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'Boxtrolls' Studio Reps Say Hard Work, Networking and Kindness are Keys to Success

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(L–R) Beth Sousa, Academy of Art University director of 2-D animation / stop-motion; Steve Emerson, VFX supervisor, LAIKA – “The Boxtrolls”; Anna Kvorning, LAIKA creative recruiter; Norm DeCarlo, Academy of Art University School of Animation faculty. Photo by Bob Toy.

Students from Academy of Art University’s School of Animation and Visual Effects received some career advice on Tuesday, March 3, when representatives from the stop-motion animation studio LAIKA dropped in.

“You want to be OK in life? You want to be successful? Be nice to people and work your ass off,” said Steve Emerson, visual effects supervisor at the Portland, Oregon-based studio. Joined by recruiter Anna Kvorning, Emerson stressed the importance of networking, while presenting an overview of his career path from TV show intern to department head at a major film studio.

“I know I have talent. I know I am good at what I do,” he said. “But I swear to you, a lot of my own personal success is driven by the fact that I just get along with people and I am really passionate about the work I do. People recognize that.”

Emerson showed impressive behind the scenes footage from the making of films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, and he talked about the boundaries LAIKA constantly pushes and the challenges the studio consistently hurdles. When he was hired, his task was to clean up hundreds of thousands of frames of animated film with a team of 15 artists. Each character in the movie Coraline needed to be hand painted to erase a seam that ran across their faces. The seam was the result of a new technique that allowed the animators to give the characters over 200,000 different facial expressions. For reference, Jack Skellington, the main character in The Nightmare Before Christmas was only capable of 800. They had eight months to do it, which broke the work down to one frame every two minutes.

That first task was a challenge but they pulled it off, Emerson said. “There are times when everybody is just like ‘we’ve never seen that before, we don’t know how we’re gonna get it done, but absolutely we’re gonna get it done,’ and then we just get creative and figure it out.”

Of the approximately 200 students in attendance, a couple dozen were stop motion majors, while others specialized in areas like compositing, visual effects or 3-D animation, like junior Carlos Moreno, who was there representing the Tea Time Animation Club. “I found a lot of the discussion really helpful,” he said, “especially the part about really pushing yourself and your team to overcome boundaries—I think that’s really inspiring.”

Senior Lorisa Holland, president of the visual effects club Pixelnauts, appreciated the evening’s visual effects angle. “We’re more the unknown artists,” she said, “so it was really nice to have someone from visual effects come in and tell us about their pipeline and behind the scenes work, because often these presentations are more about the animation style.”

Kvorning offered advice about portfolios, saying that artists shouldn’t gear them toward a certain studio look, but instead, express their individual voices with small selections of their best pieces. “This is Santa’s workshop for real. It is crazy what these people are able to do. When we’re looking at talent we want that same mindset, we want people who are perfectionists. We want to see something that’s really well executed, but also has an original voice, something that’s designed all the way through, that’s really tied up.”

She encouraged students to apply for an internship at LAIKA this summer, which will be posted on laika.com in mid-March.