We Interviewed Jason Smith - Former Character Animator for Pivot VFX Studios

Posted at Oct 3rd, 2013 by AnimDesk.

Jason Smith - Character Animator for Pivot VFX Studios

Jason Smith worked as a character Animator for Pivot VFX Studios, a position he applied for after he successfully finished his Animation studies at AnimatonMentor.com

Jason grew up in Minnesota. After working in the field of mechanical engineering, Jason decided to peruse his old passion for animation by applying and studying "Media Arts" degree at the Art Institute of Colorado and then after studying Animation Online. Ever since he has been animating in several projects including commercials, feature films and more.

As of 2013, Jason worked on Sony Pictures latest 3D animated movie: "Smurfs 2" and "The Smurfs: Legend of Smurfy Hollow".

Thank you very much Jason Smith for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?

First off, thank you so much for the interview, I feel privileged to talk with you about animation and the animation industry from my perspective.

I have been living in Denver, Colorado since 2001 and absolutely love it here. It's definitely the coolest place I've ever lived. The weather, mountains, city and people totally rock. I have a wife, pug and two amazing, crazy and inspiring boys (3 and 5).

When I'm not plugged into my computer I love camping, hiking, disc golfing, snowboarding and mountain biking. I really suck at guitar and yoga.

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

I grew up in Minnesota and have a background in Mechanical Engineering. Growing up I loved animation but never realized that it was a realistic career choice.

I got into engineering because I was fascinated with building things in the computer. I was working for a really cool company that did giant video walls and was responsible for creating custom video displays for companies like “Disney” and “Best Buy”. I really liked it, but it wasn't satisfying the itch I had.

By this point computer graphics were starting to become a big up and coming field and I was immediately interested. I decided to quit my job, sell my house and move 1,000 miles to Denver to get a degree in Media Arts and Animation from the Art Institute.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite movie?

I definitely drew a lot growing up. Mostly watching “Calvin and Hobbes”, “Garfield”, “Simpsons” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. I enjoy the super cartoony animations and absolutely LOVE the “Looney Tunes”. I would always grab a big bowl of cereal and watch Saturday morning cartoons. It's definitely going to be a tradition I pass on!

Did you go to Art School when you decided to learn animation? Which one was it?

I mentioned starting a new life at the Art Institute of Colorado. It was an overall general degree in Media Arts so I learned a bit of everything: storyboarding, 3D modeling and lighting, motion graphics, web animation, 2D and 3D animation. I loved it all, but after my first 2D animation class I was hooked.

I suck at drawing so my 2D animations were pretty bad, and I don't mean bad-good... Hearing about people like Victor Navone being a self taught Animator is insane I couldn't imagine trying to learn animation on my own, it's already hard enough with professional instruction.

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

After my 2D animation class, I really had a blast bringing characters to life. My final animation was a guy that came across an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet and ended up stuffing his face till he puked... it was so fun and turned out terrible.

For my first 3D animation class the final was to do a minimum of a 30 second animation, I ended up doing a 5 minute music video, again terrible animation. I had a lot of 18-hour days working on it at school.

The video ended up tying for Best 3D Animation at the Reel Thing Film Festival our school would put together at the end of every quarter, putting together submitted work as a showcase from all the students. It really made all the hard work worthwhile and it's fun to look back on.

Did you have a natural talent or was it a skill you had to push yourself to learn in order to acquire?

Maybe it wasn't so much 'natural talent', but a natural love for animation that made it so I could bust my ass, persevere and eventually graduate. Twice.

Learning something new and foreign is always hard, but being away from home after 24 years not knowing anyone, anything, or the city I moved to, was a pretty drastic change for me and I was able to focus on art school and absorb as much information as I could.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

After graduating from Animation Mentor, actually while I was out at the graduation ceremony in San Francisco, I landed my first official animation job on a feature length kid film.

It didn't pay much and the movie was very low budget, none-the-less it was a lot of fun and I learned a ton. It was a remote position and the Director was in New York. So it was a new experience communicating using email and DropBox. I don't think I ever spoke on the phone to the Director more then a couple of times.

Fortunately after the first movie wrapped he hired me to do animation for the next project he was working on. This time I got to animate cars! That was a lot more fun. The first movie's characters were really hard to work with, I didn't fall in love with them, but it pushed me to be creative with how I was going to animate them, giving them as much appeal as possible.

This project demanded quantity over quality for sure. There were scenes I would work on with up to 15 characters that were 2 to 3 minutes in duration. This was a great opportunity because it was remote and part time so I could still maintain my full time position as a Forensic Animator here in Denver.

How did you end up working and animating for Pivot VFX Studios? What steps did you take in order to accept there?

It's kind of a crazy story. I saw a posting on Animation Mentor's job board for a studio in Albuquerque looking for Animators. I applied and didn't hear anything for a couple months; I chalked it up to another rejection.

One day I was talking to a friend who lived in Albuquerque and he asked if I heard anything from the studio I applied at. I told him "no" and within 24 hours I heard back from them. They asked my availability, they wanted me out in like 3 weeks. It was right before Thanksgiving and the start date was December 10th.

I still had a full time job and house in Denver, as well as my family. I knew my first few contracts would be out of state (there aren't too many studios here in Denver) so with Albuquerque being only 450 miles it was totally feasible to make that move. With my schedule I asked if it could be delayed till after Christmas, that way I could spend time with my family and give my job proper notice.

They accepted and pushed everyone's start date back to the beginning of January. I spoke with my friend and he said I could move in with them temporarily (rent free!) so it was perfect.

I packed my truck, leaving my wife and boys in Denver, and headed down to New Mexico.

Was the process of animation different in Pivot VFX Studios than in other studios you’ve been?

Since it was my first in-house job and we were fortunate enough to learn Sony Animation's pipeline and use their tool set, it was great.

We had a week of training because of their massive tool set and precise workflow; no doubt it was information overload.

Our Director kept telling us not to worry and when we began animating we would most likely only use a handful of the tools while in production.

By the end of the contract I felt very comfortable using all the tools we needed and often miss them when I'm animating at home.

What does a typical day look like for you at Pivot VFX?

It would start out with morning rounds with our in-house Animation Director, David Tart. If he approved the pass, or had minimal changes we would upload to Sony's website for review.

In the early afternoon after we submitted the shot to Sony, then the Sony Director in California would meet via webcam with David and they would review the shots. There would usually be notes so it always seemed like I was working on multiple shots and keeping them "in rotation".

At one point I had 5 shots I was working on... eventually they pulled two of them and gave them to another Animator. It was pretty overwhelming.

After our Sony review we had afternoon in-house rounds. After getting notes from Sony and then another in-house rounds from our Director I would typically stay well into the evening.

Most nights there was a small group of us that were there till 11 or midnight every night, we called ourselves the "Quarter Afters".

Average workdays were between 15 and 16 hours, but there were breaks in there and the time went by so fast.

I remember one night looking at the clock and it was 11 pm, I thought I'll stay for another hour and head home. The next time I looked at the clock it was 1:30 in the morning!

When do you wake up and what do you on average everyday at the studio?

Feature animation is a completely different ball game then I've ever experienced. It's very high demand and fast paced.

Animating for anywhere between 12 - 16 hours a day, multiple rounds with multiple Directors, and getting as many eyes on your animation as possible.

It's a lot. Luckily I brought my chess board and Pivot had setup a lounge that we played chess in, had meetings, lunch, naps or just chatted.

A few days a week our Director setup animation seminars that were so helpful and useful with what we were learning. They covered stuff from what your knees do when you stand up from a sitting position to watching old Buster Keaton silent films.

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

Working with such creative and talented Animators. Everyone was willing to help out and go above and beyond to make sure your shots rocked, at Pivot our Director purposely chose Animators with little or no experience in feature films. So all of us were in the same Animation Boat.

It's amazing how much better of an Animator you become when you're completely submerged in it. Animating all day, seminars, being around other Animators and I never once got sick of it, not even for a nanosecond.

How animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also bond after work?

There was definitely a fair share of office shenanigans going around (which I do consider bonding). But aside from all the pranks, any point throughout the day we were encouraged to walk around and ask for, or give feedback.

Putting a bunch of Animators from all over the country with different backgrounds of course we bonded, we would be silly not to.

Albuquerque is actually a really cool city with lots to do, but Fridays were usually dedicated to beer, pool and pinball downtown.

A couple weekends we went snowboarding/skiing up to Taos, biked the Bosque (an forest area that ran along the Rio Grande River) and just gallivanted around New Mexico. Overall we all had a great connection and everyone got along swimmingly! Oh, and we played a ton of chess during and after work which turned into hours a day.

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

I would say besides Smurfs, the short film I just finished animation on was super rad. People /strangers come from all over world together from networking and technology to help create a short film. The creators have been working diligently on this project for the over the past two years. There is some real talent working on this film and I can't wait to see it all put together, I'm very proud to be a part of it!

What’s your animation workflow looks like while animating? Have you adopted some cool methods while animating?

Tangents... weighted or not, that is the question. One thing everyone must establish while learning animation is his or her workflow.

Personally I've tried a few different ways and taken bits and pieces from each, thus developing my own workflow that works best for me. But let's be serious, I'm still trying to figure it out.

You have to determine what workflow works best for you; the only way to do that is by animating over and over again.

My Director, David, has 20 years experience and was at Pixar for 10 of those years. I mentioned the seminars he put on, one day he went over, briefly, his workflow and I was floored! He made it look so simple and he had the cleanest, tightest graph editor I've ever seen!!

With every animation I always pick something up, learn something new or overcome a problem I've never encountered before.

In a nutshell, here's my workflow:

  • Once I've got all my planning done and I'm ready to get into Maya and start animating. I start with rough blocking and work on the overall timing for the key poses.
  • Then start thinking about antics and overshoot, depending on each action or what the shot is calling for. I don't spend too much time in blocking, and try to animate the bare minimum amount of controllers needed to show the best pose (less keys to mess with).
  • After I feel the overall timing is working then I do 'copied pairs' with all the poses and from there go right into linear or flat tangents.
  • Now everything looks whacked and mechanical, yay! Starting with root node and animating outwards, going through section by section, frame by frame (depending on how long the shot is) and start oversetting keys getting drag, overlap, weight, spacing, timing, etc.
  • This is where it starts to get crazy for me! I'm getting better at working from the root outwards, but I still get side tracked and go out of order and end up creating more work for myself (like I said, it's an ongoing process).
  • The next pass is more polishing adding more subtle, finite movements that really bring the animation to life (eye darts, animating the tip of the nose, adding in a snarl, etc.)!

If I had to break up the timing I would say I spend 30% planning, 15% blocking, 10% splining and 45% smoothing and polishing.

Does Pivot VFX provide constant training to animators? How do they keep the level higher after every film?

I mentioned the seminars in previous questions. They were very inspiring; it's so fun learning animation!

Do you find yourself watching a film you’ve been apart of at home, cinema, or at friends place?

Usually at home, but being that Smurfs 2 was my first official Movie-Theater-Feature-Film there was a group of us that went on opening night.

Do you look for imperfections in your work or just enjoy the film while watching?

I'm constantly obsessing over the little imperfections, it's annoying but I think that's how every Animator is. It's hard not to be like that when you put so much work into every frame of animation you create, it becomes a part of you. It's a good thing for deadlines or I could still be polishing the first shot I ever animated and still not be happy with it.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what’s your preferences? Plugins? Methods?

I'm always on the hunt for great animation tools. I use tradigiTOOLS and a handful of Mel Scripts such as: arc tracker, stagger keys, ghost, grease pencil and auto tangent. Also I have a list of quick keys that work in the graph editor, they shift keys in time and value. The more tools you can effectively use the faster you can animate. Thus making you a better Animator!

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

My favorite 3D film, since the first time seeing it, would have to be hands down “The Incredibles”. It's such an epic movie; the characters, plot and animation are absolutely brilliant. I would say I appreciate it much more now having kids of my own.

As far as 2D films one of my top favorites is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” I still remember being blown away the first time seeing it. I love the animation style of the film and mixing it with live action is so cool!! That first scene when the Baby is trying to get the cookies is priceless and it cracks me up every time I see it.

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

I'm more of a fan of good ol' fashioned American Animation, I mean: “Bug's Life”, “Tangled”, “Emperor’s New Groove”, “Peter Pan”, “How To Train Your Dragon”, “Osmosis Jones”, I could keep going... I never really got into Anime. However, I did like “Ponyo” and “Appleseed”.

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

I think any field related to arts is so competitive, but with animation it's such a small, yet large community. There are Animators and Studios all over the planet and now with animation being so popular there are a lot more artists that are competing for that dream position as a full time Animator and not enough positions to accommodate them.

At the same time if you watch the credits of a big animated feature the list of Animators is typically the longest out of the whole cast. The studios definitely have the option to be as selective as they want, especially the big studios: DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, etc.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?

Absolutely!

Which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

It was a shot on “Smurfs 2”. The shot was the most advanced shot I've tackled with four characters, one sitting on the ground all were traveling in all different directions around each other and moving around obstacles on the ground, going from either idle or a walk to a run over a short distance, with dialogue.

It was a very challenging shot to say the least. I was working on it, making progress, but running out of bid days (the shot was way underbid).

Our Coordinator kept asking me about it and I kept saying it's not ready for review yet. My blocking was approved through Sony but when I went into spline mode it got really funky.

I worked on it 36 hours in 2 days trying to get it back on track. I finally showed the Director, he was really cool about it, but he decided to recast the shot.

They felt bad for under bidding it, and knew I could finish the shot, but it was out of time and he handed it over to someone with a bit more experience than me. It was an awesome learning experience and I still wish I could've finished that shot.

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

The Students and Staff at Animation Mentor. The people involved with Animation Mentor are some of the best people I've had the pleasure to meet in my life. I've met so many wonderful people, people I consider to be life long friends. The school has a very strong community and a wonderful support system.

What are your thoughts about animation nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

I feel the bar has been lifting tremendously even from a few years ago. It continues to rise at a drastic rate. Good animation is good animation though, if you compare the animation from “Toy Story” to “Toy Story 3”, there's no comparison.

Don't get me wrong, the animation in “Toy Story” is brilliant and works perfectly with the story. What I'm saying is if you have a great story and okay animation it works, but not the opposite.

You can have amazing animation and a lame story and the movie stinks. “Cars 2” comes to mind with this philosophy. In my opinion for so long Pixar was alone at the top of the mountain, now it's such tight competition if you count Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Illumination. All are creating such great films and raising the bar with each film they produce.

Summaries for the audience the experience you had in AnimationMentor, what did you learn there? Why didn’t you choose standard animation school like CalArts for example?

I had a great experience at AM. The curriculum starts from the basic and moves up, they start you with a simple ball rig and move you up with the rigs, getting more and more complex as you progress. I go into the second part of the question in a bit... but it was affordable and convenient for my personal situation.

Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your own film, teach at online school?

Of course, both sound amazing, however, I don't think I quite have the experience yet... Someday. Hopefully.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools? Do they mass produce Animators or really make a change?

I'm a big fan. With technology now it's really convenient and appealing to go online. Personally, when I started AM I was about to have a baby, working full time and finishing our basement. There's no way I could have physically attended an Animation School or campus of any sort.

After the day was over and everyone was in bed, that is when I did my Animation Mentor work, also sacrificing weekends, vacations and holidays (I was working on my short film on a family trip to Vegas from my laptop). It was exhausting but so convenient, and if it wasn't offered online there's no way I could have squeezed it into my hectic schedule.

Now there are more and more online schools, I think it's producing more Animators but the animations I've from 'kids' just graduating is so great and very impressive.

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

In my opinion they are two different mediums and they both have their pros and cons. I think the ability to have such exaggerated style, big squash and stretch poses, etc is closing in rapidly with what the 3D rigs are capable of doing nowadays. I will always have a respect for 2D animation; it's where it all began. Why can't we all just get along?!

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

Recently I just finished two big projects. One was a short film I've been animating on since September 2012. It comes out later this year and I literally just got my last shot 'finaled' earlier today!!

Another project I was working on was a minute long marketing animation for a new software company; it demonstrated how their software could help other companies.

I just got a test animation from Vivid Studios, in India I think. It's for a 26-minute short film, and it comes out next year. Lastly I just finished an updated demo reel and am already anxious to start working on the next one.

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

I'm really fond of Eric Goldberg. His energy and mindset are unique and it would be so awesome to have him as a Mentor and/or co-worker, his teaching methods are very intuitive. Watching his interviews, demos and seminars he's brilliant, passionate and tenacious!

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

Animation is very hard. It takes a big commitment and a lot of perseverance, trial and error, dedication and passion.

One thing to remember if you're thinking about an online school, because you're physically not present on a campus it's easy to become a ghost. You have to be good at time management and be a self-motivator, ultimately you get out what you put into it.

Next piece of advice is to always be networking. You never know whom you're going to meet when you're at a party, the park, a ball game or your local pub. I'm amazed at the people/connections I've made just from talking with strangers.

Lastly, make an online portfolio, keep business cards handy and keep the latest version of your demo reel on your Smartphone.