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From Student to Sony to Smurfs: An Animation Mentor graduate’s journey

by | May 2, 2013

Animation Mentor Alumni Nic Cabana

Nic Cabana is an Animation Mentor graduate and the latest in a long line of alumni currently working at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Nic took a moment from his busy schedule to share his animation journey with the entire Animation Mentor community. Thanks for sharing the experience with all of us, Nic. A big woot to you.

— The Animation Mentor Crew

Movies have always been a major part of my life. When I was young, I never got tired of watching my favorite films over and over again. I wanted to relive those adventures with the characters that I loved. The fact that you could be thrown into a world that wasn’t real for 90 minutes, filled with living, breathing creatures that were the stuff of dreams fascinated me. I was obsessed with Jurassic Park. When you’re a 6-year old boy nothing beats a T-Rex! I still remember how afraid I was when I first watched the movie. Dinosaurs were real and they were walking, running, and hunting in front of my eyes. I had to be a part of this magic. I wanted to bring monsters to life and create fantasy worlds, and I wanted to tell stories. Making movies was the perfect vessel to manifest my imagination and give it a voice. Steven Spielberg was larger than life to me and I wanted to do what he did when I grew up.

I had no idea that I was already animating
For a long time, I was sure I wanted to direct live-action films. But I spent a lot of my time drawing, another passion of mine. Sometimes I made my own little films by drawing on each sheet of Post-it Notes booklets. That seemed like it was simpler than trying to get my hands on a camera and tape. I had no idea that I was already animating. Years later, I was accepted into the animation program in college — after being rejected from film production. I was relieved, but confused. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it had the word “film” in it and I figured it would be a good start.

I looked up the Student Showcases and was blown away by the quality
I was looking for proper guidance, and university focused a lot of its curriculum on experimental and abstract animation, as well as independent filmmaking. I came across Animation Mentor by chance. We had a conference in Montreal in which one of the mentors gave a couple of lectures on-site. I looked up the Student Showcases and was blown away by the quality. After a lot of research I finally decided to give Animation Mentor a shot. To this day, I will always look back and consider that choice a life-changing decision.

Luck, timing, and really cool people
I was already really familiar with Sony Pictures Animation’s work and Surf’s Up is actually one of my favorite animated features. As I was graduating Animation Mentor, I decided to move up to Vancouver, which was becoming one of the hotspots for the VFX and animation world. It was a friend and Animation Mentor alumnus, Fredrick Fassé (he now also works with me at Sony), who pushed me to move and let me stay at his place for a while. I will always be thankful for his tenacity.

I told one of my mentors, Mark Pullyblank, about the decision and asked what he thought of moving out there. Mark was, and remains, incredibly supportive and I owe a lot to him. He suggested that I look into Sony as he had worked there and had great things to say about the studio. Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off and they weren’t hiring for the next few months. I owe a big part of being at Sony to the mentors and friends I met through Animation Mentor. Ironically, I interviewed for Smurfs, but ended up being called in for a second interview to work on Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, for which I was hired. In large, it was the combination of luck, timing, and some help from really cool people that led to landing the job.

I learned so much on Oz the Great and Powerful. I got my first crack at realistic animation. That was pretty daunting — but thankfully I was lucky enough to have a fantastic lead and team to feed off of. You learn to adapt really quickly when you’re thrown into the deep end! Because the characters “China Girl” and “Finley” play such important parts in the film, a lot of the shots were centered on acting, which I loved. The team was amazing. It’s a rad feeling to be surrounded by people you look up to, and all of whom are willing to help out. The fact that so many animators are Animation Mentor alumni made it easy to find common grounds. Everyone I work with is essentially a mentor for me.

Hello Sony
I still can’t decide whether I was more excited or terrified when I started at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Currently, I’m working on Smurfs 2, along with many friends and Animation Mentor alumni. I can’t say much, but I will say that the experience is loads of fun. The great thing about Sony Pictures Imageworks is that you get to work on so many different types of films and styles. On one project, you can be animating monsters and superheroes for VFX, and then on the next film you’re on a SPA project (Sony Pictures Animation) working on animated feature films. That variety is so cool and it keeps it interesting while forcing you to grow and adapt.

Animation Mentor did an amazing job to prepare me
I look back at my experience at Animation Mentor all the time. I still keep in touch with a lot of my classmates (many of them now working — and it’s always fun to touch base). Every day at work I fall back on the core skills and tools I learned during the program. Animation Mentor was my first true experience with character animation, and it helped build the pillars from the ground up. The transition from school to the studio felt pretty straightforward, with very few surprises.

The relationship you have with your lead is very similar to the relationship that students share with their mentors. At the studio, you’ve got to learn to work as a team and work within sequences while being able to change your shots on the go based on notes or for the sake of continuity. I came into Sony with no prior experience working as an animator, but felt familiar within the studio environment. I think that says a lot about the curriculum and structure at Animation Mentor. They do an amazing job preparing you for that battlefield. 

Never lose sight of what it is you want
For students on that scary road to the first job, never lose sight of what it is you want. Sometimes it feels like the entire universe is working against you, and that’s a common feeling when you’re out chasing a dream! I’ve certainly felt that way. It’s important to find a healthy balance between being a dreamer and a realist because it’s that desire that’ll keep you going when it gets tough.

Familiarize yourself with where you stand and what you can change. Show people your work and look for honest feedback. When learning to animate, it’s normal to think you’re not doing as well as you’d like to. Feed off that energy and turn it around. Get those “bad drawings” out of the way. Animation Mentor gave me a chance to make a lot of learning mistakes, and I can fall back to those experiences whenever I have a problem to solve. My third mentor, Mark Pudleiner, (whom I later had the privilege to work with at VanArts) told us that it’s never a waste of time to make a bad shot, because it’s a chance to learn what NOT to do (which is just as necessary as knowing what to do). I strongly believe in that and it’s important to remember what works for you and what doesn’t. You don’t need a long reel — but one that shows what you can do. My Animation Mentor reel only had three shots. I kept it short and sweet, and only left what I felt was appealing.

Don’t despair if you don’t get that job right away. A lot of it has to do with luck and timing. Look out for production schedules and if you have friends in the industry, it’s an advantage! Be familiar with when the good times to apply are. Be the best person you can be. Don’t actively search for contacts for the sake of contacts, but rather, make friends with people who share common interests because it’s important to have that psychological support. It’s not a crime to ask for help from people you trust and you know well enough to do so; but be aware that it can be sensitive. We’ve all been in that place and people in a position to help you out will want to! The community is extremely tight knit. Virtually everyone knows everyone by some degree. So be knowledgeable of that fact. Your classmates at Animation Mentor are a great place to start. Some of my best friends to this day are the guys and girls I started class with two years ago, and we help each other out whenever we can. That’s one of Animation Mentor’s defining strengths — community.

I snap back to reality, take a look around me, and smile
Being an animator is tons of work. But I’ve been incredibly happy since I began. I strongly believe it is one of the hardest things to do, yet incredibly rewarding! There are days I still have to pinch myself when I walk up to a desk with my name on it, surrounded by people who are so remarkably talented. People I used to idolize, and still do.

It’s not all magic, though. You can do really long hours and work can get crazy stressful. And every day you’ve got obstacles to overcome. What we do is incredibly subjective, and as an artist you’re prone to being a tough self-critic. The feeling that “eventually they’ll find out I can’t actually animate!” never goes away, either. But that’s what keeps you on your toes. And as hard as those days can be, I can always look back to two years ago — back when I thought that maybe I’m stupid for being a dreamer. Maybe I’m crazy for believing I can be part of those worlds. And then I snap back to reality, take a look around me, and smile.

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