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Tips for the Aspiring Professional Animation Artist

Three things got me thinking today:  First, I participated in a company function:  we drew our characters for retail company execs who came to visit and be presented with new lines of consumer products.  Second, one of my colleagues participated in a company portfolio review this past weekend at the infamous, San Diego Comic Con. He told me about how “ignorant” so many aspiring animation artists were about compiling a professional animation portfolio.  And, finally today, were a few typical conversations with hopeful interns about working at the studio.  All of which made me decide to offer my perspective about how one might break in to the animation business and work for one of the major studios.  I hope it’s helpful and that this is a post people could refer to instead of having to field recurring questions.  Rather than telling my story of what eventually led me to the character animation program at CalArts (http://filmvideo.calarts.edu/programs/character-animation) and into the business, I thought I’d just offer some practical tips and leads which I’ve come to know over my 11 years in the business.  

I should start by stating that CalArts was my dream school (I was drawn to it because of the rawness of the campus and interdisciplinary schools, not to mention the heritage of the animation programs.  I believe that it certainly helped gain the confidence to get started.  But, those were the days of Netscape-all the resources available now didn’t exist.  I’d recommend the school to anyone interested in animation, but I’d have to add the caveats that getting in is very competitive (many applicants/few slots), it’s expensive, and the more general education units you can transfer with, and the stronger your art education is to begin with, the more you’ll get out of the animation programs.  

These are some of the fundamental art skills you need to learn prior to getting in the business; they include:  Perspective; Human and Animal Anatomy; Graphic Design-or, design period; Film-film language/direction; Illustration; Animation Principles…

And, here are a few secondary skills that would also help:  Color Theory; Acting/Improvisation; Writing/Story Telling; Public Speaking; Literature; History; Physics; and Music would also be a big plus.  Well, those are some skills that came off the top of my head.  Mind you, I don’t claim to be proficient in all those categories.   But, I think each category adds to your animation repertoire.  

Virtually any good art program will provide you with those fundamental skills. Personally, I would really focus on anatomy, graphic design, illustration; and film language.  When it comes to animation you have to feel like you can draw anything.  It’s a visual medium and it helps to be able to convey your ideas that way.  

Drawing from life should be a fun exercise, not an intimidating chore which it can be when you’re begining.  In truth, reference is always available.  So, you just have to make sure you can draw things structurally, consistently, and appealingly.  I’ve had many good drawing teachers.  In LA we have the Animation Union where you can take classes from Carl Gnass (http://spirit-of-the-pose.com/).  He was one of my teachers who really emphasized anatomy and locating those all-important “anchor points”-“landmarks” on the body that help you remain consistent with your drawings.  I also took some classes from Steve Huston (http://www.hustonartschool.com/) who was great at breaking down the body into geometric and anatomical forms.  His approach really helped to understand the surface areas and how to fully render a human form, giving it more weight and life.  I was also fortunate to take some classes from Walt Stanchfield (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkLZfu_Y92g).  Disney has published two volumes of his drawing wisdom.  I highly recommend them.  He emphasized gesture and story.  He was always looking at simplifying and making more clear the intent of your drawing.  There was always room to push a gesture further for clarity.  A few great teachers I had at CalArts were: Micheal Mitchell (http://spencerockwell.blogspot.com/2009/09/to-greatest-mentor-i-will-ever-know_06.html) , Eva Roberts and Corny Cole (http://natsukonook.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/corny-cole/).  Those three seemed cut from the same cloth.  Mike Mitchell really emphasized utilizing contrasting values and dynamic perspective, while Eva was trying to push the boundaries of design and drawing, and Corny was more about capturing the movement and being in the moment.  I also took classes from Glen Villpu (http://vilppustudio.com/), Doree Dunlap (http://www.orangecoastcollege.edu/about_occ/news/full+story.htm?id=11905), and Bob Wendell (http://www.orangecoastcollege.edu/about_occ/news/Full+Story.htm?id=17928) who each provided me with great fundamental drawing skills.  I name these teachers not to “name-drop” but because I remember each fondly.  Finding the messages they each imparted have been the great gifts that have become part of me.  I hope you also take the time to consider what you gleaned from your art teachers.  That is what instills those guiding voices in your head as you move forward.

Graphic design is pretty important to me because ultimately film is a graphic medium.  I think the way you compose your imagery is like a signature.  It’s something that you can make your own and add value to your personal “brand”.  You need to understand composition and know how to manipulate the space and the eye of your viewer.  As a character designer, it’s important to be able to step back and see what you’re creating from a graphical standpoint.  And, in story telling you have to be able to direct the eye by using graphic design tricks-anything from using values, shapes, symbols, perspective.  So, a strong graphic design base will help you a lot.  There are plenty of great graphic design inspirations like branding, websites, books, and cinema!  Just look at the way Wells, Hitchcock, Wilder, Speilberg, Bird…etc. compose their shots.  Besides those, I think a good graphic design teacher should be sought out; someone who can share hands on techniques and expose one to various approaches to design.  So, I would research where the best teachers are in your area.

Illustration is related to graphic design, but it emphasizes storytelling.  In illustration things like:  staging, expressions, lighting, gesture, etc. are all involved.  And, it should be pretty clear how useful those skills would be in animation.  There are many great artist blogs out there to get inspired by.  I’m not going to share my biases and list any. I think it’s best to do your own searching and discover your own sensibilities…Alright, just one:  

http://louromano.blogspot.com/

"Film Language" is another important aspect of animation that I learned in the CalArtsFilm School.  Books like "Shot By Shot" or, "The Five C’s of Cinematography"  are great resources toward getting a handle on the subject.  Basically, cinema has certain "laws" that you need to be aware of when you try to tell a story in motion picture or "animation".  I’m talking about screen direction, camera position, cutting, etc.  If you’re going to work in the business, it helps to know the terminologies, and literally the language of the craft. 

I can go on and on about those fundamental skills and why I think they are of value to an aspiring animation artist.  But, I’ll just suggest that you think about each of those I listed above, and maybe focus on some that you’re not familiar with.  

As far as a portfolio goes, the common response to those asking about what to include is firstly, to make sure you are proficient with those fundamentals I mentioned.  You want to show only your best work and keep it concise.  Be mindful of the person waste deep in portfolios, and make it easy to flip through and memorable.  By that, I mean try to show a little bit of yourself in your portfolio; whether it’s in the way you laid it out, or the kick-ass work inside of it.  It never hurts to demonstrate your strong draughtsmanship with solid human and animal drawings; or props and architecture.  But, also tailor the rest toward the position you seek.  If you’re looking for work as a layout artist, make sure you make that exclamation within the content of that portfolio; or props, backgrounds, color styling, character design, storyboarding…Whatever it is!   It helps to know which production you’re aiming for.  And, you can usually find that information on a studio’s website, or by contacting someone in recruiting.  Having production work in your portfolio is probably very helpful.  It’s not very professional to include trademarked  (or copied) character art in your portfolio.  Don’t forget your resume and cover letter too.  This portfolio advice is based on what I have learned over the years and what I’ve been told by recruiters.  And, I’m probably dating myself right now because portfolios are becoming archaic and many artists are opting for full blown websites to promote themselves.  Websites are just as subjective.  Again think about the person viewing it.  The more organized and easy to view your work, the better, I think.  Some people get caught up in clever design and forget that it may be difficult to navigate easily.  I’d opt for easy navigation; partitioning your work by category.  Most people do that naturally.  If you’re presenting storyboards, why not embed an animatic?  It demonstrates your sense of timing and intentions better than a hard to look-at “one sheet” of boards would.  You’d probably also want to show sample from those scenes or sequences larger for more scrutiny.   That said, there are some “old school” bosses who may prefer to see your boards in a familiar format.  Just be mindful of that and try to accommodate.  For me, there’s still something to be said for a tangible portfolio.  Anyway, portfolios are basically personal and subjective, so take my words with a grain of salt.  I wouldn’t want to discourage someone with a whole new approach, or who’s ahead of their time.  Also, these days they look at your virtual “paper trail”.  So, don’t put or say anything on the web that you will regret.  

Finally, I’ll list some resources I have found helpful and inspiring:

Animation books:  ”The Illusion of Life” is a very comprehensive study of character animation by two of the “Nine Old Men”; “The Animator’s Survival Kit” by Richard Williams is another comprehensive animation book which tends to break the process down into more technical terms.  And, “Character Animation Crash Course” by Eric Goldberg is a great book which also comes with a DVD.  He covers the essential animation techniques in a simpler fashion.  His book emphasizes contrasts and acting.  It’s also a great book for getting a grasp on timing.  Stepping through the sample animation on the DVD is also very enlightening.  Those classic ‘Walter Foster and Preston Blair books on Cartooning’ also (still) contain great nuggets.  Beyond these more fundamental books, you’ll find a plethora of “art of books” to inform and inspire.  

As far as blogs

I think Cartoon Brew is a great place to start and get informed about what the latest in the field of animation is.  There are many links to other animation related blogs right there on Cartoon Brew’s homepage (http://www.cartoonbrew.com/).  

To learn about story, I highly recommend Mark Kennedy’s blog,

http://sevencamels.blogspot.com/.  He really goes deep on the subject. 

I think Sherm Cohen provides a lot of great practical content (which you could purchase) at:  http://storyboardsecrets.com/blog/

Plus, I found this insightful “essay” on “Writing Well” by Dan Simmons:

http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/archive/writing_index.htm

For character design, you can find many individual aritist blogs; http://characterdesign.blogspot.com/

or, Mike Milo’s interesting blog:  http://www.animationinsider.com/

is a good place to start.  

Also, John K’s prolific blog is fantastic (and opinionated) for all around animation knowledge

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/

For animation study you might want to check out: 

http://splinedoctors.com/about/

or, 

http://andreasdeja.blogspot.com/

And, for a little animation history, check out:

http://animationguildblog.blogspot.com/

http://www.asifa-hollywood.org/

(look for the link to the “Animation Archive”-link isn’t working)

http://animationpodcast.com/ 

http://www.emmytvlegends.org/

I’ll try to refine this whole post with some hyperlinks and tags.  But, this is a start.  For a little insight about me, I can tell you that I have been fairly successful:  I’ve achieved my goals, but have not always moved into the more creative positions I’ve desired.  I do believe that things happen for reasons.  The reassuring thing for me has been to work alongside some of the most talented people in the industry.  And, that has helped me gauge my relative competence.  Truth be told, talent is one thing; luck, relationships, and timing are other very important factors of “moving up” or even getting your foot in the door.  One thing you may learn as I have, is that predicting where you’ll be is futile.  You’re better off living in the moment while aiming for your goals.  But, having goals and taking the right steps to attain them has been pretty key for me.  It’s a very competitive and small industry.  So, while I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from trying, I think you should at least know that.  And, the sooner you start making those “10,000 bad drawings” and getting those basic skills under your belt, the more likely you’ll succeed in getting that dream job.  

If you’re interested in animation schools, that is an easy subject to Google.  There are a few smaller schools which may not be listed like:  Gnomen, Studio Arts, The Animation Union, iAnimate, Animation Mentor, Schoolism, etc.  Many people are going to those schools to upgrade their skill sets.  They are more like trade schools and most are more  CG animation oriented (as far as I know).  They are also pretty pricey.  So, again, it behooves you to tackle the fundamentals before you really begin to invest money in your education.  I didn’t talk about CG animation much because frankly, I haven’t yet warmed up to it.  I’ve taken courses and know the rudimentary tools, but that is a beast onto itself.  Regardless, the principles of animation and all those skills I cited apply just the same to CG.  The big difference is getting familiar with the tools and interface of the animation software used.  For me, CG has been a step further away from the immediacy and tactility of drawing which I love.  But, I’m pretty sure that CG is the future of commercial animation.  I hope the fundamentals never get lost though.  And, I hope this post helps you reach your goals in some way.  Going back the to beginning, when you have an opportunity like representing your company at their events, you should take it.  Extending yourself, sharing and “giving back” are probably the best paths I know of toward growth.  

EDIT:  Since Cartoon Brew linked to my post here I have received a lot of messages.  Firstly, thanks for the positive responses.  And, there were a few interesting comments on CB’s thread.  ”ZigZag” had another set of tips ‘for the aspiring artist’ which are more pragmatic, but also worth reading. The tone seemed a little cynical to me, but hard to argue about the points raised.  I’ll never forget my first character animation teacher (though, I forgot his name) at CalArts who came off as a very jaded.  No one really appreciated whatever he had to offer because he tempered everything with an ‘yeah, good luck’ attitude.  That didn’t sit well with the eager beavers who were paying a lot to be there and be inspired to learn.  One thing that ZigZag said was, “Take the garbage jobs as much as the great ones.”  That’s what I meant about sounding cynical.  But, I agree that you never know what good can come out of smaller situations.  In fact, one of the most fun jobs I had was at a really small place that didn’t pay well.  But, I worked with a bunch of friends.  We all ate lunch together. It was a good atmosphere-good times.  Those friendships haven’t gone away.  They were only strengthened by that experience.  Some of us moved on, and it’s likely our paths will cross again.  Plus, a lot of times you learn even more in smaller settings because you are required to perform multiple roles.  So, don’t dismiss “lesser jobs” too quickly.  My attitude is a little different than ZigZag’s, I think.  For me, once I set my eye on the prize I don’t take my eye off of it unless the odds are unrealistic or I’ve shifted focus.  I think that’s key to success:  know your limits-not unlike surfing.  You wouldn’t want to ride a wave that you knew was going to kill you.  But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself to your limits to improve. Here’s the link to Cartoon Brew’s thread for a little more insights:  http://www.cartoonbrew.com/ideas-commentary/tips-for-the-aspiring-animation-artist.html#comments

Btw, if there are other topics you’d like to know more about regarding working in the field, feel free to message me here (in the ‘going left or right? field), and I’ll try to address them.  Thanks again!

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