Workshop Weekend 2011

This weekend, I had the privilege of attending Judd Simantov‘s first workshop on character design and digital sculpting. Judd recently returned to South Africa after a 7 year stint as the lead character TD at Naughty Dog entertainment in LA, rigging and building tools for games such as Uncharted (1&2). The workshop was run over 3 days at Learn 3D in Randburg, and included a Skype conference with Rich Diamant, lead character artist at Blizzard Entertainment! The workshop was full, and attended by animators and designers from Luma, Bugbox Animation, Wits University and animation teaching professionals . The focus of the course was very much on the principles of character design, especially story and appeal. On the first day, we concentrated on drawing, and different exercises in exploring design concepts. Here are a couple of mine: Next we had to come up with an idea for a character by suggesting a specific story idea, something with some sort of conflict, or irony built into it. My idea was, “A little girl who hates animals, but can talk to them.” Here are some of the exploratory sketches: Judd was extremely encouraging and after looking at my thumbnails, told be to combine some of my ideas and we came up with this: Apart from being an extremely accomplished digital artist, Judd is also passionate about sculpting in traditional mediums. As character sculpting is something you don’t get to see a lot of in South Africa, Judd offered to give us a live demo, and we drew designs out of a hat to see which one he’d tackle. Through no funny business I swear it, yours truly won the draw =) Photo courtesy of Martin Sen After looking at design and drawing, we started to go over design principles in 3D, and how to try and get the appeal of a drawing into our sculpts. We looked at ideas around construction, shapes, anatomy, values and using simple planes to depict form and to evoke appeal. Here is what I managed to come up with in the few hours we had: After having watched Judd knock out an amazing, and appealing character in less than half an hour, it was very humbling to try and do the same! However, Judd urged us not to be too hard on ourselves and told us that what was important wasn’t to come away with an awesome, finished piece, but that we’ve engaged with the concepts and that we get a grasp on what makes certain designs and sculpts better than others. Everyone who attended the class was buzzing with excitement afterwards! Though there are many talented South Africans placed all over the world, it’s very rarely that those of us working in the local industry have the opportunity to learn from them, and to benefit from their knowledge. Judd is not only one of the best people in the world at what he does, he is also an extremely generous person, and was happy to answer all our questions, not only about design and sculpting, but about working in the games industry, what employers overseas value in digital artists, and what makes a great portfolio. A big thanks to Gustavo and the Learn 3D team for the venue, and to Judd and Rich for an awesome and inspiring  weekend!

Tips for getting hired in the South African animation industry.

As a director at Bugbox Animation, I was often asked to view showreels from both students and professionals who were interested in working with us. I’m afraid to say that in the 6 years that I was with the company, I only ever saw 1 reel (Zolna Minik’s) that convinced me outright that we couldn’t afford not to hire the applicant.

Despite there being a lot of good material already on the net regarding show reels (click here and here for Pixar’s Andrew Gordon’s fantastic reel tips), I thought that I would quickly share my experience, not only in hiring folk, but in trying to get a job myself beacause it’s scary out there! Just to kick things off, here is my reel that I used to get my first job at Bugbox:

It’s pretty clunky, and breaks a lot of the rules of a good reel, including not putting my best stuff first, mixing everything up to try fool the viewer into thinking I have much more material than I do, and “Licensed character animator,” what the hell does that even mean?! The reason I’m showing you this is to give ya’ll hope that someone will hire you. I hope a lot of you are looking at this and saying to yourselves, “I can do better than this!” However, it wasn’t only the reel that did it. Below are 5 strategies I urge you to employ in your job hunt:

1. Have context

Just like it’s easier to talk to the pretty girl/boy at the party if it’s YOUR party, it’s so much easier getting a job if everyone knows who you are and how you fit in. This is tough for students as most of them have had their heads down making animation, studying hard, being good students. This may work in high school, but in forging a career, it is only half the battle. Everyone says that networking is importing, but go beyond that. Don’t just go to industry events, visit companies and build relationships with them; get involved in film festivals; volunteer with organizations like Animation SA and ASIFA, interview people and stick it on a blog; email the people you admire and want to learn from, the worst they can do is not reply; most of all, start getting some context. Your goal: when you walk out of college, you’re already on a first name basis with the people you want to work with! I got my first job at Bugbox, not only on the strength of my reel, but because my good friend Derik van den Berg recommended me.

2. Be non-threatening

This piece of advice was passed onto me by James Bihl from Marionette Animation, via Zolna Mink. Most small studios, like the ones we have in SA, are not in the position to offer full time employment if they have not put a call out for reels. Animators are by nature, a soft hearted bunch and hate to disappoint, so instead of cold calling people and asking them if they’re hiring (which is depressing) one of the best ways to ingratiate yourself to studios is to ask if they have time to see you and give you feedback on your work. If you are fortunate enough to get 10 to 15 minutes, try and get as much information as you can from them on what they’re looking for in a reel, what part of your own reel you should work on,what they’re looking for in a potential employee, what they want to do with their company etc. Take note of the information and….

3. Do another pass, and try again

The single biggest reason that we ended up hiring Zolna was that after her first interview with us, she took our constructive crits’, worked on her reel throughout December, and reapplied to us in January having implemented all of our suggestions! With large studios, I’m sure they have the same people applying and reapplying every year, but at Bugbox, this was a first! Below is the reel that Zolna won us over with, and yes, it’s much better than my student reel =)

4. Be professional at all times

Just a quick story: A guy came into Bugbox and wanted to show us his stuff. I didn’t look at it, I’m usually extremely nice and take the compliment sandwich approach to giving feedback (say what you like, say what you think needs work, end with reiterating what you think is good so that you leave the taste of hope in the person’s mouth. This works well with most artists, as they are sensitive and need to be affirmed to feel capable, though it is a little soft). On this occasion, my boss took the interview, and for what ever reason, he felt he needed to be a little more frank with the applicant, telling him he needed to go back to basics. He was right, this guys stuff wasn’t studio ready. Later that day, one of the people who worked at the studio, found through some mutual Facebook friends, that this guy had started a whole thread on how mean we are, and how much our studio sucks. Needless to say, we’ve told that story to other people in the industry, and for those who’ve heard it, they now know that this guy is someone who A. Can’t handle criticism and B. Will badmouth you publicly on the net. If you have a crap interview and you get mad, tell your wife, tell your mom, tell your BFFs, but on the net, and in industry circles, PLEASE keep it professional.

5. Put whole pieces on as an option

As there is a steep learning curve for most animation students, most of the reels I’ve seen are a mixed bag: some stuff is starting to look pretty decent, but a lot of it is sub-par. I would encourage you to have the option of showing full projects (your best ones) on your reel dvd. It was this clunky, floaty little lip-sync test that got me the job at Bugbox:

Good luck out there!