Recent graduates Jacey Robinson, John da Fonte, and Julianna Mercado discuss their efforts to secure challenging and enjoyable industry work, how they keep up on new tools and technology, and how their college prepared them for the rigors of professional production.
The animation industry is an ever-changing and ever-competitive field, where artists must constantly learn on the job, embrace new skills, and reinvent tools and production workflows to fit the growing ambitions of the film, TV, and gaming sectors.
The Savannah College of Art and Design recently hosted its annual GamingFest, where guests discover the latest trends in gaming and digital media design at events with industry insiders, make professional connections with major developers at presentations and alumni-led panels, and chart the future of gaming and interactive entertainment.
One of the panels featured SCAD alumni Jacey Robinson, John da Fonte and Julianna Mercado; the former students shared their advice for soon-to-be-graduating SCAD students interested in pursuing similar careers.
Robinson is a video editor and artist with a degree in Visual Effects from SCAD who currently works at Hi-Rez Studios, specializing in creating trailers and videos for games like SMITE, Paladins, Rogue Company, Realm Royale, and more. Also working on SMITE at Hi-Rez is associate animator da Fonte, who graduated from SCAD in 2020 with a major in animation, focusing on 3D character animation for video games.
Mercado graduated from SCAD the following year in 2021 with an MFA in Visual Effects. Originally starting as an intern at the creative services and virtual production company MEPTIK, Mercado quickly advanced to Junior Real-Time Designer, focusing on the 3D aspects of visual effects, including lighting and environment building.
AWN was able to catch up with Robinson, da Fonte, and Mercado after the festival, talking to the three animators about their journey into the industry, their biggest professional challenges so far, their favorite projects and resources, as well as suggested tips and tricks to stay on top of the evolving field.
Victoria Davis: The panel touched briefly on navigating the “various routes” to get to animation and visual effects jobs. What was your experience? How did you end up in your current position?
John da Fonte: After graduating from SCAD, I had started working a freelance position as an animator at Thinko Animation Studio. In between my freelance work, I would try to improve my demo reel and make new animations that would suit my end goal of a full-time job in the video game animation industry. Throughout this time, I was actively applying for roles and ultimately landed a job as an associate animator at Hi-Rez Studios about six months later.
Jacey Robinson: I originally focused on 3D and was aiming to be an Environment Artist, but I still loved doing video work as well. I first managed to get a day job recording older VHS and film media, and transferring that footage into digital files onto hard drives. While doing that, I met someone who had a digital marketing startup that was looking for a 3D designer, where I freelanced for half a year. I loved 3D work, but I was also keen on exploring opportunities that spoke to my combination of skills. I saw an opening for the marketing video position at Hi-Rez Studios and went for it. They were impressed with my reel, diverse skill set, and love and involvement in the games space. Now I get to do video editing with a little bit of 3D mixed in!
Julianna Mercado: I attended a portfolio review event for SCAD that led to an internship at a company. After my internship, I was thrilled to be offered a full-time position as a designer!
VD: What would you tell people to look for in a potential job? What were some specifics you looked for in a company or freelance gig that let you know it would positively further your skills and career?
JDF: People should try to find jobs that have projects that they would be challenged by and excited to take on. People should always try to remember their personal career goals and apply those to the values of the studios they apply for. The animation industry is very competitive, but always try to keep those personal goals in mind when taking on work for any studio, and advocating for your own growth as an artist. For me, I looked for a studio that worked in hand keyed, stylized animation. I also looked for a studio that would allow me to take on a wide variety of projects so that I would be working on new characters and new move sets often.
JR: Definitely manageable work-life balance, and understanding how the team functions collaboratively as a whole, and how leaders in the company encourage their employees to be their best selves and improve skill sets. Being on a team is like being on a ship. It takes a crew of people to keep the ship in good shape and on course. We all have to work together and respect each other to get across the sea and create the best work we can as a team.
JM: There were two aspects that made me choose the company I currently work for: a positive team culture and a company culture that promoted growth and learning. I wanted to make sure that the beginning of my career fostered a stable foundation for my future career and was an environment that would encourage my growth as an artist and designer.
VD: What are some favorite projects you’ve worked on in your job?
JDF: I personally love working on the cartoony animations at Hi-Rez Studios. We have two characters that resemble early 20th century rubber hose animated cartoons: Toon Baron Samedi and Toon Cthulhu. I’m always eager to take on those projects because of how much creative freedom we have with their movements. I also really love collaborating with studios like Nickelodeon to re-create characters I grew up watching. It was exciting and almost surreal to be able to work on Azula from Avatar the Last Airbender.
JR: I love our silly sale parody videos we get to work on. One series we have is the Bomb King sale videos for Paladins (yes–that is me in the Bomb King suit, by the way). Another one of my favorites is any meme videos we get to work on for the community, including one where we got to partner with Monstercat and have a whole crab rave on the SMITE Battleground. Doing any sort of projects like these in the 3D space can be really fun and change up the pace of doing regular trailer cuts that we usually need to push out.
JM: My favorite project was working on a short film called Defy The Odds. We created a 3D office environment for the film. At first, I was concerned about the timeline and whether the environment would look believable on camera. After seeing the final film, I was ecstatic. It all came together in the end and made the late hours worth it!
VD: What’s an odd project you were a part of that actually got your foot in the door or helped you grow as an animator or effects designer?
JR: For me, it was game jams! I started out participating in Global Game Jam every year when I was in school and primarily helped out on games with 3D modeling. The end of the weekend for my first game jam, our team was told we had to come up with a trailer for our game that same day. No one knew how to video edit on our team except for me, so I decided to step up to the plate. It turned out pretty well, actually! Since then, I was able to tackle the trailers every year on my various teams, and that was ultimately a huge factor in what got my foot in the door in my current video position.
JDF: I wouldn’t necessarily call it an odd project, but I feel as though my senior film at SCAD was incredibly fundamental when it came to my understanding of how to work in a team dynamic. Prior to this experience, most of my projects were done solo, so it was a great experience to collaborate from start to finish on a full-length short film with a team of ten people. In addition, I also had taken the role of director for the film, so it was an amazing learning experience as to what it takes to be a team leader.
VD: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your chosen area of the industry?
JM: Knowing my limitations, whether that's when I need to take a break, when I'm beyond my bandwidth and need to manage up and communicate when I may need help, training or understanding. The challenge is learning that this isn’t some weakness or some sign that I’m a bad designer. Communicating my limitations makes me a better designer.
JDF: Balancing my ambitions and the timeframe of my assignments. My initial ideas for a recent project exceeded the timeframe that I had to complete the final animation, so I had to really cut everything down to the most important material I could afford to fit into the final product. In the end, this project helped me understand how to make my animations the best quality they could be within the deadline.
JR: Probably keeping up with current trends and updating tools in the space. Computer graphics and technology is always rapidly improving and changing, and it feels like I have to be able to easily pivot to different software, plugins, and tools that help make workflow easier and more interesting. I always try to keep an open mindset to developing techniques out there and try to dive headfirst into something I want to learn, and understand I will be constantly growing my knowledge in the field throughout my career and will never stop learning.
VD: As some of you have said – and we all know – the animation industry is always shifting and changing. Being in the field now, is there a direction the industry is going in that you think current aspiring student animators should know about?
JM: VFX has been moving toward real-time workflows for a few years now, so learning either GPU accelerated rendering or real-time engines such as Unreal or Unity can really push the speed of iterations in your work and give you that edge in a job interview.
JDF: I feel that the AAA game industry is currently shifting to emphasize grand, cinematic storytelling, with a lot of open world environments. As a result, there is a major need for a lot of animation to be made in a relatively short amount of time. I feel major studios will emphasize the use of motion capture animation to meet this high demand. I also see a trend in highly stylized animation being used in animated films and video games that really explores how far the medium can be pushed.
JR: The biggest trend I see growing now that I think will become more standard in studios is real-time rendering and mixed media animation. Instead of making animation more realistic these days, we’re seeing studios play around with more stylized shaders, mixing in 2D animation with 3D modeling, and trying out different techniques. Real-time rendering engines are becoming more powerful every year too, used for more than just video games and bleeding into the film industry.
The background sets in The Mandalorian used Unreal, for example, along with real models and miniatures for the production design as the foreground elements to keep characters grounded in their spaces. I think as we back off on our reliance on realistic CGI and instead use all of our different tools and mediums to blend together for our work, we will have more control and creative freedom to create more engaging visuals and push animation forward into a new and exciting era.
VD: How do you keep up in a field where the technology is always advancing and improving? What are some resources you’d recommend to aspiring animators for those wanting to expand their knowledge?
JM: I always try to keep an eye out for what other artists are doing, and what new workflows are being incorporated in film and TV. I love to watch behind the scenes on new shows and movies to see if I can learn anything new or try any new workflows on a smaller scale.
JDF: I think it’s great to be in a position where I get to learn new software and see more visual and performance improvements in the game I’m working on, which was something I loved at SCAD. We were constantly creating with new technology and programs. Now that I’m out of college, I try to stay in tune with these kinds of changes by following major studios and animators from these studios to see what they’re implementing into their projects.
When introduced to a new program, I always dive in and see how others in the field navigate it to form my own workflow. For aspiring animators, I would recommend following Jean-Denis Haas and Sir Wade Neistadt. I’ve learned a lot from these two animators, both about how to improve my skills in animation, and how to prepare for the animation industry.
JR: I’m currently teaching myself motion design and animation and seeing where it takes me next. I think the biggest thing that helped guide me was trusting my skill set, staying involved in spaces that bring me joy, and being open to opportunities that resonated with me. You may have a set path in your head of where you want to be, but you also may end up somewhere that you didn’t know existed, and realize that was actually your dream job all along!
VD: It was said in the panel that “You don’t have to be ‘great’ at everything, but you have to be ‘good’ at everything.” What are the key skills you recommend for artists looking to enter your field?
JM: Problem solving, problem solving, problem solving. Learning those foundational skills is essential as well, but learning how to use those skills to creatively solve problems is even more important, and SCAD really helped me gain perspective to think ‘big picture’ when tackling projects or issues.
JDF: For my field in 3D animation for video games, I think it’s important to focus mainly on character animation and improving your skills in that role. However, I also feel that it’s good to have general knowledge of each part of the production pipeline to understand the roles of your co-workers.
For animators, I’d say it’s important to have some knowledge in game engines such as Unreal or Unity to understand how to communicate with the tech artists who specialize in those programs. While it’s not required to be an expert in these programs to get a job in animation, it helps applicants stand out from the rest.
JR: If you have a solid foundation in art and design principles and an established process to make your work, you can truly achieve anything no matter the technical aspects you have to tackle. Adaptability is also huge in making sure you’re able to easily pivot to new workflows and techniques that you might need to learn. If you can develop those skills as a solid foundation, you can apply it to almost anything you need to learn going forward.
VD: What were your biggest fears about starting work in the animation/VFX industry and how did you overcome them?
JM: My greatest fear was just the unknown about diving right into the professional world. However, I was confident in the preparation I received at SCAD and had to remind myself that I was offered a position for a reason, and every day I make an effort to remember to just do my best and always be curious, constantly learning developing my skills as a designer.
JDF: It was especially intimidating for me because I had graduated in spring of 2020, a time where a lot of job opportunities had shut down due to the pandemic. Though these fears were in my head, I overcame them by continuing to build upon my demo reel, and staying in touch with my SCAD professors to review my demo reels, and taking small remote freelance positions to help me build upon my professional work experience. I think it’s important to remember that even if you’re not in a full-time position in the industry, that doesn't stop you as an artist from being able to grow your skillset.
JR: I tried my best to take stepping stones where I could to get experience, whether it was working retail, my film-to-digital file day job, freelance gigs, or networking in spaces I wanted to be in. Reminding myself each little stepping stone was a part of the process to where I wanted to go was huge to keep me going. Staying involved kept me motivated and aware of jobs in the spaces I was in, and keeping my portfolio updated with current work also helped. It’s a combination of persistence, patience, and luck that helped me overcome the post-graduation struggle.
VD: What is the best advice a co-worker or boss gave you on the job that you’d want to pass on to others?
JM: Take your time and not burn yourself out! It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
JDF: The pressure of a deadline can feel stressful, but it’s important to not let that pressure compromise your ideas and creativity in the final product. Some things may need to be changed from initial concept given a tight timeframe, but those changes should always serve the creative vision of the animation, rather than take away from it. I understand that there is always going to be a balance between the creative ambition and time in any given project, but that the creative ambition should always remain a focus.