From John Wick to Dreamworks: Working In Animation for TV/Film & Games, Meet Super Spline Studios Co-founder James Childs

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Today’s ITS interview is all about movie, TV, and video game animation, which is the fantastic way professionals bring that much-needed emotion to the screen. 

A lot of us grew up seeing animated characters go from pixelated to crazy-detailed versions of themselves, and that made me curious. My “forte” is writing, so I had a lot to ask today’s guest. This chat might answer a few of your animation-related questions, as well.

Meet James Childs: animator and co-founder of Super Spline Studios. This talented guy and his amazing team work with clients that include owners of Disney, BBC, and Dreamworks. 

Curious about the animation process, experience, and much more? Let's hear what James had to share!

1. I took my time in researching and learning more about your work, and I’m excited to be talking to talented animators of such a versatile studio. This first question is probably what most of us would like to know about this career, but it’s also a curiosity of mine. 

It’s clear that animation has evolved over the years, and viewers expect a lot from the looks of films and games, both in terms of graphics and innovation. Cute example: if you look at Barbie movies from 2001, for example, and then compare it to recent movies, the difference is striking. It’s clearly a field that requires exhaustive study and experience. 

What should new, aspiring, and even experienced animators keep in mind when the goal is to hit it big and stand out in the industry?

Focus on your craft. 

Too many aspiring animators try to learn too much early on and don’t study animation and it’s principals enough. You need to walk before you can run, and even before you walk, you need to learn to bounce a ball. 

As basic as it sounds it’s the simplest task to do but the hardest to master, the mechanics and theory behind a bouncing ball is the foundation that animation is built upon. 

I see a lot of animators, new and old, that haven’t mastered this. Perhaps it’s the excitement of getting to animate a character, but too many students are trying to sprint, with one leg, wielding a battle axe, whilst patting their head and rubbing their tummy. 

Animation is a skill that takes many years to get good at, and many more to master, even then you’re still learning, which is what makes animation so humbling. 

Even the 9 Old Men (Disney’s top animators and innovators) said they were still learning as they went into retirement. 

There are also so many facets to “getting good”. 

Once you can move a character believably, you need to switch tact and ask WHY are they moving? 

You then realise you’re actually animating emotions, which opens a whole new world of learning how to act! 

If you master this, you’ll be in high demand.

2. Super Spline studios works with animation for TV, Film, and especially video games, some of which include ​Jumanji: The Video Game, Furby Connect World, a​nd ​John Wick Hex.​ Have you always wanted to work with the three mediums? How would you say they differ from one another when it comes to animation?

TV, Film and Video games are all entertainment, and as animators our jobs are to entertain, or at least to be the puppeteers. The skill of animation is transferable to all three mediums, and beyond. 

The art of motion, and the art of emotion, are evident in all three and people expect more from their entertainment. They no longer want to watch something, they want to feel something. Emotions play a big part of connecting to the end user. 

TV and Film are similar in the fact that you don’t interact, you watch a story unfold. 

Video games has another layer of interaction which requires a slightly different perspective of connecting with your end user. The lines are blurring though. 

Charlie Brookers The Bandersnatch and a few others have taken the leap into interactive film making. The technology of graphics cards and realtime rendering means that TV and some film studios are using software typically used in the video game to increase their productivity by massively reducing their rendering times. 

Many years ago it would take days to render a single frame of a film, now, you can be producing 30 frames in a single second, with quite spectacular results. 

I guess the biggest differences in terms of animation is the fidelity that is required. The work from studios such as ILM on films like Avengers are pushing the realism beyond what’s known as the uncanny valley and it’s very hard to distinguish what’s real and whats CG. 

Technology has helped tremendously but animators still need an incredible eye to create realistic performances.

3. From the combined experience of every team member (and what a team!) and the studio’s influence, you know the true importance of good branding and the need to put yourself out there while making an impression online. 

It’s not only about design and logos—though they’re extremely important for recognition—but the real essence of a business, which makes it singular and worth a hire. 

What, in your opinion, makes clients go “hey! I know these guys. I want them to work on my project.”

I’d like to say Value. Providing value to a client is the single most important thing. It’s what keeps clients coming back. We try to under promise and over deliver. 

We want to create a positive experience with everyone we encounter. People want to work with nice people, so not being a dick head helps alot! 

Connecting to people, being friendly, interested in what they have to say, really does go along way.

We try our best to maintain our internal values. One, for example, is the no overtime rule. The entertainment industry is rife with underpaid and overworked talent.

It was the norm, especially in the video game industry, for every one to work overtime “crunch” towards the end of a project, with the idea to make it as good as it can be. We’re trying to buck that trend by simply saying no. 

We’re not doing it, it’s not healthy for people, it’s not healthy for the industry. It will stifle creativity which is very important here and in our industry.

4. From small indie startups to international entertainment companies, your work can be remote. Your clients include owners of Disney, BBC, and Dreamworks, which is jaw-dropping. 

When most beginner artists, writers and filmmakers come across this kind of information, they go from 0 to a hundred in a millisecond. “These people have TALENT! Working for huge corporations must be so cool, how did they do it?” 

Could you please tell us a little more about how you progressed to the point of working for major studios, but also about the importance of working for smaller startups and original projects?

It’s very rare to work directly with the big names, there are almost always layers to work through. Creative agencies, Directors, Clients, they all have their opinions. 

It’s not easy to please everyone all the time, but if you produce art that has charm that can make more people smile then you’re doing well. For us each project has been a stepping stone to the next, not only in skills learnt, but by showcasing what we can do. 

Legitimacy is key. 

If you can build upon your successes you start to get known by bigger clients. Word of mouth and reputation also helps a great deal, if we can leave our clients feeling like we looked after them and provided them with value, then more often than not they’ll recommend you to other people. 

But yes....lets not forget about the little guys. 

Working with big names is nice but sometimes the smaller start ups and indie projects are a lot more exciting. 

These are the people that are normally trying something unique. 

They are looking to solve a problem differently and that’s where creative freedom comes in abundance. Since we’re specialists in our field, we are trusted to help come up with unique ways of solving various tasks.

Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

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