From Lion King to Harry Potter: tips for making a career in film animation

Animator Alex Williams on his work, London’s VFX industry and what it takes to make it big in the movies

Can you tell us a little bit about you?

I’m an animator and cartoonist. I’ve worked on dozens on animated films including The Lion King, The Iron Giant, the three most recent Harry Potter films and The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m head of animation at Escape Studios, part of Pearson College London, where we teach industry-relevant animation skills with a special focus on London’s visual effects (VFX) industry. I also run an online animation school and write a weekly cartoon strip for The Times called Queen’s Counsel – a satire on law and lawyers.

What was your first gig as an animator?

My first animation job was on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I started off as an “inbetweener” – a very dull job that involved doing the in-between drawings that the animator didn’t have the time or inclination to do. Nowadays this job is done for us for free by computer software, but in the pre-digital era it was the way junior animators broke into the industry. By the end of the film I was allowed to do small bits of animation – mainly in crowd shots – which was how I began to learn my craft.

“The Rabbit” (as everyone called it) was a wonderfully lucky break for me – and everyone else who worked on it. Looking back, it was the start of the so-called second golden age of animation, reviving an artform that had been pretty moribund for years.

I took a year out of university to work on the film (mostly made in London), because I could see, even at an early stage, how good it was going to be. Everyone who worked on it had a sense of being on something big. It’s not often you get that on a project. Generally it’s much harder to tell what will work and what won’t. Most things don’t work out that well; there’s always so much that can go wrong on any project.

What did working on the Lion King and Iron Giant teach you?

The Lion King was also a lucky break for me. It was an interesting film to work on because, at the time, it was very much the poor relation at the Disney Studio. In the early 1990s most of the company’s top animators, including animation master Glen Keane, were working on Pocahontas. They were taking life drawing classes and learning how to work in a pioneering semi-realistic style.

As a result, no one wanted to work on The Lion King. Everyone said: “Oh, it’s just talking animals, we’ve done that before.” This was one of the reasons why someone as junior as me managed to get on to the film.

I didn’t realise we had a hit until I saw the opening scene – the “Circle of Life” sequence. When I watched the story reels, I thought it could really work, but I wasn’t prepared – no one was – for how huge it would be.

The Iron Giant was a great experience because director Brad Bird was a pleasure to work for. Most directors don’t really know what they want, or they’re reluctant to tell you.

But Brad would do his animation dailies in a big room with a white board, drawing with a dry-erase marker on the board, showing you exactly what he wanted. He would also go over your projected drawings and show where you’d gone wrong. It could be pretty terrifying, but we all taped our socks up for those dailies. No one wanted to be caught out in front of our peers. He got a great performance out of everyone as a result.

What advice would you give to a wannabe animator or VFX artist?

The animation industry is much bigger than it used to be. The opportunities are far greater. There’s much more competition for entry-level jobs and there are countless schools and universities which (in theory at least) train animators for a limited number of places.

So your priority is to get the best training you can find. Escape Studios, where I work, specialises in industry-relevant training, with much less emphasis on academic skills such as writing essays. My online school Animation Apprentice teaches those who want to break into the animation industry, but can’t commit to a full-time course.

Wherever you end up studying, make sure you see the demo reel of the student graduates. If their work is good, that suggests the quality of teaching is high, but a weak or non-existent demo reel is a big red flag.

Also, find out precisely who will be teaching the course and look up their credentials online. What films/games/TV shows have they worked on? Do they have genuinely relevant experience in their field, or is their experience mainly in academia? Remember: none of us can teach what we don’t know.

What else? Get used to showing your work, taking criticism and getting better at what you do. You need a blog or website, and your demo reel will always be a work-in-progress. It’s hard to show your work in the beginning because you will feel shy about it, but you need to get used to it. Public criticism is what the creative industries are all about.

Finally, make sure to learn to manage to work well without sleep. This is an industry of endless and terrifying deadlines.

What on the film animation horizon are you really excited about?

Our industry is changing all the time and you need to be up to speed on the latest technology, because this is often what’s driving the creative horizons.

Right now virtual reality is hot and motion capture is changing what it means to be an animator. I regularly see portfolios submitted by students with very poor technical skills and I worry about what some schools are teaching or, rather, not teaching. Being comfortable with computers is pretty much essential in our industry now, but many schools persist in teaching very old-fashioned methods and skills. Overall, the future for our industry is very bright.

Alex Williams is head of animation at Escape Studios

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Interview by Matthew Caines

The GuardianTramp

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