What is a Computer Animator?

Computer Animator(Photo: Kevin Fitsimons, WOSU)

Meet Joe Daniels, Computer Animator

What exactly do you do?
Basically, I create moving and/or still imagery with the help of a computer. Most people call it computer animation or computer graphics. If I am creating animation or graphics for video or the web, there are a number of different ways to approach that, depending on the demands of the project.

For example, I might create a completely 3-dimensional animation from scratch – building objects, sets, characters, props and so forth, and then moving them around within the 3-D software to create the finished product. Another possibility is to create an animation from scratch using a more 2-dimensional process to move the elements around on screen.

Still another approach would be to take live action footage and manipulate that information, by warping, distorting or morphing it.

Yet another possibility would involve a combination of the above, using compositing software and a blend of 3-D, 2-D and live action elements to produce an animated sequence. I tend to do this kind of work most often, using a blend of tools to produce the animation footage I want to create.

Describing what I do depends on the kind of project with which I am currently involved. In larger companies, it would be unusual for one person to be responsible for performing all of these tasks, but since I run my own company, I wind up being a jack-of-all-trades. Different projects have different requirements and different production pipelines, but every project I create relies on computers and computer software to help me carry it out.

Describe a typical day.
When I have a typical day, I’ll let you know. For those animators who work for larger companies, the day can be more predictable, and the job description will be more specific.

For example, in a larger company, computer animators are often given specific roles, such as modeling, lighting, choreography, surfacing, compositing, etc. They will tend to spend the majority of the day working in their area of specialization. I tend to work on all of these aspects with each project, so my typical day will depend on which stage of a project I am in. As a company owner, I will also spend some days doing purely business-related tasks, which have nothing to do with animation.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
I love that I can create something visually interesting, seemingly out of thin air, and bring that creation to life, giving it color and texture, moving it around and making it dance. It’s even more fun being able to play with that creation interactively. It’s not so much that I enjoy controlling what I create; it’s more that I enjoy bringing that creation into existence to begin with. It’s like magic in a way.

I also enjoy working with others. I get a lot of satisfaction out of using my skill set in a collaborative way to help turn a collective vision into a reality.

How do people react when they learn what you do?
Getting people to the point where they actually understand what I do is the hard part. It’s a little hard to describe in words, but when people see my demo reel, they usually get it. Then, most people seem to think it’s pretty cool. They seem to think I have a fun job, and, in a lot of ways, I do.

How did you become a Computer Animator?
It was a combination of focused college-level study with some fortunate employment opportunities that paved the way for my career.

I had an artistic background as a kid, so I started college at Ohio State as a Fine Arts major (drawing/painting). I felt it would be a good idea to supplement that background with some computer courses, too, and I had an affinity for computers in any case. Fortunately, some classes in computer animation were just being introduced during my sophomore year at OSU.

It was then that I knew the career direction I wanted to pursue. I changed my degree from drawing/painting to a personalized study program in computer graphics. During my senior year, I was fortunate enough to find part time work at Cranston Csuri Productions, a world-class computer animation company, which was located very close to OSU. I learned a great deal about the profession during that experience.

After graduating, I continued my education into the Masters program in computer graphics at OSU (CGRG, which is now called ACCAD). I also started working for the OSU scoreboard staff (after Cranston Csuri Productions, sadly, dissolved), and did a lot of traditional, hand-drawn animation, combined with some computer-animated effects. Two years later, I was working as senior computer animator for a company called Creative Connections Video.

Two years after that, I started my own company, Blak Boxx Computer Graphics; and I’ve been doing that ever since.

What disappoints you about your job?
The most “disappointing” aspect about my career, because I’m also a business owner, is the paperwork. I’d rather focus all of my time at work on animation and design. There really aren’t any aspects of computer animation that I dislike.

How has your job changed over time?
It has become more complex in some ways. When I first started out professionally, most of what I did was custom 3-D computer animation, although I had a good background with traditional hand-drawn animation from my college education. Then I added new capabilities as I went along. 2-D animation came next, along with compositing and live action manipulation, then visual effects, print design work and interactive work.

As time has gone by, each of the software programs that I use have become easier to use in some ways. But, at the same time, they have also become increasingly more sophisticated, requiring additional training. It takes a lot of time keeping up with all the innovations to make sure I’m current. I love the challenge of that complexity, though, and the variety of projects that I am able to work on because of it.

How have you changed over time?
Other than getting older? Hmm… Well, I believe that I have gotten better with time. The experience I have developed over the past 14 years at Blak Boxx, along with increasingly sophisticated software, has resulted my work becoming increasingly more sophisticated as well.

I don’t think that one should ever be completely satisfied with one’s work, though, because that can lead to overconfidence. I always strive to better myself. I guess it’s nice to be able to look back and see that I’ve done that, and that I will continue to do so.

How will your job be different ten years from now?
Computers will be faster. Software and hardware will become more sophisticated. Certain tasks will become easier and faster, but the expectations will also be higher, so it may take roughly the same amount of time to create a finished animation in 10 years that it does today. The finished results should (hopefully) be much better, though.

It’s a little difficult to predict the future with this field, though, because it is always in a state of flux. Being willing and able to adapt and to learn new skills are a necessity. Keeping up with technology is important. However, I think that technology is beginning to play somewhat less of a role than it used to play.

It used to be that audiences enjoyed computer animation largely because it was the latest “new look.” It has a certain ‘wow” factor. I think that computer animation is beginning to lose its novelty in some ways, though, which is ultimately a good thing. As it has become more commonplace, the demand for value (artistic/social/etc.) has increased.

Ten years from now, the work that I do will be judged more on these merits than on how innovative the technology is. The “wow” factor will have more to do with the creative idea, than with the technology that helped produce it.

What are some of the most important skills and abilities needed for this job?
The ability to learn and adapt is pretty important. A strong background in the visual arts is critical. I would highly recommend to anyone seeking employment in this field that they take art classes. Drawing, painting, illustration, design, photography, sculpture, filmmaking, creative writing and theater are all disciplines that are extremely relevant to computer animation.

The more you know about these fields, the better you will be at computer animation. Being a keen observer of the world around you is essential to each of these fields as well. Of equal importance is a good understanding of computers, computer science and mathematics. Physics also plays a big role.

What information do you need to keep up in your field and where do you get it?
I need to stay current with the latest software and hardware developments. I need to stay well versed in the software I currently use, as well. I also need to remain inspired.

To do these things, I read a number of trade magazines, and I visit the Internet frequently. I also visit the web sites of software and hardware manufacturers, and read the manuals and tutorials. Occasionally, I will watch training videos. I also have friends and colleagues in the business that I speak with from time to time. That helps keep me informed and connected to the larger community. There are also conferences, such as SIGGRAPH and NAB, which are good to attend to stay informed and up to date.

What advice do you have for people who want to enter this field?
Work to practice and constantly improve your drawing skills! Be a good observer and a good listener. Study the work of other artists who are successful, or who you admire. Read about their stories, and how they got into the business. Try to duplicate their work to improve your skills. Rent animated movies and go through them frame by frame. Learn and put into practice Disney’s principles of animation, regardless of whether you’re doing character animation or something more abstract.

If you have the resources, work on a demo reel (videotape, DVD or web-based), and constantly try to improve it. It will be your demo reel, more than anything else, which will help to get you hired. Also try to create a web site, and post examples of your work. Invite friends and peers to critique it. Plan on investing time and money in a college degree. A high school diploma will not usually be enough.

What do you wish someone had told you before you left high school that would’ve helped you with your career?
Think about what area of specialization might fit you best. Do you want to work in animation for entertainment, fine arts, commercial art, corporate communications, medical imagery, scientific visualization, web design, architecture, or product design? Would you prefer character animation, visual effects, broadcast design or interactive projects? Would you approach computer animation as more of a scientist, more as an artist, more as a teacher or more as an administrator? These are just some of the questions to think about and explore. Don’t be afraid to ask more questions of your own, to find out where you might fit in or where you might stand out.

If you want to strike out on your own some day, go to work for someone else first! Learn what you can from every employer you have, both from an artistic and business perspective. Take some business courses and read about the requirements for running a successful business. Don’t even think about going it alone before you’ve put in at least 5 years working and learning from someone else first. If you do decide to start your own company some day, make sure you don’t burn any bridges along the way. The people you meet along the way can be a great help to your future success or a great roadblock, depending on how you approach them. No one becomes a great success all by his/her self.