Life

How flunking out of animation at Sheridan was the best thing that ever happened to me

Back in the early to mid 90’s, animated movies were hot.  Disney had just come out with a string of hits, each one was bigger than the last.  Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and then the biggest of them all, The Lion King.  At the time, The Lion King made $300 million at the domestic box office, which would be huge today, let alone back in 1995.  Animation was a big deal, and Disney’s success was noticed by every major studio.  As a result, lots of other studios started opening up Animation departments, including Warner Brothers and Fox.  

Anyone who could animate was being recruited by these big studios.  It was at that time when I was accepted to Sheridan College, for their animation program.

For me, this was a huge deal, the biggest thing that could have happened in my life.  I had spent an extra year in high school to work on my art portfolio.  I figured at the time that I could have taken an art fundamentals course, but my high school’s art program wasn’t bad, so I stayed an extra year to save the cash.  If my plan wouldn’t have worked, if I didn’t get into Sheridan, then it would have been a waste of a year, and a huge embarrassment to stay in high school so long.

At the time, there were only two animation schools in North America that had any type of reputation.  One was Cal Arts, which was on the other side of the continent, and Sheridan College, which was a 30 minute drive from my house in Brampton.

When I was accepted, I vowed to work as hard as I could.  I knew that this was it, my chance to reach my dreams, my ticket out.  I put everything I had into it.  I worked around the clock, I give it my all.

I flunked out at the end of my second year.

I was crushed.  Absolutely floored.

For years after, I had a well crafted list of excuses as to why I failed out.  All the good teachers left, snapped up by a hungry industry that needed animators.  Why would an awesome animator stay at a college in Oakville Ontario when they could be animating the next big thing at Disney?  The teachers that were there, didn’t care.  They would accept 120 students knowing that they would cull it down to about 40 or 30 at the end.  Instead of teaching, they mostly just gave out assignments and if you passed, great, and if you didn’t, then tough.  I had several different explanations that I would tell my parents, my friends and myself.

A few months ago, I was clearing out space in my closet, and I found a lot of my old work.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, the truth hit me like a ton of bricks.  I just wasn’t that good.

After I failed, I was back at home with no prospects, no job, no anything.  I was very frustrated, very angry, and had nothing going on in my life.  I went to an employment agency, and would show up at whatever menial job they were handing out that day.  That’s when things got real, really quick.

I worked at a steel mill/machine shop, punching inch thick steel plates all day.

I showed up to a food processing plant, and I unloaded their trucks all day.  The best story from there was the truck full of lamb carcasses that I had to unload.  By the end of the day I was covered in lamb’s blood, and got several odd looks on the bus ride home.

I worked at another steel shop.  A guy showed me how to shave down a centimetre long screw with this huge milling machine.  It was comical, this huge machine would have to be fired up to shave the top of this teeny-tiny screw.  It would take about a minute to do one screw.  I had hundreds, if not thousands of screws to shave down.  That was a very long, very boring day.

There was a place called Polybottle, which made and recycled plastic bottles.  I think I saw about 16 fires from the faulty machines in the 8 weeks I was there.

All the while that I was working in those places, I felt ‘the fear’.  I was thinking that this is it, this is my life.  I was petrified.  I was no stranger to working hard, or working manual labour.  I had worked jobs all through high school.  But this was different.  These jobs were rougher, tougher, and I couldn’t really see any way out.  I had vague plans for my future.  In the back of my mind, I thought maybe I could go back to Sheridan for TV and Film.  But I wasn’t really looking into it.  I was mostly just trying to get a better dead-end job than the one I was currently in.

It was my mother’s constant reminders, that I started looking into the TV and Film program.  To my shock, the due date for the application and portfolio was the next week.  I snapped into action, and frantically assembled a portfolio.  To my relief, a few months later I got the news that I was accepted.

When I got back into Sheridan, I was a different guy.  I had worked hard before, but now I was focused.  I was driven.  I was also very scared.  For me, I was thinking that this was my last, best shot at building a career for myself.  I was now 23 and would be 26 when I finished.  At the time, I was thinking that I was too old to start fresh if this was another failure.

Luckily, this story has (so far) had a happier ending.  I did well in TV and Film.  It had a small visual effects component to the program, which was enough to build a demo reel.  With that demo reel I was able to find a job as a junior compositor, and have been working in the industry ever since.  Once I started working, I heard of a teacher’s assistant position at Seneca, which turned into a teaching job, which turned into a coordinator’s job.  I’ve been lucky.

But something that has stuck with me through the years is the memory of the frustration, aimlessness and anger that I had through those rough times.  The feeling that I had nothing to offer any company.  I firmly believe that it was my failure at Sheridan that fuelled me in the years that followed.  The first time you meet someone at a party, unavoidably one of the subjects that’s brought up is ‘so what do you do?’  I clearly remember the feeling I had when I had nothing good to answer that question with.  It doesn’t feel good, and that feeling still drives me to this day.  

Update

Maintaining a blog is much harder than it sounds.  It's been almost a year since my last post, which is horrible.

A few updates:

Things at the school have been better than ever.  The latest class graduated about a month ago and produced awesome work.  I've started working on the You Tube video of their work, which should come out in late August.

I finished up a contract at Arc Productions, working on a movie called 'Little Boy'.  I'll be going back there for another project in July.

A few months ago I became one of the first certified Nuke trainers in Canada.  In fact, I was the first one in Canada when I took my final test, but I'm sure that there's probably many of them now.  If you know of anyone who needs a Nuke trainer, contact me.

Colour Correction

When I started compositing, colour correction seemed like a black art.  I would push and pull different controls until I would eventually get something that looked somewhat like what I wanted.  When I had spare time, I would open other artists’ scripts and I’d marvel at how they would colour correct a shot.  Every artists' technique was different - some would exclusively use curves.  Others would use levels/histograms, while others would use numeric inputs.  Looking at other artists' scripts would allow me to undertand their technique, but I was still clueless about their thought process - about why they did what they did. 

I fumbled around with colour correction over my first few years of compositing.  The first step towards understanding was reading Steve Wright and later, Ron Brinkmann’s compositing books.  They explained basic things like matching black and white levels and checking different colour channels. These details now seem obvious. However, at the time, gaining this understanding was like lifting a heavy vale from my eyes.

Understanding the different tools took time.  I had to learn that ‘gain’ really meant ‘multiply’, and ‘offset’ meant ‘add‘. I had to learn that there was a difference between these controls and between their impact on images. It took me some time to grasp that when you multiply images highlights are affected more than shadows.  Colour correction was one of those things that just took practice.  It was here that the ‘compositing is really visual math’ really started to click for me. 

Even now, whenever I submit a shot for review, I receive feedback about a necessary colour correction. There is definitely a certain level of subjectivity to colour correction: supervisors often have a different idea than I on how a shot should look.  However, I’m now usually much closer to the target than I used to be, and it only takes one or two iterations before everyone is satisfied.


These books contain great advice about how to approach colour correction.  Wright and Brinkmanns’ books are software independent, while Christiansen’s book is specific to After Effects.

Colour correction resources:

Steve Wright

After Effects Studio Techniques

Visual Math

“Joe, compositing is like visual math.”
I think my colleague meant that to sound comforting. Instead, his words sent a chill down my spine because I really wasn’t very good at math. It was at this moment that I realized that I sucked as a compositor.  The year was 2003.  I was in Quebec, working on Spy Kids 3D at Hybride Technologies.

Let me back up a bit.  I had graduated from a media arts program from Sheridan College a few years earlier.  In that program, which was mostly all about broadcasting and film production, I took an intro to visual effects course that consisted of basic After Effects compositing.  From there I had managed to get an internship at a local post house in Toronto, and then at a small visual effects shop.  After working on some low budget TV movies, work had dried up (at least for me) in Toronto, so I went off to Quebec, where I was  hired as a compositor for Spy Kids 3D.

At the time, I thought I really knew my stuff.  I was at that point in my learning curve where I was so ignorant, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Hybride at the time was a major Discreet house.  They had a close relationship with Discreet, and had several Infernos and Flames.  For those of you unfamiliar with Inferno and Flame, they were (and still are) dedicated compositing systems, that were extremely expensive.  Although desktop programs like Shake were becoming more and more prevalent in FX studios, the name “Inferno” still carried a lot of mystique and weight.

At the Toronto effects shop where I had worked, they had one Inferno with two Flames and two Flints.  At Hybride they had something like six Infernos and six more Flames.  It blew my mind that they had so much stuff.

They also had several compers who had worked at Discreet, so they knew those systems inside and out.  They were compositing ninjas.  They would talk about compositing at a much higher level than what I knew.  Things like ‘you should divide your RGB by your alpha before you color correct’ sounded like an alien language.  I was a caveman, rubbing two sticks together while they had flamethrowers.

My supervisors quickly realized how little I knew, so I was put on prep duty for most of the show.  But from time to time, some of the senior compers would show me what they were doing.  That was when I was told ‘Digital compositing is like visual math’,  which just freaked me out more than I already was.  They would show me stuff and most of it flew over my head, but it greatly opened my mind. 

I left Quebec when Spy Kids was over.  When I arrived, I thought I knew a lot about compositing, but I really knew very little.  Before Quebec, when a technical issue would pop up in one of my shots, I would flail around trying every button, redoing things from scratch, anything I could do to solve the problem. 

At Hybride, I learned that things happen inside a comp for a reason.  Compositing isn’t magic, it’s a system based on math (sometimes surprisingly basic math).  I saw compositors who understood why things happen - they weren’t just button pushers.  They were able to elegantly solve problems that would have had me hack together clumsy solutions.  More importantly, I saw them approach things logically, avoiding many of the problems that I often ran into.

Before I left for Quebec, I had ordered the Steve Wright book, Digital Compositing for Film and Video.  I had read the book before I left for my trip to Hybride, and I only understood about a third of it.  When I came back, I re-read it.  I don’t want to overstate this, but the second reading was a personal turning point.  It was like a bubble had popped, or a gear had turned in my brain.  The exposure to what I saw at Hybride, combined with Wright’s book, gave me a new understanding of compositing.  Not only did I now totally understand Wright’s book, but thinking back, I now understood what those senior compositors were trying to explain to me.
    
This newfound understanding was a big deal.  It fundamentally changed how I approached shots, especially when it came to keying and color correction.  It also gave me a boost in self-esteem.  The entire experience in Quebec left me doubting myself for months.  I now felt that maybe I could really wrap my head around compositing, and who knows, maybe one day be as good as those Hybride ninjas.