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From Pixar intern to Ubisoft animator: Spectra's 3D animation career

15 minute read

16/03/2021

CG Spectrum mentor Spectra shares her 3D animation career path, starting with how she got an internship at Pixar, then became an animator at Sony, followed by Ubisoft where she is a Cinematic Animator. Spectra has carved a niche for herself as a talented animator whose trademark is distinctive character animation and powerful storytelling. We hope this Q&A with Spectra inspires your own 3D animation career path!

Spectra

Spectra, your first animation job after graduation was an internship at Pixar, which is quite an achievement. Looking back, how did you get the internship at Pixar?

Yes, after graduation, the Pixar internship was technically my first paid job. I had collaborated and gained experience on other projects, but the internship definitely boosted my confidence to another level, especially since it was a goal I had set for myself.

When applying for the Pixar internship, I prepared my own case study of what Pixar likes in an artist.

I collected the work of previous intern applications, then I assessed why some got in while others didn’t, what made the successful ones stand out, and how they met the Pixar criteria.

The Pixar model is to develop a solid story and employ a high standard of acting choices. In my demo reel I targeted these elements specifically for Pixar. It was well-structured, each piece was a stand-alone, and I made sure it spoke their language.

I was aware that this was a huge opportunity and went into it with an open mind to expand on what I had learned at university.

Far Cry 6Spectra is now working on Far Cry 6 at Ubisoft Toronto

From Pixar intern to cinematic animator at Ubisoft–one of the biggest game companies–your 3D animation career path has been a successful one. What is the secret formula to securing animation jobs?

As you embark on your 3D animation career, it’s very important to do your research and study for your dream company or dream job.

When it comes to finding animation jobs there is no secret to the formula. The formula is pretty well known: Work hard and have a solid plan for where you want to go.

Target one or two companies, understand their history and target their audience. Securing a desired animation job requires a strategy, it is not something you throw stones at hoping for an outcome.

Focus on the company, understand their style, know their audience and work towards developing the skills they are looking for in artists.

What makes Pixar unique as a workplace? How have the skills you learned there enhanced your 3D animation career?

Pixar is a highly collaborative environment. They work with artists from all over the world, and they have an abundance of resources. The reason why Pixar makes the best animated movies is because they hire the best directors to work with the best artists.

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When I was interning at Pixar, Inside Out was in production and we got to sit in on the dailies. These were sessions where shots were reviewed by the director. They had sketch artists and drafts people drawing directly over 3D images as per the director’s amendments in real time, then the animators would take these notes and revise the work.

It was a humbling and intense experience to be able to sit in the same room with Inside Out director Pete Docter and Pixar animators to observe the process. We also got to attend special screenings of the film along with family members of the animators to give feedback on how the production was tracking.

At Pixar, the interns are allocated ‘Tea Time’ where they take tea, coffee and sweets to the animation department and interact with them.

This builds connections between senior animators and interns, pulling down barriers between professionals and those just starting their careers.

The skill set I acquired at Pixar definitely helped me a lot in my career, especially when it comes to training my eye to see what is good and bad animation. It taught me how to think outside the box; how to make unique shots; hone cleaner workflows; and create relatability within shots.

It gave me confidence in my animation and in the creative choices I make. The Pixar culture, with its inclusive atmosphere, gave me confidence in dealing with senior professionals. There was a sense that we were all there because we had achieved a level of excellence in our craft. I left Pixar feeling I could take on the world in my career.

spectra-reaching-outAlongside her animation career, Spectra nurtures her passion for painting

Why did you transition to the gaming industry? Was it a natural progression?

Yes it was very natural. Right after my internship I took on some unpaid freelancing gigs to expand my experience on multiple projects and to keep myself active. That’s how I kept myself in the animation game while looking for full time work.

During this time I got a call from Sony saying they needed a cinematic animator, but I was hesitant because I hadn’t worked in gaming before.

Sony had seen my reel showcasing my Pixar work and they commented on my strong keyframe skills. They said I already had the principles and strong foundations for the position, and offered to train me for a month promising I would get the hang of it.

Once I completed the month of training it was an easy progression and I really began to enjoy game animation.

I decided that I wanted to do this above film or TV animation because with gaming each player has a different experience, as opposed to the linear narrative of a film or TV show. Games allow for individual choices by the player, and it’s this interactivity of gaming that I find the most satisfying.

How advantageous is it to have an animation background when applying for gaming jobs?

It’s very advantageous. If you’re skilled in keyframe animation and know about camera angles and framing you can get into cinematics gaming.

If you can create run, walk and combat cycles you can get into gameplay animation. Experience with Unity and Unreal game engines, and coding or scripting skills are also valuable for getting your foot in the door.

How was the experience of working on Uncharted 4? You did a lot of character work on that project. Is that where you solidified your skills as a character animator?

The experience was amazing. I was a mid-level cinematic animator where I was creating complex shots and having fun with them.

I got to sit with highly experienced animators, producers and directors at Naughty Dog who were partnering with Sony on the project.

Sometimes we pulled 12 hour days but I was never tired because I enjoyed it so much I never noticed the time go by.

I definitely solidified my cinematic character animation skills on this project. I had a strong foundation from my time at Pixar, and working on Uncharted 4 required delivering highly polished animation which honed my skills even further.

What do you enjoy most about motion capture, body movement and facial expression animation? This requires an affinity for acting and directing. Are these the keys to character animation?

At Ubisoft I’m the animator/lead position of my team. I’m currently working on an interactive project that requires a lot of motion capture. What I enjoy most about this kind of work is that you get to direct your actors with the movements you want. Then you ingest that back into software such as Maya or Motion Builder and you enhance the animation.

The motion capture is the basis of what you get to work with, then you refine it with facial expressions, body movements, cleaning up the curve of action, ensuring the body animation is fluid, etc.

Directing motion capture can be tedious when trying to capture the correct emotion, actors are directed to make a series of choices to see what works and what doesn’t. You need to know the basics of acting, storytelling, facial expression, etc. I’ve learned a lot from this project and have built up the confidence to direct more motion capture.

spectra-self
How would you describe your artistic style?

I am a straight ahead animator. I work with key poses and mainly focus on the timing and the feel of the shot when compared to pose to pose. Rather than animate for the sake of animating, I put timing and the feel into the work.

When I create a shot I’m led by how the character feels and the timing of the shot, and I relate it to my real life experiences.

My style is expressive, emotional and unique. It broadens into being very interactive in that you get to connect with the characters because of the personal touch I give to them.

Key takeaway is to have an observational eye to capture real life authenticity.

spring-art-spectra

You are also a painter and have a piece - ’Spring’ - on permanent display at the Museum of New Delhi to raise awareness of the importance of women’s strength in society. How important is it to express yourself in different ways? How have you practiced your strength in the workplace throughout your 3D animation career?

The animation industry is definitely male-dominated. For example, my current animation team at Ubisoft has four women in a team of 25.

It can be intimidating and difficult to be outnumbered in this way, but I don’t let this shake my confidence. I always speak my mind and maintain a good work ethic.

Women have to work harder in the gaming industry and deliver about 30% more than men to prove their worth. My approach is to see myself as an artist first, we are all given the same resources and are constantly learning. If there is a gender imbalance in the workplace I speak to management and alert them to what is going on. It is always about being respected as an artist.

I make sure to step up and ask for the opportunity to take on bigger tasks, I’ve learned to put myself forward and fight for my own progression. Personally, I don’t let anyone put me down.

I’m always looking to up my game: I volunteer to give presentations; take on new assignments; and stay involved in the dynamics of company activity.

This is still an issue we’re still fighting to correct. The good news is that we are on the right path, but we still have a long way to go. At Ubisoft we do have events where women in the industry get together and discuss the issues we face in the workplace, taking on bigger roles and changing the industry.

What were the best choices you made when you first started out that have gotten you where you are now? What is the most vital advice you can give to students starting their careers?

Getting a Bachelor's Degree in Painting was definitely a great choice, because I come to animation with an artistic perspective, rather than as a fan of animation.

A sense of art made me see animation through different eyes. I’m not just moving characters for the sake of moving them, I am breathing life into the characters and giving them unique acting choices.

I’ve taken acting classes, studied cinematography, and watched many films, but it’s my viewpoint as an artist that gives me that extra edge.

My advice to students starting out is to be creative, innovative, keep up-to-date with the technology, and have that artistic fire in your belly.

Use all the tools available out there to bring your imagination to life so people can enjoy your art. You shouldn’t create animation for the sake of animation, you need to enjoy it and have fun with it.

What do you enjoy most about mentoring students at CG Spectrum? How does teaching add value to your career?

I really enjoy meeting my students on the first day on the Zoom call. I get so pumped knowing I’m going to train them to be the best animators out there. I’m protective of them and vow to do my best to guide them along their animation career path into the industry.

I wish I’d had this kind of guidance when I was a student. Instead, I had to fight to find the right instructors, mentors and the right industry professionals to learn from.

It’s great to see CG Spectrum offering these resources and I’m excited to be a part of the team.

I get to see the students happy, enjoying their work, shaping themselves to become industry professionals. I always leave the class asking them what they’re looking for at the end of the term or course.

Students don’t come to CG Spectrum just to learn animation but to prepare themselves to get into the industry.

Teaching enhances leadership skills and how to convey things clearly. In my own animation career I am transitioning into a leader and a supervisor so working for CG Spectrum helps me a lot in developing the skills I will need moving forward. I’m learning how to best interact and communicate effectively with people.

I get to see amazing upcoming talent. One day I might start up my own company and get to hire my own students or recommend my own students to the big studios. It’s satisfying to make a contribution to the industry by mentoring students and helping them launch their careers.

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Ready to embark on your own 3D animation career path?

With years of solid industry experience under her belt, Spectra now helps CG Spectrum students explore different kinds of animation jobs and guides them along their own animation career paths. For more information, study 3D animation with Spectra as your mentor, or check out Spectra's website and CGS Live streams.

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