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Croods animator shares: My most adventurous animation year

by | May 17, 2013

croods animation director

You may remember Animation Mentor alumnus Nayoun Charoenchai from last year’s journey to graduation video. Even back then, you could sense the excitement in her voice … but to say that graduation was only the beginning to her crazy year would be a major understatement. Join us and relive Nayoun’s “most adventurous and craziest year” in her own voice … then join us and applaud her amazing work.

With a big woot and the entire crew so proud of you, Nayoun.

— The Animation Mentor Crew

Last Animation Mentor class: September 2011
I finished Animation Mentor in September 2011 and I spent one month polishing my demo reel with Melvin Tan, who supervised on Epic, and then sent out my demo reel to about 10 studios in October. I didn’t hear anything back from anywhere. Well, I got this rejection letter from Blue Sky Studios at the end of 2011. I was devastated. I thought I was good enough. I didn’t want to take the letter in a bad way, but I couldn’t help but doubt myself. I thought that all the hard work, effort, and time were thrown away and a total waste.

Then one night, I was surfing the internet and read inspirational advise from Animation Mentor alumnus Bobby Pontillas. He said that we have to have patience and we shouldn’t expect to get into the biggest studios right off the bat. He said that you have to just keep improving yourself, to upgrade your demo reel every six months, and to apply over and over again until you get in. I understood more than 100% what he was saying and I set my mind differently, and I started applying to local commercial studios that do lots of character animation stuff in New York City.

I received good responses from two companies that I really liked and was getting excited to work with them, but then a weird thing happened. I received an email from Blue Sky saying that a rejection letter was sent out to me by mistake and that they wanted to interview me. Jeff Gabor and Jim Bresnahan called me a few days later and they asked questions like how I would finish a shot from the very beginning to the end. The interview lasted about 10 minutes.

First day at Blue Sky Studios: January 2012
I started working as a temp animator on Ice Age: Continental Drift about two weeks after the interview. First day at Blue Sky was mostly meeting animators and a mentor who were assigned to help me. I was pretty shocked that there were so many Animation Mentor graduates and mentors, and that helped me to work in an intimidating and new environment. There was a week of training, where I learned their pipeline and workflow — then I got right in to work in the crunch time for three months.

Animation Mentor graduation: January 2012
The Animation Mentor graduation was coming up about a few weeks after I started working at Blue Sky, and I felt bad to take a few days off. I wanted to show off my skills for a possible full-time position at Blue Sky. However, my motto is to do if I have to decide between DO or DON’T DO. It’s better to regret doing than to regret not doing. So I decided to go and that turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.

I left busy work aside and arrived in San Francisco to meet my peers and mentors, and to celebrate the one-and-a-half years of crazy work I put in. I got my graduation suit on and headed to Cowell Theater in the most beautiful weather.

The graduation started with the speech from Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly, and Carlos Baena — followed by the speech from Simon Otto (Head of Character Animation, DreamWorks Animation). Simon’s speech was very inspiring and I wish I could hear again.

And it was really fun to watch who won the Student Choice Awards. I knew I was nominated for some categories and was getting a bit nervous. Then the magic happened. I won the Best Dialogue Acting Award and Mentor Choice Award. I thought Animation Mentor already gave me everything I needed to get into the industry, but wow — they gave me so much more! Right after graduation, I couldn’t believe that Simon Otto and Tiffany Feeney (Outreach Supervisor, PDI/DreamWorks) came up to me and gave me compliments on my animation and told me to apply to DreamWorks Animation. That was the most flattering thing I’ve ever heard. If I didn’t come to the graduation, all of this wouldn’t have happened.

Time to wrap up at Blue Sky: April 2012
Next day, I was back at Blue Sky to wrap up on Ice Age: Continental Drift. Working at Blue Sky was an amazing experience. Everyone was very nice and helpful, and they treat each other like best friends. Also, it was really easy to get feedback. You get feedback very differently at different studios — but Blue Sky animators help you like it’s their own shot and they push you so much. They do that so that everyone can make good shots and eventually make a good movie together. On the last day at Blue Sky, we went to a wrap party and they got me teary. I knew I was going to miss them a lot.

Hello DreamWorks: April 2012
One of the recruiters from DreamWorks called me to schedule a video interview with eight people. These people included the head of character animation and supervising animators — and I had to impress them with both my work and my personality. I heard that if one person didn’t like me, I wouldn’t make it. I didn’t know then, but sparing their precious time in their crazy work schedules and fitting all of them in that two hours were things that you don’t normally get. I’m so appreciative — even now — that they spared time to meet me for the interview.

The interview took place in a conference room they rented in midtown Manhattan and the room had a giant TV with a giant video camera and a long meeting table with many chairs. I sat down in one chair and tried to calm myself down. They showed up in pairs. I was really really nervous in the beginning, but toward the end I was relaxed and I sounded like I made more sense. The interview was for them to see me in person and to see if I can blend in well with their working environment.

It was also for me to ask more details about my possible future job. I remember I was asking many questions like what’s the normal working day like, what does the animation floor look like, how many animators there are, and how is it like to live in Glendale. And they told me about the films that they were working on.

I got most of my questions answered before the last interviewers came in, which were James Baxter and Simon Otto. It was great to see Simon again because he was the only person I knew, although I saw him once at graduation. He was very nice and told me many things about how it’s like to work at DreamWorks and how much I’m going to like it. The interview lasted long about two-and-a-half hours.

About a week later, which was the last day at Blue Sky, I received a phone call from DreamWorks Animation and was told that I got in. I was more than just happy — I was shocked. It was just so surreal.

Now a California resident and first day at DreamWorks Animation: May 2012
It was intensive work at Blue Sky plus almost four hours of commuting each day. I needed a bit of a break. I spent a month with my family back in Korea, and I got back in May to start packing to move to California.

I love adventures, so moving across the country to a city that I didn’t know anything about was such a thrill to me. I bought my first car and rented an apartment very close to DreamWorks — so I don’t have to waste any time on commuting in case overtime happens.

Next thing I know, I’m standing in front of the gorgeous entrance of DreamWorks Animation to start my first day. On the second day, I finally got to meet the head of character animation (HOCA), James Baxter of The Croods. This was my first film at DreamWorks but I knew nothing about it until he showed me some sequences. While I was watching them, I said, “Weird” and “Nice!” — and I was totally thrilled to work on the film. But I had to go through six weeks of training and then I got my first shot assigned to me.

croods animation eep

First daily at DreamWorks Animation: June 2012
Within a week, I met so many Animation Mentor graduates and mentors. I knew them by watching their critiques of my friend, or I saw their amazing demo reels. It was so bizarre to see them around me. I also met my own mentor, Steve Cunningham, who has helped me even after his class and kept in touch with me until I landed at DreamWorks Animation. And now I sit in the same dailies room and work on the same movie with him. And I finally met Thomas Grummt, my role model, who blew my mind with his dialogue shot. Thomas welcomed me to the studio. The whole thing made me feel so honored and blessed.

Animating at DreamWorks was pretty similar to attending Animation Mentor. I basically follow what I learned at Animation Mentor: Plan the heck out, shoot video reference over and over, pick the one you like the best, block, show the blocking, fix it, spline it, show again, fix it again, and final the shot. One thing different is that you need to finish a shot in a week. So basically, you need to finish one week’s assignment in one day: Monday, plan, video reference, and start blocking; Tuesday, show blocking; Wednesday, spline; Thursday, show spline; and Friday, final and polish. Also, you need to nail it every week. It’s definitely not easy to do.

I was in awe when I found out what my first shot was going to be. It was the main character, Eep, in an expression shot. I couldn’t believe James Baxter trusted me — or that maybe this was a test. But I was very happy to have the front character shot.

I remember when I finished the shot on Friday. It was an amazing feeling to hear so many great animators laughing as they watched my shot. James Baxter added to it and said, “That’s Nayoun’s first shot at DreamWorks — and we want to see much more of her great work in the future.” I couldn’t believe how nice he was.

croods animation behind scenes

Awesome wrap up on “The Croods”: November 2012
After that, I got more Eep shots — and one day, James Baxter asked me what kind of shots I wish to do. Many of my coworkers told me that I was in a great show, and they were so right about that. I told him that since I did some facial expression shots, I want to do some big body mechanic animation — and he made sure I got those shots. One shot was pretty difficult and I couldn’t shoot reference for it. I had to rely on ideas, thumbnails, and pose-to-pose animation. While I was working on the film, Sean Sexton helped me the most. He was a supervising animator for Ugga and Sandy. That’s why I visited him in the beginning, but I just kept going to him to hear his thoughts. He was so quick but dead on to solve problems.

Everybody was very nice and great to work with — and all under a great management. We didn’t do much overtime or have a difficult time with notes or changes. The directors trusted James Baxter and he trusted lead animators and they trusted animators. And the animators did a great job. I’m so blessed to have worked on such an amazing film and proud to be a part of the DreamWorks Animation crew.

I can learn more from the best: From now on
What I realized is that I am the least talented animator at the studio. I heard something like that when I graduated from Animation Mentor — that you might feel that you have it all and you feel like you know everything. But when you go to the real world and work with real animators, you feel like you know nothing. That’s exactly how I felt. I accepted the two big awards from Animation Mentor and I thought I got this. But I was basically the least talented animator here. But I think it’s a great thing, though, because I can learn more from the best from now on and I can be better.

I was working on Me and My Shadow with Mike Amos, and now I’ve moved on to How to Train Your Dragon 2. I’ll be helping out on cycle animation for a short while, but hopefully they will let me get into the character animation team and join Simon Otto and Thomas Grummt. That would be my dream for 2013.

Thanks so much for reading about my 2012 and thanks Animation Mentor for making my dream bigger and bigger each year.

All images belong to DreamWorks Animation.

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