Advice from DreamWorks Film Director Steve Hickner, Author of “Animating Your Career”

Whether you’re seeking a filmmaking career in animation or live-action, the book “Animating Your Career” is a chock full of excellent career advice written by DreamWorks Animation film director Steve Hickner. Hickner’s wide range of experience spans the animation film gamut as director for “The Prince of Egypt” and “Bee Movie,” and storyboard artist on “Over the Hedge,” “Madagascar,” “Shark Tale,” “Shrek Forever After,” and “Antz.” Hickner began his career at Walt Disney Animation Studios, then moved to Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation where he worked as a producer for “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” and “Balto.”

Below, read an excerpt from “Animating Your Career” through which Hickner discusses a key tip for aspiring filmmakers: demonstrating a positive attitude. Visit the website for “Animating Your Career” for more information.

Filmmaking advice from DreamWorks Animation director Steve Hickner.

Filmmaking advice from DreamWorks Animation director Steve Hickner.

Advice from DreamWorks Director Steve Hickner


When I was living in London and working for Steven Spielberg, the studio was so new that we had to hire almost 200 employees. During our search for talent, I realized that I valued a particular character trait even more than technical proficiency. The magical component that is so important that it supersedes the benefits of a high IQ or brilliant talent is … Attitude.

In addition to self-control, self-determination, and persistence, attitude is another one of those jewels that we possess that is independent of our DNA. While we may not be able to make ourselves smarter on a daily basis, we can influence our job outlook and mood. Deciding to bring a great attitude into each work situation is perhaps the single most important decision you can make. There is no simpler way to improve your odds of career longevity than by being known as a person who brings enthusiasm to the office.

Kelly Asbury, the director of” Shrek 2,” “Gnomeo and Juliet,” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” has a great reputation for being fun to work with. And guess what? He is always in demand. No sound engineer has to duck a flying coffee mug on a Kelly Asbury film—although I have heard tales of such insanity taking place on other people’s movie sets. As a producer, I hired dozens of artists and production crewmembers, and I always chose the person with the best attitude if the decision was a close one.

I can teach someone the technical requirements of a job, but I cannot teach someone to have a good attitude. I have witnessed both excellent and poor attitudes in the work environment and in college classrooms, and I know that being around a worker or student who is negative impacts the dynamic for the entire group. When the situation calls for creative collaboration, having a healthy environment is essential and the candidate who is eager to help is the kind of person that I want beside me in the foxholes.

I have worked alongside (“Shrek,” “Shrek 2,” “Chicken Run” producer)  Jeffrey Katzenberg for over half of my career and I can attest to the fact that you are unlikely to find anyone with a more positive attitude. Katzenberg has been one of the most successful studio executives over the past few decades and he considers enthusiasm such an important attribute for a career aspirant that he places it on par with the pursuit of excellence. In a May 2008 speech to graduates of the Ringling College School of Arts he said, “Whatever you do, do it really, really well and with lots of enthusiasm. …. And if you’re the one putting maximum energy into whatever you’re doing, not only will you move ahead on your path more quickly, but you will be more engaged and have more fun along the way. And I promise—you will stand out.” Not everyone, however, is naturally gregarious or outgoing. In such circumstances, there is another trick to employ: ACT


Advice from DreamWorks Director Steve Hickner


Cary Grant is considered the epitome of the suave, sophisticated gentleman, but according to Grant, his persona was something that he developed over time. He once said,

“I don’t know that I’ve any style at all. I just patterned myself on a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward, and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point. It’s a relationship.”

(Richard Schickel, “The Acrobat of the Drawing Room,” Time Magazine January 26, 2007).

When I arrived in London to work as an associate producer on “An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West,” I was worried that I would not be gregarious enough to serve as a leader for the large crew. In order to do the best job, I decided that I would play the part and force myself to be much more outgoing than I actually was.

Several months into the production, I was working alongside one of the department supervisors when she remarked that she was impressed by how energetic and enthusiastic I always seemed to be. I confided in her that my whole demeanor was an act—I was quite shy and I was just pretending to be extraverted. She looked at me incredulously and replied, “No, you’re not. I’m here with you for ten hours a day, and you are always enthusiastic. Nobody could act for that long. That’s the way you are.”

As I listened to her words, I realized that she was right. I was outgoing. I had acted the part for so long that I had become what I was pretending to be. Just as Cary Grant had said, at some point the acting gave way to actual behavior. Anyone can do it. The only prerequisite is that you must possess the desire to change. Once you start practicing having a great attitude, each successive day will become easier. Before you know it, you will be the person that everyone points to as the one they want on their team.

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Author: Mani O'Brien

Mani O’Brien is the Online Editor for the FIDMDigitalArts Blog and the Social Media Marketing Manager for FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in print journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Arizona State University in 2006, and Associate of Arts degree in Graphic Design (Professional Designation) at FIDM in 2010. When she’s not brainstorming social media marketing ideas or writing about the graphic design and digital media, she enjoys practicing yoga, reading magazines, and hanging out with friends and family in Los Angeles.

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