What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Aaron McGriff and I am a Partner and Lead Animator at Walsh Family Media, a small independent animation studio in the heart of NYC doing some big things.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Nothing too crazy, I guess. I used to bag groceries as a kid, worked the snack bar at a family fun center, worked as a teacher’s aide for elementary art school classes, and worked as an RA in the dorms during college.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
We are currently in production of 2 full length CG feature films Called The Cool Beans:We Need a Hit and The Cool Beans: Humbucket Caper. It has been an amazing experience getting to work on independent features, despite the natural ups and downs that come from trying to produce a high quality project with limited funding. The talent and dedication of our small team creates the kind of work environment most people only dream of. I’ve had the opportunity to wear many hats while at Walsh Family Media and have gotten to do everything from animation to voice-over work. I’m proud of how far we’ve come and I can’t wait for the world to be able to enjoy the content we’ve crafted meticulously with love for so many years. I know the industry will be blown away while simultaneously scratching their heads, trying to figure out how we produced such innovative content at such a high level on such a small budget.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
My father is a proud 30 year US Army Veteran, and as such, I grew up all over the world. I was born in Panama and lived in probably 12 or more places before I ended up in New York City. So…yeah, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, Washington, Virginia, Korea, Take your pick. I wanted to be an animator for as long as I can remember. I always used to draw characters in elementary school. My family visited Disney World in Orlando when I was eight, and we visited the animation studio there. They were working on Mulan at the time as I recall. At the end of the tour, they gave us a pamphlet with some info, including a list of recommended animation schools. I was much too young for that at the time, but my mom had the foresight to store it away until I was old enough to start looking at colleges. My siblings and I are Disney nuts, and as animation’s second golden age hit, I fell in love with animation even more. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and so on were a huge part of my childhood, not to mention the great cartoons on TV, Inspector Gadget, Darkwing Duck, Rescue Rangers and others. When Toy Story hit in 1995, I was floored and knew that I wanted to refine my interest in animation and be a 3D animator. As high school winded down, I decided to attend Savannah College of Art and Design (which was on the Disney list all those years before) where I received my BFA in Animation in 2005. I got my first break after school working on a children’s DVD property called Springlings at Croog Studios, another small independent production house in NYC. I worked there for about 15 months and have been at Walsh Family Media since.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Ha, well if one thing is certain, there is no such thing as a typical day at a studio like ours. Because the team here is small, we find ourselves wearing many hats. One day I might be shooting reference videos and animating on a shot and the next I might be conducting interviews with new hires or painting giant bamboo that decorates our space, wrestling html code to update our website, or putting on a costume and dancing in Times Square to promote the films. When we’re in full production mode, however, I usually get in around 10am; the core team meets briefly to go over what’s going on that day. We then typically do animation dailies with the in-house animation team. At some point during the day I will also go over any shot submissions from any of our remote animators working off-site with Patrick Walsh the studio’s founder and director of The Cool Beans, and provide those animators with video feedback. I spend a good bit of time critiquing the other animator’s shots, but do scrape out some time to work on shots of my own. I have a stage acting background, so I’m often called on to act in people’s reference videos for their shots, something we’re really big on. I even provide the scratch voices for several of the characters in the film, so visits to the sound booth are common. As the day winds down around 8pm or so, we will typically do another quick round of review and output our shots to be dropped into the edit to be ready for dailies the next morning.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I really enjoy the collaborative aspects of this industry. Whether it’s getting to be involved in brainstorming new sequences, getting nutty on the mic, rocking out in impromptu jam sessions or making hilarious reference videos, its having fun with other like-minded creatives, while knowing you’re a major part of something special that makes it rarely feel like work, despite many long hard hours.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
We opened a Service Division of our company in 2008 called WFM Services to bring in additional revenue. It was the first time we really did anyone else’s work. Working for clients, who often don’t fully understand what we do, our process, or even have a creative bone in their bodies for that matter, is tough. This dynamic can often make for frustrating projects. We always manage to salvage it and make each project something great, but it’s a different kind of energy then when we get to have the creative freedom that we enjoy with our own projects. Beyond that, I don’t really care for many of the non-animation, more administrative aspects of my job, but they are necessary evils when you’re producing this kind of content on a shoe string budget. We don’t really have the resources for a HR department or Marketing department, etc., so very often, we artists step up and fill those roles.
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?
In terms of software we work primarily on Autodesk’s Maya on the animation side of things, rendering in Mental Ray, compositing in Nuke and After Effects, and editing in either Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere. We also make extensive use of the whole Adobe Creative Suite for a host of different things. We have a pretty decent distributed rendering solution using Smedge and have Wacom tablets, Cintiqs and the like. I’m blessed with pretty great screen real estate, as we all have dual widescreen monitors and pretty powerful Dell Workstations with high end graphics cards. We’re in need of a server upgrade, but our old Dell PowerEdge 2850 running Windows Server 2003 is still holding up ok. Most of the advancements happen in terms of the computers getting faster and being able to handle more and more complex data at faster speeds. Also, the price of storage has dropped so drastically that it makes rendering many layers at full 1080 and even 2k in stereoscopic much more doable than it would have been 5 years ago when I started here. There are always little scripts coming out and software advancements on the Maya side of things that just make an animator’s life easier on a day to day basis. Scripts like autoTangent, tweenMachine and our pose library are must haves for my personal workflow.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
It takes a very long time to see the end result at every level of this industry, so developing patience with the process and attempting to relay that patience to the other people in your life is often difficult. Whether it’s working on one complicated shot for 8 weeks or more before it’s approved, waiting hours for a single rendered frame, or working on the same film for years and years before ever seeing your name in the credits on the big screen, every part of this industry requires extreme amounts of patience. It’s hard for those outside of the industry to wrap their minds around the sheer amounts of time it takes to do even the simplest things in 3D animation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Hey, maybe you could make an animation of my kid when he was a baby…yadayada.” They clearly have no idea what all that entails! So it’s understandable when people always want to know “When is the movie going to be finished?”
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I myself have a long way to go before I could be considered great, but I make a point of taking in Great Animation as much as possible and have had the pleasure of being In the presence of some animation greats. I’ve attended Pixar Master Classes and talks by Andrew Gordon and the like. I have a lot of respect for the guys who have inspired me and paved the way for my career in this field. I even won a Signed Toy Story 3 poster from Pixar story artist Matt Luhn, but I think the coolest for me was a trip I took with a group from SCAD to Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank in 2004. The whole tour was awesome, just walking the hallowed halls that the nine old men walked, but as we were coming out, we ran into Disney Animation legend Joe Grant. He was an animator on Snow White in the 1930’s to give you an idea of how long this guy’s been in the game. He co-wrote Dumbo and the dog in lady and the tramp was named after his dog Lady. If there was a “tenth” old man, it would certainly have been Joe Grant. He was 96 years old at the time but still came into work regularly. He just enjoyed being around it so much that he was still animating and acting as a consultant at that age. He didn’t actually come over and speak to us, but he did shoot a nod my way. It was almost like a passing of the torch; he, a well-seasoned old veteran of the craft, and me, a wide-eyed animation student in my senior year. He would go on to pass away only a few months after that. It was very inspiring to me that he surrounded himself with what he loved doing until the day he died, and I only hope the same can be said for me some day.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I have only had one speeding ticket my entire life, but it ended up being perhaps the biggest debacle of my life. In my senior year of high school I got a speeding ticket while coming home one night. I could either pay the fine or go to court and fight it. Though I was going with the flow of traffic and just happened to be the sucker who pulled over when the lights started flashing, I decide to pay the fine and get it over with. Many years later, as I went to renew my license for my 21st birthday, I found out, to my dismay, that my license was suspended, not only that, it had been suspended for years, because of my age at the time of the ticket and the amount over the limit that I was going. Because of some postal mix-up (military family remember) I never received any notice of the suspension back when I was 17 and continued driving on that license unknowingly. Needless to say, they took my license on the spot, with little explanation and I was stuck with no car for most of my senior year of college, bumming rides and taking the bus around downtown Savannah. To make matters worse, after I served my 6-months’ suspension time and completed the necessary defensive driving course, I found out that the state I was living in at the time only offered a 5 hour course and that the state of Georgia, where the ticket was issued only accepted the certificate from a 6 hour course. I had to have the instructor give me a private 1 on 1, hour long session after the class to fulfill the requirement. Because it had been suspended for so long, I then had to retake a behind-the-wheel driving test. Due to a time limitation and no available appointments to take the test in Washington before I had to fly back to GA, I had to get up one morning and have my dad drive me 4 hours away to the only DMV in the state of Washington that accepted walk-ins. All in all, I got it sorted out, but not without waiting on hold for more hours than I care to recount throughout the entire ordeal and darn near pulling my hair out (a difficult feat if you’ve seen how short my hair is). Needless to say, I am a very safe and cautious driver now and prefer the subway.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I’m getting married in a couple months and that has been more work for this groom than most might imagine. I’ve put my creative roots to task all along the way over the last 9 months or so, helping with everything from hand making custom invitations for the wedding party and mockups to designing and doing a 3D model and render of my groom’s cake and our ice-sculpture. It’s been a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to a one of a kind memorable day. Other than that, I help out my brother’s company from time to time doing stage show designs and renderings for musical acts and various other freelance gigs helping friends out from time to time.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Hmm, nothing too unusual I guess. I have a lot of experience in puppetering and used to be a costume and set designer for a children’s theater my brother and I ran growing up. I once tried to build a robot as a young boy with no formal robotics training and no internet. I write poetry, play drums and write little raps for fun. I have a 2nd Degree Black belt collecting dust somewhere that I earned in my teens. Oh, and I can say all 66 books of the Bible in like 18 seconds (forgot to mention, I’m a preacher’s kid).
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I would say, stay humble, never stop learning and take in all of the different art forms you can. By developing and appreciation for film, music, theater, painting, sports, poetry, etc. you expand your horizons and make yourself a well-rounded creative. You never know where inspiration for the next great idea might come from, so experience all you can from life. Meet new people, travel to new places, do different things. On a more practical note, I would say to shoot reference often and never be shy to hop on camera. “People watch” and draw as much as you can, even if you’re doing computer animation. Welcome critique and get it as early as possible at every stage of a shot. No task is “beneath you,” always be willing to help out and go the extra mile. That will help you to get noticed early on. Develop a strong work ethic and good brainstorming skills. Be a vocal contributor in dailies as it only helps to sharpen your own skills. Get the fundamentals down before diving in too deep; in other words don’t put the cart before the horse. Avoid cliché acting choices, dig deeper whenever possible. Less is often more. Learn the power of a Hold and “visual silence”. Keep an open mind. There are things that you didn’t learn in school, and there are many workflows, each with their own merit and advantages. Trust the Process!! You don’t know it all, and likely never will, so stay hungry and passionate, keep working hard and absorbing all of the knowledge you can, and be ready to freely spread that knowledge, helping those who come behind you and you will go far. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun. I mean, come on, we get paid to make cartoons! It doesn’t get much better than that!