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)

Doctors for the Human Spirit


Here is a letter written by Amelia LorenzCalArts graduate, and animator at JibJab Media Inc.

Lorenz had the opportunity to go through the internship program at Pixar Animation Studios during the summer of 2011. You can watch her demo reel here.

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Dear Willie,

Animation has been an incredibly rewarding career for me, so I encourage you to go for your goals and don’t give up. I haven’t been in the industry for even a year yet, so most of my learning experience has been from school and talking with professionals in the industry. But I’d love to pass on their advice to others, since it has greatly helped me:

  • Keep it simple. This is deceptively difficult. But I find that sometimes, when something I’m working on isn’t working out, I apply this rule and it helps me approach my problem from a new, clearer perspective.
  • Work smarter, not harder. It’s tempting to stay up all night and crunch to finish a shot…and in school, at first I thought this was a necessary part of the process. But I found that it’s just counter-productive. I made sub-par work, and it took me way longer! So plan, commit, and follow-through with your schedule. Get up early. Avoid crunching cause you’re just going to crash later.
  • “Done” is better than “perfect”. This advice helps me keep things in perspective. First of all, our opinion of “perfect” can change at any time. so we could be “perfecting” something indefinitely. Secondly, what you might see as a flaw in your work could go completely unnoticed by someone else. And our goal in the end is to share our work with others, right? So shoot for something complete that others can enjoy. A complete shot or a complete short film, not necessarily a “perfect” one.

All of this advice has helped me keep both feet on the ground in a pretty wacky career. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but I found it incredibly valuable.

One other thing that I sometimes remind myself- storytelling is a way of bringing people together, and it can be a way of healing sometimes. So animators may not be like police officers or fireman or doctors, in the traditional sense, but I believe as storytellers we can be like doctors for the human spirit. We can show that the world can be beautiful, that people can learn and grow, and that life can be pretty cool. We can be like the cheer-leaders of the human race! So that makes me feel good, even though “all I do” is draw. I try to draw for good reasons. It seems like as long as I enjoy what I do, and others enjoy it too, then it’s worth it.

Good luck! Hope this helps.

Amelia Lorenz (signed)

Ask For Help


Here is a beautifully written letter by Brenda Chapman, Director at DreamWorks Animation.

Chapman’s feature film credits include Brave (co-director and writer), The Prince of Egypt (co-director), Chicken Run, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to name a few.

On February 1st, 2012, Chapman wrote a great blog post calling all animation artists to participate in The Animator Letters Project. Read it here.

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Oct. 28, 2013

Dear Willie,

I’ve tried to sit down & write this so many times, but I always feel that what I’m writing either makes no sense or it’s too much. I’ve been in the animation industry for nearly 30 years…and I still feel like I have so much to learn.

When I arrived at CalArts in 1984 (after being rejected when I tried for 1983), I didn’t really have a clue.  I hadn’t been an animation geek – that is…I didn’t know who the 9 Old Men were, I had never read an animation book nor had I tried to animate or make my own film. I just loved to draw and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons after school and see the old Disney animated films in the theater. So I was behind when I started at CalArts. Most of my classmates had an idea of how to animate already. So I asked a lot of questions – and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help with things I didn’t understand. I have a deep gratitude for the patience of the teachers – and the mentoring of the upperclassman (Steve Moore, Kevin Lima, Kirk Wise, Ron Hughart & Dale Macbeth – to name a few).

I was incredibly naive. Good was good. Bad was bad. I’m still learning to cope with all the shades of gray after all these years. I went into the animation world with eyes wide, a smile on my face and a determination to do what I loved to do.

DIC was my first job working the summers while I was still at CalArts. Then I made it into Disney when I graduated in 1987.

Again, I asked a lot of questions & sought help when I was out of my depth… which was often – and still is! I was incredibly fortunate to have wonderful mentors who didn’t see me as the token woman in story (for which I was hired by the exec in charge at the time), but as a new young story artist bringing my own ideas to the game. People like Joe Ranft, Roger Allers, Ed Gombert, Vance Gerry, Gary Trousdale and Burny Mattinson. I was truly very lucky.

But the main thing that I feel I’ve had in my corner for all these years is something my mother taught me… and I didn’t even realize it until lately. She taught me resilience. She taught me to get back up when I got knocked down. Giving up was just never an option. I know it has nothing directly to do with the craft/art of animation that we all love. But it’s a way to look at life, I suppose, that helps you make it through the hard stuff and achieve whatever your passion is. Things may change direction (sometimes by choice, sometimes out of our control) – and if you’re open to it – that change could lead you to a better place. Just don’t let the direction change so much that you end up going backwards.

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for mentors from whom you can learn. Most importantly, be happy in doing what you love to do. Don’t let the struggles, the heartache or politics deter you. Look for the passion, the joy and the satisfaction of your own personal part of the bigger puzzle. Those 3 things combined with the struggle & heartache are what make us artists.

Wish you the best of luck in everything you try!

Brenda Chapman (signed)

P.S. The sad thing is, I don’t draw as much anymore – as you can tell by the little sketches. My change in direction has taken me more into writing…and I love that too!

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.


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