Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Day in the Life with Pro Character Animator Scott McWhinnie

Watch on Youtube: A Day in the Life of a Pro Character Animator

We recently had the chance to sit down with AnimSchool instructor Scott McWhinnie and chat about his adventurous career as an animator and the things he has learned along the way. Scott has worked at Moonbot Studios, Sony Animation, Bue Sky Studios, and most recently, Illumination Mac Guff in Paris. Scott gives us an insightful look into the day-to-day life of an animator and illustrates how to balance working hard for those top-level industry jobs with your own happiness.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get into animation?

I started out as a teenager wanting to do comic strips for newspapers, but after a while, I realized it would be even cooler to make those drawings move, so I started wanting to do 2D animation. Eventually, I realized that I would have more opportunities to animate in 3D, so I attended Ringling College of Art and Design. During my time there I spent a summer as an intern at Sony Imageworks in LA. After graduation, I started working at Moonbot Studios in Louisiana. After a year of working there, I jumped around between animation studios in NYC and Dallas. I eventually landed at Blue Sky Studios where I worked for about 5 years on Rio 2, Ice Age 5, Ferdinand, and Spies in Disguise. Then in 2020, I started working remotely... before it was cool :) ...so I could live as a "Digital Nomad", where I would travel around and work from wherever I was staying. A studio called Little Zoo, which is fully remote, gave me that chance, but we all know what happened in 2020. Later I made my way back to Sony and animated on Hotel Transylvania 4. Currently, I have just moved to Paris where I am working at Illumination Mac Guff.

It is incredible how your career has taken you around the world. Would you say moving around a lot like you have is normal for a career in this industry?

I think if you want to stay put you can find a way. If that’s your priority, there are plenty of jobs that allow you to stay relatively stable. It's just a matter of whether it lines up with what you want to do in animation. For me, I always wanted to do feature films so that was a big part of moving around and figuring out where to go. Also, for me moving around was sort of my life. My dad was a pastor so we were moving every two to three years on average; moving for animation jobs wasn’t a big deal for me. It actually feels weird to stay in one place for more than five years. It is very common to move around in this industry, but I don't think it has to be if you don't want it to be.

As someone who went to a four-year art college, can you talk about the pros and cons of doing an online program like AnimSchool compared to a traditional four-year university?

I think the biggest pros of a traditional school are the classmates and the environment it provides. I learned so much from the person sitting next to me during late-night discussions about animation and art with friends. For me at least, those interactions taught me so much and are much easier and more organic to come by in-person versus over the internet. A big con of course is the cost, but I would recommend to any new student is to really understand what the true cost of your schooling is and what that might mean for your future and try and take advantage of financial help. I think a lot of students don't understand and might not even realize what the cost of the school is and what that will mean. I was lucky because my grandmother worked in banking and made sure I understood and taught me ways to manage this cost and save as much money as possible on school. As far as pros and cons for an online school, I would say the pros are one: the price, they are very affordable. Also the flexibility so you can take classes at your own pace, which opens it up to so many people...oh, and the ability to take the classes from anywhere on the planet. It is so cool to have students from all over the world. A potential con for me would be having to build relationships over the internet. For me, it is not a thing I did really until 2015, (I didn't even have a cell phone until 2012) so I find it a little extra challenging. I think a lot of students today have probably spent their entire lives interacting via the internet, so it is probably very normal for them.

As far as recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Does the type of school you go to factor into getting a job?

No one cares. At Blue Sky, I don't think they even looked at my resume when they hired me. Years later I started talking about how I worked at all these places and they were like “Oh...we thought you came from straight out of school or something?” So a lot of the time they don't know. They just look at your work and that’s all they care about. I’d say the one advantage is—it depends on the kind of person you are—but the connection you make with people, especially in person. For me, it was a lot stronger in person. When I started working here I went to school with someone for only one or two years, but we had known each other in person. We hadn’t spoken since school, but we still had that immediate connection where we recognized each other and knew each other. Compared to the online school where if no one turns on their camera you may not feel like you really know your classmates. As far as the recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Should you consider online animation school even if you went to a four-year university?

I think it’s just going to come down to what your priorities are and what you're comfortable with. If you're going to a traditional four-year school that makes you do everything, you have to spend all your extra time focusing on animation if you want to be an animator or modeling if you want to be a modeler. If you don't do that, just assume you're probably going to have to sign up for AnimSchool after you graduate. There's a lot of stuff you can learn at the four-year schools but if you want to specialize and you don’t focus on it at the four-year schooling then you're probably going to have to take another year doing online animation school. I was too stubborn and just worked on my reel privately. I probably wasted three years that I didn't need to if I had just gone to an online school after graduating. I probably would've gotten better a lot quicker. 

I chose AnimSchool because it's the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school.  I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that.

Why did you choose to teach at AnimSchool?

I chose AnimSchool because it's the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school. It really just came down to seeing the work the students were producing. I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that. When I was at Blue Sky, I knew a few animators who were teaching there and they only had positive things to say about it. As far as compared to the other schools, I don't know enough about the other schools beyond looking at their reels. I just think the AnimSchool animation that comes out is cooler and better. I like what they do and what the students are producing, so it seems like we’d be a good fit.

What are some of the most important concepts you try to emphasize in your own class that you feel like missed out on in school?

I would say the main thing I try and emphasize in my class is the idea of learning concepts that can be applied to every shot you will animate in the future and not just specifics for a specific shot. I’m not going to teach “here’s how to make an angry face.” Instead, I’ll talk about how I can structure my face to read clearly and look appealing. Of course, I'll go over basics stuff like, “angry brows go down,” but we’re going to spend more time on how to make an appealing face pose that looks good and feels believable. Instead of teaching that a blink is always two frames down and three frames up, I’d say just make sure to get some variety in your blinks so it doesn’t feel mechanical; we’re going to go faster down and slower up.  I’m teaching more conceptual things so that the knowledge can bend and change depending on the need. Sometimes we’re going to have blinks that go up a lot slower, but if they’re going up and down at the same speed, it’ll feel very mechanical. I try to teach things as concepts and ideas, instead of “this is how it's done: step a, b, c” because that’s only going to help you on that one shot instead of down the road on other shots.

Do you need to be good at drawing in order to be a good animator? Do you have a studio art background yourself?

Short answer: no. But I think it can be very helpful. Drawing can provide exercise and practice of a necessary animation skill: critical observation. Anyone who draws in a representative style is required to be highly observant in order to recreate the world around them, and those skills are also essential to animation, but you can develop these skills in other ways as well. Yes, I do have a studio art background; at Ringling your first year is all traditional art. In fact, in addition to animation, I landscape paint (with real paints :)) and do a bit of pottery as well.

How does animating differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX? Should you stick to one medium, or is it normal to jump around?

I can only speak for film, TV, and video games because I have not animated on a VFX project. But the basic animation skills are all the same. The main difference is going to be workflow stuff and, of course, speed. So I don't think jumping around is that crazy of an idea, you just have to be willing to accept the change to your workflow to adapt to the production. I would say jump around if you want, but if you don't want to do video games then there is no need to be doing game-related animations. 

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it's almost never the coolest film. It's just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

How important is it to find a studio you get along with versus working at a big-name studio?

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it's almost never the coolest film. It's just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. For me, it was Ferdinand because Carlos and I were just mentally on the same page. I’d just show him something, and he’d say two words and I knew what he meant instantly. Alternatively, there were other people who didn't like the production because they had no idea what he wanted. So it depends on creativity if you have that or not. I’ve had that at other studios where I was struggling so hard to figure out what the heck they want from me and I see these other guys who love it there and are having so much fun because they know exactly what everyone wants. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

If you're looking for a job that you really connect with and enjoy and don't feel like you're struggling at, just do what animations you like to do and put that on your reel.

What are your biggest demo reel tips?

My tip for demo reels is to just do work you like. Do the work you want to do for your job. Do the style and kinds of shots you want to do and do them well. And then just apply for all the jobs. The people who like your reel are going to be the people who are creatively in the same boat as you, so you’re going to enjoy the job more than if you’re creatively in two different worlds. That’s one thing I was surprised to find out. At Pixar, they make amazing films, but not everyone’s going to like it there. Not everyone's going to like every studio. Some people are going to feel like they fit in better, they work better, fit the style better, connect with the director better at certain studios over others. So for reels, I always recommend putting your best stuff in there, and don’t...well, this sort of contradicts what a lot of people say about tailoring your reel to the job you’re applying for. If you just want a job and you don’t care if you’re going to like it or not, then yes, tailor your reel. But if you’re looking for a job that you really connect with and really enjoy and don't feel like you're struggling at, just do what you like to do and put that on your reel. But definitely try to make sure all your shots are the same quality. I know some supervisors when they watch your reel are only looking for your worst shot and will ignore everything else. The director is thinking that you’re going to give them nothing less than the worst shot, but if they only look at your best shot, they think this may not always be their best work. So some sups like to find the worst shot and base their decisions off of everyone's worst shot on their reel. So don't give them the worst one. Make it hard for them to decide which one is your worst one. 

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good animator? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your animation supervisor?

I think it is super important and took me a while to find what works for me. The best thing is to be positive to the feedback and open to ideas.  When you're next to get your notes, sit up in your chair, get your little pad out, and just let them talk and just say “cool….yeah…awesome” and write all the notes down. And if you have any notes to clarify, you can ask. The worst thing you can say is “okay, yeah….but”. Try to avoid saying things like "but". When you say "but" after receiving a note it has the implication that you don't agree with the note. I like to let them say all of their thoughts and then come back and ask questions to make sure I understand everything they have said.

The worst thing you can say when getting notes is "okay, yeah...but".

Another thing I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to get up out of your chair and talk to people. You’re just going to learn from what they have to say. By going up and talking to them, you’re going to see what they’re working on or they might explain something to you or you might all of sudden realize you have a question. By developing some sort of social relationship with the people around you, you will open up doors and opportunities to discuss animation and get help from people. If you just sit in your chair and never get up, you’re never going to get help from anyone else…. or vice versa, helping someone else out will give you a lot and show where you are with your own animation. And that same kind of concept goes for your supervisors as well. I think it is great to make sure you establish a bit of a relationship outside of getting notes from a sup. In animation we are all much more laid back than say an accounting firm, so don't be afraid to have conversations with your sup just like you would with your friend. This can make receiving notes less of a to-do list but more of a discussion between peers, which will be more enjoyable as well as breed better animation.

What was the most unexpected thing you encountered when going from being a student to working professionally at a studio?

That it is a lot less work. When I was a student I stayed up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning and now I'm done at 6pm. Maybe I've been very fortunate with all the studios I've worked at, but over time has never been mandatory. They’d say if you want to do 5 or 10 hours extra a week, you’re more than welcome to, but it's not required. Only a couple instances they’d say, “Do overtime just these couple days we need you to finish this up.” Whereas school it was every day. I was always falling asleep. When I'm finished with work, I'm done and I don't have to think about it until the next day.

How important is it to be a super clean, organized animator? I know some animators animate strictly in the graph editor and keep their keys super clean while others manipulate the rig freely in the viewport and slide keys around without much thought.

Well, I hope it isn't super important because I am not organized at all. For me, if I am thinking of anything besides that image in front of me that is wasted thoughts. Art is not about the tools or the technique; it is about expressing the ideas of the artist. I want to say it's good to be organized, but it feels weird to say that because I'm not organized at all. I don't worry too much about technical stuff because I don't like technical stuff. I think it can be helpful if you’re organized, but my mentality is that if I'm worrying about technical stuff, then that's energy that I'm not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else. If I'm thinking, well if I do that pose then it kind of breaks the rig, now I don’t have the best pose, and what's more important: breaking the rig or having the best pose? I’m sure some artists in the tech anim department would have a different answer though :)

My mentality is that if I'm worrying about technical stuff, then that's energy that I'm not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else.

One of the bigger things student animators struggle with is making the jump from stepped to spline? What's the best way to get out of the “floaty phase” and into the polish phase? Does this floaty phase get less time-consuming as you get better at animating?

Ah yes... I actually have a whole lecture about how we can avoid this. If you are working in stepped and want to avoid that terrible first spline floatiness you need to make sure you have enough blocking keys and that they are the correct blocking keys. The computer is stupid. So we need to make sure that the keys we put down give the computer the best information to give us the result we want. So if your animation after hitting spline is very floaty you either need to add in more information (keys) or your information (keys) you gave the computer was not the correct information.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future, post-COVID?

I think the biggest thing will be the opportunity for people to choose if they work from the office or from home. I hope it is a hybrid, but I think a lot will go back to normal. 

What are some of your favorite activities to do when you need a break from animating and looking at screens?

Oooo, I love breaks! Just ask anyone who has sat next to me and they know I get up from my desk like every hour. Typically the longer I sit in front of the computer the less productive I become, so I always get up take a walk outside or go say hi to a friend, or grab a snack about every hour or two. I think it keeps us more focused. Some people say having a life outside of animation will make your animation better, but I don't know if it will definitely make your animation better. I will say though, if you are not in a good place with your life, it will 100% affect your animation for the worse. Back in the day, I did painting, drawing, sketching... art forms that weren’t animation-related. But now I've started to do some non-art-related things. When you start animating for a while—when you do one thing for a long time—it's good to get out and branch out into different aspects of the world. It can open your mind to new ideas. Just branching out and doing things that aren’t animation or even art can help with your animation by having a broader scope of the world and life. And also, you don't want to get burned out. Going out and doing things that you like outside of animation that doesn't have the same stress as trying to be the best animator ever, can alleviate that potential issue of burnout which is super important if you plan to animate for thirty years.

What’s next for you? Are there any other facets of animation you want to try out or are you happy with animating for now?

I really enjoy animating so I think I will keep animating how I am for the moment. But I have always been amazed by stop motion so maybe one day I will try and make that transition and try and work on a Laika or Aardman film. I also love teaching so maybe more of that too.

Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us Scott! If you'd like to see more of Scott's work, click the links below.
Instagram @mcwhinniescott
AnimSchool YouTube
Some of his featured videos include Hand Posing, Eye Mask, Eye Darts, Breakdowns, Anim Polish

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Friday, July 9, 2021

How I Became a Game Animator for AAA Games

We recently had the chance to interview AnimSchool instructor John Paul Rhinemiller and talk to him about his journey from being an animator for feature films to a game developer at Vicarious Visions for the past ten years.  Keep reading to get a taste of what working in the game industry is really like and whether it's the right choice for you.

Tell us your story! What got you into animation?

It’s not something I knew from the start. It’s more a series of events that led me to want to be an animator. I always was into art but never put the two together until I attended McCann Technical High School where I focused half my time on Computer Assisted Drafting. I loved the computer side of things but not so much the mechanical drafting of parts. After high school, I attended a local community college and took an elective course in animation, and the marriage of computers and art for me is what I needed. I never looked back.

Did you always go for games specifically or did you explore films and TV first?

I think I always had the film itch, just like a lot of students do. They get it into their head “Film is the thing that we have to do. If I don't reach film, I am not a success story.” It feels like film is the pinnacle of animation sometimes. In a lot of schools back in the day, a lot of programs were set up like that because the game industry was this weird insular thing. There really wasn’t a lot of exposure to games. So I gravitated towards film in the beginning. I worked as hard as I could to get in, and then worked in film for a few years. It wasn’t until my wife was looking to go back to college that I came across Vicarious Visions in New York. It felt like, “Ok let's go there for 2–3 years while she gets her degree and then I'll go back to film. That’s the plan.” I got there and interviewed, and the environment throughout the interview process was just a breath of fresh air. I got to interview with people from all different disciplines, not just animators, and they all wanted to know how I would collaborate with them. There are just so many more opportunities to collaborate since the teams are so much smaller. Over the years at Vicarious Visions, I learned a lot about being an artist and game developer, not just an animator. It provided this opportunity for growth that I don't know I would've gotten in film because it's so specialized. Sometimes there’s very little room to lift your head up and see what's out there in film, but in games they encourage that. They push you to follow what you're passionate for and want to go after. Even after I shipped a project, I’d think about looking for another job but then I'd think, “The next project looks really great and the studio has been really good to me and I’ve learned so much so why don't I just hop onto the next project?” Before you know it, I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m not ever going back to film, I’m a game developer now!

Can you talk a bit more about the key differences between animating for video games versus film?

Honestly, the amount you are involved in the entire process with animation in games can be very different from film. I have been able to collaborate with so many departments that it allows me to enjoy being an artist and an animator. The teams are smaller, so even when I interview people now, I’m looking at how their voice is going to impact my team. At a game studio, there can be six animators on a team. When I was at the Rhythm and Hues, we had 90 animators on a team for a short project. My personality is big, and I try to get to know everyone, but at a game studio, you really get to know everyone and you have to work together to solve problems. As an animator you want that quality to be shown, and if there are technical issues, you have to work together to solve them so the rest of the team can be proud of what we ship. You can be involved as much or as little as you want to be. If you want to be heads down and just focus on being a good animator, there’s room for that. If you want to solve technical problems and want to work and collaborate outside of just animation, there's also room for that. We expect animators on our team to have more of an impact and a voice. We really want their voice to shine through, because your perspective is very important to round out our team and help give us the different pieces that come together to help us ship a good project.

A lot of student animators aspire to animate for the big screen. Could someone start off in games and transition to film or vice versa?

I feel like the difference between the quality of animation in film and games is narrowing all the time. This means that the qualities each look for are also narrowing. The foundations are super important as your building blocks. One thing that transfers to both industries is showing a wide range of styles on your reel. One thing that sticks out is many of the studios want animators to think like game developers as well. It’s important to hone your craft but understanding how games get made is super important to continue to push this medium further. With tools and pipelines, knowledge does not always transfer one to one.

Can you elaborate a bit more about what you mean by “think like game developers”?

Game development is a process you have to see in real-time. Cinematics can be isolating when you do large, full-scale movies. When it comes to game animators in general, it's not just about your animations. You have to get it into the game and see the responsiveness of your controller or PC. When you put it in a playtest, they’re immediately talking about how responsive it is, how it feels and what their experience is. And you as an animator have to interpret this and work with designers to make sure that responsiveness not only looks good from a visual standpoint but also plays well with the gamer who’s thinking, “Well this guy isn’t turning fast enough so I can’t get over here fast enough…” There's a level of responsiveness that has to go back and forth with the game and player. When you understand game development, then you can craft and tailor your animations a little bit differently in the beginning. Your approach might be slightly different compared to a shot that’s just going straight onto a screen in a film. I was an animator when I started, but now I'm a game developer first. I know what animation systems it takes to make the animation run well in games. I have to understand game development in order to know how to make the animation shine.

How well versed in video game programs such as Unity and Unreal do you need to be to animate for video games?

It is a plus and we teach some intro and basic setup in our game courses. From my experience, as a junior animator coming in, we like to take into account that new hires will need some guidance and mentoring along the way. Getting experience in an engine will always start to set you apart. As real-time rendering becomes more and more widely used in the industry as a whole, it will only serve you better to get some training.

In your class, you also teach cinematics. In the industry, how often do you animators utilize knowledge about cameras and cinematography?

It all depends on the size of the studio that you work at. The larger teams tend to have layout artists. That doesn’t mean you won’t touch cameras or have a say, but it may not be your primary job. At Vicarious Visions we want our animators to have a good understanding of cinematics as a whole and be  active participants in the development of our story content so understanding the foundations of cameras and cinematography is certainly a plus.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to students?

Two things:

1. Everyone's timelines/journeys are different. If you chat with someone working in the industry, most of the stories on how they got there are different. So stick with it if you are passionate. Someone may land a job right after school and someone else may take a year. That's their journey. You have to continue on that journey and continue to find that passion in order to make it happen. If you continue down that road, continue to be passionate, and continue to put your all in it, you’ll make it into the industry. 

2. It’s easy to get distracted by all the areas within school so FOCUS. The earlier you can figure out what you want to focus on the better off you will be and more practice and iteration you will have under your belt. If you want to model FOCUS on that...if you want to animate, do that as much as possible. There’s plenty of time for you to learn other things afterward, but if you want to get that job, it is very competitive and you need to focus as quickly and as early as possible in your studies.

What are your biggest demo reel tips for those trying to get into the game industry?

Only put your best on there. If that's 2 pieces then so be it. Organizing your reel around consistency and pacing can show really well. Variety! Showing your range to potential employers can help set you apart.

You’ve clearly animated a variety of characters and styles. How do you film references for creatures that don’t exist and make them feel believable, but also have character/personality?

What a great question! Many places I had would bring in animals if possible for us to take time and study. One good way is thinking about 1-2 features that could ground that creature in reality. Talk to your lead or get input from the team and then you have a good starting point for reference gathering. If you can add something that people can connect with it can help make these fantastical creatures feel a little more believable.

How do you use MoCap in your game animation pipeline?

For the first five years I was here at Vicarious Visions, we didn’t use it at all. Since working on the Destiny franchise, we transitioned and have been using a mix of it since. We still feel it’s really important to be a good animator at the core. We look at MoCap as another tool for animation to use. You must have solid foundations to build off of. If we are talking from an execution standpoint, we have lots of resources across Activision. They have a large motion capture space for anything that requires that level of effort that we use from time to time, and we also have an Xsens suit that we use at the studio.

In your class, how do you push your students to create industry-level work?

We focus a TON on iteration and feedback. One of the biggest things I push is Weight, Timing, and Spacing. I feel these are some of the important building blocks to an animator's foundation. Without being able to show this off in your work, it is hard to see past the mistakes. They don’t have to be perfect, but the sooner you understand this the faster you can show the potential you have as an animator to potential studios.

Where should I start if I only have a little bit of animation experience and want to be a game animator?

There are lots of resources out there nowadays but I like to think we have a good veteran group of game instructors here at AnimSchool. We are constantly trying to evolve the curriculum as the gaming industry evolves as well. We need to be agile just like game development in order to help provide the best training to our students. We care about our students and really work to help them succeed with their hard skills as well as their soft skills.

What’s the biggest advantage of taking live classes instead of learning from online tutorials?

The interaction that I have with the students individually and drawing over and being able to explain what's in my brain about animation is so much easier. I can see what's on the page and interpret their animation skillset and give appropriate, individual feedback. They can ask me questions in real-time while we’re going back and forth, and we jam just like we would in a studio. During dailies at a studio, if you don't understand it, then we continue to hammer on it until it clicks. It's not just about draw-overs, we’ll open up the files and I'll do the note, show it to them, and then they’ll go back and do it on their own.  You can listen to or read something, but are you getting enough clarity in order to interpret it in the way you see animation? Everyone understands and sees things slightly differently. We also get to talk about the industry as a whole. Some of the discussions for the first 5-10 minutes of class are about the industry: how you can advance your career or get better at an interview. There's so much I'm trying to give these students in only 11 weeks. We try to inject as much as the other stuff that’s going to get you a job. Your reel is the 70% that’ll get you an interview, but if you go into that interview unprepared, you might not get it. We really try to inject a whole lot more about the industry itself (how to succeed and how to get in), rather than just the skillset. There'll always be time to grow the skillset, but how often do you have the opportunity to ask someone with 20 years of experience questions about the interview process or how to tailor your reel? Those kinds of things are gold that never really get seen in a curriculum.

What kind of person should pursue the Game Animation track?

There’s a lot of stigma that you have to be a big gamer to go into games and that is not true. I was a casual gamer growing up, but I wasn’t a hardcore gamer that knew from day one that’s what I wanted to do. There's a love of animation in this industry just like there is in film. The thing that AnimSchool has done is set up tracks to help you understand the multiple facets of being a game animator. Whether that be cinematics, whether that be motion capture, whether that be gameplay animator. The Game Animation Track gives you a good foundation of touching an engine for the first time, getting your stuff in an engine, and being able to present that work on your demo reel. If you want to see where this industry is going and have a different perspective on how animation can be a part of the community and touch people in a different way, then this is for you. Games are an experience. And there's so much new tech out there that allows us to interact with a community and the people playing our games. Games are still in their infancy as an art, and I think AnimSchool does a great job of capturing that base foundation so that when you get out of school, you’re not completely lost. 

Can you talk about the gender gap that exists in the game industry?

As we continue to develop more young talent and more young gamers, we’ve seen some good growth in the diversity of the new hires we’re getting out of school. However, we definitely need more diversity in games in general, but we also need more females. The thing that this offers is different perspectives. We need those different perspectives in our industry to help create great ideas and good experiences that everyone can enjoy and that represent everybody. Those perspectives are going to help us develop games that people want to play in the future. The gaming industry as a whole has done a better job of being more self-aware, but we have a long way to go. Young female gamers can be part of that change and drive to evolve our industry. It offers a completely different dynamic to our teams and it makes us better. That diversity and inclusion make our games better and just make us all better.

How has working during the pandemic been for you? Do you think video games will shift more towards remote work than it already was?

This is a tough question. While I think we have been successful and very productive, I feel we lose a whole side of our industry that makes it special...the culture. We give it a good try, but trying to inject the fabric of a studio through Zoom boxes will never be the same in my opinion. I feel the collaboration and excitement of being around other creatives can never be replicated from a screen. Part of why I love this industry so much is all of the little interactions and events that happen at a studio that we miss out on when we're remote. I do think that we can strike a balanced approach of hybrid and many studios are, but moving to the extremes of all WFH or all in the office could definitely change moving forward.

What are your favorite games at the moment?

There are two games that have affected me in two different ways. One: The Last of Us 2. I was playing it at the beginning of the pandemic and that story….it felt like an episodic HBO series that I could not wait to pick back up again and see what happened next. And I was interacting with it—I was actually in there—so there were moments that were really tense and I'm gripping the controller super tight and holding my breath. I can’t remember the last time I played a game like that. With technology getting really good and the amount of time and effort those devs put into that game, it was just a really good immersion of story with an experience from beginning to end. There's really not a lot of lag time in there. I really felt engaged the entire time. That one stuck with me and it will for a while. The other one is Spider-Man. It’s the first one that my son and I really played together. I’ve started to slowly age him into games and try to keep it as PC as possible, for as long as possible. But that was the first one that I opened up and he saw me playing it, and for 3-4 months I just let him swing around the city. And that one mechanic was so enjoyable to do; to learn about and to watch. They did such an amazing job of creating the experience of swinging through New York, so I just let him do that. Then we finally started the game and we 100% it. All the missions, all the quests. I can’t tell you the last game I’ve 100% a game! My son has played some of the games that I've made, but this was the first time we were in it together for the journey.

Where do you see yourself going in the future? Games, film, or something new?

Games are my future. I am a game developer first and an animator second. The future of games and how we tell stories to interact with our community is still evolving. It's exciting to be a part of and if I’m lucky I can continue to be a part of this industry for some time.

Level Up in our Game Animation courses taught by industry pros:

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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

3 Ways to Take Your Animation Above and Beyond Your Reference

Shooting reference is an essential part of the planning phase when animating a shot. It gives the animator an opportunity to step into the character's shoes and fully explore their personality through movements and acting. Studying reference is a key part of how students learn body mechanics because it allows them to experience the movement and timing of a scene firsthand. Over time though, it is easy for animators to fall into the habit of relying on their reference too much. So much that they begin rotoscoping the reference into their shot, frame for frame.  

It is easy for student animators to fall into the habit

of relying on their reference too much. 

So does this mean that you should stop filming reference? Of course not! You still need to do reference in order to try out different acting ideas and provide some kind of foundation for the timing and body mechanics of your shot. The key is knowing when you can steal directly from your reference, and when you can simply ignore your reference. Your reference is a foundation, it is—as the name implies—simply a  reference. It is an inspiration, something to refer back to, but it is not meant to become a carbon copy of your animation. When animators begin rotoscoping their reference, they forget to think about pushing appealing poses, creating stylized breakdowns, maintain smooth arcs, and deciding what’s leading and what’s following. It's these decisions that really make animation an art form and the animator, an artist. 

Below we’ve compiled a few ways you can avoid falling into the habit of rotoscoping and push your animation beyond your reference to make a performance that’s all your own. 

1. Stop putting reference into your viewport.

This is a debatable topic, so it is definitely not for everyone, but we encourage you to try it out. The idea is, that if you put the reference directly into your Maya viewport, there is a greater temptation to copy the poses and the timing of the reference frame for frame. Without the reference sitting in the viewport though, you’re more likely to push the poses and timing of the shot.

Don't stop using your reference though! If your reference is open in another program such as QuickTime or SyncSketch, you can easily frame by frame through it and pick out the poses you want to use. You can even count the frames in between the poses if you want to get the timing in Maya the same as your reference. But isn’t this just rotoscoping, why not put the reference in Maya and save time? By having your reference in a separate window, you will automatically feel less tied to the reference’s poses and exact timing. Instead of animating on autopilot, you’ll become more conscious of how many frames it takes to get from Pose A to Pose B, and therefore more likely to make the timing more your own. 

AnimSchool Student NyGyra Lawson

Nonetheless, if you're still adamant about sticking your reference in the viewport, that’s okay! Many professional animators actually prefer it this way. The key point is to remember that animation is an art and as an artist, you need to make decisions about timing, poses, breakdowns, and all the animation principles, independent of your reference. If you copy the timing of your reference exactly frame for frame to start off, that’s fine! Just be sure to go back, and move those keyframes around to really push the timing before you start polishing. You should also keep in mind that sometime during the late spline phase, it's ok to just turn off your reference. There will be a point when you’ve got everything you could from it, and now it's up to you as an animator to make the animation really shine. 

2. Study the reference in your sketchbook and do a 2D drawing pass of your reference before you even touch the rig. 

If you like drawing then this tip may be great for you. First, observe your reference and try to get a good understanding of the motionwhat’s leading, what’s following, where’s the arc, etc. Once you feel like you understand the reference, pick out your golden poses and some key breakdowns and draw them in your sketchbook or directly on top of your reference (you can do this pretty easily in SyncSketch). 

Now that you have a solid understanding of the reference, draw some variations and try to improve the appeal of your sketches. Try pushing some poses or pulling back on others. You can push the timing of certain movements for exaggeration by changing up the spacing. Experiment with spine reversals, line of actions, and even mouth and eye shapes. 

By doing this, you’re figuring out a lot of the body mechanics and posing before you even get into Maya. Figuring this stuff out on paper is much faster than in Maya, and you do NOT need to be a good artist to use this method. Trying a new pose out in Maya can take 30 minutes to an hour, but you can easily sketch out a stick figure in a few different variations of a pose in a couple minutes. Working in 2D will also help you avoid getting too caught up in the complex 3D rig, and instead focus on appealing graphic shapes and silhouettes for poses. 

They say animation is ultimately 50% planning and 50% animating. Though this planning phase can seem time-consuming, it’ll more than likely be worth it and make your animation not only better but quicker to complete.

Here is an example of some planning thumbnails from AnimShool’s Body Acting Class. 

AnimSchool Student Rhys McKenzie

3. Push the poses in Maya.

This is probably the most obvious way to go beyond your reference: push the poses! 

The biggest things to remember when translating a pose from reference to the rig are line of action, silhouette, and character. Oftentimes, humans aren’t the most elegant creatures and our line of actions can feel a bit disjointed no matter how much we try. This is where you as an animator can come in and make the poses your own. Try and simplify that line of action, in one coherent statement that supports the way the character is feeling. Doing this will not only improve the clarity and appeal of your pose, but it’ll also allow the character’s thoughts and feelings to read better. Improving the silhouette of your character can have a similar effect as well. Ensuring that limbs and hands don’t get lost in a character's body will allow your character’s emotions to be read with clarity. They say that after the eyes, hands are the most expressive part of a human, but if you can’t see the hands because they’re lost in the character’s silhouette, the pose ultimately doesn’t read as clearly as it could.

AnimSchool instructor Garrett Shikuma does a fantastic job of demonstrating some methods to push a character’s pose to be better than the reference. Though Garrett says you can always push your poses, he emphasizes the importance of remembering to make intentional acting decisions while posing your character as well.

We hope you found some of the methods useful. What are some of your best tips for animating with reference? 

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Instructor Interview: Koji Tsukamoto

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with AnimSchool instructor and CG modeler, Koji Tsukamoto. Koji is currently teaching Environment Modeling and Intermediate Modeling: Intro to ZBrush at AnimSchool and has worked at DreamWorks Animation as a modeler for the past five years. It was a pleasure to learn more about Koji’s passion for his students and the art of modeling.

Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get into modeling?

From childhood, I loved building and creating things.  My father worked in the auto industry and would take me to the Detroit auto show.  I became fascinated with car design and dreamt of becoming an industrial designer. My older brother is also a very artistic and creative person, he helped me realize animation was an actual career path. This quickly became my goal, I studied animation at BYU Provo and took courses online through Animschool.  I was determined to become an animator.  But I soon discovered whenever I felt stuck or stressed while animating I would model and sculpt to relax.  So I modeled.

What are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

Studio Ghibli! I grew up watching Laputa, Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery, etc. I ate it up as a kid.  For most people who wanted to go into animation, they watched a lot of Disney films and thought Oh that’s why I wanted to go into animation. For me, it was Ghibli films. That beautiful storytelling is what made me want to go into animation. I wanted to be part of a story like that. When I was jumping into animation originally,  I was completely clueless about anything. I didn't know who any of the artists were. I just really wanted to do animation. When I  was a little kid I wanted to be a pilot and fly planes and be in the air force. And then I found out I was color blind and was like “Ahh I can’t do it!”. I remember the day I found out I couldn't be an airforce pilot was a little like Little Miss Sunshine. 


Do you think it is necessary to be able to draw or sculpt with clay in order to be a good modeler?

I always loved drawing.  I wasn’t amazing, but I loved it. Traditional sculpting, painting or drawing definitely helps enlarge one’s understanding of form, design, and style. But it’s not necessary. I’ve never really touched clay. I wouldn’t call myself very good at clay sculpting at all. So yeah I’d say you don't need it. It’s something you should study if you are interested because any design knowledge helps. But starting off it's not necessary to have that down. 3D art is like anything else. If you practice, you’ll figure it out.

Can you elaborate on your time learning at AnimSchool versus learning from YouTube tutorials and at a four-year university.

BYU (Brigham Young University) is a great school. For me though, I knew I wanted to get into modeling, but there weren’t any teachers who specialized in the technical side of modeling. Honestly, the reason why I started going to AnimSchool really was that I lacked confidence. I was unsure if what I was doing was correct. And even watching YouTube—there are so many YouTube videos—half of them are not good. Maybe they were good at the time, but now they're outdated. I just wasn't very confident whether I was modeling things correctly. 

So I was emailing artists. That's something I recommend doing: finding artists that you admire in the industry and try to reach out. If they don't respond then they’re just busy. But if they do respond then that’s awesome, right? I was lucky there were two modelers who responded to me and gave me some feedback.

I felt I needed a little bit more in-depth feedback than that, so I went to AnimSchool where I could learn from teachers who I knew specialized in modeling and could let me know whether I was doing it right or not. When I was taking my courses, a lot of my teachers asked me why I didn't skip ahead to the later classes. And yeah, I probably could've skipped ahead, but for me, it was a confidence-building experience. There were small things here and there that I didn't know, but really, the biggest thing for me was to see them model and see them confirm that what I was doing was correct, and that helped me become more confident in what I was doing.

How does environment modeling differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX?

A lot of the differences are technical or found in the level of detail. The budget, available software, and hardware all affect how one models. VFX and TV are more time-limited and some of the detailing will be baked maps or skipped for surfacing.  Video games rely even more so on baked detail because of the needs of real-time rendering. I believe they’re all pretty similar though. I think the biggest difference between video games and film and TV is style. If there’s a studio you like, focus on that style and that’s how you’d get into it. Like if you want to go to Pixar or Dreamworks, don't go super realistic VFX style. It’ll be hard for them to tell if you can make models in their style. Definitely tailor your stuff to what you want to do.

Can you talk a bit more about the styles you teach in your modeling class?

In my environment class, I sort of let them do whatever they want. The scale of their model and design they pick determines how they model it. I had a student, Shanté Knott, who did this Paris-steampunk scene (design by Bogdan Marica). That scene was really large scale, so we modeled that scene how they would model it in video games: very low poly with a lot of bake maps on it. We went that route because if she modeled all those details to feature film level that’d be way too hard on her computer and it’d be way too large of a scene file. In my environment class, I try to tailor it towards what my students want to build. My class is pretty flexible. A lot of the time, they have questions about things I normally don't teach, and sometimes I'll take part of that class time to cover that information even if it's not part of the curriculum. If that's the kind of knowledge they want and I feel like that's going to help them become a better modeler, then I want them to have that information.

How does your modeling process differ from project to project? 

Every show is different. The style and shape language the Production Designer and Art Director’s aim determine the process. There are just so many different styles. On Boss Baby, it was all ridiculously straight lines and sharp edges. I had to go back and fix so many models because the director wanted things so sharp you could cut your hand on it. But then you have other films, like Trolls World Tour, where everything was soft and round and felt like miniatures. The funny thing with How to Train Your Dragon 3 (HTTYD) is that I could get away with so much. With rocks and trees you could make a mess. A lot of it was covered with moss and dirt and foliage. Every film is very different. It's definitely a process we go through with all the other departments. That’s one thing that makes DreamWorks really fun for me. All our films have very different styles. I get to jump around and try my hand at very different styles. Each time I switched from one film to another, I had to kind of warm-up and get used to working in that style.

How do you create stylized sets that still feel based in reality? Do you have any advice on how to best combine inspiration from the real world with stylized design ideas?

#1 Have a clear easy to read silhouette.  If you blackout the shape and can’t recognize what the object is, you are probably doing something wrong.  I like to build the basic structure based on reality (maybe simplified), and then push and pull from there. Don’t be afraid to go too far, play around.  I like to place layers of added detail on a blendshape.  That way I can pull back to find a balance. #2 Big, medium, and small.  Having repeated shapes and patterns in your object is fine, it can actually be really great, but when they are the same size it can become noisy, rigid, and uncomfortable.  Change up the size, have areas of rest (less detail) to contrast areas of higher detail.  #3 I like to see environments the way I see characters, they have personality and history.  Think about the weathering they face, the maker (if it's man-made), and how people treat and interact with it.

In your class, how do you guide your students to grow and work towards industry-level models?

What I try to help my students do is capture the essence of the art piece. I really iterate over and over in my class that these environments aren't just props or a set-piece. Think of these set pieces as characters. They have their own story. They have their own life. They have their own history that occurred to them. One of my favorite things I like to show my students when they first start off is stairs: really old, worn-up stairs. You can see exactly where people keep on stepping on these stairs, there’s a history. You can see people always walk in the center, always step in these two spots. You can see this indent where their feet lay and when it rains the water probably flows through. When you're adding wear and tear into the model, when you’re adding character, you have to think: what’s affecting this piece? What’s rubbing up against it? We don't want it to feel artificial? We want it to feel organic and real, like it's experienced stuff. When I have my student take a concept piece, I want them to really nail that concept piece, but I also want them to add more to it. To make it feel like not just a copy of it, but an actual place where you can see things occurring at. You can feel it's something people are actually living in and interacting with. That’s one thing I want to help my students do: to make a piece that tells a story and draws people and makes them wonder what this piece is about.

I also try to help my students get the tools they need to make their pieces as efficiently as possible. I could show them the slow way of making something. Like laying down the tiles of a roof, piece by piece and duplicating it, but one of the skills you need when you work in the industry is that you need to be able to make things fast. As much as I'd love having a lot of time to make things perfect, there’s a deadline. I try to give my students the tools to get their work done fast. I just noticed the video posted of me teaching MASH. I try to let my student learn tools that are outside the basic modeling toolset. I want to give them access to and knowledge about tools that are outside of what most people know so they can be competitive in the industry.

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good 3D modeler? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your art director?

It’s very different depending on the art director. I’ve had art directors who have been like, “Hey you can email me directly, just send me screenshots and I’ll do draw overs,'' and I’ll have other directors who are like, “No don’t do that, email the production people and they’ll email it to the art director.” What I would do is make sure you’re writing it down. I have a bad habit of just looking and thinking about things and then later I think Shoot, I should’ve asked that. It’s good to write your own questions and notes that the art director gives you. That way you’re sure you don't miss anything. It also shows the art director that you care and you’re paying attention. It’ll make them feel more confident that you’ll get it done. Just create a good impression and find ways where you can create a good relationship of trust. It's also good to experiment and try things. Don't just do what's given to you, try to make things better. Don't go crazy though! Just add a little bit to it that you think will improve it. It's best to make the project look as best as you can. But yeah overall, teamwork, friendship, communication are big.  It makes working much more fun and enjoyable.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out?

Open up, ask questions, show your work to the world.  Reach out to artists you admire, and studio recruiters.  If your work isn’t the best, that’s okay.  Getting feedback is the best way to grow and improve.  Showing progress is the best way to impress. I always felt like I needed to do things myself. Don't do that—reach out and ask for help. The biggest reason you need to do that is people need to know who you are. It's fine if you’re introverted, but you need to step out of your bubble to make it in the industry. You need to introduce yourself. You need to show your work. That’s really what animation is: showing who you are and telling a story. If you want to be a part of that, you need to show you can do that. Show that you have a story to tell, you have amazing taste in art and style. It's ok to be a quiet person but definitely reach out to artists you like and recruiters. If you have good things and show it...maybe not everyone will remember you, but some may. And when opportunities come around maybe they’ll reach out to you. 

How has your experience been working remotely? Do you think in the future you’ll have to live in the same city as the studio?

Well….I think I’m going to have to go back to LA eventually. So...still expensive. It’s been nice working remotely. Just being able to spend more time with family and take care of my kids. At work, I’m stuck in that timeframe when I'm at work. I’ll be there for nine hours and then I leave. At home when I feel distracted, I can take a break and put in my hours more effectively. I’ll go back and work on it longer. Sometimes the hours I work at home aren’t exactly the timeframe I normally work (it's a little later) but I feel like I'm being more productive with my time. What's cool about modeling is that working remotely has not really affected me. I have my computer. I can do all my work from here. I know there are some departments that have struggled to work from home, such as surfacing and vfxs. They have their own technical issues that come up from not being able to use their computer. They have to work remotely controlling their computer at work.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future?

What’s interesting is that Netflix, prior to the pandemic, was doing a sort of hybrid working situation where people would come in for meetings and some people work from home part of the week. There’s been talk at my company whether we might be working hybrid as well... where we come in some days and work from home other days. And that sounds really nice to me. Working completely remotely sounds nice too so I can live in a cheaper place but it is nice to see people’s faces. I do really miss a lot of my co-workers.  Working in the studio, it is nice to just be able to turn around to the guy sitting next to me and ask questions. Now you have to send a chat online and hope someone sees it. Another thing I miss is the DreamWorks campus, it is really beautiful...and there's free food….and free soda fountains. Yeah...I miss all that a lot, actually.

Where do you see your career going in the future? Are there any other facets of animation/3D modeling you want to try out?

I would love to continue being a simple modeler, maybe eventually take a position as a lead or supervisor.  I love it at DreamWorks, but video games are interesting to me because software-wise they’re really ahead. Being able to render and do things in real-time is just amazing. There’s a lot of new things out there that keep popping up and it's too many for me to really get into all of them, honestly. At DreamWorks, up until HTTYD 2, everything was NURBS modeling. So a lot of the models in HTTYD 2 were still NURBS. When I got to HTTYD 3,  a lot of my work was converting NURBS to poly. Modeling is always changing. I’m always going to have to be learning. I don't know what modeling is going to look like in the future, but modeling is what I'm interested in and what I want to keep doing as long as I can. 

That’s one thing I really love about teaching is that it forces me to keep learning new things. When I’m teaching I have to do the process over and over in front of my students and that forces me to retain it and really understand how these new tools and processes work.

Thank you so much for your time Koji! If you'd like to see more of Koji's work, follow the links below.

ArtStation: artstation.com/koji
Reel: vimeo.com/153656161
Instagram: @tsukachan

Sign up today to learn from industry-leading artists like Koji in our online accredited courses (ACCSC). Apply today at animschool.edu