Career Advice: Working as a Surfacing Artist in an Animation Studio

Career Advice: Working as a Surfacing Artist in an Animation Studio

Want a successful career working in Animation and VFX? Alvaro Saravia is a Surfacing artist at Animal Logic in Vancouver, Canada. He sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

Image Courtesy of Animal Logic

Want a successful career working in Animation and VFX? Alvaro Saravia is a Surfacing artist at Animal Logic in Vancouver, Canada. He sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am a surfacing artist. I always like to describe it as, “making stuff look pretty”. Of course this is not the only role involved in making things look nice, but I think that in the Surfacing department is where things actually start coming to life. My role consists of creating textures and “lookdeving” to make objects and characters look the way they should.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?

I am more or less new to Animal Logic. It is a feature animation studio that has made movies like Peter Rabbit, The Lego Movie or, its most recent production, DC League of Super-Pets.

DC League of Super Pets. Image Courtesy of Animal Logic.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

I don’t really know what moment I decided to work in this industry. I remember loving cinema since I was a child and being interested in computer graphics in high school, but didn’t know that a career as CG Artist even existed. Then, I found out about digital animation degrees and decided to study one.

How did you get your first big break?

For me this was an important point in my career. It was a change of mentality rather than a job.

After finishing my bachelors degree in Mexico, I had the opportunity to work at a studio on a Netflix show and then a movie. I liked those projects, but I wanted to take a step into “the big leagues” and work on feature animation films.

As a result, I decided to develop my portfolio more. I worked on a piece for a couple of months after work and when I finished it, I realised all the growth I made as an Artist. I knew it was not perfect, but I knew then, that I would eventually have what it takes to actually be part of this industry.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

After that realisation, I decided to continue my studies at Think Tank Training Centre. I took a 16-month course and after finishing my Mentorship piece with the guidance of Olivier Couston, I sent my portfolio to several studios looking for a job and a couple of days later I got an interview with Animal Logic.

Personal Work of Alvaro Saravia

Why did you choose to study at Think Tank?

Actually, I didn’t really know Think Tank existed until I saw The Rookies School Rankings. And after seeing all the amazing work by their students, I was convinced I wanted to be part of that school.

The online course [at Think Tank Training Online] was a huge deal for me because it meant I was going to be able to study from my home in Mexico.

I also loved that if I wanted, I had the opportunity to come to Vancouver for the last 4 months of my degree to finish the course with a mentor and focus on one project that would eventuate into a portfolio piece.

How does your education complement your work?

Without my education at Think Tank, it would have probably taken me way longer to get to where I am. I was given all the tools and knowledge to be able to actually perform at the capacity I am expected at my job.

I was equipped with the knowledge of how to bring an asset through all the processes in a pipeline. I was able to take into consideration all the other departments involved and make decisions accordingly that benefit my co-workers working with the same asset.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

Depending on the stage of the project things may vary and I will have to test shaders out, or check how we can optimise working with an asset.

I usually get to work and prepare for my dailies, in which I talk to my supervisor and lead about what we are trying to accomplish for the day and what are we trying to achieve for one asset or another. Then, I keep working on those goals.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

Houdini is the base software we use for most things. And of course, we texture mostly in Mari. Animal Logic also has a bunch of very cool tools to make artists’ lives easier.

What does your workflow look like?

Most of the time I approach it this way although there is no one formula that works for all cases:

  • I receive an asset and load it in Houdini, think of how I am going to approach it and then send it to Mari.
  • I create my textures and then send those back to Houdini. Then I start the LookDev process which is never just one formula to get things right.
  • I try to work in the most procedural way possible, but without things looking generic.
  • When I am happy with the result I can send a turntable of the asset to the farm so it can be presented to the lead or supervisor.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

All departments are very important and we have to try to consider everyone in the pipeline, to do a better  and more complete job. The ones I am closer to are Art, Modeling and Rigging. Animation is also important when testing so we are sure textures don’t stretch.

DC League of Super Pets. Image Courtesy of Animal Logic.

I was very happy to start implementing Houdini to my pipeline. It is a very robust tool and the possibility of working in a procedural way is always something to be thankful for.

The nature of the Surfacing role is very straightforward: making things look the way they are supposed to. So, whether it is in Maya or Houdini, the goal is the same. It’s just a matter of using what is around you to help you get to your goal.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

The thing I couldn’t live without is actually having the opportunity to have an important input in the way things look and feel in order to be in the movie. That is why we do what we do.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

I wouldn’t mind seeing small tasks that sometimes are quite technical and time-consuming, like making uvs, change! But I try to find the beauty in all tasks and at least enjoy them in a different way.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

This is a tricky one. I could spend hours talking about this but the bottomline would be…you don’t strictly need formal education. You can learn most things with cheap courses and youtube videos. However, formal education is going to help a lot in teaching you the most up to date knowledge and how to actually do things.

I recommend finding a good school to anyone that can attend one. And a good school is not the most expensive, but it is the one that is going to give you the latest workflows and will help you build the best portfolio you can.

Take a look at The Rookies’ School Rankings. I know I might be a bit biased, but the one school I would recommend without hesitation to anyone is Think Tank.

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?

As a junior artist you are expected to be proficient to a point in one or more disciplines. You are expected to show a disposition to learn and in general have a good attitude. In surfacing, it will be someone who is assigned sometimes smaller or simpler assets which have less bid time. But little by little you start getting more and bigger assets.

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

Well, I am not in that stage yet, but I have noticed something. Artists who get hired always have passion and talent, and they know how to direct that into their work.

Mentorship term Project at Think Tank Training Centre. Alvaro Saravia

Describe your attitude towards your job?

This job relies on teamwork. Always. There will be problems, but the attitude you take towards those will many times define how long it takes to actually get them solved.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

Everywhere. We are artists, so we are supposed to observe and pay attention to what is around us to be able to mimic or interpret it in the digital world.

Depending on our disciplines, we can pay attention to textures, shapes, lights, etc. But we are storytellers in the end, so what I always try to do when looking for reference or just observing what is around me, is trying to know what the story is behind the object. It could be something simple like a door, but most times we can find the most interesting stories in the most common objects.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

Choose a piece that makes you passionate. Whether it is characters, environments or assets. Create what attracts you the most and you think is interesting; something that pushes your limits but at the same time you know you can achieve. When having that interest in what you do, you will be able to take it further.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

Many people have great portfolios but haven’t worked in teams on longer projects or haven’t had the opportunity to develop their collaboration skills yet, so finding a team-based project to work on will give you valuable insight and experience.

If you are looking for a job, investigate the studio and know what they have done or are doing currently. Show a good attitude in messages and interviews. If you need a visa, know what papers you need, to get it. Don’t expect the studio to provide you with all that info. And remember this is a game of patience.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

Crunching doesn’t mean you are working more, it means you don’t know how to handle your time. Rest, have a life, and friends. But when it’s time to work, give it 100%.

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

Be persistent but be patient. You will get there eventually.

Alvaro Saravia has always loved art. Especially cinema. One day, he decided he wanted to work in the film industry. From that moment on, he completely fell in love with this craft and everything it involves. You can find more of Alvaro's work on ArtStation and Instagram.