Check out www.VFXRates.com
Episode 104 — Interview with Victor Navone — PIXAR: Making Your Short Films Go Viral!
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 104! I’m speaking with the one and only Victor Navone, a Supervising Animator at Pixar. I’m really excited about this one. You may remember Victor: Back in the late 90s, he made Alien Song, a really cool, funny video that broke outside the nerd circle of 3D and it became pretty mainstream. A lot of people would circulate it over email before we had any go-to websites.
It was pretty cool to talk to Victor about his victories as an artist; his journey, a lot of rejections as well — and how those turned into advantages on his way to Pixar. I was recently having dinner with Fred Ruff of Refuge FX (www.allanmckay.com/100/ and www.allanmckay.com/36/) and mentioned Victor’s interview. Fred said, “Oh, Alien Song!” It went viral before viral was a thing. In 1998, having nicely polished animation — something that matched Pixar’s quality back then — really stood out!
In addition to that, Victor is going to be speaking at the IAMAG Master Class in Paris, in 2018: http://www.iamag.co/features/iamag-master-classes-18/. I will be there as well. There will a lot of cool speakers coming to this Master Class: Kris Costa, Peter de Seve, Maggie Oh (a good friend of mine!), Marc Simonetti (www.allanmckay.com/45/), Goro Fujita, Sam Nielson, and many more! In addition, for everyone in my Mentorship, I will arrive early and organize to hang out early. I do love that there is so much access to the speakers and you’re able to hang out with them. It’s really cool!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
I. [-58:49] In addition to that, I have some new training coming out in the next two weeks. It’s something I haven’t shown off before. I may sound cocky but I don’t really know of any training that goes as in depth as the training of the last two years. Even the free training has a high production budget! This has to do with creature effects, taking live actions shots start to finish.
This will be exclusive to anyone in my inner circle, which is free. To join it, please go to www.allanmckay.com/inside/. By joining it, you will start receiving:
– Free training;
– Free guides;
II. [-57:02] I have a brand new website launching in a few weeks as well. It’s been years in the making. It will be a platform for me to give as much free content as I can. I will be hosting webinars on there as well. I’m excited it’s coming together.
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR NAVONE
Victor Navone is a Supervising Animator at Pixar Animation Studios. Since 2000, he has worked on such high budget animated features as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars 2 & 3, WALL-E, Brave, Inside Out and many more.
After graduating from the University of California, Irvine, Victor began working as a 3D artist at Presto Studios, a video games company. He continued to study 3D character animation in his spare time. In 1999, Victor’s first animated short Alien Song, which was a result of some animation and lip sync tests, went viral. When it caught the attention of Edwin Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation Studios, Victor was invited for an interview. He joined the company in 2000.
For his work on WALL-E, Victor has won an award from the Visual Effects Society. He has taught at Animation Mentor and Animation Collaborative.
In this Episode, Victor talks about his career, with its victories and detours, tools of a successful artist and insider tips for a demo reel that’s guaranteed to get you noticed!
Victor Navone’s Gallery: http://www.navone.org
Victor Navone’s Blog: http://blog.navone.org
Victor Navone on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/victornavone
Victor Nivone’s Alien Song on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybXrrTX3LuI
Victor Navone on IAMAG Master Class Website: http://www.iamag.co/features/the-art-of-victor-navone-traditional-artist-and-computer-animator-at-pixar/
[-55:31] Victor: My name is Victor Navone. I’m a Supervising Animator at Pixar Animation Studios.
[55:14] Allan: Just to start out, I’d like to talk about how you started. Did you always picture yourself as an artist growing up, or is it something you’ve adapted later on?
Victor: I always knew I would do something with art because I was always drawing. As soon as I got a hold of a pencil, I was drawing nonstop. I was focused. It’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have a career goal in mind all through high school. I just knew I wanted to be in illustration or advertising. Oddly enough, I never considered the film industry, even though I was a huge sci-fi nerd, like Star Wars. I was studying the works of Joe Johnston or Ralph McQuarrie. Those guys were hugely influential! I was also a huge animation fan but I never considered that either! I never put two and two together.
I went to the University of California in Irvine. I don’t remember what my reasoning was. I got my degree in Fine Arts there; took the 5-year tour, did my last year in France. After college, I got a job doing architectural pre-visualization, basic paint programs. It was a good professional job but the work was really dry. My big break, if you want to call it that, came when I got an internship at a video game studio in San Diego. This was back in mid-90s, so CD-rom video games were big, like Myst. I was working at Presto Studios and their claim to fame where the Journeyman Projects, which were time travel games. I came on as an intern to do some concept design work (they’d seen some fan art I had done). Then eventually they hired me full-time. I learned to do art on a MacIntosh, Photoshop, After Effects; all the aspects of the CG pipeline. That’s the great things about starting at a small studio: You get to do lots of different things. I was learning lighting, rendering, compositing, pretty much everything but character animation.
[-52:00] I was working there for about 5 years. I got to become an art director, production designer on some games. After 5 years, I started getting a bit restless. I felt that I’ve learned everything I could learn at that place. I wanted to try something new. I heard that George Lucas was making prequels to the Star Wars films. I thought that would be a dream come true! I started putting together my work to a job at ILM’s Rebel Mac Unit which was the group of people who were making graphics using Mac computers.
[-51:08] Allan: I love that concept! We’re not going to use CGI’s, or the standard tools that the rest of the departments are using. I think it’s super cool! I want to jump back a bit to video games. Obviously, now you’re doing a lot of animation. At the time, learning all the aspects of 3D, having that growth in the beginning, do you think that helped you be a better artist in the long run?
Victor: I do. Not just a better artist, but a better collaborator. I think it’s easier to collaborate with other people when you understand their job a little bit. I wasn’t the best at anything, but it gave me all of this knowledge of different aspects of the pipeline and it informed my art process:
– knowing how to design something that’s going to trickle down the line;
– how people are going to interact with this;
– how to talk to other departments.
That made me a better team player, and at that point, a better artist too!
[-49:52] Allan: And at that point, you were looking into further horizons like ILM.
Victor: Yeah. I was interested in visual effects. Art department, too. I fell in love with CGI art on a Mac. So I applied to ILM a few different times, for a few different positions. They never hired me, which to this day, I thank my lucky stars for that! This was about 1998-99. At the same time, animation software becomes more affordable in the form of Animation Master, or Hash Animation.
[-49:06] Allan: Oh, man! Every time I do one of these Episodes, we end up talking about the craziest software! I completely forgot about that one. Jeff Lew was doing crazy animation in that tool.
Victor: Yes! As you know, otherwise, you needed a $10,000 CGI and a seat of Alias PowerAnimator or Maya 1.0. It was inaccessible until the late 90s: You had Animation Master which was only $200. I had just seen Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2 and I was thinking, “Man, that looks like fun!” I had some acting experience, I knew how to draw, I had some modeling and texturing experience. And I had these scenes playing in my head that are character acting, I wondered if I could do it.
So I started playing on my own, while also putting together a reel and a portfolio for ILM. In my spare time, I started playing with character animation and it came very intuitively to me. There were not a lot resources back in the day: some books in the library or CG character forums. There was no YouTube. I needed a simple character, so I created this one-eyed alien with three fingers on each hand (because that was simpler to rig). I started doing animation tests. Then, I wanted to do a lip syncing test. At first, I thought I’d get a William Shatner clip. I was at an office party for my wife’s company and the song I Will Survive came on and I thought it was a great bit of dialogue to animate: It has these emotional changes in it, it’s dramatic and broad. That was the inspiration for me to take this alien and make him sing this disco song as a lip sync test (that was the premise). But then it evolved into a short: https://vimeo.com/49094961.
[-46:11] Allan: I love that! I grew up with animators. They’re a 10-second club, living and breathing animation, and forcing me to watch it. I remember having so many discussions about this clip, this clean, at the time Pixar-quality piece. Your stuff came along and it looked amazing and it worked really well. At the time, were you doing it as a way for you to learn, or to potentially send it along to Pixar?
Victor: I didn’t even dream of Pixar. It was just for fun, trying to get the pictures that were in my head and onto the screen and see if I could do it. There was a freedom in that. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I kept it simple and small, and I didn’t get too ambitious with it. And I think that’s one of the keys to the success of it: It’s a simple idea, simply executed, but hopefully well enough executed that people find it funny and relatable. A lot of times, you see student films and they have too many ideas, they get too ambitious, too long; or they aren’t finished it or the films are abandoned. I was able to get Alien Song to a point where it was polished enough that I could move onto to something else.
At the time, there was no social network or YouTube. So I just uploaded it to the CG Character Forum, to get some feedback. But people started sending it outside the Forum. It became a viral video via email which back in that day, a 3.5 MB was a big attachment. So I think [it] crashed a few servers. But I started getting tons of attention: fans, people wanting me to create a viral video for them, people who wanted to hire me for something else. A few opportunities came from it, nothing major. Except then I got an email from Ed Catmull at Pixar asking if I wanted to interview. I looked him up and saw that he was the President of Pixar. I thought I should probably respond to that.
So I ended up getting into animation accidentally, but it wasn’t my intention. This was in the late 1999, and by March 2000 — I was working at Pixar. Suddenly, I was a professional animator. And I had no feature experience.
[-42:21] Allan: So at the time, you’d created 3 different videos. What was the process like from Ed contacting you? Did you have to fly up to do the interview?
Victor: I should also mention I was in San Diego. I did submit a reel to Pixar’s Recruiting, with those three tests on it. They said, “No, thanks”. It wasn’t until someone had emailed the video to Ed Catmull that he’d reached out to me. He emailed me personally. I got around the whole recruiting process.
[-41:31] Allan: Just to touch on that because that is kind of interesting: The advice that I always give to everyone is to bypass Human Resources. HR has a great placement but they’re not artists. So unless your work really stands out, they’re not going to know [how to recognize] talent, even if the work is a bit young. It’s always tricky when you have those gate keepers. It’s interesting that Ed was able to say yes while they said no.
Victor: I’m not going to deride the HR in any way! I wouldn’t want to make an enemy of them. (I had a negative experience with a recruiter at ILM whom I will not name. She didn’t like that I was trying to bypass her.) You don’t want to burn any bridges in the process of your application. But I will say that it’s useful to form relationships with other artists at the company, to begin with. At Pixar, HR works in collaboration with our artists. In fact, a lot of them are involved in a screening of reels to decide who is worth bringing in for an interview. But I think it’s really important to form relationships with other artists at the studios you want to be at, as well as form a relationship with HR and doing that through proper channels.
[-39:22] Allan: Absolutely! That’s a great advice! It’s the same with managers. You mentioned that after you’d made Alien Song, other people contacted you to make their videos. What was that like?
Victor: Well, a lot of them were clueless. They didn’t know what animation involved. They needed something “just as big as Alien Song” to get people’s attention. I thought, “Gosh, if I’d known how to do that again, I’d be making videos all day long!” I was just as clueless as they were. They were some licensing things that came up. Some of them fell through. Nothing major!
[-37:58] Allan: Could we go back to the ILM thing? Getting their rejection, what was that like for you? Each time you had a rejection, did that make you feel less deterred? Or did you feel like, “Fuck it, I’m going to step up and get in there one way or another!”
Victor: Oh, boy! That was a long time ago. I think I wasn’t deterred. I always had a sense that things were going to work out. Maybe that’s optimism. I was pretty sure I could do this so I just kept at it. I think I interviewed at ILM three times, and maybe by the third time, I felt dejected. And then I got the rejection from Pixar too, before Ed called me up. I was not deterred. I was just so excited about [doing] the work that I always wanted to do! I was doing it on my own and pushing myself, so I had nothing to lose in that respect.
[-36:22] Allan: That’s awesome! For me, early in my career, I was determined to get work. I was getting rejections and all that meant was, “Okay, time for demo reel number 2, number 3!” For some people, the rejection can be crippling. For others, it can be an opportunity to overcome something and grow.
Victor: I was a little bit older than you. By the time I got into Pixar, I was 30. It was a bit late for a career change, but maybe I had a bit more maturity at handling rejections and trying again. A lot of people talk about having and focusing on a goal. I’m more of an opportunist, I would say. I’m more about just find interesting things to work on, do good work, be humble, build relationships — and the opportunities will come. And that’s kind of like the way my career has gone. I never got the things I directly sought after. I never got ILM but I found some better opportunities that took me in an even better direction. I can’t second guess my way to Pixar because now, I’m in this really wonderful place.
[-34:38] Allan: That’s really great! For you, what was the first project you did when you were at Pixar?
Victor: Well, I got hired not into the feature animation department directly. I got hired into the development team. They were going to try and develop some internet content. This is before the first bubble burst. I was in there with a team, some of them were Pixar veterans, trying to come up with some internet content. And that went on for a few months before they pulled the plug on it. They said I could learn their animation software and jump in. If it works out, they’d put me on Monsters, Inc. I learned animation as I went and I started as an animator on that.
I came on midway through the film, doing some background characters and little moments. By the end of the film, they gave me a few hero shots. And it went from there. But I was really flying by the seat of my pants, thinking I was going to get fired at any minute, that I was an imposter. And actually, that probably lasted for the first 3-4 years until I finally felt, “Maybe I know what I’m doing. Maybe I deserve to be here.”
[-32:57] Allan: Imposter syndrome is a really common thing we go through. One of my friends is an animator at Sony. I mentioned to him that in the early days of my freelance career, I felt like I had to do something to prove myself. He said, “Wow, it’s so great to hear someone else actually say that.” We all feel that one day someone is going to [find out] we’re frauds. It is important for us to hear. Most of us think it.
Victor: Yeah, I’ve got to say: It never completely goes away. Once in a while when I get confident, I find myself in a situation where I get completely turned around or I run out of ideas. It deflates me. I think most artist struggle with that, some are just better at hiding it. We’re all vulnerable at what we do. Being creative as a living puts you in a place of vulnerability. “Here is a piece of art that represents my sensibility and my point of you and if you reject that, are you rejecting me as well?” It takes a while to develop thick skin, but that fear never goes away.
[-30:56] Allan: Yup. I appreciate your talking about that. So during Monsters, Inc — and the first few projects — how did you adapt and get more confident?
Victor: I tend to be a fast learner and be pretty technical. I pick up technology and gadgets pretty quickly. That helped me a lot to just get to the point of being productive. Creatively, I had room to grow. Luckily, the culture at Pixar has always been very supportive, very friendly. People are always willing to help. There are plenty of great artists you can go to for feedback, and people are very selfless. Everyone is working for the good of the film, or for the good of their department. It was a very supportive community. I learned tons just by watching people and by asking for help when I needed it. Which was quite a bit.
[-29:29] Allan: So, with Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, what was your experience like to work on those awesome, high profile features?
Victor: I’ve done 3D animation tests before working for Pixar, but I didn’t have a workflow. I had some basic ideas of how things worked, but I didn’t have the process worked out. Part of it was just figuring out my technical process and specific to the software that we were using. I’ve only had experience with Animation Masters and a little bit of Maya. And the other part was learning the craft of animation. I’ve read stuff in books and gleaned stuff on my own, but really talking about things like spacing and arcs, and acting concepts, I had never had to articulate that before. For me, so much of the first 5 or so years was just learning to see: spacing, good poses. Just learning what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. I had a lot of instinct and intuition that got me some of the way, but I had to learn how to back that up with real skills and techniques so I wasn’t winging it all the time.
I’m still developing this toolset to this day. I’ve been teaching for about the past 7 years and that’s helped me phenomenally:
– to learn my own workflow;
– to articulate ideas;
– to discuss concepts;
– to critique animation.
[-27:20] Allan: That’s great! Where are you teaching?
Victor: Right now, I’m teaching at the Animation Collaborative which is literally right across the street from Pixar in Emeryville. I’ve been teaching there for 4 years. I tend to teach the advanced acting classes there. It’s really cool. I did Animation Mentor for a while.
[-26:50] Allan: Good ole Carlos [Baena]! I’m hoping to have him on pretty soon.
Victor: Oh yeah, great! Carlos and Bobby Beck and Shawn Kelly. I was one of the first teachers with them when they started up. I taught there for at least 5 years. I started teaching at Animation Collaborative. I can create my own curriculum and you can’t beat the commute! It’s right across the street.
[-25:28] Allan: I worked on Transformers and a few other films at Atomic Fiction when they were still in Emeryville. The first time I stayed there was at the Inn on Martin Luther King Ave. Lots of fun memories! Now that you’ve worked on a shitload of amazing projects, what’s your favorite one up to date?
Victor: Um. I’ve worked on maybe 15 films, I don’t know if I can pick one. But if I had to narrow it down, I’d say Inside Out, WALL-E and The Incredibles. Mostly because I felt I had the biggest impact on them. I was invested in them, I got to work on them longer. There is more of me in those films. I had a great relationship with the director. It was really rewarding! After 12 films, you start yearning to give more. And on the first two – The Incredibles and WALL-E — my kids are in the production babies list. So that worked out nicely.
[-23:48] Allan: With Inside Out, was that the first project you were Animation Sup-ing on?
Victor: Yeah. And just to clarify, Animation Supervisor at Pixar is equivalent to Head of Character Animation at, say, Disney Feature or DreamWorks. It’s a lead animation position. I’d been Animation Director on Cars 2, I’ve done a commercial and directed some little shorts for TV. But Inside Out was my first Animation Sup job on a feature. I shared the role with Shawn Krause who is another Supervisor. That was a real dream experience! A lot of it because of working with Pete Docter, the Director, and Jonas Rivera, the Producer. They’re really fun to work for, they set a great tone! Everyone on the team was really cool, there was no big drama! It was just about the hard work that was really satisfying. We felt that we were making something important, something that we really believed in! That was a great 2-2.5 years of my life at Pixar.
[-22:32] Allan: That’s always the one thing about animation features that was challenging for me: I was never one to stay on projects for a long time. I always want to be put into the fire at the very end. Working on a feature for 3 years is a huge commitment. For you, do you ever experience any kind of plateau in the middle? Do you need a break from staring at the same characters?
Victor: Actually, it’s more like, “I need a break from going to all of these meetings.” As a Supervisor at Pixar, you don’t get to do a lot of the work yourself. You’re mostly critiquing other people’s animation or meeting with other departments. It’s a managerial position. Your time is not your own, you’re constantly running around. That gets wearisome. But I like spending a lot of time on a film. For the last 3-4 features, I’ve been jumping in in the middle of a film and helping out. And that gets really tiring. So I don’t really feel like I’m getting enough footing. I like the chance to slow down and:
– be more involved in pre-production;
– establish a style of the show;
– wrap up everything at the end.
[-20:46] Allan: Do you do a lot of personal work yourself, to keep your head in the game? Obviously, that’s tricky when you’re Sup-ing.
Victor: I don’t animate at home. For the first 6 years at Pixar, I was tinkering with the idea of making a short film on my own time. But I can’t come home and keep animating. I have enough of that at work. My creative pursuits at home are drawing, playing guitar, photography which still inspires me.
[-19:50] Allan: Right now, what’s a typical day for you?
Victor: Um, let’s see. If I’m in production as an Animator, I show up at 8:30, get breakfast, go to dailies, go back to my desk and work until lunch. Get lunch at work or do a yoga class. Work for the rest of the afternoon. I usually work until 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. I work pretty fast. If we’re in crunch time, they might ask us to work on a Saturday.
[-18:44] Allan: I know there are a lot of students who want to break into the industry. If you don’t mind, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career?
– For one thing, it’s a small industry so don’t piss anyone off.
– Be cool with managers and animators you work with because you will run into them again.
– I’ve put my foot in my mouth. I go to the CTN Expo every year, it’s an animation convention. I tend to do panels. There was a year I said something negativing about the rigging department at Pixar. I was doing it in jest but it sounded unpleasant and that came back to haunt me. Keep in mind that you’re representing a company and be positive!
– Staying humble is really important.
– Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.
– Always be open to opportunities! If you’re looking for a job and the one that you want isn’t open for you, there are other ones where you can learn. It may end up being a better place for you.
[-16:53] Allan: I think that’s such a great advice! I think it’s important to have long term and short terms goals but it’s also important to adapt if other things come along. There are also people who are blind to opportunities. It’s about being intuitive, recognizing those opportunities and being able to connect the dots; rather than blind to other stuff.
Victor: Because you never know where one opportunity is going to lead you.
[-15:54] Allan: I think it’s critical in the beginning of your career to say yes to everything. Hopefully, eventually, you’ll get to a point when you’ll be too busy and you’ll have to start saying no. Do you have any advice to other artists on how to get noticed in this competitive, noisy industry we’re in?
Victor: That’s a tricky one. I feel so lucky to get into Pixar when I did. There was so little competition and they were willing to take a chance on me. Now you’ve got so many animation schools and so many students cranking out amazing work! They’ve got access to cheap software and amazing rigs.
So, I can only speak as someone who gets to sit in at reel reviews at Pixar and say:
- We’re attracted to ideas and unique points of view. We’re looking for points of view we haven’t seen before or acting sensibilities we haven’t considered before.
- If you were going to make an animated feature film, what kind of film would you want to make? Then, show us scenes from that, [instead of] the generic blue sky animation, anything we’ve seen before.
- We’re more likely to take a chance on someone who has a strong, unique idea than someone who’s super polished and has had production experience.
[-13:37] Allan: This will be my last question. In your experience, what are some of the mistakes people make when they’re applying for work?
– The obvious one is: Never take credit for someone else’s work.
– A lot of it comes down to being in the interview. Be open and be yourself. It’s tough because you’re so nervous. We like to get an idea of who you are.
– If you do have production experience, it’s great to have your personal work on your reel. That sets people apart.
[-10:45] Allan: I’ve asked this question of Supervisors a lot. It’s so important to show your personal work to show what you can do. Another important factor to mention, most people will take into consideration that you’re nervous in interviews. They can look past that.
Victor: I should also say it’s important to know what each studio is looking for. You may need to have a different reel for each different studio. It’s good to attend places like CTN Expo or SIGGRAPH where you can meet artists and recruiters from those studios, so you can tailor your reel [accordingly]. It’s important to know who your audience will be for your reel.
[-08:42] Allan: We’re both going to be speaking in Paris in March. What’s your talk about?
Victor: I haven’t nailed it down yet, but I’m sure it’ll have something to do with acting techniques and animation, analysis, how to break down a scene. That’s what gets me excited. Pixar has nailed that over the years. Maybe, I’ll talk about other stuff too.
[-07:50] Allan: We did talk about doing some road trips.
Victor: I plan on having my family with me too.
[-07:05] Allan: I’ve been going every year. Last year, everyone brought their partner. It was really cool! If anyone wants to find out about you, are there any sites?
Victor: I do have a blog, I haven’t touched it in a long time. Just Google me. I’m on Instagram: @VictorNavone.
[-05:34] Allan: Thank you again for taking the time to do this!
I want to thank Victor Navone for the chat. Victor is awesome! So much great insight!
I’ve got some solo Episodes coming as well. I love having access to so many talented people. I’m going to try and put more value in with solo Episodes as well:
– Just a bit of a hint, the next Episode will be with Ruben Mayor. Ruben is a good friend of mine, I’ve known him forever. He is a Senior FX TD at Weta. He’s a really talented guy.
– I’m interviewing the biggest immigration firm in New Zealand. I’m speaking with Willy Sussman.
– I’m interviewing an immigration firm in the U.K as well.
If there are other places you want to learn about, please let me know. Shoot me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to go beyond talking about polygons when there is so much more to our careers! Immigration knowledge is so valuable. I know working internationally does wonders to your career! It will bump up your experience and negotiation level.
Any subject, anything that interests you, let me know. That being said, I will be back next week, talking with Ruben. That being said, shoot me an email. Please leave a review on iTunes. We have new training coming up! I’m also always open to ideas.