If you want a job as an Animator – you need to leave a lasting impression.
I’ll never forget watching Inception at the theater.
The camera slowly tightening on the Spinning Top. Will it continue Spinning?! Will it fall over?!
Then the camera just cuts.
The room erupted! Everyone instantly started debating and tossing out their theories.
Whether they loved or hated it – you just knew people would leave the theater talking about it, telling all their friends, and pick it up on DVD later.
This is the perfect example of what any art should do. Leave a lasting impression.
And that’s what you need to do – to get hired as an animator – to be a great artist.
But how do you get there?
What does it take to craft a lasting impression – an animation that makes people chuckle til their cheeks hurt?
Do what Christopher Nolan did with Inception.
Have awesome ideas backed by an awesome plan.
Regardless of your opinion on the movie – the of end of Inception wasn’t random nor any scene of the movie for that matter. It was fantastically methodical.
To achieve the same you need to focus – take time on what really matters:
- ideas that form a compelling story
- ideas that entertain
What do I mean?
Which is a more compelling scene:
- 3 Men at a dinner table discussing politics -OR-
- 3 Men at a dinner table discussing politics – while a bomb under the table counts down from 5 minutes.
Obviously, the 2nd one is far more entertaining.
By taking just a little extra time to brainstorm what would amplify a simple scene – you create massive entertainment.
This is true on a small scale say with a 1 character pantomime animation, as well as with something large scale – like an entire feature film.
Inception wasn’t a simple heist movie – DiCaprio wasn’t robbing banks. It took place in someone’s mind. A dream within a dream where DiCaprio’s sanity, children, and several other things hung in the balance. It had layers – Ideas well thought out – weaved together to form a compelling and entertaining story.
Too many aspiring animators miss this and it’s the reason so many demo reels feel generic.
Ohhhh hey look another awesome parkour ninja backflip – said no one EVER
This article will show you how to shoot past all of that. Read on to change your fate.
Ideas Are the Foundation for Entertaining Animation
Great ideas lead to a great story – great story leads to great entertainment.
Your dream of working at Disney or wherever, begins with the ideas you have about your shot.
Build the foundation weak and your dream will collapse.
Yet all too often we rush this process.
- Maybe we find planning out a shot boring.
- Maybe we believe it takes too long
- Or maybe we don’t think we’re creative enough to have an original idea.
Throughout school and at my first animation job – I felt the same way. Usually with a shot that either I was intimidated by or not excited about.
So often, I’d skip the idea phase, skip the planning, and every single time it resulted in an animation that never made my demo reel. An animation that did not entertain – that I wasn’t proud of.
But occasionally – I’d knock a shot out of the park. It would skyrocket my skills wayyyyy past where they were before.
And I bet you can guess what the difference was…
Yes, it was – facing that blank page. Staring it down until you can see the jaw dropping art before it exists.
These days I plan every shot out and every shot I animate is capable of landing the next dream job. As a killer benefit I’ve found I not only enjoy animating even more but I work 10 x faster.
This didn’t happen over night for me but it can for you with some simple mental shifts.
Lets challenge your beliefs about ideas and provide you with some tools to take your animations to a much higher level – so you can land that dream job.
Ideas Drumpf Animation Skill
I first saw this a few years ago. The short by Birdbox is amazing to me because it never fails to make me laugh, I’ve remembered it all this time, and it’s sooo simple.
You could spend hours perfecting finger overlap in your shot or creating an ultra-realistic lip sync but if your shots not funny – it won’t matter.
All the Animation skill in the world won’t fix a BAD idea.
The great news is the reverse is true. Your animation skill doesn’t have to be the best to have a hilarious idea become a hit.
Simons Cat is perfect proof:
The drawings are simple. The sound effects are simple. Even the animation’s simple. But all of these elements work together for one hilarious story woven by great ideas.
This is what the audience wants – even recruiters and fellow animators. With that said…
Ideas Make You Stand Out From Other Animators
Companies like Dreamworks receive roughly 2,000 animation demo reels a week.
How funny do you think most of the typical animation gags will be if you’re a recruiter watching thousands of reels a week?
If your best shot has the same rig, in the same setting, lifting the same heavy object – what are the chances you’ll get an interview?
Exactly. Be Different. Flex your idea muscles and good things will happen.
I’ll never forget Michael Amos’s Trolley Song during our time in school:
Even to this day, nobody else has made a ‘musical’ animation there. And it might be worth mentioning he’s been at Dreamworks since graduation.
We chat all about it here:
The point is this is essential to getting hired and the best way is to start is with a strong idea.
To HR and Animation Supe’s you’ll be like a bonfire in the dark – theres nothing else to look at.
Planning Ideas Actually Saves You Time
With tight deadlines, intense client demands, and complex shots it can seem like there’s no room to plan.
No thumbnailing golden poses or shooting reference. Just dive in and crank the shot out.
Back when I worked on Oddbods in Singapore, I often had 40 second high quality pantomimes to produce in 2 weeks.
In the beginning the deadlines would get the best of my better judgement and I’d skip planning – going with the first ideas that popped in my head.
But it always came back to bite me.
As the week progressed 8 hour work days stretched to 9, 10, 12. I’d get home at 10pm crash and repeat. Zero room for life.
Certainly working longer would fix the issues.
After 3 months it was clear – skipping planning just meant skipping free time – skipping life. And in fact working longer slowed me down more. I was irritable, so enthusiasm was out the window for my job and so was my productivity.
It’s all about self doubt really. Your head gets in the way sometimes and out of fear you run from what helps the most.
Turn off the doubt. Trust in yourself. And prepare like you already know how – it always pays off.
By now we’ve covered how important and powerful good ideas are and that they are totally worth your time. But how do we actually come up with them?
How Anyone Can Craft an Original Idea – Including You
There are a lot of Animators who are overwhelmed by the pressure of creating something ‘Original’ to land their dream job. Probably because the phrase ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ has been said too many times.
When your looking to create something ‘Original’ though you’re not trying to create the world’s first funny run cycle or slapstick pantomime. All you really need to do is infuse a little bit of you into the art.
Your personal experiences, your humor tastes, your interests and probably combine them with some things you’ve seen.
One animation shot has gotten me hired more than any other. From fresh out of school to some of the biggest VFX houses. And it’s not the animation I would have guessed.
It’s not a deep emotional dialogue. Nor is it super polished. In fact I’m still pretty disgusted by the body mechanics.
It just does one thing well. It causes laughter. Sheer 5 year old giggling joy.
Shown here with the Axe Executioner:
So how did I put it all together? Where do you start on the empty piece of paper?
The blank page can be daunting. Scary even.
Lets use the above animation shot as clear example to follow. A 4 step system can get you off to races every time.
- Note Constraints
- Note The Goal
- Shoot Reference
This system can guide you every time your about to make an animation. Its a way to box yourself in – develop a sandbox to play in. Now lets dive into what each step entails.
1. Note Constraints – means to know the limitations or requirements of the shot. When I made this Axe shot I was at school and they imposed some very helpful limits.
- Kind of Shot: Pantomime (only body acting)
- Frame Limit: 250
- 1 or 2 Characters Max
- Simple Environment (Self Imposed)
This was my starting point. Pantomime meant I didn’t have to spend days searching for an interesting sound clip but had to rely on body language. A 250 frame limit meant I had to tell a story quick and simple. It left no room to over complicate the scene and overwhelm myself. Simple environments let you sell the scene but not get carried away doing anything other than Animating. All of these ‘constraints’ are great for helping you zero in on what your making before you’ve even started.
Write them down. Seriously. Taking note of them implants it in your memory and helps you throughout the rest of the animating process.
2. Note The Goal– This is very easy but something you have to decide before you try choosing between all the ideas that will come up when you brainstorm. Will this shot be funny? Sad? Choose. Obviously I went the funny route for this example.
Its should be said that Funny Animations or anything with Comedy is typically more memorable just due to how our brain works. However, with so many funny animations out there you can really stand out with something intense. When your still learning this is all easier said than done but I’ve never forgotten one powerful example. Disney Animator Tony Chau pulled it off before even graduating – with this dog clip:
3. Brain Storm – By this point the sandbox has a simple framework and your going to really dig in creatively. When I brainstormed this comedic pantomime – I literally took 2 days too think it through. That’s how important this step is.
I vomited out all the ideas that come to mind – saving judgement for later. Most of them were recorded fast in mind maps after pacing about in quiet walks. I thought about what is funny silently. Silent Film Actors came to mind like Charlie Chaplin or Three Stooges. I’d shuffle through youtube clips analyzing their settings and gags.
Like this Boxing Skit:
This scenario is brilliant and poses the funny question – how would you survive a boxing match if you were just thrown into the ring? Reverse engineering these scenes gave me light bulb after light bulb when creating my own.
Consider the fact he’s not a professional boxer, he’s understandably terrified, and yet forced to fight. It automatically leaves all kinds of room for humor. All you have to do is figure out from their how he’d deal with the situation and how it all would play out.
Now – what ridiculous scenarios could I come up with on my own? What setting or time period could be interesting? What job would a character have? I spewed several ideas onto paper and starting combing 2 at a time. Randomly, 1 combo instantly stood out to me: Medieval time period and Wiley E Coyote.
Writing Coyote down doesn’t mean I thought of copying the good old classic Looney Tunes stuff. It meant I thought of his personality. Hes always trying to create death traps to catch the roadrunner and always fails. That in itself is hilarious but perhaps even more important is his persistence and shock despite all the failures.
Certainly I could apply the same traits to a character in the medieval time period. What job would he have though? A king? A squire? A executioner? Why of course – an executioner has his own contraptions with the goal of taking out the accused. Isn’t that very similar? WHAM! And we’re off to the races!
I had the general idea, now it was all about refining. Then all I had to do was brainstorm out what contraptions/weapons he would use and how they would fail. I found it immensely helpful to think of the general action being carried out normally first. Then I would come up with all kinds of ways for that to fail and surprise people.
One idea was a guillotine. Common in medieval times and a blade would simply drop down on the victim. What if instead the guillotine fell apart and the blade fell on his foot? Thankfully, as this would all look cartoony it wouldn’t be too traumatic. I played these ‘what if’ ideas out at least 10 times with each weapon or contraption until only 1 or 2 seemed truly hilarious. Finally I ended up with an Axe that falls apart mid swing. Right in the middle the audience would be surprised as the expected was interrupted by the unexpected
For you to successfully brainstorm the same way – use a combination of these throughout the entire process:
- Take a quiet 30 min walk
- People watch
- Watch TV/Movies/Cartoons (take note of personalities/settings)
- Mind Map
- Post It Notes Splatter
- Ask Friends for Ideas
- Consider Famous People (Leonardo Dicaprio, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey, Al Pacino, Charlie Chaplin)
Jot down at least 10 unique ideas. Hold yourself to that number for best results. Then record it anyway that lets you record fast and judgement free until your creatively exhausted.
When you’ve found your best 3 ideas. Ask yourself how you could really amp up the humor with each? What if you did everything in reverse order? What props or setting could reinforce the action? What if the opposite of expected happened? How can I surprise people?
4. Shoot Reference – For some, particularly if you work in VFX, shooting referencing is their sole source of planning. It really shouldn’t be if your trying to make a standout demo reel shot. But it can greatly compound the ideas you’ve written down, take you down new paths, and quickly test all the assumptions in your head.
Once you’ve got your idea, refined down the action set aside more time to shoot reference. It will get you thinking about camera angles, clear staging, and if the actions you have in mind will happen fast enough. As you act do all that you can to avoid faking weight or having no points of reference for eye contact.
For the Axe Executioner I used a heavy barbell for something to actually lift. A small cardboard box was my target and eye-line so the action would be the same spatially. It took me an hour or 2 to try out all the angles, test ideas, and come with new ones. Most importantly though shooting alone for an hour or so can get you ‘in the zone’ and get outside of your own head, especially if what your doing is embarrassingly ridiculous. When your focused you’ll be very authentic and creative in the moment. If your still struggling try headphones with chill music to block distractions.
- Shoot Reference For Hours Take after Take
- Shoot Reference Alone
- If there’s audio use headphones
- Use Props
- Tested Different Camera Angles
- Watch the Takes and Shot Reference Again
- Get Feedback from Friends
If All Else Fails – Work big to small. That’s the philosophy behind these steps. As animators we always block first, refine 2nd, and polish last. We work big and rough down to smallest details – exactly like painters, sculptors, or even writers. By now you should see that’s exactly how you need to attack the blank page. Big and rough throwing everything at the wall. Revert to this if you lose your way.
When all’s said and done, if you’ve followed through each step earnestly, you’ll be left with an idea you’re not only deeply excited about but solidly planned. You’ll sit down eager to animate – ready to blow people away!
Your Ideas Will Define You – Be Amazing
It’s always a messy process, juggling ideas, story, movement and then trying to mash it all together. At times it’s very unclear what step to take next when you’re making something from nothing.
Sometimes you’ll go down the wrong path. Sometimes your ideas will be crap. Sometimes there’s a nagging voice begging you to just slap things together.
What matters is that you put yourself out there. As maybe the first animation wont work out – maybe even the first 10 nobody laughs – but eventually one will exceed all expectation. That day it will define you. Your dream job will come knocking and you’ll be thankful you took the time to make compelling art.
This is to me what art is all about. Pushing yourself to make an impact. Daring to put yourself out there.
You’ve learned the tools to embrace the mess:
- That Ideas are more important than animation skill
- That Ideas will make you stand out
- That Ideas will actually save you time
- And how you can come up with your own original idea.
Now put what you’ve learned to use:
Get the Memorable Animation Cheat Sheet (free for all Rusty Animator readers) and make something that wasn’t there before – make a lasting impression with your ideas.
‘The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your Voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can’ – Neil Gaiman