Interview with an Animator
Get an insider's perspective on animator jobs.
Supervising Animator, Pixar
Over 10 years in the business
Did you always want to be an animator?
I grew up drawing cartoons and watching Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the movies that inspired me were the mythic fairy tales, like "Star Wars."
I went to Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied illustration and animation. I learned about drawing and painting, design and cartooning—I was trying to figure it all out. When I graduated in 1996, computer animation wasn't as big as it is today, but then "Toy Story" came out.
Through luck, I ended up at Pixar as the first intern hired while "Toy Story" was still in the theaters. I completed my senior year knowing I had a job to come back to in California, which is really rare for an art student.
What do you most enjoy about being an animator?
I really enjoy my coworkers. They have the same interests I do, and they're at least as talented, if not more talented, than I am. As animators, we have to be collaborative. It's hard for an artist's ego to get in the way when you're collaborating like that.
How does the collaboration work?
The bulk of my career as an artist is producing footage. I get a scene and it's my job to animate the scene, to bring it to life, to convince the audience that the character exists as a living, breathing entity. It's kind of an invisible craft.
At Pixar, we caricature these things with 3D models. It's like being an actor or puppeteer. In my department we animate humans; we don't animate the wrinkles on the shirt, or the hair on the monster, or what water does. We're all animating the same character, and we have to collaborate to ensure the acting remains consistent.
As a supervising animator, my job is to help the director and work with the other departments: story, layout, set direction, lighting. There are all these pieces of the production pipeline, and I'm constantly in contact with the people who are before us and the people down the line.
What's most challenging about being an animator?
Entertaining the audience, while giving them something new or surprising instead of an easy solution. We have to do something new—to make the characters more believable by giving them human flaws. You want to come up with something real, something truthful.
The best art is not predictable. It has surprises in it. When you get into the performance you've got to layer in subtext and complexities that communicate to the audience, like when the character is smiling, but they're actually sad.
We're working in slow motion, 24 frames a second, beat by beat, pose by pose, to create this performance that's very considered, but it goes by in seconds. It should feel like it's happening for the first time. It's the same thing an improv actor does. It's an introverted form of acting; we're hiding behind the bug or monster. Which is why I like animation. I'm interested in caricaturing things, because caricature often shows more truth than if you're trying to be realistic.
What skills are most important for an animator?
One of the skills people don't realize is important is acting ability, being able to put yourself into another character. If you haven't tried taking an acting or improv class, give it a go.
A sense of design is also important. You aren't animating a hologram; you're animating one camera angle, projected on a flat screen. It's the same thing as a play where the actors are on a proscenium, presenting themselves to the audience.
I tell students to take life-drawing classes, animation classes. It helps to have a good sense of humor, a good sense of story. Animation is a very specific and odd craft. You're combining a lot of different elements into this one art.
Any closing words of wisdom?
Animation isn't a stable field. It's been around for less than 100 years. There have been peaks and lows. Once, animation wasn't successful as a business. Now 2D animation is dead, and 3D animation is popular. You have to love this craft; you have to have faith to make it in this fickle and weird industry.