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April 12, 2007

IPAX Focus Feature: Barry Weiss and Robin Linn

The transition from student to employed professional can often be a little rocky. This is especially true for animators, who usually have to strike a balance between art and the realities of the marketplace. Barry Weiss, Senior Vice President of Animation Production for Sony Pictures Imageworks, believes promising young people should take the time to learn more about the industry before they apply for jobs in it. Weiss works closely with Robin Linn, Director of Animation Production for the Digital Character Group at Sony Pictures Imageworks, on recruiting students to work for Imageworks. They hire three main groups: the modelers, the character rigging and pipeline teams and the animators. And as Linn points out, these groups need to communicate constantly throughout the lifecycle of a project, so these are far from being isolated specializations. Imageworks is finishing SPIDER-MAN 3 and completing the last scenes of SURF'S UP at the moment, while other teams are hard at work on BEOWULF and other projects that remain under wraps. These obviously are huge, demanding undertakings led by the very best in the industry. Linn compares working at Imageworks to being a professional baseball player. "This is the big leagues, and the levels of differentiation between who the most successful people and the least successful are fairly fine," he says. "There are only approximately 1,200 professional baseball players in the Unites States, out of the thousands that are trying to get there. Once you get one of those 1,200 positions, there are 1,199 people like you - that are among the very best and that have the same ambitions. And even the number one guy among those still understands that it's a team." So how does a student get to be one of the chosen few? Completed projects are important, but they alone won't cinch the job. Weiss said that's because there's no way of knowing how many hours went into what an applicant is showing, or even if it's entirely his or her own work. "You have to keep in mind that this is what they're potentially capable of," he says. "But you have no idea how they are going to function in a setting with other people, how they're going to take direction, how good their communication abilities are, and how they're going to work with a budget and a schedule." The world of professional animators has changed a lot in the past decade. Linn recalls that demonstrating a walk cycle in 3D was sufficient proof of computer proficiency not too long ago. Weiss adds that today he can take it for granted that potential Imageworks employees have the basic skill sets and knowledge just by reviewing their educational background and experience. What a student needs to prove in the current state of the art is his or her ability to act - to understand, capture and convey a specific emotion. "It's not enough to show us a boy eating a bowl of peas," Linn says. "That's fine, it shows the mechanics. What you want to show us is a boy who hates peas, but is eating them anyway. And we're able to see that he hates that, just in his facial expression and in the way that he holds the spoon." That distinction has been central to Imageworks since the company was founded 15 years ago, Weiss says: "We sought to find animators who could create emotion, not just motion. Elsewhere in the visual effects culture there was more of a premium on getting the motion right. Not to take away from more creature-based films where there were areas where there was a premium for emotion, but most of the movies were about something that looked really cool, moved realistically, and went boom." This intangible factor continues to grow in importance as technology improves, because software can help do things - like timing, posing, silhouette, and keeping characters on model - that previously required extremely advanced draftsmanship skills. "There's so much the computer gives you out of the box that will mask average talent," Weiss says. "So now the subtleties of the acting need to be there, because you know that the subtleties are what the artists are putting in." Another reason for this keenly focused type of competition is that students today usually have spent many years honing their computer skills. Weiss points out that this democratization puts even more of a premium on talent and acting ability. "This is a generation that grew up with a mouse in its hand," Linn says. "In the past we had to bring animators from 2D and explain this is what a computer is, this is how email operates - but kids now know all that coming in. We don't discriminate whatsoever against 2D animators, though. A 2D animator has the skills, it's just a question of can they use he current tool of choice that we use." Weiss says it is quite common for students to have the equivalent of six to eight years of professional-level experience by the time they're ready to start their career. Anyone with enough interest and drive can acquire a computer, a pen tablet, a fairly robust animation program and everything else they need to learn and practice their art. "The eye opener for me was six or seven years ago, when I had a 6th-grader ask me for the Maya file for Stuart Little so he could get the model," Weiss recalls. "Granted this kid was off the charts, but I was just sitting there thinking, 'He knows what Maya is and he has it running on his computer at home? Oh my god!' But that's part of us looking at the IPAX program and how we build those relationships, and understanding that it's a much more open field now for where we're going to get our talent. Ten years ago basically the industry had no choice but to cannibalize itself." In addition to that guidance, Weiss and Linn have an insiders' secret to share with students interested in an animation career. "They should be aware that we look at their reel for 10 seconds. Four years' worth of work, they get 10 seconds of our time," Weiss says. "We'll see enough in the 10 seconds to either say, 'Bring this person in for an interview,' or 'Not ready for prime-time.'" Students often are surprised by that rapid assessment, especially if their work is outstanding, but switching off the reel isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means Weiss or Linn has determined whether the candidate is worth pursuing. An entirely different type of surprise is waiting for those talented few who actually get hired, however. They find themselves in a workplace where a 50-hour week is commonplace, detailed daily criticism is the norm, and hardly anything gets approved the first time. Weiss calls it the difference between being an artist and being a commercial artist. Management doesn't let anyone attend their first dailies session without someone with experience by their side as they go through this initial test of fire. "It's in a darkened theatre, they bring the shot up, and I can say from experience that when the director sits there with the laser pointer and starts dissecting, it's heart breaking," Linn explains. "But the good ones get it. They learn from it, go back and move on." This process can be particularly hard on animators because of the acting and emotions they bring to their work. "When we sit down with an animator with a reel and say it just didn't work this time, it's crushing," Weiss acknowledges. "They have gone to an emotional place and drawn deeply on something that is an important part of their life experience, and then they have to deal with someone seeing it on the screen and going, 'Nah. Didn't work.' And it can be just that callous." Weiss says those that will prove to be successful realize that the critiquing process is not a personal attack, but instead is key to attaining top quality results from the entire team. Making sure people understand this and are developing appropriately is part of the in-depth progress review everyone receives after their first six months at Imageworks. Both executives have a phrase that sometimes helps crew members remember that for all of their dedication, artistry and skill, what they're working on ultimately is a commercial product: "We strive to create the best characters and stories out there, but ultimately, a movie is two years in production, two weeks in the box office, and two-for-one at Wal-Mart." Students aspiring to work at Imageworks also need to realize that the facility undertakes an incredibly broad spectrum of work. "If you look at BEOWULF and SURF'S UP and SPIDER-MAN 3, the three big movies we're working on right now, those films are not even close in terms of theme, characters or style but we're doing them with the same crews," Weiss points out. He draws similarities to the studio system of the '30s and '40s, in which every movie drew their cast and crew from a shared pool. Choosing the best Imageworks people for any given project is a careful process that takes into consideration individual skills and preferences but which also tries to stretch people's talent and experience, all while balancing time and budget constraints. For a student whose entire life has been spent in creative endeavors, being confronted with the business and management elements of filmmaking can be an unpleasant surprise. "When students are allowed to create their own product, it's their own vision and they can take it through as they best see fit," Weiss explains. "When you're assigned to a film, all the artists in this building are trying to accomplish what the director sees. We're all trying to adhere to their idea of what the film should look like. That's an unknown to most students because they largely have never had to be paid to do what they're doing. Okay, well now we're going to pay you, so guess what? We want your voice, but it's got to be within these lines. You have to understand we are in business here. We do attempt to make money from time to time. And they're part of that process." Animators with strong personal aspirations or those who cannot work collaboratively will not be happy somewhere like Imageworks, Weiss and Linn caution. The majority of excellent animators soon find that there are opportunities for creativity within the established parameters. "The animator can add depth," Linn says. "It's like with wine - the winemaker adds all the subtleties to it, but it's still a Bordeaux." He recalls how Alan Hawkins, an animator Imageworks hired right out of the Ringling School of Art and Design, gave the ducks in OPEN SEASON a particular idiosyncratic facial tic that the directors loved. "The duck characters were kind of blah, but the duck characters became THE DUCK characters because of that little nervous tic that they had. So that happens, but it's serendipitous." Linn says that a far more common example is animators adding the shading and nuance that bring a character to life. "That's part of defining who this personality is," he says. It's what any good actor will bring to a role." The animation department requires many talented people in addition to the animators themselves, of course. Modelers are the first to apply their skills to a new character. Linn himself began as a character modeler after several years as a maquette sculptor for Turner Feature Animation and Hanna Barbera Productions, before advancing to his current position as Director of animation production. "To simplify, modelers are similar to making a marionette," Weiss explains. "Modelers build the puppet. When they're done there's absolutely nothing you can do with the puppet." Next up the pipeline are the character riggers, the people who create the technical structure to make the character move in a believable way. To extend Weiss' simile, the character riggers put the strings on the marionette. "Then the animators pick the whole darn thing up and make it act," Weiss concludes. Among the variety of other specialists are the pipeline technical directors, a group of software and computer wizards Linn refers to as the "pit crew" for the animation team. For other types of movies, Imageworks also uses cutting edge specialists like motion capture artists. They're part of an entirely different pipeline in which they apply markers to live actors, then capture the actual unique performance and prepare it for the pipe on its way to integration into the project. People with a variety of skills and experiences can find a rewarding career at Imageworks. "Someone with a creative sensibility and appreciation may start as a coordinator and get a feel for the industry," Weiss suggests. "If they have management skills, they can move up from there to departmental manager or some other senior role. Ultimately, someone has to manage the artists and guide them on their career paths." Weiss speaks from personal experience. He keeps himself up to date with all of the software and hardware within Imageworks, but is not a "hands on" artist. His background includes having planned and built Turner Feature Animation's facilities, after which he supervised that company's production facilities and oversaw budgeting and scheduling for more than 200 artists and other employees. Weiss also is an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and currently serves on the Academy's Science and Technology Council. Another way Weiss keeps himself sharp is to read "The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation" by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson at least once every year. He also frequently rereads John Canemaker's "Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation." Many people read those books to educate themselves about the industry's early days and how these pioneering creators determined the 12 basic principles of animation that remain true today. Weiss agrees that this essential reading helps him communicate with artists on their own terms. He has an additional reason, however. "I want to remind myself that the golden days of Disney had some tarnish," Weiss says with a laugh. "You know, those nine guys were competitive, there were some real jerks, there were some real egos, and they made brilliant movies. It's just about understanding that the tools have changed dramatically, but the day to day is the same."

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