Animators: Digital Nomads from Bangalore to Shanghai to Vancouver – and how to be one

The glamour of exotic travel coupled with the need to work and the ubiquity of software tools has led to a class of Digital Nomads.  I recently took part in a panel on this topic at Internet Week NY, led by management and bizdev consultant Maiko Sakai, a nomad herself having grown up in Japan.

Digital Nomads , by Maiko’s definition, are not the guys who are stuck to their screens at home working virtually – they are adventurers who actually uproot themselves and go to Auckland or Johannesburg or London or Singapore or Bangalore or Vancouver or Shanghai or Dublin or wherever to practice their digital craft.

For animation professionals, to some extent their travel has been about the mystique of location – and to some extent it has been going to where the work is.  Animation studios in LA have been closing and studio launches in minor US markets like Florida’s Port St Lucie or Albuquerque NM have fizzled, so off they had to go.

The big shops – Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky et al produce where the subsidies are – one animation supervisor told me that the grunt work can be done in some markets for 10 cents on the dollar where they can find local talent trained on the appropriate software packages to an adequate skill level. But US producers do like to bring in a US animation director to supervise and to train and to keep the cultural nuances right.  A Mumbai sunset does not look like an LA sunset. What does Main Street really look like?  What trees are right and which ones would be weird?

“This is good if you’re 23 and have no commitment, no wife, no dog,” one animation artist told me.  I spoke with a number of animators who have been digital nomads themselves and are quoted here.  “Those who want to be nomadic have a ninja bug in their brain.”

If this digital nomad life is for you, then the most valuable thing you can do for yourself is to develop and nourish your global network. Treasure your US connections, but now add people in every likely port of call. Ask your friends and colleagues who they know in Capetown or Buenos Aires or Sydney.  Get in touch with these people and stay in touch. These are the people who will lend you a couch and feed you when you land tired and hungry, and they will introduce you to the people who are hiring. So keep this network up to date and remember that “while the demo reel is important – recommendations are the basis for most of this hiring.”

“The unit of work for the nomad is the day or the job. Salary is just an abstract business-y concept” said one former nomad who now runs a successful animation/vfx shop in NYC.  Whatever the pay, a nomad learns something of value at every stop.  Every studio they find themselves in will be home to someone who has some magic to teach them.  “The nomad gets to experience contact with the special people whether it’s a nerd or a business person or an artist.  And each of those contacts will benefit them.”

The nomad life certainly can be sexy at the getgo, but does it live up to the dream? “I was working from 8 in the morning till 8 at night, was on a conference call to the US from 2 to 3 every morning and then back on the box at 8am. 6 days a week. Leaving just Sunday for…well…sleeping.” “I was working from 8 in the morning till 8 at night, was on a conference call to the US from 2 to 3 every morning and then back on the box at 8am. 6 days a week. Leaving just Sunday for…well…sleeping.”  “It wears thin,” said one artist.   “After a while I wanted my things back – wanted to dig my heels in. I had stuff in storage in so many cities that I hadn’t seen for years.”


Thanks to Steve Mann, Chris Healer, Alison Brown, Jan Carlee and many others in the animation business who spoke to me about their nomad careers.