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)

Need to Create

Here is a letter written by Daniel Gonzales, animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Gonzales’s feature film credits include Wreck it Ralph, and Cars 2 as well as promo for Toy Story 3. Be sure to check out his blog, where you will find a goldmine of wonderful advise.



October, 2011

To all aspiring artist,

Deep down inside you, inside all of us artists…at one point in our lives we’ve all discovered a huge desire to create. A desire so unexplainable and strong, it’s what makes us artist.

I would wake in the middle of the night as a child with the need to draw, the need to un-load ideas and images from my mind. And that still happens till this day!

To all you who want to be animators..first and foremost, you must find and recognize the same desire to create. Not only for others but to create for yourself. To create for the primal need to just create. Don’t create for the sole reason and purpose of entertainment: to make others laugh and cry. Create to appeal to yourself. I guarantee that your work will connect to more people when you are creating a piece that makes you laugh or cry or think. You’ll be creating from the heart and NOT creating from the assumptions of what might make someone laugh/cry/think.

Stay away from cliche’s. The best tool for original ideas come from your mind, memories and your childhood.

When you ask others to critique your work, remember you’re doing this to ONLY improve technique, skill, execution. You will never grow as an artist if you are always asking others if your work is “good”. Your work becomes good when it connects to you! Most importantly YOU.

When your work is so intwined with your thoughts and your heart that the thought of asking if someone else likes it is pointless.

ask others= improve skill

ask yourself= to improve concept.

Artist never have asked permission to try something new and crazy. Let alone ask if it’s good. Picasso, Mozart, Dali, Monet, Van Gogh, Goya, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Wagner, John Cage and many more…they just DID IT.

To imphasis the point that the greatest work/ meaning/ originality come from within, here is Edvard Munch’s description of his inspiration for the painting, “The Scream”.

“I was walking along a path with two friends, the sun was setting, suddenly the sky turned blood red. I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence. There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord of the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature….” – Edvard Munch

As long as you take your desire and never stop improving your technique, you will never be less than what you want. It’s not about where you end up, what studio you work at, how much money you make. It’s whether or not you are happy with what you are creating.

I never grew up with much of anything. Single parent home in a forgotten run down neighbor hood! As a child I knew more people who have been to prison then to college. Seeing poverty and drive-by shootings was unremarkable to me.

I would find comfort in drawing, pushing myself and my skills to communicate my ideas. I knew my desire was my ticket to get out. Over time people took pleasure in my art, but I never made it for them. It was not them but for me. I needed to draw. Soon then I learned to paint and then to build, and then to animate. I didn’t learn for the sake of learning how to animate, but because I needed to express myself and animation offered another/ different opportunity to do just that, express myself. This mindset has carried me through highschool, college at CCA, 3 years at Pixar, and now mentoring @ Animation Mentor. Most would be content and settle..I can’t.

I need to create, I need to satisfy my artistic desire to continue to express myself until the day I die.

To you aspiring artists/animators out there, never settle down until you are satisfied. And if you find yourself satisfied, you might want to check your inspiration, and desire.

You might of lost it.

Good luck to all. Start at the top and work your way up. Never stop. Patience is the key to all artists!


Daniel Gonzales III

Go With Your Gut

Here is a letter written by Jeff Joe, Senior Character Animator at PDI/ DreamWorks Animation.

Joe’s feature film credits include Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Megamind, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Bee Movie, Shrek the Third, Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Shrek 2, Ice Age, Mousehunt and A Simple Wish.


PDI/ DreamWorks

April 10, 2011

Dear Mr. Downs,

Thank you for this opportunity for me to tell my story on how I got started in the animation industry.

I currently work at PDI/ DreamWorks in Redwood City, CA. Each day as I sit down at my desk, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. If you asked me 20 years ago what I would be doing, I would never have guessed I’d be making cartoons for a living and getting paid for it.

Having talked with my fellow co-workers, I realize that each one had a different way of breaking into the industry. I came to the conclusion that there is no cookie cutter way of doing it- the only thing is to follow your gut and never let go of that which really makes you happy.

Me? What really makes me happy is movies. Watching movies, making home movies, collecting movie-related things…and I also have always loved drawing. Not that I was ever good at either, but these two passions kept me thriving. But how do you make a living doing these things? Who knew that you could actually marry these two passions and get…animation?

I certainly had no clue. And I certainly didn’t have the guts to tell my parents that I wanted to have a career out of either of these passions. For me, the career path was going to be…pre-law. Because law school was the “safe” choice. But if you ever met me, you’d quickly realize I’m anything BUT the litigating, lawyering type. I’m too much of a wiseguy to take any of that seriously. But I didn’t tell my parents. For all they cared, I was a good boy, taking all the necessary pre-law, political courses that my college offered.

Then, in 1993, my Senior year, when I’m supposed to have started applying for law school, JURASSIC PARK came out. It blew my mind. It wouldn’t surprise me if I actually cut class to see this (I cut class a lot in pre-law). CGI was in such an infantile stage at that point. But I knew THAT’S what I wanted to do for a living.

So I researched computer animation schools and found one, The School of Visual Arts (SVA), in New York City, that offered an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) in computer arts in two years. I swallowed hard and asked my parents if I could apply to this school. Just as long as I got into one law school. To my surprise, they let me go through with it.

I started this new path in 1994 and since then, I never looked back. My instructors at SVA were also animation supervisors and founders at Blue Sky Studios in New York, and they’re the ones who gave me my first break.

My point is- go with your gut, ’cause you never know what life will bring you.

-Jeff Joe

Don’t Give Up!

Here is a letter written by Aaron Hartline, animator at Pixar Animation Studios.

Hartline’s feature film credits include Brave, Cars 2, Toy Story 3, UP, Ice Age 1-3, Horton Hears a Who and Robots. You can check out his blog, and his Daily Post-it doodles. You can also follow him on Twitter @TheDailyPostit.

Read what Hartline has to say about the letter on his blog after it was featured on the Letters of Note website.

This is the letter that not only encouraged me to follow my dreams of becoming an animator, but also inspired me to start this project as well.


Hi Willie –

Thank you for the kind words! Reading your letter, all I could think was DON’T GIVE UP! If you really love it, then don’t let anyone tell you it’s too hard, that you will fail.

When I took a tour at Disney right out of Highschool, I showed the tour guide/animator my work. She said ‘It’s easier to get a job as a professional basketball player than getting a animator position at Walt Disney Studios‘. My mom said ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I was so angry. So motivated. I knew if I worked hard that one day..some day..I could do it! Took me 14 years of trying but it happened.

You can do it Willie!!

Work hard and really want it!

Check out I teach there. It’s a great school w teachers who are professional working animators at the major studios.

Hope to be working with you one day.



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