We Interviewed Justin Sklar - Character Animator

Posted at Feb 24th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Justin Sklar - Character Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios

Justin Sklar was born in Owings Mills, MD which is a suburb of Baltimore, MD. After going to high school to pursue fine arts training, he moved to Florida to study computer animation at Ringling College of Art & Design.

Justin started his career in animation by applying to Walt Disney Animation Studios' internship program between his junior and senior years. After graduating from Ringling, he returned to Disney as a trainee. At the end of the six month program, he finally landed a position as an animating assistant on the movie "Wreck-it Ralph".

While at Disney, Justin learned and gained experience from mentors Brent Homman and Adam Green. Both pushed his work to a whole different level, creating better choices and put focus on animation techniques and the process involved.

Justin has been working on Walt Disney latest movie craze “Frozen”, and is finally moving on to work on Disney’s animated feature “Big Hero 6”.

Justin Sklar - Character Animator at Disney Studios

Thank you very much Justin Sklar for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself? And what do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

Thanks for asking me to do this! I have to admit that I feel a bit out of place, as I've only been animating professionally for something like two years, but I'm happy to participate!

As for things I do when I'm not animating, I'm pretty boring. I cook a lot; I bake slightly less than that. I watch movies, then yell about them for many hours while my wife politely feigns interest.

I spend the majority of the rest of my time sleeping, trying to keep my cat out of cabinets, and thinking about how I should probably be working.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style of art did you like the most?

I used to think that I didn't draw that much growing up, but in retrospect I think I must have. I do remember pretty clearly that my parents' bed had a light in the headboard that basically functioned like a light box and I spent a long time as a kid tracing things out of video game magazines.

I eventually got placed into "gifted and talented" art classes in middle school and eventually ended up at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a magnet arts high school. Carver takes art seriously and I was taking figure classes as a high school sophomore and doing massive, nearly twice life-size drawings by the time I graduated.

A short list of my high school art influences were people like Eric Fischl, Philip Pearlstein, and John Singer Sargent.

Did you have a favorite film or cartoon that influenced you in your teens that made you become aware of animation?

If I'm honest, I don't think so. I had probably seen most of the Disney catalogue and probably all of the Pixar catalogue before I went to school for animation, but I don't think I ever had that "Oh, I have to do this for a living" moment watching an animated film.

That's not to say I'm not inspired by animated films, but I think I initially came to animation as something that I didn't know much about that I thought would be challenging to learn.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it? And when?

I went to Ringling College of Art and Design to study computer animation. I graduated in 2011.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

This isn't going to be a very satisfying explanation, but I guess I decided I wanted to be an animator around the time that I was looking at colleges.

A lot of my friends were looking to go to fine arts schools and I just felt like committing to fine arts was such a crap shoot. It seemed like being successful as a fine artist had more to do with luck and connections than the work.

That's certainly not to diminish fine artists, but the systems in place for recognizing artists just appeared to be infinitely less egalitarian than in a more commercial field.

I didn't know very much about animation other than that it seemed pretty hard and like it would be something I could learn about for a long time. So I went to Ringling with that as my goal.

Did you have a natural talent or you did you have to develop the skills to draw and animate?

I think about this idea a lot and it's a frustrating topic for me. I think talent is a bit of a myth that comes from great work looking easy (if I were a real pedant, I would say something long-winded about the quality of the sublime and Kant or Schopenhauer here, instead I'll just name drop).

The short answer is that I think that I've worked hard to get my animation skills to where they are. I would say that a lot of skills come relatively quickly to me, but I suspect that has less to do with natural talent and more to do with an inclination to try to understand every aspect of how to do something. I also generally approach things with the attitude that if I'm going to commit to doing something, I'm going to try to be the best at that thing.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first? Do you remember the day you got employed?

The first thing I ever worked on professionally in animation was on Wreck-it Ralph. At the end of the trainee program, we started doing crowd cycles on the candy people in Sugar Rush.

Nowadays, when do you wake up and what do you on average every day in regarding to your job?

I usually get up at about 6:30. I don't live particularly close to the studio, so it takes me about an hour to get to work. Days change depending on where I am in the course of a shot.

I normally write a list of notes for myself when I leave for the day and when I get to work in the morning I'll re-watch the shot. Then, I'll decide when the next time I'm going to show is and make a new list of the things I need to do before then.

If my shot is in a place where I'm ready to show or I need to check on something, I'll show to the supervisors in rounds and then make a new list of things to do, incorporating those notes.

I'll show to the directors at certain points in the shot, get their notes and then I go back to making lists.

What part of your current job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?

I'm obviously biased, but I honestly believe that, right now, Walt Disney is probably the best place to work and learn about animation at a high level.

I got into animation because I thought it would be something that would be difficult and rewarding to learn and that has definitely proven to be true. Working with people who are much more experienced than I am means that I'm constantly learning things. Other people are definitely an invaluable resource when you're working in something like CG animation, in which there are a million little tools or techniques that you have no reason to assume even exist.

What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of in your career?

I've really only been involved in Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen and I'm super proud to have been a part of both.

Justin Sklar - Character Animator on Walt Disney's Frozen

How did you end up working for Walt Disney Animation Studios? What steps did you take to apply there?

One of the biggest benefits of going to a school like Ringling is that big studios often come and recruit there. I applied to be an intern at Walt Disney between my junior and senior years and (much to my surprise) ended up getting the internship.

Then, after I graduated, I re-applied as an animation trainee, moved out to California, and fortunately was accepted for that position.

The trainee program lasted for six months and at the end of it I got brought on to Wreck-it Ralph as an animating assistant in crowds.

What's your animation workflow looks like while animating? Do you still use Animation Disc to this day?

I shoot reference for everything I do, no matter how simple the shot is. I've never felt like my thumbnails are particularly descriptive or helpful in deciding what I'm going to do, so for me reference acts as thumbnails.

I generally have an idea as to what I want to do off the bat and then I'll shoot reference until I feel like I've gotten out of my head and am just performing naturally.

After I've gotten my reference figured out, I'll block important poses into my shot, focusing on important beats and changes in weight direction.

Then I'll show the shot to the supervisors and the director and see how they feel about it. Depending on the changes they ask for, I'll frequently do more reference, delete sections as necessary, re-block and show again.

Once I get a buy off on my blocking from the director, I'll break it down to 2s and 3s (sometimes 1s depending on what it is) before I switch into spline. I want to make all of my real choices in terms of posing, timing, and favors in blocking and then do as little touching as possible in spline so I don't mess up those choices. Once I'm in spline, I'll go through all of my controls and delete any keys that are redundant or just serve to complicate a curve.

When I start polishing, I'll generally hide the head and arms and just work with the torso and legs. Working out the hips and chest and getting the weight right first makes it much easier to keep the head and arm curves simple, because you're not compensating for weird things happening lower down the chain.

Once I have everything generally clean, I'll go through and say, either to myself or to other people, "What is most wrong with this shot?" Then, I just start solving problems. This generally means tracking arcs on as many things as possible - hips, chest, nose, elbows, wrists, fingers, knees, ankles, heels, toes. If it makes a visible arc on screen and I have any control over it, I'm probably tracking it.

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

I don't know that I have any real tricks. Touch as little as possible. Always plan - I don't like to start animating until I know what I'm actually going to do. Write lots of lists.

Every time I get notes from the supervisors, I write a list of what I'm going to do. Every night before I leave, I write a list of my last impressions of a shot and then first thing in the morning I watch my shot, see what I think of the list from the night before, decide if I still feel that way and then add any new concerns to the list.

Know how you work and build your workflow around that. I always try to keep real problem-solving for the morning because I know I tend to be more effective just after I get to work. I prefer to do relatively mindless things like deleting redundant keys and cleaning up curves in the afternoon.

I also know that I'm mostly motivated by guilt, so I give myself a lot of arbitrary deadlines so I feel bad and work faster if I don't hit them.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work or just go with the flow and trust the director and animation supervisor?

Both, I guess. We get issued a shot by the director(s) and that obviously gets factored into whatever my first pass is going to be.

I try to make a concerted effort to trust my instincts above everything else on the first pass of a shot - I would rather be completely behind an idea and then change course after showing the supervisors than cut my idea off at the knees by constantly trying to guess at what the supervisors/directors are going to say.

That said, while I will always at least explain my original idea, I'll always defer to the supervisors or the directors.

After I have a clear picture of what the supervisors and the directors want, I'm always looking for things to fix - ideally you want to show in rounds or dailies, have everyone love it and not get any notes. At the same time, it's important to know when other people just know more than you, so I show to the supervisors and other animators constantly.

Justin Sklar - Character Animator on Frozen by Disney

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using? What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins?

We use Autodesk Maya. I don't use a ton of plugins or weird tools. Tweenmachine or variants thereon have been a mainstay in my workflow as long as I've been at Disney.

We also have a tool for tracking arcs but I use that just as frequently as throwing a locator on something and tracking it with a dry erase marker on my monitor.

What are your thoughts about the general ‘work instability' that a lot of animators and artists in the field seems to be talking about lately?

I'm not in a great position to talk about this. I've been lucky in terms of getting into Disney when I did and getting the opportunities that I've had.

The Animation and VFX industry is growing and changing quickly, so it's definitely volatile right now.

What is your favorite 2D and 3D animated film(s) and cartoon, of all time and why?

As you might imagine, I like a lot of animated films for different reasons. If you're going to make me pick, I'll say ‘101 Dalmatians' and ‘The Incredibles'.

‘101 Dalmatians' is mostly up there for style and design reasons. As designs go, I want every character in every movie to look like Roger.

There's also just a ton of virtuoso animation and interesting, weird choices in both performance and storytelling.

That movie is about a woman who wants to murder a bunch of puppies for the purposes of making a coat. That's the villain of a movie that people think is for kids! I can't imagine anyone even pitching that to another person now.

‘The Incredibles' is one of my favorites in large part because it manages to beat a lot of the curses of making animated films.

It's easy to make a CG animated film that is mostly flashy hand-waving to distract you from a story that feels like the vision of 30 different people, because CG is great at flashy and a ton of people were likely involved in making it.

‘The Incredibles', despite this, has the feeling of being a coherent, singular vision with characters that all manage to have their own disparate wants that interact in a way that feels organic.

Even more than that, it holds up amazingly well visually despite being made using 2004 technology. Plus, the animation is pretty great.

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

I'm not super into Miyazaki movies which feels like something I shouldn't admit, but I just have a hard time getting into them.

There are a lot of things that anime does really well, though. As we start work on ‘Big Hero 6' I've been looking at a lot of anime to try and capture the crazy energy anime often has.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?

I haven't been in the business that long, so most of my complaints are likely trivial whining.

I guess the biggest thing thus far has just been the difficulty of working through crunch on our movies.

Working long hours and weekends is hard on everyone and not particularly good for your relationships with other people. I try to maximize my time outside of work and not to bring work home with me.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate and which project was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

I kind of love getting shots where I immediately think "Holy crap, why did anyone think I could do this?" Nothing is too hard.

The trick with shots that are technically tricky (this is also the trick for shots that are easy) is to plan first and to try to come up with a solution that gives you the best result with the least amount of constant babysitting and noodling.

It's worth mentioning, at the same time, that I try never to make decisions about acting choices based on how difficult they're going to be to execute. I would prefer to spend a few hours hacking together multiple rigs, throwing blend-shapes on something and tracking tiny arcs than doing less work for a lesser performance.

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

I've been lucky in that I've had a number of great mentors. When I was an intern, my mentor was Brent Homman. That experience had a huge impact on my animation in general.

My tendency is generally to make lots of little complicated choices and Brent pushed for simple, broader choices. I tried to work that line of thought into my thesis film and I have to imagine that the combination of that film and the work I did during the internship are the reason I got accepted into the trainee program.

As a trainee, I was mentored by Adam Green. It's funny trying to think about what the conversation was that lead to Adam being my mentor, but in my head it's something like "Justin is a neurotic, humorless individual, maybe putting him with Adam can fix that."

Adam definitely pushed my work to a different level. Like Brent, Adam pushed me to make simpler, more direct choices but also put a focus on mechanics and fun, broad in-betweens.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools like ‘AnimationMentor.com' or iAnimate.net? Would you teach there if you had a chance?

I haven't personally taken or even really approached taking a class from an online animation school, but I have no strong opinions one way or the other.

I can absolutely see how learning from active industry professionals would be incredibly helpful for a student, but my guess is that it requires you be much more self-motivated than going to a brick-and-mortar animation school requires.

I would be hesitant to teach an animation class currently just because I don't particularly feel like I have enough professional experience to justify taking anyone's money to talk about what I think. That said, it's something I would consider in the future if the opportunity presented itself.

Do you think such schools mass-produce animators to the already ‘low demand' from the studios themselves?

I'm not sure I can agree with that criticism. I feel like if your expectation is that a school will make you stand out as an individual in a crowded field full of talented people, you may be utilizing the school in a way that isn't as helpful as it could be.

For me, any type of class should be approached as simply an opportunity to gain access to information, insight, and criticism from both a teacher and other students.

Everything else is what you bring to the table. Your job is to utilize those resources to make yourself stand out from the crowd by working harder or thinking differently than anyone else.

No class is going to be able to teach you how to do those things.

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

As others have said, I don't think there's really a battle here. They're different media that do different things well.

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

Right now I'm working on ‘Big Hero 6', which is a lot of fun. We started a little while ago and it's going to be a ton of work to get done, but I can promise it's going to look better than anything Disney has done in recent memory.

If you could choose to work with any artist(s) past or present from the animation business, who would he/they be and why? What makes them so awesome?

I'm terrible at questions like this; do they have to be from animation? I imagine it might be beneficial to get yelled at by Milt Kahl? I suspect the results of that would be pretty long lasting.

Outside of animation, I think the Coen brothers are great. They have very cartoonish sensibilities and very clear opinions about how to make movies (No Country for Old Men has a run of about three shots that is one of my favorite things in movies).

I'm also on a David O. Russell thing recently. I'm a big fan of the way he treats his characters and the way he approaches making movies. He's clearly having fun.

Do you find yourself checking out other animator's/artists' works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new things from them?

Always. We have a system at Disney to look at new shots as they get submitted and I make a point of trying to look at everything. There's that saying "Good artists borrow, great artists steal."

I'm constantly looking for things people are doing in their work that I want to assimilate into my own work. Also, when you're working on a movie, it's useful to see what everyone else is doing so you know what flies with the directors and the supervisors.

Half of animation is reading the minds of the directors/supervisors, so the more you can learn from other people's trial and error, the better.

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

Like I said, I haven't been in animation for a terribly long time so I don't have any particularly sage advice, but I have a couple suggestions based on things I've seen and things that have helped me.

Don't go to art school to get away from anything. Don't go to art school (or online animation school) because you don't like math or writing or science. It's too expensive and too difficult to get a job making art to do it if you don't love doing it.

Say yes to everything. Getting a job in animation is generally based on skill and experience, but if we're honest there's still a fair amount of luck involved.

The only real thing you can do about that is to say yes to opportunities when they come to you and make sure you have the skills and the work ethic to exceed expectations once you have the opportunity (this advice does not extend to jobs where people don't want to pay you or otherwise want to take advantage of you - don't say yes to those).

Most importantly, don't accept "good enough" and don't wait to try and make your best work. It's important to understand who you're being compared to when you're applying to a big studio.

It's important to understand that the people who work in the industry now, whose blogs you look at and whose reels you watch - those people are the ones you need to be better than to get a job.

Don't ever say "Well, I went to X school/worked at X studio that should buy me something." See how your work stacks up to the people who have the jobs you want or whom you admire, figure out what your work needs to get there, do that, repeat ad infinitum.