What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Justin Putney. I’m a Creative Technology Manager at Pearson and co-founder of Ajar Productions. I started as an animator, and gradually learned more and more programming in Flash. Then I started automating tasks in Flash, and I now spend much of my time building tools for animators and designers.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
In college, I had part-time jobs painting houses and doing data entry at a hospital. After college, I started animating in my free time and was lucky enough to break into graphic design pretty quickly as a day job (which overlapped with animation fairly well).
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I really enjoyed building Facinator for Titmouse. Facinator allows Titmouse artists to rotate 2-D character heads as if they were 3-D and updates them on the stage. I also had a chance to build a production tool for The Venture Bros. (also with Titmouse), which was especially awesome because my wife and I have been fans of the show for years. It’s really neat to see what Titmouse is doing with those tools. I also love seeing what people have animated using SmartMouth, our automatic lipsyncing tool, as well as other extensions that I’ve developed.
How did you become interested in animation?
I drew constantly when I was younger. I finished college with a really broad Liberal Arts degree and didn’t really know what to do with myself. My wife suggested that animation would combine our interests in drawing, computers, music, and voice acting. We did our research, bought some software (After Effects, then ToonBoom, then Flash), and started plugging away.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m originally from Iowa. I got into the animation through the side door. My wife and I intended to build a library of online animations similar to Homestarrunner.com, though we had no idea how make a living from what we were doing. Somewhere along the line, I started building tools to speed up my work. Free online resources were incredibly useful to me while I was learning about animation and software. So when I started building extensions, it made sense to share them for free. I just kept building features that I wanted to have in Flash until I had a dozens of them on our site. Through my extensions, I became more connected to Chris Georgenes, whose tutorials were invaluable to me a few years prior (and whose work I am also a big fan of). I then had the opportunity to co-author a book on animation with Chris. Subsequently, Dave Wolfe, another animator and Flash extension developer, sent Titmouse my way. When the Facinator tool that I built for Titmouse was shown publicly, I received several more requests from animators and studios for animation tools. So I was animating on my own in the beginning (with voice acting help from friends), but building tools is really how I’ve found a niche in the animation industry.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I work from home, so my commute is fairly short. My job with Pearson is located in the Midwest, even though I’m now in Northern California. Given the time difference, my mornings are usually filled with phone meetings and email correspondences. By late afternoon, everyone in the Midwest has left the office, and I start working on my other projects. Currently, I’m spending my late afternoons and weekends building a tool that exports HTML5 from Adobe InDesign. I try to break up my days with reading and exercise, so that I’m not continuously on the computer.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I get to work with great people and make cool projects…what could be better?
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
If I could spend less time in front of a screen, I would.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Mostly the Adobe Creative Suite products. I’m trying to find other tools to bring into the mix since Flash has fallen out of favor a bit, but it’s still one of the best animation tools.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Every individual business seems to subconsciously operate on the same schedule, so it’s feast or famine. There’s either too much work, or everything’s quiet. Learning to roll with that has been a valuable skill. My job at Pearson provides me with steady income, so I’m pretty well insulated from these fluctuations. Learning to saying “no” to projects when one is too busy is also a difficult but valuable skill to learn.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time with Chris Georgenes. I also had a great conversation with Evan Spiridellis from JibJab. We live near John Lasseter, so we occasionally eat at the same cafe. We also met some of the Pixar storyboard artists at a film festival. Otherwise, most of my interactions are digital.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I was unemployed for a few months when my first job out of college abruptly ended. I had been animating in my free time at night while I had the job. Even though I’d hated the job and should have been glad to be rid of it, I was really afraid about my prospects. I was too nervous to animate, even though I had much more time on my hands. In retrospect, everything worked out fine and I now view myself as overly dour during those few months, but I couldn’t see my way out of the situation at the time.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I’m currently building the beta version of our InDesign to HTML5 exporter. We launched it on Kickstarter a couple of months and attracted over 200 backers. That was a pretty exciting process and I think the tool will be one of our coolest yet. Once the InDesign exporter has been released, I will return to working on the nearly-ready-for-primetime version of SmartMouth that lipsyncs on the fly, in real time.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nothing that would save me at cocktail party, but one might be surprised to learn that I’ve spent the last year or so teaching myself about investing (it certainly would have surprised the me from 5 years ago). I also started running in minimal shoes about 3 years ago, sometimes even barefoot.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve been working in a craft for a few years, you’ll have a sense what makes your work unique. Then you can start marketing that uniqueness. Marketing oneself can be difficult for an artist (it has been for me), but no one can reward your work if they don’t see it. Post you work online, and never stop trying to improve. Pascal Campion is one of my favorite artists. He has this amazing ability to capture powerful concepts and movements with simple lines, and I don’t think this is by accident, because Pascal commits himself to drawing every day and has done so for years (check his blog if you think I’m exaggerating). The more work you do, the better it will become, and thus you’ll have a solid portfolio to show. As someone who is now in a position to hire people, I pay more attention to the portfolio than the resume. Oh yeah…and good luck! That always helps, too!