The Animation Career: Collaboration and Artistry

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By: Andrew Lyndon
Director of Fine Arts and Professor of Animation at California College of the Arts (campuses in San Francisco and Oakland)

image 1Are you thinking of a career in animation? It’s an excellent idea, for a number of reasons. It is amazing to work at Pixar, Dreamworks, or Blue Sky. It is great to be part of a team making a film full of imagination and color and characters—like WALL-E or Shrek or The Twilight Saga. The good news is that there are a lot of jobs out there. Animation is a growing field, and it needs skilled artists and filmmakers.

Making an animated feature film is a two-year process, a long evolution from sketches on paper to a world full of action, sounds, and light. Each production involves hundreds of people, including character artists, story artists, 3D modelers, animators, technical directors creating effects, and many more. What do these roles mean, exactly?

Animators are actors and observers, artists who create actions. Sometimes these actions are large—such as lifting a chair, or walking—and require careful observation of shifting weight and human anatomy. Then there are the small actions, like an eye blink, that reveal subtle nuances of emotion. The goal is making a character seem truly alive. As Tom Gibbons, animation supervisor at Tippett Studio, puts it: “Animation is the art of breathing life into the lifeless.”
Animation is a craft and requires wide-ranging skills, which could include drawing, acting, or directing; a deep familiarity with cinema; and sharp observations of physical and emotional behavior. Bret Parker, a Pixar animator and a professor at California College of the Arts, uses diverse skills every day “to bring stories to life in a way that’s not possible in other media.”

Image 2An animation career provides lifelong prospects of solid employment and deep personal artistic satisfaction. For example, when a script is finished and production begins, there are only words on the page—no imagery, no characters, no voices, no light. But there is an image in the director’s mind, and he or she needs to get it down on paper so everyone on the production can start working to bring it to life. Character artists meet with the director and start drawing out the characters, adjusting height, weight, clothes, hair, everything, until each one looks just right for its actions and the story. This job is as old as animation, and studios will always need the vision of an artist with a pencil and eraser to sketch out details revealing character. I mention this job first because it is part of pre-production, but also because it requires deep knowledge of character animation. It is about being an artist in the most fundamental sense of the word: just pencil and paper.

Next, these drawings need to be turned into 3D digital computermodels, and this is done by 3D modelers working in a program such as Autodesk Maya. The modelers build the 3D characters based on the pre-production character drawings. While 3D modelers don’t animate, they need to understand animation, because they have to think about each character: who they are, how they move, and what they’ll have to do during the movie. Sullivan of Monsters Inc. is heavy and powerful, so the modeler has to construct his body forms and joints in a way that will express his personality.

These are just a few of the many jobs at an animation studio. They all contribute to the final product, but they rely on different combinations of artistic approaches, technical skills, and temperaments. If you are thinking about jumping into an animation career, it’s important to ask yourself how you like to work, and follow the path that allows you to be most satisfied with what you are doing each day. If you like to work fast, to draw and see your results flowing immediately from the pencil, then you should think about becoming a story, character, or scene artist. If you like thinking via the computer, building things digitally, you might be best suited to the career of digital modeler, set dresser, or special effects wizard.

Remember that working for a studio is not the only option for a professional animation artist. You could found a studio of your own, work in an ad agency where you will be the big fish in a smaller pond (and get to make all the animation decisions!), or enter the gaming industry. You can also be an independent artist and undertake freelance projects of your choosing. California College of the Arts graduate Bessie Chui just completed the animation work for a Facebook game, and she enjoyed a kind of freedom in her role that she wouldn’t get at a studio: “As part of a small team, we were allowed quite a bit of creative liberty. We generally got to pick what we wanted to create from a list provided by our team leader.”
How can you get these skills, and one of these careers? You’ve got to go to school for the necessary training and knowledge. If you are thinking about choosing a college to study animation, this is what you should look for:

Strong Faculty:
The faculty should have a lot of practical experience working on major, current animation projects, including feature films and short films for large and small studios; commercial work; 2D and 3D styles; 3D modeling; personal art; films made for galleries or animation festivals; animation for Facebook, cell phones, iPads, and other mobile devices; special effects; and gaming.
The greater the variety of faculty, the more industry contacts you will make while you are still in school. So when it comes time to apply for internships or jobs, these well-placed industry folks can help you get a leg up.

Think about where you would like to live and work in the long run. Through your school, you will be making connections to local studios.

School-Wide Breadth:
Students often choose schools based only on the technical animation skills they can deliver, but I highly recommend choosing a school that has a long history of art making in a wide variety of media, and a commitment to excellence in general education. Having worked at Pixar, I know that they value employees with a real breadth of visual knowledge rather than a limited, perfected skill set. Familiarity with any visual discipline contributes to the sharpness of your eye and mind. Writing, math, and architecture electives add sophistication and improved communication to your “toolbox” of skills. At California College of the Arts, for example, animation students can take classes in film, and that knowledge of film grammar will absolutely serve them well in their subsequent job search and career. ■

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Creative Outlook Magazine is for visual artists whose talents in the creative arts exceeds the norm and are interested in finding the right school for visual art majors.

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