Career Advice - Working as a 3D Animator with Ian Lade
Want a successful career working as a Junior 3D Animator? Ian Lade, recently completing a Master of Animation and Visualisation at the UTS Animal Logic Academy, is a Junior Animator at Luma Pictures. Ian sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
When I was first choosing a degree to pursue at the end of high school, I was predominately tossing up between studying history and teaching. I grew up with all of the earlier Pixar movies like The Incredibles (still one of my favourite movies of all time), but making a career out of animation seemed so far removed from reality. I was never really much of an artist, and there seemed to be too many uncertainties about sustainable future job prospects.
Ultimately, given that I had enjoyed making my Design and Technology major project, which was a simple pilot episode for a children’s tv show, my curiosity won out. I chose a Bachelor of Design in Animation at UTS, promising my parents that I would switch to a more ‘standard’ degree if I wasn’t feeling like I would progress very far with it.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Whilst I struggled (a lot) to match the artistic talents of my peers, something clicked during my first semester of 2D animation training. Seeing my poorly drawn characters come to life; walking, jumping, picking up heavy objects, I fell in love with the process and the rewarding nature of the craft. When I started to learn Maya and realised I could follow my passion without even having to worry about my drawing skills, my goal of wanting to work in this industry had been cemented.
The (UTS) Academy is the closest you can get to working in a real studio, allowing you to get familiar with the sort of workflow you can expect in the industry whilst refining your skills under the tutelage of industry veterans.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
My current position is as a Junior Animator. I animate objects and characters on a range of different projects, whilst occasionally helping with setting up the layout of a shot. I work on shots assigned to me by my Animation Supervisor, whilst also occasionally helping my Lead Animator with secondary animation (i.e. the smaller details in a scene that they might not have the time to focus on).
Where do you work, and what type of projects are you involved with?
I work at Luma Pictures, a visual effects studio located in South Melbourne. Luma has worked on a range of CGI films in the past, providing animation and VFX for various titles, such as Jojo Rabbit, Birds of Prey and many Marvel films. I can’t say much about the types of projects I am currently involved in, but I am very excited by the work I am doing and can’t wait for people to see it.
How did you get your first big break?
My first big break came after weeks of applying to various studios worldwide, but it was ultimately the result of a sustained effort. I had spent the entirety of last year completing my Masters Degree at the UTS Animal Logic Academy in order to improve my skills and develop a higher quality showreel. Although the course hadn’t finished and I was still waiting for some of my shots to go through lighting, I knew I needed to apply for positions sooner rather than later. So, I put together a temporary reel that wasn’t the prettiest but ultimately showed off my skill set. From there, it was just a matter of applying everywhere I could, until I got a request for an interview with Luma.
One resource that was invaluable was the Industry Job Spreadsheet compiled by Chris Mayne. It’s free to access and is updated daily with positions of all disciplines across films, advertising and games. Thanks to that spreadsheet I found relevant positions that I wanted to apply for very frequently, which helped enormously to cast a wide net of job applications.
How did you learn the skills needed to get your job?
I learnt all the basic skills needed for the role during the course of my Bachelor’s degree, where I had some great animation teachers; however the course was a bit generalist in nature, making it difficult to land a job as specialised as an animator. What I found really necessary was the refinement of those skills through hard work, repetition and constant feedback. During my time at the Animal Logic Academy I got to focus almost exclusively on honing my craft, and would constantly get detailed feedback on my work from my leads. I was also encouraged to work on my own animations in my spare time, so as to get experience with a broader range of creatures and performances. This experience, combined with the tutelage along the way is what facilitated my growth as an animator and landed me my first industry job at an amazing studio.
What was the interview process like and what advice would you give others?
I found the buildup to the interview far more stressful than the interview itself! My interview was mostly going through my reel and describing my workflow, so it had a conversational tone throughout. It’s a very comfortable feeling to be able to just talk about your craft, so I had a good experience overall. My advice would be to really reflect on the story of each shot in your reel. Was it for a uni project or something you did in your spare time? Was there anything unique or challenging about the project brief? How long did it take you to complete? Is there anything you’d change about it in hindsight? You probably already know the answers to questions like this, but formulating an idea about what you want to say will make talking about your work much easier and lead to an organic conversation in your interview.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
A typical day for my team and I usually starts off with our daily review session, headed by our Animation Supervisor. We get feedback on the work that we’ve submitted, which we then focus on implementing throughout the day in order to submit for review again by the end of the day. Usually this feedback will focus on acute details within a performance; slow a part down here, adjust a pose for a stronger action there. This feedback loop defines the average day at Luma, and is an ongoing cycle of improvement in order to achieve high quality performances on time for project deadlines.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Most of Luma’s tools are all in-house, so I can’t really talk about them. You learn how to use them along the way, so new artists shouldn’t worry too much about being overwhelmed.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
The key people I interact with on a daily basis are my animation supervisor and my animation leads. Whilst my supervisor provides my main notes and sets my direction for the day, it is the leads that I turn to whenever I need more immediate help. They help out whenever I have technical problems, or just need some quick feedback on the progression of my work. The assistance and mentorship they provide has been incredibly valuable and has played an important role in my workflow at Luma.
I never want to change the challenging nature of my job. At Luma, I have new problems to solve almost every day, and I am constantly learning new ways to improve my work based on the feedback that I receive.
As for other departments, the Layout and Tracking departments are two teams I work with frequently. The work they do to set up the environment and cameras for a scene provides the foundation of any shot I animate, so collaborative problem solving is common. Whether it’s finding ways to improve our workflows, or developing specific solutions for unique problems that can occur in a shot, the Layout department is an important supporting team for the Animation department. Likewise, we also rely on the Tracking department for geographic accuracy and consistency in our performances, so there is always constant coordination between our teams.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
I never want to change the challenging nature of my job. At Luma, I have new problems to solve almost every day, and I am constantly learning new ways to improve my work based on the feedback that I receive. This means being responsive to changes and letting go of parts of your work you might have already been happy with at the time, but through this process you end up working faster on your next pass. This fast-paced, fluid environment really encourages growth as an artist, which is what you want when you’re just starting.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
It would be nice if it was easier to explain what I do to people outside of the VFX and animation industry! There are so many technical roles involved in making movies these days that it feels like there’s a massive disconnect between the world we live in and everyone else’s. I would love to see a broader outreach from the film industry into the education system so that there is a greater awareness around the filmmaking process. My hope would also be that other students who absorb this knowledge become inspired to go down this exciting path.
Why would you recommend your school to others?
I would highly recommend the UTS Animal Logic Academy to anyone looking to upskill and gain industry experience. The Academy is the closest you can get to working in a real studio, allowing you to get familiar with the sort of workflow you can expect in the industry whilst refining your skills under the tutelage of industry veterans. From start to finish the course focuses on developing the skills you need to get that first job, facilitating the production of high quality work that will look great on your portfolio as well as developing your soft skills, those subtle communication skills you will need to use in the industry every day.
You can choose to specialise in one or two departments (which I recommend), but you can also experiment and spend your time across different departments to see what feels right for you. For example, you might have started out as a modeler, but you might discover that working with VFX in Houdini is actually your calling. The course caters for that approach, helping you to grow into an industry ready professional whichever direction you go down.
On top of that, the leads also go out of their way to help you network and make the connections you need to get that foot inside the door, which is invaluable. The sum of all these components is a thorough and intensive course with a clear focus on getting you a job, run by experienced, competent and caring staff that are just as invested in your success as you are.
What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?
I wish I had known what the world in general was going to look like at this point in time! The current shift to working from home due to COVID-19 has been an interesting experience, as I have had to be more self-reliant than ever. Whilst technology has allowed artists to communicate with each other reliably and efficiently, there is still a social element of the work environment that has been diminished. Those smaller day to day interactions where the exchanging of ideas and little bits of feedback prior to official reviews would occur are less frequent, which can have an impact on how you learn and grow within the role. Of course there is still potential for a different kind of growth through working remotely, but had I known things would turn out this way I would have tried even harder to absorb as much knowledge as I could from my coworkers whilst I was in the studio.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists trying to get a job, what would it be?
If you’re just starting in this industry, definitely consider getting some experience abroad. There might not be any local positions available straight away, so keep an open mind about where your first job might be. If you’re young, working interstate or even in a different country is an exciting opportunity to see more of the world and grow not just as an artist, but as a person. Push hard, send out those applications, and if you’ve spent enough time polishing your reel you’ll definitely land that first gig.