Graduating Students

The perfect animation education

Graduating Students
Photo by: C K Howley

What does the perfect animation education look like?

In a previous post, I stressed the importance of focussing on one specific skill as the fastest way into the animation industry.

Which is not to say there isn’t value in good general education.

In a perfect world, someone going into a character animation role would have extensive study and experience in live theatre, writing, literature, film studies, photography, cinematography, world travel, drawing skills, mime, dance, stand-up comedy and be able speak at least one foreign language.

All of those skills would help make an extremely well-rounded and highly-sought-after animator.

But it would take twenty years.

Best to study one thing first, find work and then continue your education once you’re at a studio.

To me an ideal, industry-focussed education looks something like this:

  • no more than 12 months of general study, followed by
  • however long it takes to become a professional at one skill.

Start general to find out what you like

In the beginning, you may not know exactly what skill you want to focus on. At this stage, try as many different aspects to animation as you can: lighting, texturing, simulation, modelling and rigging.

There are so many specialized roles within filmmaking. How would you know if you enjoy editing or not if you hadn’t tried it?

But after six months, if you’ve decided you want to be a character designer – just focus on the skills you need to make you employable as one.

Start general to learn the software

If you’re anything like me, the first time you opened Maya or switched on a digital SLR camera you were probably bamboozled by all the menu items, knobs and dials.

Spending time at the start of your schooling to learn what all the buttons do is incredibly helpful.

In my case – I started with nine months to get a general overview of Maya. Every Saturday I spent the day at a local design college learning as much as I could about the software.

And I made some terrible animation.

But I learned enough for me to no longer be terrified of the software, and plenty of time to get a sense of what was available in Maya and how to do most things.

Finish specific

By this stage, I knew I wanted to be a character animator, so I went specific and joined the Animation Mentor program. For these reasons:

  • The instructors were all working as animators in the film industry – not just academics and theoreticians.
  • The work of their graduating students was of a quality that made them employable.
  • They only taught character animation.
  • Online study meant I could study from my location.

That’s not to say everyone should study with Animation Mentor. If you wanted to be a modeller it would be a terrible choice – but it is an example of picking the best school for your skill of choice.

If I had wanted to be a TD, or a compositor, or a rigger, or a matte painter I would have selected a program that best suited those roles.

The result

Your mileage may vary, but two and a half years after I first opened Maya, I landed my first job on an animated feature film.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

In a future post, I’ll talk about my thoughts on whether you need a degree or not to be an animator and how to pick the best school for you.

What has been your experience? Care to share your thoughts on the state of animation education?

Post a comment. I’d be interested to hear your view.

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Happy Feet 2 in 3D trailer

Warner Brothers has just released the trailer for Happy Feet 2 in 3D.

George Miller is back to direct the sequel to his Oscar award-winning film Happy Feet.

It’s so great to finally be able to show what I’ve been working on for the past 11 months or so.

Wade Robson provided the choreography for this sequence and it was fantastic to see the shots progress from the dancers peforming live on our studio sound stage in Sydney all the way to the finished renders.

Congratulations to everyone at Dr D Studios.

We still have a lot of work to do before the film is finished, but I’m really excited and proud – both of the story, and also of the talented people working on this project.

Happy Feet 2 in 3D is scheduled for a November 2011 US release date.

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Girl holding a camera

Animation education: general or specific?

Girl holding a camera
Photo by: Lord Colus

When students ask me “What is the fastest way into the animation industry?” I always say the same thing:

Pick one discipline and get your work to a professional standard.

You may disagree, but here’s why I say it.

Get good

No-one will hire you if you’re work isn’t worth paying for.

If you take an honest look at your work and compare it to people you will be competing with for jobs, then you will have a better idea what level of expertise you should be shooting for.

When I was at Animation Mentor, I spent way too long comparing my reel to the other students in the course.

Although it’s great to be ambitious and push yourself, the smarter thing for me would have been to assess my reel in comparison to people already working in the industry.

Some schools are better than others – and being the best in your class at a crummy school may not make you as employable as being a B+ student at a world-class school.

Why not start with IMDB and look through the credits of films you like, jot down the names of the people that worked on the film in the role you want and check out their showreels online.

Now you will have decent benchmark to see what you should be shooting for.

Get good fast

The slowest way to get anything done is by doing ten different things at once.

Let’s be honest.

If you want to get good at photography in a short amount of time, you need to drop the acting classes. If you want to be great at drawing quickly, forget about that short course on web design for the time being.

David B Levy in a recent post on his blog Animondays had this to say about schools that teach many different skills at once:

I think this is a big problem with the local animation educations. How does it make sense to take a senior who is still having problems doing basic animation and require them to take on those other roles at the same time? – David B Levy

I love that some schools want to foster a new breed of auteur all-rounders, but I worry that students run the risk of emerging with broad experience, but a sub-par demo reel.

Better to focus on one thing you like doing and become world-class. There will be time to build new skills and add new interests once you’re working.

I might save what I think the perfect animation education looks like for a later post, but I’ll give you a hint:

Start general and finish specific.

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Greg Holfeld lifts the curtain on Sumo Lake

Sumo Lake is a new animated short from Australian animator Greg Holfeld.

Holfeld’s interest in Sumo wrestling started while he was living in Japan in the 90’s.

The contrast of a delicate ballet played out by monstrous sumo wrestlers was an idea too good to pass up.

Greg confesses he didn’t spend a lot of time planning the animation in advance.

In order to convey the free-flowing dance, he just sat down for five weeks and cranked out 1300 or so drawings.

Even though he hates the term “traditional animation”, Holfeld admits he embraced the restriction of using only the standard tools of the animator’s trade:

  • paper
  • pencils
  • coffee

Find out more on the Sumo Lake production blog.

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Dirty kitchen

Learn from your animation mistakes

Dirty kitchen
Photo by: Kendrick Martin

Everyone has heard: “You learn from your mistakes”, but flip that around and it turns out the reverse is also true:

If you’re not making mistakes, then you might be too conservative in your ambitions.

Learning requires you to push beyond the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with, and lead you into a place where failure is a real (and scary) option.

It would be easier if you could gain experience from other people’s disasters. But most people don’t.

As an example: I was doing a 2D animated test with some objects from the foreground moving away from camera to disappear way off into the distance.

After animating the characters I had a quick flip through Richard Williams’ book The Animator’s Survival Kit – only to stumble on the exact page that explained why I had the perspective completely wrong.

Here’s the frightening thing:

I’d read The Animator’s Survival Kit many times, but because this was the first time I was actually animating this particular scenario, the knowledge didn’t sink in until I had made the rookie mistake for myself.

Advice and aphorisms do their best to steer people through life’s lessons without the pain of failure.

But mostly – you just have to learn from practical experience and take your lumps.

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Malcolm Sutherland starts a fight with Bout

Malcolm Sutherland has a new animated short. Bout is a surreal wrestling match between unearthly powers.

Primal forces of nature collide in this intriguing and sometimes puzzling film.

Using simple lines and sparing use of color, Sutherland presents a battle where the combatants are animals and the audience are humans.

Or is it the other way around?

His other films Umbra and The Astronomer’s Dream also share his sparse, haunting soundscapes and scratchy, free-flowing linework.

To see more of Sutherland’s animation and illustration, visit his website:

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Fighting the irrational fear of lost ideas

Girl keeping a secret
Photo by: Val Pearl

One of the key attributes that separates creative professionals from other people is the value they bring to the table with their ideas.

No ideas = no art.

Artists often worry about their ideas in two ways

  • They worry someone will steal their ideas.
  • They worry they will run out of ideas.

While it’s hard to calm yourself down if you’re particularly vulnerable to either (or both) of these fears, you can reduce your anxiety by admitting that these are largely irrational concerns.

Ideas by themselves aren’t worth that much

I’ve got an idea for a movie.

I’m thinking of a science fiction movie with an intricate storyline, huge battles with spaceships populated by exotic aliens in an epic battle of good versus evil.

What movie am I describing? Star Wars or Battlefield Earth?

One is a critically-acclaimed, genre-defining classic that has become a cultural touchstone. And the other is Battlefield Earth.

The truth is: an idea by itself without at least some execution is nearly worthless.

When thinking about what true creative professionals do with their ideas, one of the key differences is that they take their idea and turn it into something concrete.

It could be a script, a sketch, a storyboard. But in order for an idea to be worth stealing, it has to have some physical form.

It’s so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.) To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. – Derek Sivers

Worrying about someone stealing your script might be a leigitimate concern, but at least then you have copyright law on your side if you have to mount a challenge.

You cannot copyright an idea – only the execution of an idea. Which makes it even more critical to get your ideas into an artifact as soon as you can.

No-one knows where ideas come from

This comes to the heart of the fear of either running out of ideas, or having yours stolen by someone else.

David Lynch is one of the most creative filmmakers in the world. In his book on creativity, Catching the Big Fish, he freely admits he worries about where the next idea will come from.

It’s like fishing. You caught a beautiful fish yesterday, and you’re out today with the same bait, and you’re wondering if you’re going to catch another. – David Lynch

Ideas are unlimited

If you want to have some fun, sit down and make a list of as many things you can think of to decorate a child’s party with.

Go on.

After half a dozen or so items, you probably think you’ve exhausted your ideas. Balloons, streamers, hats, candles, stars, table cloths etc.

But now – narrow the birthday party to a pirate theme. Ironically, adding constraints to the problem, will allow you to come up with a dozen or more new ideas.

Trust your process

One of the things that gives Lynch confidence is his awareness of his process and what works for him. With his method, ideas come gradually.

It would be great if the entire film came all at once. But it comes, for me, in fragments. Soon there are more and more fragments, and the whole thing emerges. – David Lynch

There is evidence to suggest that changing your surroundings can help with creativity. Maybe, like Lynch, it’s a particular diner you visit to drink coffee and think deeply.

It’s important to be aware of what works for you and believe in your process.

There are no new ideas

Everything has been done before, but not by you.

Even using the oldest archetypes can allow you to bring your own unique take on an idea.

Human beings have been telling a fairly limited number of stories over thousands of years, and yet we still find ways to retell ancient tales using modern methods.

Once you understand how irrational the fear of lost ideas is, you can divert your energy into executing your concept.

And then you’ll really have something to worry about.

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Tim Minchin releases Storm

Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin is no stranger to animation.

His narration on the Oscar-winning short The Lost Thing was touching and sweet. And the animated version of his song about the pope both hilarious and sacrilegious in equal parts. (Google Tim Minchin pope song at your own risk.)

In his latest project, Minchin joined forces with DC Turner and Tracy King from Kershoot Ltd to produce Storm.

As well as creating a great piece of entertainment, the filmmakers wanted to convey a message.

One of the best ways to get people to listen is to give them something to see, and I like to think of Storm as a gateway for ideas as well as a piece of entertainment, which is why we wanted to make this film – Tracy King

DC Turner used Adobe PhotoShop, Flash and After Effects to produce the short, which has screened in multiple festivals and is long-listed for an animated short film BAFTA award.

For more information, check out the Storm production website.

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