2020 Rookie Award Winners - Interview with Jeremy Schaefer

2020 Rookie Award Winners - Interview with Jeremy Schaefer

To continue our interview series with the 2020 Rookie Award Winners, Christina Ryan chats with Ringling College of Art and Design graduate, Jeremy Schaefer ,who was Highly Commended in the 3D Animation category for his film The Box Assassin.

To continue our interview series with the 2020 Rookie Award Winners, Christina Ryan chats with Jeremy Schaefer who was Highly Commended  in the 3D Animation category for his film The Box Assassin. The film is about a pizza delivery boy who finds himself stuck between a gang boss and a legendary assassin which he has unknowingly delivered.

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Video Transcript

Christina: Hi everyone, my name is Christina and I’m a Texture and Look Development Artist at Rising Sun Pictures located in Adelaide, Australia.  I’m also a judge for the Rookies Awards 2020. I’m really excited to be doing this new interview series for the Rookies. I’ll get to be meeting the finalists and the runner-ups of the Rookie Awards 2020. I’m really excited to be meeting Jeremy this week, he's the winner of the 3D Animation category and the creator of The Box Assassin which was an absolute standout entry. It blew all of the judges away. Jeremy, before we talk about your entry and amazing stuff you're doing now, can you just start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got into 3D animation?

Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you for inviting me, I’m glad to be part of the contest in general. I think it’s cool what you guys are doing and creating space for students to connect and submit their work, so huge props to you all for doing that.

My name is Jeremy Schaefer. I basically got started in animation way back in middle school and so I kind of started on a path of filmmaking and really pursuing that and it's interesting because computer animation I think, is kind of a blend now, just like technology and filmmaking and a lot of traditional things.

Eventually I kind of found my way into that specifically and I found my way specifically into Ringling College of Art and Design and so after I got to Ringling I really started to focus on animation. At Ringling, I was just building a solid foundation and then fundamental art skills like drawing, colour and all that stuff because at the school, the first year is all focused on that. You don't touch your computer or anything, first you're just focused on art fundamentals. But then, you start getting into the studio and stuff and so it all kind of builds up like we talked about before we went on live.

I think it’s cool what [The Rookies] is doing and creating space for students to connect and submit their work.

Making a senior thesis film - that's when I made The Box Assassin and I really enjoyed that because in your senior year you get to focus on making a film, you get it storyboarded out and do all that stuff, so I really enjoyed that process.

After I made the film there was the whole virus thing that was happening, I guess it's still going on and that affected the school and whatnot but there were still some people hiring and so I actually got in touch with DreamWorks, and we were working on a contract for a long time but finally we pulled the trigger and so now I’m currently in LA.

Christina: That is so cool.

Jeremy: Thank you. I’m really excited. So yeah, now I’m at DreamWorks as an animator and finishing training and hopefully going to hop onto something really soon, so I’m really excited to be here.

Christina: We were absolutely stoked to hear that you got picked up by DreamWorks. It's no wonder, your work was absolutely amazing.

Jeremy: Thank you.

Christina: So, I guess chatting about your school you said it was a four-year degree, is that correct?

Jeremy: Correct. Yes, Ringling is a four-year school bachelor's degree. The way this school is structured, first year is like fundamentals and art drawing. You kind of touch animation. You do like traditional animation the first year, but then yes, the major I was in was computer animation so it's kind of a general school in the sense that the coursework is kind of project based.

For your project you're going to do an animation of a character like sitting up and standing down. But it's not like maybe an online school where they give you a rig you model the rig or you model the character, rig it, texture it and then animate it. You do everything; you get the whole pipeline experience.

Some people want that, some people don't, so that's just something to be aware of but for me, again, I was really excited that it was building up to  making a whole film and you got to use the animation medium to make a film.

I would tell anyone that it's good to be aware of other parts of the pipeline...it helps to know how everything works.

Christina: Yeah, it's definitely really important to have an understanding especially the departments directly before you and after you, I find that really important in the industry so I think it's great. So you obviously can perform all of the pipeline extremely well, what made you decide to sort of niche in animation?

Jeremy: Yes, that's a great question. Yes, early on I wasn't sure, I was really just open to anything and I think like my sophomore year I got a response from a company on texturing and surfacing so I was like “Oh, maybe that’ll do it and I…”

Christina: I’m biased.

Jeremy: Yes, it's totally fine and I still think it's super cool but eventually after spending more time at the school I realised, I was like I don't know if that's the path I want to pursue and so for me it was just like - with animation I think it's just like what excites you the most, it's like what do you do, at Ringling you know, you're working on these different things at no point of the project do you get the most excited about. I really do like all parts of the process, I think they're all fun and I think it's all cool to see it come together but I think animation was like, I think it was like I don't want to say it was the most challenging, like all the other things were easy but like animation really gives me a headache sometimes...

Christina: I can imagine!

Jeremy: And so maybe that makes it feel like “Oh, then you shouldn't do that,” but at the same time I really enjoy problem solving and the acting. Also, once we started to study and we talked about it in class, the teachers would break down shots and they'd break down references and I found it really interesting - all the care and thought that were behind a shot because that was something that I was really unaware of before going to school. I was like, I think this is something I really want to jump into and take time to learn more about and I think it's also just the storytelling aspect of acting and all that also interests me.

Christina: Yes, bringing it to life.

Jeremy: Yeah, so I think that's why I focused on it but again I think they're all super cool.

Christina: Yeah, no I’m super glad that you're able to find a job in the industry and the path that you really wanted to get into, so well done. Tell us a bit about what you're doing now.

Jeremy: Well, with DreamWorks? Yeah, so I’m an animator at DreamWorks as like feature because they have a TV side too and they do a lot of cool shows and whatnot. So, I’m going to be trained and I’m going to be going into I think marketing, like exciting kind of commercial stuff so I’m really excited about that because it's kind of a nice ease into the whole pipeline and just the industry in general but at the moment I’m just training.

They have a proprietary software, they don't use Maya and so yeah, specifically for animation I think they use Maya maybe for other parts of the pipeline. But for animation, they have their own software and so I’ve been trying to learn that and pick that up but it's really cool because it's specifically made for animation so it's not like Maya where there's a bunch of other tools and all that, everything in the software relates to animation specifically and also it's been pretty well optimised.

When you're working it's always like full real time playback you don't ever have any lag or anything like that so that's really cool from an animation perspective. But yeah, I’m just training now getting familiar with all that and then after that I’ll go on to starting to get shots and you know something interesting about DreamWorks is the way they handle their shots and sequences as a studio. Other studios assign shots to animators and each animator gets this shot or that shot, but DreamWorks usually gives like a chunk of shots or a sequence and so that's really cool because you get a little bit more ownership over a little part of the film.

A lot of times a shot overlaps and there's like an open over and there's kind of a little moment going on inside the film and so it's cool because the animators could kind of craft that part. I think that's something cool about DreamWorks that I wasn't aware of really before starting here, so that's exciting too.

Christina: So, did you find that I mean, as you're saying that DreamWorks have a lot of their own software and things like that you have to learn on the job. How did you find I guess the transition from being in study to moving to DreamWorks? How did you find that transition, do you feel like the school adequately prepared you and you had all the skills you needed to learn on the job?

Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. I think that's a really good question because I mean that's exactly what I’m experiencing now and I think, yeah, like the software, the transition hasn't been terrible for me. I haven't been super overwhelmed at work like scared of the software. In general I think there's a lot of similarities and that's just like things in general, a lot of people when they're first getting to 3D it's like oh do I choose Blender, do I choose Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, Maya?

Christina: Yeah.

Jeremy: I did get familiar with a few different softwares and then yeah, I would jump between them and be like “Oh, they're all pretty similar, I might use the same lingo like…” so it hasn't been terrible and I think that's a part of it is just like jumping into something and getting familiar with it and it's all just a tool - software is a tool and so I think having that mindset has helped them, like Primo you know that's the software that DreamWorks uses it's not going to create like better animation it's not going to make me a better animator but like some of the tools might help me do certain things a little faster but at the end of the day it's just a tool.

I think when I treat it with that mindset I think about it differently, I’m not scared of it or something I’m just learning another tool. But again, the tool is very similar to Maya, they have a graph-editor they have the same buttons so I think if you're in a role, I think it depends what role you're in. Maybe if you're in a more technical role being very aware of all the software and all the technical things is very important and I think it's important for an animator as well but at the same time you don't want to get so distracted on all the latest tools, all the latest stuff. You have to make sure you're focusing on your craft as well, like animating and just like those foundations but being aware of the technical aspect definitely helps. I think just making that balance will help you moving forward. You'll be able to jump into a new studio and adapt to whatever they’re using.

Entering The Rookie Awards

Christina: That was actually something I was going to ask you about, what advice would you give someone either entering the Rookies or going into the industry for the first time?

Jeremy: Early on in my journey when I first got into art and filmmaking, I really focused on the technical things. I really focused on finding a tutorial that would teach me to do the thing that I wanted to do. Then eventually I think the way I kind of got out of that mindset was I got in contact with this person online and they were kind of mentoring me and helping me. I was asking him questions, I was like how do you model this plant in here and he was like, “Do you know how to draw at all?” And I was like “No, why do I have to draw just tell me how to model this plant and z-brush.” And so, he identified my issue which was I was focusing on a technical problem, I was just trying to solve this thing. I was just trying to like follow a tutorial versus studying the foundations.

Christina: Yeah, very important.

Jeremy: He was like “Do you have a sketchbook?” He's like “Just start by drawing from life.” And to this day, I don't draw a lot now, but just like that,  I did a lot before school and at school and that helped me build a basic foundation. So, I think that's a good mindset in general for students, people going into studying.

This is just to be aware of the technical things like the tutorials help me, I’ve watched hundreds of tutorials, they're very helpful but don't get too focused on that as in, that's how you know you got to focus on the fundamentals and you're going to have to put in some time to get all that stuff there.

Christina: That's fantastic. That's absolutely fantastic advice, and it's actually the same advice that I give my students as well, so really good work. So Jeremy, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your entry as well. I think it stood out to me because it was just so fun, apart from aesthetically beautiful the story was fun. What inspired you to enter the Rookies and what inspired you to create this piece?

Creating a Portfolio Piece

Jeremy: I’ve been following the Rookies for a few years now - I think maybe three years. I think I heard about it in my sophomore year and I didn't submit then I just was aware of the contest, I don't think I had anything to submit then. I was just like “Oh, I want to enter this contest,” because I saw you know there's a lot of cool student work being entered and so I think that's the biggest inspiration for jumping into the Rookies. I just saw lots of cool stuff being submitted there and I wanted to be a part of it.

That's the main reason for doing that and so with the film. We had that pre-production time like I told you earlier there's a semester of pre-production where you're brainstorming, you're pitching ideas to the faculty there and they're kind of helping you hone in on an idea to work on for your last year. And so for me, it was a long process and it was a little scary.

[My mentor] identified my issue which was I was focusing on a technical problem, I was just trying to solve this thing. I was just trying to follow a tutorial versus studying the foundations.

At the end I had two ideas and I looked at the two ideas and I was like I don't love either of these two ideas and so I asked the faculty I was like “Can I do a third idea?” And they're like “Why would you do that?” And I was like “Come on!”, like I just, I knew that whatever I did my senior year I really wanted to love it because I’m going to be working an entire year on.

I was like “I got to love something that I’m working on super late at night, otherwise I’m just not going to have the passion.” So, I think that was something I really pursued and I think it's something that paid off because you know even to the last minute of the film I still enjoyed working on it. As for The Box Assassin idea, I was like I think this could kind of hit the sweet spot as far as like what I want to do, what I want to make. And I got a lot of help from faculty and friends and mentors on the side refining the story and refining everything to get it where it is today. But it was, the actual idea it was something I pulled from back in high school.

Christina: Oh really?

Jeremy: Yes, I was going through my Google Drive and I found like this old Google Doc that was like ideas from 2016. I was like “Oh it's about this guy and his family's murdered and then he gets revenge on the mobster boss that killed them by hiding himself in a box and killing the mob boss.” And I was like okay and I like pitched that to people and they're like “This is great!” and I was like “Really?!” I was like “Oh, okay.” and so then I started to toy with the idea more and just through iterations it you know it became something I really, really loved and enjoyed working.

The Box Assassin Trailer

It's weird how that works out, it's like, I had no idea at the beginning of that semester of school what I would be working on. You know, putting your head down and working and brainstorming and working with people and throwing out ideas, I got to something that I absolutely loved working on.

I think that's a good testament to just being very vulnerable with your work and open because it's was like an old stupid idea and I wasn't sure how much merit it had but it ended up being something I really liked.

Christina: That's so cool.

Jeremy: Something good to keep in mind, yes.

Christina: Wow. So you were saying that, so you did the whole right? Apart from the music is that corect?

Jeremy: Apart from the music and the sound design, correct - yes, and the voice acting. I didn't do the voices, I hired voice actors for that so.

Christina: Oh wow, tell us about the process - you hired voice actors and you got the music composed specially for the film was it?

Jeremy: Correct, yeah. I raised $3000 on Kickstarter. I kind of had pre-production, I had a first pass at animation at that point, I had the story kind of fleshed out. So, I was able to share with people like “This is the project I’m working on and I liked to raise this much money to hire a sound designer and a composer and voice actors.” I talked to the composer, sound designer and voice actors how much money they'd like to be paid. I figured out the logistics but for voice actors it was tough, that was a tough part of the film because there's I think three people I hired - yes, there's Craig the pizza boy, the box assassin and then the boss. And then the voice, like in the beginning the other friend he's talking to is me but all the other people I hired. And so, finding the main character was hard because I wanted to cast the young, teenage, early 20s, black guy and I could not find anyone and so I looked on these websites and finally I was like I’m going to try LinkedIn. And on LinkedIn I searched voice actors and I just went down my profile pictures and found Jonathan Myles.

Christina: Wow.

Jeremy: He's really great, I reached out to him, he was super excited about the project, and it was just perfect. He was great, he was super excited. He recorded so many takes and stuff for everything so that was a really cool way, I found a voice actor but the other voice actors I found on like voices.com and it's cool because you can send out your script and then they can read it off for you as like a test audition. I kind of got to listen to a bunch of different tapes and then I got to choose who I'd like to actually be the voice. For the sound designer and the composer, what I did is I went to a film that I really liked which is called Agent 327. I don't know if you've heard of that film?

Christina: No, I haven't.

Jeremy: It was made by Blender, they made this short film, and so I just went to the film and I went to the credits and I found the composer and the sound designer and I was like I’ll reach out to these two guys, Vidjay Beerepoot and Sander Houtman. I emailed them on their websites and told him I found them through this short film, and they agreed.

Christina: That's wicked.

Jeremy: And so yes, it was super cool. It just came together in a really great way but yes for all of that, I had to do a lot of searching and just research but I think that's another part of just like you're going to make your own film, it definitely is good to put in that little extra work to find voice actors or maybe a composer. And obviously it costs money so it's tough, but if you're able to raise the money, it's a really cool experience to be able to work with other professionals.

I got a lot of help from faculty and friends and mentors on the side refining the story and refining everything to get it where it is today.

Christina: I can imagine, just out of my own curiosity, how did it sort of progress? Did the music come first or did yes, how did you animate to the music or all the way around?

Jeremy: So, for the music and everything, from storyboards, I had a temp version and so originally all the voices are just my own voice. I was just doing iterations and so that kind of helps me write the film and find the dialogue and all that. Originally I just used my own voice and then I had just yes, temp music. I didn't get the final music, we were working on it like passes but that wasn't towards, like, closer to the end of the film. I was mostly used a track from Django Unchained as temp music and other stuff I found online and I just used that as a base, you know, as inspiration and that helped going into the process to talking with the composer.

I remember like the middle of the film, once the fighting starts, once he jumps out of the box and they start fighting and stuff, that's when there's a kind of upbeat song and it was good to have the temp music, because I had a reference point.

Storyboard Image of Box Assassin montage

At one Vidjay did something and it was a little too like heroic, and like spy-like. And I was like I want to keep it fun, I was like “Just kind of a jazz like hip-hop feel,” and so I referenced that. And so it was good to have the temp music, you know, kind of like us as visual artists we have visual references, I think it's good too when you're working with a sound designer or composer to have something to give them, that just gives them a jumping off point, so you're not just like “Oh make something that sounds cool.”

Christina: Yeah.

Jeremy: It was good to have a reference that I can pull from and we can talk about. So, having something like that early on was definitely important. If I just had nothing, I think it would have been a lot worse.

Christina: So yeah, what would you say was the most challenging component of your film, putting it together?

Jeremy: That's a tough question. I think it really goes back to pre-production, yeah, because that was honestly you know my biggest concern and worry. Like I said I had two other stories, and they both kind of worked like they were fine like I could have done those two. But again for me, I was like I have to be excited about the film, you know, I have to stay up till 2 am and still like what I’m working on when I’m tired.

Once I got past that hurdle it wasn't easy but it was definitely like I have a foundation, you know I have this blueprint of something that I’m going towards and I felt a lot more comfortable after that. But yeah, I'd say that the initial process is the most scary but also it's really exciting. That's when you get to play around with ideas, but definitely I think pre-production would be the most challenging part of the film.

Finished shot from Box Assassin montage

Christina: Pre-production is definitely really important. It's kind of easy to sort of miss it and skip a little bit because you just want to get straight to working on it but like yeah, I can totally imagine. So Jeremy just a little bit about yourself. Now that you're working in the industry, do you have any other hobbies at home outside of work or do you still do drawing and stuff?

I’ve met a lot of people online, like other students and made connections from [The Rookies]. It's a great platform and I hope you all keep doing the contest because it's, I think it's really a great thing.

Jeremy: That's a good question. I got to find time to like figure out what I want to do. But also, I like what I do a lot, so any hobbies that I have are around that - I did get a 3D printer, like a couple months after graduation. Because for the Kickstarter thing, like there's Kickstarter rewards and so I was doing like little 3D prints of the character, to give to people.

Christina: Oh cool, oh my goodness!

Jeremy: So that's really exciting but I don't know, I really like just art/film in general so like any hobbies or stuff that I do outside I think of animation, it's still kind of related to it. But I mean, even before I got into filmmaking I played basketball. I have other things that I enjoy and whatnot. But I don't know, there's just so much inside of art that I like. You know, sometimes something that I do is to go to like a hobby store or something and pick up little crafts or little miniature kits. I picked up one at home, it was like a Star Wars like Tie Fighter kit and it's a plastic model and then you can paint it. And so, for me like it's something I enjoy.

Christina: It sounds fun.

Jeremy: Yeah, but it's relaxing, like you put it together in like 15 minutes and paint it and I’m like “Okay, that just kind of like relaxes me.” I just try to play around with all that stuff so, yeah.

Christina: Oh that's so cool. That's really awesome. Well, I think we're out of time now Jeremy, anyway it looks like we're up but no, thank you so much for meeting with me today and for having a chat. I’ve been really excited about this interview so yeah, just stay in touch and if you need anything from the Rookies or you know, feel free to reach out and yeah, thank you.

Jeremy: No, thank you Christina. Yeah, I’m super happy to be here today and yes thank you again for you know, you guys putting on the contest, it's super cool. And like I told you earlier I’ve met a lot of people online, like other students and made connections from it so it's a great platform and I hope you all keep doing the contest because it's, I think it's really a great thing so, yeah.

Christina: Awesome. So good I’m so excited to continue to follow you and follow your journey and see what you come up with next so, well done.

Jeremy: All right, thank you so much.

Christina: All right, thank you see you later.

You can find more of Jeremy's work on The Rookies and ArtStation.