The Long and Winding Road
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 11 (Nov. 2009)

The Long and Winding Road

A CG artist Follows an unusual career path that leads to newfound success.

Most aspiring animators follow a linear education/career path: They go to a school where they learn the basics of art and animation, they snag an internship, they graduate, and (if all goes well) they land an entry-level job where they spend some time working their way up the preverbal ladder, with hopes of eventually landing their dream job.

This certainly was not the case for Lluis Llobera. His was a complex journey where education and professional experience intertwined. He studied computer science until he persuaded his parents to send him to an animation school. He became an instructor at the school. He worked as a character animator. Then, he did something unusual: He transitioned from pro to student.

Lluis Llobera wanted to become a feature-film animator. Eventually he landed his dream job at Blue Sky Studios, but not after a long and arduous journey.

After turning down professional job offers, Llobera focused entirely on his re-education, enrolling with Animation Mentor, an online animation school founded by three professional animators from two of the industry’s top studios. Llobera took the 18-month course, and afterward become a member of the school’s first graduating class. The additional skills he learned at Animation Mentor helped land him what many would consider a dream job at Blue Sky Studios, where he worked on Horton Hears a Who! and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

“Even though I had some experience, I was never fooled, and I knew that my skills were very far below feature-film level,” says Llobera. “The more you learn about animation, the more you realize you’ve got tons to learn, and the people doing animated features at Pixar, Blue Sky, and DreamWorks definitely knew things that I didn’t.”

Llobera’s amazing journey took him through many stages of???“education,” from self-learning, to formal education, to on-the-job experience, to specified education, to a career where he never stops learning. An aspiring tale for those just setting out on their own journey or those who are well-traveled in their careers, Llobera’s story proves that there is always something new to learn in this industry.

Home Schooling

Born and raised in Barcelona, Spain, Llobera had always liked cartoons and playing with toys. “Animation seemed to sum up most of the things I liked best: reading and writing, acting and theater, and I loved playing with toys and coming up with stories. I had my collection of GI Joes and Masters of the Universe [figures], and would build vehicles and buildings for them with anything I could find—from leftover cardboard boxes, to empty coffee containers, to broken parts of old toys. At some point I even began ‘Frankensteining’ my favorite toys, taking them apart and slapping this character’s head onto that character’s body. I figured that animation would be very closely related to playing with toys: Given a character, all you have to do is play around with it, make it jump from here to there, and so on. That sounded like something right up my alley!”

Llobera created the images above, taken from his animated short film called “Miss Clover,” which he did during the last two semesters while attending Animation Mentor.

It was only after Llobera saw Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Jurassic Park that he realized people were making a living doing animation. “I had thought that animated features just came to exist,” he says of his youthful naivety.

Wanting to give animation a go and with stop motion out of reach, Llobera turned to another interest—computers—and purchased a copy of 3D Studio R3, an early version of what eventually became Autodesk’s 3ds Max, and began to “mess around” with it, creating crude models and animations. The budding artist experimented with 3D Studio for three or four years, off and on, making robots that walked and little cartoon characters that jumped off platforms. “Obviously I never reached a very high level of expertise, but I enjoyed playing with 3D a lot,” Llobera says. “I had plans to make my own short films and such, but I guess I never did more than animate a couple of scenes in total. There are so many [other] things to do when you are a kid.”

During this early phase, Llobera was self-taught. “I had a thick 3D Studio manual, but it was in English, and I didn’t understand [the language] then, so all I could do was look at the images and try to follow the instructions as best I could,” he explains. “I remember getting tired of it and just using the manual as an inspiration of what could be done, and drawing my own conclusions and discovering how the tools worked on my own.”

Education: Part 1

When it came time to study at the university level, Llobera chose to focus on computers. “I wanted to do animation, but there was no such career in Spain at the time. My parents wanted me to study computer science—It has computers in it, right? Just like computer animation,” he adds with a chuckle.

The former student created this piece for another Animation Mentor assignment. In Class 2, called Body Mechanics, the students had to animate a character pushing a heavy object up a hill. Llobera did so, and came up with an entire story to augment the animation.

The reason for his parents’ misgivings, Llobera says, was mainly due to the fact that there’s no degree offered per se in animation—it’s too specific. “They didn’t see it with very good eyes, and for them, it was really important that their children receive the best possible education, to have the best chances in life,” he explains. “While I really appreciate that, it clashed with the fact that my dream was not a higher-education discipline.”

Llobera never received his degree in computer science. “I abandoned it, much to my parents’ dismay, to pursue animation,” he says. “It was tough to try to convince them that this was what I really wanted to do, and I remember that they gave me the one chance to study at IDEP [in Barcelona] for a year so that I could try it for myself and see whether I really liked it.”

Nevertheless, the time spent studying computer sciences proved invaluable; ­ Llobera had learned programming skills that he then used to write animation scripts and tools. While computer science is a technical discipline, Llobera’s interest was more artistic in nature; now, though, he looks back and sees that his skills are indeed a combination of the two.
“I remember messing around with Maya Version 1 and learning that there was this thing called MEL scripting, which was ‘Maya’s own language,’ and that a lot of Maya’s tools and actions were, under the hood, being executed in MEL. Even more, users could do all their own MEL scripts if they could program a little bit,” says Llobera. So, he dived in and starting scripting in Maya, learning the programming language on his own and experimenting with it.

“Even today I use many scripts that I have written over the years in my day-to-day work flow,” says Llobera. “Back when I started, I shared some of my scripts with the Internet community. Nowadays, I have shared many others with my co-workers at Blue Sky.”

Education: Part 2

The next stop along Llobera’s career journey was at IDEP, the only private school in Barcelona that taught computer animation. The school offered a two-year course, with the goal of producing CG generalists. As Llobera explains, in the first year, students learned Maya from zero, starting with the modeling tools, moving on to texturing and rendering, and then rigging and animating. Next, the students (approximately 15 to a class) worked in groups for three months creating a short film.

The second year entailed a similar structure, albeit the tools were more advanced, including Maya modules such as Cloth, Dynamics, and Fur. Sprinkled throughout the school year were classes on narrative structure, storyboarding, film editing, and audio recording. “Generally, the teachers were working professionals in Barcelona, with ample experience in TV commercials or architectural modeling,” Llobera says.
With Maya being so new—it had just been released when Llobera started his first year at IDEP—the teachers were unfamiliar with the program. “That was frustrating to us eager students, to see that the simple action of creating an extrusion took so long. We complained, so the school gave us the manuals for Maya—about 10 thick volumes!” recounts Llobera. He read through them, along with free materials from then-developer Alias|Wavefront, and attended lab regularly to experiment with Maya on his own. 

This is when Llobera temporarily became the teacher. He had done some “experiments” with the software that his instructors and fellow students found useful, and after explaining the information over and over, he decided to compile it in tutorial form. “One of the first tutorials I wrote was How to Create a Jack-in-the-Box in Maya. It wasn’t anything fancy by any standard. But I realized that the experience of writing the step-by-step tutorial taught me a lot, such as the exact names of functions and features,” he explains.
Llobera began posting these tutorials on his Web site, and soon Alias|Wavefront took notice, asking permission to publish two of them on the company site. At the end of his second year, the school administration hired him as an intern and then as an instructor.

After graduating from Animation Mentor, Llobera was hired at Blue Sky, where he worked on the studio’s first stereoscopic film, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. He continues to expand his artistic skills at Blue Sky through in-house mini-classes.

Pro: Parts 1 to 4

For the next four years, the student became the instructor, teaching Maya from the basics to “advanced” character animation, as well as supervising students’ short-film projects. Fresh out of school, Llobera accepted a four-month job animating titles and credits in 3D for a traditionally animated Spanish feature film. The work soon proved daunting, and he brought aboard a fellow student/friend from IDEP.
“Between the two of us and in four months, we modeled, textured, animated, lit, rendered, and composited about three minutes of animation for the big screen,” Llobera recalls. “We had to pull many all-nighters, and I had to combine this with my teaching at IDEP in the mornings.”
Afterward, Llobera continued to learn the animation trade by teaching, doing commercials, and directing a CG magazine. “I kept focusing on rigging and mainly character animation during my spare time,” he says. “Character animation really appealed to me, and the Internet was a huge place where I would go for inspiration: Some amazing animators had Web sites, and there were some character animation forums and sites where I could interact with lots of people who shared my same dreams and interests.”

Eventually, Llobera left Spain for Scotland, accepting work as a character animator for the TV series Little Miss Spider. “It was my first ‘real’ job as a character animator,” he says of creating the cast, which comprised mainly bugs. “The models were very basic.”

Approximately 30 animators worked on the show, producing 40 seconds of animation a week—using Maya, to Llobera’s delight. He developed some MEL scripts and found other tricks to speed the work flow, hoping to raise the quality bar while still meeting the studio’s quota of producing eight seconds of animation a day.
Llobera realized this was not his dream job when the producers suggested the group focus more on quantity and less on quality. “They told us we were trying to do our jobs too well, and asked us not to animate the characters’ antenna, fingers, or tails any longer because there was not enough time,” he recounts. “We wanted to improve our skills, so a few of us kept on animating our shots as well as we could—including the antenna, fingers, and tails. But I knew I had to move on after the project.” Nevertheless, he was able to clearly see what a great learning experience it was, particularly in terms of discovering the pressures and inner workings of an animated TV production.

Education: Part 3

It was when the Little Miss Spider job was nearing an end that Llobera began considering a return to school. But not just any school. He wanted to eventually land a job where he could do feature animation, and he realized that at the large studios in the US—which were leading the charge in CG feature animation—many of the artists there had learned animation at a “proper” school, while he had been mostly self-taught. However, attending such a school in the US was financially out of reach for the Spanish native.

Over the years, Llobera grew his art skills. The computer science classes helped him with MEL scripting, while the animation classes at IDEP provided a solid understanding of CGI. At Animation Mentor, he refined those skills, creating this scene for an assignment.

Then Llobera heard about a new online animation school, Animation Mentor, through buzz on the Internet. “I knew the situation was different in the States [in terms of animation education] because people could go to a university to study animation. I realized [Animation Mentor] could be my best chance to learn from animators in the big studios, and I hoped to pick their brains and learn animation from their perspective,” he says. So the new student moved back to Barcelona to continue his education, and turned down job offers in Spain to concentrate on his studies.

Enrolling at Animation Mentor also meant a return to the basics, something Llobera was looking forward to. “Up to this point, I had only made things move, but I knew I needed to stop and learn about animation from the ground up, which is something I knew I had to do if I wanted to improve my skills” he adds.

Llobera describes the 18 months at Animation Mentor as “amazing.” “I learned a lot. Nah, more than that. I learned tons. From the get-go, it was the best experience. It was so much more than I had dreamed it would be.”

The student/professional continues: “On one hand, there were the weekly video lectures made by professional animators talking about everything, from the most general animation principles to the most detailed thoughts about hand posing and blinks. I remember sitting up with a notebook in front of my computer, taking as many notes as I could of every lecture. There was so much information to absorb.”

According to Llobera, the assignments were well thought out. In Class 1, Animation Basics, the first assignments were about making bouncing balls and learning the principles of overlap and squash-and-stretch. Then, little by little, the students were given more complex characters—a ball with a tail, a ball with two legs, then a character with no arms, and so forth. “This structure approach was very cool because you never felt the learning curve was too steep. Everything was achievable, and, gradually, you were doing better and doing more complex animations almost without realizing it,” he says.

After students posted their assignments, a designated mentor would record a video critique of the work, where the person scrubbed through the shot and explained what he or she liked and what he or she would change. “It is one of the best ways of learning I have ever come across,” says Llobera.

The students also had weekly meetings with their mentors via Webcam, where assignment questions and problems were addressed. “Sometimes the mentors even pulled up animation clips that inspired them, and would talk about them. This was always a lot of fun because you could feel the high energy of both the mentors and your fellow classmates. It was difficult not to learn in this atmosphere,” Llobera maintains.

Llobera looks back fondly on his mentors, including Delio Tramontozzi from ILM, David Smith from Pixar (who Llobera calls “the master of body mechanics”), Greg Kyle from Laika, Pixar’s Victor Navone (who “did breathtaking animation demos”), and Brett Parker from Pixar.

Advice from a Former Student

After enduring the many twists and turns that led Lluis Llobera to his dream of becoming a feature-film animator, this dedicated artist never let his eyes off the ultimate prize. Here, he offers advice to those embarking on a career in the industry.

  • Be sure to choose animation because you love it, not because it is fancy or cool. “Even though it is the best job in the world, it is hard work, and there are many ups and downs,” Llobera says.
  • Be willing to work long hours. In the heat of production, you will have to make sacrifices because you have to get the shots done in time.
  • Realize that it is a competitive industry—“a healthy competition,” as     Llobera puts it.
  • If you really love the industry, dedicate yourself to it. The more you learn and experiment, the more you’ll appreciate it and enjoy it.
  • Practice makes perfect, and this is very true in animation. Never give up. Keep at it.
  • Continue to learn, using as many sources as you can.
  • Immerse yourself in as many animation-related disciplines as possible. Read about animation, but also about acting, psychology, story, art, and history.
  • Train your artistic and animation eye as much as possible, and refine your sense of entertainment.
  • And, experiment with everything you learn about. Each piece of animation you do is a learning experience, always.
    “It’s a long path, but the end result is really worth it,” says Llobera.

Pro: Part 5
Education: Part 4 and Counting

Llobera graduated from Animation Mentor in September 2006. While many of his classmates in the US were landing jobs, he was unable to do so because he had no work visa. So he kept busy with animation projects and continued his studies. In March 2007, he discovered Blue Sky Studios, when a former classmate, David Sloss, having gotten a position there, showed Llobera’s reel to the animation team. They liked it and contacted Llobera, who still did not have a work visa. Undeterred, Blue Sky hung in there, and after four months of paperwork and legalities, Llobera got the visa.

“By the end of September 2007, I was officially a Blue Sky animator. Woo-hoo,” Llobera recalls excitedly.

When Llobera arrived at Blue Sky, the studio was in the last four months of production for Horton Hears a Who!, and he recalls being wowed at the animation being done there. “I know about squash-and-stretch, but these guys were taking it to the next level,” he says. “I was super excited about how much I could learn at this place.”

Seeing that it was crunch time, most of Llobera’s shots in Horton were very “small”—one of his first assignments was to make the speck of dust that flies around the title and into the jungle of Nool in the beginning of the film, he recounts, with his endearing sense of humor coming through. Llobera also did some other, more challenging shots, too.

“I was finally doing feature animation, and everyone was supportive,” Llobera says. “I remember learning so much just by talking to other animators about what they were doing.”

Next on Llobera’s plate came Blue Sky’s third Ice Age film, released this past summer. While the story was being worked out, he and the team did the Ice Age short “Surviving Sid,” which enabled him to prove his skills and familiarize himself with the iconic characters. “I was animating Sid! How awesome was that?” he says, displaying the type of enthusiasm for the craft that is usually reserved for newcomers, not those who have been around the block a few times over.

For Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Llobera’s supervisor assigned him some very challenging shots, much to the animator’s delight. “It was great to animate Scrat, Sid, and Manny, characters that had inspired me to embark on the journey to become an animator,” he says. Currently, the former student is working on the next Blue Sky film, Rio. And, he continues to expand his skills.

For another class assignment, Llobera had to animate characters to a selected voice track from a movie, as if they were the ones talking.

“At Blue Sky, I am running something I call ‘Gesture Drawing for Animators.’ A bunch of us meet in a room daily and pose for each other while the others draw. It’s 30-second poses and one-minute poses, and we only try to capture the essence of the poses and the forces, without paying attention to the actual rendering of the drawings themselves,” Llobera explains. “Oh, and we are clothed,” he says with a chuckle.

As a result of this journey, Llobera has a greater appreciation than ever for the medium. “Before I worked in it, I thought the animation industry was awesome. Now that I’ve been working in it, I have to say that I love it. It’s even better than I thought!”

So, which aspect of computer graphics does Llobera like best now, after his long and extensive journey? Not surprising, everything. “Since I moved to Blue Sky, my appreciation has grown even more, because every little step is important and has to be done the right way,” the professional animator adds. “Everything fascinates me, from the preproduction work to the last steps in the pipeline. Of course, my favorite task is animation. I love it.”

Despite having come so far, Llobera is not about to rest on his laurels. “I still have a lot of things to learn and experiment with in the animation field,” he says. “One of the best things about animation is that it is always a challenge and you can keep on learning, no matter how much experience you have. How can you beat that?”

You can’t.