Emigrating into Animation in Sydney

G’day! In this episode, I speak to Debbie Steer who is an Animation Producer based in Sydney – currently busy revitalising the hand-drawn industry in Australia.

We became friends 13 years ago as struggling filmmakers in Manchester, England.

Debbie shares her story of first making the decision to move to Australia and 3 weeks later finding herself actually in Australia! 

My favourite part is when she shares her mindset towards decision making.

Debbie claimed she was good at making decisions. I was very intrigued to hear somebody say that and was excited to hear her process. And what do you know? It was obvious – and I’m so glad Debbie made me notice it.

Listen to the full conversation on audio or read selected excerpts below.

So, how did you get your job in Australia [in 2008] while living in England?

I mean, it was really random, and not something that, you know, many people would be able to relate to. But basically, it boiled down to a friend of my mother’s – her best friend, in fact. Her brother-in-law owned a visual effects studio in Australia. And she said to me, you know, if you ever wanted to do an internship there, we could probably arrange it. And I didn’t really think much of it at the time, because I thought, well, ‘How the hell do I even get to Australia?’ 

So, it was only like a year after she told me, that I actually followed up and went, ‘Actually, I would really love to go and do that.’ We were making our own films at the time [in England] but this was a company that was actually making movies I’d heard of, and I thought, ‘I want to give that a shot.’ So I contacted the family friend, and I said, ‘Hey, do you remember a year ago…?’ And they were like, ‘Yep!’ And so they just forwarded my email straight to the CEO of this company in Australia. And he replied and said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure. Where is she?’ And I replied..

…13,000 miles away!

[Laughs] So, like, within a week, I had a Skype interview. And I actually wasn’t successful. During the interview, I was really stupidly nervous. The producer felt that I was very, I was ‘too indie,’ too independent. And she just felt that I might not work out in a bigger studio. And so I’m feeling really disappointed and really kind of dejected. You know, ‘My one shot…’

Then I just emailed him back and said, ‘Hey, thanks so much for the opportunity. It seems like I wasn’t the right fit.’ And he went, ‘Oh, hold on.’ And then he just pinged my email to another producer at the same company. And this guy, Michael, he called me up and said, ‘Hey, I just got your CV, and I’m really interested. I’ve actually got an opening in a couple of weeks.’ And I said, ‘I’m in the UK,’ and he went, ‘Okay, three weeks?’ 

[Laughs] And then he said, ‘Okay, I’ll set up an interview with my production manager.’ He was asking me to start again, I was going to get a production assistant role. And I said, ‘That’s fine.’ I’m used to kind of jumping around, you know, when you’re trying to get through the door, you kind of have to take a few steps back.


I was on tenterhooks waiting for this introduction to the production manager, and then a week passed, and no email and I was like, ‘Oh, right. [Another rejection?] So I emailed him and I said, ‘Hey, Michael, you know, I was just following up on that meeting with the production manager.’ And he went, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Just come.’

What? Nice!

And that was it. So I actually never got a formal interview for this job. Luckily, there’s loads of things that fell into place for me, but I really had to get going. And, luckily, you know, my partner at the time, Jay, he was quite willing to take all my stuff and store it and like, you know, look after it.

You remember – we had loads of equipment, I had my own business. And at the same time, because I was exploring other avenues, from indie filmmaking, I’d actually started a job at a film company. I was only there for like, two weeks when I had to resign. And that job was gonna go pretty well, I think. But in the end, I just decided to take the risk and go to Australia.

Wow – awesome!

That’s how I arrived on these shores. Yeah, I mean, a lot of things were very serendipitous. You know, like, I was in my late 20s and so very much on the cusp of not being eligible anymore for working.

So, just listening to that first part of your story, I noticed one big lesson. And I wonder if people relate to this, but something that you did, you mentioned it twice: the follow up emails because the trail kind of went cold, but you followed it up. The first time you followed up to say, like, ‘Thank you. Sorry, it didn’t go well’. And then the guy said, ‘Actually, let me pass you on to this other producer.’ Right? 


And then you have the call with the other producer, and then nothing came about. So then you followed up again, and said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ So that’s key, even though it sounds really obvious. A lot of us don’t do that. I don’t do that. And I wonder how many people noticed that? Did you notice that those were key things? Was that always part of your personality to follow up and to chase?

Um, I think it started, once I decided that I wanted to get into the industry into bigger productions. Before that, I don’t know. I think I was just trying to be, you know, conscientious of being appreciative of their attention. But at the same time, there’s a fine balance between being annoying, and, you know, getting your way. I mean, I’ve had many doors closed on me. That first time, I said, ‘Thank you. It didn’t go well.’ That was really just a thank you. Because I was really appreciative of someone that high up, even bothering to read my email, like, you know, you can imagine how busy he was. And the second time, yeah, but the second time, I kind of felt like, I already had the job. So I was like, ‘Hey, if you do want to offer me that role, I really need to start packing.’ 

So yeah, I think, generally, I would always – especially if it’s a lead like that – I always do stay on it. But at the same time, there is that fine line. You know, don’t piss them off, as well. You can be too eager and too in their face. And that can sour things quite quickly. It’s actually something that I’ve really kind of figured out recently. Those first few impressions [you’re projecting], that person is going to think that’s your personality. So you have to be really in tune with the kind of person that you’re dealing with and how busy they are. And, you know, just make sure that you don’t overwhelm them or make your presence annoying.

And having been on both sides – you’re probably the same, I’ve been, you know, chasing a job and I’ve also advertised jobs and hired – when I’m on the other side receiving, I know that I always respond to people who chase. Even though I know that, when I’m on the chasing end, sometimes I’m reluctant to chase. It’s a weird thing. How do you feel about that?

I agree,  it’s one of those things. The people who do chase, you kind of have to reply to them. You’re representing a brand, be it yourself or the company you’re working for. And there’s a certain politeness out of it, but you have to follow through. In saying that, now I do get quite harassed. And at some point, you kind of have to just forward it to HR most the time. But if I feel like I’ve dealt with that person before, and they’re getting back to me again, it’s not new information, and I’d probably pretty much just have to just file it away and go, ‘Okay, yes, I know you’re there.’ So it does get tricky right now because I hire a lot of people now. 

Do you have a motto or a set of rules that you live by today that you’ve developed over the years?

I have a few. I started off with quite a set ideal of where I wanted to head, but there are always crossroads, you know, a job offer here or a rejection there. And I think whenever I’ve had to contemplate a really hard decision, I realized that whichever choice you go for, there’s never a right and wrong choice. It’s not as black and white as you’d think. There’s pros and cons for each choice. So you kind of just weigh those up.

I don’t dwell on it for too long. Because I think that if you do, you’re gonna end up sitting there going, ‘Oh, did I make the right choice? Did I choose the right path?’ Just make a choice that you feel the most comfortable with right now and then just don’t look back. Because if you start looking back, that’s when you start getting regrets. And you know, the grass will always look greener [on the other side], because you haven’t gone down that path. You don’t know what would have happened if you did, and you never will. So I find it quite easy to make decisions. A lot of people struggle but… 

Interesting! I want to know more about that. Why do you find it easy to make decisions?

I don’t think my past has been straight. I think it’s very zig-zaggy. And it’s like every experience is going to be beneficial. So, you know, just feeling like you’re moving forward and you’re learning something new is more important than making the exact right choice at that moment.

Okay. You said before that you started with a set idea where you wanted to head. What was your idea? Where did you want to head? 

Well, obviously that idea’s evolved over the years as I understood the industry more, but I think from the very beginning when I was really young, it was down to the kind of shows I was watching on TV.

I thought it was directing, I actually thought that’s what I wanted to do, you know, to kind of choose what happens on screen and how the actors act and things like that. So I kind of went down that for a while, but actually didn’t find much satisfaction in directing. And realize that producing was more what I was going for because I wanted to, you know, even before then make the choices about who’s gonna direct and who’s going to act.

What do you do now?

I’m a supervising producer for animation. And basically that means that I supervise other producers who work on shows at the moment, I have two TV series running at the same time. And I have a producer under me for each one. And they run the actual series day to day and I just look after it in terms of, you know, ‘Is it heading in the right direction?’ and supervise them and their teams.

How long did it take you to go from intern to supervising producer?

I’ve been supervising for a year now, I guess. 

And are you a permanent resident now? Are you an Australian citizen?

I’m an Australian citizen as well.

And what are some of the projects you’ve done that you’re most proud of?

So, the most recent one is called Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We’re on the second season now. So, this kind of work is done half at Nickelodeon in the US and half in Australia. Yeah, so we work with Nickelodeon to create the animation for that show.

And it’s all hand drawn. The pride comes from the fact that there was not really any kind of hand drawn industry in Australia for a very long time. And we kind of rebooted it. I think there used to be a Disney Australia back in the old, traditional paper animation days. And a lot of the people I work with, you know, did things like Lion King 2 – and like, all of the direct-to-TV or DVD stuff – all really beautifully animated.

And once Disney shut shop in Australia in, I think, 2006, or something like that, there’s not really been any kind of industry in that kind of style of animation since and we reset that up with this show. And now we’ve got two shows running now with about 120 people.

Wow, what an achievement! What a career you’ve had. 
When you first moved to Australia, did you see it as a risk?

What’s that kind of personality where you’re like a high risk taker? [laughs] I mean, one of the key things for me is that I don’t find moving that much of a big deal. And I don’t find uprooting a huge deal, because we did it a lot in Brazil when I was younger. And so, making new friends, being in a brand new situation, it really wasn’t a big deal for me. It was an adventure, I see it as fun.

Yeah. All right. So just to cap off decisions. You feel that you’re a good decision maker. What do you see from others who don’t make such good decisions? Why is that the case? Why do people make bad decisions?

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad decision. I think that you have to weigh the pros and cons for each. If you’re making choice A or choice B. What I do versus someone who makes a bad choice is that I don’t look back and think about choice B too much. I just kind of keep moving forward. Because if you keep ruminating and going around it’s actually quite useless really, isn’t it? It’s such a waste of time. 

I love that. so simple and so obvious. Because once you’ve made a decision, it’s only a bad decision if you compare it to what …

…the other one. 

Yeah, the other one! Like, it’s past. I love it! So if you don’t compare it, then it’s not a bad decision. It’s just on your path and you just continue.

Yeah. And you don’t know what the other decision would have been. I mean, who knows? Like, unless you’ve got a twin who took the other one [laughs].

…yeah, in a parallel universe or something. But in this universe, you can only go forward.

Check out the full episode for the rest of the conversation.

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