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Frank Abney: From Animation Mentor to Variety’s 10 Animators to Watch in 2016

by | Nov 21, 2016

We love checking in with Animation Mentor alumni to see what they’re up to. This time we chatted with Frank Abney, former AM student and current DreamWorks animator. Learn about his journey from Animation Mentor student to working on monster films like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Kung Fu Panda 3. Get ready to be inspired!

-The Animation Mentor Crew

ANIMATION MENTOR: Tell us a little about your animation journey and why you decided to become an animator.

FRANK ABNEY: I think my journey began when I started watching Looney Tunes and drawing them as a kid. I was hooked on the medium pretty early. Watching The Lion King was the pivotal moment for me, because that’s the moment I realized how one could be affected by storytelling. It was the first animated film that I could really connect to. I lost my father when I was a kid, and I could connect with some of Simba’s journey and growth.

I decided to become an animator, because I NEEDED to be a part of telling stories this way. I didn’t really have a choice 🙂

Frank Abney DreamWorks

ANIMATION MENTOR: Walk us through what a day is like as an animator at DreamWorks.

FRANK: Strictly speaking of myself. When I get in, I usually start the day by checking emails and seeing if there’s anything I missed from the previous evening. I think it’s important to start your day off with some laughter, so occasionally I’ll listen to some stand-up comedy at the start of the day while getting into the groove of things.

We usually have dailies at 9am, but you don’t absolutely HAVE to be there if you don’t plan on showing the director anything that day. It’s still good to go, if you have the time, so you can feed off of what some of the other animators are doing—as well as learning some things about the director through other shots he’s looking at. We also have “rounds” during the day, so we can run our shots by the supervisors and head of animation.

Outside of those types of meetings, and any others that may come up, I’m pretty much just working on my current shots. I also try to get outside and take a break. A lot of times, it’s easy to get locked into what you’re doing, and before you know it, it’s time to go to lunch, or time to go home. It’s good to get up, stretch, walk around, and just get some fresh air.

ANIMATION MENTOR: What is the most challenging shot you’ve ever animated and what did you learn from it?

FRANK: I think the most challenging shot I’ve animated was back when I worked in games. It was a cinematic on Tomb Raider (2013). The idea for the cinematic was later changed which was part of what made it challenging. The concept of the cinematic had Lara Croft in a building that was crumbling beneath her. There was a lot of tumbling, then hitting the ground, and spotting a bad guy, and ending with a bit of acting. Getting the mechanics to feel right, while still trying to get a level of appeal to the action was tough, and the idea for the cinematic not being solid was both challenging and frustrating.

What I learned from this experience is that having a plan is essential to easing the journey on a shot/sequence. As animators, we have to be flexible, because like this situation, there may not always be a plan. So maybe it would be advantageous to see if we could work with the person conceiving the idea. Offer up ideas, storyboards, etc if it’s an open situation, and you can do that.

What I learned from the shot in this experience is that with complex physical shots, sometimes it’s easier for me to strip everything down to a simple object (like a sphere), to plan out my timing, and lay out the action without worrying about a full human character in the scene.

ANIMATION MENTOR: Who is your favorite character to animate and why?

FRANK: I have to say my favorite character to animate has been the kung fu panda himself, Po. And it’s not just from a technical side, even though he was great on that end too. But I love his personality! I love how he just exudes passion. He’s the ultimate fanboy and genuinely loves what he’s doing. He has a childlike innocence and eagerness to him, which makes him endearing, but he can also be fierce and get down to business!

Frank Abney’s Kung Fu Panda 3 Animation Reel

ANIMATION MENTOR: What kind of animation character would you like to see more of?

FRANK: I’d like to see more characters of different ethnic backgrounds in animation for sure. It’s good to have that diversity out there for people to connect with. I think it’s getting a bit better, but it’s still a huge thing that I feel isn’t solved. Some creators have taken this issue into their own hands, including myself… So I think more will pop up!

ANIMATION MENTOR: What are you currently working on?

FRANK: I’m currently working on a few things. I’ve been animating on DreamWorks Animation’s Boss Baby for the last year almost. I’ve also been contributing animation to some short films in my spare time (La Noria and Book of Mojo). As well as directing my own short film.

ANIMATION MENTOR: What is the most common mistake you see in student work?

FRANK: The most common mistake I see in student work is moving too much and moving without purpose. I think as animators, especially starting out, we want to show off what we’re capable of and make it great. But a lot of times we’d end up over-animating. A lot of times, less is more effective, because it gives us more of the character to connect to. We don’t have to get so distracted by the constant movement and overlap everywhere that we don’t even get a sense of who the character is. It’s just a hollow performance. In my opinion, it’s more important to convey the character’s thoughts, and what makes them move the way they do. Find quirks about yourself, or family/friends you have, and see what makes them interesting to watch. Then use it and build on it.

ANIMATION MENTOR: What advice would you give to students aspiring to become professional animators?

Frank: I think the most important thing I can say is, animate what YOU want, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable! I know it may be good to cater work toward studios you want to animate for, but animate what you want to see, not what you think studios want to see. Studios can easily hire one of the many professional animators out there that can simply do the job. But in my experience, it’s the honest personal work on your reel that sets you apart. It tells them about your choices, what you’re interested in, and just gives them an idea of the person behind the work.

As different as we all seem from the outside, we are very much the same and have many of the same experiences we don’t always talk about. So, being vulnerable and honest in the work you do just opens up the opportunity for connection.

ANIMATION MENTOR: Tell us what your Animation Mentor journey was like and what you learned from that experience.

Frank: My Animation Mentor journey was very exciting! I had just graduated from The Art Institute of California- San Francisco. Upon graduating in 2008, I didn’t feel like my skills were quite there, to get to where I wanted to be. I applied for some feature jobs, and one recruiter actually told me the same thing!

While I was at The Art Institute, I came across Victor Navone’s blog and sent a blind email introducing myself and my goal of animating in the field. He took a look at my work and gave me some honest feedback, which was great, and actually recommended Animation Mentor if I was serious about animation. I remember seeing the student showcases, and I was blown away by the work and by where the students were landing jobs—not to mention being mentored by Animation pros! While I was reluctant to start over again, after graduating from The Art Institute I applied and got started at AM. Then to my surprise, Victor ended up being my first mentor in Class 1!

I learned so much from getting back to the basics in class 1, and I was able to build a better foundation. Going through each class was always an exciting experience, from getting to work with new characters, to building a small network, and learning from more amazing animators. To this day I stay connected with Victor and just about all of my mentors from AM, and have even worked with one on a film here at DreamWorks (Greg Whittaker on Kung Fu Panda 3).

I can’t thank AM enough for what they have started for this field! It’s created so many friendships, jobs, and opportunities out there—and helped to get me in the right direction!

Inspired by Frank Abney’s story?

Start your animation journey by learning with professional animators from studios like Pixar and DreamWorks! Get more information about Animation Mentor’s Character Animation Program.

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