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Terrence Walker of Studio ArtFX Discusses Producing Top-Notch Animation Independently

Written by Robin WildingNovember 18, 2011
Studio ArtFX
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With the seeming mega-monopoly of animation coming from a small number of high-profile companies, there are those looking to bring smaller, independent animation into the public eye—in the same way that a man with his head on fire looks for water. Terrence Walker of Studio ArtFX is doing just that.

LA-based Studio ArtFX, and its fearless leader Terrence, has branded itself as a new definition of studio—one that pushes the independent envelope to bring Indy animation “ to the forefront in the digital revolution”. Using the latest tools, technologies and techniques that Terrence learned in his 10+ years in the industry Studio ArtFX show that independent animation will be a big part of the future digital landscape.

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But Terrence and Studio ArtFX not only produce high-quality animation—they are hellbent on showing others how to produce top-notch animation independently.

Terrence recently volunteered to share his vision with ACR's readers:

What is your firm's focus within animation and what led your firm to have such a focus?

Studio ArtFX focuses primarily on creating original animation content and providing training for others who desire to do the same. Creating original content isn't just about owning IP. It is about offering something different from the vast majority of mainstream animation. That's the only way to stand out today. What led me to this focus was a couple of experiences I had working in the industry. In more than one case, I watched stories or concepts I had developed be altered or rewritten so as to be unrecognizable from the original work, which resulted in all interest in the project fizzling to a slow death. I soon realized that when an artist has a great idea, they should just start making it!

Fill in the blank: The future of animation is _________.

The future of animation is mobile. So is the future of many forms of content. Worldwide, more people are consuming content on mobile devices than on DVD or even in the cinema. Short form animation and games, which require a lot of animation, are extremely popular. Across the world there are millions who have advanced mobile devices yet do not even have electricity in their homes. The demand for content is growing immeasurably and the artists and animators who strive to meet that demand will find great success.

What are the best and worst aspects about working in the animation field?

The best aspect is, of course, being able to bring ideas to life with complete control over the result, free of limitations. You can create anything and nothing is off limits. With a pencil and paper, any idea in your head can come to life without consideration of budgets, locations or effects. The worst aspect, though, is that often the idea is in someone else's head--which you cannot see into. Trying to bring someone else's idea to life, particularly if they are not entirely clear on it themselves, can be somewhat nerve racking.

Among your firm's achievements, which one(s) are you the most proud of?

After completing my second film and self publishing it on DVD, I was approached shortly thereafter by TOKYOPOP, the number one manga distributor in the United States at the time, for a book and DVD publishing deal. I never had to submit my work to dozens of publishers, face numerous rejections or do a large amount of legwork. Because of my efforts doing a good job on things myself they came to me. I think this is extremely important for any aspiring artist or animator. Make something. If you can make them come to you, you've got it made.

What skills/qualities does your firm seek out when hiring new employees?

The most important thing I look for is the artist's ability to draw different styles from what may be their own preference, and to be able to draw a character the same as another artist. Many artists get locked into their own way of drawing and become unable to do anything different. I recently had four interns who were all great at drawing their own thing, but when given the principal character from our animation project, only one could draw the character on model from multiple angles and in multiple poses.In the 3D world, I mostly seek very high quality and high detail 3D modellers.

What particular schools, if any, does your firm recruit new hires from? If none, where do you recruit new hires?

We all know CalArts is the premiere school from which talent comes these days, but I believe the internet is far more important in these extremely busy times. Although I mostly deal with contractors, it is from their online presence that I find them. When I come across an incredible talent on the net, through an art forum, YouTube video, or their own site, I will bookmark it, make note of it, knowing that I may want to work with them in the future and that I will call them if I think their work can fit a current project. I think it is important for any artist, whether fresh out of school or not, to make a website, join other popular art websites and showcase their work. I know of a few artist who got real industry jobs because of their gallery on the Deviant Art website.

What advice would you give to aspiring animators?

Make something. Don't wait for a dream gig to fall in your lap. In this day and age, it won't. By all means, if you have a studio in mind, where you would love to work, find out all you can about them, and what they might be looking for, and tailor your reel to meet their requirements. Still, you must not wait. Starting creating and get your work out in front of people. The greatest success stories I know of in recent years are people who did something, got it out there on the web, and it led to their dream jobs.

What were your most challenging projects, and why?

The most challenging projects are always commercials and music videos for clients. As I mentioned before, it is impossible to see into someone else's head. People are not visualizing what they want anymore, so you have no choice but to show them many options and let them choose. That, however, can even fail if while you're toiling away on the project, they go out and see the latest blockbuster movie and then decide they want something like that.

What kind of education did it take to get you where you are today?

My education has been "in the trenches" so to speak. I studied mechanical engineering in university so it wasn't at all related to art and animation. Working in game studios with incredible artists like Alex Toader, who taught me an incredible amount about what real art is, played a huge role in getting me to where I am. I also worked on a project for two former Amblin Entertainment leads, and what I learned from these veterans, on the job, cannot be compared to what can be gained in a classroom.

What animation software packages does your firm prefer to use? Which one would you recommend to beginners?

I do both 2D and 3D animation, and often mix the two in a single project. When it comes to 2D, I use TVPaint exclusively. I don't even consider anything else. I highly recommend this to any artist who desires to do classical style animation. In the 3D world I mostly use modo from Luxology.  This software has made 3D as fast and easy as I always wished it was. The artist doesn't need to design and plot everything out on paper before jumping on the computer. You can just get right in there and work, doing concepts from scratch in 3D. Other software I use include Vue Infinite, Poser, and Sculptris. 

Could you share with us your best story about working in the animation industry.

Doing 3D animation for film, I had the opportunity to do VFX on a small SyFy Channel film directed by Matt Codd, who normally does production design for Mel Gibson. From this guy I also learned so much about how to get more bang for my buck in creative works. He was able to get use of a set from a huge budget production, and because he has experience as a production designer, he was able to dress this set in different ways and use it for two major scenes in the movie. It made the project look like it had a budget far beyond what it really had. The greatest thing about this project, though, was that it also starred James Hong, and Peter Qwong, two actors who are also in the film Big Trouble in Little China, a film I absolutely loved growing up.

Has the trend of outsourcing animation overseas affected your firm, if yes, how have you dealt with it or compensated for it?

I'm actually in China at this very moment. Outsourcing is an inevitable effect of a global market. Artists should prepare to be global as well. In the last three years I have been involved in projects in the Philippines, Korea, Japan and China. I know of other seasoned artists who have either set up shop or joined firms in Malaysia, Singapore, India and even Bulgaria. Outsourcing is not just about saving money anymore. Accessing a global talent pool means more options or being able to capitalize on a visual style unique to a particular location. It's not a trend in the sense that it will fall out of favor like the latest fashion. 

Do you think that there is an increasing or decreasing demand for animators overall? Why?

Worldwide there is a greatly increasing demand for animation, though it may not seem so from the perspective of any particular country. The reason for this is that the demand for animation content is constantly increasing. Unfortunately, a large part of this demand for animators is also for what might be seen as "grunt work" as opposed to the seeking of real talent and creativity. There is just more animation that needs to get done. The artist who really wants to create something must show that they are truly a creator. These are the artists who will be asked to fill the high positions in today's global market.

Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.