Friday, September 12, 2014

What Makes a Great Animator? James Chiang Explains

The animator who brought you surfing penguins
Animator, Director and artist James "JC" Chiang has worked as an animator on many feature films including Robots, Ice Age - The Meltdown, Surf's Up and Open Season, and was animation director on the 2008 Veggie Tales movie. He teaches animation at Animation Mentor, and is a fine artist in his own right. We asked him to talk about what, exactly, makes a great animator.

FLiP: How did you get into animation?

JC: First off, I want to thank FLiP for having me here again. This is such a great site with insightful interviews with prominent artists in the community and unique stories that really need to be heard. It's a real honour.

Sheridan College
My career in animation started when I chose to leave my career in business to go back to art school. At the time, I still didn't know that much about animation as a career. When I realized I really wanted to draw for a living, I went to Sheridan College in Toronto, Canada, whose grueling program really sets your mind straight about the need for fundamentals and the importance of drawing. It's where I saw for the first time the really rough animation drawings by Glen Keane. It was incredibly inspiring.

Then of course, I started flipping the paper, and voila! Seeing the drawings come alive, by my own hands, that did it for me. I knew then, that I've made the right choice to study animation and become a professional. My experiences, which range from being a part of Disney, Lucas, Blue Sky and Sony, and later on, the opportunity to supervise/direct overseas, all stem from that first big decision.
Nude by James Chiang. Oil & canvas

FLiP: What makes a great animator?

JC: A lot of things! But it really has a lot to do with the basics. And I mean profoundly basic things like passion, which is a real love and respect for the craft. Then, mastering the fundamentals, which requires a devotion to a sort of daily practice until it's all second nature - weight, timing, arcs, overlap, follow thru, lead & follow, etc. 

The Illusion of Life - the first book to set out The 12 Principles of Animation

Daily drawing and observation of life/reality/other art is also important - I've not seen too many animators that draw really well be poor animators. Another thing is being professional - such as being really organized with your work, being accountable to deadlines, and making solid presentations of your work to your superiors. In essence, it's about being really reliable. You don't want to stress out your supervisors/managers, you want to make their job easier. 

Another big thing is perseverance and patience. It takes a long time to become a good animator (never mind a great one!) There has to be a dedication to the craft beyond the job. Now, that doesn't mean animating all day and night, but rather, making sure your body and mind are healthy, and in the right mind set to accept and learn from criticism/mistakes, being prepared to make it through tough deadlines during crunch, or when times are slow, to keep working at your craft so that you're always getting better. This process of getting better happens a lot slower than many people would like. 

FLiP: Is animation about technology or performance? Or both?

JC: I think it's both, although as a purist, I'd like to say primarily performance. People are always excited to see or be a part of the next big thing - technologically speaking. You get that in EFX films for example. But at the end of the day, the technology is there to serve the art, and performance is where the real heart and beauty of the craft lies.  

Besides, beautiful eye candy can only hold your attention for so long, plus it dates itself. (Just watch any CG film or EFX laden blockbuster older than 10 years and you'll see what I mean.) Great performance in animation, like that in great films, music, or literature is completely timeless. My favorite animated shots are still the ones which were hand-drawn by those great Disney masters from the first Golden Age of animation.

Old technology. Timeless performance

FLiP: What advice would you give to a student hoping to learn the craft?

JC: Well, I'd say first decide that you really want this - ie. the life of an animation artist. It might take an introductory class or a semester or two at a local college or online school - but make that decision, because the career is hard. There's a lot of work involved. The industry is also constantly changing, so you have to be prepared for that. Most people don't think about these things until after they get there - and then realize that they don't necessarily like it. 

But if you know you love this craft, and you are fully prepared to do what it takes to "make it", you could be well on your way to something really challenging and exciting. You don't know exactly who you'll meet, where you'll live and how good you could become. Being a creative professional is a very rewarding experience - it's the best decision I've ever made in my life.

To see more work by James Chiang, read our interview with him here about his work in Singapore on "Oddbods"

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