2020 Rookie Award Winners - Interview with Shir Baron
Christina Ryan chats with Shir Baron who was Highly Commended for her 3D Animation short called 'The Train to Qinling' and learns more about her journey as a student in the creative industries, and how The Rookies helped her to achieve her career goals.
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Christina: So Shir, it's been really nice chatting to you so far, I’d love to hear a little bit about yourself and I’m sure everyone would love to hear how you came into the 3D animation industry, what you studied, and what you're doing now.
Shir: I’m originally from Israel but I studied in the US at Ringling College. I had a little bit of a different background because of that. In Israel after high school, we first go to the military. So I served as an officer for three years and then I traveled a bit where I went to far East Asia, and that's actually where I took a lot of inspiration from, for my film. I then became a flight attendant for two years, and then I went to school. So I was a little older than a lot of other students but I think that also allowed me to have a lot of experiences that I was able to put into my work.
I actually just graduated this year, in May. With the pandemic and all, I moved to LA and I’m currently working at DreamWorks as an animator.
Christina: Wow, that's quite a journey. I’m really curious - your background is quite different to the others I’ve spoken to. Coming through the military and approaching your studies at a bit of an older age, what benefits do you think that gave you?
I think that the level of work that I see at [The Rookies] is just so great, it's amazing. So I can't believe that my work is up there too.
Shir: In my opinion it benefited me a lot. I think there's no right way of doing things, for me, I was able to gain all these experiences before studying and when thinking of ideas for all kinds of assignments, not just for my thesis film, I was able to pull from a lot of those experiences; going through very stressful situations before, I feel like I was more prepared for the stressful situation of school. Yes, and I could see the same struggles with my friends at school that I had when I was in the military for example. So eventually everyone goes through some kind of stressful time in their life. For me, it was just in a different experience before that.
Christina: Well I imagine the life experience and the maturity you would have gained from all of that probably would have given you a really good sense to work hard and do really well.
Shir: I hope so.
Christina: So can you tell us just a little bit more about your studies - where did you go to school and what you learn?
Shir: So I started computer animation at Ringling College of Art and Design which is located in Florida. It's a four-year program, the first year is more basic stuff, figure drawing perspective, stuff like that. The second year is when we actually got into animation and opened Maya for the first time and then through those second or third years, we had small assignments where we created a 10 to 12 second short. So we did go through the process of going through the whole pipeline from storyboard visual development to modeling, texturing, rigging, animating...everything.
When we got to the fourth year, that's when we focused on our thesis film for the whole year. We did the pre-production work second semester of third year, but fourth year is when we actually created the film and were a little more prepared because we had the experience of going through the whole pipeline prior to that.
Christina: So what made you decide to go into more of a stylised approach over a visual effects sort of approach? Is that what you were taught in school or did you have the option to do different things?
Shir: It's less of a visual effects program, so coming into the school, people who go to Ringling usually know what the program teaches so I knew that I was getting into a program that offered something a little more cartoony and stylised. I always loved animated films, it's a big part of me. I love entertainment and I also love telling stories like writing little children's books and little drawings and stuff. So it was a really fun experience to be able to bring that into an actual short and I did want something that could speak to all ages.
My film has that cute factor with the characters and all, but also, it does at the end of the day, speak about communication and communicating even when words are not an option. There are a lot of ways to communicate between people who are different.
Christina: That's amazing and you nailed it. Your animation was just so full of character and yes, it was great. So, you're an animator now at DreamWorks, tell us about that.
Shir: Well, I only started a few months ago. At first, we had some training for the few first weeks and then we worked on some promotional material for one of the future films coming out. I’m starting to work on Boss Baby 2, so that will be really exciting. Yes, it's very exciting I’m really happy to be there. I honestly owe a lot to my mentor that really taught me everything I know and the teachers at school. I feel like I have to thank a lot of people that helped me get here.
Christina: So how are you finding working in a COVID environment - obviously you're working from home right now. How long do you expect that to go for?
Shir: No one knows how long, sadly. I think now I finally am feeling good but it wasn't easy as someone who is in a foreign country away from family and everything. In March, when they told all the students to leave campus and the international students had nowhere to go, they let us stay on campus.
In March I packed my bags and stayed with a family in North California where I was for a little bit and then I came to LA renting at a friend's house for a little bit. I finally moved to an actual apartment where I could unpack all my stuff. So it's not the best feeling when you don't really have where to go but now that I have my own little home, it feels so much nicer and I have a roommate and some friends around too.
Christina: Good. So obviously working from home is a pretty big deal in itself but how did you find the transition from studying into work? Do you think your school prepared you?
Shir: I think school prepared us very well - at least Ringling did! I had people help me financially to get to Ringling, and I wouldn't have been there without their help. I’m really grateful for that because yes, I think that they prepared us very well but also, I do feel like I’m very new and I have a lot to learn but DreamWorks kind of knew that taking me in, so I’m just happy that they were able to see potential in me and decided to invest in me. There are amazing artists and everyone even though we're working from home, has reached out to offer support. So I feel like I always have someone to turn to if I need to. Yes, people are just really nice.
Just keep working, talk to people, reach out.
Christina: Amazing, I’m so glad. Was the step up in the work quite large?
Shir: The bar is way higher now so the stress level is similar in some ways, to school. But I have free weekends and I have my evenings which at school you don't have, so it's a lot nicer because I also can balance my work with actual life and not just work all the time.
Entering The Rookie Awards
Christina: I've got your Rookies entry up just playing in the background, I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. So just to start with, what made you enter the Rookies Awards?
Shir: Well I heard about the rookies being probably the best online competition so when I finished my film it was kind of an obvious thing for me to do because I did apply my film to different festivals and everything and then there's the Rookies which is like a thing that everyone just does. I never thought that I would actually be selected; very flattering, very exciting. I think that the level of work that I see there is just so great, it's amazing. So I can't believe that my work is up there too, very flattering!
Christina: You did really, really well.
Shir: Thank you.
Christina: So I'd love to know just a little bit more about your Rookies entry. You mentioned that this was your final project?
Shir: Yes, this was my thesis film. For our thesis project we actually created a one to two minute short, and for a year and a half I created this film - half a year of pre- production and then a year of production.
Creating a Portfolio Piece
Christina: How did you come up with idea and the story, because that iss always the hardest, I find.
Shir: Yes, for sure. So, we had to come up with multiple ideas to pitch to our faculty and this was one of those few ideas and I was trying to think of how to develop it. And that's where I went back to all the experiences I had before school.
One experience that I remembered in particular that really stuck with me for years was when I was in China, I was backpacking alone and I got on this 24-hour train ride and I would meet new people every day. I would connect with other travelers and find my own way with them and sometimes change my course just because I had found some people that I got along with very well.
Once I got on this really long train ride and expected to see other travelers, but there were none. It was filled with locals and in China they don't really know very good English so my first reaction was uh okay, I guess 24 hours of being cooped up in my little bunk bed and just being alone and not being able to speak to anyone will be ok but the way the train is built, there are little booths and three bunk beds on each side.
Each tiny booth has six people, so I climbed into my bed I got in and about an hour in or so, the people sitting next to me reached their hand out with some food and they didn't need words to explain what they were doing, they were just offering to share and I accepted.
And then they taught me how to play some card games and how to fold origami and tried to ask me questions without us being able to really understand each other. After 24 hours of being with these people we ended the train ride as friends which is something that was the opposite of how I felt when I was getting on the train.
This was something that I really wanted to bring into the film. Communication in general was something that was important to me. I worked with non-verbal children, created art with them and you know, so communicating in other ways sometimes without words, was something I thought could be fun and interesting to bring to my film.
Having a mentor really made such a big difference. The minute I had someone that was willing to guide me and push me forward, things clicked so quickly for me.
Christina: That's amazing. No, that's incredible! Now I guess I'd love to know a little bit more about the process of creation - you said you did all of this yourself or all of this 3D work yourself?
Shir: At Ringling we had the option to do a solo thesis where you create the film alone or you can great a group of two or three people. I chose to do my film on my own but you know, I say I did on my own but in the end of the day, I had so many people guide me through it. We have amazing teachers and I had my mentor Liron Topaz that really took me under his wing for the last year and a half of my studies.
He's a really close friend and you know he gave me critiques all the time and I learned how to animate honestly thanks to him. So yes, I did it alone but I always had people that I turned to. My partner, he's a rigger, so any rigging question I would ask him but yes, I think it's awesome that we get to learn the whole pipeline and go through all of it at Ringling. It really gives us a broad understanding of everything and you know even getting into any studio whether it was at Riot before DreamWorks, and Hasbro as a generalist, there's always an understanding of what happens in all of the different departments. So, if you have an issue with a rig, you can explain yourself much better because you understand what's happening there. So I think it's very valuable for sure.
As for music and sound production, I did outsource that. I hired an amazing composer, Daniel Markovich and especially since my film is a non-verbal film, it was really, really important to have good music and good sound. Audio Brew did the sound for my film and they were all awesome, great people to work with.
It's All in the Detail
Christina: That's amazing. So, in terms of audio and things like that, how was that created before or after your animation? How did you get it to just line up so perfectly?
Shir: When it comes to the little sounds that they make, for the panda that was actually a journey because I didn't know what to do for him. Pandas sound very different from the way mine sounds in the film, they kind of have this little squeak and that sound would just be kind of weird and I think it wouldn't really express what I was trying to express. So we had to come up with the actual sound. We do have a sound booth at school and I spent a lot of hours there and my friend Aerial Song, did 50 of the sounds too.
When it came to music and stuff like that, I took a lot of music that existed and in premiere, put it all together so when I handed it off to the composer, he could understand what part was supposed to express what emotion and what the tone or style of the music should be. I think that that really helped because I did have a placeholder that you could build on.
Christina: And did they, once you'd finished the film, did they sort of go back to make sure that the timing was correct and the accents were in the right place? You sort of need the video to be finished before the music, is that right?
Shir: True, I think we went back and forth so much that we ended up kind of finishing everything simultaneously. But yes, I mean there was a first pass that was there but it wasn't the final pass and then you know the second pass is a little - the animation is also a little more finessed so it just kind of works together. I do know that a lot of times there will be suddenly a change where the faculty will advise to cut out a shot or something, and then if you cut out a shot that can really create a hole in the sound and I do know that some students would sometimes have to send it back and actually readjust it and fix it. I was lucky to not have that happen so yes, it just worked out very well. Yes.
Christina: And Shir, what did you find was the most challenging part of creating your project?
Shir: Actually, I really enjoyed creating my piece of film and was my favourite project at school. Most challenging part is storyboarding, I don't like drawing very quickly and storyboarding is very hard for me, like nailing the perspective by just doing it really quickly and all that, that's the hardest aspect. I had something very specific in mind and you get all of these comments and ideas and you know we're still at school, so we're also trying to learn how to navigate those notes and when to take the notes, when to apply them, when not to apply them, how to apply them - when you get a note you can solve it in so many different ways and each way will take it in a different direction.
I actually ended my junior year supposed to have our final story ready, but ended up with a story that I didn't like at all. So over the summer I reset, I thought it out again and then senior year when we got back to school when I could speak to some teachers and get some feedback, I made a whole new animatic. I then did another two iterations of that while we were already making our models and layout and all of that but I ended up with a film that I'm very happy with. So it was like a little bit of a mess and doing stuff simultaneously but I think it was totally worth it because I worked on something that I enjoyed.
When I submitted to the Rookies, I showed a lot of process work whether it's the models that I created, or a little bit of the background story.
Christina: That's amazing. Everyone has different challenges and these sort of things right? Especially if you're doing something from start to finish, so obviously there's going to be something that you find challenging. So I suppose for someone entering the Rookies next year or for someone who is just about to start their final project, what advice would you give them?
Shir: If it comes to just a film - a short film, something that I liked that I really wanted to show when I submitted to the Rookies, I showed a lot of process work whether it's the models that I created and a little bit of the background story. I don't know if that's something that helps, I don't actually know what impressed, so I think that's something that I would consider doing.
When it comes to just creating your film, I think you need to be true to yourself - you'll get a lot of different ideas and opinions, and it's really important to go back to the root of the notes and not just the suggestions because the suggestions can be very confusing if that's not where you're going with your story. You need to understand why you're getting the note and then take that note and try to solve it in a way that that helps your story. The reason I enjoyed senior year is because I was telling a story that I wanted to tell so don't give up on that. It's so important.
Christina: In terms of working in the industry, applying for work and things like that, I'm sure there's some people out there who would love to just get your opinion or some advice as to how to approach that.
Shir: Yes, I think networking is so important - our school also brought a lot of recruiters to the school, to campus and even if I wasn't able to get an interview, I would always go even if I'm not interested in the company. I still always went to the presentations and always shook the presenter's hand or recruiter's hand and asked questions and tried to stay in touch. I think also something that just helped me personally a lot was having that mentor that really, it made such a big difference.
The minute I had someone that was willing to guide me and push me forward, things clicked so quickly and my level spiked really fast and at the end of the day, you get a job because you have good work that fits the studio.
Another thing is, don't get discouraged. A lot of times you'll apply to like, 70 studios and only one that will accept you. Sometimes the reason studios won't take you is because the specific show they're working on or the specific style that they are creating doesn't match exactly with the work you create. It has to be mutual - you and the studio have to be a good match for each other so yes, and just keep working, talk to people, reach out. I know it's not an easy thing for a lot of people but you know if you have a friend that is good at doing those things then really ask for advice and ask them to check your emails and give you some feedback for the LinkedIn message you're sending, like anything, it makes a huge difference.
Christina: That's really sound advice. It's often really daunting and it's really hard when you leave school when you're applying for work and it's just such a different dynamic so I'm sure people out there would really appreciate that.
Shir, thank you so much once again for joining. I really loved hearing about your journey into animation and hearing a little bit about how you created your piece.
Shir: Thank you so much for having me, I'm so excited that I was able to even be part of the Rookies!