Education - Stepping Up
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2007)

Education - Stepping Up

The transition from student to professional can be a challenge, a potential debris-filled minefield of questions and problems. How many employment applications does one have to send before hitting pay dirt? Where are the jobs?

And then, there’s that burning question: “What exactly do you want to do?”

But for some, it’s not a minefield at all. There are those students who pick a nearby school, work at an internship or two, and then land a job they like without much problem. Their transition was about what they had expected. Here, a few young pros share their stories.

John Zilka
Gasket Studios (, Minneapolis

John Zilka transitioned into a full-time position with Gasket Studios after interning with the facility

Gasket Studios creative director Greg Shultz’s simple assessment of John Zilka is he’s “an up-and-coming Maya rock star.”

So much for faint praise, eh? Zilka, a designer/animator, joined the company early this year as an intern and moved into a full-time position in June, immediately after his graduation from The Art Institutes International Minnesota.

Shultz notes that Zilka already possesses “a soft-spoken nature and a great sense of humor” (the latter being a fine trait to exhibit in this type of industry); those features, coupled with Zilka’s technical and creative abilities, add up to a winning combination, he adds.

Zilka could hardly wait to demonstrate his design chops professionally, having been heavily influenced during his early years by the work of those who came before him—notably the folks at Pixar. “I started thinking about this type of career when I was a high school sophomore in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, which is when several movies that were created in a completely animated environment, like Toy Story, hit the big screen,” he says.

What piqued Zilka’s interest wasn’t so much the story line. “It was the technical side of the movie that caught my eye.”

While Zilka was introduced to Gasket during his internship, the early exposure to the professional environment didn’t count toward the fulfillment of his credit requirements for college. “What got me connected there was a classmate, Nate Dorn, who was already interning [at Gasket],” he explains. “They had another spot open, so they brought me in last February. Fortunately, when we graduated June 15, they hired both of us. We started three days later.”

The duo first worked together on a music video for producer Rusty Rogers, “who came to school to produce a music video made for his rendition of the tune ‘10 Little Monkeys.’ My role was to design characters and backgrounds, as well as set up characters for animation,” Zilka explains, noting that up to seven students worked on the project at once.

Zilka embarked on his career path using Autodesk’s 3ds Max, “but during the class I bought a Maya 6 Foundation [also from Autodesk] book on my own and quickly came to prefer it. It’s more powerful and offers the user more options, such as particle dynamics and the painting weights.”

The young animator discusses how Maya enhanced his creativity on one of his senior projects—a short story about a guy who falls asleep in his bed only to awake and discover that his cat had become a giant, sending him running for his life. “I used Maya to accentuate the cat’s fur and the man’s clothing, for instance,” says Zilka. He also employed Maya on a piece for Microsoft that called for a crow to fly over an ocean and some ships, then land on a buoy. “I rigged and animated the bird,” he describes, “then we created the water in Maya, later compositing the buoy and ships, which were all done in [Adobe’s] After Effects, into the piece.”

All told, Zilka has used the combination of his education, contacts, and talent to make a smooth transition from academia to the work world. “Gasket made my transition really easy, so I got used to the people and the workload before I came to work full time,” he says. “The other students at my school didn’t do internships for the most part, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone.”

Kyle Gray
Spy Post (, San Francisco

Kyle Gray began his job at Spy Post even before graduating from San Francisco’s Academy of Art. Prior to that, he completed an unpaid internship. Those experiences have helped him with his current work: music video, commercial, and film compositing.

Kyle Gray has a bit of “seniority” on Zilka, having joined Spy Post as an assistant editor/After Effects artist last February—though he didn’t graduate from San Francisco’s Academy of Art until May.

The majority of Gray’s workload at Spy Post involves compositing on music videos, commercials, and features. His previous experience, which he gained at a small production company early in his college career, also includes editing commercials.

The Denver native, who is now just 22 years old, also has an early career that parallels that of Zilka from an experience standpoint, as his interest in postproduction work was sparked during high school. He was 16 when he started cutting skateboard videos “in the X Games mode” and started his own LLC; at 17 he produced skating videos, then cut and distributed product in the western US.

“That’s when I decided I wanted to proceed into films and music videos,” says Gray. “Then I looked for colleges and came across the academy, so I moved to San Francisco.”

Gray had what might be considered different expectations for what he hoped to accomplish by going to film school. “It was more for me personally,” he continues. “I think what you pay for is the creative atmosphere. You don’t go there as much for an education. You have to educate yourself with your peers and on the equipment that you have access to.”

With those thoughts in mind, Gray began to look for his first professional gigs during his sophomore year and came up with an unpaid internship at Hot Bed in San Francisco. After about a year, he started working on some paid freelance jobs.

And get paid he did, as the freelance gigs evolved to the point that, during his junior year, he was working five days a week with Hot Bed clients like Foote, Cone & Belding for Kikkoman soy sauce while finishing his degree.

“I kept at it until I graduated,” Gray says, “but at that point, it almost seemed like school was holding me back from moving ahead in my career.” That may have also contributed to holding him back from sleeping when one considers that Gray had also started freelancing for Spy Post by that point. Gray left Hot Bed about six months ago when Spy Post offered what he says was a better atmosphere to enhance his skills as an artist.

Today Gray is using After Effects and Autodesk’s Discreet Flame to work on spots for the likes of Hyundai through Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and a music video for the group Air Traffic via Terri Timely. But he already understands that it’s nice to stay in touch with old contacts; to that end, he still freelances on occasion with Hot Bed. “I like to keep close to my former employers,” he says, knowing that they might be future employers.

As Gray continues to learn while he earns, he looks back at his educational experience as generally positive, but not defining. “School helped many people who I know more than it did me,” says Gray, “because I came in knowing what I wanted to do, whereas a lot of them were in the midst of finding that out.”

John Sanchez
The Napoleon Group (, New York

John Sanchez snagged a prized internship with MTV, eventually turning that into a freelance position before his reel landed him his current job at The Napoleon Group.

The road taken by John Sanchez to his current station as an animator and motion graphics artist at The Napoleon Group in New York City was less direct than those of Zilka and Gray. In fact, his doubts about the financial incentives available in creative fields led him in a different direction initially. “As a kid, I used to draw a lot,” says Sanchez, “but I didn’t think I could make any money at it.” So he acquired a bachelor’s degree in finance from St. John’s University and worked for such firms as Smith Barney and Chase Bank.

“But it wasn’t for me,” Sanchez says, and he ended up following his heart after all, though it took a while to see exactly where it was heading. After stints as a talent manager and as an actor—plus the reality check of 9/11—it was back to school, this time at NYU for a master’s degree in digital imaging and design at the Center for Advanced Digital Application.

Then, like Zilka and Gray, Sanchez felt ready to apply his developing skills in the field. “I was trying to get an internship my second semester and sent my resume to MTV. It was a surprise when they called me an hour later,” he says. “It turned out that the guy doing the hiring knew some of my professors at NYU.”

The network needed someone with Softimage skills to provide background graphics for the spring 2006 edition of MTV Up Front, the vehicle for executives to unveil new fall shows to advertisers. And it was pretty big stuff: Jamie Foxx performed, and Jessica Alba emceed.

“It went well,” Sanchez says. “I ended up using Maya on the Mac due to a lack of available PCs. It turned into a freelance job that paid $300 a day, so that buoyed my spirits and made me feel that I was where I needed to be. But it was only for that show.”

The upstart learned Maya at NYU, but taught himself Softimage when he was working on his thesis—it was about rigging and included projects concerning animation and character modeling, which he encompassed in a short animation.

It was that summer when The Napoleon Group saw Sanchez’s reel online and called to set up an interview. An offer eventually came, but not until October, “when I was in the midst of finishing my thesis and I was in ‘the zone.’” Fortunately, the facility was able to wait until this past February for him to come aboard. Since then, Sanchez has offered his skills in 3D graphics and compositing using After Effects. So far, he’s worked on test spots for Three Musketeers candy bars (entailing a wave of chocolate, requiring him to learn Next Limit’s RealFlow). That came in handy for another spot, for Oil of Olay, which featured splashing water.

“3D is my specialty, but they needed someone who knows After Effects, so I learned it. Learning something new— people have to continually do that in this business,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez has a somewhat philosophical overview of his career to date: “I don’t know if it was what I expected, but I can tell you now I feel at home. Everything in my past led me to where I am now.”  

Mark R. Smith is a Maryland-based freelance writer covering the film and video post and production business. He can be reached at