Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Find what you love. Don't settle."

Someone just bumped a thread on the Animation Mentor forum where Bobby Beck had posted a link to a speech given by Steve Jobs, which was delivered at the Stanford University commencement ceremony earlier this year (also available elsewhere in audio form). It's a great read/listen, as the speech has application for pretty much everyone, not just folks graduating from college.

Several points from his address rang true for me, especially when looking back and "connecting the dots" through various experiences I've had in the past. As I've gone through hard times, it's been difficult to see how those experiences could be of any real benefit down the road, aside from the standard "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality. But in retrospect, it's often very clear to see how I flat-out couldn't have achieved Success X without suffering through Hardship Y.

I also appreciated Jobs' counsel to find what you love and don't settle for anything less. This especially hit home when looking back on my initial job search after graduating from school.

I had my heart set on getting a job as a character animator, and I recall several conversations I had with the school's alumni counselor about the types of job leads he was feeding me. One lead that sticks out pretty strongly was with a small company that took GPS data of golf courses, modeled and textured the courses in 3D, and used the results in booklets that golfers would carry with them around the course. I had a lengthy chat with this counselor about how this job was not even close to the direction I wanted to go, and he pushed back with the standard "You have to start somewhere" argument. I finally relented and agreed to go for an interview, which I arranged over the phone with someone at the company.

On the surface, the interview went pretty well. I got to see what the company did, I had a fine chat with one of their leads, and for a moment I felt like I could actually take the job if it was offered to me. But then, at the end of our time together, we watched my demo reel, which my interviewer hadn't seen yet. After viewing it, he commented about the fact that my reel was nothing but character animation. With that comment, my passion for character animation came to the surface, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

After hearing my comments, the interviewer asked me, "So why are you interviewing for this job?" Obviously there was no way I truthfully say that I had a passion for playing with GPS data for golf courses. The only other answer that came to mind was the one my alumni counselor gave me: "I suppose I have to start somewhere." Considering the way that came out, I think it was pretty clear to him that I wasn't really interested in the job, and it was pretty clear to me that I wasn't getting the job. Despite that, we managed to end the interview on a positive note, and I headed for home.

There were a few other similar experiences with other companies, and every time I couldn't hold back from telling people about my passion for telling stories through character animation. Despite the alumni counselor's insistence that I would most likely have to settle for something lower to start out with, I stuck to my guns. I refused to settle, and within a year of graduation I got my first job at Big Idea Productions.

I can even see how I refused to settle when it came to my initial dealings with folks at Big Idea. I had sent in my demo reel and expressed a desire to join the team producing their new 3-2-1 Penguins! series. I got some great feedback on my reel from the animators, including the suggestion to "Send it again in a year." That got me pumped, so over the next few months I worked out a plan that would carry me to the end of the year when I could apply again.

Just three months after that counsel, I saw that they had another opening for the Penguins! team. Looking back, I can see how I could easily have "settled" and continued to follow my one-year plan. Instead, I jumped on the opportunity and contacted them again about re-reviewing my reel. That led to a couple of animation tests, which led to an interview, which led to my first job. By not settling, I effectively whittled my one year plan down to five months.

I may not have had Jobs' speech to inspire me as I was going through these various experiences, but I'd heard similar counsel from other sources, both secular and religious. I knew what I loved, and I knew I would kick myself later by settling for anything less. I'm so thankful that I didn't settle, and continue to be thankful every day for the blessings I've received because I haven't settled. If you need a boost of enthusiasm -- or heck, even if you don't -- go check out Jobs' speech. Great stuff in there. :)

Friday, September 23, 2005

BOZ online

I heard at work the other day that the BOZ web site was going to go up soon, and found that it went live at midnight last night (I found this after finishing my first Animation Mentor Q&A...nearly two hours...what a rush!). The site has a good mix of things for both parents and kids, and for those who can't wait 'til next March to see some animation, you can order a teaser DVD from the site. I also learned something interesting from browsing through the site: BOZ is supposed to be in all caps (although they didn't explain why), so I'm trying to mend my ways and promote him/it properly. Go BOZ!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The two-hour shot

A couple months back, we wrapped up production on "Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty," a short film that's included on the soon-to-be-released DVD for Robots. The folks at Blue Sky Studios were neck deep in production on Ice Age 2, so they asked us to produce the short under their direction. It was quite a challenge cranking out so much animation in such a short time, and we all learned a lot in the process. One of the things that was reinforced to me was the importance of planning.

Planning has been a hot topic for animation bloggers these days, and it's also a hot topic over at Animation Mentor as so many folks are just starting to get their feet wet with character animation. While a lot of the talk is about taking the time to plan in sufficient detail through a variety of techniques, I feel it's important to mention that even when there appears to be no time to plan, it becomes that much more important to take what little time there is and plan anyway.

This point was most strongly driven home on the very last day of animation production for the Robots short. It was a Friday morning, and we got ready for our final video conference call with the Blue Sky team, full of confidence that the last shots were done, and looking forward to nothing but approvals. When the Blue Sky folks got on the line, there were the usual greetings and connection-checkings and such...and then things got interesting.

They announced that they wanted to add another shot.

This is the kind of thing that makes animation supervisors (not to mention producers) cringe a little bit, and I must admit I did my share of cringing when I initially heard this proposal. The key concern was that the shot had to be done that day. We had another conference call scheduled later that afternoon, which meant that there would only be about two hours for someone to animate the new shot so we could get it up in front of them for review. Despite the uber-tight timeline, we committed to it, and pushed ahead to look at the animatic for the shot. As we watched it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the action and staging was constructed in such a way that it might actually be do-able in such a short time frame, even though the shot was four seconds long.

Because I was in the room for the initial presentation and had my eyes on the thing already, I decided to animate the shot myself. I knew that I wouldn't have time for thumbnails or video reference, but I also knew that I had to be really organized with how I tackled it or I'd spend two hours floundering around in Maya. So I began planning it out the only way I could at the time: in my head.

I peppered the Blue Sky folks with questions so I could get a really clear idea of what they wanted. As the animatic looped, I pictured the motion of the 3D characters through the frame. I even pictured (to some extent) how the motion curves would look in the graph editor. I tried to get the clearest possible vision of how the shot should look and what I would need to do to construct that look. When the meeting was over, we had a final quick bit of internal discussion about it, and I went to work.

Two hours later, the shot was done. We posted it for Blue Sky to review in our afternoon conference call, and thankfully there were only a few minor changes to make to take it to final. Those were done in short order, and the shot was approved and sent off to start lighting before the day was out.

Looking back, I know that planning made all the difference. Even though I was limited to asking questions and rehearsing the shot in my mind for maybe 15 minutes, that still helped a TON when I finally sat down and started setting keys on the computer. Without that little bit of planning, I would have been sunk.

"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."
(For the morbidly curious, the shot in question is the very last shot in the short, after the credits...)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Introducing Boz!

The clamps have been loosened just a touch on one of our core projects at Reel FX, so I can start spreading the news just a little. For at least the past year (and probably longer), we've been developing a new childrens' video property centered around a big green bear named Boz. The animation team got involved in Boz rig testing and look development early this year, and we went from there into production on some of the musical bits that will be incorporated into the videos. Just recently I've shifted into an animation supervisor role on the project, helping to take some of the load off the main anim sup, Tim Lannon.

The first videos in the series won't be released until the spring of 2006, but we're already starting to prepare some advance marketing materials which should be available soon. More details will be posted here as I'm allowed to share them.

Monday, September 12, 2005

New mentor at AM

Well, seeing that there's only a week to go before this kicks in, I suppose now is as good a time as any to make this announcement: I've joined the team of mentors at!

I got the invitation from Bobby Beck during a visit he paid to Reel FX when he came to Dallas back in July. I still have a hard time believing that this is happening, but I'm excited to get rolling and start working with students in the AM program. Everything I've heard and seen with regard to AM is just amazing. The students are all jazzed to learn; Bobby, Carlos, and Shawn are great (and hilarious) teachers; the mentors are all really great and talented people; the online school setup is really tight and streamlined (and still getting better!). I can't say enough good things about it...and the semester hasn't even started yet!!

Some time this week I should get more info on what class I'll be working with, who my students will be, when the live Q&A will happen, and all kinds of fun stuff. I'll try to post updates from time to time about how things are going. Woohoo!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry

I'm always on the lookout for interesting animation reference, and during a trip to the zoo a couple weeks back, I picked up a DVD titled Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry. Originally airing on TV back in 1999, this two-part documentary shows some really fascinating examples of animals displaying emotions that many of us often see as exclusively human. Because animation is such an emotional experience (more on this in a later post), and because animals are frequently chosen as characters in animated films, it's great to see specific examples of how emotions are conveyed and expressed by different types of animals.

One of my favorite scenes is in the section about the mother-child bond, and features a mother dolphin scolding one of her offspring after a close call with a boat. Following the scolding, the mother and child then swim off, with the mother gently touching the young one's flipper with her own, which is described as being a sort of dolphin equivalent of holding hands. It's the whole "I still love you" thing after getting a serious tongue-lashing. Great stuff!

Considering that it's six years old, and the DVD only contains about 100 minutes of video (plus a bunch of still-screen extras if you feel like reading), the retail price seems a tad on the high side. Keep your eyes open for a used copy somewhere, and snag it when you can!

Career advice

The other day I received an e-mail from someone who had a few career advice questions regarding animation. I'll admit I didn't feel terribly qualified to offer such advice, but I did my best to answer his questions. In the course of composing my answers, some interesting thoughts came to mind that I felt might be helpful for others. I don't claim that these are the right answers for everyone, but they ring true for me based on my experiences so far. I've made a few adjustments and clarified some points further, but the core is still intact. Here's how things went (with thanks to "JP" for allowing me to share his side of the conversation)...
Do you think it would increase my chances of finding work if i devoted myself to creature animations and realistic motions as opposed to cartoony? Since from what I understand, most companies are looking for realistic motions?
It's a tough call. I've never tried to read the industry and aim for what's hot at a given moment, so I don't really feel I can give you adequate advice in that arena. It sounds a lot like trying to predict hot stocks on Wall Street. It's all a guessing game. There's no exact science to it. People drive themselves nuts trying to predict where certain trends will go, and from some of your other comments, it sounds like you're already starting to get stressed by that effort.

As for me, I tend to just do my best at whatever's in front of me, and let the future take care of itself. If I need to find work, obviously I work hard at that effort, but I'm not trying to predict anything. I just look for a company that does the kind of work that I would like to be a part of, and I aim for that. And while I haven't had personal experience with stocks, I've heard that similar patterns work well in the stock market, too. Find a company that you like, buy some stock in it, and stick with it for the long haul. If you need to change at some point, then change. Don't kill yourself trying to stay ahead of the game by guessing (which is all it really is) what the Next Big Thing will be.

This next question could be answered in a similar way...

On a different note, do you think I would increase my chances of finding work if I devoted my skills to video games as oppossed to film?
...and that way, sadly, is "I really don't know."

However, I do have a strong belief that you will increase your chances of getting work if you search for a job doing work that you like. Rather than ask yourself, "What skills are in demand?", consider asking yourself, "What do I most enjoy?" Or perhaps, "What type of animation am I strongest at?" Everyone has aspects of animation that they like a lot, and generally they do their best work in those areas. If you search for a job doing that, I believe (again, just a feeling, no solid data, but a gut feeling) that you're likely to have a greater chance for success.

I'm kinda in a pickle here. I'm asking myself, "Where are the most possibilities right now? What are people mostly hiring? What is hot on demand right now? Are there more jobs in film or games and if so, what style? Cartoony or realism?"'re playing the animation stock-market. :) Again, rather than stress yourself trying to find the "hot" path and follow it, find your passion and follow that. You're bound to do better work, enjoy it more, and go farther in the industry if you're passionate about what you're doing, and not just doing it 'cause it's the hot thing or the easiest job to get at a given time.

I noticed that you said "One has to kinda do animations geared towards a company he would like to work for." While I agree and don't have a specific comment about that, it got me thinking about a company that I wanted to work for, and how that particular company's place in my career goals changed recently. I think this has some bearing on our current discussion, and I hope this info will be useful for you...

When I started studying character animation, Pixar was one of my primary goals. I used to tell myself that some day I would work at Pixar, and I kinda tried structuring a path that would get me there. It wasn't really a concerted effort all the time, but still, I had this goal of Pixar in my mind.

That goal stayed with me for my first few years as an animator, but somewhere in the past year, things changed. I no longer have Pixar as a key goal in my career. I still think they're doing some of the very best work when it comes to 3D character animation, and it certainly would be interesting to be there if I had the opportunity. However, the core nature of my goal has shifted. My goal is no longer about being at a certain place, but about achieving certain things. It's not about where I am, but what I do. Even if I never get hired at Pixar, I believe I can grow and learn and reach a point where I'm doing what folks refer to as "Pixar-quality animation".

The only reason people talk about "Pixar-quality animation" is because it's a convenient reference point. When it comes to 3D feature-level animation, the folks at Pixar happen to be the ones who have pushed themselves the hardest and set the standard for everyone else. However, that doesn't mean that they alone can achieve that level of quality. It's equally important to remember that it's not the name "Pixar" or the corporate entity that achieves that level of quality. It's the people. The people at Pixar study and work and push each other toward success. It's what they do, not where they are, that makes their work great. When it comes down to it, the end product is not "Pixar-quality animation," or even "insert_animator's_name_here-quality animation". It's just quality animation.

With that understanding in place, my new goal is simply to be the best animator I can be no matter where I am. The cool thing is that this shift in thinking has actually lifted some weight from my shoulders. I'm becoming a lot less worried about comparing myself to work done at another company, or by other people. I just need to make sure I'm always growing, always learning, always pushing myself to do better than my last assignment.

It's not about where I am, but what I do.

Blogger's block

Wow...things seemed to be going pretty well for the first little while. Then SIGGRAPH happened, I came home, and...... plunk. (For the uninitiated, that's the sound of a an idea or concept colliding with some type of wall.)

The core problem lately seems to be a difficulty in accomplishing two little tiny things...
  1. deciding what exactly to write here
  2. finding the time to write once a decision has been made

I got all excited about rolling along with Illustration Friday and Photo Friday on a regular basis, but the fire didn't catch nearly as strongly as I thought it did at first glance. I thought of writing something regarding the passing of Joe Ranft, but came up with several excuses not to. I've got a big long piece I've shared with some folks in person that I wanted to share here with the wider community, but because of its very "big long piece" nature, it's not coming together too terribly quickly...

...and suddenly I think I know what's going on.

When I first started this blog, I said that I was going to try to avoid doing stuff here just because everyone else was doing it. And what do I go and get myself into not two weeks later? Illustration Friday. Why did I get into it? It wasn't because I found the IF site and felt a burning desire to draw stuff on a weekly basis. When I look back on it, I think it was largely because I saw Ward Jenkins' entries each week. Because Ward was doing it, and I wanted to do it, too. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad thing to do -- heck, it's drawing, which I could definitely use a lot of practice in -- but without my own passion and drive for the idea, it was bound to fail. It kinda looks like it's failing magnificently at the moment.

The same goes for Photo Friday. I forget the exact place I ran across it, but I have a strong hunch that my reason for "joining the fun" was because I saw someone else doing it, and felt that it would be cool to have that little tidbit on my site. The initial desire didn't come from an internal spark. It was another "they're doing it, so I'll do it too" move. And sure enough....plunk.

So what about Joe Ranft? Why didn't I say anything regarding his passing? Frankly, I just didn't have a burning desire to write anything. Sure, I was sad...very sad. It was just not the type of sadness that moved me to put my thoughts down here. What was moving me was the feeling that because so many other animators were writing about him, I should write something, too...and I'm so glad that I didn't give in to that impulse. If I had written anyway, it probably would have come across as cheap and trite because I would have been simply following the crowd, rather than expressing true feelings from within. I respect and commend those who shared their thoughts and condolences in their blogs. They did so because they were moved to speak. I didn't feel moved in that same way, so I didn't write, and I sincerely hope that my silence wasn't seen as disrespect.

That leads up to the "big long piece," which is the easiest to explain: I definitely have a burning desire to share it, but it's just been hard to find the time.

So now we come back to the two little tiny things that have been so hard to do lately...

  1. decide what exactly to write here
  2. find the time to write once a decision has been made

Now that I realize what I was doing with some of these ideas/subjects, I'll be that much more careful about item 1. If you see it here, you'll know that it's something I really feel needs to be shared. If you see something elsewhere and don't see it here, it doesn't mean I don't have an opinion on the subject. It's just that my feelings didn't move me to type an entry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Okay, enough proofreading, Justin. Go to bed. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to write the other entries...