We Interviewed Bobby Beck - Character Animator and CEO of Animation Mentor

Posted at Jul 19th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Bobby Beck - Character Animator & CEO and Founder Animation Mentor

Bobby Beck is a character animator and the CEO and co-founder of the online animation school, Animation Mentor, which was started in March, 2005. Animation Mentor was the first online school that helped students to pursue a career in the animation industry.

Bobby was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up, he always drew and had a big appetite for imagination. He lived right next to Mt. Diablo and used to climb it and let his imagination run wild; with monsters attacking him, space battles a plenty and lots of imaginary robots.

Bobby signed up for the Animation & Visual Effects program at Academy of Art University, however decided to drop out a yeah and a half in order to find a mentor to teach him 3D animation.

Bobby started his career working on a game called "Legend of Cain." and later on moved to Disney to work on "Dinosaur". Following Disney, Bobby started working for Pixar Studios on "Toy Story 2", "Monster’s Inc.", "Finding Nemo", "Boundin", "The Incredibles" and "Cars".

Bobby's idea for Animation Mentor came from the need to train high-level talent that just was not being done at the Universities at that time.

Bobby Beck - Character Animator and CEO of Animation Mentor

Thank you very much Bobby Beck for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself? Where are you from, and how would you summarize the growing up part?

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up my mom always encouraged a big appetite for imagination. I lived right next to an awesome Mountain (Mt. Diablo) and I used to climb it and whilst doing so I let my imagination run wild; monsters attacking me, space battles a plenty and lots of imaginary robots.

Did you use to draw a lot? What kind of Art did you like the most?

Yes. Drawing and painting are things I always liked to do. I don’t think I ever was particularly good at these things; I just like the feeling of trying to get what is in my head down onto paper.

My mom used to joke, "Do you want me to draw you a picture...?!" The more I get older the more I would say, "Yes, draw me a picture, even if it’s ugly." I do this at work daily and encourage others to do it as seeing a concept or idea in some visual form really does help tell the story you are trying to communicate to others, whether it is for animation or for something entirely unrelated to animation.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

I was at a turning point in my life and explored a lot of different paths after college. Then, when it was time to really focus, I asked myself, "If I could do anything at all, what would I want to do." I knew I wanted to make movies.

I love movies and always will. I thought I was going to get into making miniature model spaceships when I first had this idea. I went to the movies later that week and saw a trailer for the first Toy Story movie and I realized that this is what I wanted to it and that is where things were going; 3D animation.

Which art school did you go to? And what major did you take?

I went to the Academy of Art University. I was studying 3D character animation. At that time you couldn’t do it from home yet. You needed a big powerful Silicon Graphics computer. About a year-and-a-half into their program I decided to leave the school and find a mentor.

I prefer to learn things by doing them instead of theorizing about doing them. I met my best friends at school (Shawn Kelly, Carlos Baena and Jeff Riley) and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

What was your first project you ever worked on professionally?

I worked for a small game studio called "Magic Arts". The game was called "Legend of Cain." It never came out but I had a blast working with the team and learned so much. From there I went to Tippett Studio where I worked on several animated VFX characters for films. I had such a blast working with the Tippett team. I grew a lot at that job.

How did you end up Animating for Disney / Pixar Animation Studios?

Life events pulled me down to L.A and Phil Tippett was gracious enough to give me a great recommendation to the crew down at Disney. I was thrilled to get the job and started at Disney working on the movie, "Dinosaur."

I was down at Disney for about a year before I knew I wanted to get back up to the Bay Area and Pixar was looking, so I applied. I got in and started working immediately on "Toy Story 2". I was a kid in a candy store working and learning from such an incredibly talented team.

Which project(s) did you work on while there?

At Disney I worked only on "Dinosaur".

At Pixar I worked on:

  • Toy Story 2
  • Monster’s Inc.
  • Finding Nemo
  • Boundin’ (short film)
  • The Incredibles
  • The first Cars movie

What is a typical day like for you with regards to your job?

Today I run Animation Mentor full time and I’m not animating nearly as much as I used to, but I still animate regularly.

A typical day for me starts with a stand up check in. This is where I meet with my team and we talk through the work from the day previously and what we plan to do today. We also discuss any blocks we have so that we can help each other out quickly. This is a lot like "dailies" at a studio.

From there I’m off to my desk where I meet with many people throughout the day to ensure we are heading in the right direction as a company, that our students are fulfilled with their experience and that we are pushing the bar in terms of what is possible with online collaboration.

What was the most difficult part for you while being in the animation industry?

Mostly it was awesome. However, a very clear difficult thing to manage at one particular studio was dealing with bullies. Working professionally I found that there were some people who were high up who treated others like crap.

At that time I called it, "frat boy mentality," and now it is clear to me that it was indeed bullying. One-on-one they were okay, but when in a group things changed and the bullying began.

Unfortunately, most of the time these individuals traveled as a group and supervised shows. Every production they led became a very difficult personal struggle to manage. It was literally crushing at times.

Not to reopen past wounds, but honestly this is just not acceptable behavior. At that time I did go to HR but did not really get anywhere. Ultimately it did lead to my personal decision to leave the studio, as it wasn’t worth the personal frustration I had to deal with regularly.

Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate animation mentor?

As an animator I really think Mark Walsh influenced me a lot. I really love the simplicity and appeal of his work. How he was able to make it look so easy and his execution was always inspiring to watch. He is also a fantastic person with a great attitude.

On "Finding Nemo" he used a layering approach and with the simplest of movements it was all there. He could make you laugh, or feel deeply for the characters. He’s a true master in my book.

Animation Mentor

For those who are unfamiliar, what is Animation Mentor?

Animation Mentor is the online school for learning feature animation and visual effects. We started in 2004 with a dream of bringing high-end professional education to the world. People told us it could not be done but we didn’t care, we were on a mission.

Today we’re proud to have trained 1,000’s of talented people all over the world and watch them go on to produce some of the most incredible content we see on screens big and small.

We have graduates at every major studio and we could not be more proud of what they have accomplished and we feel like we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible.

Where did the idea to create an online animation school come from?

Teaching has always been something I loved doing. I was teaching Kung Fu before going to art school. There’s something about sharing what you know and watching others "get it" that becomes contagious.

The idea for Animation Mentor came from the need to train high-level talent that just was not being done at the Universities. We believe in a specialized approach and most art schools teach a generalist approach. This works well for some, but honestly if you’re going to be an animator at a place like Blue Sky, Disney, DreamWorks or Pixar you’re just going to be animating. That kind of focus is what it takes to get into a place like that.

Shawn Kelly (animator at ILM) and Carlos Baena (currently in development on a feature anted film), are my two co-founders. We met in art school and we scoured forums and online news groups when we were starting out. Online was an extension of the way we communicated. When it came time to decide how we wanted to create Animation Mentor we knew we wanted to do it online so that we could help people ALL over the world learn this craft and help raise the bar globally.

Did you have any help founding the website? How did it all come to be? Did you hire freelancers, friends, and coders?

We did most of the work ourselves minus the coding. We hired a freelance designer and engineer to help us kick it off and get the back-end figured out. This got us to a point where we could have people up on the site learning. Then we started hiring people internally as much of what we were trying to do was not yet possible. YouTube wasn’t even in business when we launched Animation Mentor.

What difficulties did you have creating Animation Mentor at first?

Everything was difficult in the beginning, but that was/is the fun. It’s not easy to make learning simple and it’s not something we take lightly. To this day we continue to push the technology and tweak everything constantly to make the learning better, faster with better results for our students.

When we started we had to create everything from scratch, as there was nothing to start with. We’ve learned a lot along the way, made things much tighter and today feel we have a fully functioning online studio environment where students create content from concept to final rendered image. It’s exciting and continues to be a giant endeavor.

What is the best moment you had in Animation Mentor?

Every graduation is like a booster of goodness. We get to celebrate the accomplishments in person with our graduates and we do so in a big way. We always have a BIG commencement speaker. These are some of the most talented people in the industry and they come to give back to the incoming generation and it’s truly humbling.

Animation Mentor Graduation

I’ve also gone to screenings with some of our grads who have worked on films and I get to watch it with them and their families. When the credits roll and they all cheer, clap and give each other hugs, it truly takes my breath away.

Animation Mentor has had over a dozen marriages from people who have met through the school and we got invited to the first one - Eric Baker and Lauren Wells (both super talented animators). That was one of the biggest highlights of Shawn, Carlos and my life. So awesome!

How hard (or easy) was it to persuade animators from top studios to join your project? What was their response?

We have personal relationships with most of them so it wasn’t too hard. We don’t have to pull teeth or anything. We look for mentors who are great animators and who also can teach very well. Patience is a good thing, but not required because the industry sometimes doesn’t wait for you and that can really push you... in a good or bad way. Both can be good things unless you let it get the best of you.

When launching AM, how many signed up in the following days? Was it a huge success from the beginning?

Yes, it was a success from the first term out. We had helped people online for years before starting Animation Mentor without ever even thinking we would do anything like start a school. People knew who we were and that we stood for quality and that we had the right motivation.

The first terms were rough, but people largely stuck with it and it’s become something incredible. The community at AM is second to none.

How did you Market and Advertised Animation Mentor?

In the beginning we didn't. We let it speak for itself. Twitter and Facebook didn't exist yet so we continued to answer questions on forums and through our newsletter. The rest was word of mouth.

What will a student learn in Animation Mentor? Is it ‘truly’ for everybody?

Students in our animation program, learn to become character animators with feature animation quality and mentality. We teach them everything we know and then some.

Bishop - Animation Mentor Character

Students in our visual effects program learn how to be visual effects artists working in a professional studio environment and will have a thorough understanding of what is required of them in the professional world.

Is it truly for everyone... no, it is not. You have to be motivated and be able to push yourself. You have people around you pushing you, but you cannot phone it in. You have to be engaged. If you are engaged then you will succeed, if not, you will fail. Same goes for being a professional artist. It doesn’t come for free. It’s a lot of hard work to get there.

What is the success rate of graduating students trying to get into animation studios? How AM helps them find a job?

Many of our students go on to get great jobs in the industry. Many don’t. Getting a job is a journey not an end goal. We do all that we can to give our students the skills, mentality and work product that the studios want to see. We help them with their resumes and interview skills and post via our job board. When studios reach out to us with their recruiting needs we recommend students to them that fit their qualifications.

If the industry is in a lull then it will take longer to get a job, but you can’t stop. That’s when you need to turn it up and keep working on new content and reapply.

Eventually you will get the job and you will be able to move up and up to better studios. That’s how it works. If you give up, as sometimes it is discouraging, you’ll never know what you may have been capable of.

Have you ever thought about making Animation Mentor an Animation Studio? Creating titles of your own?

Yes. We’re doing this now with our Classic-Pro classes. Students create the content. It is important that students create the content instead of working on our content. We work hard to find balance so that we’re never taking advantage of our community or their rights.

I’ll explain more about this below.

In the last following years since launching AM, two more online schools have founded, what do you think about them? Competition is good, bad?

Two... Last time I checked I think I counted 7 and growing.

We’re excited to have competition in the space. It pushes us to move things forward, make things better and push what is possible to new levels.

One point of frustration is that a business is typically started to fill a need or to remedy a challenge. Finding quality talent is no longer a challenge for the studios like it was in 2004 when we started. I’m not sure what challenge many of the new schools are trying to solve.

Again, we welcome the competition, we just hope they are doing it for the right reasons and are actually trying to push something new forward. If so... awesome!

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Did you always have it in you?

I never considered myself an entrepreneur. I always saw myself as an artists fighting for a better world for other artists. As we’ve grown more I understand that battle cry might not be as visible as it has been but I assure you the passion blazes on.

Most of what I’ve been working on has been around pushing collaborative education online. We've seen it time and again when people work on projects together they learn faster and with better results. Doing collaborative projects online, at scale is a monumental task. One I believe we’ve really made a HUGE dent on.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on in AM?

Animation Mentor has been working towards the online studio for some time now.

In the last 12 months we have released 10 new characters to our community and we’re continuing on this path into 2015 and onwards.

Animation Mentor Tribe Characters

A new character rig, Jules character was released to the Animation Mentor community on May 11th 2015 and will be available to students of character animation program starting Spring 2015 Term

Animation Mentor

We plan to continue to push collaborative education and we plan to open our studio platform to our alumni in 2015 so that they can continue working to create whatever content they dream up together. This is a HUGE step in the right direction for artists to be able to create whatever they can imagine and form anywhere in the world! Stay tuned for more!

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation/games business?

Share what you know with others. Stop obsessing about animated movies and games and open your eyes to the world around you. That’s when your animation will truly grow, not by trying to copy someone else's great arcs or spacing.

Take the job, even if it’s at a small studio. Every experience is a stepping-stone and there is something to learn from each place you go.

Keep at it. You will get there.

Learn more about Bobby Beck at http://www.animationmentor.com or call Animation Mentor 1-877-326-4628 to get more information about the school.