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Animators Without Borders: How the Global Animation Community Came Together at ACM SIGGRAPH London

Artists from New Zealand, the Philippines, and North America could take advantage of the U.K. group’s virtual events to attend remotely and collaborate through online review tools.

Fostering the talents of the next generation of animators has never been as important as it is today. At a time when students have been required to stay at home, the chance to hone their animation skills at school has become increasingly difficult. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology, students and teachers have been reunited – albeit virtually – to continue their lessons. Organizations, such as ACM SIGGRAPH London, have migrated their animation community lessons and events to virtual setups due to the global pandemic. By being agile and adopting online review tools, like SyncSketch, they have been able to help continue holding review and critique events.

With their staple of events now fully virtual, London SIGGRAPH discovered that their audience became farther reaching than just London. Two such events witnessed attendees from New Zealand, Philippines, and North America: “Bring Your Own Animation (BYOA)” and “Bring Your Own Composition (BYOC),” each providing budding animators feedback on their work from professional animation and visual effects artists in the industry.

We spoke to some of these participants from further afield to find out how online animation review enables them to stay connected to community events, helps develop their learning, and encourages new networking and collaboration opportunities. Meet our animators without borders.

Brenda Romero, Junior Animator (Character Animation) in Birmingham, UK

How did you find London SIGGRAPH and BYOA?

So, I first heard about London SIGGRAPH through my university, Bournemouth University, when I was doing my undergrad. This year after the pandemic, I think I picked up on the event through social media. I saw that they had their own “Bring Your Own Animation” event which I have always wanted to attend but couldn’t due to distance. So now that it was back as a virtual event, it was something I wanted to try out. It’s been great catching up with the community.

How has working remotely impacted the projects you have been on?

Massively, this has definitely been a big, big change because I’m usually quite expressive in person when I try to get my ideas across, and this was far easier to do face-to-face. SyncSketch has been super helpful with this because when we have to go through something as a team, and everyone is looking at the same thing at the same time. At my current company, Blue Zoo Animation Studio, we have remote access to our computers in the production studio.

What tools are you using currently?

I’ve been working with SyncSketch as a review tool for over a year and it has been invaluable during my undergrad. I think it was one of my classmates that told me about it, and it is such an amazing tool. We would use it to record references, share animations and it became essential when working from home started. I’ve been using it to share links of my work for review with professionals over LinkedIn and it’s such a great tool to be able to do that.

I’ve used SyncSketch to not just analyze animations but to also learn from animations frame-by-frame so that I can improve my own drawing techniques. It’s also great to just explore ideas as groups in SyncSketch as each person can work on providing feedback on the camera angle, lighting, animation, positioning and photography and it really allows each person to come in and draw on top and really express themselves. With the company I am at now as a junior animator, I use SyncSketch to analyze my own references, and this helps me understand animation movements better.

What does the “new normal” workflow look like for you?

I think the biggest challenge has been maintaining communications, I didn’t realize how much communications changed because since leaving university, I have never worked locally in a production studio - it has all been remote. I think those short conversations with peers or perhaps a project supervisor to get feedback have been an important part of the old workflow. We’ve definitely had to learn how to communicate in new ways. I think it highlights the importance of getting quick and accurate feedback. With SyncSketch being in real-time, it has definitely managed to replace those quick chats.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now, I can’t say what I am working on for Blue Zoo Animation, but I can say that it is awesome and to be on the lookout for Blue Zoo announcements. In terms of personal projects, I am currently doing an apprenticeship with Women in Animation in the evenings in my free time, which I am really enjoying. I am also still learning and analyzing animations using SyncSketch and as soon as I have finished that project with Women in Animation, I will no doubt jump into more as I really like animation and the people in the industry really inspire me to learn more.

Noah Catan, Student (Compositor & VFX Artist) in Kazan City, Manilla, Philippines

How did you find London SIGGRAPH and BYOA?

I am a visual effects student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and I’m learning how to be a compositor; my goal is to be in the animation and effects industry as a compositor. I came across London SIGGRAPH because they were hosting this event called “Bring Your Own Composition,” where they brought in all these amazing industry compositors and you could get your portfolio or showreel reviewed. Me being a student, I really need the feedback to be able to improve and that’s how I got involved. I heard about it through LinkedIn and social media as well as follow a lot of the compositors that were there.

How has working remotely impacted the projects you have been on?

With the Savannah College of Art and Design being in Georgia, USA and me being currently based back at home in Kazan City, remote working has really impacted my projects. Due to the pandemic, the college switched to e-learning and an online format, so we have students from all around the world logging on and working on this project. A lot of them are based in Savannah, some in other parts of America, in Hong Kong and I have a couple of friends on this project in the Philippines and other parts of Asia. So, it’s really amazing to see this collaboration but it has been tough. You don’t get instant feedback when you are collaborating.

What tools are you using currently?

Primarily for communications, we’ve been using Zoom and Discord for meetings and messaging. For this production, we are also using Shotgun for the tools, Toon Boom for the 2D animation and then Nuke for the digital compositing. In attending the “Bring Your Own Composition” session, I was introduced to SyncSketch. That was the first time I ever used it and I actually didn't know the updates would be live, it was an amazing surprise. Seeing my idol compositors, Josh Parks and Hugo Guerra, drawing on my shots in real-time was so exciting! It really opened my eyes to what was possible with tools available for remote collaboration.

In previous projects, I was using Frame IO but since the event, I now use SyncSketch because of that live update feature. Getting live feedback is really important when working remotely; it's tough to get feedback when you know in normal circumstances it would be instant and you'd be side-by-side with the person critiquing. Working with a review tool like SyncSketch is definitely the next best thing.

What does the “new normal” workflow look like for you?

I think the ‘new normal’ when it comes to workflows is definitely underpinned by having an instant feedback review system or pipeline in place. Because in a studio or production environment, getting feedback is always super instant or it is in moments during face-to-face conversations. It’s harder to recreate that in remote working because you need to book meetings or calls. So when a tool comes along that is instant and you have that combination of feedback both verbally and through the kinetic movement of drawing in real-time and seeing that – I think it is the best way to learn and improve as a compositor.

What projects are you working on now?

At the moment, I am currently working on this 2D animated film for my college. The main goal of the film is to replicate the 2D lighting process of the movie Klaus. I was tasked as the compositor to build the 2D lighting pipeline so that we could get 2D volumetric lighting in a 2D film. That’s been going really well so far. It’s been very technical, in the sense that I’m doing a lot of programming in addition to compositing for the film. It is still in pre-development, and the story is still in development, and we’re still working on a title, but it is really exciting.

Saurabh Som, VFX Compositor in Auckland, New Zealand

How did you find London SIGGRAPH and BYOC?

I started attending community and industry events last year, so this was my first-time experience with London SIGGRAPH and their “Bring Your Own Comp” session. I previously had some trouble networking but in attending these events I was able to start talking to more and more different people to learn more about the industry and hear about new events to attend. It was through networking that I discovered London SIGGRAPH.

How has working remotely impacted the projects you have been on?

I graduated from my university, Media Design School in Auckland, in 2019 and at the time I was working for a studio and everything was fine. It was roughly 3 - 4 months into 2020 that everything changed and since then I have been working remotely. In the aspect of working remotely, all my projects have been personal projects, so I perhaps haven’t felt too much breakdown in what I was doing. However, since working as a freelancer, I have had to adapt to using a lot of new tools.

What tools are you using currently?

In the project I was doing with my university, they had set up a system that incorporated a lot of TeamViewer to access network computers. That way we were able to work on our shots remotely. We also used Shotgun Software for the shot and production tracking and scheduling. However, for me, as a freelancer, I found SyncSketch to be a better alternative at a cheaper price. That was one of the reasons I started using it as an individual artist wanting to share versions of my personal work for review. SyncSketch also gives you real-time feedback as the edits are being made. So, I can just send a link, and someone can scribble off some notes, and I would get to see it. That was one of the tools I used that gave that sense of a ‘production environment’ when working on something remotely.

What does the “new normal” workflow look like for you?

From my experience in working remotely for an independent group project, the “new” workflow looks far different I think from what we’ve already seen. In this independent group project, I started researching project tracking tools, such as Shotgun and F-Track, but the price is a real barrier for small teams and companies. We saw that SyncSketch was reasonably much better compared to what the other solutions offered and you’re able to collaborate with your teams in real-time. As a compositor, so much of the project - the animations, the shots - all come to me in the final moments of a project. It’s then up to me to put them in the right order and deliver, so you’re not involved in the pre-production that much. But recently with virtual production things are changing and almost everyone’s involved right from pre-production. SyncSketch has helped me understand the earlier stages of the pipeline from that perspective, and when it comes to that collaboration, I think real-time feedback and review is very important to progress workflows while working remotely.

With our group project, we had set up a community discord channel for the team (with members in different time zones), we had a dedicated message channel and voice calls for reviewing animatics and from there we would regularly send SyncSketch review links between us and jump into work projects as teams. Everyone had access to the exact animatic, at the exact timeframe and everyone was able to edit and add ideas. It would really help everyone understand what was happening, other than just talking on a zoom call. 

What projects are you working on now?

As we all know, the pandemic has shifted a lot around for many people. The thing for me at this stage is basically working towards developing my skill so I can re-enter the market. I am doing that by assisting one of my tutors in completing a student production as a volunteer compositor. That was one of the best ways to gain some experience I found as I was collaborating in team projects that had creative workflows and deadlines.

My university-trained me as to what it would be like working in an actual production environment; you have to coordinate with other artists. As a compositor I had to coordinate with the lighting department and the director to ensure continuity in shots and it was a great environment to hone my skills in.