Tips for Animation on TV Series Projects

It’s been a few years since I finished Animation Mentor, and I have learned a tremendous amount in that time! Shortly after finishing, I got very lucky in my job search and managed get a position as a freelance character animator for a brand new children’s TV show that was just beginning production (YOKO). As a freelancer it is a pretty rare opportunity to find gigs that last much longer than a couple months. Heck, even if you are an animator that is traveling from studio to studio on contracts it can be rare to find jobs that last much longer than a year, due to the nature of the business and it’s project schedules. Needless to say, a steady gig with more than a years worth of work a head of me was great way first foray into the animation industry!

Since then, I have worked on 15 episodes for that series as well as started work on another fun TV series (Fantasy Patrol) with a new studio. In that time I also got a chance to do some feature film work and a few commercials. All of these experiences have taught me new skills and brought forward new challenges I’ve had to overcome. I wanted to take some time and write out a post, maybe even a couple posts.. discussing some of the things I’ve learned. Some things I discuss will be relevant to any part of the animation industry whether you’re working in film, games, or TV while others may have more weight in specific mediums than others. I am by no means an expert, or have as much experience as someone who’s worked in any one of these areas for a long period of time but I think some of these experiences could be helpful for others to read about. So first…

Speed is Important!

Deadlines. Part of being a good professional is being able to be creative on a deadline. This is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and energy. In both big studios and small projects there is always a deadline. In features there are deadlines but they are typically much longer. Television animation often has tighter deadlines and requires animators to work much faster. If you are not good at managing multiple different shots all at once in various different stages of progress, it can be a big challenge. Using your time wisely and finding workflows that speed up your progress are essential. It is not uncommon for an animator working in television to do upwards of 20 seconds of animation in a week. This can seem like an insane amount of footage to those use to feature film quotas of roughly 3-5 seconds a week; however, it is all relative when you factor in many other variables such as complexity of characters and the level of polish required. When I first started in TV, I was a little worried about the quantity of animation, but once I got into working on the show and found faster methods of working it has been quite manageable. The longer you are on a project and start to learn the style and characters your speed will naturally begin to increase as well. Of course there are some days where you just gotta push through and put in the extra hours to hit your deadline but that will always be the case. 

Find tools and scripts to help you!

Depending on the show and how much time and planning the project has had in pre-production you may have an awesome animation library or a strong set of add-ons and scripts at your disposal starting day 1 of production. Thanks to having a really awesome animation supervisor, and team of technical directors on both YOKO and Fantasy Patrol we are able to animate very fast for some scenes that would normally take way longer. That being said, I have never had a single shot where a cycle or pose just worked perfectly, but if you work smart you can use these tools to greatly increase your speed. I have found it as a fast way to lay down a strong foundation in a blocking stage and help you get to the end result much faster. Sometimes, for example, you can also find interesting ways to utilize a run or walk cycle and modify it using animation layers to build on-top of it. Problem solving is a lot of what animators do, and finding ways to solve these problems creatively and quickly will set you up for success, especially when you have a lot less time to get a shot done.

Simplify, simplify, simplify!

I am always thinking about simplicity when animating my shots. How can I do a specific action in the cleanest way, and convey the message of the scene clearly to the audience. That doesn’t mean making things less entertaining, but it does mean knowing what areas are the most important to focus on. When you have a large amount of footage to animate it is important to understand that perfecting a finger pose is not as important as nailing down the timing, spacing and overall silhouette of the action or pose. Simplicity comes in many forms when working; from finding the clearest poses for your character, to making sure your constraints are set-up correctly. It all comes down to finding simple methods to achieve the desired performance in a reasonable amount of time.

Working on YOKO really challenged me to simplify. The characters are extremely simple designs, and have some interesting challenges when it comes to finding appealing poses. Sometimes, having these limitations on a character actually can bring about some really fun end results because you have to start to think about solving problems in the scene in much different way than you might with a more naturalistic character or style of animation.

Take time to plan!

Planning is always an important aspect of animation and something that should never be skipped. However, planning a shot when you have a large quota and a tight deadline can be tricky. I do not always have time to shoot video reference or draw a bunch of thumbnails, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take time to study the animatics and storyboards provided to me from the Layout Department. It is always a good idea to take even just 10-20 minutes before laying down keys and think through your shot. Scrub through the animatic and look for possible problem areas, think about how you will need to set-up your constraints, how you will handle any props in the scene. Think of ways you can utilize any animation cycles or saved poses to speed up the process. I always make sure to have a pretty good understanding of the possible challenges a shot will throw my way before diving in. It is also a great idea to discuss your shots with either other animators or your supervisors when you find a specific spot that might be a problem.

Be Flexible! Don’t be afraid to adjust your workflow!

Depending on the project, or even in many cases, the individual shot I am working on, my workflow can change. I used to think you HAD to follow the more traditional method of blocking in stepped keys and then eventually moving into splines and polishing the shot. However, as the variety of the shots I was cast in would change, I quickly learned that some workflows just do not work as well for specific types of shots as they do others. For example, in really subtle shots, I might start out working in splines right away, because to me I wont be able to get the proper subtle body motions figured out when thinking in static poses. I really like to work more layered in these cases. However, in broad actions or more cartoony and exaggerated scenes where you really need to highlight specific graphic shapes and poses, I like to work in a more common stepped blocking stage and refine from there.

In other cases, if I have a very movement heavy shot or a lot of body mechanics, I will often switch back to working in a layered approach starting in spline tangents again. It helps me get a sense of the rhythm of the shot and know that the timing is working before I get too detailed into it. Then there are times where I will start with stepped keys and block that way but consistently switch all my stuff over to splines to check the timing is working pretty well, then switch back to stepped and keep pushing. This is a workflow I have used more commonly in the feature work or higher polish work. I think learning to work in various different workflows and being comfortable switching between them and understanding what works for YOU is a skill all animators can find valuable and it is something that comes with just doing a lot of work and a variety of scenes. I think this is the biggest thing I have changed over the years, learning to adapt my workflow for the situation at hand.

Pose Libraries are your friend!

Many projects, especially film and TV series have characters that need to stay “on-model”. In most cases they will often have very specific ways they should be posed for certain actions or expressions based on the style determined by the animation director.

Using a pose library to store approved poses, expressions or even just basic mouth shapes for lip sync is a huge time saver! You will almost always need to push these poses and tweak them but it can be an excellent starting point to get you where you need to go.

Stay organized!

Utilize anything you can to keep you on track to complete your shots on time and to the best quality. Directors, producers and animation supervisors love animators that complete work on time and meeting the quality standards! Most studios have some form of pipeline tool like Shotgun to help you keep track of everything. However not every project will have a budget for that and you will likely have multiple shots to keep track of. It is not uncommon for me to have 5-10 different shots on a show assigned to me at once, all that have varying deadlines and degrees of difficulty. Knowing which ones to tackle first or which ones may require more revisions is important. Don’t let poor organization be your downfall.

Don’t be this guy!

 

 

 

 

 

That is all for this post, check back soon and I plan to have more interesting content! If you enjoyed the post please, feel free to comment or send me a message and let me know what you think!

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Interview with Chris Mayne – Freelance Animator

Chris Mayne Banner

I thought I’d start off the series of interviews with the one and only Mr. Chris Mayne! I first met Chris when I was in my second class at Animation Mentor. He was always very active on the school forums and facebook pages. When I learned he lived in Kansas (a city not typically known for a large animation industry) I was very interested to learn how he still managed to have a such an awesome career in Animation! I wrote Chris an email back then asking for tips and advice on navigating the animation industry as a remote/freelance artist and he gave me some really great information. I directly contribute this advice to my ability to land a good freelance gig shortly after finishing Animation Mentor.

I had the pleasure of working with Chris on the TV series “Yoko” for Wizart Animation. He is an amazing animator and just really fun guy to work with. He also is extremely generous with his time and effort to help others. He maintains an extensive spreadsheet with tons of Animation Industry Job Postings and keeps it up-to-date very frequently. Please, before reading the interview, check out some of his awesome work in his demo reel below!

Lets get started…

  • Where are you from and how long have you been working in animation?
    • I’m from Overland Park, Kansas and have been animating for a little over 8 years now.
  • What made you want to become an animator / do you have a specific moment that sparked your interest in the field?
    • I’ve always been interested in animation but honestly didn’t really give a lot of thought to becoming a professional animator until later in my life. I graduated from college with a marketing degree and worked various jobs for a few years that I just wasn’t happy doing. I knew a change was needed. While watching The Incredibles in the theater, that was when the heavens parted, choirs were singing, and it just hit me that I could be doing THAT for a living.
  • Are you self-taught or did you get some type of formal education / training?
    • My adventure in learning how to animate started at the Academy of Art but continued through Animation Mentor, where I was part of the 7th graduating class.
  • Have you always worked remotely/freelance or have you worked “in-house” jobs as well? If so which studios?
    • I actually started my career at a studio in Kansas City. It was the only time I’ve worked in-house. That studio is no longer operating, and I’ve been animating remotely for 7 years now.
  • Can you describe your typical work day as a remote freelancer? If you worked in a studio setting before how does it differ compared to working remotely? Are there things you like better about working remotely and vice versa?
    • I would say what I like the most about animating remotely is I feel I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I’ll split my time between the day and night to finish up my work if needed. Most studios really don’t mind when I’m animating as long as I get my stuff done. There are times I miss getting to work side by side with other artists though.  While I utilize things like Skype or Google Hangouts to chat, it’s just not quite the same as face-to-face interaction.
  • Do you keep a regular set of hours?
    • Not necessarily. Ideally I prefer to get all my animating done during the day; however, like I mentioned earlier, it’s the flexibility I enjoy in my schedule.
  • I have noticed the industry often has a bit of a seasonal tendency at times, with more jobs during certain times of the year and less at other times. Do you have advice for things to do during those slow periods of the year?
    • Take a vacation!!! Recharge your batteries. After that, you could do some personal animation tests. I’ll also try to do some additional networking and reach out to studios to see if I can nail down some future projects to work on.
  • In your experience working remotely, what is the most common method of interacting with the client? Do many studios utilize some form of pipeline tool like Shotgun?
    • Email is still the main method of communication for me although I have used Skype and/or Google Hangouts a little more often. I haven’t been involved on too many projects that use something like Shotgun; however, there have been a few. I’m seeing more and more job listings stating a desire for candidates to be familiar with Shotgun, Perforce, etc.
  • How did you break into the freelance market, specifically remote work? It can be tricky for new comers trying to get that first gig, do you have any advice?
    • My first remote gig came courtesy of a former mentor I had in school. I stayed in touch with him after graduating and when my stint at the Kansas City studio came to an end, I made sure to contact him again to see if he maybe had any projects he needed help with. While he didn’t have one at the time, he did have a lead on another job with a friend of his.  Thankfully it worked out to where I got to be a part of that project, and ever since then I’ve been working from home.  I’ve found the most important thing through my years of freelancing is definitely networking and then staying in touch with who you connect with.  Stay on their radar so when they have a project (or know of one) needing extra help, your name is at or near the top of their list of who to contact.
  • I have found scheduling jobs can be tricky at times, sometimes deadlines are extended or project start dates get pushed around making it difficult to always plan. How do you handle this? Do you ever double up on projects?
    • Oh yeah, I’ve totally doubled up on projects and have even worked three at a time before. You need to know what you’re capable of doing. I hate turning down work and have definitely had my ass kicked a few times because I just couldn’t say “no”. Be smart with your planning/scheduling. If you don’t feel like you can take on additional work, don’t force it.  You may likely end up putting out crap animation and then the studio won’t want to work with you again.
  • What advice do you have to upcoming animators and students who want to work in the industry but maybe cannot get into a physical studio right away?
    • Be proactive with creating a great reel. Talk to other artists and get their eyes on your work. Do lots and lots of networking. Talk to studios.  Start getting your name out there. You may snag some remote work in the process.
  • Have you done any freelancing/remote work in the games industry? If so, how has that work differed from the more “film/tv” based side of things?
    • The only thing I’ve done for game studios is work on some promotional videos/trailers. I can’t say that was really any different, but it has afforded me the opportunity to work on some extremely fun characters.
  • Do you have any other skill sets that you use, like modeling, rigging, lighting, stop-motion? Has having more of a broad range of skills provided more opportunities for you?
    • I’ve only done animation in my career. When I first started learning animation, I did do a little modeling and rigging; however, that definitely wasn’t for me. It’s actually pretty scary to look at what I did. I’m going to go curl in to a ball in the corner of a room and cry a bit now that I’m thinking about that….I will say I have missed out on some jobs that required other skill sets so it can be advantageous to be able to do more than one thing.
  • Part of doing freelance work is having to learn some minor business skills. Do you have any advice for learning the business side of being a freelancer? Do you have any tips or good resources you would recommend on topics such as quoting, invoicing, taxes, contracts?
    • I wish I had someone to handle the business side of things. It’s actually what I least like about all of this. I typically get contracts from the studios so there’s no need to make my own. Make sure you’re reading them though. Don’t just blindly sign your name. If you have questions, ask them. On a couple contracts I’ve been able to get some things added, reworded, or removed.  When it comes to invoicing, make sure you put an actual invoice number on it. It seems trivial, but studios will appreciate it.  I also try to put descriptive information on the invoice for services I performed, such as what project I was working on, dates I worked, etc. For taxes, I can only speak in regards to U.S. taxes. But keep track of everything, whether it’s paying for cloud storage, upgrading your computer, etc. Working at home, you can also deduct a portion of some of your bills, such as utilities.
  • What are your thoughts on the growth of remote workers in the animation industry? Do you think it will become more common as years go on and the technology continues to improve?
    • I’m not surprised about the growth. For some, hopping around from state to state or country to country totally works for them. For others, it’s just not feasible for various reasons. The technology is already there though. More studios could utilize remote workers if they wanted to. I don’t know that it will ever be the norm, but I do at least stay encouraged that there has been an uptick in the number of studios willing to work with remote artists.
  • Do you have any favorite projects that you have worked on?
    • Definitely! The very first TV spot I ever worked on was for Lucky Charms cereal. That one will always hold a special place in my heart. I got to work on quite a few Lucky Charms commercials after that and thoroughly enjoyed each one of them. I also did some animation on promotional videos for Lego Dimensions that I absolutely loved.  Coincidentally my kids got a huge kick out of that as they would sometimes watch me working on it. Animating Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle was such a blast. There are so many other projects I could easily name here, but for the sake of time and sanity of anyone reading this I’ll just leave it at those.
  • Any last bits of advice, words of wisdom or anything you definitely want to mention before I let you go?
    • I love animating, but it has definitely been a difficult journey. You can’t get discouraged during the rough times. We all go through them, but we have such a supportive community. Take advantage of it. I’ve made so many friends in the industry and could never thank them enough for all the help they’ve given over the years.

Thanks so much for your time Chris!

If you would like to learn more about Chris, or contact him for work below is a link to his IMDB page and his linked-in account.

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5284095/
LinkedIn:
 https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrismayneanimation/

The blog is back.. and with a vengeance!

It has returned!

Actually, I just finally came up with some good (maybe?) ideas of things to write about and also help keep me creative and accountable to the craft of animation! It’s been quite some time since this blog had some new content and I hope the new stuff will be interesting to those of you who read it! I had a lot of fun actively writing throughout my whole progress at Animation Mentor. Once AM came to an end and I got into the grind of working and of course just life in general, the blog started to get pushed to the way side. Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I did a whole heck of a lot of animating since I last posted and have learned a great deal!

I also had a lot of big life milestones happen since the last updates! Mainly, I finally married my beautiful wife, and we moved from our beach life in Panama City Beach, FL back up to the big city and my hometown of Chicago, IL. My wife got a great job opportunity to work up here and we made the long move up! I sure miss the sunshine and our great friends in Florida, but its nice to be back in familiar territory and have the big city available. Also.. a big city with a pretty decent animation industry!

New content coming your way soon!

As I said, I finally came up with quite a good list of things I want to do on this blog. So, I thought I’d give you a preview of what’s down the pipeline and coming to your beautiful browsers soon.

Interviews with Freelance Animators & Remote Animators
I always wished there was more content when I was starting out freelancing and working remotely, on how the animation industry worked from that perspective. There is no shortage of amazing articles and videos of animators working in-house at the big studios like Disney, Pixar etc. However, the animation industry is a large one and there are TONS of amazingly talented animators who work freelance and remotely all over the world. I’ve had the pleasure of working with quite a few of them and have decided to start interviewing them to show people how the industry is from our perspective. The first of these interviews will be posted quite soon!

Shot Breakdowns
I’ve finally been able to get a hold of some of the finished professional work I’ve done on feature films and TV series, and I’ll be making a series of short breakdown videos to show how the progress of a shot looks from start to finish! I always found it fun to watch these videos and they can be very eye-opening and educational.

New Reel
I am slowly putting together a new demo reel with my latest work and hopefully should have that launched soon enough, you’ll have to wait and see!

New Articles! – I plan to write some new multi-part blog posts that explain a variety of topics. Especially things I always wanted to read more about when I was first getting into the industry. Now that I have a few years of experience under my belt, I felt I could expand on some of the things I have learned. Topics such as: TV Animation versus Feature Films, Workflow Changes, Using reference for quick animation, and much more!

Anyway! It feels good to get back to this, I have a lot more content coming very soon and just wanted to make a post and let everyone know this blog is coming back, and I hope that you guys will stick around and enjoy the new content!