Career Advice: Working as a Junior 3D Animator

Career Advice: Working as a Junior 3D Animator

Jess Choong, a recent CG Spectrum graduate and 3D Animator at Pixel Zoo Animation, shares her journey and advice for aspiring artists seeking a career in 3D animation.

Want a career working in 3D Animation? Jess Choong, a recent CG Spectrum graduate is a 3D Animator working at Pixel Zoo Animation in Brisbane, Australia. Jess Choong chats with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging start to a career like her own.

The Journey

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

My current role is a Junior 3D Animator. Animators are the ones responsible for making the characters/models/rigs move (more specifically perform) in a show/movie/commercial. Animators are essentially actors, or more specifically, puppeteers. We give life to the characters and one of the main aims of acting/animating is the ability to have the audience empathise with these characters.

Animation can range from super cartoony to more realistic projects, but the fundamentals are the same, to create a believable performance the audience will understand and enjoy.

From a more day-to-day perspective, in a nutshell, being an animator involves being assigned a number of shots by a lead, which will have a deadline for a blocking pass, spline pass and final polish pass to be approved by the director and then by the client. There will be an animatic that can be used as a guide for an assigned shot and depending on the shot, I will choose to shoot reference for it in the reference room in the studio.

As a junior, I will go back and forth quite a bit with my animation leads. They are very helpful in guiding and assisting me with poses and timing and just generally helping to make the shot as good as it can be and I’m very open and appreciative of the feedback. There will also be feedback from the director throughout the sequence. As an animator, we need to manage our time to ensure we can complete the shot and also address any director and leads feedback by a deadline. This deadline is when the episode or sequence is sent to the client, who will give their feedback to the director and producer who then relay that feedback to the animators. We can revise our shots as per the client feedback whilst working on shots on the next episode or sequence.

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

I work at Pixel Zoo Animation (located in Brisbane) which is an animation studio who teams up with brands and companies to produce both 2D and 3D projects, including TV shows, movies and commercials.

They work with clients to produce projects from start to finish, including storyboarding, assets, animation, lighting and rendering. Some of the projects include L.O.L Surprise (TV shows, movies and music videos), Rainbow High (Netflix TV show, music videos), Baby Alive, Bratz, Cozy Coupe, Baby Born, Mermaid High, Rainbocorns and many more. My first project at Pixel Zoo was working on Season 4 of L.O. L Surprise which I loved and am now currently on the third L.O.L Movie set to release later this year.

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

My first true fascination with 3D animation was when Finding Nemo first came out. I think I was 12 or 13 years old and I remember watching it at the movies and being completely enamored by everything in it, the animation, the lighting, the environment, I was blown away by it completely. Like all animators, I had the healthy obsession with Disney movies and anything Pixar and Dreamworks, however being a kid in high school with an affinity for maths and science, the arts was never a career option my parents would have approved of.

Screenshots of shots that I worked on in the LOL Surprise Season 4

In 2021, when I was over one year out of vet school working as a full-time veterinarian, I became burnt out from the veterinarian life and wanted a career that was better for my mental health. This is when I seriously looked into animation as a career option and after researching online what was involved to be a 3D animator and playing around myself at home with basic animation from tutorials on YouTube, I decided to take the plunge to enrol myself in online school, CG Spectrum, to learn 3D animation.  

How did you get your first big break?

I honestly ask myself this question almost everyday when I’m at work haha. I don’t really know myself how it’s happened and am still kind of in disbelief about it. I worked really hard on my demo reel, trying to make impressive shots that I was passionate about; to showcase both my animation skills, and also who I am as a person and why I love animation. I think it helped that I had previous professional-world experience and therefore have a lot of transferable soft skills. It wasn’t easy, I think I applied for a total of about 20 animation jobs prior to applying to Pixel Zoo. There are very very few entry level animation jobs, especially in Sydney, which then makes the entry level jobs immensely competitive. I was able to take the rejection most of the time, but the more rejections you get the harder it is. I am in a very fortunate position though that I have a fall-back career as a vet, so I knew I could take my time in finding something. Fortunately, the Pixel Zoo position posted on LinkedIn was for a junior/entry level position. It did mean having to relocate to Brisbane, which I did in the end.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

This job is actually my 3rd professional career change. I’ve spent a total of 10 years at uni to obtain 3 degrees, one being a doctorate. My first 5 years of uni was in a combined double degree in Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science, where I finished with first class honors. I worked as a Sales and Product Specialist with a human orthopaedic product and instrument company which was pretty cool as part of the job was going into theatre to watch surgeons perform orthopaedic surgeries. After just one year I decided I wanted to go back to uni to follow another passion of mine, to become a vet, as I’ve always loved animals. Another 5 years of uni and I graduated with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. Although the job is very rewarding, there are a number of factors that affect your mental health as a veterinarian and after one and a half years of being a vet, I decided it was not a job I could handle long term and wanted to find something more stable for my mental health as a career option. After several months of soul searching, I decided I wanted to be a 3D Animator. I’ve always loved movies and would have loved to have studied film and animation at university, however, now being in my early 30’s with a mortgage, I needed a flexible way to study animation whilst being able to earn a full-time income. I found CG Spectrum, an online school, that suited the need for flexible study I was looking for. After 20 months of studying animation online, I was able to land my first role in the industry as a Junior 3D Animator with Pixel Zoo Animation.

I started my animation journey at CG Spectrum in February 2022. Fortunately for me, I was able to work as a vet 3 days a week, which meant I could spend the rest of the days studying animation. I loved the process of studying animation, as it’s completely different to studying vet or engineering. Through my animation studies, as my skills developed, I was determined to work on shots to create a demo reel to use to apply for animation jobs, even before finishing my studies. Although I was more than several months from finishing the animation course, I started to apply for jobs halfway through 2023. In doing so, I made contact with people in the industry and started networking and was able to speak to and get feedback from animators and recruiters, which was very helpful. In November 2023 I applied for the Pixel Zoo Junior Animator role, and progressed to the next step which was completing an animation test, and then got to the interview stage. About one week after the interview I was told I was successful and got the job! I finished my animation studies in December 2023 then made the move to Brisbane and started my first animation job on the 8th of January 2024!

Why did you choose to study at CG Spectrum?

I chose to study with CG Spectrum because of the flexibility they offered through their online program. I was able to choose my mentor and chose to have one-on-one classes, which I knew would be much more beneficial as I could set the pace of my studies. I was also able to choose the day and time each week of my live sessions with my mentor, and was able to change it weekly if needed, which was super helpful, as work and life throws unexpected things at you, knowing I could change my animation sessions was a big stress reliever at times. I’m very glad I chose CG Spectrum and my mentor (Mark Pullyblank) as I was able to focus my learning the way I wanted to, for example, I was very interested in learning creature animation, and therefore was able to spend more time learning that. I was able to shape the curriculum and schedule to my needs, which was amazing.

How does your education complement your work?

Without my education, I wouldn’t be able to work! When studying animation, I was taught a workflow that works really well for me that I use everyday at work. I wouldn’t even know how to use Maya without my education so I very much owe my work success to CG Spectrum. The animation part of it, goes without saying, is very much needed on a daily basis at work. Additionally, having a mentor who currently works in the industry, was also invaluable. Coming from a completely different professional background, I had zero understanding of the animation industry and the various roles within it, so learning from someone who lives and breathes it was immensely helpful. Just having someone to explain to me how a normal work day works as an animator was incredibly useful, as I myself had no clue and no one in my world knew either.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

A typical day for me involves coming into work and looking at what shots I have been assigned and making a mental note in my head of what I want to achieve by the end of the day. It may be that I want to finish blocking or splining certain shots or getting revisions done on other shots. I will watch the animatic for any new shots I have, so I can understand the context of my shots and understand what the characters' motivations are. I’ll always watch the entire animatic of the show or movie I’m working on, so I have an understanding of the project as a whole.

We have dailies, where each animator on the project will show a blocking or spline pass of their shot and get feedback from the director and animation lead, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on how many shots there are to look at. After dailies I’ll make the appropriate revisions to my shots and then I may go back and forth with the animation leads on specific shots. As a junior, I find it incredibly helpful to ask my leads how to better my shots, as this is a very useful learning experience. I might shoot reference for a certain shot, and I can ask my leads for feedback on my reference as well.

We will have specific deadlines for shots, and it’s very important we are able to submit by these deadlines, so time management is definitely a big part of my day-to-day work life. There is a lot of fun things in the studio as well, there’s ping pong competitions and Mario Kart competitions and a lot of social events organised, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like work which is great!

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

Maya - as an animator, it’s the only software we use.

What does your workflow look like?

As an animator, our general workflow involves looking at what shots we have assigned, watching the animatic to know what is involved in the shot, may involve shooting reference and then we will submit a blocking pass, a spline pass and polishing pass, and address any feedback, to then submit by the deadline.

Each animators specific animation workflow in Maya will differ. My workflow also varies depending on the shot. Generally for an acting dialogue scene, I will block my key poses in stepped, I rarely block my in-betweens, and will only block what I call a ‘key in-between’ to help convey my idea to the director more clearly.

Once my blocking pass is approved, I’ll do what I call a spline-block, where I put everything into spline and put in my holds and figure out my timing in spline, as I find timing in blocking quite different when I put things into spline. Once I’m happy with the timing, I then do a layered workflow, where I do a COG pass, then a hip and chest pass, then a head pass and then the extremities. I flesh out my in-betweens during these passes, which is why sometimes my finished pass can look quite different to my initial blocked pass. However, it is very easy for me to do large revisions if needed.

The important thing when learning animation is that everyone’s brains work differently, you may have to experiment with several different workflows until you find one that suits you. I was fortunate enough that my brain understood and worked well with the workflow my mentor taught me. There were times where I thought it wasn’t the workflow for me and I would try something else, but I always came back to this workflow and it’s a reliable way for me to work.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

As a junior animator, I personally don’t really work with other departments on a daily basis, however the lead animators will work closely with assets and lighting throughout a project. As a junior animator, the main key people I work with are my animation leads, they are my first point of contact for pretty much everything. We will also work closely with the director on a daily basis depending on the project, and also the producer, who is the point of contact when it comes to the client giving feedback and any changes to scheduling and deadlines.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

Something I would never change about the job is the passion and creativity that everyone in the industry has and shares. It’s very wholesome and exciting to be surrounded by people on a daily basis that have such a strong drive and passion for the art and work and it’s refreshing to be around so much creativity. Everyone in the studio will be excited for a new show or movie and you can feel the hype and energy. It’s easy to gain inspiration when you’re around other creative and passionate minds. I also love the potential for perpetuating growth in this industry and the seemingly endless support from colleagues or the community. Everyone is willing to help and give constructive feedback, I’ve not seen anyone give negative feedback which is immensely encouraging to then share my work with more people.

LOL Surprise Season 4 Episode 5

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

I wouldn’t change anything about the job itself, the one thing I wouldn’t mind seeing changed in the industry as a whole, is seeing more entry-level jobs being available, specifically true entry-level jobs. There are jobs advertised as ‘entry-level’ however that will have a requirement of minimum 2-3 years in the industry, which isn’t really ‘entry-level’ in my opinion. It would be nice to see companies be more open to posting positions where no previous experience is required, to help those wanting to get a foot in the door.

Career Advice

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

No, I’m just one example of not requiring a degree in animation to work in animation. If you’re wanting to change careers into animation, there are so many online options to learn, having a bachelor in animation is definitely not essential. Although it is not essential, I think if you’re someone just graduating out of high school and know you want to work in this industry, then yes I think getting formal education in that scenario is a good idea, as you will gain much more than just animation knowledge and experience. It’s also just a great experience going to uni with other students.

However, if you’re someone like me who is wanting to change careers later in life and formal education is not an option, it is very possible to get a role in the industry without formal education. I would say finding a good mentor is critical, particularly a mentor you work well with, I feel that was key for me. If you have the motivation, drive and work ethic, anything is possible.

Describe your attitude towards your job?

I love my job! Through my several career changes, I’ve been searching for a job where I’m excited to wake up in the morning and go to work. I’ve finally found a job where this is the case.

Having a background in science and engineering, I never would have thought I would become an artist, and although science and art have vast differences, physics, anatomy and art is universal, and I love that animation can combine these things.

Everyday at work I want to push myself to become a better animator, seeing other animators work on a daily basis really motivates me and I think the best attitude to have towards any job is excitement and enthusiasm, then it doesn’t really feel like a job, it’s doing something you love and enjoy and getting paid for it. Animation definitely excites and motivates me and unlike my other careers, I can see myself staying in the animation industry long term and I know I have so much more to learn which makes me happy to be at work everyday.

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

Watching other animators on the same project gives me a lot of inspiration. Seeing the performance other animators get from the same rigs I’m using gives me a lot of motivation and inspiration to push myself more. Even seeing other animators in studio working on different projects also inspires me. I’m surrounded by amazing animators on a daily basis and it pushes me to also be better. I'm in constant awe of the work these other animators produce and it’s great seeing their processes or their references and how they work.

Obviously watching movies and TV shows gives a lot of inspiration, shows such as Arcane and Blue Eye Samurai and movies such as Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and TMNT: Mutant Mayhem are highlighting what 3D animation can offer as a medium to the general public, which is very exciting. I also get a lot of inspiration from video games I play, they have such awesome animations as well.

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

When creating my demo reel, I watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to make the best demo reel possible. Most of them advised to try to make a well-rounded demo reel (one shot with good body mechanics, one with cartoony animation, one with serious dialogue etc etc) which isn’t bad advice. My mentor just told me to make a demo reel I like, something that shows not just my animation skill but who I am as a person. And that’s what I did. I have very few acting/dialogue shots in my demo reel, I think there’s only 2 very short ones, one is actually a creature dialogue shot, but my passion in animation is body mechanics and creature animation, and that is the majority of my demo reel.

I remember towards the end of the Advanced Course at CG Spectrum, when coming up with demo reel shot ideas, I presented my mentor with 3 different ideas; 2 were character acting shots (one quite serious and dark), the last one was a creature animation shot. My mentor asked which one I wanted to do versus which I thought I should do for my demo reel. My demo reel was lacking a subtle or serious character acting shot, but what I really wanted to do was the creature one. So we did the creature piece and it became the opening shot in my demo reel and is the one I probably get the most positive comments about.

It was probably one of the best pieces of advice as it took a lot of stress out of creating my demo reel, rather than creating shots to please other people, I made things that I wanted to make and I’m am pretty damn proud of the demo reel I was able to put together at the end of my animation course.

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

Multiple things come to mind including being motivated and hard working and don’t give up and be yourself, but I think one specific thing for artists starting out is to not take feedback personally. Getting feedback and critique on your work is never a personal attack, and you may not even always agree with the feedback you do receive. For personal work, if you receive feedback that you feel isn’t right for that shot, you can take aspects of that feedback into consideration and ask for more feedback elsewhere. Feedback for personal work should always feel it is to improve the shot and a lot of the time people will see things you missed or have a different perspective and you should always be open to it.

Feedback in a job is a bit different and definitely should never be taken personally. Different supervisors and directors will have different ideas and opinions and will have different ways of communicating their feedback.

It’s important to be able to adapt, take feedback on board and always ask for clarification if you’re unsure about what your supervisors or leads want. In this job and industry, it’s critical to be able to take on board feedback without it affecting your self-confidence or ego.

Don’t be precious about your work, if you need to go back and re-block the shot because it’s not fitting in with the rest of the sequence, it’s not the end of the world. We are small cogs working together towards a much bigger picture than just our shots and the goal is to make the bigger picture as good as it can be, which is why it is important to not take feedback personally.  

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

A few different things come to mind but two main pieces of advice I would go back to give myself are, to have patience and also, to have self-confidence.

When starting to learn animation, coming from a completely non-animation/non-art background, I assumed the animation assignments would be like my other uni assignments, where you have a certain amount of time to complete the task and once it’s done it’s done. I quickly learned that animation is never really finished. You can think that you’re done with a shot and your mentor might say, ‘hmm let’s try this idea instead’ and then you have a lot more work to do than you anticipated. This is the same thing that can happen professionally in a job as well. It’s important to have the patience to rework your animations, it’s generally something you cannot rush. It’s also important to be patient in regards to getting a job, especially your first job, which is easier said than done. Everyone will likely deal with a lot of rejection before getting their first animation job, the important thing is to not be down-trodden by it and not to let it get to you. Don’t give up, keep working on your skills and demo reel and connecting to people in the industry, and it will happen someday.

Bottom line is, be patient, don’t give up and believe in yourself! (as cliche and corny as that sounds, it’s very true!)

My name is Jess Choong and I’m from Sydney, Australia, currently working as a Junior 3D Animator with Pixel Zoo Animation in Brisbane, Australia. Becoming an animator was my 3rd professional career change, I was, and still currently work part-time, as a veterinarian. I’ve always been a big believer in following your passions, no matter how many of them you have. I’m excited to now be part of the animation industry and cannot wait to continue to grow and improve my skills.

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