Artzray Q & A – Associate Professor Sharon Sussman is a digital artist and animator who worked at DreamWorks Feature Animation. She teaches digital arts and animation in Hawaii. Ms Sussman shares some valuable insights into the field of animation.
Chasing Paradise, was written and created by the New Media Arts Animation student cohort of 2013 and took First Place for Animation at the Studio City Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Questions & Answers with Sharon Sussman
1. Tell us a little about yourself and about your professional and educational background.
I received a BA in Art from University of California at Santa Cruz focusing on painting and lithography. I taught art, lithography and painting at UCSC for several years. Fifteen years later I received an MA from San Jose State University in digital art and animation in the CADRE (Computers in Art, Design, Research & Education) program. From there I worked as a digital trainer at DreamWorks Feature Animation. I am currently teaching digital art and animation at Kapi‘olani Community College on O‘ahu.
2. Ideally, what skill sets do you want your students to arrive in your class with?
The animation program at KCC is 3 years long. I have students in their 2nd and 3rd years, so they take my classes after a year of design basics, drawing and digital art.
3. What skill sets do you want them to leave with?
At the end of the KCC New Media Arts program the students have learned to model, rig and animate digital characters. They have created their own animated short, and they have completed one animated short that they have worked collaboratively on with the entire cohort (15 students) for one year. So they learn the digital skills as well as how to work collaboratively on a project – mimicking the setup of an animation studio. They also continue to take advanced drawing and painting courses.
Employment Prospects for Digital Artists and Animation
4. What are your students’ employment prospects when they graduate?
A few graduates find animation work on the islands. Some have found jobs in studios on the mainland. Since KCC is a community college, for most jobs they will need to continue their education at a 4-year institution. Many do that on the mainland. There is a new program at the University of Hawaii, West Oahu that concentrates on transmedia and gaming. We’re hoping these skills will give the graduates more employment options on the islands.
5. What do you love most about your work? The least?
I really love when a student finds her/his passion. Part of my job is also directing the New Arts Lecture series that I developed when I came here. I bring animation luminaries – such as Brenda Chapman (Academy award for her story “Brave”; award-winning character designers Nico Marlet (dragons for “How to Train Your Dragon”, Carter Goodrich (“Ratatouille”), Carlos Grangel (“Corpse Bride”); Darek Gogol, concept artist for animation and live action (“Matrix”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), and many more. I love when the students work with these icons of animation and find that “ah-ha” moment.
The least? The bureaucracy of education. It takes precious time and energy.
Words of Advice for Starting a Career in Media Arts
6. What words of wisdom would you give a young student starting out their career in media arts?
Find the niche that you love because you’ll be there a long time. You’ll succeed if you are doing what you love. That’s cliché, but the basics.
7. Could you elaborate more on your work experience at DreamWorks? What was the culture like – the good, the bad and the ugly? Why did you leave LA and go to Hawaii?
Working at DreamWorks was an ideal job. I got to work next to some of the best artists from around the world. My job as Digital Trainer was to train traditional artists to transition to the computer. I worked with artists from almost every department – layout, ink & paint, visual development, character animation, background painters, effects, etc. It was exciting artistically and challenging technically. I started in 1996, so the studio was still in its infancy. The feeling of the studio was enthusiastic and motivating.
I really do have good memories. The bad and the ugly complaints were more miniscule. I simply left DreamWorks to return to teaching in academia because I am also a painter and wanted the extra time that academia affords as opposed to a full time, 9-6 job, so that I could get back to painting and my personal artwork. I also wanted another adventure in life. The job offer in Hawaii offered both. I am enjoying Hawaii and my art making, but there really was an incredible energy working in a studio where it’s collaborative art making with such incredible artists. I had a choice in my life between 2 wonderful paths.
8. Could you share some thoughts about the bigger employment prospects for media arts and young animators and where you see the field headed?
The positions in Feature Animation seem to be getting much more difficult to get. So many qualified animators need to relocate to get jobs. Perhaps the answer for young animators is to relocate. After all, there was a big percentage of animators at DreamWorks who relocated to the US to work there. But historically, neither art nor animation careers were followed for job security. For those who are passionate and motivated, I am optimistic that they will find a place. The web is offering new opportunities for different and innovative employment paths. Game design is still going strong. They are using animation in so many fields now that recent graduates need to be creative in where they look for work. And there are so many schools educating graduates that the competition is probably fierce. Be dedicated, work hard, be able to work collaboratively and don’t burn your bridges.
9. You have worked in both the corporate world and as an educator. Would you comment on the rewards and challenges in each of these employment sectors?
I like helping students find their interest. I like the self-discovery that they get. The downside is that there is a routine to teaching. And then there is the bureaucracy. At DreamWorks I was the student as well as the trainer. There was such a high caliber of employees that I was always learning. There is also the thrill of being a part of that collaboration of production. My job at the studio was constantly changing. I was more of a generalist. Being an artist on production at a big studio is a little different, generally you are hired for a specific job.
10. What can high school students who want to go into this field do to better prepare?
Take art classes. Especially figure drawing if they are interested in character animation. Draw all the time. Be the best. Look at the whole picture and think out of the box when thinking about employment. Look critically at your skills. It’s not enough to say, “I love Saturday morning cartoons, I want to do that.” It’s work. There are a lot of skills that go into animations. Maybe you don’t have the focus to animate, but you are great at cinematography and layout – then work to nail camera shots.
Digital Arts and Animation Software and Hardware
11. What technology do you use in your classes? What type of hardware (computers) what type of software?
Our animation lab is PC. We also have an Interface (Web) Design specialization. That lab has half Mac and half PC. Animation uses Maya, Nuke, Photoshop, Mudbox, After Effects and Houdini. We have a dual monitor setup with a Wacom Cintique as the second monitor. It’s a high end setup that mimics a professional animation studio. It’s a great opportunity for the students to get this at the price of Community College.
12. If there isn’t a program/class accessible to the reader, what options or resources would you suggest?
Most of the software can be downloaded for free to learn. Maya is especially useful in this way. They also have an online manual and there are lots of tutorials on line on 3rd party websites. There are also online courses through Gnomon and Animation Mentor. Probably others.
13. What are the misconceptions that your students start your class with?
That animation is fun. Well, it is fun. Lots of fun. But it is also a lot of work. Hard work.
14. How has the industry changed from when you started to where it is now?
First of all, you had to have a $25,000.00 machine (SGI) to run the $10,000.00 software (Power Animator). DreamWorks was creating 2D/3D animations – not 3D. The people working in digital animation came from a variety of backgrounds and along all sorts of paths. It was a ragtag group that was really interesting. But a lot of it is the same too. I think the male to
female ratio is still lop-sided. Animation is still good story with good visual development and lots of hard work.
15. New technology in the field is a constant game changer. Where do you think that the technology will take the industry in the near future?
Look at USC, Alex McDowell and Henry Jenkins with Transmedia Storytelling and the 5D Institute. University of Hawaii at West Oahu will be growing up with an interesting department. I guess you asked where industry will be going, but I think academia oftentimes drives industry in creativity. Look at Youtube channels.
16. What are some examples of the niches that people find themselves within?
I’m not sure what those niches will be in the future. For me, I had no idea that Feature Animation studios hired educators. They hire Librarians for their archives. There were animators who just animated manes and tales for Spirit. There were Effects Animators who just did water.
Career Digital Artist and Animator – Sharon Sussman
Sharon Sussman is a hybrid traditional/digital artist and animator. Prior to joining the faculty at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, she worked at DreamWorks Feature Animation for six years. Film credits include: Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad, Shrek and Shark Tale. She previously taught digital art and animation as well as traditional drawing and painting at the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Jose State University. She worked as a freelance digital artist and animator for such companies as Adobe, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, Fractal Design and others.
Sussman has shown her paintings nationally since 1990. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in painting from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Master of Arts degree in art (concentration in digital media art) from San Jose State University. Sussman currently teaches computer animation at Kapi’olani Community College.