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Top North American Cities For Animation Careers

Written by Robin WildingSeptember 11, 2012
North America
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Animation is an exciting, dynamic and growing field—and good thing, because there are plenty of aspiring animators anxiously waiting in the wings to become the next Chuck Jones. But where exactly are all these animators going to be absorbed into the industry? 

Well, animation jobs tend to gravitate towards artistically focused epicenter cities that cater to entertainment sectors—like film and gaming—so living and learning in Bummsville, USA (population: 37) likely won't cut it if you want to be a successful animator.

So where should you live if you want a successful career in animation AND an overall happy life? Well, a number of cities offer exciting career prospects and inspirational atmospheres:

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1. San Francisco Bay Area, California
It’s no secret that San Francisco is an artistic hub in the US. It is home to some of the most enduring performing-arts companies in the country, like the San Francisco Opera (the second-largest opera company in the US), the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet. This artsy city is also home to groovy art venues like Beach Blanket Babylon and the Orpheum Theatre, both of which draw a certain type of refined artistic crowd.

But SF isn't just an artsy town, it's also the home of the country's technological innovation sector...Silicon Valley. When San Francisco experienced the tech explosion in Silicon Valley some of its artists saw an opportunity to combine the city's two passions: art and technology, and jumped into animation head first. Shortly after, others jumped on the bandwagon and San Fran became a major hub for some of the country's most artistically talented animators. Some of the world's biggest animation firms, including Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic, saw the burgeoning talent pool and made the city their home base.

What landed San Francisco such a primo spot on this list are its choices. You've got throngs of animation jobs all around the area, and tons of great little cities from which to choose to live. Across the bridge from SF, in Emeryville, you've got Pixar and EA. Down the road in Redwood you've got a DreamWorks and another branch of EA (the area's second largest employer, after Oracle), and there's there Capcom gaming in San Mateo. And the majors aren't the only one putting the area's talent base to work, in recent years a number of pop-up boutique studios have stabilized in the area, providing even more animation employment.

Not only are there jobs-a-plenty in San Francisco, it also has one of the highest levels of quality of life in the country—that is for those who can afford the post-gentrification prices. Real estate prices in San Francisco's core are high, but a great investment—which is why many people head for the hills since the cost of living in nearby suburbs and cities is significantly lower. Many animators choose to stick around San Francisco though, even if the gentrification and the high prices it causes do drive up the cost of living. The cost of living in one of the country's best cities is acceptable to many re-locating animators thanks to the area's cream-of-the-crop talent-seeking employers that have driven salaries sky high—big fish employers from the Dot-Com and Web 2.0 eras that made the city home of their HQs, including: Craigslist, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zynga, Salesforce.com and the Wikimedia Foundation.  Due to the cost of living and competing local salaries, local animation studios pay a premium for top talent to relocate to the area, with salaries running from the low $90,000 to $110,000—the highest average in the country.

SF has become a popular home for the well-paid employees of major animation studios like Dolby Laboratories, Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm and LucasArts. These career-driven animators have flocked to the city for its laid-back lifestyle, hippy-esque-yet-upwardly-mobile population, year-round warm weather, beautiful nature and never-ending inspiration. 

While studios in the area are always on the look out for the nation's hottest talent, not all talent has to be head-hunted from out of state; there is a large, local talent pool from which area studios can recruit. A pool created from the steady stream of graduates coming from the Academy of Art University (#33 on our list of the top 100 animation programs around the globe) in the heart of SF, Ex'pression College for Digital Arts (#67) in Emeryville, CalArts (#2 on our list) down in Valencia and the Gnomon Institute of Visual Effects (#21) in relatively-nearby Hollywood.

While many of you likely thought LA or NY would steal the number one spot, the quantity of jobs available, the high salaries and chilled-out artistic atmosphere (which is far more suited to wacky animators than Rodeo Drive) earned the bay our top spot. But LA wasn't far behind...

2. Los Angeles, California
LA defines the title World-Class City and is renowned as being the entertainment capital of...well, the planet. What can we say about LA that you don't already know? Dreams are made or broken here—just ask your waiter. And while restaurants are staffed with wannabe actors, animators coming to the city have a significantly better shot at the big time due to all the major players in the industry who call LA and the surrounding area home.

The list of production houses within the LA borders is by far the longest on this list, and includes Disney, MGM, the Motion Picture Corp of America, EA LA (their primary location), Sony Pictures Imageworks, Hasbro, DreamWorks, Acme Filmworks, Acorn Entertainment, Animax Entertainment, Bill Melendez Productions, Fred Wolf Films, Klasky Csupo, Renegade Animation, Rhythm & Hues, the Ebeling Group, Nickelodeon, Prana Studios, Ring of Fire, The Cartoon Network, Film Roman, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures Animation, FOX TV Animation, Bento Box Entertainment, Crest Animation, IM Digital (Image Movers), the ABC Family/Walt Disney, Abby Lou Entertainment, Blur Studio, Inc., Children's Media Productions, Chiodo Brothers Productions, Crest Animation Studios, DIC Entertainment, Digital Domain, Enoki Films, U.S.A, Film Roman, Inc., Foothill Entertainment, Inc., Gracie Films, The Jim Henson Company, Hyperion Studios, Kurtz & Friends, Liquid Light Studios, Live Wire Productions & VFX, Lee Mendelson Film Prodictions, Motion City Films, Multimedia Unsigned Records, Nelvana Communications, Inc., New Hollywood, Orbit Productions, Pacific Data Images (PDI), Pix N Stones Productions, Playground Media (VFX), PorchLight Entertainment, Puppet Studio, Pyros Pictures, Inc., Reality Check, Inc., Rhythm & Hues Studios, Ruby-Spears Productions, Six Foot Two Productions, Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Television, TLC Entertainment, Threshold Entertainment, TMS Entertainment, Toon Makers, Inc., 20th Century Fox Animation, Universal Cartoon Studios, Wild Brain, Inc., Fred Wolf Films, Mike Young Productions, Inc., and—surprisingly—many more.

The city of angels is a true mecca for animators, with thousands of aspiring animators drawn to the city each year and recruited into the world's top animation studios. And why wouldn't they be drawn here (drawn—get it? A little animation pun)? The quality of life in LA is quite good, although highly varied since the exact level is highly dependent on your chosen neighbourhood, socio-economic status and whom you hobnob with.

Every animator has their reason for residing in the City of Angels, some flock to the city primarily for its available animation jobs, other for the temperate warm weather and beautiful coastlines, while others come to rub elbows with celebs and powerful elite that practically own the city. Others come for the wine. And a select few, for Disney. 

Those lucky enough to score positions with the large animation firms in the area get to work with the top animators and producers in the industry and attend some of the world's best premiers and parties.

Now time for the only major downside of living in and around the animation metropolis: the traffic. Well, the brutal traffic AND sky-high prices. The traffic and high prices are the reasons why many decide to locate to the quiet suburbs, like family-friendly Orange County, Brentwood and Sherman Oaks while others can stand the prices and crowds and opt for the more riveting Silver Lake, Echo Park and downtown core.

Now that we've made our way to talking about money...Quality of life for an animator—or anyone for that matter—in LA comes down to salary and creativity. The lower the salary the higher your spending creativity needs to be. Luckily—animators are naturally creative. Animator salaries in LA can range anywhere from the mid $60,000s to low $100,000s, with the average floating in the high $70,000s mark, a decent salary and definitely liveable, although this salary combined with the overall cost of living means that your first few years in the city will likely be tough. Those who stick it out however, swear there is no better place to work in the industry, and the wages do get better.If you're thinking about relocating try this LA-based relocation calculator.

If you are considering relocating—be warned: transplants aren't the only ones vying for the coveted studio jobs. There is a great pool of local candidates that graduate from the city's many, many, many post-secondary institutions. Many of which focus on the entertainment industry. The cream of LA's animation-education flock are those coming from CalArt's animation program—a program that we ranked #2 on our list of the Top 100 Schools for Animation, Gaming and Design. The Gnomon Institute of Visual Effects (#21) in Hollywood is of course another popular recruiting ground for the majors looking for fresh young talent.

3. Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver British Columbia is half of Hollywood North (the other half being its biggest competitor: Toronto), the outfit responsible for stealing much of Hollywood's production work. But hey, if you can't beat em—join em! You certainly wouldn't be the first.

Vancouver has been a hot spot for the continent's top animation talent for years. It is a key factor in helping reverse the Great Canadian Brain Drain by attracting some of the world's top animators to its temperate climate, beautiful beaches, sick slopes and stunning mountain range. For anyone not familiar with Vancouver, imagine if LA and San Fran had a love child that was raised in Alaska.

The Vancouver entertainment industry is not only an important player in Canada, it is also the third largest entertainment industry in North America (after LA and NY), and brings in over a billion dollars annually to the city.

Vancouver's strong film, animation and production industries' success—and the number one complaint from competing American companies—is partially attributed to heavy government subsidies that ensure its continued attractiveness to American and global TV and movie makers. These subsidies have almost single-handedly coerced many US states into issuing similar tax credits, in hopes of competing.

Vancouver's animation and game development market is continually growing as more and more studios tap into BC's talent, but hundreds of studios have already made it their home, including: Vancouver Film Studios, North Shore Studios, Western X, Pixar Canada, Digital Domain, Prime Focus, the Moving Picture Company, Leviathan, GFZ Studios, Tinderbox, Stargate Digital, The Embassy, Luv VFX, Five VFX, Method Studios, Rainmaker Animation, Image Engine, Atmosphere Visual Effects, Artifex, Digital Alchemy, Anthem Visual FX, Atomic Cartoons Inc., Bardel Entertainment Inc., Barking Bullfrog Cartoon Company Inc., Bowes Productions, Inc., Atomic Cartoons Inc., Pork and Bean Productions Inc., Ooga Booga Studio Inc., Rainmaker Animation, Moving Images Distribution, Natterjack Animation Co. Ltd., Nerd Corps Entertainment, Global Mechanic, Hot Dog Day Entertainment Inc., Mercury Filmworks, MindMill Studios, Monkey Paw Media, Inc., Capcom, EA, Ubisoft, Radical Entertainment, Piranha Games, Big Par, Nintendo Canada, United Front Games and oh so many more. 

Pixar believed so strongly in the Vancouver film, animation and production industries that it made its second HQ there, a 2,000sq meter facility (meters, that's right...kooky Canadians use the metric system) equipped with a state-of-the-art studio.

Industry opportunities in Vancouver are practically endless and the quality of life extremely high thanks to the constant stream of events, art and culture centers, endless outdoor activities, diverse population and great shopping. Oh and it's a great 'foodie' town. Quite frankly, the city could give LA a run for its money if it paid its animators a little more. The average salary for their animators varies, from  $32,000-$75,000 annually, which is below the standard for most other cities on the list. Vancouver is also a fairly expensive city—although nowhere near LA, thankfully.

Regardless of the somewhat mediocre salaries in Vancouver, many animators have still chosen to move north—along with the work attracted by fat Canadian subsidies. Once there though, transplants still have to fight the local grads pouring out of the top-notch local schools—a tough task considering how many there are. Award-winning animation schools and programs in and around Vancouver, include: the Emily Carr University of Art and Design (#94), LaSalle College International Vancouver (#88), the Art Institute of Vancouver (#42), the prestigious Vancouver Film School (#16), Capilano University (#13) and the highly-ranked Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts) (#11).

4. New York, New York (Ace & Son Moving Picture Co.)
You knew we couldn't possibly make this list without citing an extremely obvious choice—New York City. NYC is not only the cultural capital of the country—it is also one of the top cultural capitals of the world. Tom Wolfe put it best when he said of New York, “Culture just seems to be in the air, like part of the weather.”

There is no lack of inspiration in The Big Apple, which is the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, Hip Hop and abstract expressionism (aka the New York School). Culture oozes from every pore in NY, with music, theatre and film all competing for the spot light. The city has over 2,000 arts and cultural organizations—and over 500 galleries, not to mention Broadway—a theater group consisting of the city's 39 largest 500+-seat theaters.

But artistic success in NYC goes far beyond Broadway—and the city is even more successful off-stage, as it has the second largest film industry in the country, an industry which provides jobs for over 60,000 people and stimulates the economy with over $5 billion a year. Outside of box-office successes NYC also boasts of the largest independent film scene in the country—and one of the largest on the planet for that matter.

Within its film and TV industries the city employs thousands upon thousands of animators, and an additional 2,500 professionals working in game design. And unlike some locales on this list, NYC's animators, game designers and programmers earn enough to afford them a decent life—with just enough spare change to soak up plenty of culture. The average salary for an NYC animator comes in at a healthy $76,000 a year.

Another reason many animators choose to come to NYC to pursue their dream is their studio preference. Unlike cities where the industry revolves around a few majors, New York's penchant for independent art means animators have their choice between large-scale, boutique and indie studios. This includes: Ace & Son Moving Picture Co., The Studio, Titmouse, Viacom, Nickelodeon, Abrams/Gentile Entertainment, Atlantic Motion Pictures, Buzzco Associates, Inc., Curious Pictures Corporation, 4Kids Entertainment, Inc., LOOP Filmworks, RHI Entertainment, Sesame Workshop, So! Animation and many more. There are hundreds if not thousands of small, independent studios, although many of these are being usurped by their larger counterparts—so one day you might wake up and your small studio is now owned by Atlantic.

While thousands of animators migrate to the Big Apple every year in hopes of becoming the next Friz Freleng, the city's schools produce more than enough animation grads to fill the halls of its illustrious studios. NYC has a number of highly-ranked schools, specifically, Parsons The New School for Design (#34), the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU (#26), Pratt (#82), and the illustrious School of Visual Arts (SVA) (#10)

If you are single, a mover and shaker, and your goal is to work for or own an indie studio then NY is a great place for you.

5. Toronto, Canada
Toronto is the other half of the dynamic Hollywood North duo. And if Vancouver is LA and San Fran's lovechild then Toronto is New York's twin sister. Toronto and NY have so much in common in fact that many movies that take place in NY are actually filmed in Toronto. Toronto also subs for Chicago.

The billion-dollar film industry in Toronto has been turning heads around the world for decades, and has become a major player in not only film but also in animation, production and post-production. If you doubt the city's success, just look at how many movies, TV shows and music videos are filmed there every year.

Thanks to the strong Canadian film-industry subsidies, NY often can't compete with its cheaper, twin-sister counterpart, making the city's biggest competitor Vancouver. Toronto has been vying with Vancouver for some time now for the third spot on North America's top film-industry cities. It is an on-going cat-and-mouse game but in the last couple years Toronto has come out on top due to a slight drop in BC's domestic production levels.

Helping Toronto's animation and film industry success is the internationally acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival. Many consider TIFF to be second in the world in terms of influence (—trailing Cannes of course). But culture in Toronto goes far beyond TIFF...Toronto is the cultural centre (that's how they spell center) of Canada. It hosts on- and off-Broadway performances, and is usually the first to host the country's biggest theater performances, bands, events, shows and other acts. It is also home to Canada's biggest museums, festivals, and galleries. During the summer the city is aglow with entertainment, as international events happen practically every week.

Helping shape the Toronto animation industry are the city's biggest studios, which include the likes of Alliance Atlantis, Nelvana, Pinewood Toronto Studios, CBC, CTV, the Global Television Network, YTV and MuchMusic (Canda's answer to MTV—although they still occasionally play music videos). Slightly smaller boutique studios making noise in the city include Alias Wavefront, The Animation House, C.O.R.E Digital Pictures, Crush Inc., Cuppa Coffee Animation, Guru, Loop Media, Magnetic North, Lightbox Animation Studios, The Post Group, Red Rover Studios, and oh so many more.

The endless list of major and minor studios in the area are fed by some of the top animation programs on the continent, including Ottawa's Algonquin College in Ottawa (#41), the Ontario College and Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto (#28) and Seneca College (#12). And of course, let's not forget the school that grabbed #1 on our list—Sheridan College, a program that needs no introduction to those in the industry, and whose grads are constantly scooped up by Pixar, Lucasfilm, DreamWorks SKG, Disney and the other majors.

Like Vancouver, Toronto's annually animator salaries vary greatly—ranging anywhere from $31,000 to $85,000, but like LA Toronto's cost of living depends greatly on neighbourhoods (get ready for random 'u's in words if you're going to move to Toronto!), so do your research before moving to the city.

6. Redmond (& Seattle), Washington
Somehow, Redmond—a small city 16 miles east of Seattle—has become a major hub for the animation industry. Its laid-back outdoor lifestyle has been attracting animation talent who seem to prefer the outdoorsy scene to bustling LA or NY and don't want to relocate to Canada.

Redmond attracts mainly outdoor-centric animators who still want to work for one of the country's majors, or one of the city's well-established boutique studios. 

Redmond was put on the map by computer giant Microsoft (including its renowned Microsoft Studios) when it decided to make this small suburban-esque city its home. Ever since other high-tech giants have stormed the area (get it?--rain...Washington State), including gaming legend Nintendo. MS and Nintendo have since become the area's two largest employers—both of which hire large quantities of animators annually. In addition to the two biggies, Redmond, and nearby Seattle host, a number of animation and gaming employers, including Big Fish Games and Adobe. Since the Redmond tech explosion, many boutique studios have carved out a place for themselves amongst the giant redwoods—small studios that provide unique work environments for animators looking to become jack-of-all-trade style animators. These small-scale studios include: Bungie, Digital Kitchen, Mixpo, Glu Mobile, Artitek Studios, Starfire Animation, Lilipip, A&J, and more.

The atmosphere of Redmond is far more “suburbany” than urban Seattle, but inhabitants enjoy the nature-oriented vibe, safety and family-friendliness over their more happening neighbor. Those who want a bigger city vibe than Redmond can offer choose to make the 20-minute commute from Seattle to Redmond in order to live closer to the city's attractions, like the Seattle Art Museum, the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center, Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium, symphony and ballet. Avid snowboarders, two-plankers and hikers generally stay in Redmond, forgoing the big city and commute for the more-expensive and upwardly-mobile Redmond—primarily for its closer proximity to the Summit at Snoqualmie of course, which is less than an hour from the Microsoft and Nintendo campuses.

Despite the rumour that the Seattle area is downtrodden with rain, residents are quick to inform you that they are outdoors nearly every day of the year due to the mild climate and great weather. No matter whether you make your home-base in Seattle or Redmond, you will be surrounded not only by nature, but also a vibe that feels as down-to-earth as it does homey thanks to the area's boutique shopping and small, family-owned restaurants.

Many of the area's animators have relocated to Redmond or Seattle from out of state, although some home-grown candidates do stick around the 'rainy' state after finishing at one of the local schools like The Art Institute of Seattle. The area's top breeding ground for animators is the Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond (#70), a school known for its video game programmers, small class sizes, heavy workload and high teacher expectations.

7. Chicago, Illinois
The windy city might not be the mecca of animation majors that culture centers like NY and LA are—but it has a well-established animation scene that caters to mid-western populations and corporations.

Chicago, somewhat shockingly has an entertainment pedigree. The city's art scene is led by the near-Broadway caliber theatre community, with Broadway- and off-Broadway events being held at the area's many theatres, like the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre, the Victory Gardens Theater, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the Bank of America Theatre, the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and the Gateway Theatre in Jefferson Park. When you combine all these theatres, shows, actors and events with smouldering Chicagoan wit you begin to understand how The Second City got their start here.

In addition to distinguished theaters and an established film community, the city is also home to a number of rooted boutique and corporate animation studios, including the ranks of WB Games (a division of Warner Bros), the Warner Bros Entertainment Group, Calabash Animation, AGA Digital Studios, Chicago Animation Studios, Joey Bluebird Studios, Tree House Studios and Digital Kitchen (one of its three locations).

Wondering if you're fit to animate in Chicago? Well—if you're too tough for NY and the Santa Ana winds aren't blustery enough for you, then Chicago might just be for you. If you draw much of your animation inspiration from being a theatre nut, then Chicago could definitely be for you. And if you're willing to take a punch for your local sports team—then Chicago will most certainly earn a place in your heart.

Animators looking to make a name for themselves by working hard and being better than their competitors will enjoy Chicago's cut-throat business scene. But you better have the business skills and ambition to climb your way to the top because the average entry-level salary for Chicago-based animators is just $68,000—enough for a comfy life in a great city but lacking some of the luster that salaries in other, more-acclaimed, cities can bring. 
If you're tenacious enough to tough it out in Chicago, you have a good variety of schools to get a solid animation education from. These cream-of-the-mid-western-crop schools include: DePaul University (#73), the college of the arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago (#62), and of course Chicago's famed Columbia.