Episode 130 — Bobby Chiu — Schoolism


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Episode 130 — Bobby Chiu — Schoolism 

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 130! I’m speaking with Bobby Chiu from Schoolism, an online school that specifically teaches art. I’m really excited about this one!

Bobby had so many amazing insights to share that we broke this Episode into two. The first one will focus on Bobby’s story, as well as working remotely, the discipline and resilience that we need to focus. The next Episode with Bobby will focus more on Schoolism specifically.

Let’s dive in!



[-46:13] Just a heads up: I’m going to be speaking at the IAMAG Masterclass in a couple of weeks: http://www.iamag.co/features/iamag-master-classes-18/

I will be giving a Masterclass on branding and how to build your name as a brand. This isn’t just about matching your business card with your website — but about how to build your name and why it’s important to do this. I’m also excited for all the other speakers, as well as a meet-up for my Mentorship group. I’m looking forward to doing the Opening Ceremony talk as well.

I’m going to live stream from some of these events as well. Please check that out on my Facebook page: www.Facebook.com/allanftmckay/. That’s my public page.



Bobby Chiu is an Artist, Teacher and Motivator. He started his career in digital art at the age of 17, designing toys for Star Wars and Pixar. One of his first jobs as a Character Designer was on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. After that, he worked on films Men in Black 3 and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Bobby shares his talent through teaching up-and-coming artists, making tutorials and interviewing other artists. Over a decade ago, Bobby co-founded Imaginism Studios. Since then, the Studios have worked with clients like Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Riot Games, Blizzard and many others. He also founded Schoolism, an online learning community for artists.

In part one of his interview with Allan McKay, Bobby talks about his background, making art his profession, learning to work remotely, following trends — and reaching the level of success where he had to learn to say “no”.


Imagines Studios Website: http://www.imaginismstudios.com

Bobby Chiu’s Profile on Imaginism Studios’ Website: http://www.imaginismstudios.com/artists/Bobby%20Chiu

Schoolism Website: https://www.schoolism.com

Bobby Chiu on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/bobbychiu

Bobby Chiu on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3492061/

Niko and the Sword of Light on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3952772/?ref_=nm_flmg_prd_1

Interview with Bobby Chiu on CG Society: http://www.cgsociety.org/news/article/1398/artist-insight-bobby-chiu

The Perfect Bait by Bobby Chiu on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG55UXhEgZs

Bobby Chiu on Instagram: @DigitalBobert


[-[43:51] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Bobby: Sure! Hey, everybody. I’m Bobby Chiu. I’m an artist.

[-[43:43] Allan: That’s awesome! Obviously you have a couple of businesses: Imaginism Studios and Schoolism. Do you want to quickly give a few words about what Schoolism is?

Bobby: Sure. Schoolism is a site, first and foremost, that provides online education from the industry’s best. We do live workshops in different cities around the world. We also have a live 30-day experience. We offer the Lake House immersive experience which is just outside of Montreal, Canada, where you and three other selected artists would apply and get accepted — and stay at that house for 30 days with your mentor. It’s an old school apprenticeship. Then we fly in guest artists during your stay, to teach you as well. It’s quite an experience!

[-42:24] Allan: I’m curious about Lake House. I love the idea of that! Let’s say Nathan Fowkes (allanmckay.com/95) would just relocate for 30 days?

Bobby: Yeah. Nathan was one of the guests. The guests usually stay just for a few days. People are coming in from everywhere: South Africa, Asia, Europe, South America. We even had a person come in from Nanavut. Do you know where Nanavut is?

[-[41:29] Allan: I have no idea!

Bobby: That’s the Inuit country in the Arctic region. We had an artist come from there. Nathan came as a former guest and stayed for 5 days a week. Imagine you come from Nanavut where you know no other artists and then you’re staying in the same house with your mentor.

[-[40:56] Allan: That’s pretty insane. I do think that this industry doesn’t have many places to network. There are events around but most of the time you don’t have access to the speaker. I believer to fully learn, you also have to immerse yourself.

Bobby: You probably feel it even more. You weren’t born in the U.S. I don’t live in the U.S. right now either. Networking 15 years ago was really difficult. That’s the driving force behind Schoolism: Help connect the people out there with their favorite artist, through classes or free interviews. For me, it was very much a personal thing. I wanted to meet these people too. But I didn’t want to move: My family is in Toronto. This was my solution and it happened to be other people’s solution too.

[-[39:15] Allan: I love that! Most of my career, I worked remotely, even when I lived in LA. I like being able to pick and choose the projects and my hours. At the same time, if I want to do lots of projects — I can do that. (With traditional hours, you are stuck with one project / one paycheck.) You can live and work anywhere these days. You aren’t limited to overseas. 

Bobby: Just a little caveat: J.A.W. Cooper, an amazing artist, says she tries to work as little as possible. She’ll work a week out of the month. As long as your living expenses are low, you could totally live like royalty.

[-[37:51] Allan: So true! I’m doing a talk on the Targeted Monthly Income (TMI). Once you figure out all the expenses, you can figure out how many days a month you can work. You can create any lifestyle you want! Before this, we were talking about [my working on] Game of Thrones recently. I was in Portland and my client was in Sydney. I just did a project from my machine at home and logging into the company’s machine.

Bobby: How long has it been for you now?

[-[36:23] Allan: Um. Twenty something years? I think I started in ’96. I got more consistent work in ‘98. 

Bobby: So when did you start work remotely — and people were cool with it?

[-[36:02] Allan: Yeah. I haven’t had much struggle with it. People have fear around it. In LA, I worked on Call of Duty for Activision. I lived less than a block and a half away, I still worked from home. Early in my career, I did it extensively because I was 14-15. I was trying not to tell people how old I was. I used it as a work-around. It’s a critical thing thing these days: You aren’t restricted as long as you have the internet. I think it’s more about being upfront with people. The more you’re able to remove fears they might have — the more it becomes a no brainer. If you were to make it a big deal yourself, they’ll start to treat it like it’s not normal.

Bobby: I have a great little story about it! I started at the same time, at 15 years old, doing graphics for BBS sites, or whatever they’re called these days. For the younger people out there, it’s like pixel art except the pixels were rectangular. So it was way harder to shape things. I got my first in-house job when I was 17. You definitely feel that you’re the youngest person by far. As time goes on, I realized I could’ve moved up as fast as I wanted to, as long as I had the right attitude. Show the confidence in the things that you know — and people will give you a try because you’re special. The other thing about working remotely was: It was interesting to experience to see people get used to working with you over the internet. I know it sounds trite now, but back then it was like, “How is that going to work?”

One of the best things that ever happened to us — which is also one of my regrets: When I was working on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I was asked to move to London to work on it, then to LA to finish it. At the time, I was teaching in college. I really fought my moral principles and decided it wasn’t right for me to leave the students. I decided to stay and asked to work on the film from Toronto. They said we could try and it worked out fine. The next project was based in LA. But that other company said [that working remotely] wouldn’t work. I say, “Well, it worked for Tim Burton, can we at least try?” Because of that thing [it worked out]. I really wanted to move to London and work with Tim Burton. But because of that I was able to do everything else for years and years, from the comfort of my city.

[-[28:56] Allan: I think you’re right. There are some things you’re going to miss out on by working remotely. Obviously, on a smaller scale, being a part of the team is critical. I always make it a point to at least meet the team, depending on the job. Having that face time can be critical, there is face to everyone as well as to you. There are always pluses and minuses with anything. Sometimes, setting contingencies helps: “Let’s try it for the first half”. I’ve done it on some projects. When I worked on Transformers, I wanted to try working on a feature film remotely. There are so many variations! Every situation is different. Sometimes, it’s a matter of anticipating where it’s going to work well. If you have a quick turnaround, it may be better to be onsite. You can at least address the employer’s hesitations.

Bobby: I think I’m lucky because of the actual jobs I’m asked to do — it’s usually character design. It’s very early pre-vis, so I don’t actually need to come in.

[-[25:40] Allan: You’re right. Earlier in the pipeline, especially more in a conceptual stage, that’s cool. You’re more standalone. That’s a lot cleaner because you aren’t waiting for feedback from many people. Being a Concept Artist, you can have an external place you can work from. You’re building assets early into the process, which makes it easier. Do you want to talk about Imaginism as well? How Imaginism and Schoolism differentiate from each other?

Bobby: Imaginism is kind of the umbrella. Even though Schoolism has grown into the bigger thing, Imaginism is the studio part of the company. That’s where we do our films from.

[-[24:01] Allan: I was just interested in your background as an artist. You’ve been doing a lot of work. When you first started out, did you always want to be an artist?

Bobby: I loved art. I would do it all the time? I didn’t think I’d be an artist. My parents — I love them to death — [would say,] “Art is a good thing but as a hobby. Do it as a hobby!” I thought I’d be a business person (and it came easier to me, to tell you the truth). I was good at business too! I ended up going to a business school even though I was doing art all the time! I would stay home just to do art. I never thought I’d become an artist until I was 19 years old. I was already working and taking on jobs as an artist since the age of 15.

[-22:05] Allan: Yeah. I think it’s interesting to have that aha moment. This theme of art not being a career. It’s such a huge hesitation people have. The starving artist mentality still echoes around (allanmckay.com/99). Do you find that a lot of your students still face that struggle? 

Bobby: I do, but it’s less and less. When Jurassic Park was made and you had a baby then, he / she would now be 19 years old. A fan of Jurassic Park has some understanding of computer animation. They understand that it’s a viable career. Things are getting much better. When I was in my early 20s, I felt like for the most part — and I’m being general here — the Chinese community wasn’t accepting of being an artist as a profession. That has a lot of truth to it. Nowadays, animation has really blown up. I’m only saying this from seeing the statistics at Schoolism in general. That’s where I’m getting my information from. China has turned around, and I’m sure a lot of other places have too, especially in Asia. There are so many artists coming out of the woodwork!

[-[19:23] Allan: Absolutely, yeah! It is interesting to see this kind of a shift. I don’t have too much connection in Asia, and it’s interesting to see how insanely talented people are. I love this shift that not everything is done in LA. Obviously, Vancouver has become a capital of VFX industry. I definitely love that shift.

Bobby: It’s happening so quickly, it’s kind of scary. You look at the movies nowadays: How many of them, for some weird reason, are like: “We have to go to Hong Kong!” You do? It’s so apparent in so many movies now. I’m cool with it because I can speak Mandarin, but I don’t want to move to China, necessarily. So much of the work is going there — at such a rapid rate — it can feel kind of scary.

[-[17:05] Allan: Living in LA had a huge impact. It’s had a morale impact as well. These are the places that have been spoilt. There is now a bit of insecurity because we don’t have the world on the platter anymore.

Bobby: One of the things I wanted to mention though is that any kind of change is a huge opportunity. It’s like a wave is super scary. But if you’re a surfer, you look forward to these waves. I’m not someone who tries to stop a trend. I’m a surfer, I don’t try to stop a wave. I watch what happens to our industry. That’s what other people should do to. Look for opportunities in the trends. It’s not going to slow down. If you’re one of the first adopters, you’ll have a significant advantage. 

[-[15:35] Allan: Absolutely! I think it’s the best way to look at it: always to adapt. I love the globalization that’s happening. It’s better to have a positive outlook. Now there are so many work opportunities! The more things globalize, the more opportunities that creates.

Bobby: If you want to do the same job for the next 20-30 years, you’re in big trouble. You can’t stay on the same wave for that many years. It doesn’t make any sense. Nowadays, things change so much faster. No matter where you are! You can thrive no matter where you are.

[-[14:11] Allan: This is an industry where you can move around so much. I’ve changed my careers so many times, within the industry. I’ve had the freedom and fun doing that. If you’re a traditional artist, you have all the freedom to explore things. It goes back to being able to adapt. Here you have this massive playground. To talk about your projects, when was the first big break you got and you realized you had a career?

Bobby: There were many little breaks. Big shoutout to Lorne Lanning, creator of Oddworld and one of my buddies. He is someone who gave me my first break to work on a Tom Hanks project that never came out. Then, it was Tony Bancroft, the director of Mulan. He gave me a break early on to work on one of his films — that never came out. And a bunch of others — that never came out. But it helped to get my art around the industry, so that the industry people got to know my stuff.

And then, Tim Burton, of course! I believe Jacquie Barnbrook found me and gave my contact and art to Tim Burton and I got hired on [Alice in Wonderland]. That was my sixth movie project that I’ve worked on, but the first one that came out. Usually, when I start working on a project — [as a Character Designer] — they don’t have the budget for anything. It’s just me and the director creating concepts. When Alice in Wonderland came out, it did very well in the box office. This is before all the Avengers stuff! After that, it became a flood of offers and awesome projects.

That’s when I learned a good lesson: We all struggle to get to a point where we don’t have to be concerned where our next job is coming from. We have faith that our reputation will get us to those jobs. But there is a point where you become successful and you get more offers than you can handle. When you get to that point — you have to learn how to say “no” to a lot of stuff, a lot of cool stuff. You only have a certain number of hours. If you start picking up projects and not giving them your best, it’s going to start hurting your career.

[-[09:20] Allan: Absolutely! The best way to look at that is with a percentage meter. Sometimes, I’ve worked on 6-7 projects at a time. Sometimes even 2 with really demanding clients, you end up giving everything 10%. Is that really how you want to do it? Is that how you want to be known? You want to make sure to give all the jobs the love and the attention they need.

Bobby: A lot of the time, on their next film, whom will they call back? If you have a great experience and did well, they want to call you back.

[-[08:24] Allan: Absolutely! The first big project I’ve ever worked on was Half-Life. It then became Team Fortress 2. It came out in 2007. The thing I worked on was in ’97. So I understand the pain of not being able to show my work. How did you manage to go around that to build your reputation?

Bobby: One of the big advantages I had was I started my career during the beginning of working remotely. It’s a double aged sword. There weren’t as many people doing that. But also, people couldn’t understand how I could do that. So, I really learned how to navigate through social media. Only now I hear people going through that. It’s because of that — that kind of thinking and knowledge and experience I’ve built over the years — that I was able to thrive, even though I work remotely.

[-[06:16] Allan: Do you think it’s important to educate your clients about what to expect?

Bobby: Oh, yeah! Definitely! If it’s a director who doesn’t draw, in my concepts, I would show my sketches but then have one that was more complete. Then, I’d say, “You see these drawings? These drawings are an idea. And if you like the idea, it will turn into something like this.” It’s like these little tutorials I send along with my drawings.

[-[05:23] Allan: My fiance worked in vehicle wrapping for luxury vehicles. I’ve been pushing her to build a PDF, to walk people through what to expect and when to expect it. You need to hold people’s hands a little bit. Otherwise, people freak out they aren’t looking at the finished thing. Then, they can be more at ease and you won’t have people breathing down your neck.

Bobby: A little story I found super funny. A friend of mine was working a studio. There was a pitch and there were just storyboards of the film at the time. There was an Executive [who said], “Um, this movie isn’t going to be in black and white, is it?”

[-[03:37] Allan: We did a HDTV commercial in Sydney for Samsung’s new tv back in ’99. It was a 1.2-million job. A company across from us lost the job to us. We were doing the very early pre-vis and we put everything out in black and white initially, to focus on the key things. We would focus on the color later. They ended up pulling the job from us and giving it to the company that lost the job to us initially.  All because their pre-vis was in color.

Bobby: A bunch of work I get now is strictly for presentations. People come to me to help them in the very beginning, to help them because I know how to make something presentable to people who don’t understand art.


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thank you to Bobby for doing this Episode. Please share it around and leave a review on iTunes.

I’m also doing another Schoolism Episode, with another instructor Thierry Lafontaine who is a Character Designer. He has done a Mentorship for 30 days. It’s so fully immersive.

By now, I’ve done a couple of interviews with Schoolism artists:

– With Nathan Fowkes: allanmckay.com/95/.

– With Justin Goby Fields: allanmckay.com/118/.

I’ll post Bobby’s second Episode down the line.

Thanks again! And rock on!



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