Leading the Team
Illustration alumnus brings his skills to Chinese animation studio ANTS Animation
At a time when thousands of international students are coming to the United States to study and work in the animation industry, Academy of Art University alumnus Stewart Leith is bucking the trend. Leith just returned from a six-month assignment in Shenzhen, China, where he worked with a team of Chinese artists on the preproduction of a new film being made by Chinese animation studio ANTS Animation. He was hired along with a team of seven other Americans who had come from studios such as Pixar, Dreamworks and Laika.
“There are a number of points that make the very fact that he did this amazing,” said Chuck Pyle, director of the School of Illustration. “Normally if you’re a new hire you’re at the bottom, but he’s being handed an enormous amount of responsibility because of his education here.”
Pyle explains that the Chinese, among other countries like India, are trying to build their entertainment industry to be competitive with the U.S. Instead of being service vendors for the technical side of a production, Chinese companies are moving toward creating projects on their own from beginning to end.
That is where Leith comes in.
“He has that ability to pull that together at the front end and give them what they need and make the initial step that makes a movie be a viable product,” said Pyle. You need this whole team of people at the front end that can create the characters, designs, props, and do the storyboarding. Leith worked with a team of Chinese artists, through translators, to successfully complete the first phase of the film. The film is not yet named or released.
“This is about courage and fearlessness,” said Pyle. “He is a total rookie. It’s like being hired out of a below AA farm team in Bakersfield and being sent to start a national baseball team in China. To me it’s just this brilliant fearlessness on his part to be willing to take that on.”
Leith, who is far too humble to admit anything of the sort, says he “lucked in” to the experience.
Courtesy of Stewart Leith.
Stewart Leith. Photo courtesy of Stewart Leith.
He stumbled across the job on Craigslist, met with the producer who had worked in the big leagues of Disney and Lucas Films and who was looking for some Americans to help with this Chinese film production. They hit it off and two weeks later Leith was packing his bags for China, subletting his room and saying goodbye to his girlfriend. He would be working in China for the next six months.
“I had never made a film before,” said Leith. “I had never had that experience firsthand but I could still help the Chinese artists I worked with, because I had learned so much from my instructors who had first hand experience in the industry.”
Leith credits his success with the project to his instructors at the Academy like Sherrie Sinclair, Diana Coco-Russell and Jason Merck who have worked in the field.
In Shenzhen, the studio set Leith up with an apartment and a van to take him to and from work every day. Leith and his seven other American colleagues were kept busy often working until seven or eight o’clock at night.
“It was a great experience,” said Leith.
One highlight was a weeklong trip to visit ancient temples and palaces in central China to get references for the film. One such location was the Wudang Mountain, home to a famous complex of Taoist temples and monasteries. He was also able to visit nearby Hong Kong on the weekends.
“The American team brought a lot of experience,” Leith said about how they helped the studio. “They wanted it to have international appeal so that it would attract more than just the Chinese audience.”
Back in San Francisco, Leith has plenty of freelance work but has his eyes out for a job at another animation studio or game company. Mainly he’s going to stay flexible and that is also his advice to graduating students. “Have your portfolio ready and be able to move quickly,” said Leith. “You never know.”
As for working in China again, Leith sees it as a relatively unique experience to be had. Though Chinese film production is rapidly growing, how many Americans will be hired is unknown. “Learning some Chinese could give you a big leg up,” said Leith, who admitted it was a complicated language to learn. It was an eye opening experience no doubt, to turn the immigrant process in reverse by living and working in the Chinese culture and learning their cultural cues.
“By virtue of what he’s done, his career will rocket and leapfrog ahead of his peers,” said Pyle, who refers to Leith as a consummate professional. “To be able to point to the experience it means that anybody hiring this man sees that he has drive, maturity and the skill set. It makes him much more hirable because he has earned the right to be respected.”