To Test or Not To Test: What is the solution?
Over the course of my career as an illustrator I've completed my share of “Art Tests” in order to qualify for a job. The "submissions" included Storyboard Artist for animation studios, design mock-ups for publishers, Art Director reviews for video game developers and even creative briefs for greeting card companies.
An art test is what the illustration industry calls "spec" work. To do spec work, an artist will complete an assignment - be it an illustration, logo, character design, etc., usually at the request of the potential client who infers "if we like your sample, we will hire you."
In most cases the artist receives no compensation, no money, no credit, no regard and no reward - unless of course their test demonstrates exactly what the client is looking for and they get an offer. With a limited number of positions available, imagine the abundance of rejected candidates who spend time, money and effort toiling away for no offers.
One is All it Takes
When I was an Illustration major at Parson's School of Design, teachers warned students against doing spec work. Ever the ambitious bumpkin, it was tough for me to turn down the requests. I wanted a chance to prove myself. I wanted to get my work in print and grow my reputation as a great illustrator.
Naivety, inexperience and excitement often conspired to convinced me that "if I do spec work just this once" I may get hired, start my career and rocket my way to success, never to do a test again. But there was a tough reality attached - the rejection. No letters, calls, feedback or compensation. To my disappointment, there were many companies perpetuating this practice. While trying to develop a style and identity as an illustrator, it became par-for-the-course to submit an occasional spec assignment.
Creation of a Monster
Flash ahead to the animation industry. Perhaps the most "tested" position in the art world is the Storyboard Artist position. To get a storyboard artist role on an animated series or feature, a story artist without a referral is routinely asked to submit a story test.
Getting hired in this position is considered by many to be the greatest gig on earth, not just for the steady work, but also for pure love of all-things-geeky. That would partially explain why story test submissions are so common. Ben 10, Teen Titans, Sponge Bob, Family Guy, Justice League, Ninja Turtles, Dexter’s Laboratory…these projects are a fan boy’s (or girl’s) dream. Performing on these projects usually means that when the contract is up in one or two years, the artist gets his next job based on a colleague’s referral. They’ve been vouched for as efficient, reliable talents who have turned in great work under pressing deadlines. The referral saves everyone time and production is able to ramp up without delay.
Alternately, if an artist doesn’t have a recommendation or a connection, he may initiate the request to prove himself. He is given a sample script and asked to complete the test in a timely manner.
Regardless of the origin, testing is considered an honor for some, a pain in the neck for others.
“Tests for these positions are nothing new.” Says Art Mawhinney, a veteran story artist with a list of credits like Family Guy, Rugrats, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
“When I first was getting into freelance storyboarding (over 30 years ago) I did 3 or 4 tests for different studios. These became what I showed to other studios to try and get work. ...Even with a long list of credits, I will need to do a quick "test" on a new or different licensed character.”
“Even after I was working with "Studio A" on a show, I would usually have to do a different test for a different show with the same studio.”
Mawhinney will still get requests to submit a test from time to time. “The tests usually take no more than a days work to finish. “
But while one artist may take one day to complete the work, others may decide to dedicate a week. Tests require time to properly complete. Some may require a few attempts to learn the style of the show, the workflow and the sensibilities of storytelling that are key to the shows signature.
David Hale (not his real name), although not currently in a story position, is a compositor familiar with this dilemma.
“We as artists almost never get work out in first swing, it's rare to hit a homerun and that is what these tests expect of you.” claims Hale.
“It's an inordinate amount of pressure considering that is likely to never happen in the work place and your supervisors will almost always have input that clashes with your personal esthetic.”
I can relate to Hale’s experience. I once tested for a show that allowed me two weeks to work with the script. I was employed full time with another studio, and because my time was limited and I wanted to impress, I burned the midnight oil and turned the test in a week early. Suffice it to say, my rush job did not impress, and working in a different time zone in a different state left me without any guidance on expectations.
Perhaps the endeavor can be invigorating for the recent art school graduate. Testing deadlines - hard to meet under the best of circumstances - are harder to meet if the artist is managing a day job. For the seasoned artist who supports their family by drawing pictures on a deadline, completing a test means going without sleep and hoping a lot. If your production is in crunch mode, working 12- 15 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week - testing is impossible.
If you want to line up your next contract, you have to play the game. But it’s not only story artists on the hot seat.
Oscar M. (also not his real name) is a senior lighter who shares the frustration.
“What sucks about taking these tests for me, is that right now, I'm in the middle of a crunch. …I have to wake up early on Saturday…work on the test till 1-2pm then go into work until 7pm. Then on Sunday finish up the test.”
Always looking for the next gig, Oscar M. notes, “The absolute worse is when they say, 'just have fun with it'.”
Wiley Pence (again, not his real name) craves feedback after a test submission. A seasoned pro, Pence’s web site shows an “…extremely broad range of stylizations and abilities already…” On his last submission, Pence only received a script and some character reference - no art direction.
“I'm quite good at keeping the characters accurate to the licensing. I got notification that I didn't get the job, which was disappointing. But the biggest frustration was that I never got ANY feedback whatsoever. Nothing that says how I could have improved, how I fell short in their estimation, NOTHING. There's no other way to say it. It was downright disrespectful. I did this for free.”
Pence believes that companies have a huge firewall, which doesn’t understand talent but yet are responsible for passing the candidate along to the next level where the creative management live.
“Someone should have taken the time I'm taking right now to type this recollection up, to let me know the specific reason was as to why I wasn't chosen.” Says Pence.
“The whole experience was how I feared it would be. A big giant waste of time.”
Designer Albert Holaso thinks testing is “antithetical to what artists do which is think, experiment, and iterate, unless the purpose of the test is to witness that thinking process in action. But still that could be discussed in-depth in a portfolio review.” Holaso states.
Experience designer Gary Boodhoo is not a fan of the art test. “I don't see the point of art tests at all,” Boodhoo states. “They devalue the process that leads to creative (or at least expedient) outcomes.”
Art Directors and Art Leads will appreciate Boodhoo’s candor.
“For high level roles - seriously? If this is your go-to, you're testing the wrong criteria.” insists Boodhoo.
“For production-type art they ignore factors of scalability and strategy. If the intent is to know how someone thinks and works and how they will fit in a team,” says Boodhoo, “then bring that person into the team for a day or more and pay for their time instead of wasting it.”
Tom Labaff has worked as storyboard artist for big studios like Disney, Blue Sky and Illumination Entertainment. A cheerful attitude helps Tom to embrace the story test, especially when compensation is on the horizon.
“I don't like the idea and used to never take them… but if the potential client is desirable enough, I'll play their game. …I think of it as a healthy exercise, like lifting weights. It makes me stronger. In fact, the job I'm at now is because of a test I took for a completely different company months ago, but it happened to stand out on my reel! Go figure:)”
Paying serious candidates to take a test will force employers to sit down and clarify their expectations while providing art direction and creative guidance.
“Bottom line for me is money. If the potential studio is paying well, then what's the harm?” according to Labaff.
Working remotely in Brazil as a freelance compositor, Jonas Almeida feels that a recruiter or supervisor should be able to evaluate skills from the artist’s portfolio. In contrast to getting a direct job offer, Jonas agrees getting paid for the test is the next best scenario.
“A paid test surely is fair.” observes Almeida. “In my country contracts have a trial clause. Companies can dismiss anyone within 30 days for any reason. So if the person can't perform as expected, they're likely to be dismissed.”
Almeida believes if the interview process is conducted wisely, employers can fill in the blanks. “In an interview you can ask questions about the artist’s process and evaluate their knowledge of the workflow.”
Risk is not our Business
We’ve established that a companies in a hurry to staff up use story tests to vet the talent. But how many candidates are lumped into the same test?
One storyboard artist and supervisor, Luc Jean (you guessed it, not his real name), says “We all know that certain companies use these tests exploitatively, whether that be to hit recruiting quotas (they need to be SEEN to be looking, even though they aren't, or have already filled the role) or to simply get work done for free. That is disgusting practice and I am firmly against it.”
As an artist looking for work he refused to do story tests.
That changed when Luc Jean became a supervisor/ lead and started recruiting for the company.
“You cannot always trust people's portfolios unless they come recommended or you have worked with them before. It's not pleasant to say, but some artists can be very misleading about their abilities, using storyboard samples of work that, for example, they only assisted on, not storyboarded fully.”
As someone who convinced his producers not to test candidates, Luc Jean felt he risked his reputation.
“It cost me dearly, as I was the one who then had to carry those artists for a period of time, before it became too much to maintain the schedule and we had to let them go and find replacements.”
Since then, when Luc Jean staffs up, he tests all unknown artists.
“It goes against my prior ethics as a solo artist, but the experience from the other side was a massive eye opener. It's a huge risk to an employer not to be sure the artist is right for job, and the ramifications for the project overall are too great.”
To be sure companies are serious about a candidate, Luc Jean suggests companies pay the candidate a rate for their time.
Many agree with him, including Art Director/Senior Designer Stan Chou.
“Testing is the best way for both sides to ensure a mutual fit,” says Chou. “I now feel that tests are essential for every position you hire for, not just art!”
Chou suggests that each test should be unique to its discipline.
“Tests can be customized… . For example, a 30 min test for one type of position, a 1 hr test for another, a 1 day test, a 1 week test...employers should compensate for tests longer than 1 hr… .”
Make It So
If this were to become the norm, an industry of struggling artists all competing for the same job would probably be more productive. The deflation of confidence associated with unrequited applications might disappear. In return, the studio will gain a go-to list of candidates for next time.
Also, the work performed for the test should be usable in the artist’s portfolio and labeled “Test” so as not to mislead. In this manner, like LaBaff’s experience, artists can improve future prospects while presenting honest samples.
One thing is certain. Companies should narrow prospects by carefully selecting only a handful of talent and issuing them paid tests under an agreed timeline. Sample script, character reference, props, visual targets and clear instructions are a must.
Perhaps the rate of pay is negotiated or established at a lower wage than normal. Expectations should be outlined from highest to lowest priority.
With this process under tight management, an employer can deliver feedback to their chosen test participants, hires or not.
For a practice so familiar in the industry, it’s understandable that companies are reluctant to change. Facing the rapidly changing landscape of commerce and evolving technologies are bound to confound employers in hiring practices of the future. However, when considering the overall impact such a paradigm shift will have upon both parties, the results are worth it.
Artists would get paid something for their time, have additional samples to show, and will gain more confidence in their skills. Studios gain a go-to-list of future talent while increasing trust from industry professionals. With both parties benefiting, audiences are sure to experience a new benchmark in entertainment.
Nothing will change unless artists speak out. Employers will listen if enough talented and passionate artists insist on better arrangements.
What is your opinion regarding story tests and other tests for artist roles? Help us improve cooperation among artists and employers by sharing your comments below and discussing these ideas.