PIXAR FAQ: What do you look for in Animators?

Since I will not be posting a drawing today I'm sharing this instead.

One of the most common questions Pixar receives nowadays is, “How can I become an Animator at Pixar?”  There’s really no good answer that’s both short and useful, so we’ve put together some information to hopefully provide guidance for people who dream of being involved in the animation process at Pixar.

Pixar places the technology of computer graphics firmly at the service of the art of animation, not the other way around.  This priority is expressed clearly in Pixar’s production process, in which the Animators specialize in animation, with virtually all technical concerns handled by Technical Directors.

The implication of this structure and this value system is what Pixar looks for first and foremost in Animators – we want you to be able to bring the character to life, independent of medium.  Computer-graphic technical prowess is of course important, but the emphasis is not as strong within the Animation Department.  The reality is that computer graphic animators have no advantage over pen-and-ink animators, clay animators, stop-motion animators, etc.  So while it’s preferable for someone to have 3D knowledge, it’s not paramount.  In fact 3/4 of the Animators on Toy Story were new to computers when hired.

A common question is, “What software should I learn?”  The answer is implied by the above: “Software doesn’t matter; learning to animate matters.”  Still, you might expect that learning the software that Pixar uses would give you a leg up.  However, even this isn’t true: Pixar uses its own proprietary software.  Your knowledge of basic animation fundamentals is the foundation for your computer training, not the other way around.

What are the qualities of a good Animator?  A Pixar Animator should be able to bring life to any object or character, showing the character’s internal thoughts and feelings through its physical external motion. To do this, the Animator must be a good actor.  His or her work should communicate clearly, containing simple ideas with which an audience can empathize.  The animation should be entertaining to watch, employing good timing and relying on individualized, believable characters to put forth humor and emotion.

The Animator also needs an understanding of physical motion.  Knowledge of weight, balance, overlap, texture, and form should be evident in the work.  In fact, in evaluating a prospective Animator, Pixar relies very heavily on the demo reel presented by the candidate.

You could say that three things are important in pitching yourself to Pixar (the reel, the reel, and the reel).  Other factors will of course come into play, including collaborative spirit, timeliness, compatibility with Pixar itself; but these issues never even come up unless the reel passes muster. 

Of course, the more a reel shows the qualities discussed here, the better.

We want to see your ability to demonstrate a strong sense of acting, more so than movement. Reels that show fast moving space ships, etc. are difficult to judge because we’re not able to get a sense of someone’s ability to understand physics and the fundamentals of animation.  We would much rather see a simple story line with strong acting.  We’re interested in your animation ability – not your ability to model, shade and light.

Acting is the key element and then we review reels to get a sense of weight, timing, staging, physics, etc.   People frequently ask if they should include a flatwork portfolio demonstrating their life drawing skills.  While this is nice, it doesn’t give us a sense of your ability to animate a character and bring something to life.

There are at least three other issues that can help make the reel a more effective reflection of the person behind it.

First, it can be very difficult to figure out who did what in a collaboration or group project, and correspondingly difficult to evaluate the work, unless there are clearly describable divisions of labor (see item #6 in “Putting Together a Reel”). 

Second, it should express what you want to do.  The freedom of being in school encourages experimentation and going beyond what you would normally try.  However, unless the result shows what you want to do in the “real” world, this tendency does make it harder to see who you “really” are.

Third, realize that whizzy technology is not great art.  There’s something about three-dimensional computer graphics that dazzles people until they get lost in achieving this one ray-traced effect, or adding just one more texture map.  When you finally wake up and get back to the content, there’s no time left for great animation.

Good animation is clearly visible through almost any technical limitation.  In fact, the thrill of great animation is seeing pencil lines or matchsticks and glue come to life; why would it be any different with a computer.

Or, as we never tire of saying: Computers don’t animate.  People do.

And in an effort to hit you with even more information, below are some quotes from our Directing and Supervising Animators about what they like to see in reels:

“I’d rather see 15 seconds of amazing animation than 3 looooooooooong minutes of an unwatchable film. Those 3 minutes can feel like an eternity if everything isn’t perfect.”

“You’re applying for Animation? Well—show me good animation! Show me acting. Show me thinking. Show me a character that is alive. I don’t care about lighting, modeling, shading, particle effects, or how clever you are. Blow me away with something I’ve never seen. An original character with a distinct personality!”

“Do you draw? Are you a good designer? That’s great! Make sure it’s in your computer animation as well!”

“Animation. Computer. Drawn. Stop Motion. Sand under glass. If your reel kicks arse, we may hire you regardless of the medium. We don’t want to see only computer stuff.”

“Keep your reel short n’ sweet. We watch a lot of these things in reel review so if there’s weird, older, not-so-good stuff at the beginning we might pull the tape out before your great stuff! We don’t need to see where you came from—we need to know how good you are right now. Edit down to your best stuff.”

” The classic animators were inspired by real life and all of the other films around them. And so are we. We’re not looking to hire Animation Nerds. We want people who draw from their own other experiences, from live action, and yes, from the Old Masters!”

Source: Wannabe Animator 


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