Interview with ILM animator, read it here!

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  01 January 2004
Arrow Interview with ILM animator, read it here!

Hey guys, I got in touch with an animator from ILM through email and he did an interview that I wanted to do for our school's weekly newsletter and so I'm posting it here as well because it's pretty interesting stuff that anyone who wants to work in the animation feild would like to read (I would think). A while ago I posted a thread asking for any questions that you guys wanted to be asked, I used most of the questions you guys responded with. So anyways, here it is:

1. Before we get into any questions about CG and ILM, we would like to know a little bit about you. Age, what college(s) you went to, other places you have worked, recent movies your work has been in, things like that.

My name is Scott Benza, I've been with ILM for six years, I started here when I was 23, now I'm 29. I have a AS in commercial art from a small technical college in Tampa. My situation is a little unique, in that all my experience in 3D animation, and computer graphics has been self taught - I've never had any formal training in animation. I started here as an intermediate level animator, and am working now as an Animation Supervisor. I'm working on the new Star Wars film now, and have most recently finished work on The Day After Tomorrow, Hulk, Star Wars EP2, and Pearl Harbor. Before ILM, I worked at Microsoft for a couple of years.

2. What made you want to do computer animation? Anything specific you saw or heard about, or was it just an interest that gradually became something you knew you would like as a career?

The interest was gradual, but the career choice happened at one specific moment.

Everything changed the day my parents brought home an Apple II/C, complete with the monochrome green screen. I believe I was in 5th grade at the time. Since then, I have always had an interest in computers. My interest in computer graphics sparked from playing those 2D adventure games from Sierra and Lucasarts, I found it fascinating that there were tools available that were very similar to the tools used to create these video games. I started playing around with 2D animation programs like Deluxe Animation, and Autodesk Animator. When I was a sophomore in high school, I found a shareware program called The POV Raytracer ( At the time, it was entirely text based, you fed it a text description where some primitive geometry was, it's surface properties, lights etc.. and set it up to render over night. My first render took like 3 days on an ibm clone 286 machine, it took forever, but I was still amazed that I could create a 3D image that looked so realistic.

I began researching more about what was being done with 3D computer graphics at the time, and the most appealing application was what ILM was doing. I found out that they were responsible for creating the water tentacle creature in the Abyss, and that they were working on the next Terminator movie. When I was a senior in high school, I went to see Terminator 2, and left the theater knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to work for ILM specifically.

3. For someone who wants to be a modeler or animator, how much knowledge outside of just modeling and animating is required? Can someone who is more of a pure artist make it in a top visual fx environment such as ILM or does that type of position require a higher technical knowledge such as scripting / programming ability, learning new programs in a very short time, knowing various operating systems like Linux, Mac (most of us here have only used Windows for our work).

I can speak more specifically about animating, but I'm pretty sure the same is true of modeling. At ILM, what matters most is that you can demonstrate you have the talent to do the job we're looking for. If I'm recruiting, and looking at animation demo reels, all I am looking for is 3D animation talent. We believe it's an easier thing to teach an animator a different software package than it is to teach them to animate. You will find that most animation tools are very similar, and that the hardest 3D animation software package to learn is the first package you dive into. One thing that I think is important to remember, that what we do here is computer animation, that description itself implies a technical aspect and an artistic one. It's important that the animator be somewhat technically savvy, and embrace the computer as a tool. I find that the best animators we have at the company are strong both artistically as well as technically. I would suggest that if there is a question as to whether or not a particular skill is important, just think if it will make you a better animator or not.

4. As artists, do you and your coworkers feel that they aren’t given enough credit for their work? After seeing a lot of “the making of” features off of DVDs, it seems like they show so much that they can’t go into a lot of detail about how much work actually goes into something like modeling the Hulk for example. A lot of people who don’t do CG think that you just press a button and a model appears in the computer. Do you wish people knew more about the work behind the movies? Or are you just happy to be a part of the process and feel like if the audience knew how it was done that it would make it less of a believable experience for them to see it?

I can't speak for my co-workers, but I have mixed feelings about movie credits. I'm not sure where movie credits began, or why this industry feels it's important to give movie credits. I think about how many other amazing things that people create and slave over that are more important than movies, and never get credit for. I feel lucky that my contributions are noted on the films I work on, but by no means feel like it's required. Same goes for "the making of" type documentaries, the people that produce those featurettes have to make sure they are informative and more importantly entertaining and compelling. I can understand that the average viewer isn't interested in going into the small details of what we all do on a daily basis. So if an interview I shoot for one of those things gets cut because someone else gave a general description of what I later describe in detail, I don't take it personally. I am happy to be a part of the process, and get more pride out of creating a great shot than I do seeing my name in the credits.

5. This sort of goes along with #4… Do you feel like sometimes studios are raising the bar too high for themselves? That they try to do too much with a movie, making it harder to convince the audience that what they are seeing is real and not visual effects?

I think there is nothing wrong with raising the bar when it comes to visual effects. Doing things that have never been done before benefits us in many ways. It promotes innovation most importantly.

6. At ILM, what’s the difference between an animation supervisor and a technical animation supervisor?

The Animation Supervisor or Animation Director on a film is responsible for all animation related performances. A Technical Animation Supervisor is responsible for overseeing that everything animation related holds together from a technical aspect. They need to make sure the animation rigs are chained and constrained in the best way possible, they make sure all the tools are in place that will aid in and improve the overall quality of the animation in a film as well. They are also responsible for other animation related technology, and see to it that it's used where appropriate, things like motion capture and rigid body simulations.

7. One conception held by many students is that working in a large production house such as ILM, Pixar, R&H, and other big studios, that there is no time for anything but work and that the animators spend all day every day at the studio… Is that how it is? What is a typical day at work for you while working on a movie, how much time would you say you spend at work during a production?

I have heard that is true of some facilities, but it is very much not the case for ILM. ILM artists work a 45 hr work week, and are sometimes asked to work an additional 9 hrs usually at the end of a project, when things are most busy. I definitely have plenty of free time, and enjoy a social life outside of work. ILM is also very generous with vacation time.

8. Tell us about the ILM renderfarm : )

ILM renderfarm has over 2500 processors, approx 4 million mflops
Storage capacity over 80 terabytes - This is enough to store the ENTIRE printed collection of the US Library of Congress
in 2003, over 13.7 million frames passed through our pipeline (equivalent to 79 movies)
in 2003, approx 9 petabytes of data passed through our network

Number of shots completed in 2003: 2,063
Average number of takes per shot: 20
Computer Graphics Department: 460 Artists
Number of computer Rooms: 4
Average nightly data transfer render servers & file servers: 90 Terabytes
Total data backed up annually: 300 Petabytes
Main computer room uses 450kVA; enough for 500-800 suburban homes
Number of Linux based desktop machines for production: 800 +

9. We asked about technical knowledge outside of modeling and animation, but what about traditional artwork? For someone who wants to be an animator, how important is it for them to have drawing skills? When it comes to getting a job, is it just a demo reel that is looked at or do studios look for hands on art as well?

Well, I can't draw at all. I would call that more an exception than a rule. Many of the animators here can draw, and many of them come from traditional animation backgrounds. I would say it's a plus, but not a requirement. I've done a lot of recruiting with ILM, and the most important thing I look for when recruiting animators is a strong demo reel, not 2D artwork.

10. Are there any particular demo reel “do’s and don’ts” that you feel people should know before sending a reel?

A co-worker and friend of mine, Shawn Kelly has compiled a great list dedicated to answering this question. See attachment:

11. For us students, are there any kind of exercises or books you would recommend for practicing animation? Anything that you remember learning and thinking that it really helped with your animation skills? Personally I find myself doing one long animation after another (with lots of models, animation, textures and lights, sound...) instead of doing a lot of short exercises. Is one way better than the other? Or is it just up to the animator’s preference.

Chapter III of the Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Animation Survival Guide by Richard Williams, and Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair are all great for an introduction to the principals of animation. For good exercises, think of things that demonstrate balance, weight, and timing. I would suggest doing short animation exercises 5 to 10 seconds in length over doing an elaborate production.

12. And finally, and most importantly, who would win in a fight, Hulk or Gollum?? …just kidding haha.

Hulk would POUND him! That's no contest! Unless Gollum put on his ring and disappeared, then maybe he could just hide until Hulk turned into Banner and then hit him on the head with a rock or something.. (thanks to my friend Shawn)

I've attached a still from DA31, a shot I worked on for Hulk. The shot took 6 weeks to animate.
AM Signing up January!!

ILM interview thread, useful info
  01 January 2004
And here is the list of demo reel do's and don'ts that Shawn Kelly made:

1) keep it under 2 minutes. 2.5 MAX.

2) no color-bars, no 30 seconds of black

3) no flying logos - get your name up there, your contact info, and get
to the goods.

4) don't repeat your shots. If you have 5 shots, show them all, then
repeat them all again, if you want. If a shot goes by that they love and
want to see again, they'll rewatch it later. If things start to repeat,
they are going to fast-forward and potentially miss something.

5) don't break up your shots with "titles." Just show your shots. If you
feel like you really need to show black between the shots, keep it short
- maybe 10 frames of black or so

6) LABELS!!!! Be sure you label the tape, label the SPINE, and label the
box. Remember, it will end up on someone's shelf, so the spine is what
they'll see.

7) Use a new tape. You can buy 5 minute VHS tapes for really cheap. You
don't want a bunch of warbly snow at the beginning of the tape and an
old episode of Seinfeld at the end of your reel.

8) When to send your reel:

Send your reel if you:

A- hear a company is hiring

B- think your stuff is looking good and even if you heard the company
isn't hiring. (it's always good to at least get on their radar, and/or
maybe get onto the "people we want to interview when we *are* hiring" list.

C- When you feel you've made significant improvements to your reel. If
you send a reel on January 1st, but you think it's way better on
February 1st, send it again - that's totally okay. Maybe even include a
note that says your last reel didn't have your "latest stuff" so you
wanted to send an update.

9) Use a VHS tape. The world isn't quite ready for dvd yet. Almost, but
not quite. Some studios are watching dvd reels, but many aren't, and if
the reviewer has to go upstairs to some other room to watch your dvd
reel, it isn't going to happen. They'll watch the 50 vhs tapes sitting
in front of them first, and if they ever do get to your dvd, chances are
they've already found someone that matches who they are looking for.

Everyone has a VCR. Oh - and the worst thing you can do is send a
CD-ROM. The odds that the reviewer will take the time to go find a PC
that is compatible with whatever you made your CD-ROM with are slim to none.

10) Your demo reel is only as good as the worst thing on it, so only
include your best stuff. 30 seconds of kickass animation will always
beat out the guy with a 5 minute reel who had 30 seconds of great
animation , 3 minutes of so-so animation, and 1.5 minutes of crap.

11) Along those lines, only include your short film if you truly believe
that all the scenes show off your animation ability. It's really really
rare for us to see a short film where every scene is demo-reel worthy.
Usually it's 3 or 4 shots in the film that are good, and the rest should
have been dropped.

If you really want to show your short film, cut out your best scenes and
shot them at the beginning of the tape as part of your animation reel
(with excercises or whatever you have). Then at the end of the tape,
include the full film. This way, they can watch your animation, which
chances are is all they are interested in anyway, and then if they want
to, they can watch your film.

This is a double-edged sword though, so only include it if the film is
good. If your animation reel is good, but they see a whole bunch of
stinker scenes in your short-film, their opinion of you just dropped
from "wow, this animator does tons of awesome animation!" to "oh, looks
like their animation is erratic. Some of this stuff was good, but man -
some of it was really bad." Why chance it?

12) include a LOG SHEET. A little sheet in the cover of the VHS box or
glued to the inside that explains which shots are on your reel (a little
thumbnail looks classy), the timecode of where that shot is located on
your reel, and what you personally did on that scene.

13) If you are going for an animation job at a feature animation studio
- keep this in mind: TAILOR YOUR REEL to the STUDIO **and** the POSITION
you are applying for. If you are applying to Pixar, it probably isn't a
great idea to have a bunch of spaceships flying around. If you are
applying to a games job at a smaller studio, it'd probably help your
chances to show that you are multi-talented and can model a bit, texture
a bit, animate a bit, etc.

But if you're going for animation at a feature studio, do not include
any model turntables. Don't show off textures. Don't give them any
indication that your focus has been fragmented between disciplines. As
far as they should be concerned, your life is all about character
animation. They are hiring you to animate, nothing else. They could care
less if you modelled something - don't waste their time with it.

Many Anim supes prefer to see your scene in flat-shaded mode, so I
wouldn't even include any textures and stuff like that. It can make your
work harder to evaluate. They don't care about textures. They don't care
about your model - they care about how it moves and emotes.

Remember - the studios aren't looking for people who are pretty good at
a bunch of different things. They want someone who rocks the house at
ONE thing.

14) MUSIC - if you want to put music on your reel, make sure it isn't
offensive or, almost more importantly, annoying. If it's annoying or
super-loud, they are going to crank the volume down on your tape, and
if/when your dialogue masterpiece comes up, the volume will be on mute,
and if you think that they are going to stop and rewind the tape to hear
it when they have 100 other tapes to get to, you're kidding yourself.

15) That brings me to the biggest rule of demo-reels: design it so the
reviewer never has to touch the remote. You do not want them to
fast-forward OR rewind. If the tape starts and there is 10 seconds of
black, that reviewer is going to hit fast-forward and possibly end up
zooming right past your first 2 or 3 shots. Now, if there is a box full
of tapes for them to get to, they are not going to rewind and you just
shot yourself in the foot, because:

16) You need to hook them RIGHT OFF THE BAT. If they don't see something
they like in the first 2 shots, you're probably toast. The rule I like
to use is this: assuming you have 3 shots that are all almost equally
good, build your reel around them like this:

- put your second-best shot first
- put your "worst" (but still really good, hopefully!) shots in the middle
- put your best shot last.

This way, the first thing they see grabs their attention and they say,
"wow - that looked really nice." That should hook them for the rest of
the reel (assuming you don't drag them around for 3 minutes). And then
right at the end - BOOM! You hit them right in the face with your
awesome ninja work and they end the tape thinking that you ROCK.

If instead you put your best 2 shots first and then everything else,
they start out thinking "wow - that looked really nice" but as it peters
off towards the end, they are left feeling "that's too bad, they showed
a lot of potential, but the rest of the reel just doesn't hold up."

It's kind of psychological, but I think it can help a lot to set up your
reel this way.

17) Don't put anything on your reel that you don't want to do full-time
every day professionally. If you did a cool tornado effect in Maya using
particles, but you want to do character animation and hated working on
that tornade, even though it looks nice you'd be insane to put that on
your reel. There is a fair chance they'd say "Oh - we need someone to do
particle stuff!" and then boom - you're stuck doing that.

It's very easy to quickly be pigeon-holed into a position at a studio
and digging yourself out of that hole can be next to impossible.

And once you get into a studio, it is really, really, really really
really hard to change jobs. Best case scenario is that it usually takes
2 or 3 years at least to move from one discipline into another. So if
you hate tornados, don't sign yourself up for 2 or 3 years of tornados!!

18) Include a resume and a cover-letter. And for the love of God, use

19) If you have a great shot that is done to dialogue that is racist,
full of cussing, extremely sexual, etc - I would really reconsider using
that on a reel. I know a guy who did a great acting test to a line that
had a lot of cussing, and found out later that the cussing was the
specific reason the reviewer didn't recommend his stuff. The reviewer
turned out to be deeply religious and was very offended.

If it's offensive in any way, don't animate to it, and at least don't
put it on your reel. You never know who is going to watch that reel - it
could be the very person you're making fun of in your racist "jokes" or
a memeber of the religion you are putting down or the sex you are making
fun of.

I know it's kind of lame to feel like you have to censor yourself, but
if it's for a job, you'd be silly to ignore this factor.


Okay, it's number 20, but I'm making it number 1.

Do not, ever, under any situation, put someone else's animation on your
reel and try to pass it off as your own. Ever. This is the single
dumbest thing you can do in your career.

The industry is very small. We all have friends at pretty much every
major studio. I've worked with people in the past who have moved on to
many of the other big spots, such as Weta, Sony, Dreamworks, Pixar,
Digital Domain, etc. We all know what each other's shots look like. We
all talk about people who are applying for jobs at the different studios.

I've personally seen it happen two different times where someone decided
they were going to put other people's work on their reels. What happened
to them? Blacklisted at every major studio there is.

The phone calls start coming. You get a phone call from halfway around
the world from an old friend saying "hey, I'm looking at so-and-so's
demo reel and it has this shot on here. I thought you did this shot?"
And you say, "What? Yeah - I *did* do that shot!" And boom - that's it.
The odds of that person getting a job anywhere after that are slim to
none. Every studio will hear and be warned about that person. The fact
that it's really juicy gossip will only help that information travel
between the different companies at light speed...

It's the kiss of death for your career and it blows my mind that people
try it. If you have a scene on your reel where you animated one
character and other people animated the others, make sure you make that
very clear on your log-sheet.

-Tom N.
AM Signing up January!!

ILM interview thread, useful info
  01 January 2004
Great interview! I saved the demo reel tips to my computer for the future when I have to make one. Thanks for the great interview.
  01 January 2004
Very nice. I especially appreciated the demo-reel advice, and it was good to see that my demo (first one I ever made! Yahoo!) fit every criteria perfectly, including the shot structure from #16 (that just makes sense). Maybe that's why I managed to get a call back from a studio right away. Sweet deal.

I haven't read the interview yet but I'm about to. Did you OK it with this gentleman to put it up on the net for public consumption? I don't know if that's a big issue but since it does seem to be rare that people at major studios agree to interviews, it would be good to make sure you comply with what they want.

  01 January 2004
Re WhiteRabbit: Yeah dont worry, before the interview was sent I told him it would be posted on CGtalk and that it would be in our schools newsletter.

-Tom N.
AM Signing up January!!

ILM interview thread, useful info
  01 January 2004
Wow this is Great interview, and the tips for Demoreel and really useful for me like budding animator.
very tnks Tom N for sharing this with us.
  01 January 2004
Thanks for the read. That was really great!

character animator
Watch my short film: Pen' Pals
  01 January 2004
Thanks for the read. That was really great!

character animator
Watch my short film: Pen' Pals
  01 January 2004
Thanks dude

Thanks TomN,
Really appreticate it.
  01 January 2004
Cheers Tom N., thanks for sharing!

Some very interesting advice in there, some of it even a little different from the norm - 'don't need to draw' - what? All those years in art school wasted
  01 January 2004
Cheers for the interview. I think thats what we all need, to hear from the people that are having the great successes, so we can all have that to work to. Great interview, thanks for taking the time and effort to get it done and put on the forum...

  01 January 2004
Quote: Originally posted by mattmos

Some very interesting advice in there, some of it even a little different from the norm - 'don't need to draw' - what? All those years in art school wasted

Doing art is NEVER a waste of time, never ever

This is a great interview, thanks Tom & Scott!

Disclaimer: My opinions are sometimes boring.
  01 January 2004
Just to throw it out there - you guys should really pay attention to anything Scott says. Before becoming a supervisor, he was definitely one of the best animators in the company, and I've learned a ton from him!

I was glad to hear that you guys appreciated the demo reel tips! I had posted those on the cg-char list a little while back, so I still had them all ready to go... Keep in mind they are just our opinion...

And also keep in mind that some of the rules would be slightly different for you modellers out there. For example, if you're gunning for a modelling position, beware of putting any animation on your reel. They'll just want to see turntables, wireframe and then shaded (and then textured if you want), also sculptures and drawings are helpful on a modelling reel...

Anyway - it's cool to hear the tips might be helpful to someone.. The most important tip is this: Whatever you do, make sure you're having tons of FUN!

  01 January 2004
Wow Tom N.! What a great post!! Thanks to Scott too. It's always nice to hear stuff from the pros. I saved the whole thing to my computer.
  01 January 2004
Thanks Tom N.

BE CooL~*

MiN | 3d44 VFS | DRmovie 3d Artist

VFS 3d44 SLiDESHOW| Animation Short : Wuzz Up
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