We Interviewed Frank Abney - Character Animator

Posted at Nov 21st, 2012 by AnimDesk.

Frank Abney - Character Animator

Frank Abney works as an Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, a job he he took after leaving 'Eidos Interactive' - 'Crystal Dynamics' Studios, where he worked on the "Tomb Raider" game, a position he took after working at Lightstream Animation Studios as a character animator for a TV show pilot.

Frank grew up in a Suisun, a small from Alameda, CA. He got into the animation business shortly after getting out of college. He learned a lot about all aspects of animation production, until one of his career advisors at the school gave his reel to a company that did online games, which then hired him as a 3d Artist/Animator.

Frank is responsible for character creation, shading, lighting, hair, animation, and rendering and a lot more! His latest works includes "Frozen", and Disney's "Big Hero 6"

Thank you very much Frank Abney for this interview, would you like to start by telling us a little about yourself?

No problem! Well, I’ve been animating for about 6 years- 4 years professionally, specializing in character performance. When I’m not animating I like to develop stories, watch movies, hang out with my girlfriend, ride my bike.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?

I was born in Alameda, CA, and grew up in a small city called Suisun. So I’ve been in the bay area all my life. I got into the animation business shortly after getting out of college. One of the career advisors at the school gave my reel to a company that did online games. I learned a lot about all aspects of animation production, so I was hired as a 3d Artist/Animator. I was responsible for character creation, shading, lighting, hair, animation, and rendering. It was a lot haha!

Did you draw a lot growing up?

Oh yeah! I would draw all the time! I drew Looney tunes characters mostly, then as I got older I began creating my own characters, and drawing people. Haha, my mom tells me that I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I’m a bit out of practice now, but I always sketch out the planning for my animation.

Which animation school did you go to?

I started out taking the Animation program at The Art Institute in San Francisco,then shortly after graduating I attended Animation Mentor and graduated from there early 2010. I’ve taken a term at iAnimate as well

How did you end up working for Eidos Interactive? And eventually animating on Tomb Raider game.

Well, when I applied to Crystal Dynamics – Eidos Interactive, I was working at an Animation Studio called Lighstream Animation Studios. We were finishing up work on a TV show pilot. I saw that Crystal Dynamics had a job posting up for an Animator position. I knew that they worked on the past Tomb Raider games, and I remembered playing Tomb Raider as a kid, so I thought I’d apply and see what happens. I got an email from one of the recruiters, and then took a test for them, then I was brought in for an interview. Now here I am- I’ve been here since August of 2010, time flies!

I remember playing Tomb Raider as a kid, so I thought I’d apply for the job and see what happens.

Why did you decide to be an animator?

I didn’t actually know that an animator was what I wanted to be. I was always drawing as a kid, and watching looney tunes, and just about everything else animated. All I knew was that I wanted to be involved in that. As I got closer to college time, I realized what it was that I was drawn to in animation. It was the characters, the movement, how they appeared to be alive. I could connect with it on so many different levels. I wanted to do that!

What are some of your favourite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?

I’m proud to have been a part of all of them! Even going back to a commercial I worked on, for the Sci-fi channel, in a production class. If the work is challenging and fun, and the people are good, I’m happy!

What’s a typical day for you in the studio?

A typical day for me in the studio, as of right now finishing up on Tomb Raider,would be:

  • Getting to my desk and deleting all of the work emails that aren’t relevant to me from the previous day after I left, lol (I don’t like having a cluttered inbox).
  • Going through the day’s list of tasks and prioritizing
  • I’ll play through the level that my task is in, so I can see the issue that needs fixing, or animation that needs to be cleaned up. I’ll do this for the rest of the day.
  • I make time to go to the gym during the day, so can still fit into my clothes.
  • Around 4pm us Animators and some others take a break and play a little hacky sack outside (Or footbag, if you prefer that)
  • At the end of the day I check in with my producer to see what else I can do, then head out!

We would usually have a meeting around 10, but at the stage we’re at now, we don’t have them as often, and when we do it’s a full team meeting to discuss team-wide goals, etc.

What’s the key points you learned throughout the years when doing animation?

  • Don’t rush your work.
  • Take time to plan out your animation, and do research if needed.
  • Get feedback as often as you can.
  • Be open to feedback!
  • We all have moments where we feel like we can’t animate, but that’s the beauty of this medium. We overcome the challenges, and continue to grow!

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?

I think the most difficult part about being in this business is the front end of it when you’re trying to get in - how expensive it can be to learn. You can learn on your own, but there are beneficial options out there that can be pretty expensive.

I think the most difficult part about being in this business is the front end of it when you’re trying to get in.

Why did you decide to study animation at Animation Mentor?

I studied at Animation Mentor because I loved that I could learn from Animators that were at the studios I wanted to work at.

Do you prefer animation or modelling your characters?

Animation 100% Although I’d like to be able to have control over the look of my characters, and not have a character that EVERYONE is using.

What is your favourite 2D or 3D animated film? And why?

That’s a tough one!! If I can choose one of each, my favorite 2D film would have to be Disney’s Pinocchio because of how the animators captured the innocence in Pinocchio. The performances in Pinocchio, Geppetto, Stromboli, and everyone were top notch! My favorite 3D film is The Incredibles because the Parr family, although super, were still a regular family with regular family problems. I think Brad Bird really did a good job keeping them grounded. It was believable, it had good humor, heart, and some really nice animation. Again, this is a tough choice, because there are so many good films out there!

What are your thoughts about Anime? Are you a fan or prefer good old american animation?

I haven’t seen A LOT of Anime to form a strong opinion on it, but I have seen some really cool stuff. If there are interesting characters, and good stories, I’ll check them out.

Who influenced you mostly in the animation business? Who is your ultimate Mentor?

I’d say those who’ve influenced me the most in this business are all of the animators around me! I’m always inspired when checking out everything that people are doing. It’s amazing! I wouldn’t say I have an Ultimate Mentor, but I have a group of people I communicate with often at different studios.

Is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animator who's trying to get into the animation business?

Focus on doing work that you care about, rather than doing things that you think a studio will like. I believe that’s how you’ll grow the most, because it’s coming from your heart and mind. Studios are interested in the individual, not only the work they see. During the rough times, remember why you love animation, and find ways to keep yourself inspired!

Focus on doing work that you care about, rather than doing things that you think a studio will like.

Since we last talked, you managed to move over to Disney Animation Studios, how did it happen? Why did you decide to leave Crystal Dynamics?

I was pretty shocked when it happened. I started here in March. I got a call around January about the Talent Development program. It's a program where you're paired with mentors, and you work with them on exercises to help refine your skills.

After a certain amount of time, you have a review, and after that, there's an opportunity for you to join the production team. The animation supervisors saw my work, thought I had potential, and wanted to offer me something where they could help me iron out the kinks, and grow with them.

I decided to leave Crystal Dynamics because, although I LOVE the people I got to know there, and I enjoyed the project I was working on, I've always wanted to get into feature animation. Film has been a big part of my life. Stories in general have been a big part of my life. It's what I originally got into animation for, so I had to take the opportunity while I could.

Does it mean you had to relocate, in order to work at Disney? How’s the process like?

Yes, I had to relocate. There wasn't really a process, I just looked for a place near the studio, and started contacting offices. Disney was really helpful in providing resources, and helping to make sure everything went smoothly.

What’s the atmosphere at Disney studios? How does it feel to be the new guy around? What are the relationships between the animators at the studio?

The atmosphere at Disney has been really inspiring. I see artists that have worked on some of my favorite films, and ones that inspired me as a kid!

It felt a bit intimidating being the new guy at the studio, but it wasn't too bad. I didn't start by myself, so there were a good amount of people in different departments that started together, so we all banded together. We still hang out now, actually!

The animators are AMAZING! They are so helpful, friendly, welcoming, and just inspiring to be around. People are always complimenting each other on how they handled their shots, asking for tips, learning from one another, etc. They're amazing!

Working with a new director and staff on a new project, how’s the feeling? Was it overwhelming or natural?

It was definitely overwhelming, because prior to Disney, I've never worked on a feature film, so I wasn't sure of expectations, feature studio etiquette with the directors and supervisors, how often I show my work to people, etc. But because everyone was so helpful and understanding of how it is to be new to a company, things started to feel more natural after a while.

Did you have to adapt to a whole new animation workflow at Disney? What are the main differences in the workflows?

No huge animation workflow changes. I think the main difference has been in my thought process when I'm animating. Not necessarily workflow, but the craft, of animation. I think about my posing a lot more than I did before. Posing is important in games as well, but games tend to be more realistic these days, so there isn't as much of the "pushing", in my opinion.

I'm sure things will evolve again. I'm always learning, and getting better, I feel. So, I will keep trying to implement what I learn!

Can you tell us what are you working on at Disney? What are the plans for 2014?

I just finished animation on "Frozen" over a month ago, and now I'm doing some work for Disney's "Big Hero 6".

My plans for 2013/2014 are to just keep experiencing, learning, and growing, both in animation, and in life!

Thank you Frank for this wonderful interview! We wish you much success in your future animation business.

No problem at all, and thank you for the opportunity!