A few years ago, I was invited to an internship fair at Parsons School of Design in New York City. I think these opportunities are not only an awesome way to network and meet young talent but an even better way to give back to the film community and stay involved.
I had been to these before, and it's pretty much the same drill. Set up shop at a table with the company logo and some "cool" swag to hand out to the kids (everyone loves a T-shirt). You're there for the day kissing hands, shaking babies, drinking coffee and gnawing on stale bagels. Good times!
By the third hour, I had accumulated approximately 30 student thesis films. One by one, the students came up to the table, sat down and asked if I'd be willing to watch their film. Most of them showcased the same techniques. 3-D characters with big heads and skinny legs or maybe a sad-looking big-headed dog with skinny legs.
I watched every single one with a smile. It's why I was there. I was recruiting, after all.
However, I left the event asking myself: "Was this worth the time?" And even more importantly, "How can I spot exceptional talent if the majority of the students are enrolled in the same curriculum and producing similar work?"
Little did I know, my entire perspective on recruiting talent would change that day.
As I was packing up, one last student approached the table. He seemed shy and unassuming. As he walked over, he gave me a head nod and apologized for coming late. He asked me if I had a moment to talk. I said sure.
I took my laptop back out of my bag and asked him if he had a thesis film he wanted me to watch. He looked at me, a bit embarrassed, and said he did not.
I said, "Do you have a portfolio to share with me?" He answered sheepishly, "I don't."
"Are you a 3-D artist?"
"Are you an animator?"
At that point I was thinking to myself, "What are you doing here then?"
Before I could get the words out, I noticed he was holding a small notebook.
He said, "It's just a sketchbook with some doodles. It's not for school."
When I asked to check it out, he looked hesitant. I assured him it was cool and told him to hand it over.
He gave me the notebook, and for the next 10 minutes I sat in awe of this kid's work. It was dark, twisted, vulnerable and borderless. It was art beating the snot out of commerce. It's the kind of stuff you might not show your therapist, let alone potential employers, but it's exactly what I needed to see. It's what everyone at these events needs to see.
The honest truth was that I had absolutely no clue what to do with this kid's talent, but I 100 percent knew in my gut that I needed him at my company. I told him to come by the office as soon as possible. He seemed shocked, but he was stoked. As was I.
About a week after he started, we won a job producing a high-profile music video. The client was looking for a specific illustration style that happened to look eerily like our new intern's. We threw him into the fire, and he nailed it. After the summer was over and his internship ended, I didn't wait to hire him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Until that moment, I had always come to recruitment events to find something specific. A 3-D modeler, a motion graphics artist, or whatever seats I knew I needed to fill to get the work done.
Don't get me wrong. Every student had specific skill sets. They probably worked hard and fulfilled their curriculum, but nothing screamed raw talent. And in a business as competitive as advertising or film, you need to stand out.
In all fairness, I too was going through the motions. I was being polite, but I wasn't doing anyone any favors by doing so. I wasn't asking the right questions. I wasn't challenging any of the students to show me more. I wasn't turning over any proverbial rocks.
That student's sketchbook changed the way I look at, and look for, talent. I now know you have to separate the talent and the tools. You can't always attach a software or a machine to a person. You can't fit talent into a box or a roster spot. If you want to find something and someone special, you have to be willing to make room for it. You have to invest in it. You need to have patience and courage.
Realistically, not everyone is going to be a superstar, but there's nothing wrong with looking beyond your comfort zone. You never know what you might find.