Leeds School of Arts

What is animation? Creating and Bringing the Impossible to Life

Rory McLeish was born in Glasgow where he attended Glasgow School of Art. In 1983 he moved to Yorkshire to work as a model builder and illustrator. After several years in advertising, he entered the fledgling games industry as a concept artist and 3D modeller in the 90s. Rory moved to Los Angeles, US, as a visual effects artist at Digital Domain in 2001, then he freelanced and began teaching at Leeds Beckett University upon returning to the UK in 2006. Rory is now Course Leader on the BSc (Hons) Computer Animation and Visual Effects, and Senior Lecturer for BSc (Hons) Games Design and Game Art.

3D model of tank

What is a digital animator?

Digital animators give movement and personality to digital creatures, characters and vehicles. They can access performance-capture data from software like Autodesk Motionbuilder to transfer digitally captured realistic movement from actors and performers on to 3D characters using Autodesk Maya or 3ds Max to create keyframe animation by hand.

Animators must quickly comprehend proprietary software tools and development processes, particularly in large animation companies such as Pixar where very little of the software used in production will be off the shelf. Animators will also use Massive during large movie or TV productions like The Lord of The Rings trilogy or Game of Thrones. The sophisticated Massive AI software controls hundreds or thousands of autonomous ‘Massive Agents’, authored and directed to simulate and render large, realistic crowd or battle scenes.

A good animator should also have a sound basic knowledge of CG character creation, from concept design through to modelling, texture painting and the rigging process.

How do I become an animator? 

An animator needs a passion for animation or any other aspect of visual effects and should have a desire to tell stories through motion and visual art. You’ll be a creative individual who can engage in observational drawing, photography and other visual arts.

The entire industry is based on the recreation of realism based on visual reference so you should have a good grasp of actually seeing, and not just looking at how things move and appear, in order to give your work authenticity.

You’ll need a thorough understanding of fundamental animation principles like posing, timing, weight, follow-through, exaggeration etc. You’ll also need a degree, particularly if you want to work outside the UK, although talented individuals can enter the industry based solely on a good portfolio or showreel. Animation and VFX production are now global, and talented graduates entering the industry are offered a great opportunity to work all over the world. Additionally, you’ll need the drive, creativity and determination to create great animation work for your graduate showreel, as this will be your ultimate calling card to the industry.

How do I know if animation is for me? 

If you are a creative, passionate and driven visual storyteller, then animation work could be for you. You will also need a great eye for detail and be prepared to put the work and time in to make sure something you create is as good as can be. Are you a good team player? You’ll need to be in the incredibly collaborative environment of film, TV and game production. But you’ll also need the patience, dedication and resourcefulness to work independently with minimal supervision when needed. Are you a creative problem solver? Would you be able to predict potential difficulties when faced with any specific animation task? These are all skills and attributes you’ll need in order to be a good animator in the games or visual effects industry.

STEALTH: Previs Animation Previsualisation animation by Rory McLeish for the 2005 movie, STEALTH, created while working at Digital Domain as a digital artist.

What is your background working in digital animation?  

After leaving the games industry in 2001, I enjoyed my move to the US and the challenge of working in Digital Domain immensely. The animation and visual effects teams I worked in during various movie productions were composed of incredibly talented people from all over the world. They were also very easy to work with, which is critical if you are spending up to 10-12 hours a day or longer working together on a movie production, particularly at crunch times. It was a great experience to see the movie production process from script to the finished product, and it’s a thrill to see you and your colleagues’ hard work presented in a blockbuster feature film. Animation and visual effects are incredibly collaborative processes, and everyone is working against the clock – once that movie release date is set, there’s no stopping it. I worked on The Day After Tomorrow, Star Trek Nemesis, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as a shot lighter and 3D modeller. I contributed to STEALTH as part of a previsualisation animation team, working with the director to realise his vision for the advanced fighter planes featured in the movie.

What achievement are you most proud of since working at Leeds Beckett University?  

Many of our best Computer Animation and Visual Effects student graduates are now working in the industry both here in the UK and abroad. Many are invited to give talks and lectures to present their industry work, and this gives myself and the Computer Animation and Visual Effects team here at Leeds School of Arts a great deal of satisfaction. It’s also incredibly inspirational for our current students to see where their studies and career path can take them if they put in the necessary time, hard work and dedication.

What are the career options available with an animation degree? 

Animators and visual effects artists can be employed in film and TV, media and advertising, architectural visualisation, interior design, medical research visualisation, automotive and product design, and, of course, the computer games and visual effects industries. Sophisticated 3D software and hardware are relatively easy to access with an appropriate budget, and there is a much broader scope of work available to animators and effects artists now than ever before. Depending on the company and location, the entry-level salary is around £15-17,000 per year, increasing with production experience to around £30-35,000.

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