Watch on Youtube: A Day in the Life of a Pro Character Animator

We recently had the chance to sit down with AnimSchool instructor Scott McWhinnie and chat about his adventurous career as an animator and the things he has learned along the way. Scott has worked at Moonbot Studios, Sony Animation, Bue Sky Studios, and most recently, Illumination Mac Guff in Paris. Scott gives us an insightful look into the day-to-day life of an animator and illustrates how to balance working hard for those top-level industry jobs with your own happiness.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get into animation?

I started out as a teenager wanting to do comic strips for newspapers, but after a while, I realized it would be even cooler to make those drawings move, so I started wanting to do 2D animation. Eventually, I realized that I would have more opportunities to animate in 3D, so I attended Ringling College of Art and Design. During my time there I spent a summer as an intern at Sony Imageworks in LA. After graduation, I started working at Moonbot Studios in Louisiana. After a year of working there, I jumped around between animation studios in NYC and Dallas. I eventually landed at Blue Sky Studios where I worked for about 5 years on Rio 2, Ice Age 5, Ferdinand, and Spies in Disguise. Then in 2020, I started working remotely… before it was cool 🙂 …so I could live as a “Digital Nomad”, where I would travel around and work from wherever I was staying. A studio called Little Zoo, which is fully remote, gave me that chance, but we all know what happened in 2020. Later I made my way back to Sony and animated on Hotel Transylvania 4. Currently, I have just moved to Paris where I am working at Illumination Mac Guff.

It is incredible how your career has taken you around the world. Would you say moving around a lot like you have is normal for a career in this industry?

I think if you want to stay put you can find a way. If that’s your priority, there are plenty of jobs that allow you to stay relatively stable. It’s just a matter of whether it lines up with what you want to do in animation. For me, I always wanted to do feature films so that was a big part of moving around and figuring out where to go. Also, for me moving around was sort of my life. My dad was a pastor so we were moving every two to three years on average; moving for animation jobs wasn’t a big deal for me. It actually feels weird to stay in one place for more than five years. It is very common to move around in this industry, but I don’t think it has to be if you don’t want it to be.

As someone who went to a four-year art college, can you talk about the pros and cons of doing an online program like AnimSchool compared to a traditional four-year university?

I think the biggest pros of a traditional school are the classmates and the environment it provides. I learned so much from the person sitting next to me during late-night discussions about animation and art with friends. For me at least, those interactions taught me so much and are much easier and more organic to come by in-person versus over the internet. A big con of course is the cost, but I would recommend to any new student is to really understand what the true cost of your schooling is and what that might mean for your future and try and take advantage of financial help. I think a lot of students don’t understand and might not even realize what the cost of the school is and what that will mean. I was lucky because my grandmother worked in banking and made sure I understood and taught me ways to manage this cost and save as much money as possible on school. As far as pros and cons for an online school, I would say the pros are one: the price, they are very affordable. Also the flexibility so you can take classes at your own pace, which opens it up to so many people…oh, and the ability to take the classes from anywhere on the planet. It is so cool to have students from all over the world. A potential con for me would be having to build relationships over the internet. For me, it is not a thing I did really until 2015, (I didn’t even have a cell phone until 2012) so I find it a little extra challenging. I think a lot of students today have probably spent their entire lives interacting via the internet, so it is probably very normal for them.

As far as recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Does the type of school you go to factor into getting a job?

No one cares. At Blue Sky, I don’t think they even looked at my resume when they hired me. Years later I started talking about how I worked at all these places and they were like “Oh…we thought you came from straight out of school or something?” So a lot of the time they don’t know. They just look at your work and that’s all they care about. I’d say the one advantage is—it depends on the kind of person you are—but the connection you make with people, especially in person. For me, it was a lot stronger in person. When I started working here I went to school with someone for only one or two years, but we had known each other in person. We hadn’t spoken since school, but we still had that immediate connection where we recognized each other and knew each other. Compared to the online school where if no one turns on their camera you may not feel like you really know your classmates. As far as the recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Should you consider online animation school even if you went to a four-year university?

I think it’s just going to come down to what your priorities are and what you’re comfortable with. If you’re going to a traditional four-year school that makes you do everything, you have to spend all your extra time focusing on animation if you want to be an animator or modeling if you want to be a modeler. If you don’t do that, just assume you’re probably going to have to sign up for AnimSchool after you graduate. There’s a lot of stuff you can learn at the four-year schools but if you want to specialize and you don’t focus on it at the four-year schooling then you’re probably going to have to take another year doing online animation school. I was too stubborn and just worked on my reel privately. I probably wasted three years that I didn’t need to if I had just gone to an online school after graduating. I probably would’ve gotten better a lot quicker. 

I chose AnimSchool because it’s the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school.  I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that.

Why did you choose to teach at AnimSchool?

I chose AnimSchool because it’s the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school. It really just came down to seeing the work the students were producing. I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that. When I was at Blue Sky, I knew a few animators who were teaching there and they only had positive things to say about it. As far as compared to the other schools, I don’t know enough about the other schools beyond looking at their reels. I just think the AnimSchool animation that comes out is cooler and better. I like what they do and what the students are producing, so it seems like we’d be a good fit.

What are some of the most important concepts you try to emphasize in your own class that you feel like missed out on in school?

I would say the main thing I try and emphasize in my class is the idea of learning concepts that can be applied to every shot you will animate in the future and not just specifics for a specific shot. I’m not going to teach “here’s how to make an angry face.” Instead, I’ll talk about how I can structure my face to read clearly and look appealing. Of course, I’ll go over basics stuff like, “angry brows go down,” but we’re going to spend more time on how to make an appealing face pose that looks good and feels believable. Instead of teaching that a blink is always two frames down and three frames up, I’d say just make sure to get some variety in your blinks so it doesn’t feel mechanical; we’re going to go faster down and slower up.  I’m teaching more conceptual things so that the knowledge can bend and change depending on the need. Sometimes we’re going to have blinks that go up a lot slower, but if they’re going up and down at the same speed, it’ll feel very mechanical. I try to teach things as concepts and ideas, instead of “this is how it’s done: step a, b, c” because that’s only going to help you on that one shot instead of down the road on other shots.

Do you need to be good at drawing in order to be a good animator? Do you have a studio art background yourself?

Short answer: no. But I think it can be very helpful. Drawing can provide exercise and practice of a necessary animation skill: critical observation. Anyone who draws in a representative style is required to be highly observant in order to recreate the world around them, and those skills are also essential to animation, but you can develop these skills in other ways as well. Yes, I do have a studio art background; at Ringling your first year is all traditional art. In fact, in addition to animation, I landscape paint (with real paints :)) and do a bit of pottery as well.

How does animating differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX? Should you stick to one medium, or is it normal to jump around?

I can only speak for film, TV, and video games because I have not animated on a VFX project. But the basic animation skills are all the same. The main difference is going to be workflow stuff and, of course, speed. So I don’t think jumping around is that crazy of an idea, you just have to be willing to accept the change to your workflow to adapt to the production. I would say jump around if you want, but if you don’t want to do video games then there is no need to be doing game-related animations. 

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it’s almost never the coolest film. It’s just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

How important is it to find a studio you get along with versus working at a big-name studio?

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it’s almost never the coolest film. It’s just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. For me, it was Ferdinand because Carlos and I were just mentally on the same page. I’d just show him something, and he’d say two words and I knew what he meant instantly. Alternatively, there were other people who didn’t like the production because they had no idea what he wanted. So it depends on creativity if you have that or not. I’ve had that at other studios where I was struggling so hard to figure out what the heck they want from me and I see these other guys who love it there and are having so much fun because they know exactly what everyone wants. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

If you’re looking for a job that you really connect with and enjoy and don’t feel like you’re struggling at, just do what animations you like to do and put that on your reel.

What are your biggest demo reel tips?

My tip for demo reels is to just do work you like. Do the work you want to do for your job. Do the style and kinds of shots you want to do and do them well. And then just apply for all the jobs. The people who like your reel are going to be the people who are creatively in the same boat as you, so you’re going to enjoy the job more than if you’re creatively in two different worlds. That’s one thing I was surprised to find out. At Pixar, they make amazing films, but not everyone’s going to like it there. Not everyone’s going to like every studio. Some people are going to feel like they fit in better, they work better, fit the style better, connect with the director better at certain studios over others. So for reels, I always recommend putting your best stuff in there, and don’t…well, this sort of contradicts what a lot of people say about tailoring your reel to the job you’re applying for. If you just want a job and you don’t care if you’re going to like it or not, then yes, tailor your reel. But if you’re looking for a job that you really connect with and really enjoy and don’t feel like you’re struggling at, just do what you like to do and put that on your reel. But definitely try to make sure all your shots are the same quality. I know some supervisors when they watch your reel are only looking for your worst shot and will ignore everything else. The director is thinking that you’re going to give them nothing less than the worst shot, but if they only look at your best shot, they think this may not always be their best work. So some sups like to find the worst shot and base their decisions off of everyone’s worst shot on their reel. So don’t give them the worst one. Make it hard for them to decide which one is your worst one. 

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good animator? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your animation supervisor?

I think it is super important and took me a while to find what works for me. The best thing is to be positive to the feedback and open to ideas.  When you’re next to get your notes, sit up in your chair, get your little pad out, and just let them talk and just say “cool….yeah…awesome” and write all the notes down. And if you have any notes to clarify, you can ask. The worst thing you can say is “okay, yeah….but”. Try to avoid saying things like “but”. When you say “but” after receiving a note it has the implication that you don’t agree with the note. I like to let them say all of their thoughts and then come back and ask questions to make sure I understand everything they have said.

The worst thing you can say when getting notes is “okay, yeah…but”.

Another thing I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to get up out of your chair and talk to people. You’re just going to learn from what they have to say. By going up and talking to them, you’re going to see what they’re working on or they might explain something to you or you might all of sudden realize you have a question. By developing some sort of social relationship with the people around you, you will open up doors and opportunities to discuss animation and get help from people. If you just sit in your chair and never get up, you’re never going to get help from anyone else…. or vice versa, helping someone else out will give you a lot and show where you are with your own animation. And that same kind of concept goes for your supervisors as well. I think it is great to make sure you establish a bit of a relationship outside of getting notes from a sup. In animation we are all much more laid back than say an accounting firm, so don’t be afraid to have conversations with your sup just like you would with your friend. This can make receiving notes less of a to-do list but more of a discussion between peers, which will be more enjoyable as well as breed better animation.

What was the most unexpected thing you encountered when going from being a student to working professionally at a studio?

That it is a lot less work. When I was a student I stayed up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning and now I’m done at 6pm. Maybe I’ve been very fortunate with all the studios I’ve worked at, but over time has never been mandatory. They’d say if you want to do 5 or 10 hours extra a week, you’re more than welcome to, but it’s not required. Only a couple instances they’d say, “Do overtime just these couple days we need you to finish this up.” Whereas school it was every day. I was always falling asleep. When I’m finished with work, I’m done and I don’t have to think about it until the next day.

How important is it to be a super clean, organized animator? I know some animators animate strictly in the graph editor and keep their keys super clean while others manipulate the rig freely in the viewport and slide keys around without much thought.

Well, I hope it isn’t super important because I am not organized at all. For me, if I am thinking of anything besides that image in front of me that is wasted thoughts. Art is not about the tools or the technique; it is about expressing the ideas of the artist. I want to say it’s good to be organized, but it feels weird to say that because I’m not organized at all. I don’t worry too much about technical stuff because I don’t like technical stuff. I think it can be helpful if you’re organized, but my mentality is that if I’m worrying about technical stuff, then that’s energy that I’m not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else. If I’m thinking, well if I do that pose then it kind of breaks the rig, now I don’t have the best pose, and what’s more important: breaking the rig or having the best pose? I’m sure some artists in the tech anim department would have a different answer though 🙂

My mentality is that if I’m worrying about technical stuff, then that’s energy that I’m not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else.

One of the bigger things student animators struggle with is making the jump from stepped to spline? What’s the best way to get out of the “floaty phase” and into the polish phase? Does this floaty phase get less time-consuming as you get better at animating?

Ah yes… I actually have a whole lecture about how we can avoid this. If you are working in stepped and want to avoid that terrible first spline floatiness you need to make sure you have enough blocking keys and that they are the correct blocking keys. The computer is stupid. So we need to make sure that the keys we put down give the computer the best information to give us the result we want. So if your animation after hitting spline is very floaty you either need to add in more information (keys) or your information (keys) you gave the computer was not the correct information.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future, post-COVID?

I think the biggest thing will be the opportunity for people to choose if they work from the office or from home. I hope it is a hybrid, but I think a lot will go back to normal. 

What are some of your favorite activities to do when you need a break from animating and looking at screens?

Oooo, I love breaks! Just ask anyone who has sat next to me and they know I get up from my desk like every hour. Typically the longer I sit in front of the computer the less productive I become, so I always get up take a walk outside or go say hi to a friend, or grab a snack about every hour or two. I think it keeps us more focused. Some people say having a life outside of animation will make your animation better, but I don’t know if it will definitely make your animation better. I will say though, if you are not in a good place with your life, it will 100% affect your animation for the worse. Back in the day, I did painting, drawing, sketching… art forms that weren’t animation-related. But now I’ve started to do some non-art-related things. When you start animating for a while—when you do one thing for a long time—it’s good to get out and branch out into different aspects of the world. It can open your mind to new ideas. Just branching out and doing things that aren’t animation or even art can help with your animation by having a broader scope of the world and life. And also, you don’t want to get burned out. Going out and doing things that you like outside of animation that doesn’t have the same stress as trying to be the best animator ever, can alleviate that potential issue of burnout which is super important if you plan to animate for thirty years.

What’s next for you? Are there any other facets of animation you want to try out or are you happy with animating for now?

I really enjoy animating so I think I will keep animating how I am for the moment. But I have always been amazed by stop motion so maybe one day I will try and make that transition and try and work on a Laika or Aardman film. I also love teaching so maybe more of that too.

Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us Scott! If you’d like to see more of Scott’s work, click the links below.
Instagram @mcwhinniescott
AnimSchool YouTube
Some of his featured videos include Hand Posing, Eye Mask, Eye Darts, Breakdowns, Anim Polish
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