Defining Leadership in the Animation Industry


What does it take to wrangle a creative team and produce results that satisfy the needs of both show and business? What sets the winners apart from the losers?

leadership in animationThis quote is from a Van Vilet cartoon from many years ago. It’s a good summary of the syndrome which plagues the industry: people in leadership roles who lack the tools needed to drive a production, and the domino effect this has on the pipeline. This is what cripples artists, leaving them aimless, angry, and ultimately drained of the creative spark which drove them into the field.

Before diving in, I’d highly recommend heading over to Van Vilets site and getting a mug

In all forms of business, and all great endeavors, the winning projects are those which crack the enigma of good teamwork. People who work together can achieve great things, but even the best team will fail without coherent leadership.

What does good leadership mean in animation?

One boss I had working overseas – lets call him Barry – was an impressive figure, standing at a generous five feet tall with no shortage of personality. On first meeting I was dazzled with his showmanship and apparent insight into the mind of the artist. He had a refreshing passion for the business which really kindled the creative spark. I signed on for a year. Here was a remarkable figure whose voice rang through the studio with bravado. He would make bold proclamations, tout the skills of his workers and make loud assertions that his company was “the best in the world”.

He had so many of the attributes associated with good leadership: Confidence, charisma, and a single mindedness I’ve yet to see rivaled. However there was also a distinct smell of bullshit about the man. Barry was enamored with the idea of being “The Boss” and reveled in his self appointed authority. The cracks in the foundation soon became apparent: There was no real leadership team, just lip service and flimsy fear tactics. With no one to question his decisions, Barry’s unchecked ego ran rampant. The end result: An unpleasant environment which seemed less like an animation studio and more like an elaborate imitation. An Imitation Studio. I watched many good artists jump ship.

the winning projects are those which crack the enigma of good teamwork

In Canada I worked with G. The epitomal idea man. Any trip through the open door of his office would result in an hour long idea session (my part was mostly the receiving end). Skilled and tactical in business, a master of budgets and schedules and also an accomplished author – the man was a fountainhead of ideas.

Here was a studio where the artists could truly feel safe. He had trust in his artists, some might say to a fault. He ran an efficient ship and made great pains to ensure everyone stayed employed during a very rocky economy. He trusted his department leaders and allowed them to work without micromanagement. He hired a good IT guy and gave him reign over the critical studio systems, The result was an smooth flowing production and intense loyalty from the artists and a natural desire to work harder and do better.

Born to Lead

Wind back the clock a few decades, my first industry job in 1999 at a small studio called Red Rover. I was a co-op student back then, the very bottom rung of the ladder. I made coffee, ran errands, shot the animation and cleaned the fish tank. I loved every minute of it.

I worked at Rover for 8 years, and in that time learned what great leadership in animation was from a man named Andy. Andy could usually be found angled over his animation desk, a lit cigarette in one hand, casually carving out solid gold with his unmatched confident line. Andy’s leadership model, conscious or not, was to lead by example. He was not an authoritarian, or an idea pitch man, he was an artist. And in that regard he was untouchable.


His draftsmanship was legendary, and we animators would often crowd around his desk to watch him work. He’d offer up the occasional quip on technique but was never heavy handed and didn’t offer advice unless asked. His way of criticizing bad animation was to chuckle and say “Well…” That was enough to send any of us scurrying back to our desks to double our efforts and try again. Andy shot pool, played golf, captained his own sailboat, and made sure the office was stocked with beer every Friday. Beyond being a master of his craft, he was a damn cool guy.

We were lucky to have worked and laughed with Andy, but unlucky in that many of us still grasp in vain for the feeling of the old Rover days. No other studio in the years since his death has ever come close to that old feeling, and none of the animation done since then has been close to as much fun.

Sadly, the old Rover reel does not exist online. While a few of the old spots are available here and there, the best of the work we did together lives on only in memory. I don’t mean to wax poetic about the good old days, this piece was written to highlight leadership skills in the animation business, and I chose these three examples for a reason: The best leaders are like Andy, born to lead, practiced in the craft and natural. G is also a great leader. Single minded and commanding, a man who trusts the artists, and has balanced respect for both Show and Business. Sadly, the industry is crawling with Barrys. Tacit frauds who are more concerned with the romantic notion of “being the boss” than important skills like leading by example, mastering conversation, and listening.

Parting Thoughts

Leaders in animation fall into one of three categories: Born to Lead, Educated in Leadership, or Unfit to Lead. How would you classify your boss? What category do you fall into?

Brent Forrest is a contributor with LesterBanks. His credits include Cyborg 009, Rudolph the Black Cat, Jack the Giant Slayer, Snack World and Total Drama Island.

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