Breaking the rules

This weekend marks the opening of Hotel Transylvania 3. It’s a film I had the pleasure to work on and thought I’d celebrate with a post about its animation style.

While studying animation, the 12 principles defined by Disney animators were the gold standard. I’d often see points from the Illusion of Life thrown around by students and mentors as though they were fact, it seemed if an animation went against what is written in that book then that animation is somehow wrong.

I’d argue what is written in the Illusion of Life is by all means the foundation of animation, but it’s also written from the perspective of one style of animation. Adhering to them isn’t following a path to strong animation, it’s following a path to producing strong animation of the Disney style.

Hotel Transylvania is an example of animation that is still solidly built on the 12 principles, but is pushed much more into a graphic style than what Disney Feature produces. I’ve used the trailer as an example of where principles established by the Nine Old Men or common rules highlighted in animation schools are broken to achieve a different style.

“No twinning”
Twinning is the idea of a pose being symmetrical, one side is an exact opposite of the other. Throughout my studies I constantly heard the word “twinning” being thrown around as an evil to be avoided. I do think there is some truth to twinned motion breaking an illusion of organic movement and feeling robotic, but for the most part I think it’s an overused term. Check out these great poses that are twinned to get a strong graphic read.

“Respect anatomy”
When doing squash and stretch on a head, the general rule is to maintain the structure of the cranium as it is hard bone and have the jaw do the squashing and stretching. It’s a rule I often saw Sony animators break on quick inbetweens.

Here the animator has gone from correct anatomy on the nose to a broken shape that adds to the humour of the pose. The nose on the right is almost completely profile on a face straight to camera.

There is so much broken anatomy in these poses. Obviously the different neck lengths but check out how short Drac’s upper legs are (I’m guessing to avoid negative space) and how much longer his upper arms are to his forearms. The pushed anatomy again helps sell the humour of the shot.

I love how graphic this hand pose is, a beautiful mix of straights and curves. Try creating the pose with your own hand and see just how broken it all is.

“Maintain weight”
Walk cycle 101 tells you the “Up” pose before the contact pose is the highest point of a walk, and the “Down pose” just after the leading foot flattens out is the lowest point. Check out the hips on Drac, his walk has no ups and downs, giving him a weightless feel. Whether that’s purely for simplified cartoony reasons or to give Dracula (a character who can float) a subtle floaty feel in his walk, I’m not sure.

I love how pushed Frank’s balance and line of action is, he’s clearly in a falling pose but (from memory of the film) he breaks physics and stays on the train.

“Arc your movements”
I love how the animator on this shot managed arcs on the hand. The motion of the wrist is linear and unnatural, it doesn’t arc but the shape of the arm and fingers gives a subtle arc feeling. Also notice the squash and stretch on Erica’s head completely ignores the rule of maintaining volume.

“Keep characters alive”
Earlier days of CG animation saw animators talking about dead pixels when characters don’t move, arguing that a 2D style can’t be done in 3D. It was said characters must be kept alive when doing nothing, the most common way being breathing and very subtle movements on limbs or weight shifting. Hotel Transylvania throws that out the window, watch any background character and notice how still they are. Main characters can also completely maintain a completely held pose.

Also notice how movement can be isolated to one part of body. Drac’s body is completely locked except for head movement

“Ease in and out of poses”
The idea of ease in can be ignored to exaggerate the sudden movement of an object. The plane here literally drops from one frame to the next, breaking rules of gravity.

“Use video reference!”
All through the film we used no video reference, all the above points I’ve highlighted wouldn’t have come through. The idea was to push graphic shapes and stylised motion and not be limited to correct physics. In terms of animation schooling I think animation reference is an important part of learning timing, antics, arcs, etc. But it also leads to a more nuanced style of animation than a cartoony style seen in Hotel Transylvania.

I hope that helps to highlight some ways rules can be broken and opens up ways of thinking about the 12 principles. I firmly believe in the saying “to break rules you first must know them” and thoroughly encourage sticking to them when learning the basics. But in order to work in different styles of animation, you’ll eventually need to learn when and how to break from the standard mould.

Contract work

My work on Hotel Transylvania 3 wrapped up a few weeks back and I’ve since joined the team at Method Studios for a feature that’s yet to be announced. I figure it a good time to briefly go over a part of the industry that may be not be so talked about in schools.

A colleague at Sony recently remarked:
“I was talking to the interns about how a show is wrapping up and a lot of animators will be going to other studios. They were so shocked and couldn’t understand why people were leaving”.

When I think back to my time at Animation Mentor, 5 out of 6 of my mentors were in staff positions, meaning they were hired as long term employees. I think all had been in their studios over 10 years, the odd one out has now been at their current studio for the past 4 years.

If I think about the group of people I graduated with who are now in the industry, I can only think of one who is in a staff role. Even if I very liberally round it up to include others I possibly don’t know about, I’d still say less 5% of my fellow graduates from 2014 are in staff positions. Comparing 80% of my mentors to 5% of my fellow graduates is a massive gap between my schooling and industry realities.

Most animators are hired on a contract basis. They might be hired for a specific project, a specific time-frame or even hired with an open contract with an end date to be decided. The idea still remains the same, they are a temporary hire. What that means is that when a project is nearing its end date, a studio will evaluate if there’s enough work to keep their current crew, and if not, will go through the process of deciding which animators to offer a contract renewal and which to let go. A studio and its crew can fluctuate wildly, from mass hiring, to possibly no work at all for months. The coming and going of animators is a normality in most studios.

It can end up being a messy process and makes the end of a project a stressful time for those wondering if they’re going to be looking for a job in a couple weeks. I’ve seen people being offered renewals on their very last day and I’ve even seen people being let go and rehired a week or two later.

Here’s a couple tips that might soften that burden:
1. Live in an animation hub. This is one of the reasons I’ve moved to Vancouver, with a large amount of studios it makes finding work at lot easier and takes out the hassle of having to move with each new contract. Montreal, London, Los Angeles are also other cities that come to mind. Paris, Tokyo and Munich also have clusters of studios.

2. Save for downtime Maybe easier said than done, but every month I put some money aside for downtime with an aim of being able to cover living expenses for 6 months. Some countries may have unemployment insurance to help with long downtime, but I like to have certainty that I can take a gap between contracts and not worry about paying rent.

3. Have your reel and linkedin ready First in best dressed, you never know when an opportunity is going to open up or how quickly the role is going to be filled. You don’t want to be delaying things a week by thinking “I need to polish this shot a little more and then I’ll apply”, that’s an entire week a recruiter has been looking through linkedin and/or submitted reels.

4. Help others out  I got my first job in animation after a friend suggested I apply to the studio, my second through a friend who was working at the studio, my third because a friend told me the studio was hiring and gave me the recruiter’s contact information. People have helped me in my career and in return, I try to help others in theirs. Sometimes that is as simple as passing on a link to a job posting or passing on a reel to your supervisor. We’re all in the same boat together, be kind and help those around you.

If this contract nature of the industry sounds daunting, here’s what I find to be advantages from an animator’s point of view:

– It’s easier than other industries to be hired. I often joke that an animation interview usually follows the same pattern: “What are you working on now? Cool, when can you start?”. One of my colleagues remarked “the interview I had for a part time job at SafeWay was harder than the Sony Pictures interview”. Animation interviews are usually fairly casual, short and straight to the point.

– People stay nice. Maybe partly by necessity to stay hired or through studios weeding out their “bad seeds”, I find animation studios to be a supportive and friendly group of people. There are politics, but compares nothing to the stories I hear from friends in other industries.

– Pay rises/career steps. Bouncing between studios is the perfect time to be pushing for higher pay or a step up on the ladder. It might not always happen, but a couple studio changes can end up being quite a large leap in pay.

– Ability to choose projects. With enough experience or a solid enough reel, you may be able to choose between which projects you’d like to work on or which contract suits your situation best.

For further reading, check out Will Finn’s post “WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WANT A JOB IN ANIMATION“. He talks about looking at a career as a whole, rather than individual jobs and studios.

Silhouette – Early Man

This Early Man clip just popped up on my Facebook. I watched it through out of curiosity as a film goer and then played it back without sound, looking at it from an animation perspective. The thing that stood out to me most was clear posing, mostly through the use of silhouette.

I’ll start with a few examples of clear silhouettes in a kind of text book definition:

Here we have a rabbit’s most identifiable features and shapes clearly shown, 2 long ears, a fluffy tail, a head and a body. You can tell just by silhouette what we’re looking at.
Early Man Silhouette
In this one, the two thumbs clear of the body make them easy to read in the short time the character remains on screen.
Early Man Silhouette
The extended arm and club work well as they’re not foreshortened, their shapes are easily read in profile.
Early Man Silhouette
The negative space between the characters allows the poses and situation to read.
Early Man Silhouette

But is that all there is to it? Just putting limbs into negative space so they can read well?
It’s here that I think silhouette can be misunderstood. All of the above poses are great, but it’s only one use of silhouette.

In the below image the cave woman’s pose is very clear, making great use of negative space. But where are the rabbits arms and legs in terms of silhouette?
Early Man Silhouette
They’re both kept within the silhouette, because I would argue they’re not important to the shot. Having limbs with clear negative space can help draw attention to them, having them inside a silhouette can help downplay their importance. In the above screen grab the joke is with the cave-woman and our attention as a viewer should be kept there, all we need from the rabbit is to just to read it’s a rabbit. Its arms and legs aren’t important to the shot.

Take that same thinking to this pose, what’s most important for the viewer to read to understand the action and story?

Early Man Silhouette
It’s the club and the fact that she’s anticipating to hit something, the animator posed the arm and club to be easily read for that reason. Is the other arm important to understand the action taking place? I’d say it’s a lot lower on the importance scale, so it’s interesting to note how the animator used foreshortening to make the screen left arm smaller in screen space, you literally see no forearm and only a touch of the hand.

So if limbs inside the silhouette draw less attention to themselves, where do you focus your attention to in this shot?

Early Man SilhouetteIf you said “his face”, I’d agree.

If we look at these two silhouettes, which seems to convey strength and which seems more conservative? Why? They’re both large, strong characters holding weapons.

Early Man Silhouette
Early Man Silhouette
If you look at the silhouette of the above character what shapes would you use to describe it? And then what shape language would you use to describe the lower silhouette? Personally I’d say the top is formed using squares, straights and angles (strong imagery) while the lower uses circles and roundness (soft imagery). A conservative character tends to have a more contained silhouette, follow her silhouette through that shot and you’ll get a strong sense of that.

Last example, an object does not have to be in negative space to be clearly read in silhouette. Here the arm against the brown clothing is enough of a colour variation that it’s easily and clearly read, it’s an internal silhouette.
Early Man Silhouette

These are just all my own casual observations, perhaps different to what the film makers were intending, or perhaps you may also have your own different view of the use of silhouette. Either way I’d recommend doing a similar exercise with some great animation and try to ask yourself what the animator had in mind when they posed the character.

Project updates

It’s been another busy year, hoping to get back into a regular groove of posting here again, but for now here’s a run down of what I have been up to:

Hotel Transylvania 3
The first is Hotel Transylvania 3 at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver. I’m excited to be working with one of my animation idols, Genndy Tartakovsky and the amazing team at Sony Pictures. The film is slated for a July release, be sure to check it out on the big screen ; )

A couple months ago I jumped on to help Everett Downing on his Book Of Mojo project. We started out doing animation tests to work out a style for the show, one of them eventually turning into the first animated shots finaled for the short. Everett will be speaking at CTN on an Artella panel in a couple weeks along with having a table, if you’re at the event be sure to check out what we’ve been up to and say hello.

Petzi - Rasmus Klump
The project I spent almost 3 years working on with the wonderful Studio Soi crew in Germany now has a poster and will be aired in early 2018. We’ve screened at Annecy, Ottawa, Turin, International Trickfilm Festival Stuttgart, Anima Mundo and numerous others. So far it’s taken home 2 festival awards, not a bad start.

Lily & Snout
A few months back I posted about a VR project I was directing, we completed as a side project in the mega fast time of 2 months and had an online launch in July. The short can be viewed online here, using either a browser, a (modern) mobile phone or VR headset. I didn’t realise at the time of making it was the first short film to utilise Web VR, kudos to the team for their R&D and bringing the short alive with the technology. You can read a detailed making of here.

Thistle One
I also lent a small helping hand on Bobby Beck’s short film titled “Thistle One”, animating a 15 second shot that closes the short. The renders are looking great, looking forward to seeing this one in the coming year.

I’ve enjoyed all the projects, all have been different to each other and am looking forward to what 2018 brings.

Maya: Retiming Video Reference

This is a little tip I actually picked up after Animation Mentor but regularly use now, it simply allows you to retime your video reference using Maya’s Graph Editor. I’m not sure how mentors teach this, so thought I’d type it up and share.

Here I’ve gone through and imported an image sequence onto an image plane, with an offset of -100 frames to match my starting frame for the shot.
Retiming video reference in Maya

You’ll notice the Image Number is a purple colour, meaning it’s being controlled by an expression. My first frame for this shot is 101, and this value is also 101. My last frame is 224 and this value is also on 224, the frame number you’re currently on is in direct correlation the the number contained in this box.
Retiming video reference in Maya

What I like to do is right click and choose Delete the ExpressionRetiming video reference in Maya

This will set the value back to 1 and as the name implies, deletes the expression which was controlling the playback of the image sequence.

Now I can go to frame 101, type 101 into this box, right click on it and set a key. Then I can also key 224 into the final frame.

Retiming video reference in Maya

I’ve essentially re-entered the numbers that were already there. This time the numbers are being controlled by my keys, not an expression. You can visually see the difference now the box is red.

The beauty now is if I open my graph editor, I can now see a curve representing the playback of my image sequence.

Retiming video reference in Maya

If I set it to linear instead of the spline tangent above, it will play back at 1:1, as it did before.

Retiming video reference in Maya

But now within the graph editor I can add keys and slow sections down, speed others up, etc. I can retime my whole video reference or just sections I’d like.

Retiming video reference in Maya

This is great if you have video reference and an audio track you’d like to match actions more closely to, if you find your acting is a little too even and would like to add a bit extra texture in the timing before blocking or if you want to do some cartoony actions with timing that is not entirely based on reality.

TV animation workflow

I just checked in on the Animation Mentor community to see what was happening and saw a question about doing work for TV animation. Anyone who has gone from Animation Mentor into TV will probably agree that it’s quite different to what is taught in these online schools that prepare students for the film industry.

I’ve just wrapped up after almost 3 years of TV quality animation at Studio Soi, in that time I animated somewhere around 60 minutes of screen time (roughly 30 secs a week) on a new show being developed in-house. This post is about my personal workflow, different animators on the same production worked in their own different ways so it is by no means standard. Feel free to leave a comment if you have differing methods which might be of use to others.

Petzi, Studio Soi’s upcoming series

The “Tim Approach”
My approach to animating is to always see a shot in the context of what comes before and after. Before investing time on specific shots I would do a very rough first pass on the entire sequence, see how it all fits together and then go through with a finer comb. My goal was always to have something out as soon as possible and work it up rather than trying to show great animation all through the process.

On top of allowing me to see a shot in relation to what’s around it early, it also gives a chance for a director to come over earlier if something is very off and also helps reduce unnecessary tweaking; looking at the bigger picture helps focus on animation serving the story rather than endless tweaking of animation for animation sake, a luxury TV can’t afford much of.

Something that students might gasp at, animation planning was very minimal across the team. I went through a phase of drawing blocking ideas over the previs and showing the director early, which garnered a positive reaction. Eventually I found it actually didn’t affect much, it didn’t diminish the amount of feedback I received at blocking reviews and found I was still essentially rushing through planning rather than using it to explore ideas.

One thing I did use periodically was video reference. I would use it for acting shots or if there’s a unique movement the director was looking for. In all cases I used it, I would ask the director to act the shot out rather than doing it myself. My goal was always to find out what the director wanted as soon as possible and found this to be the most efficient way.

Usually we would be assigned a 1 minute sequence, with a 2 week turn around time. After having the kick off meeting with the director, my first pass blocking is essentially following the animatic and/or previs. I would block rough and get the main beats, playblast to the server and then move on to the next shot. I’d get through 1 minute in 2 days doing this and would work so rough I wouldn’t check playblasts until I looked at all the shots in sequence.

The next 2 days would be for refining the sequence based on my own notes. That would include blocking in new ideas, refining poses, reworking timing, adding extra keys and a few breakdowns. I generally wouldn’t go into much detail on blocking as the director will have thoughts or ideas that build upon what’s already there. Investing too much time early can be going down a rabbit hole and lost time if the director doesn’t approve.

The extra day for blocking would usually be eaten up by kick off meeting, director review, any extra touch ups or any outstanding notes a previous sequence.

After the director has given his blocking review I would go straight into inbetweening, incorporating any changes into this pass. Again I go quick and rough first pass through, usually leaving out lip sync and on big shots sometimes just keeping it at keys and breakdowns. Again this first pass takes around 2 days, I make my own notes on the sequence and then spend another 2 days doing detailed inbetweening. The final day to round out 2 weeks for the minute of animation is for final notes from the director.

Some freely available Tools I used when animating:
Tween Machine. An animator’s best friend.
aTools. All our CG animators now use this, it has a great arc tracker and fake constraint tool which I would use sometimes in rough blocking before setting up proper constraints. aTools does make Tween Machine redundant as it has its own functionality, but I always preferred Tween Machine.
Locinator. Great if you’re using walk cycles from a library


Keyboard Shortcuts
This one will annoy anyone who comes to your computer, but I remap my keyboard shortcuts so almost everything is done with my left hand. I wrote about this a couple years ago and still haven’t changed the set up all that much.
Maya keyboard hotkeys

Scene Optimisation
One thing that helps to work fast is if your Maya scene is light. I would animate a lot with Isolate Select and even set up my own keyboard shortcut to Isolate Select a character or prop quickly. I also used a mel script that would place all characters and environments on unique display layers and then would put any heavy objects in their own layer, turning them off for most of my animation time.

I have never worked in Viewport 2.0 on a production and always kept everything in low res until it was time to check final animation for technical fixes.

Pose Libraries
I know some animators who swear by them, I found they often took the same amount of time as creating a pose from scratch and were a more boring way to work. Libraries get larger and slower over the server, it takes time to find what you want and then takes time to tweak it to how you like it. We did work with simplified facial rigs, for a more detailed rig my opinions there might be different.

I did however use it for hooking up poses over shots and also walk cycles. I’d apply the cycle, animating the layout control along the path. Once the speed and path looked roughly correct I would bake the movement from the layout control onto the Feet and COG controls using the Locinator tool mentioned above.

One point I do like about pose libraries is if you’re new to a project, well fleshed out libraries can be a great starting point to keeping a character on model.

Stepped or Splined Blocking
My general workflow on any production is always to block with stepped keys. For action shots, shots with very subtle movement or overlap I switch to splined blocking, using a mix of Pose to Pose and Straight Ahead workflows. It allows me to keep a better sense of how timing will work and at Studio Soi I found action shots generally had less notes from the director than acting shots, so wouldn’t hold back on detailed blocking on those shots.

Limited Animation
The style of animation for TV’s high quotas needs to be a more limited style than what’s used in film or taught in online schools. This may need a whole other post, but the general idea comes from 2D animation and having less pencil mileage by having less inbetweens. Key poses would be milked more, animation tends toward a snappier pose to pose style, any kind of keep alive may be limited to just blinks or eye darts and generally polish is minimal. Although this is a simpler style of animation, when you’ve been taught in a nuanced Disney or VFX style it actually takes getting used to and is something we would look for on a reel when hiring.

Check out any of your favourite TV series and compare with a Disney/Pixar style of animation to get an idea. I’d argue that the Peanuts Movie and Lego Movies are both a very polished type of limited animation.

The Amazing World of Gumball, co-produced at Studio Soi, is a clear example of limited animation

At my previous studio we would do a morning check-in everyday, mainly to talk about any issues and to check on progress. It’s something we didn’t do so much at Soi seeing we were such a small team (4 animators for the majority of production). My only tip here is to always give realistic predictions on when you’ll be finished, don’t give an answer that the project manager is wanting to hear or what was written on the schedule. Having been on the management side of short films, I can say someone who is falling behind is much easier to manage than a schedule built on false promises.

Wrap up
I hope that helps get an insight into what might go into working with high quotas. It can be quite a change and a little stressful if you haven’t worked in that kind of environment before, but after pushing through that adjustment time and finding your own workflow it really does become quite manageable.

Comic: I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation

I just finished reading Natalie Nourigat’s independent comic “I Moved to LA to Work in Animation” after seeing this rave review from Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi:

“This is not a standard recommendation – Nourigat’s book is absolutely essential for anyone considering an animation career in Los Angeles.”

I do tend to agree, with my only comment being it is relevant to animation artists everywhere, not just Los Angeles. Even as an Australian living and working in Europe, I could relate to almost everything Natalie writes about.

But it’s more than just relating to her story that resonated with me, it’s that she touches on topics in such a truthful manner that I personally rarely saw before entering the industry, let alone before signing up for animation school. Our perceptions of the industry before we enter it are very much influenced by commerce; schools, studios, podcasts, conference presenters and even industry magazines paint a glossy picture of the industry as it’s often in their own interest to do so.

While Natalie does paint a success story – she documents going from no art school to working at Disney features as a story artist – she does manage to describe her hardships and struggles quite well, even admitting seeing a therapist at one point for depression related to her move.

On top of that she also touches on the demands of overtime work, how much she struggled to kick start a career, the downsides of living in a city for work rather than personal choice, difficulties of apartment hunting in a new city (surprisingly more stressful than it sounds) and also gender/race inequality in studios. All great things to be aware of, for people considering whether to make a career out of this industry and how they could approach doing so.

The comic covers plenty of positives and definitely shows the joy she gets from working in animation. It’s by no means a hard hitting critique on the industry, but it is one that documents the experience of being a new comer very accurately in a balanced while also enjoyable and visual way. You can buy the comic via gumroad.

A side note. If you do read the comic, just keep in mind:
– Natalie is a story artist, not an animator. L.A is known for pre-production, while a lot of animation is outsourced. If you’re a level entry animator thinking of moving to L.A to find a job, it might be best to talk to people already there about how many openings there are for junior animators or if somewhere like Vancouver or Montreal is more viable.

– Natalie works at one of the biggest and most successful studios in history. A lot of the perks she and/or union workers experience aren’t universal or to be expected. For example the work hours, benefits and salary of a junior animator at a feature studio in L.A can be a lot different to what would be experienced at a feature studio in London, Tokyo or Sao Paulo.

CTN quick tips

I’m starting to see questions about the CTN Animation Expo pop up on Facebook so thought I’d share some quick tips from the perspective of someone who has been there twice, both as a recent graduate and again as a ‘working professional’.

Getting in and out
– CTN is hosted next to Burbank airport and is a short walk away, if possible book your flights through that airport. What a lot of people don’t realise is how far CTN is from LAX. If you’re flying in or out on one of the days of the conference, be sure to factor in travel time. I’ve traveled by both shuttle bus and Uber, both taking a little under an hour.

– Staying at the Marriott is a big plus, if you’re tired you can easily pop upstairs for a break, drop bags off, etc. It does sell out fast (most probably months ago) and is expensive, but there is a facebook group for people looking for rooms to share.

– Nearby hotels are fine options too. I would suggest to load up Uber or Lyft on your phone so you can leave and go back when you want and not wait for the CTN shuttle bus. If you take group ride share options, you’ll most probably end up with other CTN attendees, another way to meet people and cut costs.

What to bring
– If you’re job hunting it’s best to bring your reel on a tablet and possibly even headphones. Lugging around a computer will be heavy and cumbersome over the course of the event. Don’t rely on having wi-fi, be sure to keep a link you can pass to recruiters, but keep your reel as a file on your tablet that you can instantly open up.

– Business cards are a big plus. Companies like Moo allow you to set up and print your cards easily over the internet. If a recruiter likes your reel, they’ll ask for one and also when chatting with people around the event, it’s easy to whip them out and follow up later. I would toss up between having 50 or 100 cards printed.

– You’ll be on your feet a lot, so comfortable shoes are also a plus.

What to do
– If possible pick up your pass on the night before, otherwise go early on the opening day. I remember the official kick for CTN 2016 being around 12pm on the Friday, but there were still hundreds of people waiting in line to pick up their passes to enter.

– For talks, book the ones you absolutely want to go to. I’d recommend max of 3 per day and then see on the day which extra talks you might want to squeeze into. Anything by well known animators fills up fast and probably won’t have extra room for those who haven’t reserved entry.

– Visit studio booths early on the first day, if you’re looking for a reel review they’ll often hand out tickets with times for you to come back. Saturday is the busiest day of the conference and Sunday things start to slow down/wrap up as people start catching flights.

– Be sociable. If you’re standing in line, say hello to the person behind you. Everyone has something in common and are hoping to meet like-minded people.

– If you had mentors or know people in LA, let them know you’ll be at CTN. Some will be open to having a drink or doing studio tours. When going in my graduation year, I met up with 3 of my 6 mentors during my first CTN trip.

– Party. Friday and Saturday are the nights to have a drink and meet a few people. The hotel bars are safe options, but would keep an ear out for any other events. By Sunday everyone is exhausted or leaving. I’m a big believer in not going to events with the intention to ‘network’, but just to have a good time and meet others irrespective of their position in the industry. I also think building honest friendships with those around you is the real key to growing your network.

– Follow up. When you get home, go through the cards you’ve collected, facebook/linkedin connections you’ve made, recruiters you’ve met and send them a quick message. Say where you met, that you enjoyed the opportunity and maybe follow up with a question for more info on what you discussed.

VIP or regular pass?
– I’ve had both and would say for an animation graduate there’s no reason to splash out on a VIP pass. Anyone you would like to meet is accessible on the floors or after their talks. I would suggest taking the savings from the cheaper pass and put it into more studies, you’ll get more out of it.

What to expect
Expect chaos. : )
It is a fairly large event, probably held in an event space not best suited for its size and is filled with recent graduates trying to get any kind of leg up in the industry. A lot of the people helping out at the event are volunteers who may not be fully aware of everything that will be happening. Keep respectful, get to events you want to attend early, don’t expect to come away with a job offer, but do expect to have fun and meet some like-minded people.

What if I can’t go
One thing I do like about CTN is they record their talks in the bigger rooms. Some are freely available online, others are on their CTN TV web site as part of a yearly membership. Currently the site is charging $5.99 for a year long access. I do have access to this and while it doesn’t have every talk you might have wanted to see, I would say it is worth that small amount. I’d just be sure to check if it is a recurring yearly payment or if it’s a one off payment for a year.

Feel free to throw any other questions or tips in the comments.

Personal Tests

Something mentors in later classes of Animation Mentor often said is “keep doing your own personal shots”. It’s a no brainer for graduates still looking to get their start, but also good advice for animators in the industry who may not always be getting shots that will progress their skills or fulfil their creative itches.

Something I soon realised after Animation Mentor is very few people follow through on that advice. In my personal experience I have never finished an acting shot on my own, there’s been multiple attempts but all end up gathering dust after some time.


One thing I’ve found is I personally can’t work without an outside expectation on me to deliver a large amount of work. In a class you have expectations of your mentor/teacher to meet, you have weekly deadlines, grades to uphold, a financial outlay you’re trying to get the most out of and classmates to compare your progress against. Once you take all those elements away, you’re down to just self discipline to to go through a shot from start to finish. When a shot takes weeks to complete, it’s not hard to fall off the bandwagon and stay off it.

For those who find themselves in a situation like this and would like to keep adding to their reel, here some suggestions to combat the problem:

  • Offer to help out on a short film.
    This brings back deadlines, meeting a director’s expectations and comparing your own progress against your peers. If you’re able to jump on a project with a director from an animation background you’re also able to gain useful feedback that pushes your skills and understanding of animation. I’ve helped out on shorts for former Pixar animators Carlos Baena, Bobby Beck and Everett Downing and have enjoyed all experiences. From the various projects I have about 2 minutes of completed animation, way more than I would be able to complete on my own. If you’re looking for projects to join, check out Artella or Nimble Collective. Tip: before jumping on a project ask about adding your completed shots to a private reel. Side projects take years to complete, when you’ll be able to show your shots publicly is anyone’s guess.
  • Loop De Loop
    Loop De Loop is an online animation challenge which offers a theme, a 2 month deadline and screenings in multiple cities. The 2 month deadline is adequate time, there’s no minimum time frame for your shot, there’s a guaranteed audience and is also a great step to challenge yourself in a bit of directing a shot/concept development. Here is a post breaking down how I collaborated on a Loop De Loop with an old university friend.
  • 11 Second Club
    Well known within the industry, a line of dialogue about 11 seconds in length is supplied and a 1 month deadline is given to complete the shot. Shots are voted on and winners are announced. Completing an 11 second dialogue shot in 4 weeks is tough, but definitely doable, the short time frame means the ball has to be continually rolling and helps stop the “I can do it later” excuse.
  • Find a mentor
    This can be as simple as approaching someone you look up to and saying “do you have time to look at my shot?”. Be sure to apply their feedback before showing them again, if they see you’re not applying their notes then it won’t be long before they stop replying. I’ve approached various people I’ve met for their advice, and always have received replies/notes to work on. Tip: think of people you know or may have met personally rather than reaching out to complete strangers. Have something ready to show and don’t approach them saying “can you be my mentor?”
    Some animators such as Jean-Denis Haas also mentor for a fee much lower than schools. If you’re paying money always check reels, not just credentials of the mentor. I have seen junior level animators offering mentoring for a fee, something I’m quite skeptical of.
  • Take More Classes
    This is very common, even for animators who already have their foot in the door. The structure of a reputable school in my mind beats all the above options, but obviously comes with a high price tag. Animation Mentor offers discounts for alumni retaking classes, Animsquad, iAnimate, AnimSchool, CGtarians and Animation Collaborative are all great as well. I know numerous animators who have tried a mix of the schools to find the best solution for what they wish to work on. Some offer specific classes in cartoony animation, creatures, facial performance, etc.

I should mention, for current students it might be best to hold off trying any of these until after graduation. I often had students asking to help on DUEL and often see students taking multiple classes, try an extra shot on the side, etc. In my mind it’s spreading yourself too thinly and not getting the most out of your education.