Episode 352 – Activision Blizzard – Executive Principal Recruiter for Art in Animation and Creative Robin Alan Linn
Episode 352 – Activision Blizzard – Executive Principal Recruiter for Art in Animation and Creative Robin Alan Linn
Activision Blizzard’s history goes back more than 40 years. Two incredible gaming brands Activision and Blizzard Entertainment merged, bringing together the best creative talent in gaming. The acquisition of King in 2016 further strengthened the company’s vision to bring the world together through epic entertainment. Their professional gaming properties include the Overwatch League™, the Call of Duty League™, Hearthstone® Grandmasters, and the World of Warcraft® Arena World Championship, among others. Activision Blizzard Esports also operates Tespa™, the leader in collegiate esports.
In this Episode, Activision Blizzard King’s Executive Principal Recruiter for Art in Animation and Creative Robin Alan Linn talks about the importance of niching down, how to stand out in the age of social media, how to ace the most difficult interview question, the importance of empathy, vulnerability and imperfection – and so much more!
Robin Alan Linn on Allan McKay’s Podcast: https://www.allanmckay.com/334/
Robin Alan Linn on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robinlinn
Robin Alan Linn’s Bio on CTN: https://membership.creativetalentnetwork.com/about/robin-linn
Activision Blizzard: https://www.activisionblizzard.com
[03:31] Robin Alan Linn Introduces Himself
[03:52] The Difference Between Hiring Junior and Senior Artists
[08:10] Niching Down and Doing What You’re Good at
[16:12] How to Stand Out – in the Age of Social Media
[21:30] Understanding the Process and Being an Artist-for-Hire
[30:42] How to Ace the Most Difficult Interview Question
[36:41] The Power of Empathy and Vulnerability
[44:34] The Importance of Imperfection
[47:07] Junior Artists’ Common Mistakes
[57:42] Robin Talks About His Experience and Legacy
EPISODE 352 – ACTIVISION BLIZZARD – EXECUTIVE PRINCIPAL RECRUITER FOR ART AND ANIMATION AND CREATIVE – ROBIN ALAN LINN
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 352! I’m speaking with Activision Blizzard’s Executive Principal Recruiter for Art in Animation and Creative Robin Alan Linn. We talk about the importance of niching down, how to stand out in the age of social media, how to ace the most difficult interview question, the importance of empathy, vulnerability and imperfection – and so much more!
This is the second time that Robin is on the Podcast: www.allanmckay.com/334. Please check it out! These are really great interviews, whether you’re starting out in VFX or a senior artist.
Please take a moment to share this Episode with others. It would be a great way to show your support for the Podcast.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:17] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:03:10] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN ALAN LINN
[03:30] Allan: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Robin: Sure! I’m Robin Linn. I’m the Executive Principal Recruiter for Art in Animation and Creative at Activision Blizzard King.
[03:52] Allan: During the recruitment process, can you explain the difference between a junior artist applying for a job versus a senior artist.
Robin: I use this from my experience. I haven’t been an artist for a long time, and I haven’t had to have a resume for a long time as well. I’m not saying this to brag. Once you reach a certain level of experience, people tend to know who you are and your reputation and work ethic carries you forward (especially in confined spaces like game art and animation). There are few recruiters who’ve been doing it long enough. The same with senior level artists: I can name the great creature concept artists on my fingers. Their style is well developed. We know what we get with those guys. We know they’ll be costly but that’ll end up saving money because you aren’t churning iteration after iteration.
I’ll give you an example: We had one artist we used on a film. The studio used a lot of junior level talent and found out they were spending a lot of money. We went to a very seasoned artist who charged $40K per page of drawings. That’s the character right there! If they spent $40K on that initial page, they would’ve saved $50K in the long run. You’re casting the talent. If you want great creatures, you get Carlos Fuentes. If you want cartoony [creatures], Peter DeSève is that guy. The more junior you get, the less you’ve defined your style yet. Form follows mastery. You haven’t mastered your mechanical skills. The junior artists that stand out define the style early on and lock into it. They can do other things, but they have a distinctive look. Lindsey Olivares just did the art for The Mitchells vs The Machines. She is a relatively young artist but her style is so quirky, she’s hot right now. She’ll be cast for that look, but it took her a while to develop that look.
[08:10] Allan: That’s such a valid thing about niching down. A lot of people are afraid that there is an opportunity cost. If you all have the same style, the race becomes about who is cheaper.
Robin: Oftentimes, I hear from the parents of animation students who’ve graduated a couple of years ago and haven’t found work. Normally, that’s a really upset parent. First of all, any parent of a creative child has my sympathy and pity. I was one of those weirdos and I know I put my parents through hell. “What about a real job?” They tell me that their children cannot find work after they’ve graduated as a generalist. Someone in admissions convinced them they’ll be better off if they’re good at a lot of things. That’s not the case. [10:28] You need to be really good at one thing and do all the other things okay. One deep spike into your craft. It’s something you’re good at versus something you love. There are character riggers who want to be animators. Dude! Riggers are so rare and so treasured, why would you want to be an animator? There are a lot of those. It’s the hard thing people have to learn: Do what you’re good at – not what you love. Save what you love for the off hours.
[11:12] Allan: You can always find passion in what you do. I think you need to do something practical first and then find enjoyment in it.
Robin: Back when I was sculpting, I always loved doing the detail work. But you have to get through the blocking to get to the detail. Every job in the world is shit for 70%. But it’s at 30% that’s it’s gold. But that’s why it’s a job!
[12:33] Allan: We get disillusioned that if we work in video games, we get to eat pizza and drink soda – but it’s a business.
Robin: It’s a business with deadlines that generates more money than film does. Because it’s called gaming, people think it’s going to be a party. It is sometimes, but you have to pay for that party.
[12:58] Allan: Someone who is being paid $10K a day versus someone getting paid $500 a day. There is going to be experience that avoids mistakes, but there is also reputation and branding. The more you focus on building that reputation, the more people understand your value.
Robin: And the person doing the secondary work knows what they’re doing as well. In animation, Émile Cohl was one of the greatest animators that walked this planet. But Iwao Takamoto did his cleanup. And Iwao was making an eighth of the rate, but it was necessary for them to work together. Émile did great keys, and Iwao cleaned it up. The same thing with this matte painting.
[16:12] Allan: You’d hope that the last 5-10% is making it seen versus just delivery and notes. For junior or mid-level artists, at the bottom of the triangle the competition is larger. The further up the triangle you go, the competition is less and the money is better. What advice would you give for artists to stand out?
Robin: In the early days of recruiting, we’d get physical portfolios. People would get their original work. (Which is not a great idea.) That’s the only time artists would get some exposure. Just the mechanics of getting eyes on your artwork were so restrictive! That funnel point was so small! Enter: Instagram! You can put all your work on IG, you can tag people. You start mentioning all these people, people will start noticing your work. If you aren’t rude, they may give you some notes. Which tells people like me who are in the industry that you take direction. You aren’t so precious with your work. The internet has leveled the playing field. Everyone with a creative bend can show your work. That’s how influencers work. They visualize their opinion, post it, and then they build a brand. Now, 8-year olds are doing it. Show your artwork to as many people as you can. Go to LinkedIn and type in the studio you want to work for. Look at the recruiters and whom we follow on IG. Move away from LinkedIn when it comes to visuals and start building a brand. Get people to comment! But don’t be shy, let people tear your work apart and take that feedback.
[20:22] Allan: I love that! I was chatting with Bryan Hirota (www.allanmckay.com/298) at Scanline about juniors going onto a project thinking it’s their movie. But it’s about taking direction.
Robin: I always tell student filmmakers: “Enjoy this!” This is going to be your vision from start to finish.
[21:30] Allan: Even my friends who are feature film directors say that even though the short film was their vision, in the hands of someone else, the feature film version was not going to be. So they walked away. There is always a producer on top of that.
Robin: When I was teaching at Loyola Marymount, I had Ash Brannon who was one of the co-directors of Surf’s Up come in and tell the students, “Marketing really directs this movie.” It’s not your film. Unless you become a Spielberg or a Scorsese. But even then you’re getting opinions from the studio. You need to get a bit more of a creative callus on that spirit of yours. You need to take direction. You take that money and create artwork of your own, on your own time. Artists get so attached to everything that they do. When someone tells a creative to make something more blue, they say, “I didn’t feel it was blue.” [23:58] We, as creatives (if I may put myself into that category), need to be better about understanding our place in the process. When working on a movie, we’re an extension of a director’s wrist. Directors may let us color outside the lines on occasion, but we have to stay inside those lines. That’s what we’re getting paid for.
[24:28] Allan: I think it’s about changing the conversation. There are so many ignorant things that get spun around. We’re part of a team and we’re part of someone else’s vision. The more you’re able to understand and take notes, you’ll do better and get hired the next time.
Robin: Let me share this story. Polar Express was a brutal production. It was the first time we were using mocap on that scale and a lot of the technology was being invented as we went. We had to create new jobs and then go hire those people. It was a miserable job for animators. It was a horrible task! But my job was to crew that show. And there was an animator on that show who was a good intermediate animator. But he was in that director’s office complaining. He forgot that productions end and animation directors move onto the next show. If you take a nightmare project through, the studio may see it as a reason to reward you with the next film. The next one that came through and it was Surf’s Up. This other animator wanted to get it, but too bad! Because he was a pain in the ass. [27:50] So fall in love with the studio and not the film! If you want to have a career, for God’s sake, understand how office politics work! Or understand how people work. If a dog bites you everytime you come up, you’re going to stop petting that dog.
[28:05] Allan: So many artists say, “I’m an artist, I don’t want to play politics.” It’s really your career strategy.
Robin: As long as we talk about the baseline of capable talent, you can do the job – but what do you bring to the table on top of that? I’ve worked for studios whose hiring policy was “We don’t hire assholes.” I’ve seen artists whose careers fizz out and now they’re teaching – because they’re toxic! And it doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. Anytime there are three people in the room, there’s politics! There’s politics in every relationship. Life is all about negotiations and maneuvering. It’s just how people interact with each other. You see it with families.
[30:42] Allan: Video games are a different beast when it comes to job interviews. They’re definitely intense! A lot of the time, in film, they’ve already made up their mind to hire you. They just want to make sure you aren’t crazy…
Robin: Or are you an acceptable level of crazy? [31:20] My understanding of interviewing is that in the majority of cases if they’re interviewing you – they want to hire you! What happens over the course of that hour is that you either confirm their desire to hire you – or you talk yourself out of a job. Think about how expensive interviews are: If it’s 8 people interviewing you, that’s 8 hours of production time lost. (And they aren’t junior people!) So depending on who you talk to, it gets really expensive. So they want to give you the job. It’s just how are you going present yourself:
- How have you prepared? What homework have you done?
- Have you looked at everyone’s LinkedIn profile that you’re speaking to?
- Can you talk to the history of the studio?
- Are you going to be nervous? Being nervous is fine!
Most people haven’t had any interview training. It falls to the candidate to be overly prepared with 20 questions. At every interview I’ve been to, the last question they ask is, “Do you have any questions for me?” The last thing you want to do is say, “Nah. I’m good.”
[33:08] Allan: I keep thinking back to my being 19 years old and I’d give a question that was fluff. These days, I want to solve the problems while I’m there. I want to get to the center of the problem. In sales, it’s about going beyond the sales. If I start saying, “What are the biggest problems you get on this show?” – the more I start repositioning myself as the perfect person to solve that problem. If it were you, what would be the best question to ask – when someone says, “Do you have any questions for us?”
Robin: I take every interview that’s offered. Along with everything else, I’m always recruiting recruiters. I’ve interviewed a number of times. One of the questions I’d ask is, “Looking back at my background and training, do you have any concerns about hiring me?” I’m confident in my ability and I’m really curious to know what I’m lacking. It reveals shortcomings I didn’t see.I normally close out the day and I usually close out, “Is there any reason why we shouldn’t hire you?” I’m looking for self-awareness. If you’re looking for someone who can run an Excel spreadsheet, I’m not interested. I’m the guy who talks to people. [36:07] It’s knowing what you’re good at and being able to highlight that. And then admitting where you need help. “This is why I’m coming to you. I’m looking to get better at X – and your organization can help me get better at X!” So we’ll both be better at our jobs as a result of that!
[36:51] Allan: That’s such a valuable point! It’s the number one reason I don’t hire someone when they say, “I’m great at everything.” I can list everything I’m terrible at, which means I can delegate those tasks to other people. But as a hire, I will be able to better place you.
Robin: You’re afforded a certain amount of trust as a new hire. We trust that you’re telling us the truth. If over the course of the next few months we realize you lied about that, what else have you lied about? Interviewing has changed over the last decade. Before, you came in to present yourself as perfect. Now we go, “None of us are perfect and here are my flaws.” There is a book sitting on my desk that says, “Empathy is the new strength.” We have to be empathetic, no one is perfect. We’re allowed to be people. And as creatives, we’re going to be more people-y. That’s what makes us who we are. I want people to be vulnerable around me. If I can have an interviewee share a genuine emotion – that’s the one I want! That’s not weakness – that’s ability! If they can get emotional about a character that they did, then that character elevated itself to bigger. Mickey Mouse is not a bunch of circles; he’s a personality. I remember hearing animators argue what kind of popcorn Stuart Little would prefer and I thought, “This is going to be a good movie!” They aren’t talking about curves but character traits. The character is a personality that elevated itself.
[40:02] Allan: One of the interesting things coming into my new executive position is talking about the customer avatar. There is a guy in sales who was pitching a product to Bed Bath and Beyond. And he kept hearing, “Jenny wouldn’t like that.” She was the avatar and she even had a seat at the interview table.
Robin: You can look at a performance and feel the emotion coming in. One of my favorite movies is Bambi. Bambi is not just a deer. There is so much warmth in that performance and you can feel the animator’s love in it! That’s what separates it out! How do mid- to senior level artists mend that role? They put that level of passion into their performances. Yes, the mechanics may be wonky at times, but the character is conveying an authentic emotion. We want that emotional resonance. Even in gaming, there is an opportunity for wit and humor, and storytelling. There is a Disney artist named Marc Davis who did many of the concept drawings at the park. The reason Walt loved him is because he was able to encapsulate the whole story that the vehicle would do in 4 seconds. He could convey an entire story. That’s what we’re looking for in a reel or drawing. Anatomy is just function, that’s just mechanics. Now we’re looking for form. But that’s what’s missing from 90% of students’ reels. You’re going to have to show me something that’s going to make me feel!
[44:34] Allan: I love that! I just said that to a director Chris Keller who just made 7 different short films. A lot of people contacted him after his short The Last Dance because it made them feel. To me, that’s the ultimate thing, especially in a short film. If you can make people feel something – you’ve won.
Robin: A lot of people reach out and ask, “I’m making props. How can I make this wine bottle stand out?” And my question is, “What kind of mood is the wine bottle?” Is it a happy / sad / angry wine bottle? In games and VFX – which are the hardest roles for us to fill – is the marriage of that. That’s perfectly photoreal smoke – now make it evil! By color, by shape language, by timing, make it evil. That’ll get you a job. Show me where your fingers have been in the clay. Is that a happy or evil fire? When you know, come back and show. Every sin I talk about, I did myself.
- There is this rush to fill a 2-minute reel. You have a minute and 10 seconds of really good stuff, and the rest of it is shit. Then cut the shit out! Be self editing.
- Do your homework. When you get on the phone to set up the interview, ask the recruiter every name of the interviewer – and then LinkedIn, IMDb and Instagram every since name. Look at their background, look for commonalities. The interview process is the process of huminazing yourself. You’re trying to elevate yourself from an applicant to a candidate. Applicants are numerous and generic. Candidates are people we want to hire.
- There are the mechanics of an interview: Show up 15-20 minutes early. Expect them to be late, they’re working.
- If the studio is close enough to you, do a couple of drivebys and see what they’re wearing. Don’t dress in a suit and tie, but dress a bit better than the other people. If there is a Starbucks around that studio, go to that Starbucks, grab a table and listen. Every artist is going to be there during a rendering break. Listen to what they’re saying.
- I always bring a water bottle with me. If you get stuck on a question during the interview, slow the process down by taking a sip of water. That gives your mind a couple of seconds to calculate an answer.
- Learn to shake hands. A firm, dry handshake is just good manners.
- Make sure you don’t eat a lot of garlic the night before.
- Don’t wear a lot of perfume or cologne. Shower before you go.
- Don’t be overly casual. Let the person introduce themselves, and that’s how you address them throughout that whole interview. If someone says they’re Mr. Lin, that’s how you address them. Never Robin! Especially if someone is older than you. If John Dykstra comes in and says, “Call me John,” I’m sorry. I’m going to call you Mr. Dykstra until we’re peers.
[51:50] Allan: Calibrate the situation!
Robin: I had a very devout, religious animator once. He was born and raised in Utah and he was steeped in the Mormon culture. He was a great animator! We were interviewing him and my art director came in and said, “Nice to fucking meet you!” I asked him afterward why he did it and he said, “The language at our studio is a little rough. If he can’t handle me saying that at an interview, he’s never going to make it in this industry!” He did and he did great. If people who are interviewing you cuss, they’re giving you permission to. If they don’t – you don’t. Always bring questions, even if on 3X5 cards. You’re interviewing them at the same time they’re interviewing you. Are they good people? What do people think about them? You have to fill this out at the end of the interview (especially if you’re interviewing for a supervisor role), ask if you can talk to some people on the team at random. Just to see how they’re thinking. Do your homework. They’re doing reference checks on you. Just be passionate and educated, and don’t be cut off guard. If you are, admit it.
[54:41] Allan: You’re human. I think people do get very stiff at interviews. I interviewed someone from a big tech company. She was still in interview mode. It indicated her personality. Even at the level she was, she wasn’t shooting the shit. If you’re uncomfortable, it’s okay to be uncomfortable.
Robin: If you’re the interviewer in that situation and you notice the candidate is clenched, there is no law that says you have to be in the office. You can take a walk. When Riot was at the old center, there was a juice bar. Once we walked off campus, everything would drop and candidates would become more open. This is who the person was and that’s when the real interview took place. I’m physically moving and it’s taking the energy up, and it’s a better interview.
[57:42] Allan: Everytime I talk to you, I want to talk to you for hours! You give so much great information! I won’t keep asking you to keep coming back to do another Episode.
Robin: I’m 5 years away from retirement. What I plan on doing after getting out of recruiting is doing this. I feel personally obligated to tell other people everything I know about this industry. I can’t speak about other careers. I’ve only worked in this one but it’s been the most rewarding career I could’ve hoped for. Because we’re dealing with creatives, they’re in touch with their emotions. Sometimes, I have to terminate people and it’s really rough. All that taken in, I love that industry! If someone has a passion for it and they can’t see themselves doing anything else, there is nothing better! So if I can give them an ounce of advice, I feel better! It’s a great industry. This is a great industry to work in! There are some people that give it a bad rep. Going back to Hanna-Barbera, meeting Don Knotts or Vincent Price, it’s just been so rewarding. And now, with all that technology and tools, I’m so envious! I had to deal with the mechanics of the tool to expose my talent and now that barrier between what I’m thinking and what goes on the screen – is nothing!
[1:01:25] Allan: I share that sentiment. The tools are so intuitive!
Robin: It’s the difference between an iPhone and Python. I have to write a code to make a sphere?!
[1:01:59] Allan: I love the conversations I have with you! You’re a wealth of knowledge. I’d love to have you back again!
Robin: I’ve had people who listen to these and they reach out to me on LinkedIn and it’s so rewarding! “You told me this, and it helped me get this!” It’s just the best feeling!
[1:03:08] Allan: It’s been an honor and I appreciate your time! We’ll definitely chat again!
Okay, what did you think? I hope you enjoyed this one! I want to thank Robin for coming back on the Podcast.
Next week, I’m sitting down with the Manager of Emerging Talent at ILM Kim Paris. Kim gives advice on how to break into the industry and how to get a job at ILM. This is going to be an exciting one!
Until then –
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
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