The Cycle of an Artist


Thanks to animator/writer/director and all-round nice bloke Pat Sarell for this insight.


Junior artists are fueled by passion for what they do, through they may not have the skills, technique and knowledge to do it well. So they train to become better.


Mid-level artists learn the skills to become more competent, but in doing so they also learn to follow rules, particularly those that play to their strength and help them avoid aspects of the work that they are less adept at. Their knowledge of how they should work and of their competencies constrains them, and often with those constraints the passion that once drew them to their art fades.


Senior artists have developed sufficient knowledge, confidence and have broken enough rules over their career to have freed themselves from the constraints that held them back as mid-level artists. They can now re-connect with the passion they first had, but with the ability to fully execute on their ideas.


If you’re at a place where you’ve lost the passion for what you do, don’t give up, you will find that passion again. Now’s the time to dig deep, keep learning, know that you’re on the path to becoming a senior artist and that the path may not always be a straight one.




What’s More Important?


What is more important to you? The success of the shot you’re working on, or having a sense of ownership and individual accomplishment from your contribution to it?


Very often it’s just not possible to have both. So ask yourself this question: How prepared would you be to sacrifice your sense of ownership, that ability to look back in years to come and say “I did that all by myself”, for the good of the shot?


If you’re convinced that your ideas are the best despite differences with the rest of your team, or if you’re not even inviting input from the rest of your team, is there a chance it’s just your ego potentially sabotaging the shot? Are you putting yourself before your team?


I know I’ve been guilt of this several times in the past. Have you?




Spaceships, Robots and Unrealistically-Proportioned Women.


I was a student around the time that 3D World magazine launched. As they still do today, they invited 3D artists to submit their artwork. There were 3 common themes to the pieces they printed, all so cliched that the idealist in me swore that I would never be involved in creating any of those 3 subjects. Spaceships, robots and unrealistically-proportioned women.


Of course, my first job after graduating involved creating and animating spaceships for a theme park motion ride. My first film job was on Tomb Raider II, in which I had to create and animate an unrealistically proportioned digi-double of Angelina Jolie. And one of the toughest challenges of my career was creating the animation rig for Chappie, a robot with so many moving parts and mechanical restrictions, but which had to behave and interact just like a simple human rig.


Sometimes artists need to compromise on their ideals to pay the rent. Sometimes artists need to compromise on their ideals in order to get a break that leads them on to better options in the future. And sometimes tastes change, especially when an idealist wakes up and realises that some things are popular for good reason. When done well, spaceships and robots are awesome!


Models of unrealistically-proportioned women though? Still not cool.





If the hero in our story has super human powers and can pull off crazy stunts without a single scratch or bruise, then where’s the sense of peril? Without danger, if our hero doesn’t have skin in the game and serious consequences at stake then there’s no incentive for the audience to be emotionally invested in the action.

The best stories take us on emotional roller-coasters, experiencing our protagonist’s highs and lows, fear and joy. Over the top action set-pieces may seem cool, but push it too far and you’ll deny the audience the full roller-coasters experience because there can be no fear when there’s no possibility of loss. So many Hollywood blockbusters are full of incredible action sequences that took hundreds of talented artists many thousands of hours, but leave the audience feeling… “meh”.





Shiva is a Hindu God associated with destruction and is represented as dancing so fast he creates a circle of flame around him that can destroy the world. He is one of the most widely revered and most powerful of all the Hindu gods.


Why worship destruction? Because it’s a natural part of the cycle of creation just as death is an inevitable part of life.


Sometimes destruction as part of the creative process is helpful. Sometimes it is entirely necessary. Sometimes it’s only by letting go of the things we’ve achieved in the past that we can achieve even more in the future.





Telling the story never gets in the way of your animated (or acted) characters looking good.

The reverse is not always true.

It can be very easy to lose sight of the bigger context and focus on small details of the movement, especially if you’re only animating 1 or 2 shots in a sequence. But it won’t matter how good those details are if the context doesn’t fit. When an artist tries too hard to make their work shine and stand out, rather than fitting in with the rest of the team, and the director’s bigger vision, it rarely looks good.

Get the details right, but get them right within the bigger context.





Traditional animation training places a big emphasis on silhouette. That’s totally understandable for hand-drawn animation where the starting point is to draw the outline of the character. It also makes a lot of sense in terms of screen composition.


This isn’t the 1920s any more though. For an audience watching 3D animation, the volume of the character is so much more prominent and hints so much more strongly about internal structure. The result is that weight is seen and interpreted by viewers in a very different way.


Silhouette alone can be misleading if the body mechanics and gravity involved in the movement are not also understood.