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Education Feature: Film

Education Feature: The intricate making of animators

Simon Sellars

Jonathan Nix, Hello Jonathan Nix, Hello
Australian animators are a hardy mob. Working in an industry that’s noticeably cramped, they are largely under resourced and mostly undervalued. I recently talked to a range of animators from around the country who have had one or 2 short films screened at festivals and asked whether their tertiary experience has helped jumpstart their careers.
I first looked to Queensland, where there are some fine animators making successful short films, including Andrew Silke (director with Dave Clayton, Cane Toad, 2002) and Mark Traynor (The Shapies children’s TV series, 2002). However, they’re not recent graduates, and according to Michael Viner of Brisbane’s animation and digital production studio Liquid Animation, there is no new crop of filmmakers coming up behind them. Viner claims the Queensland scene is “pretty dead”, despite burgeoning opportunities for animators in the games industry.

Similarly, Craig Kirkwood of the Tasmanian Screen Network (RT61, p20) warns against reading too much into the relocation of production house Blue Rocket: “They moved down here some years ago from Brisbane, and while they’ve created jobs and opportunities for quite a few animators, I don’t really think that’s necessarily a trend.”

The Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF, see p22) has a component entitled Australian Panorama and a commitment to showcasing current Australian animation. However, given Viner and Kirkwood’s remarks, it wasn’t really a surprise to discover that of the 11 films screened this year in the Australian section, 8 were made by graduates from Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and RMIT.

Festival director Malcolm Turner says the panorama was as representative as it could be: “The bottom line is that Melbourne is the mother lode. This year’s festival actually had a lower than normal percentage of Melbourne stuff because we pushed as hard as we could to include material from other places. It’s the same with festivals overseas—if an Australian film turns up in an international festival, it’s 80% likely to have come from Melbourne.”

Jonathan Nix had 2 films screening at MIAF. He graduated from RMIT’s Centre for Animation and Interactive Media (AIM) with a postgraduate degree in 2002, and is currently based in Sydney working on his next film for Cartwheel Partners. He made his first animation in high school, but said it was so appalling he didn’t animate for another 20 years. What lured him back? “It was a snap decision after returning from overseas”, he says. “I liked what I saw on the AIM website—their philosophy seemed to encourage individual expression—and the lecturers asked intelligent questions during the interview. A bit too intelligent—I didn’t understand some of them—but luckily they had a sense of humour as well.” Nix was used to working in isolation, but says his tutors encouraged him to relax and open up his work to outside influences. His award-winning short Hello (RT58, p21) was developed while at RMIT and Nix still considers AIM’s Jeremy Parker to be a mentor of sorts: Parker has edited 2 of Nix’s films.

Mark Ingram works as an assistant animator at the Disney Studios in Sydney. He graduated from the VCA School of Film and Television in 2002. He chose the school because of the calibre of former graduates: “Does the name Adam Elliot ring a bell?” Like Nix, Ingram was drawn to the course’s focus on individual expression: “The course promoted personal creative growth, as well as teaching animation in its entirety—script, music, editing and so on. I was amazed at what I was able to achieve in a single year.” As the program unfurled, he found his style “shifting dramatically from a focus on technique to story and character”, an important development as “the industry is very small and you really need to be a great storyteller or you won’t get far.” Ingram adds: “The lecturers’ wealth of knowledge was highly influential, opening up pathways and possibilities I’d never imagined before. My lecturer, Andi Spark, was my mentor—and in some ways, still is.”

Ingram was influenced by Disney cartoons and is understandably pleased to now be working for the studio. Ideally, he wants to take the next step and become a fully fledged Disney animator, but he sees his time at VCA as crucial in giving him his start: “My year at the VCA is the sole reason I’m now working in the industry. I’m sure I would have found my own way somehow, but it would have taken years of fumbling around. Studios, for the most part, are only really interested in seeing a show reel or proof that you are capable of doing the job with limited or no training on their part. University is the only place you can get the experience necessary to get a job in animation.”

Xavier Irvine, another recent graduate from VCA’s animation degree, concurs. He says of the second half of the course: “[It was]...structured like a real world production. We had to submit budgets and work to schedules—just like the film I’m working on now at 3D Films. Actually, I saw the whole program as being relevant to working in the industry.”

One of the few non-Melbourne animators screened at MIAF was Bill Chen, with Placement. Chen graduated from Sydney’s Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in 2002 and says the ratio of students to tutors there was around 3 to one, “which means I got to pick my tutors’ brains all day.” He adds that the course had a substantial vocational element: “Most tutors there are industry professionals, so you get to learn the industry standard. Although the qualification itself didn’t help me get a start in the industry, the work I produced during the course did, plus the contacts I made.”

Chen says AFTRS was realistic about the limited funding and job opportunities available once study had finished. Ingram got a similar heads-up from the VCA: “Right from the start we were informed, even warned, about the unsteady nature of the industry. It was a reality check I very much needed.” According to Nix AIM was equally up front about the students’ prospects, frequently inviting professionals to speak on the state of play and organising visits to animation companies and studios. The situation was made clear—sometimes too clear: “It was quite depressing, really. However, AIM seems to have a good percentage of ex-students working within the industry, which was encouraging.”

Could the courses be improved? “Yes—with more funding” was the unanimous response. Ingram explains: “We were working on such a tight budget that it often seemed impossible to get the job done. More time would have helped too—2 years instead of one. We could then have had more in-depth training in techniques and practical hands-on experience.” Irvine agrees: “More specific technical training was something I wished we had more of, but then again you walk out with 2 films at the end of the day. Too much focus on technical issues might well impede some of the current strengths.” Chen believes AFTRS needs “less screen studies and more practical work, as well as less [interventionist] departmental policies.”

For Nix, the AIM course needs improvement of a different kind. He observes: “Some films produced through other courses end up finished to film and are heavily promoted by the course itself...there needs to be the commitment [from AIM] to look beyond video in terms of the finished product.”

All the interviewees, however, were quick to state that the institutions are doing their utmost with limited resources, and all hope the Oscar success of Harvie Krumpet might help counter the ongoing Australian cultural cringe and lead to increased funding. Yet Ingram is not confident this will happen any time soon. Globally, he says, animators are suffering greatly: “We are in transition and confusion as we wait to see what 3D will do to the industry. On top of this, we are unfortunately at the mercy of the American industry. They’re in strife, therefore we’re in strife.”

Given the generally dire financial situation, I asked the group if a tertiary education was essential to make it in animation. “Not necessarily” replied Nix, “for me, though, I needed a concentrated environment and definite deadlines in order to progress.” Ingram categorically states: “Animation is an art, not a piece of paper that gets you a job. It’s talent and experience first and foremost. Tertiary courses simply provide the environment to gain that experience.”

Ultimately, in such a tough marketplace, Nix believes animators need more than just talent: “[You need]...a functioning business head—either split your own, or find someone else’s you can borrow now and again.” The example of the Adelaide-based People’s Republic of Animation is instructive in this regard. The collective comprises 6 members, all in the final stages of tertiary study. The group’s head, Sam White, didn’t study at the VCA or RMIT. In fact he didn’t even study animation. Instead, he is due to graduate this year from the University of South Australia with a Business (Commercial Law) degree. White says the course imparts “professionalism and the ability to understand the legal framework in which a company operates.” His business acumen helped the collective in their successful application for funding from the South Australian Film Corporation and the Australian Film Commission.

White, however, is a producer, not an animator. Are the days of animators beavering away in isolation and scrapping over scarce funds over? Perhaps collective models like the PRA are the solution, with divisions of labour ensuring animators concentrate on what they do best. As well as the increased focus on technical skills suggested by the interviewees, perhaps animation courses also need to teach more ‘real world’ business skills or facilitate contact between animators and producers trained in business.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 17

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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