Why I Left Animation and LA (And How I Transitioned into Freelance)

As a child, the idea of what I wanted my dream job to be would change a lot. I had wanted to be a teacher, a scientist, a mad scientist, a novelist, an architect (for a fleeting moment), and then I learned about the artists who make animated films. I then set my sights on that magical idea, with more passion than any idea that came before it. I was so determined to be an animation artist that I started pursuing it “for real” at age 15 when, for an afternoon, I shadowed my mom’s friend, Jane Wu, a storyboard artist. I felt I had to work in animation, and I did it too. I had four internships before I graduated college and before my senior year was finished, I had a job lined up to work as a visual development artist at Sony Pictures Animation.

The thing is, I had grown up.

I mean, obviously I had grown up. I wasn’t 15 anymore, I was 21. What I mean is, I realized during college that… I might actually not want to work in animation. I don’t say this to sound ungrateful because I was grateful, so grateful for the opportunity to have a place to land (with a paycheck) directly after college.

Through my years in college I grew, and found my voice. The reason I was so passionate about working in animation was not the industry, or the art form, but the stories. I realized while growing up that I had stories to tell, and what I learned during my internships, is that it is very difficult to tell you own stories, especially as a woman in that industry. Not to say it’s impossible but I soon found it was not the industry best suited for me to tell my stories, exactly how I want them to be told. But I already had a leg up and was enviably farther down the line than most. I felt guilty that maybe this incredible opportunity wasn’t for me… I also felt guilty that maybe I was taking up someone else’s space, someone who really wanted it.

I moved to LA, I worked my ass off in feature films at Sony Animation. During this time, my personal animated documentary was being shown in film festivals across the globe, it had won an award and I had my first picture book bought (If Sharks Disappeared). I was also beginning to write more books during my off time. It became increasingly clear to me that I was not meant to work a desk art job in Los Angeles. I had stories to tell.

During this time my mental health began to deteriorate. Living in LA, the traffic got to me, the culture got to me, the lack of trees got to me, I was beaten down by little comments that slowly ate away at my sense of self, until finally… I reached a breaking point. My mental health was so unraveled at this point that I could barely leave the house to go to work. My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder had so completely taken over my brain that I had no idea where one thought started and the other stopped. The people who knew me had no idea, I kept it together around them and fell apart when I was home. I remember lying in bed at 9 am when I was supposed to be at work just hoping they would fire me for not showing up because I couldn’t take it anymore. I had no idea at the time what was going on, that I had endometriosis that was slowly making my body stop functioning properly, and that my OCD was making my head feel like I needed to die. Not knowing any of this, I felt like I was being an ungrateful child… so many people would love this job, and I could barely show up for it.

While I was working at Sony they experienced massive structural changes due to that infamous hack in 2014. I was let go, then told “just kidding, you are staying” only a few days later. Then I was told that I would probably be let go in a few months when my current project ended (a common occurrence in animation). I had been thinking about leaving LA for a while now, moving back home with my parents and seeing if I could land a job in San Francisco. I had been applying to jobs constantly (in LA and SF) so that I could have somewhere to land when I inevitably rolled off this project or the next one, but nothing panned out.

I am explaining this because, though it is not Sony’s fault, these are symptoms of the animation industry that I experienced. Job instability (never knowing when you’d be let go), working for a large corporation (and all that comes with that), even the little “quirks” of LA (like that it’s considered normal to drive over an hour to work each way), are all a part of the animation job that you unknowingly sign up for when you work in the Hollywood film industry. If you are one of the small percentages that work in a different city, a smaller studio, or are a freelancer, you might not have to deal with this. Every industry has its pros and cons and you have to decide if those are worth it for you personally. For me, with my daily internal battles, the daily battles of the animation industry were too much.

When I was told that I’d be let go in a couple of months, it finally clicked for me, I needed to get out. I needed to get my life in order because my brain was feeling like a hoarder’s room of unending thoughts. I called my mom in the middle of the night, and all of that unspoken frustration and fear about my job, my body, my brain, all spilled out of me. After a hard conversation, we decided I needed to move home when my job ended.

I left animation because, I needed to tell my own stories. That is how I frame it when you ask me and I am being polite. But, if you want to get into it, I was so broken when I left LA that I thought myself beyond repair. I look back at that time being only dark fog and sadness.

It is not the animation industry’s fault that I was not built for the steady pace of a 9-6 job in a booming city that was not able to help someone like myself thrive. I am meant to be a freelancer. I am meant to be able to go to therapy mid-day, to workout at 3 pm if I feel like it, and email for a few hours before working all afternoon and stopping for dinner. I am a self motivated structured person meant to instruct my own life, just like I was meant to tell stories, untouched by the producers in the animation industry (as they would have been if I had stayed).

When I left LA in April, I had one book deal but no other opportunities. By September I had three more book deals. I didn’t anticipate any of these projects, they seemingly fell out of the sky. Looking back I know they didn’t, I had been planting the seeds for them over the years.

I have freelanced in animation since, but I mostly work in publishing now from my home office in Colorado. I have an award-winning series of nonfiction picture books (If Animals Disappeared) and graphic novels forthcoming (Go With The Flow, Exposures), my mental health is back on track and in 2018 I underwent invasive LAPEX surgery for my endometriosis. I really do believe, now more than ever, I was meant to tell my stories. I was meant to be an author and illustrator.

If I am not meant to do this forever, then so be it, I will find my way. But telling my stories is what I do now and I am so happy to be doing it.

When asked why I left LA, the answer is convoluted and unclear. I have no path for people asking me how I transitioned “so smoothly” from animation to publishing. I have no answers and no direction to point them to… my path was a damn mess because life is a damn mess. All I knew was that I had to follow the scrambled path that was laid out before me.

To me, success equals happiness and health. If anything, this whole experience taught me that when I find happiness and health, the rest will line itself up.

Xo,