During a guest appearance at the Electronic Arts Teen Animation Scholarship Program at Arts Umbrella, veteran art director Ian Lloyd shared some advice with the students about choosing a career path, why communication is important, how to overcome artist’s block, and more

EA Teen Animation Scholarship

It’s not every day that a group of ambitious teens gets to sit down with a senior art director from BC’s largest games studio. Full of questions for the EA veteran, students in Arts Umbrella’s EA Teen Animation Scholarship Program absorbed all Lloyd had to say. Here are seven lessons we took away from his visit:

It’s important to be a problem-solver
Sometimes an animation job may be about more than just illustration, character design, environment modelling, and visual effects. At organizations of all sizes, being able to solve problems as they arise will help keep projects moving forward, and keep to timelines and budget.

For Lloyd, as a senior art director and team lead, solving problems is a big part of the job. And solutions vary: “Sometimes it’s computer, sometimes personnel, sometimes, it’s workflow,” he tells the class. “Sometimes it’s political in nature and you need to know how to get your team to be healthy and feel good about the work they’re doing.”

Find your style, but remain open to changing trends
Animation styles evolve with technology and trends, but, as in other media, there is also a resurgence of old techniques. “Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of using key frame animation through flash or toon boom as the technology has allowed people to be more expressive with the medium,” says Lloyd. “It’s a return of a 2-D aesthetic.” If there’s a style you’re drawn to, give it a try.

A graduate of the classical animation program at Sheraton College in the mid-90s, Lloyd says the longevity and transformations of the industry were expected. Personally, however, he didn’t expect to end up in video games, nor at the same company for 20 years.

“I started at EA on a project called SSX, a snowboarding game,” Lloyd told the students. “We designed characters. We designed worlds. It was an extrapolation from snowboarding today to what it could be in 10 years. How would the production values go up? What fashions or styles would exist?” Not only was the team on SSX looking at current trends in animation, they were looking forward, trying to predict what users would want down the road.

For EA, whose Burnaby office is well known for sports franchises like FIFA soccer, NHL hockey, and UFC, realistic character and world design has become a signature style. As the art teams raised character quality over the years, they’ve encountered an interesting challenge. In the uncanny valley hypothesis, human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly like real people, elicit feelings of discomfort in viewers. So the artists have had to contend with that and ensure gamers were happy with their designs.

While styles in animation, like realism, evolve, so does the technology that aids design. Take advantage of technology and keep up with the tools to stay on top of trends and style.

Simplify your work to get things done
Even successful artists have to start somewhere. For many animators that means creating a demo reel.

“Looking back, my demo reel was terrible, especially in terms of being finished,” Lloyd shared with the class. “I had lots of ideas, lots of ambition, but often tackled projects that were way too big to complete.”

His words of wisdom? First, that there is value in rough work. You shouldn’t be afraid to be satisfied with rough work as oppose to trying to get in details before you’ve got a completed piece. Secondly, think about how to simplify your story.

“If you’re animating something, especially by hand, you have to draw it hundreds of times, so your designs should be streamlined and essential,” he told them. “The more focused you can be, the more efficient you can be, the more likely you’re going to end up with a finished product that you’re happy with.”

Personal growth is more important than your demo reel
On the topic of demo reels, Lloyd shared an important message. Early in his career, when he worked at a company called Grey Matter, Lloyd worked on several projects that never launched. “As an artist very early in your career, your work feels very personal, you’ve invested a lot of yourself in the product and then it just goes away, nobody cares about it, and all of your time feels wasted,” said Lloyd.

But that’s not the case. “The reality is, you’ve learned a lot, you’ve grown a lot, and you just don’t necessarily have a product on the shelf to show for it,” said Lloyd. He reminded the students that animation is a business, and that while you should always put your best work into a job, you have to remember that it’s a business and that someone has to make money from it.

At the end of the day though, it’s all about personal growth. For the year-end projects these teens produce, Lloyd recommended taking a step back before they began, to determine the best way to accomplish their goals. For the students, it started with writing a story and using it as the criteria for which scenes were in or out. Without a well-structured story, it can be difficult to make those decisions and it becomes difficult to manage the small steps needed to complete the project, resulting in a lot of time wasted. “As soon as you give yourself limits, it helps you become focused for problem-solving and justifying your decisions,” Lloyd told them.

To really develop skills and grow, you have to be open to learning “from friends, from people you work with, from the material that inspires you.” For students and professionals alike, no creative should ever think they know everything. “All of your life experience will influence your work.”

Learn to work as a team and manage scope
During his time at EA, Lloyd has worked on many a team. In the workplace, teams typically work in short sprints, about two weeks long, to complete small tasks toward a large final project. While the creative part of a job is often appealing to illustrators, Lloyd emphasized that working with your team, remaining humble, and being hard-working are key to success. It helps to think in the short-term and concentrate on what can be achieved when a team works together.

But even then, scope creep can sneak up on you. As a team member, you should always speak to your lead about scope, even in a first job. “Be aware of signing up for work that you don’t feel confident you can finish in the time allowed,” said Lloyd, “Especially if [the project] is not well defined.” It’s a dangerous place to operate from, if you’re asked to both design and execute in a short amount of time. “If it’s small-scale, maybe you can wrap your head around it, but if you’re working with a big team, it can get very technical.”

Good communication can help advance your career
The video game industry is still relatively young, so vernacular, especially that between animators in film, games, and other media, is not perfectly developed. Communications skills between these industries is important for students seeking broad career opportunities, but that’s not the only type of communication important for a successful career.

Lloyd spoke about a “sphere of influence” in which animators may experience job growth. Everyone is part of a team, a studio, an organization. If you’re able to contribute at every level, you’ll experience growth. How? By sharing techniques, skills, and observations. Even if you’re shy or introverted, this type of communication will greatly impact your career. “A lot of introverted people just want to focus on their own work, but they can do it at a high level,” says Lloyd. “You can be a craftsperson, but your upward mobility is limited by your ability to influence other people.”

Tips for fighting artist’s block
One of the easiest ways to fight artist’s block is to work on multiple projects or parts of one projects at once. “If I get stuck on one part, I can hop to another,” explained Lloyd. For the teens at AU working on their year-end animation shorts, jumping from scene to scene can help. Barring that, Lloyd recommends taking 20-minute breaks. “It’s almost like taking a nap or focusing on something else,” he explained. “Your brain will still be working in the background to solve the problem.”

If your artist’s block manifests as an inability to come up with a story, Lloyd recommends just making a decision. “When you’re coming up with a story and you don’t like it, just get something down. If it’s wrong, you can figure it out as you go and you can correct it. But if you don’t do anything and you stare at a blank piece of paper, you’re doing nothing and you have no frame of reference from which you can improve.”

The same advice goes for sharing your work with others. You have to start somewhere, with something, otherwise there’s nothing to talk about.