Search form

Execs Talk Training

Rick DeMott conducted a survey of execs at several major animation and visual effects companies to find out what the industry is looking for when it comes to training.

Looking for a school? A job? Questioning what are the most important areas to knowledge you need to address? 2D or 3D? In an effort to help answer some of these concerns, AWN asked top executives at leading animation, visual effects and gaming companies to tell us what they look for in training. We received in-depth responses from Frank Gladstone, head of artistic development at DreamWorks SKG Animation; Bill Dennis, ceo/president of Toonz Animation India; Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University; and John Hughes, founder/president of Oscar-winning visual effects house Rhythm & Hues. Its amazing the similarities in their responses. Hopefully, their answers will help guide young and/or green artists in finding a clearer direction for their training and to find employment. It might also teach you that we all have a lot to learn.

Frank Gladstone. Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Frank Gladstone, DreamWorks Animation

Gladstone has been working as a professional animator, producer, director, writer and teacher for more than 30 years. From 1973 to 1989, he managed his own Emmy award-winning studio, Persistence of Vision Inc., producing commercials and educational films, and has since worked for the feature animation divisions at Disney, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks. Besides his studio credentials, he has spoken on animation at schools and institutions around the country, in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia and has taught various animation and cinematography courses and workshops for the University of Miami, VIFX, Cinesite, UNICEF, Gnomon Digital, Vancouver Film School, Nickelodeon, UCLA, San Jose State, Stanford and USC. Gladstone has designed courses and helped train hundreds of people who work in the animation industry. Currently, he is the head of artistic development at DreamWorks Animation. Additionally, he serves on several school advisory boards, philanthropic and educational organizations, produces public service television commercials and programming and is a member of the City of Glendale Arts and Culture Commission and Animation Initiative Glendales Animation Bank working group.

Are schools training animators properly? Some are, some arent. Animation schools that focus solely on technology at the expense of traditional approaches to animation are failing their students, just as those schools that weight their curricula more heavily on traditional work, giving short shrift to the digital side of things, also fail their students in the long run. What I look for are curricula with a balance and an agenda that starts with fundamental artistic skills and then graduates to the newer tools. Without both, the school generally graduates a student who may be facile, but not adaptable.

What would you like to see schools teaching more about? Less?

More of? Film study. All kinds of film, live-action, animation, all genres, all eras. I am often shocked by just how much folks in animation dont know about visual language, narrative techniques, story structure, even film history. After all, we are making films here! Hand in hand with that is a sense of literature and the sciences (dont skip your liberal arts classes!). Finally, communication and business skills are very important.

Less of? The notion that all one needs to know to be successful in this business is how to jockey the latest animation software package.

How much do you rely on outside training versus in-house? Digitally. We rely on outside training for our animation crews less and less as time goes by. Even with third party software, our use is so specialized and often so production driven, that an outside program cannot directly address our particular needs. Further, we use a good amount of proprietary material, which, of course, necessitates in-house training.

Will you hire a new graduate? There are years when we have not and years when we have. We are fostering the idea of increasing our hiring of recent graduates. As far as whom we might hire, as with everyone who submits to us, it depends upon what we see in a reel and/or portfolio. If the skill set is right and the potential is clear, we would absolutely consider a new graduate.

Are the job opportunity expectations of what students think they can get right out of school realistic? It depends. What do students think is realistic? If they think they are Gods gift to animation and will have a senior position on a long running project as soon as their unbelievably wonderful reel floors us... they are fooling themselves. If they think they will start at smaller studios and move from job to job as they gain experience and hone their craft, eventually working into the position(s) they really desire... that is more realistic.

Another misnomer that I think many students may share is that they will be able to do everything at the studio: design, layout, rig, animate (characters and effects), light, texture, etc. While this is very often the case at smaller studios, larger studios will want an individual to specialize.

What schools do you recruit from? Where have you gotten some good recruits? This is in no way an endorsement of some schools over others, but the names that keep cropping up on the résumés of artists in whom we are interested are CalArts, Art Center, Ringling, Sheridan (Canada), Gobelins and Supinfocom (France) and Filmakademie (Germany). For technical folks, the big names are Texas A&M, Ohio State, Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkley and Bournemouth University (England).

There are other schools with very good programs that I have not mentioned here, mainly because we have not hired many people from them as yet. I expect that, in years to come, our list of recruiting schools will grow to include some of these institutions.

I would be remiss if I didnt mention that some of our folks have just shown up out of the blue, usually having come from other professions, like music, architecture, engineering, etc. We even have an MD! What all of these folks have in common is the drive to accomplish this transition (usually requiring going back to school to gain the necessary skills), a lot of world experience and a very mature, realistic attitude.

What advice can you give students about what training they need? Make sure the program is balanced between fundamentals and the newer digital approaches. At the end of your schooling you should have a good reel and/or portfolio that displays your skills well. Dont forget the film and storytelling studies and foster your communication skills. A good reel will get you a job... good communication skills will help you keep it. Finally, there are no shortcuts. If someone tells you there are, be wary. It is your career. Spend the time it takes to become truly accomplished.

Bill Dennis. Photo courtesy of Toonz Animation.

Bill Dennis, Walt Disney Studios

Dennis is a 20-year veteran production executive with the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, involved in the production of The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. In 1995, he joined Hanna-Barbera as president/gm of their overseas production studio in Manila. In 1999, he teamed with G.A. Menon to found Toonz Animation India Pvt. Ltd. in Trivandrum. Dennis introduced the first ever animation celebration in India A Week with the Masters. He has also founded ASIFAIndia and serves as its president.

In very broad strokes, Id give animation schools a B- when it comes to training animators for the studios. Naturally, there are some really great schools that do a marvelous job but there are some stinkers too. I dont think enough time is spent dealing with the basics. We find drawing skills are somewhat weak with a lot of students fresh out of school.

Wed like to rely much more heavily on outside training, but the fact is that we spend a great deal of time and money teaching students to animate for our studios. This is regardless of their training in schools and universities.

Since our studios are overseas, when we hire western talent, they are always very experienced and established. We do, however, hire new students from Indian and Asian art colleges and animation schools. And, Toonz now operates a training academy where we currently have over 50 students enrolled in a one-year animation program. We will likely hire many of the graduates to work in one of our studios. In January 2004, we will launch a new state of the art training academy in Calcutta, which will offer one-year programs in classical and 3D animation.

Weve actually trained nearly 70% of our entire workforce (now over 500).

My experience with students has been that many are looking to step into lead animator roles fresh out of school. And that just isnt going to happen. But, it only takes a short time for reality to set in and for new grads to settle into assistant animator or cleanup roles.

More than any other school, most of our western (and some Indian) artists have trained at Sheridan. This might be a result of the International program, which Sheridan ran for several years. We also get students from NID (National Institute for Design).

My advice to students is to really develop a passion for this art. Understand everything about animation and how the various processes impact on your role as an animator and how what you do impacts on others. Dont even hesitate stepping into inbetween or cleanup roles. Dont get caught without a pencil and paper. Draw, sketch wherever you are. Its the passion that will lead to success.

Randy Nelson. Photo courtesy of Pixar Animation.

Randy Nelson, Pixar Animation

Nelson is the dean of Pixar University, providing training and education for all of Pixars employees. He has a B.A. degree in Fine Arts from Santa Clara University. As a teenager, a passion for animation led him to computer programming. He has taught software development for the last 30 years. Nelson was one of the founders of the juggling group the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and worked in live theater, film and television for more than a decade. His credits include co-writer, co-director and performer of three Broadway shows, performances in the White House and for the president at the Kennedy Center, a role in the feature film Jewel of the Nile, and the opportunity to represent the United States at two Olympic Arts Festivals. He worked as a computer animator and producer for Pizza Time Theater, led developer training for NeXT Computer, created the developer program for the Apple and IBM multimedia joint venture Kaleida Labs, published the entry-level training book on Java at Sun, and was a senior instructional designer for Apple Computer.

Are schools training animators properly? Depends on the school: today there is a growing distinction between 2D and 3D animation. We think they are more similar than different. A good animator should know a wide range of tools and feel comfortable expressing ideas and emotions in action. How that action is realized is important and the techniques in 2D and 3D are different, but not as different as most think, as far as we are concerned.

Animation is all about how to bring emotion to life using action. It is about making us believe the character thinks before it moves. That isnt about computers or pencils; it is about the communicator and his or her relationship to the audience.

We think classic or traditional training that takes advantage of drawing is a good basis for becoming a 3D animator. Even if you never draw a single extreme, you still need to communicate your ideas, explore possibilities, plan your work and share that plan. Drawing is an essential skill for many animators, even if they do not use it in the direct execution of their work.

That said, we are really looking for actors and artists who can create an emotional response in an audience. One of the animators here was a Muppet puppeteer, shed never touched a computer, but she could use a mechanism, the puppet, to move an audience, We offered her a chance to see if she could use a different mechanism, our animation system, to create the same emotional response. She learned in a few months everything she needed to know about the computer system, because she came in the door a skilled performer. We can teach the computer to someone who knows how to perform through a mechanism. The opposite is not true for someone who knows the computer but cannot already move an audience.

What would you like to see schools teaching more of? less of? More filmmaking We think a good animator is a filmmaker: he or she knows about story, about creating a world, the worlds rules, the characters that populate that world and their desires, how the characters desires push open the rules of the world. That foundation for storytellers is critical. Especially with the advent of computer-based tools, it isnt that hard to get something to move. It is a lot harder to get something to move us.

The most important thing a school can do is make sure the students make films every year. A film a year gives the students a chance to learn, experiment, apply what they are thinking about and seeing. The biggest concern we have when we look at animation curriculum is a four-year program with a single senior project. It takes a lot of experience to learn how to translate the theory of animation into compelling actions on screen.

More collaboration Teaching collaboration is the thing that we find schools do least well. Really helping their students learn how to amplify each others work, to honor the process, sharing ideas in a positive way, making each other look good, saying yes to possibilities. Collaboration is at the heart of filmmaking.

More dimension A well-trained animator should know 2D, like drawing and painting, 3D, like sculpture, and 4D, performance in time. A solid program should have a good balance between traditional and technological. Ultimately animators are communicators; they need to be deeply experienced in the world they are attempting to portray.

More breadth An animator will show work to 10 million people in a single weekend, if a film like Finding Nemo is any guide. One out of every 30 Americans saw Nemo in its first weekend: that means there isnt anything you can safely ignore, a detail you can fudge, because the insight and experience of your audience is so broad. So we want artists and actors who not only know art history and film history but world history, political science, humanities, hard science, technology. A true liberal arts education, both deep and broad.

How much do you rely on outside training versus in-house? We train great candidates in-house exclusively, because we have a proprietary tools system. We look for great candidates from film and animation schools. Green and vastly talented is a type that has been successful here. You get in the door based on your reel. A school can be a good place to develop one, but it isnt the only place nor is it a certainty that because you went to school youll have a solid reel.

Will you hire a new graduate? Yes, as long as the reel shows he or she has mastered a technique and can use it to express story-based ideas. We look for people with a strong storytelling sense and a comprehensive understanding of animation fundamentals. Knowledge of physical motion, weight, balance and timing should be evident in the reel.

Are the job opportunity expectations of what students think they can get right out of school realistic? Good ones do get to work in interesting studios using great tools, alongside world-class artists. There arent that many of those opportunities. Many would-be film animators end up in game design, which is not I suspect where they wanted to end up.

The question for students to ask themselves is do their reels and portfolios look like the work they are seeing on the screen, the work being done by the places where they want to work? If it doesnt, they shouldnt expect to get into those places. I dont mean in terms of finish quality, that level of polish is not expected in a student reel, although it isnt a bad thing either.

What we want to see is work that reflects the sensibilities of the place you want to be a part of: so if your reel is muscled bodies in leather straps with swords, or rocketships or flying logos or toilet jokes, you probably wont get work at a place that does family movies with attractive characters based on original stories. Even if your leather-clad swordsmen are really good, we need to see that your work will fit in.

What advice can you give students about what training they need? There are four attributes in employees that Pixar looks for: breadth, depth, a desire to collaborate and the ability to communicate.

Breadth a wide range of knowledge and interest. Generalists are especially important in enterprises that innovate. You need people who can think about large problems in large ways. A broad general background is essential for that.

Depth excellence in something, deep understanding mastery. It is critical that you have people who have experienced excellence, people who routinely strive for and achieve world-class quality.

Collaboration a genuine desire to work with others, to share. Filmmaking is a process that involves a large and diverse group of people. You must have people who enjoy the give and take of working together, of amplifying each other.

Communication the ability to understand and be understood. Filmmaking is about sharing an incomplete vision and filling in the missing pieces, a little at a time, as a team. It takes great intuition, verbal and written skills, and a genuine interest in others to communicate effectively.

Build a great reel. Learn everything you can. Trust traditional skills and training. Remember you are a communicator. Van Gogh said I want a piece of art to say something comforting. It is a huge responsibility to try to add comfort to the world, but what a feeling when you succeed.

John Hughes. Photo courtesy of Rhythm & Hues.

John Hughes, Rhythm & Hues Studios

Hughes is the president/ founder of Rhythm & Hues Studios. After working at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hughes traveled west to Los Angeles to join the pioneering motion graphics firm Robert Abel and Assoc., where he was instrumental in the design and development of motion-control camera systems. Hughes and a small group of former Abel employees established Rhythm & Hues Studios in 1987. In 1995, the studio was recognized with an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for the movie Babe. In addition, he was a member of the California superintendent of schools Task Force for the Visual and Performing Arts, and serves as chairman of the education committee for the Digital Coast Roundtable, and chair of the Digital Coast Foundation. He also serves on several boards of directors including the California Alliance for Arts Education (a member of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network), the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. and the Workforce Investment Board, a collaboration between government and private industry that oversees all federal and state training money in the City of Los Angeles. In addition, Hughes actively cultivates future generations of artists by offering computer graphics scholarships and internships to promising students, as well as studio tours to people from all over the world.

Are schools training animators properly? If, by the term animator, you mean computer character animator, then there are one or two programs in North America that are strong. However, most computer animation programs tend to train students to be more general digital artists, rather than character animators per se. As a large company, we are more interested in people who have become the best in a specific discipline, such as modeling, lighting, character animation, effects animation, compositing, etc.

For a student to think that he or she is a well-trained computer animation generalist is equivalent to thinking that he or she is a well-trained sculptor, cinematographer, actor, computer programmer, graphic designer and painter all at the same time. Its conceivable, but it would take a long time and enormous talent to be minimally professionally competitive at our company in all of these areas. For most students, even becoming competitive in one discipline means continuing their training by getting at least a masters degree and/or working in a smaller company first.

What would you like to see schools teaching more of? Ideally, while students do need a general understanding of all the different areas in order to communicate effectively with other team members, we would like to see schools more strongly support the concept of specializing in a particular discipline in both their bachelors and masters degree programs.

In addition, educators should stress the importance of people skills and communication that are both so vital to success in our work environment.

Due to the overlap of art and technology in our field, we are always looking for a complementary mix of technical and artistic skills. We would like students to better understand the meaning of an entry-level position. There tends to be little comprehension of what they are actually qualified to do in the professional world. Therefore, their reels and résumés are often geared toward positions that are out of their reach.

For example, there is no entry-level lighting position at our company. A student lighter is competing with industry professionals for the same position. An entry level, 3D production position may be tracking or technical animation if the applicant is technical. An entry-level position for a candidate interested in compositing is likely to be a roto position. Overall, we need to see more focused examples of work that show an applicants understanding of what we require.

Less of? We would like to see fewer cover letters stating that candidates are interested in every position we offer. Again, it is a matter of focus. Applicants have to be responsible for defining what they want to do. In some cases, we may determine from work samples that an applicant is best suited for a particular position. However, we would like them to at least attempt to define themselves. Both seasoned and new employees are continually expected to use their best judgment in fulfilling the requirements of their positions. If they know their strengths, they are better able to meet industry expectations.

How much do you rely on outside training versus in-house? We rely heavily on outside training. Ideally, we would like to spend as little time as possible on training our employees. Our new hire training covers the basic operation of our in-house proprietary software, as well as any job specific pipeline information. All other training will either be acquired on the job or will come from prior personal and professional experience.

Would you hire a new graduate? Yes, we do hire new graduates but they are competing with industry professionals. We would prefer more experienced professionals but we have both scholarship and internship programs to encourage and support the hiring of new graduates.

Are the job opportunity expectations of what students think they can get right out of school realistic? No, students do not have realistic expectations regarding job opportunities after graduation. As previously stated, students need a better understanding of what is meant by an entry-level position.

What schools do you recruit from? Where have you gotten some good recruits? More than a specific school, we look for candidates that have a high quality combination of both artistic and technical skills.

What advice can you give students about what training they need? Experience and individual characteristics are equally important within the Rhythm & Hues environment. We pride ourselves in having a creative and friendly yet professional atmosphere that we believe is unique to our studio. With that understanding, our most successful student candidates have a masters degree with a mixture of fine arts and computer science or related fields.

While a masters degree is not required, these individual characteristics are: creativity, commitment to quality and a life long quest for learning. These characteristics are underscored by company core values, which we look for in our potential employees. Honesty, integrity, fairness and a strong work ethic are essential. In summary, our ideal applicant is someone with a good aesthetic sense, outstanding analytical problem-solving ability, strong communication skills and who can excel in a team environment.

Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Productions and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that position, he served as associate editor of AWN.

Rick DeMott's picture

Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks