Two Animators Talk About Careers, Art and Life

Marshall Ayers Animation, Artist Profiles, Career Advice, Visual Arts

Leading parallel lives, animators Will Cuna and Drew Adams met in high school through the Ryman Arts program, but hadn’t caught up with each other for almost 10 years. Both were trained at CalArts and have both gone on to successful careers – one at DreamWorks the other at Disney. Will is originally from the Philippines, but grew up in and around LA. Drew is a native of Southern California and still lives in the area commuting to Glendale to work at DreamWorks. Both have families now and both have weathered the constantly evolving animation industry, but they still retain their love and passion for the art form. The friends met-up with me recently on a warm day over lunch at Pit Fire Pizza in North Hollywood, to catch-up with each other and talk shop. (Full disclosure I have known both these guys since they were in high school as Founding Ex. Director of Ryman Arts.)

2D versus 3D

Will: You had a traditional 2D (two dimensional) background and you were always really passionate about pursuing a classic 2D animation career and now things have turned around to 3D and you’re doing CG (computer generated) animation so you’ve had to change-up your skills and approach. So how do you feel about that?

Drew: It is definitely the way the industry went. But I feel really lucky to have had the traditional arts training that I did. And I still feel like it makes me stronger because I had it. I’m on the computer but, I’m still thinking about it aesthetically about shapes and design even though its not the way that I implement things with the tool set I have now, it is still a factor in the terms of getting the image/animation to be as appealing as it can be.

Marshall: What are the tools that you are using on a daily basis? For a student who is interested in going down this road what would you recommend learning?

Drew: We use Premo, an in-house proprietary software. It’s similar to Maya which is the best one to learn if you want to get into the industry. So Will you have a 2D background too and you are still in animation but you’re working in television.

Drew Adams in his office at DreamWorks.

Will: With my background I wasn’t a passionate animator to begin with, it all just fell into my hands but I fell in love with the medium and I always had the drive to get into the feature industry. Having a family re-routed my goal. I still am passionate about it and 2D happened to be something I learned to harness, but now I have gotten so good at using a new tool now, Flash to be specific. At first I was really reluctant and didn’t want to go digital, I was in the last wave to get on-board. Then I ran into a friend of mine who asked me to come to his studio and he said we’ll train you in Flash and then from that point on basically the rest was history. I was able to transition to digital. Especially lately for this new show I’m working on. I have a new software I’m working with now and it is basically the same way of drawing, a way of outlining things but a different way of structuring your animation. Now, I feel excited again. It’s new, there is a lot of potential and it’s more intuitive. There are ways to expand and build a library of your assets where you don’t have to draw a lot.

Technology and Creativity

Marshall: Does technology drive creativity or are the tools getting so intuitive now that you’re getting back to a more seamless process?

Drew: It’s definitely more seamless. The ironic part is that the more the technology advances the more you don’t see the technology. Drawing within the software or clicking directly on the character with a stylus to move it and not have to enter numbers or deal with a manipulator makes it feel like posing a physical character in stop motion than being in the computer.

Will: I can’t wait to get there. I think the whole reason Flash is such a popular tool in the TV industry here and overseas is how it streamlined the whole pipeline of animation production jobs. From coloring, compositing, laying out shots, clean-up to backgrounds that feature films would never have you do. Now as a TV key animator I do all of that now. But I don’t feel bad about that because I feel like a “super-power” artist and have more control.

Industry Life

Marshall: Tell me one thing you love about the industry and one thing that drives you crazy.

Drew: Being able to work in any art related field and get paid to do what you love is amazing. Sure there are days when it feels like a job but the majority of them don’t. There’s always deadlines and tough schedules but the good days far outnumber the bad ones.

“It is still a creative high to get your work out there.”

Will: One thing I love is when you get a project you really want to jump on and you so excited to animate a scene in the story and the content is good and of a really high quality. Of course that doesn’t always happen in the TV world, and the thing that is tough in the industry is the quota of work that is expected, it is always high, just the sheer quantity of output that is demanded. You’ve got to turn it out. There is less of that in feature film. And some days I wish I could just spend more time polishing my scenes, make them beautiful. But these days with the new project I’m doing I get to draw the way I want to draw the scene, and I get to direct my own shots and the artist has more and more control, so that’s good.

Still from Trolls

Animators, Diversity and Mentoring

Marshall: What’s your take on how the diversity in the industry in going? What are your teams like in terms of background and women in the field?

Drew: Feature animation still has a way to go to be more balanced, but it’s on the radar now which is good. I teach at Animation Mentor and I’ve noticed there are a lot more women coming into teh program and they are kicking butt which is great. There is still a ways to go but its getting better.

Marshall: So now you’re far enough along in your career to be a mentor, how does that feel?

Drew: I think as an artist there is a bit of insecurity to take on that role because there is always that kernal of doubt that you’re never good enough, but I think it is good to give back. A ton of people have helped me out along the way and I just feel it is the right thing to do and it’s fun too, to see students with the same energy and drive that I had when I was starting out. Teaching has made me a better animator as well – Circle of life stuff!

Will: I got approached about a teaching job through a connection on LinkedIn, but I turned it down because don’t feel like I’m ready to teach yet. I feel like I have to know everything about my medium before I could teach it. I want to be an expert. I’m too much of a perfectionist.

Animators Personalities

Marshall: Are all animators perfectionists?

Will and Drew both laugh.

Will: You have to be!

Drew: Obsessive compulsive at least. It is definitely the personality type.

Will: We don’t mind the repetitiveness because we are always striving to polish things and make it look better.

Drew Adams studied art and animation at Ryman Arts and CalArts. Shortly after, he started his career in traditional animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios working on Atlantis and Treasure Planet. He later made the switch to computer animation working for ReelFX, Duncan Studio, and Dreamworks; where he just completed work on the feature film Trolls. Various film credits include: Tim Burton’s 9, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of The Guardians, The Croods, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Will Cuna graduated from CalArts in 2000 in Character Animation. During high school he received his formal art training from Ryman Arts and received a full scholarship to attend CSSSA ( California State Summer School for the Arts). After graduating CalArts, Will teamed up with his college friends and a mentor to form a studio called July Films, Inc. He has held many creative titles including visual development artist, background artist, sequence board artist, and sequence lead animator. Most recently he received an Emmy Award for the show Niko and the Sword of Light for Best Animated Children’s Program. He is now presently working at Disney as an animation supervisor on Ducktales’.

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Marshall Ayers
Arts education specialist with 25+ years experience in non-profit organizations and public educational settings. Marshall founded Artzray to create a community of young, multidisciplinary artists who are seeking professional, practical and personal career resources. Marshall lives and works in LA with her family, but hails from the east coast. When she's not working on Artzray, she would rather be sailing, reading or listening to her son play cello.
Marshall Ayers