What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Dermot O Connor. Currently I work as a freelance/independent animator/artist.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I went almost straight from school into animation, aged 18. Apart from working briefly for a graphic design company, I have no career history stranger than animation itself! The strangest animation jobs? One was a French TV show about the souls of babies in heaven (they drove tiny cars around on clouds). I still have no idea what that was about, or how people find the money for such awful projects. Another “educational” project that I worked on was owned by a man who revealed himself to be a quasi-James Bond supervillain. Actual quote: “If you control the children, you control the world”. I handed in my notice the next week. There are some very strange people out there.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
None of my paid animation jobs (which were on movies, TV, interactive and internet projects) would be anything to remember – which I’m sad to say is a common problem – many will know the frustration. There are a great many projects of low to middling quality – and it’s incredibly rare to work on something memorable. That said, the one professional job that I’m really pleased with is my current training series for Lynda.com. I’ve done three titles with them so far, and it’s tremendously rewarding. One of the recent emails I received complimented me on my voice, saying that I sound like the snake in Jungle Book. That made my day!
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m Irish; left school in the mid 1980s, a time when there was very little chance of work, and emigration levels were soaring. If you want to make an Irish person over the age of 40 wince, just say “The 1980s”. One day I heard Don Bluth interviewed on a radio show about his Dublin studio. An uncle suggested that I try to get hired there. So, on a whim, I went, and got into the rough-inbetween department. This was in 1988. I stayed there until 1993, when I won a US Green Card in one of their periodic lotteries. Off to LA, to work for a few years on interactive computer games for Disney Interactive.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Well, I decided to quit full-time commercial work in 2007, finding it too draining – and by then I’d been in animation for almost 19 years. Now, I work from home, and make ends meet (barely) through occasional freelance jobs, and the Lynda tutorials. When not working on those, I work on my own projects, which can be animation or comics, or training in After Effects and Cinema 4D. A typical day involves my commute, which is the 4 feet from bed to computer! Usually a detour for breakfast in the kitchen. Then it’s the usual struggle we all face of focusing on work, while minimizing the usual distractions of evil Facebook and the rest of the Internet. Usually I really get into the project from 10am – 3pm, then head out for a couple of hours for coffee from 4pm through 6pm – a good time to get some reading done away from the screen. Many days I get a second wind later in the evening, and can get 2-4 hours of work done anytime from 8 through midnight. I storyboarded my latest project – about 500 panels – almost entirely in the coffee shop, so that is often work time, of a sort.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Late in 2011, when I was polishing off my most recent project (a 34 minute long documentary about oil, energy and growth), I realized that I was having fun. Then it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had fun when working! Very early on in your career, the job will be dominated by the urgent need to just be good enough to avoid being fired. Once you achieve that level of competence, the struggle becomes one of meeting deadlines. Fun tends to go out the window, or never be there to begin with. When working on my own project, I had the luxury of taking my time and really beautifying it. It’s nice to see the finished components fall into place, right at the end, with the blood and sweat a distant memory. I do enjoy the start of a project, where it’s all new, but for me it’s the point of ending the thing that’s the most rewarding.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Struggling with software that doesn’t do what I want to do, or having to spend hours to find one simple effect. Thankfully, it’s so much easier today with online training sites – and there are also many great free tutorials on youtube – but there are still times when animation on the computer – 3D animation in particular – is a nightmare.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
I began as a traditional 2D animator, and worked on paper until the late 1990s. I realised by the mid-late 90s that the future would be digital, and wanted to move in that direction, but never got the opportunity. And to move to 3D is a steep learning curve. So when I found Flash, around 2000, I realised that this would be a way to make a living with a computer, without going down the 3D path. I thought that with such a simple tool, it would be no time before the studios adopted it. I spent a couple of years really getting into Flash, but by the time I was proficient, late 2002, there still wasn’t a huge amount of Flash work going. It would take about 2-3 more years for those jobs to appear. It’s dangerous to be right about what’s going to happen, but be wrong about when. I had a very rough period, from 2002-2005, waiting for the studios to realise what I’d known in 2000. Today I have a Cintiq, which is the best $2000 you’ll ever spend. That allows me to board directly onto the computer, and Photoshop CS5.5 works with it very well indeed.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
When I was working in studios, it was the uninspiring quality of the projects, combined with the endless mill of deadlines. In my last full time job, back in 2006, the grinding nature of cranking out formulaic animation on unimaginative cartoons reached a point where I couldn’t do it any more. Many Flash projects have a simple style that means you end up doing the same generic actions and expressions over and over again. Also, the modern process of writing cartoons (as distinct from the golden age of the 40s/50s) means that writers with no real affinity for animation hand off clunky text heavy scripts to animators – as though they were live action. In contrast, in the 40s/50s, the process of writing and boarding were largely unified, and animators were the writers – this is a large reason why modern cartoons are dull and slow (to me), instead of visual and delightful, as they once were. Compare Tex Avery’s “King Size Canary” with any generic TV show today, for example.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I know many people don’t think highly of Don Bluth’s later work – many of which I worked on – but nobody should doubt the talent that went into “Secret of NIMH”. A phenomenal achievement. I didn’t have as much contact with Don as I’d have liked, but as an animator, he’s phenomenal. I missed a chance to meet Chuck Jones on his visit to the Dublin studio, which is a real regret. Sometimes I wonder if that guy in the mirror will amount to anything.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
In the period 2000-2002, I lost my job, suffered a bereavement, and fell to pieces. When on the point of getting everything together about 3 years later, it all fell apart a second time. The end result of all that was to change my outlook on life and work dramatically. Money is no longer a main concern (beyond paying for rent, utilities and coffee). Being satisfied with my own work, and doing what I want to do is the top priority now.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
About a year ago, I finished a short film. Though at 34 minutes, it’s more of a ‘medium’. Called “There’s no Tomorrow”, it covers issues like Peak Oil, resource depletion, and Growth. Though I began it in 2005, the movie required about 3 years of work. Whenever time or energy allowed, I’d do a few scenes, and nudge it along. It’s a great feeling to finally have it completed, and be free for new things. Currently I’m working on a much grander project, titled “Continuum”. (I know there’s a TV show of the same name, but I’m sticking with it). In outline: Albert Einstein takes a young George W. Bush on a journey through the history of science & philosophy, and shows him the nature of reality and the foibles of the human mind. I began Continuum as an animated feature, but have since decided to complete it as a comic instead – as this will take one or two years, not ten. It’s about half complete, at 100 pages. I estimate it’ll be between 170-200 pages when complete. I’m hoping to do a short animated trailer for it, because I really want to see the characters move.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I’ve been taking an interest in the history of the Occult, which is a fascinating field. Coming from a more scientific mindset, there’s a very different perspective on history when you read it from the viewpoint of the mystics. People like W.B. Yeats, Giordano Bruno, Hieronymous Bosch, are suddenly revealed as very different personalities. The story of the founder of JPL in Pasadena, Jack Parsons, is wonderful. The biography “Strange Angel” by George Pendle is a great read. One of my influences in taking an interest in this field was watching “The Mindscape of Alan Moore”. There’s a lot of material in that film that’s of real value to any serious artist.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
First: get the books “Character Animation Crash Course!” by Eric Goldberg, “The Animator’s Survival Kit” by Richard Williams, and “Prepare to Board” by Nancy Beiman (Nancy is a personal friend, but it’s a fine addition). I’d have had a much easier time of it had those three titles been around in the late 80s/early 90s! Second: you really have to network, and get to know people. This is hard to do if you have never worked, but once you get in the door, don’t be a wallflower. It’s critical to be on good terms with co-workers. They’ll save your life. Third: never stop training. My animation blog gets quite a few comments, and an increasing number of names are from India. Expect a huge rise in competition from other Asian countries. I don’t see things ever going back to the way they were when I started out. You really will have to keep your work at a constant level of improvement, and not get lazy or complacent. Fourth: don’t ever attach your personal creative enjoyment to the company you’re working for – you’re likely to be disappointed. I made this mistake in my early 20s, and a few years ago saw others (also in their early 20s) make the same error. It’s not the job of your employer to satisfy your creative desires! 99.9% of all the projects you work on will be middle to low grade filler. If this annoys you, take out your frustration on your personal projects, and make your own short film or project. Fifth: the materials for an artist today have never been greater. I can create a movie by myself on a mid-range laptop that would have taken the combined effort of 100 people 30 years ago. At the same time, the general culture seems to be heading into a spiral of mediocrity and shallow, derivative knockoffs. You’ll likely end up working on one or more of those derivative knockoffs, but if you do have any ambitions of self expression, or creating something of yours, don’t hold back. There is a real reward, both personal and professional, in taking on a substantial project of your own – regardless of whether you succeed or fail. Sixth: the best studio I worked for was a medium sized company run by some former Bluth animators, two of the most brilliant artists I’ve worked with – David Molina and Terry Shakespeare…real masters of the classic style. Their motto was “remove all fear”. Too many studios reek of fear – whether fear of losing your job, or of being ridiculed for failing to meet a certain standard. Fear of this sort is pointless and counterproductive, and you should try to avoid it or ignore it. It’s not a coincidence that my four years working in that studio saw a steep improvement in the quality of my work. Fear is for hacks.