Recently though, I've had some time to revamp the group, and our numbers are on the rise again, which is driving me to encourage further participation and bring a special element to the group to lend hope and motivation to our aspiring animators.
I've been thinking it would be nice for the Animators Group to get back into mini-interviews (it's been a long time since we've done them). I'm going to try to do one per month, and after a few solid months I'll see if there's time to do more beyond that.
Without further ado, we have a real treat - an interview with Stephen Wong of Pixar Animation Studios. Please enjoy, and come see us at the Animators!
Stephen Wong, character animator, Pixar Animation Studios
Hi Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. It looks like you got your start in CS and then moved into animation. What inspired this transition? Have you always wanted to work in animation?
I was always into art but had never considered it as a career, so I just kind of walked into computer science thinking it sounded sort of interesting. 6 painful years later, after endless math and science classes, and a few co-op stints with IBM, I found that I really wasn't very passionate about programming, but I was passionate about filmmaking, animation and visual effects. The idea of art school was always in the back of my head, whispering to me. I was working at a tech startup at the time, and the company was struggling a bit, so I decided I might as well give art school a shot and see if I had what it took to be an artist in the movie industry in some capacity. I studied illustration and traditional animation, then got lucky attending a couple of advanced computer animation classes taught by some Pixar animators, and I knew right then animation was what I wanted to do for a living.
What did you think of your time at GIT & AAU? Pros/Cons?
To be quite honest, Georgia Tech was a pretty painful experience for me. But it did teach me how to think analytically, learn to adapt quickly, and realize what my pain tolerance was. But in all seriousness, it's an experience that strengthened me mentally, and for that I'm grateful. The Academy of Art was a great experience (I wish I could have stayed in art school forever). I learned so much about the fundamentals of art, animation, how to learn and grow from other artists around you. Of course, art school is a bit sink or swim, and you learn pretty quickly that grades don't really matter as much as what your portfolio says about you and your work ethic. I went to every drawing workshop I could possibly attend, and spent many sleepless nights working on my animation reel.
Shortly after graduation, you jumped right in and worked on the Sims 2 EP for a few months. How did you land this first animation job, and what did the experience teach you?
If I have one word of advice for people trying to work in the industry, it's to not be picky about your first job! Just get one, any one, and prove that you can work on deadlines, and work with other people. I honestly didn't do a whole lot of animation at EA, even though I was hired in that capacity. I mainly got stuck working as a graphic designer on the user interface and drawing little icons (endless icons...), and then occasionally animated when they had an opening for me. But I worked as hard as I could, met a lot of great people, and used that experience along with my personal demo reel, to land my first big animation gig at Bluesky.
Right after working at Electronic Arts, you quickly moved over to Blue Sky, then ILM, Pixar, Tippett, and back to Pixar. How have you been proactive in getting your animation jobs? Did any of these companies (or recruiters or agents) find you, or did you apply yourself to getting each position?
You always hear about the importance of networking in school, but you never really fully understand just how important it is until you start looking for work. Outside of EA, pretty much every job I ever got was through someone I knew from school or from another company, recommending me or handing my reel in for a position that was open. And of course, having a demo reel that shows that you have a solid understand of weight, timing, performance and appeal is critical. Only show things that present the best of what you can do, and from within that, show your best stuff first. I've seen reel reviews where each reel gets about 6 seconds of viewing before people decide to either keep watching or hit the eject button. When in doubt, show friends and colleagues and ask for their brutal honesty. A 30 second reel of top-notch work looks a lot better than a minute long one with mostly good stuff and a couple of average pieces.
As far as being proactive about getting jobs, I normally try and pay attention to what projects are ramping up and consequently who is hiring animators for those projects. And it doesn't hurt to be decent at interviewing. They're looking for people who are passionate about what they do, and good at it, but not cocky. But you also can't be so passionate that you come across as a fanboy, people don't like that either.
You completed a lot of shots while you were at Blue Sky. What were some of the challenges you faced moving into feature film animation?
The biggest challenge coming from school to feature film animation is being able to consistently hit your deadlines while trying to do your best work on every shot. Unlike school, you don't get to scrap shots that aren't working out that well, so you've got to be able to adjust to notes quickly, and bring strong efficient ideas to your shots. Typically you've got a week from beginning to end to finish a shot, which doesn't give you a ton of time to explore different ideas for a shot. Honing in to a good idea or being able to scrap an idea you have that probably isn't going to work, is critical to any animation job, but especially true with feature anim. If you have a hard time taking notes and critiques in school then you had better learn how to, or you probably don't belong in the industry.
While you were at Tippett, you got to work on the Spiderwick Chronicles. What characters did you animate on that feature? What did you like best/worst about Tippett?
I mostly animated the little goblins running around terrorizing the kids, but also had a couple of shots with the character Hogsqueal. As for Tippett Studio, the place is amazing. It's one of those old school fx houses that has so much rich history in regards to visual and special effects, and one walk through the garage/workshop is like a trip through fx film history. Maquettes and models from Jurassic Park, Robocop, Hellboy, Starship Troopers adorn the walls everywhere, and there's a great energy and collaborative nature to that place. I had a great experience working there.
So far, you've worked with Pixar the longest. What is your favorite thing about working there? Least favorite?
It's crazy to think I've worked at Pixar the longest, but I guess that's true! There's a lot of great things about working there, but I guess my favorite is just how fun the work environment is. They really try and make the studio feel open and relaxing, so that you're able to put all of your creativity and inspiration into your work. I seriously have fun every day, even when production gets crazy, because you're constantly inspired by all the great artists working there. And everyone has the same goal there, which is to make great films. Least favorite? Hmmm...they didn't give us President's Day off, does that count?
You have a fantastic Ratatouille reel. What was your favorite shot to work on during that production?
Thanks, I came on half-way through the production but it was incredible to be able to work with Brad Bird, even for a few months. I suppose my favorite shot was my first close-up shot of Remy looking up at the TV, more for sentimental reasons than anything else, since it was my first big shot on the show.
What are your most favorite animated productions, and who are your favorite animators?
I love the Jungle Book, Spirited Away, anything with Wallace and Grommit, and of course, as generic as this is, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. The animation in those movies is still mind-boggling to me. There are too many great animators out there to name, it wouldn't be fair.
If you had any advice to give an aspiring animator, what would that be?
Anyone can be an animator. Like anything else, it takes time, dedication, a good eye, lots and lots of passion, and a little bit of luck. I know animators who used to be cops, worked at coffee shops, doctors, musicians. The thing they all have in common is a love of filmmaking and storytelling, and a goofy sense of humor doesn't hurt.
A very special thank you to Stephen for taking the time to answer these questions. Happy animating, everyone!