Living the Animation Dream
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 9: (October 2010)

Living the Animation Dream

Could anything top a career in which you are doing exactly what you dreamed about when you were a child? A career, say, that puts you inside a feature animation studio after growing up with such beloved films as Aladdin, Lion King, Toy Story, and then Shrek.  

Winning an Annie Award might be better. Just ask Animation Mentor alumnus Philip To. Earlier in the year, the 27-year-old animator received an Annie for the best character animation in a television production for his work on DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space, which aired last fall.

“I was flabbergasted,” To says. “I’m still dumbfounded.”  

It’s definitely been a quick trip to the winner’s circle for someone who didn’t know he wanted to be an animator until, well, he was. “In early high school, I took art and drawing classes,” To says. “But, later, I concentrated on math and science. When it was time to choose a major to go on to university, and my friends were picking accounting and computer science, I just couldn’t see myself doing that. So, I picked something by chance and hoped it would work out.”

The course To chose at the University of New South Wales—College of Fine Arts in Sydney, Australia, resulted in a bachelor’s degree in “digital media.” There, he studied photography, sculpture, Web design, and a little animation. “I learned enough to get a job,” he notes.

That first job was creating cinematics for a game company. At his second job, To did animation for another game company. “It wasn’t for me,” he says, “too mechanical and not enough performance.” Even so, a lead animator there, Tim Goldsby-Smith, saw To’s potential. When Goldsby-Smith moved on to The LaB Sydney, a postproduction house, he paved the way for To.

While Philip To’s dream was to do feature animation, his work on the TV special Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space earned him an Annie Award.

“Tim managed to get me onboard without going through a hiring process,” To says, “which is lucky, because I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job.”

And, in fact, To was way over his head. He joined a group of approximately 25 animators producing the Erky Perky children’s television series. “I had to hit the ground running,” he says. “We were doing 11-minute episodes, all performance-based stuff, which I had never done. So, I struggled. I worked a lot of late nights trying to keep up. It was a tough slog.”

That was in 2004. When Animation Mentor introduced its program in 2005, To jumped at the opportunity. “I was stoked,” he says. “I could learn from people in the biggest studios in the world.”

The first Animation Mentor class exceeded his expectations. “It was a huge stepping-stone,” To says. “That class alone pushed my work from moderate to good. I’d never understood what spacing was, or tracking arcs, isolating body parts, figuring out body motion, or analyzing poses. I thought, ‘Oh, I finally really get it.’”

To’s animation director at The LaB, Murray Debus, also helped. “He came from a 2D background,” To notes. “The way he talked about things made me think of animation more in a 2D fashion, and that pushed my work forward, as well.” So did his sister Vivienne To, now a concept artist at Animal Logic. “We pushed each other creatively,” To says.

In Animation Mentor’s Class Four, To studied acting for the first time. “That class made me think about performance,” he adds, “about separating it from mechanics to concentrate on the heart of the shot, to get into the head of the character. Every lecture was amazing. I re-watched lectures.” To cites Scott Carroll, now at Blue Sky, as especially helpful.

Class Five, though, was To’s last. Jordi Girones, a fellow Animation Mentor student who worked at Framestore in London, submitted To’s work to his animation supervisor--without To’s knowledge. Framestore offered To a job. “I couldn’t turn it down,” he says. So, the animator left home and flew halfway around the world.  To and Girones had never met; they had conversed only through e-mail and chat, but they ended up sharing a flat in London.

DreamWorks’ Halloween television special, Monstersvs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from OuterSpace, features many of the lovable charactersfrom the movie. To especially enjoyed performanceshots with the one-eyed BOB.

“You know, Animation Mentor talks about the mentors and their great teachers from places like Blue Sky, DreamWorks, and Pixar,” To says, “They don’t sell the social aspect. But, that’s really strong. You see each other’s work and get to know each other through online interaction. You meet people who will become lifelong friends. That’s massive.”

After working on Golden Compass and Prince Caspian at Framestore, To sent a demo reel to DreamWorks Animation. “I had always wanted to work on a feature animation,” he says. “Caspian was cool, but it was more about battles and less about performance. On a feature animation, you get to do more acting. At DreamWorks, the director is here every day talking about shots.”

To arrived at DreamWorks to join the crews at the end of production for Madagascar: Escape 2 Afric2 and Monsters vs Aliens. Then, while waiting to start on Megamind, To worked on TV specials. And, that led to the Annie for character animation in Mutant Pumpkins. “I had some fun performance shots with BOB, who is a really cool character, and some action shots that were physically quite complicated,” he says.

“But, I still can’t believe I won,” To says. “I’m pretty stoked.”

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at