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Jeff Williams must be a busy guy. He is the owner, President and CEO of two successful ventures, Parallax Studio and DARKSTAR Interactive. Jeff is also a partner in a soundtrack company, Progressive Sound/MetalWorx. If this wasn't enough he also was the lead singer and bass guitarist in Wilder, a rockband that produced five albums and several music videos.
Jeff has been able to combine his various loves into one successful career. His successful interactive movie DARKSTAR used 38 critically-acclaimed, instrumental tracks—but he did not only contribute the music, he also was the writer, director, producer and lead animator for the project. This brainchild of Jeff's gives you an idea of the man's talents, evident with the meticulously created storyline and unique architecture that were drawn from his unique experiences in music videos, short films and television.
DARKSTAR however is only a small part of Jeff's work, a subsidiary of his larger project, Parallax Studio. Parallax was created by Jeff in 1996 and has built a solid name for itself in the industry by bringing Jeff's vision of quality animation and incredible imagery to life. Since starting his career in 1989 Jeff was won over 90 Addy Awards, amongst other acclaims.
We were able to catch up with Jeff for an interview, and he offered some brilliant pearls of wisdom to our aspiring animator readers, starting from his days doing frame-at-a-time stop motion in his family home while doing occasional walk-bys of Walt Disney's original small craftsman-style studio for inspiration:
What is your firm's focus within animation and what led your firm to have such a focus?
I've been animating since I was 11 years old, starting with making flip books from notepads, then moving on to an 8mm movie camera given to me by my grandfather using its "stop motion" one frame at a time ability to make crude clay figure animations. Originally we used CGI animation to add to music video and to commercial productions, but the inevitable project was DARKSTAR, our own production. We've never wanted to be a "cookie-cutter" type of studio, in other words, didn't want to produce products like anyone else, but instead create a look and feel of our own--operating on the fringe of the entertainment business.
Geographically we are light years from Hollywood, and operate in a completely different world. The tools of the trade are very peripheral to our end product, we try to be about the hand-crafted art and not about the technology that animation is slowly being defined by. I like to combine technologies and techniques to get a unique look. When at the Kansas City Art Institute in the early 80's I walked to Troost street where Walt Disney had his first tiny little studio where they hand drew every frame. I think about a struggling Disney in northern Missouri back in the infancy of animation very often, and it keeps my mind and creative heart in the right place. I don't think Walt would be all that proud of where Disney has gone as a corporate leviathan with all of its technology and corporate success, he was an artist and craftsman with a passion for the public that loved his work.
Fill in the blank: The future of animation is _________.
The future of animation is that it will permeate everything we see. As print disappears and everything goes onto a screen of some sort and becomes interactive, animation will become so integrated into our lifestyle that we will stop noticing it. As it is when a Pixar film comes to movie screens, we are not as dazzled by the amazing imagery, it's expected. I've heard it said in Hollywood that a special effect is only effective when the audience isn't aware that one occurred. Though I agree completely with the nuts and bolts of that idea, it saddens me that our art is not being noticed, and is indeed simply becoming "expected".
What are the best and worst aspects about working in the animation field?
Worst: "Watching grass grow." I think the scourge of animation for me is that it takes so long, and being a hands-on producer/animator, it means staying up all night watching animations render frame by frame to be sure they are what I'm after. DARKSTAR took nearly ten years to produce weighing in at 13.3 hours of fully animated material with live action actors composited into it. Had I worked with hundreds of animators specializing in their own tiny areas (modeling, lighting, animating, etc) I would get more instant gratification, and a production like DS would have taken three years or less. I limit myself because of my OCD nature and need to craft every aspect by my own hands. That limits the amount of productions I can put out. Though I am comfortable as a Director and work very well with others, I have a need to remain on the front lines of every aspect, and it inevitably slows me down a lot. I wish there were ten of me. Or perhaps 29.97 of me to match the frame rate...
Best: I love surprising myself with an animation or scene I've created, and am thrilled I've been able to maintain that ability to do so. Though things I produce are completely from within me, my eyes sometimes do not anticipate some of the visual candy that comes to being during the process. I think it's the same as a woodcrafter who carves a beautiful rocking chair, steps back and sees if for the first time, then sits down in it for a few minutes. Then the ultimate gratification is when someone else sits in it, closes their eyes, and rocks for awhile, and I get to stand there with my chisel in hand watching them smile for a little bit. It goes back to when I was a kid desperately wanting to make people laugh, smile, cry, applaud, or have some kind of emotional response to my work. I'm still the kid.
Among your firm's achievements, which one(s) are you the most proud of?
Darkstar, which was the result of about 20 years of thought, design, and very hard work.
What skills/qualities does your firm seek out when hiring new employees?
PARALLAX really doesn't do employees since I am the primary animator/producer. I have hired out aspects of animation, but generally dole it out to friends I have in the business. As with my creative philosophy, it's not really about the technical prowess so much, but the art. A great example is my friend Richard Corben, my most frequent animation colleague. (Google him, he's a famous comic artist). Rich is like me, he hates technology for the most part, from the old school, and is dragged kicking and screaming into upgrades of the software and plugins we use. He knows what he has to know as a technician, it's his phenomenal talent visually that makes him amazing. Anyone can master a program. Few are true artists.
What particular schools, if any, does your firm recruit new hires from? If none, where do you recruit new hires
As I said, I don't do a lot of headhunting. But my ears always perk up when I hear someone has attended one of the Art Institutes, particularly my alma mater KCAI. Corben went there 20 years before me.
What advice would you give to aspiring animators?
DRAW. On paper. Be a REAL artist. Computers are tools, and in many ways not nearly as valuable as a pencil. I feel privileged to have been an animator before 1984 when computers began to define animation as we know it today. Using "flip books", 8mm movie film movie cameras, and old-school animation stands with pin-register cel animations, I learned how to use simulated motion to bring lines on a page to life. I hope that schools are implementing some of that simple stuff to educate up and coming animators. I always think of how Mr. Miagi in Karate Kid (the original Pat Morita version) taught martial arts with the "wax on, wax off" hand motions of washing a car. When you strip animation down to its basics, it's all about the art if you want to do stuff that really means something, at least from a creative, artistic point of view. And that's what's important to me.
What were your most challenging projects, and why?
The toughest projects are always those where I have to please another producer and meet impossible deadlines and budgets. That's why I rarely do any of that any more. Truly, I'm the worst I've ever dealt with, I expect all-nighters, insane quality, and often I don't pay myself at all for what I do, so don't ask me why when other producers put me through a fraction of that grinder why I bitch here in an interview about it. I guess self-abuse is just fine with me, but don't anyone else tell me what to do!
What kind of education did it take to get you where you are today?
I began animating as a very young child. I remember making a stick figure animation in the corner of an elementary school English book and getting my hand whacked by a nun's ruler. I mowed lawns at two bucks a pop to save up for a $49 Baia editor's reel at K-mart, to edit 8mm film and stop-motion stuff, and that was truly one of the best educations of my life. It gave me a sense of how much movement per frame looked right when running real-time, cutting film with a knife, and it serves me to this day as I map out a scene in my mind and on the timeline of my CGI software. Really, true life experience is THE BEST. Though I got a lot of good experience at the Art Institute in KC, nothing compared to my own crude animations I produced in my little room at my mom's house in Springfield MO in the 70's.
What animation software packages does your firm prefer to use? Which one would you recommend to beginners?
3DStudioMax, Maya, After Effects, the usual. All offer excellent and inexpensive student versions, most fully functional with no "water marks". Again, I emphasize "wax on, wax off". Keep it simple, and learn to be an animator like the real Disney, the guy who had a pencil constantly behind his ear and drew on napkins at the coffee shop. I promise you, that will serve you better than any long list of program proficiencies. Unfortunately, however, the programs are necessary. If you want to get a job and be an animator somewhere, they'll want you to do the long list, know all the codecs, etc. And everything globally changes every three years or so, and that period is getting shorter as we move into the future. This makes it easy to get distracted from the art of animation and get entrenched in software and computers. Loving Pixar movies and playing video games does not an animator make. Being an animator is a time-consuming, patience eating, nail-biting existence at times, especially if you are on a deadline and a budget, which you almost always will be, even if you are your own boss. It is a serious endeavor, and it takes a lot of perseverance to be successful. And being successful is not being fulfilled as an artist. Try to achieve both.
Could you share with us your best story about working in the animation industry.
In my early days I was Creative Director at Advertising Agencies, and my experience with animation growing up was utilized by the firms I worked for. We always had an edge over competitors with my ability to get national level quality for regional clients on a local budget. I remember once setting up a makeshift multi-plane camera setup at a local ABC affiliate television station to create a spot for a regional chain of grocery stores, the guys there thought I was insane. We got an Addy award for it, and I'm still proud of that ad. After leaving the Ad industry in a quest to do my own stuff, I bit the bullet and decided to come into the new millennium and learn the ropes on CGI software. It's been a hate-love relationship, mostly due to hard drive crashes and data loss. Darkstar took me to Hollywood, and I learned a lot there, most of it making me very happy I live in the midwest.
Has the trend of outsourcing animation overseas affected your firm, if yes, how have you dealt with it or compensated for it?
I don't do it and never will. Every frame my studio has ever produced has my DNA all over it. Talk about buying local.
Do you think that there is an increasing or decreasing demand for animators overall? Why?
Though I don't really have any global data on that personally, I can't imagine that proficient animators will ever have trouble finding work. Animators at all levels of expertise are constantly needed to produce anything form the mundane flying logo to more elaborate, multi-faceted productions whether for an iPhone app or a feature film. I think the challenge for an animator is finding a good fit, and a place they can not only draw a paycheck, but a bit of creative fulfillment too. Unless you are a mindless workhorse of an animator, this is the challenge. Some people would be thrilled being one of the 3000 tiny names in the rollups of any given Hollywood film, but some need more. They'd rather be one of six names on a small, independent production that turns a few heads at a film festival. If you want to be a feature film animator, you have to live near Hollywood or Santa Monica most likely. And you'll rarely be employed for more than a year or two on any given project, they gear up, hire a few hundred animators, and when the production is complete they shut down. Animators are usually hunting their next gig midway through the current one. But as I said, if you are proficient, you'll find work...it will find you.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.