25 Years in the Animation Industry


Here is a letter written by Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, former animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Wessel-Therhorn’s feature film credits include The Thief and the Cobbler, A Goofy Movie, Balto, All Dogs go to Heaven 2, Space Jam, Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia/ 2000, The Emperors New Groove, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Home on the Range, Curious George, and The Princess and the Frog, to name a few.

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When I was approached to write a letter of encouragement to young animators, I was searching my brain for nuggets of wisdom. Alas, none came to mind.

So I thought I’d tell you a bit about how I came to animation and how I managed to stay in it for the last 25 years and let you take from it what you may.

Born into a black and white 1960’s Germany, I was powerfully drawn to the colorful and magical world of Walt Disney. Nothing was more exciting than seeing a poster announcing a new feature or a re-release of a classic I only knew from my beloved storyteller records. And I dreamed to somehow be part of that world.

I always drew a bit, but thought I had little talent for it. It didn’t come easy to me. When I was 15, I happened to meet Hans Bacher, designer and Disney expert (and later art director on films from Balto to Mulan) and a young student of his, Andreas Deja who had just been accepted to work for the Walt Disney Studios.

Hans encouraged me to work on my drawing skills if I was really that passionate about working in animation. And so I did.

He pretty much destroyed my first portfolio, not mincing his words. So I followed his advice to look, to understand what I saw, to not hide my shortcomings behind bad shading and slowly, gradually, my drawings improved.

I then studied graphic design, though I never intended to work in that field, but it was the closest thing to animation available to me and something like CalArts was way out of reach.

Some of my professors thought little of my interests, but I met a fellow student who did and we decided to join forces and make an animated music video. As luck would have it, our film was spotted by a TV scout and he purchased the rights to show it as part of a political satire program.

And again, Hans Bacher was instrumental in our careers. Two of his students had just been hired to work on Richard Williams’ legendary ‘Once’, better known as ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. With his recommendation, we flew to London and interviewed with Dick, who wanted young and enthusiastic  people not yet set into a particular style and he hired us on the spot.

So that’s how I got started in animation. After 2 years animating on the Thief, I moved on to Disney Paris for ‘The Goofy Movie’, then Amblimation and the London commercial scene. After an unprecedented animation boom in London that drew talent from around the world, feature work dried up and relocated to Los Angeles. While I decided not to move with Amblimation to the newly formed DreamWorks, mainly to not leave my boyfriend behind, work became more sparse and I attended a talent drive for Walt Disney Feature Animation. I was offered a position on their upcoming ‘Hercules’ and, after a lot of thinking and discussions with my partner, I accepted and moved to Los Angeles in 1996.

It is hard to describe what working for Disney meant to me after being such a fan for most of my life. The possibility to work amongst amazing artists, to walk around the studio lot where my childhood was created was sheer bliss. I won’t list the other projects I was lucky enough to have been a part of, that is what IMDB is for.

Then, as we all know, it all came crashing down when Disney decided to dismantle their traditional animation department in favor of computer animation. And my world came crashing down with it. I was heart broken. After having been part of the ‘Disney family’, this felt like a death.

While I admire and enjoy a lot of CG animation, I didn’t feel the passion for it that made me an animator in the first place and, against all reasoning, I stayed with pencil and paper.

While it is fair to say that I don’t experience the thrill of my Disney years anymore, I also don’t suffer the crushing disappointment.

I was lucky enough to be part of the ‘Princess and the Frog’ team, even though we eventually failed to breathe new life into hand drawn animation at Disney. And while it was nice to be back, I didn’t let myself become as attached to the studio as I was before. Leaving a second time was a lot easier that way.

Over the years I worked for Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, DreamWorks, Duck Studios, Uli Meyers Studios and various others.

These days I work on commercials, TV specials, shorts, featurettes and still animate Disney characters for special projects such as theme park-related shows. I am also currently finishing up my own short film. Well, there it is, my career in a nutshell. Let me try and draw some conclusions before you draw your own.

  • The love for animation alone is not enough to start a career. You have to prepare and improve your skills. This is a craft like any other and requires the mastery of certain techniques. To paraphrase Tiana’s dad: “You can wish upon a star, but you have to back it up with hard work.”
  • Luck plays a big part in any career. I was fortunate enough that, just as I was ready for it, there were many opportunities in hand drawn animation.
  • While I have never been the most talented or inspired, work ethic and professionalism go a long way. Don’t over promise on what you can deliver but deliver what you promise. Especially in today’s market, where a ‘ramp up’ time is very unusual, one needs to be ready to jump into a job, adapt to a style quickly and get on with it.
  • Working around the clock, while occasionally unavoidable, is not something to be proud of and is seldom productive. I find that, after a long 10-12 hour day, the concentration wanes, the drawings get sloppy and you end up spending half the next day fixing the problems you created when you were tired the night before. Work hard- then go home and have a life.
  • No career stands alone. I had help from various people over the years, in small and in large ways to which I’ll always be grateful for. Our business is a team effort. Keep the diva on the back burner and don’t burn bridges you may have to cross again.
  • I wish you as encouraging a partner as my husband who put up with me living half way across the globe to follow this crazy calling.

And finally, as Wollie Rheitherman predicted in a letter to a teenage me:

“Work on your drawing skills and you will find this a very rewarding career.”

I still do and I hope you will too.

Best wishes,

Andreas (signed)



Here is a letter written by Anthony Rizzo, animator at Industrial Light and Magic.

Rizzo’s feature film credits include Transformers: Age of Extinction, Pompeii, RoboCop, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, The Vampire Diaries, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,  and Meet Dave, to name a few.





Dear Willie,

I must have written this a dozen times over so far. Searching for the rights words. Really it just boils down to one thing…courage. Wanting to do something and talking about it is one thing. But having the courage to see it through is completely different. My father used to say, “You know what a goal without a plan is?” “Just a dream.” I never forgot that. He made lists. He’d say, “Ok, so you wanna do this? Well what’s your plan? What’s the first step, and the second, and so on?” He was right because the best part about making a list is crossing stuff off, right!? So write it down.

Just remember, no matter what level animator you are at the moment, there is always someone better and worse than you. So set your standards and don’t settle for less because it’s all on the table man. Stay focused and “make that time” to work on your animations. Less distractions the better. Be your own personal hero! There’s no limits!

Don’t get comfortable because when that happens, that’s probably all you’re gonna get. So keep striving and push yourself. My grandfather used to say “Tomorrow never comes. Today is the day.” So work hard, stay hungry and don’t forget…enjoy it!

Your pal,

Rizzo (signed)

Letter to the Younger Bancroft Brothers


Here is a letter written as a joint effort by the Bancroft brothersTom and Tony Bancroft, both former animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Currently, Tom is the Art Director for The Christian Broadcasting Network, and Tony is a director at RGH Entertainment.

Tom’s feature film credits include The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tarzan, to name a few. Check out Tom’s book, Character Mentor Studio.

Tony’s feature film credits include The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Emperor’s New Groove, to name a few.



“The Old Bancroft Brother’s letter to the Younger Bancroft Brothers’”

Lessons learned (so far) in a career of 25 years in animation

By Tom and Tony Bancroft


Dear Tom and Tony (the younger and more stupid),  

We know that acne is a big bummer but it will go away.  We know that girls ignore you and… well, that will continue for a long time.  And that’s mostly because of your passion for drawing cartoons and reading comic books.  But don’t worry, the world is changing and soon the geeks will rule the world!  So, keep drawing and take these lessons to heart in your life and animation career:

1) Have a direction.

Tom: One summer day when Tony and I were about 10, we were with a couple friends playing.  Soon, the games stopped and we sat there bored, trying to figure out what to do next.  Star Wars (the original film) had come out recently, so naturally one of us said, “Let’s build a robot!”  That led to a mad dash to our garage where (in our minds) tons of robot parts were laying around in the form of nuts, screws, and random pieces of machinery we could take a part and make into a working, talking, walking, friendly robot.  We just knew it was in that garage, just waiting to be put together and become our afternoon- or life long- entertainment!  We all sat at our workbenches with our pieces of junk, tools laid out in front of us, and excitement in our hearts.  I remember this part like it was yesterday: I looked at the tools and pieces and it took me about three seconds to think, “What am I doing?”  We HAD NO IDEA how to make a robot!   But it also hit us real quick that even with the tiny amount of knowledge we had about advanced robotics, the pieces of junk we had in front of us would NEVER make a robot.

I have often thought of that story in my animation career.  During those younger years, not having a direction defined my art.  I would often watch an animated cartoon or see a great comic strip, get inspired, and run to my sketchbook wanting to harness that passion and create something great!  I would start sketching and with each line I put down I got more confused.  With each stroke of the pencil, the drawing would get stranger and stranger, the character’s pose was unclear, the expression bland, and I would soon stop.  Frustrated, I would shut the sketchbook and stop drawing for the day.  It only takes that happening a handful of times before you stop for months, maybe years, and possibly the rest of your life.  Passion is one thing, but true art has a reason.  Whenever I sat down with an idea of what I wanted to draw- even something simple, like “a silly looking dog”- then the drawings often turned out much better.  It took me many years to learn this.  My first animation test at Disney, I got so excited to get it done and see it moving that I forsook finishing my thumbnails.  I started animating with no clear idea of where my character was going or what it was doing.    I started animating “straight ahead”, making it up in little chunks.  Even shooting those little chunks so I could “check” to see if it was moving okay.  I’d animate the character into a pose, then think what he could do next, then animate that action, then repeat, repeat, repeat.  I ended up with what I call “animated spaghetti”.   It was moving alright- it was moving all over the place- but it wasn’t coming to life!    I was 10 years old trying to make a robot.  I made the hard choice to throw everything away and start over.  I finally realized that the character wasn’t going to come to life unless I made a plan and took the steps- start to finish- to get there.  I thumbnailed out the entire scene and carefully acted out what that character should do.  I asked questions of “why” the character would do what he was doing.  I pushed myself to come up with funny situations for the character that hadn’t occurred to me yet.   Only once I had a real roadmap, still made with passion, did I sit down to start animating it.   I took a slight moment to do a few key poses throughout the animation so I could have something to animate “straight ahead” into.  They would be my reference to where I was going and would also help me not make the character grow and shrink as I moved him across the page. The animation flowed smoother than ever before!  As I animated, I did move away from my thumbnails here and there, but only because I had an even better idea or pose in the moment.  I could go back to the thumbnails for my original direction.  In the end, it turned out pretty good.  It got me promoted to animator also.   That animation test was a first step to truly learning that without a plan, its all a pile of nuts and bolts that will always just be junk.

2) Be confident.

Tony: This is probably the polar opposite of what you feel when you pick up a pencil to create.  I know it was for me when I was as a young artist.  Feeling confident in your drawing, animating, sculpting, painting or anything artistic can be the difference between success and utter failure (depending on how you judge success in your work).  For me, I usually judge a drawing as successful if it communicates my intent to myself or others around me.  When I was young, success would be judged by my Mom when she came home and I held up a drawing that I did and said, “Look, Mom! What do you think?”  In your professional animation career success will be judged by an invisible audience who turns on the TV, buys a ticket to the movie or plays your video game.  The idea of the effects of confidence on my daily work didn’t fully hit me until I worked at Disney with Glen Keane.  Glen was taught by Ollie Johnston who taught him the importance of confidence in his work.  Ollie used to tell a story about his mentor, the legendary Freddie Moore.  Freddie created the popular version of Mickey Mouse that we know and love today.  He, like most artists, struggled with his own demons of not being good enough or talented enough for the challenges before him.  In fact, he was known to have a routine before starting a big scene.  He would go out into the hall outside of his office and ask his friends how much they liked his work.  As if on cue, he would hear them call out in unison, “Freddie, you’re the best!  Freddie, your scenes are the stuff of legend.  No one can animate Mickey better than you!” and so on.  Freddie’s chest would puff up and he would swagger back into his office and attack his scene.  Whether false or not, once he was filled with confidence Freddie Moore created some of the best animation of all time.  He relied on that confidence to wage war on his doubts and clear the way to a place of connection between himself and his work that created magic.  When Glen Keane would talk about confidence it was specific to knowing your character.  What it was doing, thinking, or feeling.  Glen was investing himself into his work with the confidence of knowing what he was GOING to create before it came out of his pencil!  He once gave me a drawing of Ariel and instead of some humorous pun like “I’m glad to be A Part of Your World–Glen Keane” he signed it, “Make those drawings LIVE!”  The only way to imbue life into your animation is to put your WHOLE self into your work.  The only way to truly do that is to erase timidity out of your mind and to replace it with CONFIDENCE!  This lesson comes by way of Freddie Moore to Ollie Johnston to Glen Keane to me and now–to YOU.  Be confident.

3) Never stop learning.

Tom:  I used to look up to top cartoonists- not for their money or fame- but because they could draw whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  In my childhood artistic viewpoint my ultimate goal was to be able to draw whatever I could think of- perfectly.  That’s when I would know I made it as an artist, I thought.    That’s when I could relax and stop having to practice, learn, and strive.   I would have all the answers and just be able to express anything on paper to the enjoyment and amazement of the world.  That was my dream.

But it still hasn’t happened.  I’m 46 years old and I learn something new about art, drawing, animation, cartooning, and life- everyday.  And I love it.  I WANT that now.  I don’t want to be the BEST artist in the room, if possible.  And it took me a little while to learn that.  I started seeing hints of that the first days of going to CalArts.  Tony and I had gone from having the title of “best artists in our high school” to a classroom FULL of the “best artists in their high school”.   For the first time, we were faced with true competition and even better- new talent to learn from.  And that was just the students.  We then met our instructors: The late, great Joe Ranft taught us Story, Disney animator (and now director of “Frozen”) Chris Buck taught us Animation, the incredible Mike Giamo taught us Character Design, along with the occasional guest lecture by Glen Keane and Brad Bird.   All were in their primes of passion for what they did and each one spoke about new things they were learning on the projects they were working on at Disney and other studios.  Wait- these incredible talents- professionals at Disney- were still LEARNING?  And they were passing on these newfound lessons onto us?  It blew my mind.   From that point forward I discovered that there are so many aspects to what makes a person truly great at anything that there is no stopping point.  There is no mountaintop to being an artist.  There’s always a new challenge.  And, I also discovered, the BEST Animators/Artists SEARCH OUT new challenges to make them learn more and grow!  To be a GREAT animator you have to learn acting, drawing, anatomy, movement mechanics, film, timing, pacing, editing, and a million other nuances of life.  How can any one person know it all?  Additionally, each new element learned folds into the knowledge base you already have and compounds so that everything else you know is even better.  Learning sculpture makes your drawings better, learning painting makes your sculptures better and on and on.   My old dream was to hit a peak and be able to coast on my artistic ability, but now I realize that that will only lead to artistic death.   I now hope for new challenges and the passion to learn from them.

4) Make friends not enemies.

Tony:  Every “good thing” I received in my career came because of a friend or a close relationship.  Every job, every promotion, every opportunity.  Everyone.  When people talk about success in Hollywood as being because of “who you know” it is just as true for the animation industry.  This is something that is little talked about in art school but your instructors and classmates maybe the reason you get your first job in animation.  It was for me.  I had just finished my freshman year in 1989 and I needed a summer job to raise funds for my next semester of college if I was going to continue on at the very expensive and celebrated California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).  But I also wanted the job to be in animation if possible.  Everyday I went to the school’s job board to find, well….nothing.  Then, through an upperclassman, I heard that Ralph Bakshi had hired several upperclassmen to work on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, which he was producing at his studio in the valley.  I knew that a freshman like myself didn’t have a hope of getting an artist position but I was willing to do anything to be around animation and make some money doing it.  Somehow I acquired the phone number to the Bakshi studio and asked to speak to one of the CalArts upperclassmen that I knew.  He was surprised to get a call from a freshman but liked my tenacity.  He spoke to Bakshi on my behalf and I started the following week with my first job in animation as a Production Assistant for Ralph Bakshi Productions!  Without the help of the upperclassman who connected me I never would have gotten in front of Bakshi to plead my case.  I know that because my first job as PA for the studio was to answer the phone and turn away all of the wanna-be students looking for jobs.  Since that time, I have always tried to be good, honest and fair with others.  To give more than I get and to help others like I have been helped.  Because you never know if the kid that is your Production Assistant may one day be your boss!

Well, there’s more, but these are some of your weaknesses that both of you need to learn to “make it” in animation.  Get busy, don’t play video games, and don’t forget to exercise- you need it!


Tony Bancroft and Tom Bancroft (signed)

Never Say You Can’t


Here is a letter written by Kent Alfred, lead animator at Reel FX Creative Studios.

Alfred’s feature film credits include Free Birds, Open Season 3, Open Season 2, Fur of Flying (short), Coyote Falls (short), and Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five (short), to name a few.

Alfred also offers one-on-one animation training through his apprenticeship program, Future Squirrel.
LetterToWillie_KentAlfred_1 LetterToWillie_KentAlfred_2Transcript:


Never be satisfied…

Dear Willie,

This letter is about what drives me as an animator, and really as a person as a whole.

Never say you “can’t”!
A lot of people in this world complain that they “can’t” do certain things, for example, animation. Then you ask them, “Well, why not?”, and they say… “because I don’t know how.” …but…how would you know how to do something that you haven’t learned yet? Right?

So the conversation continues, and they usually respond with something like “Well, you’re good at what you do because you’re talented.” No way! Bull! It took a lot of hard work and dedication to do what I do. And even worse, just when I feel like I’ve “learned” animation, my world flips upside down and tells me I am wrong, or that there is another way to do it better.

There are people in the world that are more naturally talented at animation, but that’s not me, and I didn’t let that stop me.

Levels of Learning
Another huge aspect of how I look at learning animation is through leveling. I like to think of it as power levels **because I’m a huge Dragonball Z nerd**, but you can think of them as experience levels.

The point is… animation knowledge can be achieved in bits and pieces, and usually you get to the next level in small bursts. For me, it would always come suddenly, so that as I am working, I suddenly realize… “hey, I know how to do this now!” Then I’d consider myself on the next level. I’m not sure how many levels there are, but I know there are no limits to what we can learn about animation, so I always keep pushing myself to find that next level.

My advice to students of animation is to always strive for that next level, and surround yourself with people that are at a higher level than you, so that you can soak in what they know and grow as a animator.

Different people are motivated by different things, but this is how I choose to look at life and work. Being successful as an animator isn’t simply going to a good animation school… It’s about keeping your outlook on life positive, working hard, and fully devoting yourself to what you’re after.

If someone asks you to do something, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know how to do it, but absolutely never say you “can’t”. And no matter what, always keep striving to learn.

Kent Alfred (signed)

You are the studio


Here is a letter written by Travis Howe, senior animator at Kixeye.

Howe is a graduate of Animation Mentor, and his video game credits include, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Be sure to check out his incredibly inspiring website, Animator Start, which he started to help aspiring animators on their path to an animation career.

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Hi, Aspiring Animator!

So I’m a big fan of the TV show “The Office” — the American version (read: “funny version”).  Toward the end of the final season, one of the characters says a line that hit me pretty powerfully: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

It’s the middle of the day – a work day –  and I’m at home.  I’ve been on paternity leave for nearly a month now after the birth of my second daughter, the latter half of that working remotely.  But I’m standing in the kitchen (where my phone has been charging), shell-shocked by what I’m hearing on the other end.

“Travis, did you hear me?”

I did hear her, but it hasn’t sunk in, so I listen again.

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

A million thoughts are going through my head like a million jolts of electricity.  How will I provide for my newly expanded family?  What will happen to our insurance?  But the question that, selfishly, plagues me the most in this exact moment:

How will I ever stumble across my dream job again?

Because working at Sanzaru, on the PS3 game “Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time” was exactly that: the best job I never knew I always wanted.  It was a pub on the side of the road on my way to that Perfect Studio.  I came in to get out of the rain (translation: job hunting), and found out this was where I’d want to be forever.

What made it the perfect studio for me?  Well I’m glad you ask, hypothetical reader!  To answer that question, let’s back up to college.  I’ve attended two animation schools, the first of which was Ex’pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville.  I was a young, gung ho animation hopeful going in a direct line to THE studio.  I’m sure you know which one that is, because chances are, if you’re an animator, it’s the same studio YOU are/were headed toward.   What I learned while at Ex’pression, how I learned it, and the fact that I overworked myself without much to show for it — all of that is important, but a long story, so let’s cut it down to the important bit: when I think back on my time at Ex’pression, I remember this energy, like a static charge constantly hovering around me; anything is possible in animation.  I felt completely limitless.  So why, when I put pen to paper, divining my projects for the rest of my time there, did I consistently draw blanks?  Because limits, boundaries, are the foundation of imagination.    When you’re given a limited assignment (“have this character pick up this box for this amount of frames”), that’s a blessing!  Within those limitations, you can do whatever you want!  What’s the box made of?  Who is this character?  Answer the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” within the confines of that assignment, and your imagination will run wild with creative energy.

Sanzaru’s animation structure — (thanks in large part to an experienced and competent lead) — was such that it allowed us to take pride in our work.  We had ownership of our characters and sequences, and specific guidelines that were limiting but not confining.

Now on to Point B: Networking is the key to survival.  The second college I went to was Animation Mentor.  When I initially enrolled, I was lucky enough to attend one of the famous Animation Mentor BBQs before I had even started school (I actually wrote “Class 0” on my name tag).  That was the first time in my life that I had ever been around so many people with my same passion.  I remember hearing stories about the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz having crazy parties because they’d never been around so many people “like them.”  This felt a bit like that; several hundred people with the same quirky trait all gathered in a colorful setting, pleased to the gills to learn they’re not alone in the universe.  Is every animator “like me”?  No, of course not.  In fact, I don’t even like every animator.  I like most of them, but I’ve definitely run into a few that I’d just as soon avoid from now on.  But even when you find those people, the ones that aren’t “rays of sunshine”, or maybe the ones that try to damage you, it is extremely important to conduct yourself in a manner that burns as few bridges as possible.  When you’re looking for work — the first job or the fiftieth — you do not want anyone working against you.  This industry isn’t as small as it once was, but you’ll still find yourself at the mercy of former coworkers and other colleagues when you’re applying to a studio they work for.  As a human being, you should do your best to get along with everyone anyway, but just keep in mind — things like “not taking feedback well” or “being a negative spirit around the office” can have adverse effects YEARS down the road.  In all likelihood, landing your first job will not be landing your last job.  You’ll be on the hunt more than once in your career, so be sure that the next time you’re looking, anyone who might remember you (and you don’t know who that will be) remembers you in a positive light.  Point B: Networking is the key to your survival.  What does that have to do with Sanzaru being exactly what a studio should be?

Because a studio is a metaphor for your entire life.  If you’re unhappy now, being at THE studio will never make you happy.  Because YOU are the studio.  You are the one who decides whether you are happy or miserable, which in turn helps decide whether the people around you are happy or miserable.  Now, of course you don’t have a godlike power to control their moods.  But you can control yours, and whether you are a positive spirit, or a negative one, you will have an immense impact on the moods around you, which defines the culture of that studio.  Happiness is infectious; grumpiness is a plague.  Share positivity, and I promise you, the studio will begin to reflect it — at least to the extent that your allegorical happiness cloud reaches.  Sanzaru was a place that allowed me that, because it wasn’t a big place.  There was so much positivity, excitement, camaraderie, and a serious desire to pump out a great product (which, in the end, we did)!

Now I’m at KIXEYE.  It’s 18 floors up (give and take) in a high rise building at the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It’s larger than I’m used to (by a lot actually), but that’s not a bad thing.  The team I’m on is around the size of Sanzaru as a whole, and the enthusiasm and life are definitely present.  When I started here, I was still on a low from losing “the dream job.”  Over time, I’m seeing that this place can be that studio.

But what if you’re not at any studio?  Maybe you haven’t had that first break yet.  Maybe you’re an animation hobbyist, or a contractor that works from home.  Well, the point of all this is that you make the choices in whether you are happy, whether you find animation fulfilling, and you do this with your attitude and the structure you set for yourself.

So this is the answer to the question I posed, “How will I ever stumble across my dream job again?”

The answer is, maybe I didn’t stumble into Sanzaru to begin with.  Maybe, as a part of it, I helped make it the studio I loved so much.  Maybe that’s what we’re all supposed to do; give our all, do our best work within the limits we are given, be as positive as we can be, share every idea, encourage every coworker, accept their encouragement and feedback.  Maybe we make the studio we want to be at.

So how will I ever “stumble” across my dream job again?

The answer is: I won’t.

Travis Howe (signed)

We’re in Animation Magazine!

I am proud and honored to say that The Animator Letters Project got featured in the March 2013 issue of the prestigious animation publication, Animation Magazine!

If you are a professional animator, please consider writing a handwritten letter for this project. Find out how you can contribute here.

Special thanks to Ramin Zahed, the Editor in Chief of Animation Magazine, for supporting this project by bringing it to the attention of the animation industry.

Animation_Magazine_cropped(Scanned image via Animation Magazine with permission from the Editor in Chief, Ramin Zahed.)


Strange Sort of Love Letter


Today I would like to share a unique letter written by Clay Kaytis, animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Kaytis found this letter that he had written to himself years ago, and graciously offered me the opportunity to share it with all of you. He gives a great introduction to the letter below, giving it a little more context.

Kaytis’s feature film credits include Tangled, Bolt, Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little, Home on the Range, Treasure Planet, The Emperor’s New Groove, Fantasia/2000, Tarzan, Mulan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas. Kaytis is the creator of The Animation Podcast, where you can hear him interview top industry professionals. After you check out his podcast and read his letter, please be sure to follow him on Twitter @AnimPodcast.




Hi Willie,

It’s funny that I’d be writing to you on Valentine’s Day because I have a strange sort of love letter I’d like to share with you and your readers. It’s something I wrote to myself in 2000 during the production of Treasure Planet. It was my second film as a full-fledged Disney animator and I can see that I was still finding my way in terms of process. You’ll see that it starts out as a guide to animating a hand-drawn scene and grows into a pep talk on living a creative life. Finding notes like these is like opening a time capsule from a different version of myself. I encourage other people to do the same- get your thoughts and dreams down on paper. They are a hoot to read thirteen years later!


Clay Kaytis

(Letter written by Clay Kaytis to himself.)

When doing a scene just concentrate on roughing out the basic shapes to define head angles, expressions, squash & stretch and work to make arcs and paths of action work. If something is not in the right arc, repeg it. Work fast, flipping and making everything work together. This is the time to work loosely and not to worry about drawings. Just make the animation work. Do major keys, defining arcs and expression changes (e.g., if there is a hold and the character goes into some dialog, do a drawing for each, don’t just have a hold drawing of the mouth shape. For every change – be it arc, expression, squash, stretch – draw it. If it is not animated it will not be seen.) Put everything in the scene now. Make it work in a rough form and it will work later. Concentrate, however rough, on arcs and learn to know when to animate within a pose.

Do not be afraid to make a mistake! Now is the time to do it. Try different things and mistakes will happen but sometimes they will be good mistakes and lead to better ideas. Think of the way Chaplin worked towards a final idea. He gave himself room to work. Allow this for yourself. Now take a breath and really think about your scene. The phrasing, the tempo and rhythm, the amount of movement. Decide where it will go and then figure out how to get it there. It’s really very simple if you start simply.

Now is the frantic, rapid creative time of the scene. Get caught up in it. Let it absorb you and all your attentions and energies. Pour yourself into it until you reach an end. When you have arrived, take a look at it but don’t rest yet. Try to see it from a fresh perspective and start from the beginning, asking if everything is as it should be. If not, fix it now. It really isn’t that much work. A few loose drawings are all it will take to design a complete animated scene. Start now with a mind clear of all negativity with only the creative energy the scene requires. Find that energy and get more than you need. Now is your time to make a statement. Don’t stop until you have said everything.

Basically, the whole scene is worked out in this rough form with keys and breakdowns and breakdown partials of things like mouth shapes. Every change should be animated and the whole thing will probably be on 4s or sixes or more. For parts where very little is happening longer hold drawings will be used but wherever there is a drag, angle change, anything that is not a direct inbetween, a drawing needs to be done. Once it is all worked out as described above (with adjusting drawings, timing, etc.) then begin to tie it down.

All the keys and breakdowns will be tied down (including partials). (Simply put, if it all works and reads in this stage, all that are left are inbetweens to be done by a rough inbetweener.) So, do these tied down drawings and decide as you are doing them what needs to be pushed in the final version, what needs to be stronger, emphasized or tweaked. Shoot all these drawings together and look at the scene. Evaluate and fix/adjust if necessary. When it is all working and all the ideas you want to show are coming across, it is time to be inbetweened.

Once this is done, shoot the entire thing and evaluate again. Does everything still read? Does the timing work? Do drawings need to be removed, added, put on ones? After these changes does the dialog still work? Adjust to fit. Does the dialog on a whole work? If all the preparation has been done (thinking) beforehand, this last stage should fall into place. What is required for this to work is a commitment to do all those drawings – they are what make it alive compared to just 2 drawings and a chart. Granted the latter is what is called for sometimes, but when a scene calls for specific acting in angles, dragging, arcs, expression changes, extreme keys, if you don’t draw them and put them in, then no one will and the scene will be that much less unique and alive.

A commitment to drawing all of the things is a commitment to what you want to say. Decide what you want to tell the world and have the conviction to say it all – loudly and clearly – with a distinct voice. Then you will be heard and recognized as a contributor with value to offer. A person with something to say is far more interesting than a non-committal, or non-confrontational person. The same goes for animated scenes. They need to explode off the screen with individuality – LIFE – and the only way to achieve this is by complete commitment to the finished product. But this commitment needs to start at the beginning and last through the bad ideas, bad drawings, blocks, other people’s opinions, everything that can discourage or dissuade you from your ultimate goal and that is to create a stack of drawings that, when projected on a screen in a darkened theater, fool people the entire world over so much that they believe this is an actual living thing that they can love, hate, root for, wish against, care for, or fear. When that happens, your job is done. It will not be easy and it will require torturous hard work and that is why the commitment is so important.

Again – reckless, unrelenting commitment to the message, the idea, the voice and also the fact that this includes a commitment to do every bit of work to get there. The work is the hardest part. But in the end it will have been worth it. Imagine working all your life without this commitment only to look back and realize that you never were capable of saying what you had to tell the world. That your work was just a truncated, watered-down, scared version of the real you. Why bother? This version will never make a great animator or entertainment – just filler, also-ran scenes that lead people to remember that their favorite part is coming up. You be the one to make those favorite parts. People have made whole careers of favorite parts because of their commitment to tell what they had to say. Decide now that no matter what crosses your path, you will run through it like a locomotive with your eyes on the goal, never slowing down until you reach the target. This will make greatness in your work and satisfaction in your professional life. Take the brakes off now, there is no need to ever use them again.

What Is The Animator Letters Project All About?

In the video below, aspiring animators from around the world share their stories about how The Animator Letters Project has impacted their lives. They share how the letters have encouraged and inspired them to not give up and to pursue their dreams. They are just a few out of the thousands who have been impacted by this project. You may be asking yourself why you should write a letter for this project. Watch this video and let their stories speak to you, and I think you will see why your participation makes a difference.

Practice, Practice, Practice


Here is a letter written by Merlin Crossingham, Creative Director at Aardman Animations.

Crossingham’s feature film credits include Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit- Curse of the Ware Rabbit and Wallace and Gromit- A Matter of Loaf and Death to name a few.








The Animator Letters Project

I stumbled into animation completely by accident, I gate crashed an afternoon animation seminar a pal of mine was attending, I was 18. It lit all my fires, it gave me focus, I had stumbled upon something quite amazing, something that inspired me, something that I enjoyed doing and something that I could see myself doing for ever. Which is handy as, as we all know animation does seem to take ‘forever’.

I transformed my bedroom into a makeshift studio, saved up and bought a Bolex 16mm camera, and started experimenting. I drew, I animated with sand, pixilated my friends and messed around with stopmotion. I got a place on one of the few film schools with an animation course, and immersed myself in study.

Another happy accident saw me land a runners job at Aardman, on Nick Parks ‘A Close Shave’. This lead to me getting an animation apprentice ship within the studio. The main purpose of this was to allow Aardman to expand its animation crew in advance of filming its first feature, Chicken Run.

So heres the thing, at this point I had been ‘animating’ for several years, been through collage, and was on the first step in the industry, but creatively I was lost. I could animate, in as much as I could skilfully make something move from A-B, I could do a technically proficient walk. But of course this is not enough. I remember the day clearly, I was animating a punk vomiting, on hands and knees, puke squirting through his fingers…..I had my epiphany. Lots of established animators had said act it through, so I had, but if I was honest I was just going through the motions. This time I stopped, I got on my hands and knees; I concentrated on where the tension was in my body, I imagined myself feeling so horribly ill, I started to think about it as a performance. Not once was I contemplating how the animation should be done.

Now Years later as a director I can see young animators taking the same journey, I look for the day they forget about the animation. I often ask brilliant animators how they did a shot and the answer usually goes along the lines of, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just did it’. They have mastered the craft, to an extent that it is a natural extension of themselves, its intuitive, where the character and its performance is front of mind.  The result is not something that moves nicely, that is easy peasy, its when we see an independent, living breathing, THINKING character on screen, that is the animation gold!

So if I have any advice, it is to practice practice practice, make mistakes, learn from them, learn the craft inside out and with time you will forget about the process. Your animation will be an extension of you and your characters will live.

But most of all have fun!



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