Career Advice: Working as a Layout Artist in the Animation Industry

Career Advice: Working as a Layout Artist in the Animation Industry

Discover the insights and journey of Layout Artist Daun Kim, a Ringling College of Art and Design graduate currently excelling at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Gain valuable advice for aspiring artists seeking a dynamic career in the field.

Want a successful career working as a Layout Artist? Ringling College of Art and Design graduate, Daun Kim is currently a Layout Artist at Sony Pictures Imageworks and she sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

The Journey

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

My current role is a Layout artist. Layout artists are responsible for building sequences and creating shots using proprietary tools such as Maya. Layout in 3D animation is an initial step of visualising a storyboard into 3D. This includes analysing the storyboard with understanding the director's vision and intention clearly, bringing sequence specific elements such as set, characters, and props, and putting them in the right placement. It is essential for layout artists to know how to make dynamic compositions and come up with creative ideas such as where the cameras should be located, how they are going to move along with the characters(or vice versa), what kind of lenses to use, etc…

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

I am working at Sony Pictures Imageworks as a Rough Layout artist. I have worked on several live action films and animated features such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania(2023) and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse(2023). I am currently involved in an upcoming Netflix animated feature scheduled for release in 2024.

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

Like many other artists, I loved drawing and doing arts and crafts stuff as a kid. I’ve always preferred visual storytelling in movies and dramas over reading books (Harry Potter is the only exception). While I was well aware that I wanted to work in something that is related to art, I was uncertain what kind of industry I desired to be in. At that very moment, Frozen hit theaters, I casually headed to watch it without much thought and (it may sound silly) it changed my life. I was not only captivated by the film's visual appeal but also amazed to witness people of various ages, myself included, genuinely savouring the movie experience together. This experience prompted me to question the unique power of animation as an art form that embraces all generations, ultimately inspiring my decision to pursue a career in the animation industry.

If you were to wonder what first inspired me to pursue a career in Layout, I'd say it was the impactful experience of creating my short film “Don’t Croak”.

While I was responsible for all aspects of film including storyboarding, visual development, modeling, rigging, look development, animating, lighting, compositing and editing, I found particular joy and fulfilment during the layout process. In this film, exceptional cinematography was vital for portraying the suspense of pursuit and evasion, as well as capturing the unique atmospheres of the horror, drama, psychological thriller, and a hint of dark comedy genres. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire creative journey; studying various horror and thriller movies, conducting shot analysis, experimenting with cameras, shooting test shots with my iPhone, generating new shot ideas and adding completely new shots that did not exist on the storyboard and even being obsessed with the little details for continuity (that the audience may not even notice) and more. Upon completing the film, I immediately realised that Layout was the path I needed to pursue.

How did you get your first big break into the industry?

It was just a normal process, like what many other people mostly go through. I applied to a bunch of studios, received many rejections even before the interviews. I heard back from a couple of studios, did interviews with them, and decided to start my first career at The Third Floor as a Previs artist, thinking it would be a great place to have opportunities to work on big projects, which turned out to be true.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

I had the opportunity to work at various studios before joining my current workplace. My initial career was at The Third Floor as a previs artist, which was enjoyable, especially with exciting live-action projects involving Disney, Marvel, and Warner Bros. However, my desire to participate in animation projects has been constant since my artistic journey began with a deep passion for animation.

This led me to apply for a Camera & Staging internship at Pixar Animation Studios, which turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences. It significantly enhanced my knowledge of cinematography and deepened it to a level that allowed me to feel confident as a layout artist.

Afterwards, I discovered an opportunity to work as a techviz artist on a virtual production project, allowing me to gain experience with Unreal Engine. What I particularly enjoyed about this job was having hands-on access to high-end camera systems like ARRI and various camera rigs. Observing how operators utilise these rigs helped me understand their mechanisms, proving immensely beneficial in creating more realistic camera movement in my layout work. In 2022, I finally joined my current company, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and have been having a truly enjoyable time here.

Day in the life

Describe a typical work day for you?

I try to go to the gym in the morning before I get to work as some overtime work is hard to predict and I prefer not to get affected by it. Usually, I start off work by picking up the notes I left before leaving work the day before. I find it helpful to start work right away in the morning without struggling to figure out what tasks to begin with and set priorities in an efficient way. I attend scheduled meetings, check in with my supervisor and keep working on sequence. It depends on how complex the shots are but I try to get a decent number of shots done in a day which would be 5-6 shots.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use?

I use Autodesk Maya.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

The Layout department closely collaborates with the director and the editorial department. The approach may vary depending on the project or the director's working style. Generally, layout artists receive storyboards from the editorial team and work on the first pass. This initial phase typically involves rough camera blocking and a few character poses with the right timing to gauge the overall feeling of the sequence. Layout artists can also propose alternative shot ideas or suggestions that arise during the first pass.

Once ready for review, layout artists receive feedback from the director to ensure they are on the right track. They then proceed to add more details, such as in-between character poses, finalise camera movement, and address notes received during the first pass review. The director reviews the updated version, considered as the second pass (there may be a couple more passes as needed). Once all work is approved, layout artists submit their work to the editorial team for updating the cut.

After receiving the updated cut from the editorial team, layout artists adjust shots to match it, ensuring that shots are published with the correct frame range and timing. This allows downstream departments to pick up the work without any confusion.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

I love that my job is remote workable. Over the past three years, with the pandemic, many companies have made significant efforts to create a remote working environment to safely produce films in the era of "untact". As a result, it has been proven that excellent movies can be successfully produced through remote work alone, and this trend continues to the present day.

Career Advice

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

I believe there are both advantages and disadvantages. I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design with a major in computer animation, completing a demanding program that equipped me with all the essential skills and knowledge needed to produce my short film and establish a portfolio. This encompassed not only layout, which is my expertise, but also storyboarding, modeling, rigging, look development, animating, lighting, composition, and editing.

From my perspective, individuals involved in the film/animation industry should possess knowledge not only in their specific fields but also about the entire filmmaking process. Collaboration is key in filmmaking, and understanding how different departments are interconnected and how one's work impacts others is essential.

Furthermore, this additional knowledge can sometimes give individuals an edge in their specialised areas. For example, in Layout/Previs, having an understanding not only of cameras but also of animation and lighting can be a notable advantage for artists. Considering the importance of appealing character poses and a great sense of timing to convey the story clearly, a comprehensive understanding of animation is valuable for layout artists. Basic modeling skills are also beneficial as they are sometimes required to create temporary assets in layout. Given the significance of lighting in cinematography, a solid understanding of this aspect is crucial, especially in shots where lighting plays a pivotal role, such as exterior shots during golden hours or using shadows as framing elements, etc.

The downside is that it can cost a lot of money. Also, some may find studying unrelated departments a potential time-waster if they already have a clear career path in mind. Overall, I would say getting formal education (which, in my case, involved attending art college) has really helped me in many ways, and I have no regrets about it. However, I can't say it's essential to enter the industry, as many industry professionals have diverse backgrounds or are self-taught.

What are some of the transferable competencies or skills you have developed on the job?

Since working in film involves numerous adjacent departments and collaboration among hundreds of people, making effective communication skills crucial. Also, organisational skills are important. Given the frequent exchange of data between departments, it is vital to develop the habit of keeping the materials under your management neatly organised, ensuring quick access and clarity for anyone involved.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

I think it would have been beneficial if I had some knowledge about the Linux operating system. It wouldn't have needed to be at a professional level, but since many animation studios use Linux for security reasons, having some basic knowledge in advance, like understanding user interface, shortcuts, or commands, could have helped me work more efficiently.

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

I browse movie clips on YouTube, specifically searching for scenes with situations similar to the shots I need to work on, such as a character chasing another, big action scenes with multiple characters, intense emotional dialogues, and more.

Another thing I frequently do is open the notes app on my iPhone and go over the old memos I took while watching movies or TV shows. I watch lots of those in my free time, especially k dramas (haha). During these viewings, if I encounter captivating camera movements, impactful character introductions, emotionally stirring moments, unique shot transitions or other interesting things, I usually make a note of them so that I can look them up later. I get some inspiration from these resources experimenting by combining, merging, or adapting to fit my work when I struggle.

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

  1. It is better to include an entire sequence, or if a sequence is too long, selectively insert specific parts rather than incorporating random shots pulled from different sequences that are not related to each other. Choose shots that showcase your great understanding of cinematography such as screen direction, composition, eye level, eye fix, lens choices, camera movement, shot transition ideas, and more.
  2. If there are thumbnails or storyboards that you worked on for the shots, it can be a good idea to place them next to your layout shots side by side. This allows recruiters and supervisors to see your original shot ideas, comprehend challenges faced during the process, and see how you addressed them in layout.
  3. Only include your best work in the reel!

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

Don’t hesitate to ask questions! It is natural for those artists starting out to have questions. We all learn and grow through the process of experiencing trial and error, identifying problems, asking questions, and finding answers.

Daun Kim is a layout artist working in the Film/Animation industry, based in Los Angeles. She is from South Korea and came to the US to study computer animation at Ringling College of Art and Design. Following her graduation, her short film "Don't Croak", which hit more than 50M views on youtube, received huge recognitions at multiple prestigious film festivals and achieved the honor of winning awards. She began her career as a previs artist at The Third Floor inc., and the following year, she enhanced her skills by completing a Pixar Camera & Staging internship. Currently, she works as a layout artist at Sony Pictures Imageworks. While working at Sony Pictures Imageworks, she contributed to projects such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse(2023). Currently, she is involved in an upcoming Netflix feature animated film scheduled for release in 2024.