day of demos when I noticed John, the digital effects supervisor, sitting in the front row.  I immediately started acting “casually brilliant”, trying to impress him.  After the demo, he came up to me & gave me his card saying “meet me at my hotel tomorrow morning at 8am”.

The next morning I showed up to his hotel room & knocked on the door.  He opened it, wearing his bathrobe.

My first thought was, “how badly do I want this job?”

He invited me in & proceeded to show me a tape of more work they were doing on Lord of the Rings.  Then he made an offer.  A really nice offer.  One that involved moving out to New Zealand in August.

I left Vegas very unsure of what to do.  On one hand I really wanted production experience.  On the other hand, I loved my job & where I lived.  But the Lord of the Rings opportunity seemed like it could be good, but then I didn’t know if the movies would be successful (remember, this is before the movies even started filming.  Yes, there was a time when we thought people might hate them.)

I was totally conflicted, so my friends and I decided to drive around in the desert a bit on our way back from Vegas.  On the way we saw a huge sand dune & decided to climb it.  Nothing like exercise and sand to clear one’s head, right?  So a bunch of us start climbing up the dunes and when we reach the top there’s a guy sitting there on a carpet drinking a glass of red whine.  I thought “huh?” and just looked at him oddly.  Then I noticed his friend, sitting next to him eating an apple.

I thought they were suitably odd, so whom better than to ask about my future?  So i told them the entire story & the guy with the wine (I’ll call him Jim), said “well, why not?”

Why not?


He was right!

Why not take a chance?  See what happens?  Here I was being offered a chance to have what I so desparately wanted.. and I was balking at it.

After all, worst comes to worst, I’d have an amazing experience that I could talk about at parties..  “yeah, I went to go work on that ‘rings’ movie.. but it’s so difficult to make a movie when the electricity is generated by hamsters”

We should always be open to taking chances.  We’re artists, right?  By definition we should try and stretch ourselves, reach for what we think we can’t achieve, push ourselves beyond previous experiences.

That’s my message to you today.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Work towards it.  And enjoy the journey.

You will make mistakes, learn from them.

You may fail, you may loose your footing, you might be publicly humiliated.

You may even have to crawl backwards a few steps.

It may take years to get where you want.

But in the end, as long as you’re working towards a goal, you can’t ever really loose.   The simple act of taking your career, your life, your passion into your own hands.. actively working to achieve your dreams is one of the most satisfying and rewarding things you can ever do.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a few words of wisdom from someone who’s been around the block a few times.

Always treat everyone around you with respect and compassion.  The intern fetching your coffee this week may be your producer in two years.

Be  generous with your praise.  If someone does a good job, tell them!

Be honest.  If you make a mistake, own up to it.

And please, wear deodorant.  Smelling good is always appreciated.

Thanks very much graduating class of 2007, congratulations!!!

After the ceremony we got a chance to chat with the students, & I met a number of really nice and wonderful students that I hope can take their talents & passion & start spreading them through the industry.

Angry Jew.. dave.. please send me your stuff!

Carlos, your work is awesome.  Thank you for the books!  Don’t forget to check out http://www.otherthings.com/grafarc/

Paul, thanks for coming up and speaking with me!  I know it wasn’t easy, and I really appreciate it!  I have your card & I look forward to seeing more work from you!
Alex, definitely get a reel together & send it to me.  You guys did some astounding work & I can’t wait to see it again!
Everyone who came up to talk to me, I really appreciate it!  And if I gave you my email, please send me a note & give me your latest works.. I look forward to seeing them!

Thanks again Cynthia, Scott, LaRee, Andres, and everyone else who made the weekend so memorable!

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