You’d be forgiven if you thought that animating, supervising and directing at Walt Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks and Cinesite would satisfy the cravings of any animator. But for industry veteran Jason Ryan, these accolades have only piqued his interest in the craft more and urged him to continue the learning process. Lucky for aspiring animators, Ryan channeled his impulse into the successful online animation school, iAnimate.
iAnimate’s certification courses allow students to select tracks in Feature Animation, Creature Animation and Game Animation. They can also choose from courses in rigging, mocap, lighting/compositing, modeling, and pre-visualization. Uniquely, every applicant submits a sampling of their work so that Ryan and crew can place the student in the workshop level that fits their current abilities or weaknesses. In addition to super small class sizes and access to a character library that would make your drool, iAnimate students also have access to the weekly demo instruction from Jason Ryan himself.
For our latest spotlight Q&A, we speak with Jason Ryan about his never-ending quest to become a better animator and how iAnimate offers his students a solid footing for a career in animation. We hope you enjoy!
ACR: Jason Ryan, before we get into iAnimate, I’d like to start with you. Growing up in Ireland, when did you set your sights on a career in animation?
Jason Ryan: Art and animation really wasn’t on the scope for me growing up. I was training to become an accountant! In secondary school, I took art classes and my teacher encouraged me to pursue graphic design or illustration. I didn’t even know there was a future in that, to be honest. But I fell in love with drawing and at the end of secondary school, I planned on going into advertising. I applied to Dun Laoghaire Art College where Dave Brain (Disney Studios) looked at my portfolio and thought that because my drawings were very clean, I’d make a good animator. The rest is history.
ACR: Were there elements missing from your animation education that you’ve tried to rectify in your career?
JR: I wish I had studied more live action reference. When I was studying animation, there were no websites or Youtube. Framing wasn’t done perfectly as it is now; it was done on VHS video or Betamax and you were pausing it and hopefully you didn’t have the lines going across the screen. I would pause through a video and see the squash and smear frame. I’d be taking notes to see how it was done, and then I’d try for myself. But I never motion captured or rotoscoped anything and I wish I had opened my mind toward that.
ACR: Referencing in general is such a crucial tool of the animator which aspiring animators don’t always recognize at first.
JR: Absolutely. Every week on iAnimate, i do a demo for two hours for students and recently I animated a four-legged character pacing back and forth to dialog. I had to really study how a real four-legged animal turns- what actually goes into that physical process. They lean this way, and glance that way, and this foot does a stretch which releases the other foot... it’s only through that process when I can see how it all works and and animate it.
ACR: Those weekly two-hour tutorials are such a unique feature of iAnimate, where students get to see that even at veteran such as yourself never stops learning...
JR: You hit it right on the head. I’m not trying to show off, but I’m trying to show that we’re just human and we push ourselves and are constantly learning. In the demos, I’m talking as I’m animating and explain what I’m doing as I go; sometimes it sounds like gibberish but my students get it because they’re watching and interacting in real time.
ACR: Before you began iAnimate, you were offering frequent tutorials on your website. What was the impetus to jump beyond those popular offerings and found a full-fledged online school?
JR: It’s all student driven. My Jason Ryan Animation Tutorials, which I started in 2007, were based on how I would have liked to have learned: by watching a veteran animator animate shots in front of me and watching frame by frame as they’re creating the animation. Then, the students wanted to ask questions so I started doing live webinars where I would animate live and they would type in questions and I would address them. Then, it evolved again because students wanted feedback on their work which I wasn’t sure how to do without actually talking to them. Email just wasn’t getting my explanations across. And that’s how iAnimate came to be.
ACR: Your students get very individualized attention from yourself and the veteran animators who teach your courses. And it’s all through a software system that makes it seamless and entirely virtual...
JR: Right. Our instructors only have eight or nine students maximum, so that’s incredible. With the Zoom (web conferencing) software system we use, we’ve never had this type of real-time collaboration and instruction before. Being able to go through frame-by-frame without any sort of drag is awesome, and the students use their own speakers so the sound isn’t distorted. This gives us the ability to bring animation to places so remote that they wouldn’t have any chance of getting an animation education.
ACR: Another great aspect of iAnimate is that it allows students to focus on certain areas that they feel they need to. Do most take all of the courses or just a few as they need them?
JR: I think the ones that come in at the very beginning tend to go through to the end; the ones that come in later might just take a few courses. That’s the beautiful thing with iAnimate- I don’t want people coming in with a lot of experience and starting at the beginning. That makes no sense. They should move forward from where they are. In the basic courses, there are real beginner animators so if someone with experience comes in to those, they would get bored while the beginner animator might feel stupid and not ask the questions they should. I want people at roughly the same level so they grow together and ask questions and learn.
ACR: So when someone applies to one of your courses, they submit a demo reel and you assess what level they’re at?
JR: Exactly. Earlier on, their mechanics might need some work. Or maybe they need to work on locomotion. If their mechanics are killer but they have no acting experience, then Workshop 4 is for them. If they’re ready to put everything together in some juicy shots, Workshop 5. And Workshop 6 is when someone animates through cuts on a sequence for a feature film and it’s really showreel polish… they have their training but now they need to work on shots to get hired. You’re always judged on your weakest shot in your showreel. Everything has to be at the very top level.
ACR: Being critiqued is another important element that iAnimate offers thanks to its virtual classrooms. How do you help new animators leverage critique to their benefit?
JR: The first thing I tell them is that they have to be their own worst enemy critiquing their own work. We are all blind to our own work but easily spot mistakes in other people’s work. It’s difficult to get over the ego and accept the help. No one is out to thrash your work, they’re just trying to make it better. That’s really important because at iAnimate, we try to make them the best animators they can be. If I take away their idea in favor of my own idea during a critique, they’ll stop coming up with their own ideas. Instead, I try to encourage them to come up with their best idea. Then, I can look at two versions they came up with and give them feedback.
ACR: Animation as an industry is constantly evolving. How do you prepare students for the inevitable changes they’ll face in their careers?
JR: A lot of people ask me about what to do on their showreel in order to be marketable. I tell them to do as many different styles as possible. DreamWorks is naturalistic, whereas Sony is more cartoony. Disney is somewhere in the middle with a stylized way of moving. So they need to cover all these styles and be open to them to adapt. Some students aren’t necessarily into the cartoony stuff, but they need to learn it to get their brain working in new ways and find little sparks. You have to be open to new things and own up to your weaknesses.
I’ve done a lot of complicated body mechanic type shots throughout my career, but I haven’t done a lot of really, really subtle acting shots so I try to get those assignments and work on my weakness. I want to do more assignments myself to be a better animator. Hopefully, I’m inspiring students to do the same thing- I want them to love what they do and not be fearful of it. The more time you put into this craft, the more you’ll get out of it.
ACR: Last but not least Jason, what’s on the horizon for iAnimate that we can look forward to?
JR: I’d love to get in some of the 2D resources like layout and storyboarding and even honing our artistic side. A lot of people don’t like to draw so doing drawing classes would be great. My ultimate dream for iAnimate is to do commercial work with students; so if someone has a product, we would do the modeling and rigging and layout and previews and send it through all the way into lighting and compositing. Right now, I am hiring my own students to work on feature films for Cinesite Studios and about half my crew are from iAnimate. I know they’re going to hit the ground running because I’ve trained them!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.