Animation Graduate Advice, Pt1.2 – Learn What They Do

Learn the Software

…if you need to, anyway.

Once you have found a studio you’re excited to work for, have a look at what software they use and start learning it!

My first animation job used 3Ds Max. Having just completed three years learning Maya, I was dropped into a software completely alien to me. I needed to retrain my mind, and I did it all at the cost of my employer.

That’s not a good thing, and to be honest, I got that job because I didn’t put my first point into practice – I didn’t do any research and I took the job because it was local and it gave me money for CG stuff. It wasn’t necessarily work I had any passion for – in fact they barely did any character animation, it was mostly visualisation. (It may be that my old employers are reading this, if so, HELLO! I am sure they know who they are, and that they are not surprised by my words. Nevertheless, I still consider them family!)

So going back to my point – I learned 3Ds Max on the job at my employer’s expense. So then why am I suggesting graduates learn new softwares your own time?

If I was hiring a junior animator, and two candidates applied with equal skill, but only one used the software I use, I would most likely hire the candidate that could hit the ground running without needing to use my own resources training them up (as much…. There is always going to be the need for training in any job, at any level).

I did not hit the ground running in my first job. I just hit the ground, then wasted the valuable time of my colleagues as they picked me up and showed me how to use the tools correctly.

Don’t be like me. Do your research and get used to the software.

  • Side Note: A good carpenter knows that they need to keep their tools clean and well organised. Same goes for a plumber, or a cake maker. Same goes for an animator. Your software is your tool, and your folder structure is your toolbox. Keep your scenes clean and organised by giving logical names to each element you create, and learn a better way to save files than ‘PunchAnimation_finalFinalFINAL’. I like to save files using a project prefix (PunchAnim), a file prefix (001), a description of what’s in the file (Blocked) and a suffix (01). These will change as you go along (PunchAnim 002 Spline 01), but will mean all files will be organised nice and neatly.

Learn their techniques

… or at least imitate them. 

After ten years in the industry, I got turned down from one job purely because I didn’t showcase the sort of work they needed. It didn’t matter that I felt confident doing the style they needed – I could be confident I could jump to the moon, but unless I could showcase that I could, my confidence would be meaningless to anyone other than myself.

You have found the studio you want to work for, you have discovered what software they are using and got hold of a copy (no questions asked, you’re graduates, we all know what you get up to).

Now you need to analyse the studio’s work, see what they are doing to create their style and try to replicate this. I’m not saying you need to learn how to do some iconic rendering or compositing work, I am speaking solely to the animators here – how do the subjects move.

If the company’s work is on youtube, you can use the comma (,) and full stop (.) hotkeys to nudge through frame by frame. Watch through the video until you find a movement you are excited about, then go through it frame by frame, considering each actor present, be that a bouncing ball or an elbow or a hip or a flicker of flame (For clarity, I consider an ‘actor’ anything that is moving, even individual parts of a whole, so, for example, I would look at the hips of a character, their head, their arms and legs, all as separate ‘actors’ for the sake of analysis).

Take in each frame, see what the animator is doing at each point, not only on it’s own merit, but in relation to the frames around it. How do they pose their characters? How do they use spacing and timing? Is there something specific about the camera lens they use? Does it feel fluid or static?

Start sketching out poses you like. Take a certain point (like an elbow or edge of a prop) and map it out across the screen as it moves, this will help you understand the trajectory and spacing used. Look at full poses, how do they use anticipation and overshoot – is it extreme or minimal, and over how many frames? Look at hands and other smaller actors, what level of attention to detail is in there? How do they use secondary motion and overlapping action? Using a website like https://syncsketch.com/ would really help with this.

Once you have analysed a shot or two, give it a go! Try to do an animation in the style of the studio that you have been studying, after all if you want to work somewhere specific, you have to show them that you CAN and WILL produce what they need.

However, I would caveat this by saying that if you copy a piece of animation frame by frame as a means of studying it, DO NOT put it in your reel, claiming it as your own. Studios do not like that, and it is considered plagiarism. Instead, be inspired, and animate a shot in the style of what you have studied.

Going back to my hypothetical; if I was hiring a junior for a stylised cartoon with snappy movements, I would hire a candidate that can demonstrate that style on their reel over one that doesn’t!

  • Side Note: by techniques I am talking about use of animation principles and animation style, not necessarily design style. That being said, the two are closely linked, after all, I wouldn’t animate a hyper-real soldier character like a loony toon, and probably wouldn’t animate a looney toon like a hyper-real soldier. Though if I chose to, there is nothing you can say that would stop me! For 2D animators, I assume this is maybe easier for you – design a character that could fit in with the style of your chosen studio and animate them. However, I don’t know if that’s how it works – your world is a mystery to me. For 3D animators, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS GOOD AND PURE! Do NOT go through the pains of designing and modelling and rigging a character unless it is your design skill, modelling powers or rigging magic that you want to show off. Find a rig that would work for your chosen studio, download and animate it. If a studio is hiring an animator, they want to see the best of your animation, not animation limited to a mediocre model or rigging attempt. Download a rig, it’s so much easier.

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