We Interviewed Jacob Gardner - Character Animator

Posted at Aug 9th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Jacob Gardner - Character Animator

Jacob has been working at Dreamworks Animation for over 5 years now. He worked on films such as "Shrek Forever After", Megamind, Puss in Boots, and "Rise of the Guardians". Jacob is also co-founder of the animation website "Speaking Of Animation"; where he gets to talk about all the things he know and interview people who knows far more than him.

Jacob found the love for animation at an early age. It was when he saw Aladdin (around 7 or 8 years old at the time ) and he just knew that he wanted to make drawings come to life. Jacob was fascinated by the crazy energy of the Genie, and something so endearing about the believability of Aladdin, which made him want to begin his journey into the animation industry.

The first professional work Jacob ever did was as a cycles animator on the feature "Monsters Vs. Aliens" at DreamWorks Animation. That means he had to make a lot of loops of background characters walking, running, screaming, sitting that the crowds department would populate into the backgrounds of shots to fill out the world that was created.

Since Joining to DreamWorks and working on many of their features, Jacob also joined the ranks of iAnimate.net as a full time feature animation instructor.

Jacob Gardner - Character Animator

Thank you very much Jacob Gardner for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself? What are your hobbies? Passions?

I am a character animator at DreamWorks Animation, and co-founder of the animation podcast site Speaking Of Animation.com. I also teach advanced acting and facial animation at the online animation school iAnimate.net, and at home I am a husband to my wife/best-friend and father to an amazing baby boy.

Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?

I am from the midwest of the United States, specifically a small suburb of Chicago. I had a pretty great childhood and wouldn’t change any of it. I played lots of sports and was also constantly making art. I had an interest in animation from a very early age.

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

I drew all the time and filled up several sketchbooks. I would mostly draw characters from my favorite comic books, tv shows, and movies. I was always drawing X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bugs Bunny, Simba, and many many more. I think that also answers the second question, hehe.

Did you play a lot of animation growing up? Which cartoon inspired you the most?

I watched animation all the time. I have memories of the animated X-Men cartoon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Animaniacs, Duck Tales, Tailspin, Darkwing Duck, Chip and Dale, Rugrats, Ahhh Real Monsters, Hey Arnold, Doug, plenty others. I was definitely most inspired by the Disney films at the time though, specifically Aladdin and Lion King.

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

I think it was when I saw Aladdin (I would have been 7 or 8 years old at the time) and I just knew I wanted to make drawings come to life. There was something so special about the crazy energy of the Genie, and something so endearing about the believability of Aladdin. I simultaneously completely believed him as a person and a character yet I knew it was all fake and drawn by people. And I wanted to draw it one day.

The magic was repeated with Lion King, and then I saw Toy Story. I also had an interest in computers and thought someday I could do what they did and bring the characters to life with the computer.

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

I didn’t go to an art school, I went to a University that had art majors. I attended Bowling Green State University and majored in “computer art” which had instruction in digital painting, image manipulation, website design, video production, and Maya 3D modeling/texturing/animating.

My parents were happy I chose a University instead of an art school because they thought it was very important to get a well-rounded education, and I completely agree. In addition to following my passion I was also able to take science, philosophy, history, and literature courses.

I think I got a much broader education than I would have if I went to only an art school. In fact, my favorite course during my entire four years wasn’t even an art class, it was a history course about World War 2.

What was the first studio you sent your reel to or tried to accept into?

I sent my reel to a number of internship opportunities including PIXAR, Rhythm and Hues, and Blizzard. (there were plenty more but those are the ones that stick out in my mind).

I was rejected by PIXAR and Rhythm and Hues, and I was actually excited that they sent me rejection notices.

I mean obviously I was upset to be rejected, but at the same time I was excited they actually acknowledged me to let me know they looked at my work. Those two were the only ones that I applied to that ever actually responded to let me know I wasn’t ready. I have still never heard back from Blizzard, though I remain hopeful.

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

The first professional work I ever did was as a cycles animator on Monsters Vs. Aliens at DreamWorks Animation. That means I made loops of background characters walking, running, screaming, sitting …etc. that the crowds department would populate into the backgrounds of shots to fill out the world that was created.

I expected to continue doing background and cycles work on the next couple films but before MvA was finished they informed me I would be promoted to a normal shot animator on the next film, Shrek Forever After.

How did you end up Animating for DreamWorks?

In 2007, SIGGRAPH hosted their first ever FJORG competition. Which was basically like an "Iron Chef" but for animators. Teams of 3 animators had to create a short film from start to finish within 32 straight hours.

In order to even get into the competition myself and best two friends (Tomas Jech and Jim Levasseur) had to create a demo reel of our work and apply. We thought everyone else for all the other teams would just throw together a collection of each person’s work, and so in an attempt to stand out we created a special short film/demo reel specifically for FJORG made by the three of us. It poked fun at other animation demo reels and even took a jab at the name of the competition.

We were allowed into the competition! It was a lot of fun. We actually ended up being selected as the winning team.

What is the atmosphere like at DreamWorks? What an unusual day looks like?

DreamWorks is very laid back and supportive. All the animators are very approachable and happy to help each other find solutions and improve each other’s work.

On a usual day I spend about 85% of my time animating. The rest is for meeting with my supervisors or directors or other animators for advice on the shots.

Do you have training classes that are being taught by professionals at DreamWorks? Do you have special sessions?

There are LOTS of training sessions available. A couple happen pretty consistently, like figure drawing and improv. And many come up every once in a while like screenwriting, photography, puppeteering, sculpting, etc. Then there are always software instructions from each department.

I don’t go to nearly as many of any of those classes as I should.

Which project(s) are you working on? And what are you mostly responsible for?

I am currently working on a film called “Home.” As a character animator I am responsible for all the main character animation in any shot I am cast on.

What are some of your favorite Projects you’re proud to have been a part of?

My favorite so far has been Rise of the Guardians. I really believed in the story and connected with the character I animated on - Jack Frost. I also enjoyed that it wasn’t the same old sassy humor and buddy comedy you see everywhere. They took a chance and made something a bit darker and mature.

I also was a big fan of Megamind, which was a blast to work on and I thought the end result was pretty funny.

What was a typical day like for you with regards to your job? When do you wake up, when do you leave work? How many hours do you work a day?

I wake up around 6:30am to feed the baby, but before he was born I would wake up around 8am. I leave for work at 8:30 to get there by 9am. I animate until dailies where I show my shot to the director when it’s far enough along. If it isn’t at a spot where I should show it, I’ll go to dailies anyway to see everyone elses work and see how the director responds to what he’s seeing.

Learning what he likes and doesn’t like will help me as I’m working on my shots. I’ll eat lunch from 12-1 and go back to animating til 6pm. Somewhere in there friends will ask me to look at their shots and I’ll do the same. We help each other out a lot.

What parts of animation do you like best and why? What makes it so unique to you?

My favorite part is starting a shot - coming up with the acting choices and figuring out the most truthful way for the character to act for that moment.

After lots of planning and searching and playing around and finally showing it to the rest of the team and the director. Once the blocking gets approved I immediately get pretty bored with the shot. I am far less interested in polish than with delivering a genuine performance.

What’s your animation workflow look like when animating? Did it change throughout the years?

It is constantly changing. I use a lot more reference now than I used to, and my work has gotten much much better because of it. I don’t consider video reference a crutch, but rather a tool that helps me get far more nuance and specificity than I ever could from memory.

Even my process with reference has changed over the years, as I used to draw thumbnails from the reference and choose specific poses I would hit. Now all I care about is the timing and the relationship of the parts of the body. So to me it’s more about the motion than the pose.

The poses I always change and adjust later to make prettier and more designed. But the timing from the reference is what sells the performance.

Do you add a lot of your feelings into the characters/shots that you animate? Can you give us an example?

I think as artists and animators we are adding parts of ourselves to every performance we give. If you connect with the moment for the character, than a piece of you will be in the performance no matter how small. If you can’t connect to the character in any way, then you don’t really understand the shot enough to give it a genuine performance.

I don’t think I have specific example because of that reason - everything has a piece of you in it.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using (or used) since you started your career, what are your preferences? What are your favorite plugins?

At DreamWorks we use proprietary software (which is fantastic!), but I don’t think I can tell you much about it. For teaching I use maya, but I haven’t really ‘animated’ a shot in maya in several years, so I’m pretty out of touch on the current plugins and tools.

I know enough to talk thru student’s work and move controllers around on their work to show them better poses.

Which cool methods and ‘tricks of the trade’ do you use the most when animating?

Hmmm, that’s tough because it’s so general. I feel like I have tricks or methods for every single thing I do. I could go on for hours about things I do to get better poses out of hands, or how I polish the torso, or the mechanics of eye blinks. I guess just in general the biggest method I use is to try to look through the eyes of the audience. When animating a shot for a film you aren’t animating the shot for yourself, it’s for the audience.

It needs to serve a purpose within the story, which means it needs to be incredibly specific to that character in that moment. It’s not about showing off your spacing or your cool pose ideas, it’s about communicating what needs to be communicated to the audience.

What is your favorite 2D and/or 3D animated film(s) and game(s), and why?

Disney's "Aladdin" and "Lion King" for 2D because they influenced me so much. And the original "Toy Story" and "How to Train Your Dragon" for 3D. Looking back on Toy Story it’s quite crude in a lot of ways: the shapes, the deformations, the lighting, but the story is still just as relevant as ever and still sticks with me.

How to Train Your Dragon was simply gorgeous in terms of animated flight, and it had so many cool moments and such an amazing soundtrack.

What are your thoughts about Japanese animation and games? Are you a fan or prefer good old American animation style and games?

I’m going to sound like a heretic and maybe you’ll take away my animator card, but I really can’t watch too much Japanese animation. It just doesn’t hold my interest as much. I can certainly appreciate the craft and the artistry, but it doesn’t keep me entertained like the American style stuff.

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

Every new shot is a brand new challenge. I think just trying to keep up with the quality of animation that the rest of the team brings is one of the most difficult parts. We are always pushing each other to reach new levels of specificity.

Have you ever had a character that was too difficult for you to animate? Do you remember which project was that on?

Jack Frost on "Rise of the Guardians" is definitely the hardest character I've ever worked on. He had a very lanky body with very thin and long legs, which left no room for ambiguity in body mechanics.

Everything was very visible and had to be perfect. Then his face was a whole other nightmare. To keep him appealing and on model took an amazing amount of work. You could try forever to get the right face pose with the right appeal, and then if you turn the head 5 degrees away from camera, just slightly to the left, suddenly he goes way off model and looks like a totally different character.

So you were always counter-animating the face as the head moves around just to make it LOOK like the face is staying the same. It was crazy.

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

I don't think I've had only one ultimate mentor. I've had plenty. Every supervisor I’ve worked with has influenced me. Sometimes I make a point of changing my workflow so that I work more like them, that helps me learn from them. Then I change it again when I work with a new supervisor.

Each time I bring the best of the previous experience with me, and now my workflow is an amalgamation of a bunch of different styles, thought processes, and tricks.

2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

I don’t think it’s a battle at all. 2D is simply beautiful. It has a personal and artistic touch that 3D has yet to accomplish. 3D has a level of detail and nuance that 2D doesn’t. They both have their place and use.

The only way it’s a battle is from a monetary standpoint on which projects the studios want to fund. The audiences decide that really, since the studios want to make money. More people go to 3D movies so that’s what they make right now.

What do you prefer most, digital animation or traditional animation?

I like watching both.

If you could go back to the past, would you change anything in the way you’ve been doing animation? Anything that could make you become a better animator?

I am always learning new things all the time, and every shot is a new challenge. It’s a process where you are constantly learning and pushing yourself.

Even though I look back at my previous work and cringe, my answer is no, I would not go back and change anything because all of those experiences got me to where I am now. And in a year (or sooner) I’ll look back at my work I am doing right now and cringe, because I’ll have evolved so much by then.

Do you criticize some of the shots/parts of the work you’ve done or directed on?

Haha, I think I just covered this in the previous answer, but yes. I criticize everything I’ve ever worked on.

How do you balance between work and personal life? Creating and working on films must be overwhelming and challenging!

It is very difficult to balance work and a personal life. Mostly since animation is not just a job, but a passion. It follows me everywhere. A part of my brain is working on it no matter what else I’m supposed to be doing. I do my best to leave it at the door when I come home to my family at the end of the day, but it’s still a struggle to balance the two. I have no solution!

How do you find the time to teach and work at the same time? Switching between them mist be tiresome.

Teaching animation and animating are kind of two sides to the same coin. Switching between them isn’t too difficult, but it is hard to find the time to do both, mostly because it eats further into time spent with my family. I do my best to compartmentalize, work stays at work, class stays in class, and my family gets everything else.

Can you tell us how did you end up instructing for iAnimate.net?

When Jason Ryan was starting to develop the idea of the online training courses, he asked me if I would be a part of it and be one of his instructors and help design a curriculum. I was honored. I have been an instructor at iAnimate ever since.

What classes are you teaching at iAnimate.net?

I am currently teaching Full Body Acting (Workshop 5), but in the past I have also taught Facial Animation (Workshop 4) and Introduction to Feature Animation (Workshop 1)

How different is it for you to teach animation online compared to working on animation? Do you find yourself ‘teaching’ yourself at times?

I definitely do ‘teach’ myself at times, because being an instructor forces me to analyze my choices more acutely than I normally would have. Students ask great questions that require me to be introspective about my own process, either in workflow or theory and concept.

By looking for the answers, I learn more about myself and my process, which ultimately helps me moving forward with my own animation. Teaching really is a wonderful thing, because I learn from it too.

Have you ever had a student(s) that have a hard time learning by your teaching methods? How do you handle such students? Do you change your methods?

Every person learns differently. Some people understand your notes immediately, others need it explained in a completely different way. Some like analogies, some like draw-overs, some like to see you fix the problem in the curve editor so they can see the differences.

Others need plenty of hand-holding along the way. I do my best to adjust the way I interact with each student based on what the student needs in order to succeed.

What was the hardest part for you when helping, fixing, lecturing students?

The hardest part is explaining the "why" behind a performance note. It’s easy enough to explain spacing notes, but when you’re dealing with things that are mostly based on ‘feelings’ rather than something that has hard evidence (like spacing gaps between frames) it becomes very difficult to communicate.

A lot of animation is based on how it ‘feels’ and so the reason ‘it just feels better if you do it this way’ doesn’t give the student a lot to go on. You have to try to figure out WHY it would feel better to the audience, and communicate that in the simplest way. It’s incredibly tough to do sometimes.

Do you think online schools mass produce animators?

I think online schools do what is asked of them by their students. The students want to learn animation and the schools teach them animation. It is not designed to be a factory with an assembly line, it is a service. As long as there is demand for the service the schools will continue.

I DO think there are a lot of animators these days, but I don’t think it’s because they are being ‘mass produced’ but because there is more access to information these days so more people are aware that being an animator is an actual thing you can do.

What are your thoughts about the massive demand for learning animation online?

Haha I keep answering the questions before they’re asked! See the previous answer for my thoughts on this.

What do you think of the latest layoff in the industry? Every animator talks nowadays about the current job instabilities. What’re your thoughts about it?

I have been very lucky to be hired at a major studio right out of college and to keep that job ever since. I was hired at the end of 2007, which I think is right before the economy collapsed. And I’ve been quite lucky ever since. For that reason I don’t feel qualified to talk about the job search or the state of the industry in terms of hiring/firing practices.

I am also not a businessman or economist, so I can’t say what the companies are doing right or wrong except anecdotally. I’ve had many friends affected by the layoffs and studio closings and shifts in business practices, so I’ve seen how it badly it can suck.

From the top of your head, which artist(s) would you like to work with if you had the chance?

Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Joss Whedon I’d love to work with as directors. And I would kill to get the chance to sit down with them and pick their brains as storytellers.

If you could choose a different medium in animation, what would it be? 2D? Stop-motion?

2D for sure. I’d love to be able to draw with such grace and specificity. I’ve got a long way to go for that to happen though.

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

Dave Burgess, Jason Schleifer, Ted Ty, and David Pate have all been hugely instrumental in getting me to where I am today, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2014?

I’m working on a DreamWorks film called "Home". They actually just made a short film called "Almost Home" to introduce to the story setup and Steve Martin’s character. You can find it online in several places, and that should give you a good sense of the tone of the film.

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

My best advice is to animate what you want to animate. Don’t just animate something because you ‘think’ it’s what they want to see on a reel. Do what inspires you and motivates you and animate what you want to see animated and then try to get a job based on that.

Your passion and dedication will show through in your work and make it more entertaining, which isn’t the case if you are just animating what you assume someone else wants to see.