Richard Colburn

What is your name and your current occupation?
This one’s easy. I just have to check my driver’s license and bank statements.  The name is Richard Colburn. I run a business called The 3D Advantage. My associates and I create and animate 3d models for video games, software applications, photo substitution, product development, and movies.  We also create custom video games and original music.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Just like any and all self-respecting American citizens I’ve had jobs mowing lawns, building airplanes  and serving food at the governor’s banquets. Some of my crazier jobs have included mechanical engineering at a college in downtown Chicago. By “mechanical engineering” I mean uninstalling 19 floors of urinals in the guys dormitory, scraping the drains clean with a broken garden spade, then re-installing them. There were other more unpleasant tasks required by the job but I’d rather not mention them. I also served as a crewman aboard the Tall Ship Windy out of Chicago’s Navy Pier. This job had me balancing on a single piece of cotton rope 90 feet above the deck to work on torn sails, replace, frayed ropes and so on. Many times I saw the larger of Chicago’s orb-weaver spiders fall to their death from that height (I’m not joking). Naturally I have to mention I worked as a plumber for fifteen years. At a mere six feet, three inches tall, and only two-hundred-ten pounds, I was the smallest man on a crew of three so naturally I had to be the one to squeeze into all the tightest places and brave all the dangerous heights. I’ll never forget the time the other two men held me upside-down by my ankles and lowered me into a hole in the ground to work on a submersible pump. I’ve also taught piano, taught English to Polish immigrants, repaired bicycles, tuned pianos, and to be perfectly honest, the list goes on and on long past the point where you will lose interest.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Last year about this time, I came across a post on a cg artists forum. Carnegie Melon University in Qatar needed someone to create a face with an animation library for the HALA Receptionist Robot. HALA is a humanoid robot that will eventually have a semi-transparent mask with a cg face projected on the inside of the mask. The project involved studying the FACS manual and attempting to simulate the muscle movements required for every possible facial expression. The challenge was creating multiple shape keys that did not compound their effects when using more than one at a time. The animations I created are controlled with an AI that senses moods based on the context of what’s being said and the emotional queues of people interacting with the robot. The facial expressions are then created by combining different values between on and off for each shape key. Of course the mouth also moves to make the various phonemes.  Another projects that I was particularly happy with came from
the same forum. A company in Germany needed a cg video of a section of downtown Berlin catching fire, exploding, being rebuilt with different buildings, catching fire and exploding again, then being rebuilt with the first set of buildings. I knew this was something I could do so I offered. We discussed the details of the video and the budget then I was told the video had to be finished in four days. Anyone who has attempted cg explosions or fire knows it’s a time-consuming process. In an act of desperation I came up with a quick technique for separating each building into hundreds of tiny, randomly-sized, physics-based objects, then I used video game logic to create some objects that would scale up drastically or move when I hit whatever keys I assigned. Then I ran the scene as a game with an option set to record the interaction of the objects as animation. The controls let me time the explosions until I achieved the results I wanted. I removed the objects that simulated the explosions before render and added some special effects. It wasn’t the prettiest thing I’ve ever done but the client was happy with it and I finished it before the deadline. The video is still posted on my youtube channel.

How did you become interested in animation? 
I grew up at a time in Earth’s history when Bugs Bunny was a prominent role model and Saturday morning cartoons were an acceptable substitute for parenting. Naturally I started with wanting to become an actual cartoon character so I too could so ignore the laws of physics like my heroes. Maturity and the fear of erasers eventually dissuaded me from aspiring to cartoonhood. However, the idea of making my own world with any rules I like was still a possible outlet for my need to rebel against immutable laws. I started with flip books and soon discovered an unexpected popularity. The cute girls wanted to see what I had made. Then my parents bought a camcorder and I discovered I could record single frames in sequence to make stop-action movies. As life went on I was discouraged knowing I could never create animation on the same level coming from Hollywood. In college a friend introduced me to Blender, an open source animation software. I soon discovered I loved key-framing and I was inspired to make a career out of computer animation.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business? 
I’m originally from Idaho. I grew up in a small town called Emmett known only for the Cherry Festival and Lost in the Fifties and Sixties Cruise Night. I moved to the mid-west to attend college and for a change of pace. It was a friend in college that introduced me to computer animation but I didn’t do much with it for a couple years. After moving to the Washington DC area I started playing with animation again. I would sit in the Starbucks with my laptop and make models of fantasy robots or whatever else I could think of. One evening a web designer saw what was on my computer screen and asked if I could make an animation for a record company he was building a website for. Thus came my first paid project. I spent about one week on the project and made about three-hundred dollars. The website was never finished as far as I know but my video was still online and I could show it off anywhere there was a computer with internet. Slowly I’ve been moving on to bigger and better projects.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I have my office in the basement of a house I’m renting and the people who work with me are mostly in other states and other countries. I tend to sleep in late and stay up even later. The time difference between me and the people I work with makes a regular schedule difficult. My morning routine consists of making coffee and answering emails. I still work for friends and relatives occasionally fixing bicycles or installing plumbing so there are still many days when I don’t have a chance to do what I really like. When I have projects lined out I sometimes work fifteen hours at a time or more.

What part of your job do you like best? Why? 
I like projects that are well planned and that allow me to focus on the technical side of making visuals to order. If someone wants a robot to become a puddle of orange juice that is then poured into an invisible container to become their logo, or anything else they can imagine, I can generally find an efficient way to make it happen. The more complex the task the more determined I tend to become.

What part of your job do you like least? Why? 
There is nothing I dislike about this job more than working for clients who have no Idea what they want and no budget. There are many times I’ve asked a client what kind of visuals they want to promote their product only to hear something really vague like “I want to use modern styles,” or “I want it to be as good as that video I saw in that commercial for that one sports drink.” It’s my opinion that marketing and animation are not necessarily the same job. As long as it is clarified from the beginning that I will be spending time creating the story board and that time is valuable, I don’t mind. In fact I enjoy having some creative license. Unfortunately what happens more often than not is that I end up stuck between making a rough draft that a client is going to hate because of the lack of finished quality or making a video of finished quality that takes way to much time just to find out the client wanted to go a different direction entirely but didn’t know that until seeing what I made.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business? 
Time management. Most of the work associated with my business I do entirely by myself. This means I might have a meeting that takes several hours when I have an unrelated project due. Sometimes I find myself spending way too much time answering random questions in an email from a company I know almost nothing about. Like now for example. Working from home further complicates the issue because my wife might need me for something “real quick” that “really won’t interrupt your day hardly at all.” This kind of interruption is fine once in a while but often becomes forty different “real quick” interruptions that derail my train of thought and essentially blow the whole day. Hiring out more of the work is also difficult for several common reasons.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis? 
Mostly just computers, cell phones, and software. I don’t have the money or necessity for motion capture hardware yet. In a perfect world I would have motion capture hardware, a 3d scanner and a render farm.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness? 
In all complete honesty, no. I would say the closest thing was knowing a guy who was friends with the animator who created Eek the Cat and did some of the work for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I also have this friend who I would say is very animated. Basically you don’t want to be too close when he talks about any subject that excites him unless you want to be gesticulated into a coma.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
My wife and I were living and working in Washington DC when we heard the news her mother was diagnosed with the terminal illness ALS. A few weeks later we found out we were about to become parents. We made the decision to move back to Idaho to take care of my Wife’s mother. We had no idea the amount of work we were in for. I took the night shift giving pain medication and suctioning fluids every few minutes as needed. My wife took the day shift doing the same and also managing the household while caring for her 95-year-old grandmother and new baby. That situation has only changed as of  about three months ago. Essentially, as a family, we gave about two years of our lives to the care of my wife’s mother and grandmother. They are both passed away now and we are just starting to find out what it means to be our own family.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’m currently working with a programmer to create a video game that I feel has a lot of potential. I hesitate to give away too much detail but I will say it was loosely inspired by Minecraft. Our goal is to give the players a great deal of freedom to control their video game experience and share their creativity with others who play. It involves building buildings, setting up puzzles, placing enemies, setting conditions for completing challenges, and various other controllable properties. In playing with the early builds I’m finding that I enjoy randomly doing stuff and I can easily spend all of my time just experimenting with different options. I’ve also been working on a series of novels. The first book has been done for a while and my readers keep bugging me to seek a publisher and finish the second book. I have plans for seven books in all and It’s something of a life goal for me to eventually finish them all.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
This is where I go a little overboard. I can juggle, ride a unicycle, play the piano, play the harmonica, and perform a number of strange stunts on a bicycle including riding backwards while balanced on the front wheel, riding with no hands standing with one foot on the seat and the other foot on the handlebars to steer, riding a wheelie with no hands, and so on and so on.  I’m also a fan of metal detecting. My wife wears a diamond ring with matching wedding band that I dug up at an abandoned house.Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
My first instinct is to simply say don’t. Unless you happen to know the right people, you are part of a big company that is already successful, you simply want to do it for your own enjoyment, or you have some kind of preternatural charisma or talent, becoming a professional animator involves a lot of rejection, wasted time, clients who don’t pay, and restrictions that inhibit the creative desires of people who tend to want to get into this kind of work.  If you simply must become an animator the best thing you can do for yourself is to grind your way through the education process BEFORE you decide to make a multi-million dollar movie. Familiarize yourself with the industry. Know what kind of software you will be using. If you decide to become proficient in a 3d program like 3DS, Blender, or Maya, research the pros and cons in light of the kind of work you think you will be doing. With the exception of Blender, these tools are expensive. All of them have their own quirks and will take a huge time commitment to just become vaguely familiar with. Becoming proficient in the use of any animation software is like becoming familiar with the ocean. It’s a lot deeper than you realize. With most software you will find you have become relatively comfortable with what you’re doing right about the time that updates and new versions make all your techniques obsolete.
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