What is your name and your current occupation?
Jason Fittipaldi – Animator
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Putting letters on those signs that fly behind planes. You would have to construct the sign banners (kind of like putting letters on a movie theater marquee) in this hot, buggy field. Then, you would set it up on this goal post construct with a tight rope across the top. The plane would fly low with a big hook hanging from the bottom and (most times) snag the tight rope at the top and take off with the new sign. You would have to break down the one it just dropped and set up another for the next round. We had an ongoing wager with the company next to us in this makeshift airfield that any signs that went up backwards, upside down, or wrong and you had to buy the other team a case of beer. Right before going into animation full time, I wore every hat possible at a small construction company that sold prefabricated buildings worldwide. Everything from Marketing and Sales to IT and Conceptual AutoCad project drawings. What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of? I really enjoyed the creature work we did on Underworld: Awakening. We got to work very closely with the directors on that project and had a lot of creative freedom for some of the sequences (which is not always the case). Thor was one of my first professional projects, so that definitely sits pretty high on the memories list as well. Animating some of the Destroyer shots on that show was a blast. Right after that, we moved onto X-Men: First Class, but we didn’t get to do any character or creature work on it (other than digital doubles for vfx). We did animate a lot of the super power fx for Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. X-Men was one of my favorite comics growing up so the younger version of myself was hitting me with all kinds of high-fives from the past.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up mostly in Southern New Jersey and have spent a lot of time in Florida as well. When I was younger (about ages 4-5), my grandmother had a couple of flipbooks of things like ballroom dancers that I found. They were incredibly fascinating to me and I started to make my own flipbooks on sticky note pads. Every single one of them involved some sort of dark comedy outcome for my sister. Some examples: Both of us blowing bubbles with gum, floating into the air, but her bubble pops, or her swimming in the ocean and getting eaten by a shark while I cruise by on my surfboard. She actually found some of my old flipbooks and framed some of the stills. Around the time she found them and reminded me of their contents I recreated one as an animated birthday card for he. I tried to stay true to the style of my 5 year old self. I was also really into making stop motion videos back then (around ages 6-8). A friend of mine had a VHS video camera, as well as every action figure and beanie baby toy imaginable. I’ll never forget watching one of our creations (mostly toys and dolls speaking gibberish, saying bad words or fighting) and my friend John was laughing so hard that he literally peed himself and ran off to the bathroom laughing all the way. His brother Austin and I just lost it at that. Somehow, after all that, my obsession with video games took over and I studied a lot more technical stuff, like programming (because no one I knew could program!) and headed down a path towards a more hybrid skillset. In college, I entered a program called Digital Arts & Science: Engineering at the University of Florida. It resulted in a very diverse background, from traditional art and animation to computer programming and super high-level engineering classes, but I definitely did not feel job ready for any one thing after that. My girlfriend (who is now my lovely wife!) and I both had family in south Florida, so we moved there and I ended up taking a job at the previously mentioned construction company. After being there for a few years, my wife convinced me to get back to one of my original dreams and pursue animation. It was then I started taking Animation Mentor while still working full-time. My social life ended! About 6 months after graduating from Animation Mentor, I received a short, two month contract offer from Luma Pictures in Venice, CA. I had to start on very short notice, but accepted hoping they would extend me or I would find other opportunities out west. Luckily for me they offered a staff position after my two month contract was up.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
(Focusing on my time at Luma)Typically, I would review my current list of shots and prioritize what needed to be done first, or what I suspected would need notes sooner than later. If there is something that I think is unclear (more than other shots) I would try to get a rough pass done ASAP so we could get feedback and begin talking about it. I also think making detailed lists is a good habit. Many times you are juggling a lot of different shots on one project and sometimes you are working on multiple projects at the same time. My lists were mostly focused on shot priorities and a mixture of my own notes, my supervisor’s notes and client notes. The best part, of course, was taking a short break in the late afternoon to play some Table Tennis and move our bodies around a bit (after working hard all day, of course)!
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
You mean besides the Table Tennis!?!? When you’re a production artist, you sometimes have clients who know exactly what they want and need you to make it happen. Other times, you have clients who have an idea of what they want but allow for a lot more creative freedom and flexibility in how you solve their visual problems. I think the latter scenario can be more challenging, but it is so much more rewarding to work on shots in a project where you have that creative freedom. Those were always the most enjoyable because you felt like you owned a bigger piece of the work.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Sometimes we would have projects that were very VFX heavy with no creature or character work to go with it. For example, on Oz The Great and Powerful, the director wanted a very specific look to the tornado shots, which required a lot of meticulous, keyframe animation for things you typically expect to be done with dynamics/simulation. Most of my work for that involved laying out the scene, animating cameras, animating cards (film plates on a 3D plane being placed in the 3D environment), animating the hot air balloon, and hand-animating lots and lots of debris and lightning. That sort of stuff can be part of the job with vfx and can be very cool, but it’s certainly way less enjoyable than the character and creature work!
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 think the speed of the internet and online video alone is huge. Being able to effectively learn the craft at all of these online schools now is pretty amazing. In regards to animation software itself, I feel like it is pretty dated when you look at off-the-shelf products. Maya hasn’t really changed from an animator’s perspective in ages. Maybe it’s a bit faster thanks to newer hardware, but it would be interesting to see things shaken up in that area in the future. On Underworld: Awakening, the directors wanted to bring the actor playing the Uber Lycan into the studio at Luma and try some directed mocap so they could work out some performance ideas. Having some free time and a more technical background than most, I got to research and build out Luma’s mocap space. It was pretty cool to be handed $25,000 worth of equipment, figure it out and play with it! I also rigged up an iPad to act as a virtual camera, so you could move the ipad around and see the virtual environment, as well as the Uber Lycan character’s mocap in real time. Fortunately, my supervisor and I were on the same page – in that we thought of the mocap as another way to do video reference and gather information. We were able to work through ideas with the directors and figure out what would and would not work on such a massive character like the Uber Lycan. In the end, all of the shots were still hand keyframed.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The hours can be the long and the work can be unstable depending on where you’re at, which means you might need to relocate. Sometimes quite far and sometimes quite often.
If you could change the way the business works and is run how would you do it?
It would be great if every studio could afford to keep talented artists on full-time and really foster the talent they have working for them. I always thought the old days at Disney sounded like some magical time where the company was constantly promoting growth in their artists with classes and research trips. Maybe history has enhanced those tales, but I would love for that to become the norm some day.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I have had the pleasure of meeting an unmentionable number of amazing people. It’s pretty damn hard to meet someone who’s not awesome in this business! Singling out specific people would be challenging (there’s so many!). Take the time to meet your co-workers (they’re probably all amazing and talented) and try to attend conferences for more of the same! I suppose if I had to pick someone… I did get to meet Andreas Deja briefly at CTN one year after watching him do live drawings. That was pretty unreal!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Last year my wife and I had a family situation come up and we decided the best thing to do was to move back to Florida for a little while. It was incredibly difficult to walk away from my staff position at Luma Pictures at that time (right in the middle of Iron Man 3!).
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I was dabbling with research on a few small game projects with a friend of mine. We spent a lot of time in Unity and then in the Unreal Engine 4, but I have just recently decided to put a pause on the project. My wife and I are now ready to relocate once more, so I am back to actively working on personal animation tests and looking for on-site animation work.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I’m far more technical than your typical animator (I’ll build you a computer!) and I’m famous (notorious?) for my Gentleman’s Drinks™ and guacamole.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Work incredibly hard. Seriously. I think one of the greatest things during my Animator Mentor days was “hanging out” with friends and classmates online all the time. We created our own online version of a study hall. We would mostly just share our work screens and be around online, but there was something great about that which helped you keep going when the hour was late or you were feeling frustrated with a shot. Also, build a tough skin. Part of the job, from the time you become a student to every day in the workplace requires people to critique your work. This is for the betterment of the material and no one (usually) is trying to hurt your feelings. The sooner you can absorb feedback and distill it into improving your work the faster you will become a better artist. Watch Project Runway too – that will help get you started!