Online Animation School Animation Mentor
Animation Mentor CEO
Bobby "Boom" Beck
by Dell Milton
AA: Where did your love of animation come from and how old were you when you decided you wanted to become an animator?
BB: My love for animation came from my passion for exciting special effects movies like Star Wars. When I was young my mom used to take me out of school when a cool new movie was coming out so we could be the first to see it. That really helped create a “special magic” around movies for me from an early age.
When I decided I wanted to be an animator I was 23 years old.
AA: You attended the Academy of Art College now the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, can you tell us about your experience at the Academy?
BB: I did not learn much about animation when I was there; mostly I read books on animation and tried to make sense of it all. I was only there for about a-year-and-a-half. What I did find there was some of my best friends on the planet and my number 1 best friend and partner, my wife! I've heard the program has improved since I attended back in the mid 90's.
AA: If you could do it all over again is there anything you would change about your experience in art school?
BB: As far as the friends go I'd say no. If I had to do it all over again I think I would have like to have found a mentor in the industry who could have taught me the art and craft of animation so that I would learn exactly the things I needed to become a successful animator.
AA: How important is it for aspiring animators to attend College/Art School? Do formally trained animators have an advantage over self taught animators?
BB: Absolutely not. A recruiter at one of the large studios told me, “If someone graduates from a 4 year college something must be wrong. If they are a great animator they should be plucked out before they ever finish.” I know that may not be a popular belief, but it is one that I've always believed in. This industry measures people on two things:
1. skill and…
People are learning animation faster than ever. There are so many resources out there to look at, read from and be inspired by that it's not uncommon for students to “get it” quicker these days.
AA: How did you get your first paying job as an animator and how old were you?
BB: I was 24 when I got my first animation job. My first animation job was at a game studio in San Francisco.
I had put all my little animation tests onto a VHS tape, I guess you could call it a demo reel, but I didn't plan on sending it out. My girlfriend (now my wife) gave the tape to her friend who worked for a game studio looking for an animator.
You can imagine the shock/excitement when I got the call that they wanted to interview me. The interview went very well and I was lucky enough to get the job. I was so thrilled and gave many hugs to my sweet girl for helping me get my start in the industry. The timing was perfect and it was exactly what I needed at that time.
AA: Did art school fully prepare you for your first job as an animator or did you experience a lot of growing pains?
BB: My schooling experience did not prepare me for the industry in any way. I think most art schools do not. Usually you turn in your work, you get a grade and that is that. In the industry if the director doesn't like something they will tell you to start over, and over until you get it right, or worse, they'll take it away and give it to someone else.
I remember sitting in dailies, where your work is shown to the team in a screening room for review each morning at Tippett Studio when Phil Tippett stood up in front of the whole crew and confronted me about the shot I was working on and said, “What the F@$k were you thinking?!” Phil had given me specific direction before I started my shot and I had “a better idea” and did my own thing. He reamed me in front of the entire team teaching me a valuable lesson the hard way: “Your director is #1 and you must always listen to them first.”
In art school I did not learn that at all. The industry is both tough and fun. When you nail a shot it feels like the greatest thing, when you struggle you question your ability, always.
Also, I did not learn about getting and giving feedback. Feedback is such a critical component of this industry. You have to do away with being a perfectionist and your ego and know that your work will change many times before it is completed. Not even the best animators get it right the first time.
AA: You've worked for two of the companies that many aspiring animators consider The Holy Grail of animation studios Disney and Pixar, can you tell us how you landed a job at both Disney and Pixar?
BB: Disney happened by “accident.” I was working at Tippett Studio when my girlfriend (now wife) got her first job in animation in LA. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area and she was going to Los Angeles. I was super supportive and was excited for her opportunity. We flew back and forth every-other weekend for several months. At one point I felt we were beginning to drift apart and I knew I loved this girl and wanted to be with her for the rest of my life. So, I went to work one day and told Phil Tippett that I had to leave. I was going to LA to be with my girl. Phil put his hands around my neck and pretended to strangle me. We were in between projects so the timing was perfect. He told me that when I got to LA that I would have an interview with Disney! He made some calls and made it happen for me. When I got to LA I got the job and was super happy!
The project I was on at Disney (Dinosaur) was coming to an end and so was my girlfriend's project. We decided that after we rolled off our projects that we'd move back to the Bay Area to be with our friends and my family. I put my reel together and sent it to several studios. Pixar gave me a call and I went for the interview and got the job as an animator on Toy Story 2! It was a dream come true.
AA: What do animation studios look for when hiring an animator?
BB: First and foremost they look for a solid demo reel that shows them you are capable of doing the job at hand. If you are applying to be an animator at a place like Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony, Blue Sky, etc. they care very little about your ability to model, texture, light etc. They want you to be an “expert” at making characters act convincingly. That's what you would do on the job and that's what they care about. Your reel should be full of pieces that show characters acting in situations that communicate the emotions, acting and beats clearly. If it fails to do this they will pass. If it does this to a level that “catches their eye” you've made it to the next phase.
The next phase is usually the interview. This is almost as important, if not more, than your actual demo reel. If they like you and get a good feeling for you as a person then your chances of getting hired are pretty good.
Here are some of my tips for interviews. Do not be overtly confident. This can often be perceived the wrong way. Explain how you are looking to improve yourself and your abilities. Be respectful and know the work they've done and research the company so that you know intimate details in case they ask. Also, do not be the “ultimate animator geek” who watches Disney movies all day and night. I've seen studios pass on candidates whose only thing in life was animation. Studios want to know you are a person that can mesh with the team. What are your hobbies? What things get you excited outside of work? This is often asked and if animation is the only thing in your life it can work against you. Why? Well, where then can you pull inspiration from for your work? If animation is the only place then your work will look like that of everyone else's in the past. They want to see that you can add something unique to the team. These are just a few tips.
AA: Can you describe what it was like working for Disney and Pixar? How did the two environments differ?
BB: Disney is a HUGE company with all the bells and whistles; a communal lunch area where you can often see big movie stars eating lunch as they have sound stages and sets on the lot. Very cool to see and, if lucky, watch! Whatever people think of LA is totally Disney. I don't mean that in a bad way, but it is very corporate and very BIG. It's easy to get lost in the thick of it all.
When I started at Pixar there were 280 employees. It is now close to 1,000 or slightly over that. When I started at Pixar it was in a semi small building and it felt very much like a family. You knew almost everyone and everyone seemed to know you. There was a magic about it as it felt small, but it felt like the biggest thing on the planet. On Monster's Inc. we moved to the new building in Emeryville and the dynamic changed a bit. Now it was Big and felt Big. It wasn't long before people didn't know others and new faces sprouted up all over. This is not a bad thing, merely something that happens with a growing company. Pixar has worked very hard to keep the communal dynamic alive. The building is designed so that in the center there is a big atrium where everyone “flows to.” That's where the lunch area is, screen rooms and is a natural place for people to relax and hang out when needed. It does feel very big, but still special. I'm happy to see that they have gone out of their way to do their best to make a growing company feel like a connected company. They do it very well.
AA: Which films did you work on while with Disney & Pixar and what role did you play in the making of those films?
BB: At Disney I was an animator on Dinosaur. At Pixar I worked as an animator on Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Boundin' and Cars. On Monster's Inc. I was co-character developer for Boo's character (the little girl). On Finding Nemo I was the character developer for Nemo's character. I was also an animation director on a commercial while at Pixar.
AA: You left Pixar to start your own animation school Animation Mentor. Can you tell us about Animation Mentor?
BB: Animation Mentor is the extension of my growth as an animator. I can't take full credit for it as Shawn Kelly (animator, Industrial Light and Magic) and Carlos Baena (animator, Pixar) my two partners have their heart and soul in it as well. Being an animator is so much fun you get to create life from nothing and that is such an amazing feeling. While on Nemo I started teaching students on the side for fun. It was merely to test my skills as an animator and help me to develop better communication skills. What I found was a passion for teaching the art and seeing people “get it.” That part is simply more inspiring than seeing your name in the credits. It's touching someone else's life and helping them to see their potential and possibly having their dream come true of being a professional animator. All the students I taught personally went on to become professional animators, which was so exciting for them and for me, too!
During Finding Nemo I felt like I wanted to do something on my own. I loved working at Pixar, but didn't want to be there forever. I like to challenge myself and I felt that doing something on my own would be the ultimate challenge. At that time Shawn Kelly asked me to co-teach a class for him at a large art school. It was a lot of fun, but one thing I noticed was that this was a senior level class and these kids were graduating after this class to go into the world to become animators and none of them were evening slightly ready for this.
This really bummed me out because I wanted to see them succeed. I was driving home that very night after the first class with this thought in my head, “what is wrong here? How can these kids spend 4 years on their education and have nothing to show for it?” Something was wrong and it clicked in my head. The basic concept for Animation Mentor was born on my drive home that night; an online school, this would allow professional animators from around the world to teach people after work and from around the world. In the beginning it was going to have a lot to do with telephone conferencing which would have been pretty ugly. As the concept evolved I wrote a rough plan and pitched it to Shawn Kelly. He was instantly in as his passion is so contagious I knew that between the two of us we could probably make it happen, but we were missing one final ingredient, our other “brother,” Carlos Baena. The 3 of us together is what made this school happen. It was not easy to build, conceive and execute. Whenever someone was “down” the other two would pick you up and you would get the fire again and be totally motivated to make it happen.
We then started bouncing curriculum ideas off many other folks in the industry and Animation Mentor was born. The first school built by animators for people who wanted to become animators. How better to learn animation than to learn it from those who know what the studios are looking for, what they want, etc. Cut to the core of animation and cut out the fluff. And that is exactly what we did.
AA: How is Animation Mentor different from traditional animation schools?
BB: It is different in that Animation Mentor is more like a production studio than an art school. Your mentor acts as your director and they guide you and prepare you to work the way you would in the professional world. In traditional art school you have an instructor who gives you a grade and that is that. You are the keeper of your skills. In the real world and at Animation Mentor that is not the way things are done. Your work is NOT only about you. It is about the input from your peers and mentors, too. This is the way it is in the real world. My best shots were never all my ideas, they were a combination of help and input from the people around me and the director's overall vision.
Also, in a traditional class environment you typically have 3 hours to teach. In that 3 hours you have to teach a lecture, review their work and answer their questions! Yikes! Usually you get to the end of the 3 hours and you've only done one of these components successfully.
At Animation Mentor we have something we call the 300% rule.
We give 100% of the lecture to the students and they can watch them as many times as they want over a two week period of time per lecture. The lectures are taught by the best animators, supervisors and directors in the world!
We give 100% of the critique to each student. Each student gets a personal critique of their work each week! They are also recorded and can be viewed by everyone else in the school which allows you to learn from your fellow classmate successes and failures. You can watch critiques as many times as you'd like per any given quarter, too! Our feedback is done by mentors through our proprietary eCritique™ tool. This tool allows students to see a window with their work and a window of the mentor's video feed (see below). The mentor can draw on top of the student's work and also act things out with their body. This gives the student's the detailed feedback they need to improve their work each week.
And finally we give students 100% of the question and answer sessions. Each week students meet with their mentor live for a 1 hour (often longer) live Q&A video conference session. These sessions allow the students to get to know their mentors personally and face-to-face. We have been told that mentors and students create bonds more personal in this environment than in traditional classroom environments. I think it's because you don't feel rushed to cram all 3 learning components into one session. You simply get to focus your attention on each individual student, their work, their questions and their success.
In total this is what we call the 300% rule. It's something unique to our school and is why students learn animation in 18 months VS. 48 months (4 years) at traditional colleges and art schools. Our school also costs a fraction of traditional art schools and we feel the learning experience as far as animation goes is quite possibly the best in the world. I can confidently say this because our students work is available for you to see right on the front page of our website and the work looks more like the work you would expect to see from major studio's, not students! Also, many of our graduates have gone on to get jobs at some of the best studios in the world; DreamWorks, Sony, Blue Sky, Industrial Light and Magic, and so many more!
Yes, I'm enthusiastic about the school. I decided to put 100% of my effort into only because I believe in it with my heart and soul.
AA: What are the qualifications for entrance into the Animation Mentor program?
BB: Applicants must be at least 18 years of age and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, speak and understand conversational English, take a math and English test. These are the technical qualifications. Then, after that the main qualifications for us is an applicant's real desire to be an animator. What is their passion? Do they want to be an animator or a hobbyist? Animation Mentor is not a hobbyist school, we are looking for people who want to become animators.
Each application is reviewed individually and we decide who will be a fit and who will not. I will say that passion, desire and a sense of dedication are key components to being accepted. If you have these things we feel we can teach anyone animation.
AA: Could you tell us a little about the Animation Mentor Instructors?
BB: All of our mentors (instructors) are professional animators. They work in the industry at some of the best studios in the world and they are very excited about being a part of this whole unique experience. Not only are they great animators they are excited and inspired to teach and support their students through their ups and downs.
You can view a list of our current mentors and short bios on our website at www.AnimationMentor.com.
AA: What was your reason for opening Animation Mentor?
BB: It needed to happen. After several years of reviewing many demo reels for potential candidates and seeing how the work simply did not measure up to what we were looking for, I began to have a thought in the back of my head, “how can these schools produce work that is of such low quality? There has to be a better way.”
Then after co-teaching the class with Shawn Kelly (mentioned above) I decided it was time to make this happen. It was starting to get silly that the work most every art school produced was simply poor. Every once and a while you'd see a shining star and you'd hire them, but why not create an animation school where the majority of the graduates were producing work that would turn heads and get them hired? That's exactly what we're doing at Animation Mentor and I'm so very proud of our amazing graduates.
AA: Do you think traditional art schools are doing a good job training aspiring animators for the animation workforce?
BB: I can not speak to traditional art schools as a whole. However, the work I continue to see from most art schools is lacking a sense of appeal and character.
If I may, I'd like to pass on a few tips for selecting an art school. Hopefully these tips will help save some people many thousands of dollars and hardships along the way:
When choosing an art school look at the work the instructors of that school have done and are doing. Is it current? Or did they work in the industry 10+ years ago, if they are not current in the industry they can be out of touch with where it is and where it is going? Also, look at the work their students are producing. Is it getting them jobs? And if so where? If all these things line up then the school may be a fit for you.
I don't want to knock traditional art schools as I think there is a small handful of decent ones out there.
AA: How long is the Animation Mentor program?
BB: 18 months. 6 quarters that each last 12 weeks. Only one class can be taken per quarter because if someone tried to take more than one they'd probably explode. One of our classes is equivalent to a full-time load at most art schools.
AA: How would you compare the traditional art school experience to the Animation Mentor experience?
BB: At Animation Mentor we cut to the core of what people will be doing; animating. Students at most art schools may not animate for the first, second or sometimes third years! This is insane. Yes, you learn valuable skills like sculpting, painting, compositing, modeling, lighting, etc. But if people want to learn animation at a traditional art school they will usually find themselves sorely in-debt and with not a lot to show for it. Most student reels from schools have great modeling, lighting and texturing and some nice figure drawings. However, their animation usually suffers greatly because it is almost always the LAST thing they do. Typically their dream of becoming an animator gets pushed aside because they get offers to become a modeler or lighter instead of becoming an animator. This is sad, but true. I have seen it time and time again. Why spent upwards of $80k to do something you may not have wanted to do in the first place?
Our students are animating shots in their 3rd week of class! They make mistakes early and learn to overcome them as they progress. Most likely none of their early animations will be on their reel as their work always gets progressively better; and that's the way it should be.
AA: Are there any plans to open Animation Mentor campuses in the future?
BB: If you mean opening a brick-and-mortar school the answer is no. Being an online school gives us access to the world. Right now we have students and graduates who have come to us from over 50 countries. So that is like having offices in 50 different countries, but we do it all to the best of our abilities from our one central location in Berkeley, California.
AA: Are graduates of Animation Mentor prepared to enter the animation workforce?
BB: Absolutely. For instance, we had 3 students who got jobs at Sony Feature Animation to work on “Surf's Up.” They were animating shots in their second week of being at the studio! Usually training can last 4 weeks or longer! So this was exceptional. I went to visit them at the studio and they told me it was a natural extension of Animation Mentor and that they felt like they were still in school. We've heard so many of the same stories from other graduates as well.
I think we prepare them for the workforce as much as we possibly can. Each studio is unique each having their own individual nuances and pipeline, but we do think we prepare the well for the industry. That's pretty much what we're all about.
AA: Is there a large demand for Animators today?
BB: There is and always will be a demand for talented animators. Almost every day I hear of a new studio popping up doing work on games, features, commercials and short films. The industry is growing and it's not just in the U.S. Animation is growing worldwide and we think we're in a very unique and opportune place as we help provide fantastic talent to these studios no matter where they are located. It's no small task to do this, but we're doing it now and it's operating at a very impressive level.
AA: How competitive is the animation field?
BB: Competition is a state of mind. If you truly believe you want to work as an animator then it will happen. If you give up or feel bad because you got rejected 10 times then you can tell yourself, “The industry was too competitive and I gave up.” That would be a sad day because chances are you were 1 rejection closer to getting your dream job.
Stick to it and follow your dream; I honestly believe anyone can make it happen. Will you go to Pixar right out of the gate? Most likely not. But I did not go to Pixar straight out of the gate either. I knew I wanted to work there and I never took my sights off them, but I was also realistic and knew it would take time to get my work to their standards so I started in games and worked my way through the industry until I got to my dream studio.
I always find this question hard to answer because I feel it is competitive in the sense that there may be a lot of people going for the same job as you, but I also feel that it will happen if you give it the time and you practice and improve your work consistently. You can not just sit there and hope it happens. You have to make it happen.
AA: What can we look forward to in the future from you and Animation Mentor?
BB: Our Company's mission is, “to provide the most personal and fulfilling learning experience on the planet.” Everything we do is centered on that concept and will continue to be so. We are always improving the school, changing things up, adding new tools, pushing the technology to the limit so that we can make the online interactive experience the best learning experience on the planet.
We have several new projects in the works, but are too early in development to talk about them just yet. Stay tuned for more cool stuff.
AA: The number one question we are asked here at Animation Arena is the “How do I become an animator?” question. How would you answer this question if asked by a High School Senior vs. Being ask by someone older looking to change there career?
BB: The answer for both of them is actually the same. You have to decide that this is really what you want to do. Once you decide this the rest is simple. You have to find a good school to learn animation or at the very least, find someone who is working in the industry who would be willing to “take you under their wing” and teach you.
Someone told me that if you want to learn something learn from the best because it will accelerate your learning so much more than learning from someone who is only “okay” at what you want to do. I find this to be true in anything you want to do in life. Find the best and learn from them.
You're going to have to spend a lot of late nights and long hours figuring this stuff out and making your work progress. Then, once you become a professional animator you are going to most likely put in some extra hours to “prove yourself” at the company. You may also have to go home after work and continue to work on animation tests so that you can improve your skills to get to a larger studio if that is your desire. If you work in games chances are you are not going to put much, if any of your game work on your demo reel when applying to a feature film studio as they want to see more refined work with acting, dialogue etc and most game work is not at this level. That's why I explained that you usually have to work on stuff after you get home from a long day at work. As long as you know this and you have a partner who is understanding of you chasing after your dream then you will make it happen. Just know it is not easy. It takes a lot of patience and practice.
AA: Any final words of wisdom for all the aspiring animators out there?
BB: Have fun, enjoy life and be the best you can possibly be and help others along the way as it will always come back to you. Thank you for this opportunity; it was a pleasure doing the interview.