The industry is small. Super small! There are tons of animators out there, but not that many studios. So it is inevitable that throughout the course of your career you are going to bump into people you've worked or studied with in the past, or know people that worked or studied with your colleagues. You know that game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? I am fairly sure the rules of that game would apply equally well to the animation industry. Almost every other day I find myself having a conversation with someone only to discover we both have mutual friends or colleagues we worked with years earlier. So having a good reputation is of paramount importance. Being professional, enthusiastic, hardworking and organized will get you very far. I once worked with an animator who believed talent should always override personality when looking for new hires. I firmly disagree with this. I would sooner take a less talented animator that is easy to work with and takes direction well, than an animator who animates excellently but doesn't gel well with the team or is difficult to deal with.
Networking implies, to some degree, that you make an effort to maintain contact with co-workers, or that you actively seek out individuals that are in some way connected to you and who can help propel your career forward. So for the sake of this discussion, when I refer to networking I am not talking about cold-calling, sending mass emails to the HR department of studios, or any other form of “telephone book networking”. To me, networking refers specifically to tapping your contacts, or people connected to your contacts.
The amount of effort you put into networking does not correlate with the amount of success you will have. If that were true then getting a job would be easy. But the reality is that you could tap a single contact for work and hit the jackpot. You've messaged the right person at the right time. The studio they work for needs people just like you, and all your positive traits become known to them very quickly. The next thing you know you have a job offer, all after just shooting off an email and a demo reel to the right person who knows you or knows of you. On the flip side, you could be an avid networker, keeping in touch regularly with friends who work in major studios, or HR personnel that have contacted you in the past. But if your timing is bad, or the right information about you doesn't travel to the right people, or anything about your reputation or the quality of your work doesn't impress the people hiring, then you could find yourself spending months to even a year looking for work.
So what does all this mean? If you don't have control over how smoothly and efficiently your networking efforts will be, then what do you have control of? Well, the answer is simple. You have control over yourself. Your behavior in the industry, your work ethic, skill level, and how well you get along with your co-workers and bosses, is what you can control. And truthfully, that is enough! You can survive without networking, and if you are really good at your job you can thrive without networking. Networking is simply a means to an end. It helps keep you active in the industry, but it is in no way the most important device at your disposal for finding work.
When I think back on all the animation jobs I've had, every one of them was through some sort of contact or referral from a connection I had. I wasn't consciously trying to network myself. I just happened to have a friend or a friend of a friend in the studio I was interested in. More often than not, this is enough. And this is often the case for most artists as they shift around from one studio to another. Most studios will tend to favor hires that have some sort of internal referral from people who have worked with the candidate. This is why your character is so important. Being a very small industry, word travels quickly about you and your work. But that isn't to say you need to always be trying to please everyone you work with. You should always try to be the professional version of yourself. You simply cannot control how people will react to you, and despite how professional you are, sometimes you'll rub people the wrong way and there is very little you can do about it.
Now for all the animation students reading this, you may need to rely more heavily on the quality of your demo reel rather than the contacts you have in the industry. Being new to the industry, you are automatically more limited in how far your networking can take you. But as I've explained, none of that really matters if you're a solid animator that's passionate about finding work.