Animation is fascinating to me. You’re essentially tricking the brain into believing these are real, living, breathing characters with real emotions. You’re creating the illusion of life, which is why I was so drawn to it as a medium. To get you familiar with some of the projects I’ve been working on, here’s a link to my latest show reel: https://vimeo.com/472461026
I’ve always enjoyed animation. I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, and the Disney classics such as 101 Dalmations, The Lion King, and Dumbo. I then got into all the 3D features that were coming out of Pixar, and Dreamworks. What planted the seed of inspiration to actually create my own animation was when I was about 7 or 8.
I came across the Xiao Xiao stickman fighting series created by Zhu Zhiqiang - https://youtu.be/OcTeyLXRSVA I think it’s because they were such simple characters, that it made me think - maybe I can do this too. So I began animating my own stick figures in Microsoft PowerPoint, holding the “next slide” button to flick through the slides quickly - mostly of characters punching and shooting each other. Typical kid stuff.
When I was 10 I was gifted a popular 2D animation software called Toon Boom, which gave me the opportunity to create a bit more complex animations.
They’re really ridiculous, but just to show you where I started:
My Weekend - https://youtu.be/6sjcc3uc13c
Leo - https://youtu.be/7_uEVkCH9Fk
D-Day - https://youtu.be/lGPs_8O8YmU
When I went into high school I had a bit of a lull with animation. I think it was just a general lack of drive and not enough time, because these things take many months to create, especially when you’re doing it by yourself. But after leaving high school I went into a 3-year degree called Digital Design at AUT. It was more of a general course that taught you various aspects of 3D and film, including film history, writing, 3D modelling, motion capture, animation, and live-action filming. I wasn’t certain if I would like to bean animator, but almost as soon as I started the 3D animation class, I knew this was whatI wanted to do.
My entry into the industry was very lucky. A shop called Flux Animation Studio in Auckland happened to have their first feature animated film, 25 April, starting production pretty much as soon as I finished University. They offered one paid internship to a student in our degree and I was lucky enough to get it. Typically though, you should be prepared to spend your first years working in advertisement studios. I was just lucky with how things lined up.
After that project, I called up Weta and they hired me to help them out on the final couple of months of Alvin and the Chipmunks 4. After that short contract, there wasn’t enough work to keep the new animators on at the studio. This is when the industry can be tough, especially in New Zealand because the industry is quite small there. I was out of work for a few months emailing studios everywhere, including overseas, to see if I could catch anything. It took some time but finally, a little studio up in Snells Beach called Huhu dropped me an email to help them out on a TV series. The show got cancelled after 8 months working on it and I was, again, scrambling to find work. I got a call from Luma Pictures in Melbourne for a short 2-month contract in VFX, then after that I got a 2-month gig in Sydney at Animal Logic to work on The Lego Batman Movie, which ended up extending to 6 months’ worth of work.
I noticed over time that gigs were becoming easier to obtain as my experience grew, and eventually the contracts became longer. So don’t be discouraged if you’re having some dry periods in your first year or two in the industry.
I’ll give you some figures that may shock you. In a TV series you’re commonly expected to animate 30 seconds or more of animation per week. That’s considered a lot. This may not sound like much, but in movies (especially in the top studios) the quality is much higher and you’d be animating 2-5 seconds a week.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was definitely the most gruelling (though probably the most rewarding) I’ve worked on, and the average turnaround per animator was less than 1 second a week! But, that movie is definitely an outlier. A lot of people are involved with the creation of an animated movie. In the big studios you’ll probably have about 500 people involved.That’s why they’re so expensive to make. There are so many departments and animation is just one piece of the puzzle.
In terms of career highlights, I have to say that’s a hard thing to answer because there’s just so many. The industry, as tough as it can be sometimes, is amazing. You meet every type of person from every part of the world. They all come together to work on these massive projects and you learn bits and pieces from everyone along the way. It’s so great. Everyone is so nice. My most valuable experience was when I went back to Huhu to help them out on a feature film called Mosley.
A Dreamworks animator, Manuel Aparicio, came across the globe to supervise the animation. He up-skilled me so dramatically in the space of one project which in turn helped me score gigs in Canada, working on features such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,
Hotel Transylvania 3, and Angry Birds 2. I was privileged enough to animate Stan Lee’s last ever cameo in Spider-Verse before he passed away. I heard that he got to view it whilst he was in the hospital, which is really special. Never got to meet him but he seemed like a great guy, and it was an honour to be involved with that piece of the movie.
The benefit of this industry is that it’s so global. You can scope out work in so many countries. In 2019-2020 I was working in Vietnam of all places. I’ve now popped back to Sydney to re-join Animal Logic. We are working on a Netflix movie called The Magicians Elephant, but that’s all I can say about it. It’s been awesome though, we’ve had the opportunity to have live master classes with James Baxter, one of the legends in animation.
In the future I could possibly see myself as an animation supervisor, but you don’t get a whole lot of time to animate when you get to that sort of role. It would be rewarding in a different sort of way. In the end I just want to keep perfecting my craft. And I’m always looking for unique projects that don’t just regurgitate the same animation as previous movies.
I have a few pieces of key advice for aspiring animators. Learn the 12 principles of animation first (these are the golden “rules” of animation), and analyse the animation of experts in the field. When beginning formal training in 3D animation, my work was not good. But, I focused on the basics and made sure I applied all of the 12 principles into my animation. After lots of practise you figure out what feels right and how much to incorporate each rule, and you can even begin to break them. It all depends on the style you’re going for in each piece. As Picasso said - “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.
If you know for certain that 3D animation is what you want to do, I suggest taking specialised online classes such as AnimSchool, Animsquad, or ianimate, if you can afford it. These classes will give you direct access to some of the best animators in the world.You not only get the best education and feedback on your work, but also the best connections. Once you’re ready to jump into the industry, be open to taking any job anywhere around the world, especially during your first few years in the industry. Saying “yes” to anything really helped me to quickly find my place in the industry. One positive of Covid is that it has caused a chunk of the industry to move towards remote work. So now-a-days you’re more likely to get a chance to animate on a movie from wherever you are living. But in saying that, travelling for work is the best thing I’ve ever done. The experiences are amazing and it really opens your mind.
If you find yourself struggling to obtain studio work, then create some more animation at home. Find someone with experience to give you feedback and then add the new pieces to your show reel. Studios like passionate artists. They really notice when you’re up-skilling yourself in your own time. They’ll notice you improving your show reel, and eventually they’ll pick you up.
Be a sponge. Particularly in your first years in the industry, absorb everything you can. You’ll grow so much and so fast as an artist if you do that. Don’t let your ego get the better of you. You’re essentially making someone else’s show. So, when you get feedback from your lead or supervisor to change something, even if you don’t agree with it, take it on the chin. They usually know what’s best for the movie anyways. You need to care enough about the work to make it look beautiful, but not get too attached to it where it upsets you to have to make changes. It’s a balance.
Lastly, don’t overwork yourself. Over-time can happen in this industry, particularly towards the end of each project. But, make sure you never work over-time for free. They’re making money off your labour, so respect yourself and your time. If you are struggling mentally or physically during project crunches, talk to production. Pull back and reduce your hours. Have a fun and work hard, but take care of yourself!
By Fraser Page - 3D Animator, 6+ years' experience