Sunday, November 10, 2013

Start: Lamont Hunt

Studio:   Freelance Animator/Illustrator
School(s):   ·University of Nebraska-Lincoln (BFA)
        ·Art Institute International-MN

“Hey Uncle Lamont, tell us a story!”

You wanna hear a story, huh.  Okay, how about a story about a journey and a dream that is still being pursued.

“Is this story gonna be about you, Uncle Monk?”

What???  No... of course not.  Now just listen.  There once was this kid who loved anything and everything animated. 

“Sure SOOOUNDS like you, Uncle.”

Your killin’ me, Smalls!  Now where was I? Oh yeah.  From the moment I, er…I mean, HE!!  From the moment HE started watching television to the times his family started taking him to the latest animated movie to hit theaters, this kid knew there was something about those moving drawings that HE wanted to be a part of. 

“This IS a story about you, Uncle Lamont!!” 

Yeah, is.  So what…it’s a story, now simmer down and listen. 

I decided that I wanted to draw better, soak up everything I could find about animation and do whatever I needed to do to get into an animation studio.  But not just any studio.  The Walt Disney Animation Studio was my dream goal.  Growing up, I was pretty alone in my dream.  My friends wanted to be doctors or sports stars or farmers, but I didn’t care.  This dream was mine to have and go after.

Now, most stories like this would tell you all about how this kid grew up, went to art school or made some film and got an internship at a studio, which led to a job as an animator at a bigger studio which then led to his life-long dream job…but that isn’t quite how this story goes.

MY idea of how my journey would go was not what ended up happening.  I had dreams of going to some well known colleges for animation, but a lack of money and self-confidence stopped me.  I decided to attend the University of Nebraska for art; illustration, drawing and graphic design.  I left there trained as a fine artist, but not trained on how to make money, and not really trained in how to continue my quest to become an animator.  After finishing college, I worked for a couple years in the Graphic Design world.  Then I went up to the Art Institute International – MN (AI) for computer animation.  And that was where I REALLY had my first taste of seeing my art “bounce” across the screen.  I had done one animation project while at Nebraska, but it was at this point that I knew this was my passion.  I had known that I wanted to animate, but there was just something about drawing on paper, shooting those drawings frame by frame into a camera and seeing it almost instantly bounce across the screen that resonated in my soul!  This was a HUGE moment in my life. 

Before this point, I had only focused on traditional hand drawn 2D animation; CG was not even on my radar.  I got my first taste of computer generated animation at Art Institute when I realized 2D jobs in the U.S. were getting scarcer and scarcer.  I went ahead and took classes for BOTH 2D and CG.  When I left AI, I went back into the work world doing some commercial freelance. 

Then my sister calls and says, “You should come to Taiwan.”

She had found me a job at a company in Taipei, Taiwan (a company my family had ties with), who were looking for an animator to help with some upcoming projects.  The work was in very limited animation that was used to help teach English on the company’s television shows.  It wasn’t the best animation, but I did my best to try and bring a higher standard to the project than what had been produced previously.  After a year and a half of living in Taiwan, I decided I wanted to try again to pursue my dream of film animation. 

So I moved back to the States and freelanced for a couple years, honing my craft, but not finding that the work was getting me closer to my dream.  At this point, I decided to finally make the move out to California, hoping that being around more animation studios, I would find more opportunities.  I felt that some L.A. studios overlooked my potential because I was not local. 

So in 2008, I moved to L.A. without a job, no place to live and very few contacts.  This was not the ideal way to do it, but it’s what I did.  About a month out in L.A., I found a job coaching gymnastics (something I had work experience in since about age 14).  So I had a job, but after some conversations with some recruiters and other executives in the animation world, I decided I really needed to get some more training in CG to get my demo reel closer to something that would allow me to reach my goals.  So I signed up with Animation Mentor.

I fully submerged myself in school for the 18 months, while coaching full time at a gym in Pasadena, CA.  I really tried to gain everything I could out of the school and the mentors.  In 2010 I graduated, and within 6 months I got a job at the Jim Henson Company.  I worked on “Sid, the Science Kid,” cleaning up motion capture and some small key frame work.  When my contract ended, I thought with this experience at Jim Henson, more studio jobs would follow.  But they didn’t.  I found a few freelance gigs, but nothing substantial.  And so, I was thrust back into the “wonderful” world of unemployment.

After a few months of freelancing, I was connected to Traceback Studio and the short film “One Per Person” (OPP) they were pushing into production.  I had seen many other short film projects looking for free animators, but with Traceback, I saw something different.  Their press release showed an organized group of people with a simple idea and what appeared to be a visually appealing film, so I applied to join the team.  Now, I want to be clear that I do not recommend aspiring animators work for free.  But for me, these people were really professional and wanted everyone they brought onto the film to gain experience towards dreams and goals.  I was brought on as an animator, but because of some technical issues and delays, I also helped out in layout for a short time.  Once shots were being handed out, I started busting through shots over about a year and half.  OPP will be hitting the festival circuit in 2014.

As I animated on OPP, I continued to work on my own personal work and demo reel, as well as looking for studio work and freelancing.  At this point, I still felt my skills and work were not at the level I wanted or needed.  It was during this time that I discovered a new animation “school” beginning in the summer of 2013 called AnimSquad.  They were offering online classes and in-person workshops.  It was the in-person workshop I was drawn to.  Also, I have to admit that having mentors who worked at Disney was a big draw.  I signed up and in May of 2013 I became a student again.  I could go on and on about my 12 weeks with AnimSquad, but I’m just going to say that next to my experience of seeing my early animation bounce on the screen for the first time, this was the biggest leap toward my dream and goals.  In the first few weeks, I stumbled and made MANY mistakes, but I also started to see WHY those mistakes were made and learned from them.  Nathan Engelhardt, my mentor for the workshop, helped immensely, causing some major switches to flip on in my animation, which then allowed me to produce some of my best work up to that time.  I believe FULLY that as great as online education can be, nothing beats in-person training.  I would not have had the same experience through a webcam and streaming classes.  Even though I feel like I’ve moved to a new level of animation, I know there is SOOO much more to learn in this industry.  As animators, we need to have those “A-HA” moments periodically in our careers and education.  Otherwise, we just become stale and we have no growth.

So… this brings us to the “now”.  The story of that little boy who was known by EVERYONE as “the kid who likes to draw cartoons” is continuing to be written. That journey he started all those years ago, well, it’s still being traveled.  And that dream he dreamt, well, I’m still dreaming it.  And you know what, this little dreamer has discovered his dream has multiplied and grown more and more as the years have past.  But this dreamer knows it isn’t about just reaching the dream, it’s about allowing yourself to enjoy the journey and allowing the dream to morph into things you never would have thought it could.  Disney hasn’t called yet, but I know that call is gonna happen!

Every good story has a moral or words of advice, and so does mine:

DO WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT IN THIS LIFE!!  If that is animation, then do all you can to reach whatever dream or goals YOU have in animation.  Your dream/goal is all yours.  It doesn’t matter what others think about it, it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are getting to those goals.  If you have a passion for something and you are on a journey TOWARD that passion, then just do it!  I just pray that each of you discover what you are passionate about and I can’t wait to hear the story of YOUR journey!

You can see Lamont's latest reel HERE.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Start: Matt Walker

Studio:  Sony Pictures Imageworks
School:  Ex'pression College for Digital Arts
             Animation Mentor

Before becoming a professional animator, I was a preacher at a wedding in a town that was about to be attacked by a pack of savage house cats!

Wait, WHAT?

That’s right… you heard me. I was five years old when I helped make the first film I would ever be a part of. Me, my older sister, my cousin, and his friend; we made a horror movie called Cats. My role in the film was to act as the dead body in the opening sequence, before we did a flashback to the wedding where it all started. I had no lines, but man, I was hooked! I had so much fun with them, creating this unbelievable story with stuffed toy cats flying from off screen to attack their victims. Granted, we were all under eleven years old, so the film wasn’t brilliant, but it was ours.

As you can see, being a filmmaker was instilled in me very early on; how you could create a story and tell it visually, and it would move an audience. After that film my sister and I tried to recreate the Goosebumps story, “The Haunted Mask.” Then, around age 8, I figured it was time I was the one in control of the story, so a friend and I made a movie about a couple members of the SWAT team and their new mission. It was just the two of us and a tripod. We had no means of editing, so we had to edit in-camera. Anytime we wanted to cut, we would have to add in a clever story moment that got one of us off camera so we could cut.

“Hey, why don’t you look for the bomb over there?”

Walk off camera.


As I got older, I think other things became a priority over making films. But that’s okay; you have to live your life in order to know what kinds of films to make. Besides, if you have a true love for this stuff, you’ll always come back around.

I was about 18 when I got back into film making via an internship at a local production house, who specialized in making casino and toy commercials. I learned everything from setting up lights, to building sets, and digitizing tapes. I learned a ton, but I figured if I really wanted to get good at this stuff, I needed to go to school.

I enrolled at Ex’pression College of Digital Arts. I would walk the halls and see the movie posters of Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and I would feel like: THAT is the stuff I want to be doing. But I was enrolled in the motion graphics program. Animation, to me, was the medium through which you could tell ANY story. That’s what I had been looking for all along. So I switched to the animation program.

A little ways into my time at Ex’pression, I was able to really hone in on what exactly I wanted to do — be a character animator in a feature film environment. I wanted to tell stories that would last. I also found out that those major studios wanted specialists; that is, someone really good at one thing. Ex’pression was a school for generalists; people with a rounded knowledge of all facets of a production pipeline. So I left Ex’pression and enrolled at I just felt at the time that while I had a blast at Ex’pression, AM would give me more of what I was looking for.

A couple years later, I got my first job in the industry as a specialized character animator. Was it on a major film? No, but it was for television, working on “The Penguins of Madagascar” for Nickelodeon. And it gave me a chance to spend a couple years living (newly married) in beautiful New Zealand! Not too shabby for a first job. I have to say that it was probably the perfect first job. Working in TV gave me a lot of practice fast! I was able to sharpen my skills because I was forced to be exposed to so many types of shots: broad, cartoony, dynamic, subtle. I believe that if it weren’t for New Zealand and the people I worked with, I wouldn’t be the animator that I am today. I learned so much there.

From there, I moved to Portland, Oregon and got a few short jobs in commercials. Again, very different from TV and learning new things all the time. I even had my first experience with live action plates.

After a few months in Portland, I got the call to move up to Vancouver, Canada to work at Sony Pictures Imageworks on my first feature film: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2!! I actually just finished working on it, and it was an amazing experience! I got to be a part of a film that I hope will be something special to people all over the world. The crew on Cloudy 2 was unbelievably talented and every day, I would see something in dailies that blew my mind! And it was amazing to watch the directors make decisions about the film. Every time I watched Kris and Cody make a call on something I would ask myself, “Okay, why did they decide that?” “What is being pushed forward with that decision?” I was trying to learn to be a better film maker every day. I would look at lighting and ask myself why they would be doing what they’re doing. Basically, for the last seven months, I’ve been a film sponge. And I’ve loved every minute of it!

Honestly, I don’t know what my next adventure will be, but I’m okay with that, because I know it’s going to be something I didn’t expect, and something I’m going to learn from. I’m going to be able to tell stories, and add my own story.

Advice for future animators:

1. Be prepared to continue your own studies.  School and work won't be enough, and it shouldn't be enough if you truly have a passion for this medium.

2.  Be prepared to move around a bit at the beginning of your career.  I've been working for about 2 1/2 years, and I've worked in three countries.  It's not easy and can be very, very stressful.  But if you look at it with a positive eye, it can be amazing.  I've lived in areas people dream of visiting.  That's quite a blessing :)

-Matt Walker

(I did the last shot with Steve and the Shrimpanzee :)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Start: Lukas Niklaus

Studio:  Framestore Montreal

School(s):  Animation Mentor

My name is Lukas Niklaus, and I am currently working at Framestore Montreal. The office here was opened up only months ago, and it is a fantastic team in a fantastic city.

Currently, we’re working on “All You Need is Kill,” which is going to be an action-packed sci-fi feature. It is nothing but humbling to see the work the people around me create; I really have learned to get used to the feeling, “soon they’re going to find out that I can’t animate, and then they’re going to throw me out of here!” But so far, I’ve kept my job, and I’m grateful for every day my key card still opens the office doors for me.

I am originally from Switzerland, where I grew up, attended school, and worked as a graphic designer for about 8 years.

I always felt that graphic design wasn’t the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and for quite a while I was searching for that one thing I’m “destined” to do.

Then, one day, I had a breakthrough. It was when I first started at a cool Event Agency. Our boss asked me and my creative director to learn this architectural CAD software to be able to create visuals of the events we were pitching to our clients. I soon realized, this 3D stuff is awesome!

I fell in love with it immediately, and more or less took over all the 3D jobs right away. I attended a course in Cinema 4D on my own in Zurich, and met up with a guy who had his own one man 3D business right in the town where I lived. I remember printing out the FAQ from Pixar’s job website and setting Pixar as my goal.

That was 6 years ago.

It is funny to look back now and realize that I had NO IDEA how far away from that goal I really was.

At that time, I was also very engaged in karate, which I had been practicing for over 12 years. I was doing a lot of competitions and even just made it into the national team the year before. But an injury forced me to pause for many months. So I searched for something to distract me while I couldn’t work out.

What I found was Animation Mentor.

And so my AM journey started in Fall 2008 with the Springboard class, and in January 2009, the actual program.

Looking back, I can’t tell you how much this changed e. It was there where I discovered the beauty of animation and the satisfaction to see your characters come to life. It was a fantastic but exhausting experience.

At some point during class 4, I started working out again with the same old intensity, and along with working on my job, where I was now head of the graphics department, and with AM, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I actually had a breakdown; my whole system just shut down at work and they had to bring me to the hospital.

After that, I made a choice: I wanted to keep on with karate, and I wanted to continue with school, so I reduced my time at work down to 60%. My dad was not happy with that. In the end, though, he saw my determination, and even told me to move back home again for the time being so that I could save some money. So I did the last half-year of AM like this, and it really helped me.

I traveled to the USA in Summer 2010 to attend my graduation and go to Siggraph the week before. It was there in LA where I met a recruiter from Pixomondo. I dropped off my reel and we talked very briefly. We got along well because we both spoke German, and about 2 moths later, they messaged me, telling me that they were opening up an office in Toronto, and wanting to know if I’d like to come over to work there. I jumped up, screamed, and messaged back — standing in front of my computer.

They didn’t offer to help with a visa or travel costs or anything. I had to organize everything on my own. Luckily, Canada has agreements with some European countries so that young people can come for up to 18 months for work experience. So I knew I had 18 months to make an impression good enough for Pixomondo to be willing to sponsor my visa.

This year was absolutely fantastic. The team was incredibly close, as we were only 25 people, and were just starting this new branch. The work was not as fulfilling for me, as I couldn’t do as much animation due to the projects we were working on, but it was still amazing, and I loved every day there. I tried my best to make up for my lack of animation practice during the day by working on personal projects almost every evening when I got home. I also worked with people like JD Haas and Kenny Roy to get regular feedback from industry veterans. Sometimes it was hard and lonely, but I didn’t want to have to leave Canada in 18 months with the knowledge that I hadn’t done everything I could to make my dream come true.

But after a year, I unfortunately couldn’t stay at Pixomondo, because they didn’t have enough animation work to do. (They shut down the whole branch just recently). So I had to find another company with only 6 months left before I had to go back to Switzerland.

It was only thanks to my CG supervisor at Pixomondo — and his girlfriend who worked at Soho VFX — that I got an interview there, and eventually got hired to work on an 8 month project. They agreed that they would take care of my visa for the last two months if they liked me and my work, and I was just happy that I had found something new.

At Soho, I came into another great team, and was finally able to actually do some animation on a funny TV cartoon show. I gave it my best again, both at work and home, and after only 2 months, they extended my visa for the last two months.

During this production, I also realized that you don’t have to work on major Hollywood movies to find creative satisfaction. At Pixomondo, we had won a VFX Oscar for Hugo, and Snow White and the Huntsman was nominated for an Oscar as well. The projects were shiny and cool, but none of that work was really creatively fulfilling. Then I started working on a kids TV show, on a pretty tight schedule, with no Hollywood glamour, and knowing that it was just one show amongst sooo many others being produced for children’s television, I honestly had a BLAST! We were animating day in and day out; we breathed as much life into our characters as we could in the limited time we had available. We grew together as a team in crunch, and in the end, we were really proud of what we had achieved. I learned so much, mostly technical and workflow-related, and I’ll always look back with a smile at that time in my life.

Creative satisfaction can be found anywhere, not just on the prestigious stuff. Hollywood glamour is only cool to tell your friends, but what really matters is to feel fulfilled in what you do.

And lucky as I was, in December, Soho VFX actually got me a full time contract and a 3 year visa. I could not have been happier at that point! I guess when you’re working really hard luck does the rest for you.

In early 2013, we went back to Soho VFX’s key business, which is feature VFX. This meant that, aside from some not-so-challenging animation tasks, we went back to match-moving, and I really felt like I was standing still. So I applied to Framestore here in Montreal. It was an application that I just sent out with the thought, “Well, you have to try at least.” I honestly didn’t expect to hear anything from them, but they got back to me, asking for an interview. Soon after, they made me an offer, so I decided to pack my stuff again and move to Montreal.

Sometimes it is crazy how life goes, and I only just started realizing how far I’ve come, and what I have achieved already. But it’s not always easy. I fell in love with a girl in Toronto, and in the end, our relationship didn’t work out; she couldn’t come to Montreal with me. It still hurts, and probably will for a long time to come.

It is definitely not an easy life that I have chosen, and I just really hope that in the end, it pays off. For now, it feels like it will. I’m so incredibly happy to be here, and I’m not done yet. I have realized that just going t Pixar as fast as possible isn’t the most important thing (although I haven’t lost sight of that goal at all). For now, I’m in Montreal with Framestore for one year (and hopefully a bit longer), but there is also a chance to see the world while doing what I love the most, and actually getting paid to do so. Isn’t that amazing? I recommend that young people, who don’t have to take care of family, should take this chance to see the world and make those unique experiences. Who else has that kind of opportunity nowadays?

And so we come to my piece of advice that I wish I would have gotten when I first started off. Except there isn’t one thing. Buthere is what I think is the most important: Surround yourself with people who challenge and inspire you. It is so much easier to go on this journey together, to geek out together, to hear other opinions, and so on. It’s the people around you, who love animation (and movies in general) as much as you, who really make this job worth doing. When I came to Toronto, I experienced for the first time what it meant to truly be amongst people who “tick” the same way that I do. And that was a wonderful feeling.

Another thing that I find really important is: if you really want to achieve this goal to work at a world class studio, go for it with all your heart and energy. The only way to get better is by practicing as much as you can. Always ask yourself, “Could I do more? Maybe I could squeeze in one more hour here or there.”

In one of our first classes at AM, our mentor, Jalil Sadool said “If you work 8 h a day you’ll make it in 2 years, if you work 4 hours a day, you’ll make it in 4 years, if you work 2 hours a day, you’ll make it in 8 years.” I never forgot that. Practice and mileage are key. Sometimes, this means not sleeping enough. Opten it means no parties. I barely went out for 2 years now. This also means going through jobs where you don’t do the work you want to do, but at least you’re animating, and you can still go home and do the stuff you want on your own after work. I say it again, mileage is key. I get mad at myself so often, because I feel like I’m not hard enough on myself, and I constantly feel like I’m slacking off. I got mad at my girlfriend a couple of times when she wanted me to stay a bit longer on a weekend. I thought I’d lose precious hours of work. I personally think that is the state of mind you have to be in, to be able to push yourself to the limit.

BUT — and this may sound contradictory, but it’s really not — make room to relax! Plan it into your week. By consciously relaxing, you’ll give your body and mind a break without having to feel bad. At some point, I turned the weekends into “relaxing days,” which I would spend with my girlfriend, sleeping in and doing whatever we wanted without one thought about animation (well… almost).

But don’t come home from work and spontaneously decide, “Okay, I’m going to make some room to relax right now.” I have done this myself too many times and ended up getting mad at a myself and feeling like a slacker.

There’s so much more advice I’d like to give, but I guess this text is already much too long, so I should probably cut it off now.

Everyone is of course more than welcome to message me and ask any questions if they should come up. I’d love to help others get started in this amazing industry. [Editor’s note: leave questions on the comments page, and I’ll make sure they are properly directed to Lukas].

Here’s the link to my reel:

One word of advice for future animators:

What I notice the most when I see students coming out of any school is that so many of them think (or almost expect) they’re going to get into Pixar or ILM right away. While it happens for some, it’s a rare thing, and most of the time, those students have already had some experience beforehand or were just really, really exceptional talents. Most of us will have to keep on working after school, and maybe go through some jobs we don’t like. It might be frustrating at times, but remember that you are working and gaining experience.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Start: Liz Bernard

Studio: Digital Domain
  • University of Virginia '04
    B.A., Theatre
  • Animation Mentor '10
    Character Animation
  • Animation Mentor '11
    Animal and Creature Animation

When I was a little girl, I watched the Loony Tunes pretty much nonstop. I loved Daffy and Bugs, and I developed a pretty spot-on impression of Sylvestre the Cat's "thuffering thuccotash!", but my favorite was Wile E. Coyote. I watched those little cinematic desert farces so many times that I had the comedic beats memorized. Wile E.'s creativity and perseverance, his self confidence in his zany plans, and his optimism in the face of adversity all left an indelible mark on 8-year-old me. So, at age 11, after plastering my walls with drawings of my favorite characters, and saving up my allowance money to buy Chuck Jones' autobiography, I announced to my parents that I was going to be an animator. They were not surprised. Both are graphic designers, and they had been feeding my artistic habits with unlimited art supplies from their studio. The local community art centre was offering a Basics of Animation class, and my parents signed me up.
You might think that my path to a career in animation would be pretty direct given my early clarity and focus. But no...
Unlike so many of my peers who found their inspiration to become animators in Pixar's groundbreaking Toy Story, which came out when I was a teenager, I saw CG animation as the beginning of the end of traditional hand drawn animation. This made me very sad, and eventually steered me to try other artistic avenues, including theatrical lighting design, which is what I studied in college. I worked as a lighting designer and technician for several years in a variety of venues (opera, pro wrestling, political events, Shakespeare plays, etc), but found myself losing enthusiasm as the reality of making a living doing theatre sunk in. It was at that point that I was presented with the opportunity to go abroad and work in West Africa for two years. I jumped at the chance, and divided my attention between a part-time job at the Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and my photography business. I was self taught, and although I loved the artistic expression photography allowed me, I did not enjoy the constant search for new clients, the self-promotion, or the stress of running my own business. So, when I returned to the USA, I found myself not sure what to do next.
In 2008, adrift and living in Washington DC, I stumbled on the Animation Mentor I researched the school a little more, I realized that maybe my childhood dream wasn't so childish; maybe it was a really great idea! CG animation and visual effects heavy films were exploding in popularity...maybe it wouldn't be so hard to find a job when I was done! Although my drawing skills were rusty, I was pretty quick to pick up computery things, and I knew from years of photo editing and doing complex origami that I had the patience to focus on something as detail oriented as animation. I love cartoons and movies, and have always skewed geeky (Who's got two thumbs and loves Star Trek? This girl!), so it seemed like an excellent fit. I signed up. I worked a full time job at the National Archives, and did my AM assignments on the weekends. It was a grueling schedule, but I think that having so little time each week to complete my homework meant that I became a faster and more efficient animator than I would have become otherwise.
My experience at AM started out kind of rough. I struggled at first and even failed the first time I took the Intro to Acting class. Taking that course a second time was when a lot of things like spacing and overlap really clicked for me. I started seeing beautiful arcs everywhere around me, and found myself totally fascinated by the way the animals moved at the zoo (humans included). I found it easy to lose myself in my animation assignments, spending hours and hours glued to my screen.
I completed my short film in class 6 --it's about a naked guy who accidentally gets locked out of his hotel room-- and then I started looking for work after graduation, but none of the studios I applied to were biting. When AM offered me the chance to pilot test their brand new Animals and Creatures class when it debuted in the winter of 2011, I jumped at the chance. I thought the A&C course was going to give my reel a unique edge, but it did so much more than that: it taught me that my true passion lies in animating animals. I still love to watch slapstick animation, but what I really love to animate myself is animals, the more physical the shot, the better. My final project was animating a 250 frame shot of a big cat taking down a dragon. It was pretty ambitious, but I loved finessing the physical details, adding little imperfections into the finished product. Creature animation, I could tell, was where I wanted to be.
At this point, it was really starting to sink in just how incredibly competitive the industry is. It seemed like the only fellow classmates of mine who were finding work were already experienced animators who had taken AM to improve on their skills. Those of us who had started from scratch were out of luck.
When I was feeling low about my job hunt and the state of the industry, my mentor Nicole Herr gave me some very frank advice. She said that, in addition to a great reel, you need two things in order to find a job as an entry level animator: a) you need to be where the jobs are, and b) you need to have some --any-- paid experience as an animator. Timing is important also...if a given studio isn't hiring, then no matter how good your reel is, you're not going to get a job there.
To fulfill item A, I realized I needed to move; Washington DC isn't exactly an entertainment hub. My boyfriend had recently been accepted to a PhD program at the University of British Columbia, and Vancouver seemed to have a lot of animation work, so in the summer of 2011, he and I took the plunge and moved across the country to BC. We arrived just before SIGGRAPH, and I immediately started applying to all of the studios in the area. I felt optimistic because many of the studios I talked to at SIGGRAPH said they would be hiring, but several months later...crickets. I was feeling pretty low at that point. Mentors and friends assured me that my reel was good and said, "don't take it personally" and I tried not to, but it was starting to feel like Wile E. Coyote...I just couldn't catch a break.
In the meantime, another mentor of mine offered me a remote temporary gig working on the Animal Planet show, "Finding Bigfoot." It was only about 6 seconds of Sasquatch (sorry, folks: spoiler alert) on the small screen, but it was enough for me to put a new line on my resume. Just a month or so after I reapplied to a few studios and let them know that I had landed that remote gig, I started getting nibbles from studios. Suddenly, I had three promising interviews in one week! One of those was with Digital Domain, one of the best studios in the world for realistic visual effects. Digital Domain was up there with ILM and Weta as one of those dream studios that I hoped to work at sometime in the distant future, after I had cut my teeth at a local television or commercial studio for several years first. When they offered me a three month gig on Jack the Giant Slayer, I was over the moon! After over a year and a half of looking, I finally got my big break. Wile E. smiled.
Three months was just the beginning. I am still animating at Digital Domain, having just wrapped up a full year of work on Ender's Game. I started on my fourth feature film this past Monday, Disney's Maleficent. I am very happy at DD, and I still wake up every day excited to go to work. Getting to this point took years of training in which I had hardly any free weekends, and then an incredibly demoralizing period of time desperately trying to land my first break... It wasn't easy, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the most passionate aspiring animators, but now I get to do what I love every day with some of the most awesome people I've ever met, and that is worth all of the lost weekends, the tedium, the exhaustion, all of it. Sometimes I have to work seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. Sometimes it's boring, or frustrating, and the last thing I want to do is animate. But seeing a character or creature come to life in my shot is the most gratifying expression of my artistic self that I have ever experienced.
Advice for future animators:
If you are nice to everyone and show enthusiasm for what you do, people will want you to succeed, and will help you do it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Start: Casey McDermott

     Blizzard Entertainment
     Gnomon School of Visual Effects;; 
     The Animation Collaborative

My name is Casey McDermott, and I like to call myself an animator.  Lets jump right into WHY animation.  Why would anyone choose a craft that takes so long to master(if mastering is even possible)?  A craft that when you start it becomes your whole life, in and out of work.  Anything I see in motion or in pose or even inanimate, I can't help but think to myself, “I can use that someday!” 

Since I could remember I would (and still do) run around in my batman pajamas, cape included, and act out crime fighting scenes alongside the TV with Adam West.  I would watch Pinocchio three times a day, and every time Monstro would come on, I would gather everyone in my family and lead them by the hands all the while yelling the words, “Mon, Monstro,” which obviously means, “COME ON GUYS, MONSTRO IS ON TV RIGHT NOW LETS WATCH THIS!.”  It was quite obvious I have an infatuation with playing characters and imagination.  So much so, that one time my mom dropped me off at daycare as one Casey McDermott, but when she came to pick said “Casey McDermott,” you better believe there was not a single Casey McDermott at that daycare!  There was, however, a Peter Vankman (from Ghostbusters), as I told (and convinced!) everyone that was my name.

   I didn't have a normal childhood, but really who did?  Half of my family were artists.  My mom was ink and paint at Disney and Hanna Barbera, and she worked alongside her mom and aunt who were also Ink and Paint artists at Hanna Barbera, Disney, and Filmation.  My other Aunt and Uncle also worked at Disney in the animation and effects departments, respectively.  My dad was and still is a contractor, but has built some amazing and breathtaking homes and structures, some of which I have had the great fortune of growing up in.  I was surrounded by constant creativity and support.  My family loved and still loves getting dressed up for ren fairs, pirate fairs, halloween, christmas, and any other sort of occasion that allows for it.  We all love to pretend.

            So of course I would grow up doing art right?!  Wrong.  By the time I hit 10 years old, art was the furthest thing from my mind.  All I wanted to do was be a baseball player.  It’s all I knew about and cared about.  But I still loved to pretend.  I pretended every day that I was a professional baseball player, playing in front of screaming fans booing and cheering, sweat dripping, muscles tight and me fighting the tightness to keep them loose, the smell of chalk, dirt, and grass stains infusing together to create the unique aroma that maybe only baseball players can understand.  There I was, stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th, the score all tied up, and one swing away from making history and winning a championship.  It was always so vivid in my head.  Even though I was playing baseball, I really believe that this mindset has helped me today.  I don't like to start working until I can see what I want in my head.  I always want a vivid image and aesthetic so I know what I am striving for.

  In college I wound up ramming my knee into a pole during a game and cracking my patellar and tearing my medial and lateral meniscus.  I was in an “immobilizer” for 9 months and additional 4 months of physical therapy afterwards.  This was a very hard time in my life, thinking I was done with my dream and coming to terms with it.  I attended a Junior College in Chico California (this is also where I met my lovely wife) during the time my leg was in an immobilizer and I started taking “3D multimedia classes” to get my mind off of my nonexistent sports career.  With some great inspiration and support from teachers there I learned that I could make a new living with “multimedia.”  All of a sudden my passion for baseball started to shift to animation and multimedia.

            My brother in law, who is an editor, told me of a Production Assistant internship for the summer at Sony Computer Entertainment America.  With a little good fortune, and some good recommendations, I got the internship.  While I was there I got to be a part of all aspects of game development, from the art side with Maya, to production side with directors and project leads, and finally I got to do a little voice over work.  It was this summer I knew for a fact what I wanted to do for a job.  While at SCEA, I asked what schools were best to further my education.  They all said Gnomon was the top school at the time.  I applied there thinking nothing of rejection.  Then I learned they only accept 24 students a year.  I had a very puny art portfolio and they saw that in my 1 on 1 interview with the school board.  All I remember is when I left my interview, i confidently said, “I am excited to come here,” and “See you in August.”  Maybe I tricked them into thinking they had already accepted me. 

Gnomon was a great experience and taught all aspects of CG and art, more of a generalist course at the time.  I wouldn't trade my experience there for the world.  Working with a such a small class size, with individuals who all had different fields that they wanted to specialize in made it fantastic for collaboration.  2 weeks after graduating, and some guidance from some mentors of mine at Gnomon, I had the great opportunity to start working at Rhythm & Hues, and a week after that I started attending AnimationMentor.

Ignorantly enough, I thought this would be easy to attend school and work at the same time.  Well the production schedule is very unforgiving and became very jealous at the fact I was also attending school.  I wound up having to take a leave of absence from AnimationMentor.  Well worth it.  However, the entire time I worked at Rhythm & Hues questioned everything I did and looked at everyone’s gorgeous work, which put me into some despair.  I did not feel adequate at all, in fact I felt like I knew nothing (Jon Snow).  The first dailies I attended were very eye opening.  One animator, (also a friend, peer, and mentor to me) by the name of Jeff, presented work so beautiful that it looked like dancing.  He had beautiful texture and timing, with great hand and finger flourishes, and the dialogue was so clear and appealing, I was sick to my stomach.  I didn't take lunch for 2 months, in hopes that during that extra hour, I might get better or learn something to make my hideous animation not stand out like a sore thumb.  However, during my time there I sat next to 3 incredibly talented artists and animators, including Jeff, that helped shape me with honest feedback and support.

After my contract ended, I thought it best to go back to AnimationMentor to learn again.   At the end of school I picked up some freelance gigs from some studios such as BrainZoo and MPC, along with several others, for little 3 to 6 month gigs.  Animating at as many studios early in your career I think is a great way to learn, not only about the studios, but about yourself.  It is sort of like the dating scene, in my opinion.  You have to date around a bit to see what you like and don't like, and until you find studios that fit you as a person and as an artist.

That is how I got started.  The reason WHY I animate is that I love to create, imagine and pretend.  It is in these callow fantasies that I really feel comfortable and free (as ridiculous as that sounds).  For anyone who has made it this far in the story I have some words of advice.  Firstly, whenever anyone ever asks me “should I get into animation?” my answer is NO, the fact that you even ask that question means this is probably not the medium for you.  As I tell my students, animation takes a certain type of patients that many people do not retain.  Hell, I question if I am patient enough.  And to reiterate, you will be animating at work for 8-12 hours a day, then you will come home and animate more, or see things you want to animate, or be inspired to animate, or depressed that you don't know how to animate, or be thirsty for more animation.  Your average work day is not enough to quench that thirst. 

Secondly, with schools nowadays attempting to make animation look very fun and bubbly, I say, don’t be fooled.  Yes, animation can be fun, but by god is it frustrating.  See through the facade, and realize that these bubbly personalities are, for the most part, business’ advertising.  No, we do not all act this way.  Schools will not make you great.  They will give you great information, but in the end, you have to do the work to make it successful.

Thirdly, keep a vivid imagination.  It’s ok to pretend, in fact, it's encouraged.  Always plan out your shots thoroughly, being sure to be proud of what's in your head before you put it on paper, or in a CG program.  “Fail early and fail often.”  Collaborate your ideas early and often, show early and often and get ready to fail.  It’s the only way we learn and get better, and by collaborating with others, you will be absolutely amazed at how much your craft and storytelling can soar.

Lastly, stay passionate and thirsty.  The reason why we have chosen this art form is because we are passionate about telling a story through it, and letting the viewer see a piece of us.  It is a very vulnerable feeling and you MUST grow a tough skin in order to grow.  Love what you do, even when you hate it.  It’s important to feel proud of something you have created, but don't be satisfied, keep chasing the next big thing. 

Thank you for your time, and hopefully this is useful to anyone who reads it.  Hopefully someday our paths may cross.  Best of luck in all of your personal careers, and “keep animating,”  or don’t... it’s up to you, if you want to that is, of course...!  :]


One Word of Advice for Future Animators: 

Leave your ego at the door so that you're not married to any 1 idea, because the best idea can come from anywhere/anyone!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Start: Martin Hebert

Studio: Exient Entertainment
College: Palacky University Olomouc, Faculty of Education

My name is Martin Hebert.  Currently, I’m working as lead animator for Exient Entertainment in Brno, Czech Republic.  I have also served as Lead Animator for Vatra Games (Silent Hill Downpour, Rush’n Attack), 2K Czech/Illusion Softworks (Moscow Rhapsody) and Pterodon (Vietcong 2).

I came into the game industry ten years ago in a rather unconventional way.  My education isn’t art-related at all.  My schooling, which focused mostly on math and engineering with Faculty of Education, didn’t give me much useful art knowledge, except self-management skills.

I have always played video games, but I never knew how they were actually created.  I accidentally stumbled across some information on a 3D artist forum, read a few tutorials (despite suffering from poor English skills), and once I had created something in CG, I became very interested in the whole process.  Since that moment, 3D modeling became my hobby.

The 3D artist community in my area used to hold regular meetings and conferences, and I decided to start attending some of them.  The very first one I attended was the reason I became an animator.  Most of the attendees were amateurs like myself, but one in particular was just an old dreamer who didn’t know anything about 3D; he simply had a dream to create a short 3D movie.  As there were only a few good artists available at that time, he offered to pay for courses for a few of us who were just 3D fans, so that we could create that short for him.  Good opportunity, so why not take it?

Now, I can tell you that creating a short film using only beginner artists was a very na├»ve idea.  However, while that guy lost a good sum of money and we didn’t actually create anything worth watching, he did give rise to a generation of great artists, many of whom are successful in the film and game industries.

I don’t know why but this visionary told me: “you are going to be an animator,” without knowing anything about me.  I agreed, and it was the most important decision of my professional life.

At that time, I had been working as a lead lift engineer for a small company, and I probably would have continued on with them if our boss had been better and the company had not gone bankrupt.  I was desperate to find a new job, so I was looking for any available opportunity.  It so happened that Pterodon (Vietcong) was looking for animators.

There was only one school for animators in the Czech Republic.  Because our education system is very conservative, the school only taught traditional 2D animation at the time, therefore 3D animators were very rare, which increased my chances to succeed.

Thanks to that old guy who decided I’d be an animator, I have successfully entered the game industry.  At that time, Pterodon was working on Vietcong 2.  I was involved in every facet of the game’s animation, working under Petr Mores, a great animator most recently working for Crytek.  It was he who taught me most of what I know about animating, and of managing people.  It was also he who decided I would be a lead animator for the next project, even though I didn’t have the experience for such a job.  “Throw the man into the water and let him learn how to swim,” we often say, and even though it’s a difficult way to learn, I think it was the best.

I’m grateful that I met the right people; people who pointed me in the right direction so that I can be a part of this fantastic industry.

One word of advice for future animators:
Try everything; you don’t know what your destiny is.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Start: Justin Rosenthal-Kambic

Studio: Telltale Games
College: Ex’Pression College for Digital Arts

So when I saw that Travis had started up this blog with the intention of giving voice to his animator friends to relay their stories of how they, well, started the whole animating thing… I thought, “Hey, I’m sure I have something worthwhile to share. Right?” Now after reading through some of the previous posts of super talented artists, I’m not quite sure how my story will fit in? But hey, let’s find out together!

Oh, and I’m not so much of a “writer,” more of a “write-like-I-talk-er,” so you know, just imagine me talking about all this… Thanks for bearing with me.

Anyways, I didn’t grow up dreaming of being an animator. I mean, sure I grew up on cartoons like the rest of us, and I loved all that stuff - everything from classic Disney to uh, classic Snorks? I don’t know, but cartoons and animation (of questionable quality, perhaps,) have been in my life ever since I was a kid, as were video games, but more on this in a bit.

As I said, I didn’t grow up dreaming of being an animator. I dreamt of being a rock star. I had a little 3-piece band back in high school that was as grungy and punky as the mid 90’s could offer. Just imagine Nirvana and Green Day mashed together like there was no tomorrow. Oh, and also imagine ’96 is your senior year. Oh yeah. Good times. But as with all good times, they come to an end, but not before an indie record label helped us record and put out an album! We played shows throughout SF and even drove down to LA for a weekend of shows. It was great. Such fond memories...

Sorry – I’ll get back on track now. So while that didn’t really come to fruition, we had a fun time of it. Once we all graduated it was determined that college was what came next, (much to my disappointment,) but hey, education, it’s a good thing. So anyways, I decided to put off jumping back into school because I really didn’t know where or what I wanted to do. At the time I was working at Noah’s Bagels, and I know what you’re thinking, “Bagels are pretty awesome,” and while you would be correct, bagels weren’t really the career-path I was hoping for. But again, as it turns out, that was where I first heard of this place called Ex’Pression Center.

A guy who used to work with us at Noah’s quit and took off for school, (smart move on his part,) and at some point after that, he stopped by to visit and told me that Ex’Pression had a “bitchin’ audio program” and that I would probably “really dig it.” That’s how I remember him saying it at least; he was that kind of guy. So I eventually warmed up to the idea and went in to one of Ex’Pression’s open-house events. It was then that I knew what I wanted to do from here on out.

While I started on the tour of the audio-program, my epiphany came when I walked past one of the windows and peered into the lab packed with students and rows upon rows of glowing CRT monitors. I saw 3D models of half-built creatures and environments tumbling about on screens as their creators sat, in some bizarre meditative state, transfixed on their work. Everything looked like pieces of the video games I had grown to love (in an almost-obsessive manner) over the years. “That is what I want to do.” I thought. “I want to make video games.” And soon after that, I became enrolled in Ex’Pression Center for New Media’s “Digital Visual Media Program” (Editor’s Note: The school has been rechristened “Ex’pression College for Digital Arts,” and the DVM program has been retitled “Animation and Visual Effects).

The next 14-16 months were a blur. I hear now the schools courses are far expanded past what I was familiar with – with an actual Game Development program and whatnot. But whatever, I was getting a crash course in Media that was Visually Digital. Honestly, it was was a pretty intense and amazing experience, and by the time I graduated, I had found my calling as an animator. Making stuff move was my thing. As a kid, I spent countless hours playing with action figures; manipulating He-Man and G.I. Joe figures in my tiny hands to create epic slow-motion fights where each impact of their plastic feet sent me bending and twisting the figures about as I imagined each part of their body would react to such a devastating kick… I was still doing the same thing only this time, on a computer. So, you know, now it’s respectable.

After graduation, it was a month or so until I found my first home at a game studio. And now after all my rambling, (and for those of you still reading,) let me impart my first bit of wisdom. “Don’t turn down opportunities, even if you think you already know you’re not interested.” I got the chance to interview with a couple of artists from a company called Digital Eclipse. I hadn’t heard of them and before the interview I looked them up online, as anyone should always do. Digital Eclipse was a little independent studio that at the time, focused on Game Boy games and arcade ports. Now pixel art and Game Boy games are great, but that wasn’t at all what I had just gone to school for, and there was part of me that was thinking on just skipping the interview all together. Again, “Don’t turn down opportunities. Especially if you don’t know where those opportunities will lead to.” I realized it would be ridiculously dumb of me to not go, and so I went in for the interview. As it turned out, their studio was in the process of merging with another to become Backbone Entertainment, and they were looking to assemble a team of 3D artists for a brand new IP. That sounded pretty cool. (FYI - Now that I’ve been in the industry for 9 years, I’m very aware that getting that kind of opportunity, especially right out of the gate, is super rare and probably the dream of every developer. That’s pretty much what we all want; to get the chance to work on something new. To create something unique.) So as luck had it, they were impressed enough with my work to bring me aboard. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyways, I’m an animator. That’s how I started.

One word of advice for future animators:
“Don’t turn down opportunities.”