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Switching careers to Animation: A CG Spectrum student success story

7minutes read

02/24/2022

We recently chatted with CG Spectrum alum, James Boyle about his decision to switch careers later in life, and if taking a risk to pursue his dream job in Animation was worth it.

(Spoiler alert: it was!)

Read all about his journey to success.

Since our interview, James landed his first major gig at an animation studio! He starts as an Animation Trainee at Jellyfish Pictures this week. Their credits include HBO's Watchmen, DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming, and, most recently, they have embarked on developing and producing their own original animated children’s content. Congratulations, James!

Hi James! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions with us. You mentioned on your LinkedIn that you wanted to learn character animation for a very long time — what finally made you take the leap and enroll at CG Spectrum?

Diving right into the big questions first, I like it! The decision to finally learn animation had quite a few facets, but mainly stemmed from a point in late 2019… I was unhappy and felt lost career-wise.

I had spent the past twenty years working in various jobs; I’ve worked as an actor, graphic designer, film producer, comic creator, and screenwriter. Despite having an interest in and affection for all of those areas, none seemed to sit quite right with me as a career — you know that feeling that something is missing but you cannot put your finger on what that something is?

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Still from James's animation in Maya working with dialogue, 

After spending the next few months trying to work out my place and direction, I realized that the only job and career I ever truly wanted was to be an animator. As a kid, you couldn’t tear me away from my drawing board trying to recreate Don Bluth, Walt Disney, and Warner Bros characters and sequences and, to this day, seeing drawings and animation come to life enraptures me! 

For various reasons, studying animation wasn’t an option for me as a kid and, after that, life and adulting took hold and my path seemed to be set, albeit on what I would come to realize was the wrong trajectory.

By enrolling in the animation course, I finally gave myself permission to start the journey that I wanted to be on, not the one I thought others wanted from me.

Now, I’ve got back on my original course and can see the way forward. Like many people I imagine, I have just taken the long way round.

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Animation walk cycle (still) by James

How did you hear about CG Spectrum? 

I was looking around at a lot of animation schools, in-person and online. The pandemic meant in-person schools weren't going to happen at that time which meant that an online school was the way forward and this is something I was excited about.

I wanted to find a place that offered a good mixture of in-depth topics taught for animation, had a strong reputation from past students, and was also competitively priced; CG Spectrum was all those things that made it an easy decision to sign up. 

You’ve completed a few animation courses now; how did CG Spectrum’s course differ?

The other animation courses I’ve taken were all lecture-based — some live, some pre-recorded. Whilst that format has its merits and is great for delivering a lot of information in a very short timeframe, it can be overwhelming, and unless you put the copious notes into action straight away, you can forget quite a lot.

What I liked about the CGS courses was the pacing of the assignments; they don't push you into the more advanced subjects before you’re ready.

I also really appreciated the dedicated mentor live feedback sessions, getting those direct evaluations was crucial in improving my craft and technical skills.

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You worked in media agencies and production companies for ten years prior to switching to Animation — did you find any of the skills you gained over the years in these roles transferable to animation? If so, which ones?

As mentioned earlier, I’ve done quite a few jobs. It took me a while to see how any skills would transfer, but after taking some career sessions and listing out all the work experience I had, it became much clearer. 

The ten years I spent as an actor would be invaluable, with an understanding of the acting craft and how to access subtext & craft a performance as the major transferable skills. 

On a day-to-day level, having worked at multiple studios and companies both locally and abroad, I have dealt with every kind of personality and crisis you can imagine, and this has been great, as it means I am not daunted by an ever-changing environment with dozens or even hundreds of people working collaboratively. 

The last thing which has come with experience and age is the understanding that you are part of something bigger than yourself, you are relied upon and you rely on others around you.

That means you need to work to a production schedule, be as communicative as you can to help the flow of information, and realize that if you focus on your role and work bloody hard at it, that's all you need to worry about. Everything else will take care of itself.

James' full 2021 animation showreel using work he completed at CG Spectrum. (Assets are from CGTrader, TurboSquid, Polyhaven, and Blendkit.)

Your showreel is really impressive — what advice would you give to someone compiling a showreel or portfolio?

Thank you, very kind of you to say. My advice: be specific with the direction of your reel/portfolio, and listen to the advice of those with more experience than yourself. 

As I started on my 3D animation course — before I worked on the shots that would be on my reel — I spent a lot of time researching what should be on a showreel, specifically for a 3D Animator. I watched videos from Jean-Denis Haas, who has a great guide to what an animator’s reel needs to have. I attended webinars hosted by animation directors at Blue Zoo and Walt Disney Animation Studios speaking about what they look for in animator reels. I was a sponge to it all.

I also attended and watched the career sessions run by Maxine Schnepf at CGS where she spent time talking about reel and portfolio specificity. Key advice is repeated by a lot of industry professionals.

Another key lesson is to tailor your reel to the role you want to do, for example, don’t put modeling work on an animator reel and vice versa.

The only other thing I would say about making your showreel and/or portfolio is to be genuine. My goal, and passion, is to work in animated features, I literally cannot wait until I get to say that is my job! So, when it came to considering shots for my reel, it was important to me that they all looked and felt like they ‘could’ be from an animated feature.

I've heard time and time again that you’ll likely get hired to do the work that is on your reel or in your portfolio, so why not aim for something you genuinely want to do?  

Can you break down how you tackled your favorite piece(s) of work? If you don’t have a favorite, feel free to use mine which is the tiny girl and the giant.

Sure thing. That piece, which I’m affectionately calling ‘Jill and the Giant’ was a fun one to do. My mentor, Abdel, and I spent a good couple of weeks working on the storyboards and basic layout in Maya to make sure the shots weren’t too ambitious and that they told the story as they should. Storytelling with this particular piece was a real focus for me. 

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Scene from Jill and the Giant, a short animation by James using Maya

There were a few challenges with this piece, first was getting the sense of scale correct between the two characters; if the Jill character was too small, it looked weird, and if she was too big, the threat posed by the giant was diminished. 

The second challenge was the first shot where Jill runs towards the saltshaker. Because of the foreshortening and the distance she had to cover, her run and feet placement had to be cheated to look right. That took more work than I had anticipated and became quite frustrating to get right but I got there in the end.

I spent a lot of time shooting references in my apartment to get the body mechanics down. After that, it was pure execution, going through the blocking, refining, and polishing stages. 

The last challenge was the rendering of the final shots. At the time, my computer was quite old and really not designed for 3D rendering, so I had to find a cost-effective online render farm to work on all the final frames. Doing that speeds things up a lot and thankfully didn’t cost that much either.

Can you tell us some of the best advice your mentor gave you?

Firstly, I felt so lucky to have Abdel Pizarro as my mentor for the Introduction to 3D Animation course and the Advanced 3D Animation course.

As the first professional to see and believe in my work, his positive attitude and encouraging comments made the whole process of learning so fun and rewarding. 

It’s hard to narrow down one specific piece of advice because every week he shared little nuggets of insight that will stay with me for my career, but if I had to pick one, it would be this: always ask why.

In every assignment, he’d always push us to have a why behind the animation — what was the intent of the shot and the performance? Without the why, it's just something moving on a screen, and yes, that can be nice, but if you can give it some intention, then you have a hope of connecting with the viewer, and that’s what it’s all about. 

Can you tell us how the Career Development program helped you?

The career program was invaluable. I knew changing careers would have included some similar things such as resumes, applications, networking, etc., but the biggest thing I needed to understand was the nuances of how the animation industry worked — etiquette for approaching recruiters, and what type of roles (fixed-term or permanent) there were.

These sessions really helped guide me plus they were also really helpful in explaining how to approach my showreel and the subsequent application processes too. 

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Another clip from James' outstanding showreel

Congratulations on graduating! What’s next for you? What kind of work are you hoping to go into?

Thank you. It’s all very exciting. The last few months I have been focussing on my reel, connecting with recruiters at different studios, and keeping my head down working on new shots. I do have some news about what is happening next, but just need the ink to dry before I tell anyone. Hopefully soon though!

[Ed note:] The ink is dry and James is now officially an Animation Trainee at Jellyfish Pictures!


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No matter what jobs you've worked in the past, CG Spectrum's online animation courses will help you start, or continue, your journey towards becoming an Animator in the near future! Learn from experienced animation professionals using industry-standard tools and receive personalized feedback, industry insights, and support all along the way. Our nine-month courses also offer career development services to get you job-ready for your exciting new career in Animation! 

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Tags:   Animation ,   Tips & Tutorials