Becoming an animator
by Shanna Smith
The term "persistence of vision" describes the optical phenomenon that makes animation possible. The human eye retains an image for a split second after the source of the image disappears, so when 24 frames per second of an animated film zip through a projector, the flow of motion on the screen looks seamless.
The same phrase could also be applied to the mind-set of a young (or not quite so young!) person who has his or her heart set on becoming a Disney animator. For generations, the debut of each Disney animated feature film has ignited in the minds of thousands of individuals the desire to be a part of the marvel they see on the screen.
What does it take to be a Disney animator? What spectrums of talent and elements of training are needed to produce these wonder-working "actors with pencils" called animators? We recently put these questions to Frank Gladstone, Manager of Animation Training for Disney, who works out of the Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World.
Gladstone begins by explaining that natural talent will come out at a young age. Every parent knows that a child with an artistic bent considers the family home a vast and inviting canvas. Such children "draw all the time... everywhere, on everything. They see Mommy and they try to draw Mommy. They see the dog and they try to draw the dog," Gladstone says.
Children go through different phases as they explore their skills. Three that Gladstone cites are: 1) The very young child who tries to render his or her own creative fantasies. Mom or Dad may not be able to recognize it as such, but according to the child, that blue scribble is a dinosaur eating an ice-cream cone! (And who is to say it isn't?) 2) The older child who is fascinated by visuals, who sees cartoons or illustrations and attempts to copy them as accurately as possible. (This "draftsman" stage may be difficult and frustrating - more on this later.) 3) The high school student who goes back to the beginning and gives free rein to the imagination, rather than adhering to straight copying.
"This is the bridge," Gladstone says. "This is when someone may be a serious artist. If they draw things they see - the real world - that is a big jump. The intent to interpret what they see in the three-dimensional world is, for me, the tell-all that somebody's interested in art in a serious way."
Getting to that "bridge," that third phase, though, requires passing through phase two - easier said than done.
Gladstone explains, "Most young people who start drawing are trying to make things as accurate as possible. They work very hard to get the eye right, and that's where a lot of people get discouraged.
"There's a certain strength in being an artist, he says "in that at some point every artist I know is trying to draw Mom or Dad and somebody will come up behind them and say `that doesn't look like that.' This is when many people's art career ends."
He continues, "The only time they'll draw again is if they can copy something exactly, which is why many people are good at drawing from a picture, but they can't do the other [draw from life]. The person who is strong enough to say `So what? It's my version of this'- that's another step."
Practice is paramount to maturing as an artist. "Go to the zoo and sketch: draw your friends," Gladstone suggests. "Drawing people and their animals, trying to capture something that's moving - this kind of thing comes with time. It's not something that many children do early on. It comes with experience."
Milton Gray, in his book Cartoon Animation: Introduction to a Career, recommends studying animated films frame by frame, using a VCR or laser videodiscs.
Gladstone agrees. "I had the opportunity to put an old-time print of "Pinocchio" on a Moviola and spent an entire night going through the scenes I like frame by frame and finding out how they created that movie.
"It won't teach you everything," he warns, but, "we still do that. We still study how [certain segments] were done - how did Frank Thomas approach this problem. It's a very good way to do things, but it's only one of the ways."
Hand-in-hand with practice is formal art training. A young person, brimming with talent though she or he may be, needs structured schooling to make animation a career.
"They're not going to get a job here when they're fifteen years old," Gladstone says. "We recommend not only high school, but additional schooling as well - hopefully a college degree."
This schooling would, of course, have art as its primary focus - not merely drawing, but other disciplines as well, such as painting and sculpting. Milton Gray recommends studying actors and books on acting, learning something of staging, choreography, and principles of music.
Beyond the fine arts, some background in history, geography, the life sciences, et al., makes for a more knowledgeable, flexible animator.
"You have to bring things to the table," Gladstone explains. "Half of doing Disney-style feature animation is the ability to draw, paint, run a computer, or whatever, but the other half is communication skill. We find that people who have some post-secondary education are more well-rounded, more adapted to the needs of our studio.
"We realize," he adds "that not everybody can go to college, but we seem to see more seasoned players if they have." Can you be an animator without being able to draw? Gladstone replies, "If a kid wants to do animation and he or she can't draw, there are ways to do that. There always have been ways to do that - stop-action, pixilation (which is stop-action using people instead of objects), things like that. Now there's another one, the computer. You don't have to learn to draw to learn how to animate on a computer."
He cautions, however, "Computer animators just have a very fancy electronic pencil. If they can draw traditionally, they're that much ahead of the game. In all the computer work that I've seen in my life, [work] that has really pushed the animation limits - not just the movement limits, there's a difference - the animators have either come from traditional areas or had good traditional skills."
These skills, be they traditional or high-tech, can be utilized in a variety of ways. An animated feature film employs the talents of a wide variety of artists. Animators make up a fairly small population of the people that create an animated film. There are also assistant animators; in-betweeners; breakdown, background and layout artists; effects animators; storyboard artists; visual development or inspirational artists; computer animators; and graphic designers - to name a few!
All these individuals work as a team (hence the importance of communication) during the long, arduous process of producing an animated film. Gladstone gives an example of how the artist (in this case the layout artist), director, and art director work together. These individuals interpret the storyboard into the various sets, backgrounds and foregrounds for each shot of an animated film.
"The layout artist has a lot to do with the lighting of the film, the scope, the way the camera moves through the sets," he explains. "The layout artist is in a very great way the cinematographer of an animated film, deciding what the camera is going to see and where the characters will be blocked in a scene."
The in-betweener has traditionally been looked upon as the first rung on the ladder of a animation career. Although there are exceptions, Gladstone says, "Most people come up through the ranks, starting as an in-betweener and working their way up to an animator. I think that's a good way to do it. Eventually, if they become an animator, they will have had the experience of the people that follow them up. They were there before."
So, the path is charted - now, where to go for the all-important formal instruction? There are many schools that offer good fundamental art programs and consistently produce graduates with the skills necessary to become Disney animators. These schools are by no means the only choices available to the future animator.
Gladstone speaks from experience, "If you need to go to a state school - great! Find a state school that has an art program and take the best advantage of it you can. Learn how to draw well. Draw better than everybody there. If you can only go to trade school, great! Go to trade school and do it that way."
The various roads to an animation career all demand hard work, discipline, and patience. We asked Frank Gladstone what crucial advice he would give animators. He responded, "Keep trying. Don't get too frustrated. Realize your potential, be honest with yourself, and apply yourself to whatever that particular goal is you want to reach."
It takes, in a word, persistence!
For information on the Disney Animator Training Program, please write to:
Walt Disney World Casting,
P.O. Box 10,000,
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-1000.