Hi Charles, it’s great to have you here for this interview. Thank

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

First off, I just wanted to say thank you to you for conducting this interview and to Animschool for hosting.  I hope the readers find some words of wisdom somewhere in here.  

Charles Ellison, Head of Modeling at DreamWorks

My name is Charles, although family and friends call me Charlie.  I am a proud father of two little girls, whom I am raising with my wonderful wife in which I’ve been with for just about 20 years now – 9 married.  I was born in Venezuela, and migrated to this country at a young age, finally establishing roots in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I am one of the Heads of Modeling for DreamWorks Animation, as well as an Instructor here at Animschool for about the past 4 years or so, and I call Los Angeles home now.  I’ve been at DreamWorks for 10 years now and have loved every day of it. I’ve had the privilege to work on many wonderful animated movies, including the How to Train Your Dragon series, Kung Fu Panda series and have most recently supervised Trolls and am currently supervising Trolls 2, just to name a few.  

Snoutlot, modeling by Charles Ellison

Can you tell us about your background and how you became Head of Modeling at DreamWorks?

I’ll try to keep a long story short, but like many of you, the start of my journey began with a love of stories.  I recall being profoundly affected by movies as a child.  Growing up in a household as an only child, movies often served as a sibling in an odd sort of way.  I helped Elliot get E.T. back home, went on treasure hunts with the Goonies, and helped the rebellion fight the Empire in Star Wars.  
Imagination is a wonderful thing when you are a child, but I have never let that magic wither away.  It’s part of what propelled me into this wonderful career

Berk Docks, modeling by Charles Ellison

The path wasn’t always clear and it wasn’t found quickly either. I didn’t discover this path in fact until I was 24 and living just across the Bay from San Francisco, where my future awaited.  I recall waking up one morning, turning on the TV, and watching a commercial for the Academy of Art University.  People used to always tell me that I was creative and could draw and I should do something with that, so I literally got dressed, hopped on a bus and headed into the city where I took a tour of the school.  After being dazzled by the campus buildings which are nested throughout the city and the tour guide giving their best sales pitch, I was pretty wow’d by what I was seeing.  Yet it wasn’t until walking through the Computer Animation department (which they save for last), that I was completely in awe.  I remember walking through the computer labs with the tour saying to myself,  “Wow.  Look at them.  They are doing it.  They are really doing it.”.  I was referring to the students hard at work of course, working on these massive computers that I’ve never seen before, but you have to understand, after I saw Jurassic Park in ’93 I was pretty much convinced that the people that made these movies were geniuses – an unattainable goal.  

Bunnymund, modeling by Charles Ellison

So upon the conclusion of the tour, I found myself taking a huge leap of faith and signing my name on the dotted line of an enrollment contract.  I had no idea how I was going to pay for it all, but I was going to make it happen.  Behind the support of my family, my girlfriend (and future wife) and her family, but most importantly a belief in myself, I took that huge leap of faith.  I was intimidated, unsure and anxious, but along the way I discovered that I not only had talent and raw skill, but that I was in a prime environment to nurture this talent and develop it.  I took full advantage of the resources the school offered.  I was the first one in class, the last one out.  I surrounded myself with peers whom inspired me and therefor elevated myself.  I spent two years in fine art where I painted, drew, sculpted, and then finally the last two years were spent mostly on the computer where I focused on 3D Modeling.  I graduated in the Fall of 2004 – the first in my family in fact so it was a very proud day. 
After graduation, I relocated to Los Angeles with my girlfriend (soon to be wife) where we set out to begin our lives away from family and discover our careers.  I quickly landed my first job at an Animation Studio here in LA, called Sprite Animation.  Sprite is a Japanese animation studio and I was the first American artist that they hired.  It was a tremendous learning experience and to this day I tribute them as some of the most skilled, talented and humble artist that I have ever worked with.  It was such a great place for me to begin my career because they pushed me to learn more and become a full fledged character artist.  I not only modeled, but I also textured and rigged my characters and from time to time I even animated them.  

Blacksmith shop, modeling by Charles Ellison

When it was time to leave Sprite to spread my wings, I spent a little time in the live-action VFX world and then I was at a cross roads.  I had a tough choice to make as I had a very good problem in front of me.  I had an offer from Digital Domain to be a Character TD on Benjamin Buttons or join DreamWorks as a Modeler.  It was two very different roads I could take, but my heart told me that DreamWorks was the right path.  So I chose DreamWorks.  Fast forward 10 years from that point, and I am now one of the Department Heads and have worked on amazing projects – I have no doubt in my mind that I made the best decision for myself.  

Fashionistas, modeling by Charles Ellison

That’s an inspiring story!  How involved are you in the hiring process of new talent for DreamWorks?

When we are in search of growing our Modeling team, I am very much a part of the process.  The way it works is myself, along with the other Department Heads, will review candidates which our fantastic Recruiting Department will filter through and offer up the best candidates that they discover either via visits to different schools, or submissions which we receive from applicants all over the world – typically comprised of students and experienced artists.  And sometimes, one of us may already have a candidate in mind whom we can propose to the group for consideration.  This is an occurrence that happens quite often if one of us knows of a great artist that is available.  I often have candid conversations with students where I explain what a unique perspective I have from my vantage point.  What I mean is, I get to be a part of the students as they are just paving the way for their growth as artist, and one day, they could find themselves interviewing with me as well.  It is a very special vantage point if you ask me, one which I don’t take for granted.  I’m always on the look out for good talent, so even if students don’t realize it, they could be already being noticed even if from a single class – so always put forth your best effort ;).  And when I am actively supervising a modeling team for a show, I do get to ask for specific members of the team so long as they are available and not already casted to another production.  We do our best to cast everybody to their strengths and formulate nicely balanced teams for each show.

Besides the required technical skills, what do you think are main qualities a 3D artist should have to increase the chances to get hired by a large company? And do you have any tips on how to develop those skills?

Besides the clear necessities as demonstrating clear technical skills as software knowledge and being able to craft nice geometry and understanding good topology practices, I can’t emphasize enough the need to demonstrate a strong artistic eye.  Perhaps the best thing anyone can do on their demo reel, is provide the artwork that you started from so that I can gauge how you see shapes and how you can interpret a design.  It’s an opportunity for me to see how you understand the fundamentals.  Often, I see demo reels which don’t include the artwork they modeled from.  And of course be sure that when including the artwork you credit the original artist.  Another good tip is have a good variety of models – don’t just be character heavy without demonstrating you can take on an environment or a nice, intricate prop.  Characters are great and doing them well is even better, but show range.  As far as developing those skills, I always suggest to be as active as you can in practicing your craft.  Don’t just rely on the assignments you receive in class.  Manage your time so that you reserve as much of it as you can to go through the paces of challenging yourself and finding barriers that you can break past.  But be sure to maintain a balance with studies, work and all other things in life so that you don’t burn out. 

Orange quarter, modeling by Charles Ellison

And one last bit of advice which is one of those intangible things, when you land the interview, be yourself, and show us that you are the kind of person that we want to work with.  After all, I spend more time with my colleagues at work then I do with my family sadly, so I want candidates that are genuine people.  I would rather work with the person who has talent that can be nurtured – albeit needs growth but is a nice person, versus someone whom has a super impressive portfolio but during an interview doesn’t show the best attitude.

Know what I mean?


“Don’t be afraid to show your work. Failure is always part of the road to success.” 
What do you think about these statements and how does that apply to your own job in a professional environment? 
I mean, are you allowed to improve by failure or do you have to get it right every first time?

As artist, we are always subject to opinion, and this is no different in a professional or an educational environment.  The difference is I would switch the word failure with that of process.  The process to striking the vision of many different people can be a very organic and sometimes tedious process, but process non the same.  Sometimes we nail it and please everyone upon first showing, sometimes it requires many iterations, but it’s never a failure so long as we end up with a great final product, within the time-frame we are given.  In a school environment, it’s very similar in that you have a goal, a deadline and a client – your instructor.  I always stress the need for students to never be shy to show their work, as the goal in sharing is to find ways to improve by way of constructive feedback – very much the same way it would be in production.

Dragon Lair, modeling by Charles Ellison

Can you name a few people that have inspired you, in life and as a 3D professional?

Naturally I have garnered inspiration from the people whom raised me, non more so than my Grandmother.  The work ethic she modeled for me was just remarkable.  My wife is a huge reason I am even where I am today, but my children are my strongest inspiration.  Trust me when I say nothing inspires you to be your best than your children.  As for artists?  My goodness, where do I begin?  There is just so much amazing talent out there, both known and unknown.  The unknown’s are just as amazing it’s just they haven’t made an effort to have an online presence.  My very first supervisor, Tetsuya Ishii, is such an amazing artists and is equally skilled artistically and technically.  Plus I have a soft spot that I learned so much from him.  Some other artist whom have had direct influence on me are Danny Williams (aka Point Pusher) for the years we worked together and for the knowledge he was so willing to share and who is also a good friend.  Another good friend and former colleague whom has inspired me is Shannon Thomas, whom is now over at Blizzard as a Character Supervisor.  

Bob Ross

But there is so many others over the course of my career whom I’ve had the pleasure to either work with directly, converse with, or just admire from a far.  I know I will miss some names, but here is a short list:  Nico Marlet, Tim Lamb, Pierre Olivier Vincent, Alena Tottle, Mike Defeo, Kendal Chronkite, Raymond Zibach, Simon Otto, Mel Milton, Kent Melton,  Glen Keane, Matt Thorup, Dylan Ekren, Bear Williams, Brian Jefcoat and of course Bob Ross – no really, watched him religiously as a kid.
“Happy little trees.”

Are there any public tours at DreamWorks ?

There are no public tours, but it is possible to have a tour through someone on the inside.  I have personally had many guests come to visit the campus, including many Animschool students.  I extend this invitation to every class I teach.  You just have to give me a heads up when you are going to be around LA and I’m happy to set it up – so long as I’m available to do so of course.

Little Dragon composite, modeling by Charles Ellison

Can you give any tips to the students for their demo reel when they want to apply for a job at DreamWorks or another large studio? 

Besides the information I gave earlier in the interview, I would say, know your client.  If you are applying to DreamWorks, Disney, Pixar, demonstrate models that fit the style of work that they do.  Similarly I would say the same for a game company or VFX studio.  And the last thing I would suggest, always place your best model first – wow us with that first look.  Keep your reel short.  It doesn’t need to be bloated.  I would rather see 3 great models over the course of a 2 minute reel, versus a 5 minute reel of stuff you threw in there thinking it needed to be there because you were worried you didn’t have enough.  Quality over quantity always.  And remember, always show the art your started from.  And lastly, these days, it’s not just about a demo reel, have on online platform such as a personal website, ArtStation, or something similar which showcases your many different works.  This can be a place where potential employers can see works that are maybe unfinished, but still offer insight to your process as an artist.

Those are great tips, thank you!  Why did you become an Animschool teacher ?

Charles Ellison, Head of Modeling at DreamWorks

When I first made the choice to begin teaching, much of my decision was based on the idea of maximizing the time that I have to provide for my family and I wanted to do so in a manner that felt rewarding beyond just compensation. Teaching was a natural fit that I could balance nicely with my full-time roll at DreamWorks and also was an opportunity for me to give back to the community.  Originally, I did not know if teaching was going to be a short or long term commitment or even if I would be any good at it.  I also did not foresee how invested I would get in the students.  I didn’t foresee the relationships that I would build and how rewarding it would feel to see my students improving before my eyes.  It is such a great feeling to see your students applying what they are learning, improving upon their skills and most importantly, having fun during the process.  I make it a point to make sure the students know from day one that they are in an environment that will be fun, organic and nurturing.  I really do try to give them all I have to offer and be someone who will offer them as much insight as I can into the industry as well. 

And why Animschool?  

I have had many former colleagues of mine whom had ventured into the world of teaching speak very highly of Animschool and a good friend had introduced me to Dave Gallagher to speak about the prospect of teaching.  Fast forward to now, and I am very happy to be a part of the Animschool community and proud of the students that I have had the pleasure to teach.  What I feel makes Animschool a unique and special place to learn this wonderful craft, is the global aspect of it’s students (nothing excites me more than to see a roster of students from all corners of the globe) and how diverse the they are.  I find Animschool students to be some of the most dedicated and focused I’ve come across.  And lastly, I find the talent that the school brings in to instruct their classes to be world class and whom really want to provide the best instruction they can. 

Put all that together and it truly is an amazing community to be a part of.

Thank you Charles !