CHOOSING A SCHOOL TO STUDY ANIMATION
Q: First of all, why study animation? Did you consider illustration, comics, graphic design, or film/video?
I’ve always had an interest in Animation. I remember as a child, watching Looney Tunes shorts with my family. I watched them so often, I think I was able to connect directors to shorts based on the visuals. I studied art through junior high and high school, always knowing that I wanted to do something in art. Animation became the best way to combine all of my artistic interests in one discipline. It combined storytelling, composition, anatomy etc, into one field that was both fun and practical. I considered illustration but discovered that animation was more enjoyable. I also felt, probably naively, that animation would allow me to learn enough general art principles that I could pursue Illustration as a backup or side profession.
Q: What were you thinking about when looking at animation schools? Where did you look? What made you select UArts?
I wanted to stay close to NYC because I didn’t ever plan on living anywhere else. I also wanted to find an animation program that was immersive and offered the ability to explore not just 2d but other experimental forms as well. Another important part was community. I wanted to join a school where it felt like students were helping each other just as much as teachers were. That thinking eventually narrowed down my choices to Pratt or UArts as those both seemed, to me, to have the strongest animation departments. I finally settled on UArts because I thought both departments were similar enough and I wanted to live away from home.
Q: Did UArts seem like an animation school that would prepare you to a) write/direct your own independent films as an author of original work, b) learn the fundamentals of animation and the history of the form, and/or c) gain viable production skills to get an entry level job in a commercial studio soon after graduation?
What I liked about my time at UArts was that it mostly focused on A which in turn, forces you to learn both B and C. I appreciated that I learned the pipeline of animation production. It came in really handy in my career as I’ve worked in numerous positions along that pipeline. That, however, is also kind of a detriment as the actual fundamentals of animation were less stressed.
Q: Did you have an opinion about Philly at all before? How did the school’s location in Center City affect your decision to attend?
I’d never been to Philly prior to college and I fell in love with it while I was there. The museums, the galleries, the food; all of it was amazing. I loved how close I was to everything. I remember spending late nights at First Fridays in Olde City, taking a long walk to the Philadelphia Museum and heading down to the Italian Market for groceries. Philly is one of only a handful of cities in which I could see myself living. I loved UArts’ central location. It meant that I could go anywhere in the city, and outside it, and easily find my way back.
Q: What was the first animation that you made (before or at UArts)? Were you happy with it?
It was probably a very bad pencil test for Lowell Boston’s freshman level animation class. Pretty sure it was a flour sack exercise. I made a flour sack walk across screen and fall to the ground. I didn’t think it came out great but I was shocked that it actually existed. The fact that I animated something was amazing to me.
EXPERIENCES DURING SCHOOL
Q: Can you describe what you valued during your time at UArts that prepared you for the animation work you’ve done since graduating?
As I said before, I valued learning the production process of animation. It helped me develop a very practical set of skills that could apply throughout the process in a variety of positions. Also, again, the community at UArts was something I’ve never experienced before, and don’t think I’ll experience again. The camaraderie and collective encouragement of my classmates and professors really pushed me to become better. In a lot of professional cases, there is a common friendship and push to make the final product the best it can be but, at UArts, it felt more pristine and pure. The encouragement felt like it helped both parties become better people. I greatly miss the openness and positivity of class critiques and screenings. I miss the discussion on film and animation theory. I miss the entirety of the UArts environment.
Q: Can you describe what you would have liked to see added to your UArts animation education or what you could have used less of?
More emphasis on learning the fundamental skills, techniques and language of animation. I would like to see students be able to choose, earlier on, which discipline within the field they’d want to pursue (stop-mo, traditional, 3d etc) and further explore that discipline. I’d like to see students work in groups on projects to understand better how to apply their specific interests into one cohesive final product.
Q: You had a unique experience where your senior film ended up being adapted into a published book. Can you talk about this a bit?
Once my senior film, Hedgehug, was finished, I sent it to every festival I could find. Eventually, it was accepted and screened at the New York Children's International Film Fest. The NYCIFF is a pretty big festival in terms of children's entertainment. Not only do they premiere some pretty big children's films but, a lot of films shown at NYCIFF end up finding distribution. Others become developed for film & television and some get made into books. After my film was screened at NYCIFF, I was contacted by two publishers to develop my film into a children's book. After a few lunch meetings to work out details and hear offers, I settled on a 2 book deal with HarperCollins. The first book was to tell the story of the film and the second would continue the story of the characters in the first. HarperCollins hooked me up with a writer to help me translate my silent film into readable prose and I started illustrating the book. It took a few months of working nights and weekends, as I was employed full-time at the time, and, eventually, it was published. After a few months break, the writer and I started working on the second book in the same way. It too was published and my contract with HarperCollins was ended. Both books were only minimally successful but, it feels good to be a published illustrator.
I know that none of this would have happened had I not screened my film. I saw the festival circuit as a way to break into the animation industry and a way to make contacts with other animators and directors. I never thought I would end up with a book but, festivals can give your film a lot of attention from unexpected sources.
Q: Was there support or direction for graduates of the program? Did you and your peers know what to do next?
While I had heard of support programs for graduates, I never really felt their presence nor sought them out. I relied more on classmates for support. I think individually we all felt lost but, collectively we figured it out. The web of contacts and friendships within my graduating class is greatly responsible for my success (in as much as I’d describe my career as a success). What I, and I think students in general, didn’t understand was that my UArts classmates were my first real career connections. In the animation industry (especially in New York) connections matter. I think knowing them, and other UArts Alumni, helped me break into the animation business.
Q: What has been your career path up until this point? Who did you talk to, were you recruited, did you apply, what were your routes to those past jobs.
My career path was varied and sporadic. It started with simply cold-calling places, sending resumes and applying for jobs. This was done in between rounds of poor paying freelance work. I’d send out demo reels and resumes and keep up with companies through email and phone calls. I was recommended (by a UArts alum no less) for a job as an animation assistant for Signe Baumane. She, in turn, recommended me for another assistant job with Bill Plympton. All the while I was taking freelance jobs and sending out my reel to whoever would accept. I eventually landed a job at a large studio which snowballed into working for other studio, mostly through word of mouth from coworkers and friends. In my career, I’ve tried to be as malleable as possible and work wherever I could fit in the pipeline. To that extent, I’ve worked as an animator, designer, effects animator, motion graphics artist, director, storyboard artist and layout artist. It’s been a wild ride.
WHAT YOU’RE WORKING ON NOW
Q: Can you describe your job now, your day-to-day responsibilities?
I currently work as a Storyboard Artist for Little Airplane Productions, an animation studio in downtown NYC. I break down the script into storyboards, trying to clearly tell the story while avoiding and solving potential visual problems in the narrative. I enjoy that I’m basically directing, to some extent, every episode I board.
Q: Now, although it is all still recent history, what have you learned that you wish you knew sooner, in other words, could have been taught in school?
I wish I had learned more about the actual organization of projects and files. Especially on higher end television productions, file organization is crucial. It prevents doing work that has already been done and it allows for smoother scheduling.
Also, I would have liked to know more about the business side of freelance. Perhaps have working freelance animators come in to speak about how they keep track of their invoices, billing and payments. Alternately, having a tax consultant come in to speak about tax specifics when dealing with freelance or legal specialists to discuss the legal problems of non-payment and work for hire agreements.
Q: What have you learned on the job that could only be gained from this first-hand practical studio experience?
From this specific job? How working with overseas productions makes for trickier scheduling and tougher critiques..
From my overall work experience? How I personally work best. It takes a while to learn how you, yourself, should organize your thoughts, files and workflow to work most efficiently and productively. It can come only from the experience of working for all sorts of clients on all sorts of projects with all sorts of deadlines.
Q: What is your advice then, to the current students and prospective students at UArts, if they would like to pursue a career in animation?
I feel like I could write a whole essay about advice based on my experience but I’ll condense it to the following:
- Keep Creating. Animate, draw, paint. Whatever you do to be creative keep doing that. Keep honing your craft and your work ethic. I once heard a comedian say, when speaking about how to make it in comedy, “Make yourself undeniable.” That is to say, make it so that your craft is such that no one can deny your talent and work. It’s not that you’re the best but, rather, that your abilities are without question. I think the same can be said for working in almost any field and I apply it to animation. Make it so that your work is so good and your work ethic so productive that having you on a production isn’t just a positive, it’s a necessity.
- Make Connections. Your current classmates are your future employers. They’ll be responsible for jobs and recommendations once you enter the field. If they know you, like you and think you’re good at what you do, you’ll have more opportunities.
- Don’t be a Jerk. Your livelihood will depend on how well you deal with other people. Bosses, co-workers and clients, everyone you interact with in your career can open up possibilities to more work. Treat people with respect and you’ll get far. Treat them poorly and you won’t be in the industry for very long.