Animators are notoriously crunched for time, so we felt very lucky to sit down with Pixar Animator and AM alum Mike Stern! In this Q&A, Mike talks about his student experience and emphasizes the art of interpreting feedback. Read on to soak up some of this pro’s wisdom!
Student Experience at Animation Mentor
Animation Mentor: What’s your most memorable experience from Animation Mentor?
Mike Stern: I was part of the very first class at Animation Mentor and I remember how exciting it was to be there at the launch. I feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. Most of us in the first group had been trying to learn animation on our own or through various other schools that offered character animation instruction, but on a very limited basis.
When AM opened and we all grouped up in one place, it really brought out the best in people.
I think that class developed a closeness because of it. We also developed a relationship with Bobby, Shawn, Carlos and the staff at AM because of how responsive they were to our feedback. It really felt like they wanted to make a school that was different. That was refreshing for folks coming from the typical avenues of study.
My most memorable experience had to be the very first AM BBQ at Crissy Field. At that point, our group had spent a lot of time interacting online and for a lot of us this was the first time that we met in person. We spent most of the day hanging outdoors and matching online names with actual faces. That night we met up at the Mint and sang karaoke. It’s crazy to me to think that was fifteen years ago. I just can’t believe that much time has passed. I am still in touch with a lot of the folks that I met that day.
AM: What did you learn from AM that helped you get to where you are now?
MS: One of the most valuable things that I learned at AM was how to interpret feedback. The site was designed so that the whole school could see and comment on the work that was submitted each week. This meant that each student would frequently receive feedback from multiple sources in addition to their instructor. I felt that each week, it was my responsibility to parse the feedback, then prioritize certain notes and address them in my work.
This process is very similar to the Dailies environment in a professional setting. The animator will get notes from the film’s director and their fellow animators, as well as various other sources over the course of a shot.
One of the most valuable things that I learned at AM was how to interpret feedback…There is an art to interpreting feedback and using it to plus your work.
There is an art to interpreting feedback and using it to plus your work. I am glad that I was able to have that experience at AM and wrap my head around that concept early on.
Advice for New Animators
AM: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to current students?
MS: I think the best advice is to be patient with yourself. Most of us get into animation because we see animated films that inspire us and the tendency is to want to be able to replicate that quality of work right away. The learning process takes time and it’s easy to get strangled by your own ambition. I would say always take on less, but do more with it. Build yourself up one step at a time. Animation is loaded with so many different aspects and each one of those aspects takes specific focus in order to develop.
I would say always take on less, but do more with it. Build yourself up one step at a time. Animation is loaded with so many different aspects and each one of those aspects takes specific focus in order to develop.
I have also observed that we are a group that tends to be hard on ourselves. We get fixated on the things that we aren’t understanding more often than we acknowledge the things we are doing right. I would encourage you up and coming animators to be kind to yourselves. Give yourself credit for what you have learned and allow yourself time to develop on the ideas and techniques that you haven’t quite mastered yet.
AM: Have you seen a piece of animation recently that inspired you? What was it?
MS: My kids have been obsessed with My Neighbor Totoro for a while now, so I watch it A LOT. There is so much simplicity and charm to that film and I don’t think that I could ever get sick of it. My kids laugh at the same parts every time and even play along with some of the scenes.
I find this inspiring because it reminds me about why we do this job. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the frame by frame and making things look slick that we lose sight of the importance of simply being truthful and entertaining to an audience.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the frame by frame and making things look slick that we lose sight of the importance of simply being truthful and entertaining to an audience.
AM: What do you love about animation?
MS: There is so much that I love about animation. I still get excited every time new shots land on my plate. I love the process of trying to build a connection to the characters in the moments that I am given. I feel that every time I engage in this process it is an opportunity to try to learn something new.
I often think deeply about what we do for a living and the value it provides. Recent events have made me re-evaluate even more. There are days where it is difficult to sit in front of a computer when you know that there are certainly more impactful ways that you could be spending your time.
I think it is easier for audiences to identify and empathize with animated characters because we are not trying to portray real life. That gives us a truly unique opportunity to communicate.
What I always come back around to is just how universal animation can be. I think it is easier for audiences to identify and empathize with animated characters because we are not trying to portray real life. That gives us a truly unique opportunity to communicate.
For Coco, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that an animated film based on a family in Mexico would resonate so deeply with people in other countries with different cultures. Ultimately, it shows that from an emotional perspective, we are all much more alike than we are different and I think creating work that exemplifies that is of so much importance right now. I do love that about animation and it makes me proud to be able to do it for a living.
Get to Know Mike
Animator, Pixar Animation Studios
Mike has been working in the animation industry since 2003. After starting in commercials and games, Mike was hired at Dreamworks Animation where he spent the following 7 years. His credits include Bee Movie, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens, How To Train Your Dragon, Puss in Boots, Rise of the Guardians, The Croods and How to Train Your Dragon 2.
In 2013, Mike left DreamWorks to join the team at Pixar Animation Studios where he contributed to their next 9 releases. These films include Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Coco, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Onward and Soul.
You can check out his work on Vimeo.
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