Episode 334 – Activision Blizzard – Senior Director Creative Talent Robin Alan Linn

 

Episode 334 – Activision Blizzard – Senior Director Creative Talent Robin Alan Linn

Activision Blizzard’s history goes back more than 40 years. Two incredible gaming brands Activision and Blizzard Entertainment merged, bringing together the best creative talent in gaming. The acquisition of King in 2016 further strengthened the company’s vision to bring the world together through epic entertainment. Their professional gaming properties include the Overwatch League™, the Call of Duty League™, Hearthstone® Grandmasters, and the World of Warcraft® Arena World Championship, among others. Activision Blizzard Esports also operates Tespa™, the leader in collegiate esports.

In this Episode, Activision Blizzard’s Senior Director of Creative Talent Acquisition Robin Alan Linn discusses his three decades of experience in VFX, from starting out as a maquette sculptor at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons to working at Sony Picture Imageworks, Third Floor, Riot Games, Netflix; shares his expertise on building a successful reel and talks about the importance of following your dreams.

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[03:36] Robin Alan Linn Talks About His Beginning as an Artist

[15:11] The Importance of Following Your Dreams

[23:38] Artists Being of Service and Getting out of Your Comfort Zone

[30:20] Robin Shares Secrets to Successful Reels

[37:53] Robin’s Experience Working at Riot Games

[55:29] Applying for Work at Activision Blizzard

 

EPISODE 334 – ACTIVISION BLIZZARD SENIOR DIRECTOR CREATIVE TALENT ROBIN ALAN LINN

Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 334! 

I’m speaking with the Senior Director of Creative Talent Acquisition at Activision Blizzard Robin Alan Linn. We get into Robin’s experience with hiring top talent for Activision Blizzard, as well as previously for Riot Games, Netflix, Sony Picture Imageworks. This is an Episode you don’t want to miss! 

I’m really excited to sit down with Robin. I thought this would be a great Episode to start the new year with! I will be doing a follow-up Episode with Robin down the road as well. 

Let’s dive in! 

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

 

[01:17]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[1:11:18] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN ALAN LINN

[03:36] Allan: Hey, Robin! Thank you for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Robin: Sure! My name is Robin Linn. I am a member of the Executive Recruiting Team at Activision, Blizzard, King. This marks my thirty second year in animation / visual effects / gaming. Most of that time was spent at Sony Pictures Imageworks. I worked for 13 years there. I was the Director of Animation Production. Being at Sony for 13 years has taught me to never stay at a studio for 13 years. Every 3-5 years, I try to try something new. 

[04:16] Allan: How did you first get started out? What was your big break?

Robin: I was a bank manager. My parents were working class people in Orange County, CA. My dad was a cop, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I’m the last of 5 children. I was the last one to do anything artistic. [My siblings] were all jocks. I came along and wanted to draw. It seemed that I was allergic to sports. I started sculpting in high school. Our teacher really guided me, and it changed my life. I started sculpting little figurines on the side. I did it to keep busy. I found out I could sell them on consignment. I would take them to these (“galleries” would be a generous term) gift shops. There was one called the Sherwood Gallery in Laguna Beach. They gave me a shot. Another one in Pasadena. I was selling them for a nickel because the cost of time was more than what I was selling them for. 

[At] this place in Pasadena, the wife of a studio exec saw my work, went home and told him about it. I was at the bank working. This guy named David Kirschner, who produced American Tail, the Chucky films, was the Chairman at Hanna-Barbera [Productions]. He called me at the bank and said, “I’d like to talk to you about a job.” At first, I thought he was asking me for one. I told him I’d put him through HR. He said, “No, no, no! Come up to my house one morning and we’ll talk.” I was managing operations at the bank. I was 20 years old. I had no idea what this guy was doing. He gave me the address in Hancock Park. I was there at [8:00] in the morning on a Saturday morning. It’s a very posh area, with these giant mansions. I was let in by a maid into this mansion. I sat in the formal living room and above the mantel, there was a Rockwell that I recognized. David came down. He was 35 years old. He asked me if I wanted a job as a sculptor. I am a bank manager! I remember getting in the car that evening thinking, “My life has just changed.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, I started as a sculptor. I remember my first day there, one of the Art Directors asked me where I went to school. I [hadn’t gone] to college. He said, “You didn’t go to CalArts? You have no business being here!” Oh, shit! That’s my first day! The background department took pity on me and took me to a bar called Rocky’s, for lunch. I don’t think I saw the bottom of my beer glass that lunch. Then I came back to the office and fell asleep at my desk. And I just stayed working there for 6 years. I moved up to become an Art Director. Then, I moved to their licensing and merchandising department, under the guidance of Russell Hicks who is now the President of Nickelodeon. I was there until we got word that Warner Brothers was going to buy Hanna-Barbera. And that was kind of the end. We knew they’d shelve everything.

I went to Sony Pictures Imageworks. At the time, we were on Power Animator 6. They were training traditional sculptors to be modelers in NURBS. Not sure if you’ve ever modeled in NURBS…

[10:08] Allan: Yeah, I could do a double real rail curve like no one else!

Robin: Modeling in NURBS is like untangling an endless string of Christmas lights. Then my boss came to me and said, “You were a bank manager. But you’re an artist!” I thought, “You don’t call yourself an artist. You let other people call you that.” He said, “Starting Monday, you’re the Artist Manager!” I am?! I went from being a member of the team to writing performance evaluations. This was around the time between Stuart Little 1 and Stuart Little 2. I held that role. I eventually moved up to be a Director of Animation Production. I would’ve stayed at Hanna-Barbera. I loved it at that studio! It became an elephant graveyard for animation. Bill [Hanna] and Joe [Barbera] were still alive. I got to meet them. I got to work with Iwao Takamoto who had an office directly across from mine. He was the character designer of Scooby-Doo, and I worked with him when I designed a bust of Scooby-Doo. I’m an animation geek, and this was heaven for me to be there! Imageworks was going through a tough time. They weren’t making money. That’s when the Canadian government tempted studios out of Los Angeles.

[12:07] Allan: So this was around 2008.

Robin: Yes. We had a movie come out that I absolutely loved called Surf’s Up. It was a mocumentary, Christopher Guest style film. A great movie! Ash Brennan was one of the Directors. It didn’t do well. The main studio was always looking to shut Imageworks down. They just saw us costing them money. I remember going into the office on Monday and everything looked good; then coming back on Tuesday — and my calendar has been scrubbed. I saw a little meeting with HR pop up. It was a bloody Tuesday. I don’t remember how many of us were fired! Leaving Imageworks was like losing my religion. I only knew how to get to that studio. I knew these people really well! I went to a studio called Reel Effects. I was their artist manager. I was there for 5 years until they wanted me to move to Texas. I went to Riot for a few years. At that time, there was all this buzz about Netflix. I was there for 3 years. My manager at Riot joined DBK. He called me up. Gaming is fun! I love that world.

[15:11] Allan: I’m curious: Going from a bank manager to being an artist, do you think there are many people who aspire to be artists? But no one came around their bank and summoned them to follow their dreams?

Robin: It caught me early enough. You get into a certain place with status in your career — outside of the industry — and when the industry comes calling, you’d love to, but your lifestyle requires more than an associate level position. You can start at the bottom and build your way up. This is what happens. I’ve never known a character rigger who didn’t want to animate. There is this desire: “I’ve built the car, now I want to drive it!” But as a rigger you’re really expensive, and as an Animator — you’re an associate. The show is not going to pay a senior rigger rate. For me, the offer came around the time when I was getting paid crap! I remember David asking me what I was making. He was going to pay me $45K which back in the day was [a lot]. I think neighbors living next to us must’ve thought we were selling drugs. I was making decent money. [17:35] I think a lot of people get the creative itch but they don’t know what to do, if there is not a way in. If you’re a working professional, you can go to Gnomon and pick up a class. But it’s not an easy way in. And you’re fighting with all these kids coming out of CalArts and other schools. And you just don’t get seen. I remember when we were crewing up the early Stuart Little, even making the cross from gaming to feature was problematic. I was working with animation supervisors, they didn’t love animation on twos. The ironic thing now is there are a lot of film Animators who want to work in games, I’m seeing the same reaction. They don’t get seen. It’s a shame!

[19:04] Allan: You’re right! For people coming into the industry from other industries, or people who are transitioning within, what advice do you have?

Robin: There is this assumption that once you get a job — you stop learning. That’s not the case. You have to keep being curious.

[20:06] Allan: I think 16% of people will continue to teach themselves after they get out of college.

Robin: That’s one of the things we ask in our interviews: “What non-fiction books are you reading? What was the last class you took?” We want people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo. In the past, studios were going to train you. When I came to Sony, they gave us 12 weeks of training. That’s gone! They had to train us how to use email. That was in the 90s. I had a computer at home but it wasn’t hooked up to the internet. I used it to play Myst. When you look at it now, you realize, “Oh, my god! Those muscles aren’t really sliding under his skin.” Or when you watch Toy Story, “Wow, Sid’s dog is horrible looking.” You’re going to have to eat a slice of humble pie and admit that you don’t know what you’re doing. It helps to have a significant other who can be sympathetic with you. You’re learning a new skill. That’s why I hate sports: Because I got trapped under [the excuse], “I can’t learn it quickly, so I’m not going to do it.” When sculpting, I’d sculpt a hundred shitty pieces if one of them would be good. I was one of those obnoxious people who brought clay with him everywhere. 

[22:31] Allan: I completely agree! The majority of people want to be an expert when they start. They don’t have humility. 

Robin: It’s what I tell animation people when they apply, “There aren’t a lot of lawyers who get picked up by the Superior Court straight out of law school.” You’re going to have to [pay your dues]. You have to develop a prefix here. I’ve visited a lot of animation schools. You sit in on those first dailies and those professors intentionally beat those kids up. At first, I thought it was horrible. But then I saw the wisdom in those teachers’ building up the calluses that artists need to get into this business. The other thing artists forget is that we’re the extension of that Director’s wrist. The Director may have a vision that we disagree with. That they’re blowing our shot that would make our reel look so good! But it doesn’t fit into the whole scheme of the film, so they’re critical of us.

[24:31] Allan: A lot of people have that early on. They think it’s their film. You can be an artist on your own time, but essentially, we’re in a service based industry. It’s the Director’s and supervisor’s vision. You’re one of the people painting the house.

Robin: Those lines are black and you aren’t allowed to go outside of them. Sometimes, you can. But those times are reserved for rare people. I’ve seen an Animator who did a trick with a secondary character that everyone loved — and he was moved up the ranks really quickly because of that. He may have had trouble later on. I think people expect this industry to be fair and it’s not. Terrible films do great at the box office and great films don’t. I remember when Surf’s Up opened, it did $11 million. At the same time, Alvin and the Chipmunks did $45 million. How is this the real world?

[26:12] Allan: It’s pretty interesting. What performs well isn’t necessarily good. When you’d sell your sculpting for just a nickel, do you think that it’s the passion that drove the ambition?

Robin: I came from a very pragmatic family. I was the first one selling his artwork and it was really romantic. I embraced the artist. Even if I was losing money, I saw great value in it. I was doing a show in Laguna, and one person came in and bought everything I did. And I was just [blown away]! It really created a monster. I thought, “I’d made something!” It was a lot of validation. And when David offered me a role as an artist, it was transformative. It’s not going to be immediate. I’m always telling students when I go to lecture about how I got into the industry. I don’t have student debt shackled around me. Other people out there can do it without going to school. 

[29:09] Allan: It’s like you were saying when you interview people and ask what they’re doing to improve themselves everyday. I see people holding onto their secrets. That for me was always the drive to make tutorials: If I gave away all my secrets, I needed to go learn new ones. It’s like a muscle. The more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you will be able to come up with solutions. 

Robin: [30:09] You need to get comfortable working in an uncomfortable situation. You need to force yourself to grow and work outside of your knowledge base. I mentioned that since leaving Imageworks, I haven’t worked anywhere for over 5 years. The minute I start feeling a little comfortable, it’s a red flag that I need to challenge myself again. The minute I start getting itchy, I have to try something different. I fell into being a Recruiter because at Imageworks, I was a Hiring Manager. I got to work with Recruiters and began to understand what a great reel looked like. I had to sit down with Animators and listen to them. I just kept pushing that envelope of being uncomfortable. 

[31:45] Allan: What are some of the critical things artists need to think about when it comes to their reels? And I’ll add that so many artists are clueless. They think that people will always watch their reels to the end.

Robin: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve traveled the globe talking to students about how to get a job in animation. The lecture pretty much hasn’t changed since a couple of decades ago. I did a series of lectures at Netflix, at the animation festival. The first time I spoke at a school was in 1998, at the Ringling [College of Art and] Design. There are a few schools that have that kind of an anchor. I was sitting at their gymnasium. I got up there and someone asked, “Our reels are 2.5 minutes long. How long do you, guys, watch them?” And my answer was, “Ten seconds!” The career services woman gently pulled me off stage and said, “What are you doing?” I told her I was telling the truth. We don’t have the time to look at the whole reel. If I’m not smitten by the first 10 seconds, I’m not going to keep watching. So you should be teaching them to put their best stuff up front. The last time I asked a VFX supervisor about this, the answer was, “Three or 4 seconds, and I know immediately.” It drives me crazy when I see students put up their vanity plates, with their name lighting up. You’re burning my time or the Animation Supervisor’s time! In a reel review, you have 4 or 5 Supervisors and you buy them lunch (because there is no other time in their day). They’re already not in the best of moods. You put the reel in, and within seconds they go, “No. No. No.” Maybe out of 50 reels, there is one that’s a maybe. I don’t think that ratio has changed. And that’s across every discipline! [35:56] The rules of putting a reel or portfolio together are the same: [Put in] your best stuff! And only your best stuff! I’d rather look at 15 seconds of great animation and crap for the rest of it. 

[36:14] Allan: The number one thing that drives me nuts is when you ask someone, “Why did you put that in there,” and they answer, “For filler!” Why are you making filler?! You want there to be less. 

Robin: That’s so true! And tell a story with it. When I’m looking at portfolios, I want a bit of a story. “You drew that piece and that leads into that piece.” Portfolios can be 3-4 pieces as long as they’re complimentary. Right now, [your pieces] have to have an emotional resonance. 

[37:15] Allan: I was curious about Riot versus Blizzard, or Sony: What is the difference in terms of what you’re looking for in talent?

Robin: If it’s a fighting game, you don’t want to telegraph that you’re going to punch because it gives your opponent an opportunity to punch. It’s a different style of animation. In features, I want to get excited. Give me something I can remember! [38:11] Customize your reel to the studio for which you’re applying. If you’re applying to Pixar, and you have nothing but dinosaurs on your reel, your reel isn’t going to get looked at. They just don’t make that product. They won’t know what to do with you. If you’re a film animator and you’re trying to get into gaming, try and mimic what they’re doing. If you’re a game animator applying for films, try and make something cinematic, slow it down with the camera. I used to say, “We want to see something we haven’t seen before” but I can’t say that anymore. I think we’ve seen just about everything. But I do want to:

  • See solid mechanics;
  • Be told a story;
  • See a good visual pun (it’s easy to make me laugh).

Go look at the work by Marc Davis who was an Animator for Disney. Walt picked him out of an animation pull. And all these little vignettes, like for The Pirates of the Caribbean were composed by Marc Davis. They’re all visual jokes, each within 3 seconds. Each of those jokes has to be readable. You have to get the joke. Think about your animation reel that way — and you’ll get a job. Tell us those visual stories.

[39:56] Allan: While we’re on the subject of Riot, what was your experience like there? How did it differ, in terms of culture? 

Robin: In film, information cascades. If the Director makes a comment, it goes to a VFX Supervisor and they make a comment. At no point in that thread, does the salmon swim upstream. If you’re in the dailies and the Director says, “You should change that,” you don’t say, “I think you’re wrong”. You say, “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”. The same when the Producer asks for something by a certain date. Those deadlines are locked and anything back and forth eats up time. When I went to Riot, its culture was based on the teachings of the guy named Laszlo Bock who wrote a book called Work Rules!. And it’s all about the pushback. It was the first time I was asked to give my opinion. 

In the film space, your time will dictate how much space your office has. In gaming, it’s all one big space with desks. How do I know who’s important? It was a culture shock to go there and be set free a little bit. That freedom is really intimidating! When they say, “What do you think about it?”, I think, “Do you want an honest answer? Or do you want me to say what I think you want to hear?” They’re actually asking for an opinion which was liberating and terrifying. Also, in the film space, we were hiring hundreds of people. For Polar Express, we needed mocap people and I think we captured every mocap artist in SoCal. We were pulling out baristas because they work well under pressure. We were pulling people from Nordstroms because they had a great reputation for their customer service. You get to this other culture where they wanted our opinion, in that first year we hired 36 artists. I was the No. 2 Recruiter closing deals. I loved my time there! It changed me fundamentally: It gave me a lot more courage and confidence. Some personal changes came out of that job. Working there changed my trajectory.

[44:48] Allan: When the film division was around, the talent you were bringing in was phenomenal. I was living around the corner from you! 

Robin: I loved this about Riot: They’d set the goals really, really high. “Go get us an Academy-Award nominated VFX Supervisor.” I worked with a VFX Supervisor and I asked what he thought about it. He said, of course, he’d come and work with us. It was a way to build this team of rockstars because we were offering them a different environment. You know that at Weta, they’re just beating people up to get their films done. 

[47:14] Allan: They’re trying to change their reputation. On the subject of the Fellowship, I heard they were going around bars where Weta artists were hanging out and saying, “Hey, you’re an American! Come work with us!”

Robin: The other animation studios did that. They got scolded by Peter. We were interviewing people in a hotel and artists would show up at 3:00 a.m. because it’d be the only time they were free. I had an Animator whom I adored who came into my Sony who wanted to work on the Kong film. The people coming off those shows! Yes, they were making tons of money. People were buying up real estate and renting it out to artists coming down there. I don’t know if he’s still doing VFX. He probably doesn’t need to!

[49:20] Allan: As much as you love the fact that Peter has put New Zealand on the map, the price of living has shot through the roof.

Robin: The unsubstantiated rumor was that New Zealand didn’t have any overtime laws until Weta. You had to work 60 regular hours. When we were doing Hollow Man, we had to figure out how to get exempt.

[50:28] Allan: In terms of the etiquette of poaching artists, I worked at Activision. I went to SIGGRAPH to speak at an event, came back — and 150 people got laid off. No one knew who I was because all of my supervisors had been fired. Because they were laying off a lot of people for the acquisition, usually they’d be some tact in how you recruit. But there were these company spies. Or they’d paint their web address on our pavements. 

Robin: When Dreamworks got started, Disney was the target studio. When Imageworks was starting, ILM was the target. This was in the day when LinkedIn wasn’t around, I don’t think. I had a boss I loved but we were instructed to be vicious. I had a stack of business cards and went around them on every car’s windshield that had the sticker for that company. We’d find out the birthdays of ILM employees and create customized gift baskets filled with SPI swag. We’d get cease-and-desist letters to knock it off. They were like badges of honor. 

[54:34] Allan: I’m from Australia and I hide my accent pretty well. At Animalogic, they were doing Fire Escape. Which was next to Ambience.

Robin: The minute you’d crack an email naming code, we’re in! That’s why IMDb was great because you can see who’s on it. But for a while there, all Imageworks numbers had 310-840 starting numbers. Anything with 840 wouldn’t get through because they’d blocked us. 

[56:06] Allan: There was a small period of time when I was considering getting a staff job, maybe at Blur. I was also chatting with Riot when they were about to open up their film division the first time around. They’d warned me that I’d have to get a high score in League of Legends. Luckily, my wife played that game and she helped me.

Robin: It was frustrating. If you worked at Weta, you worked pretty ridiculous hours. Even at crunch time, you were working 10-20 hour days. I was talking to these artists and telling them they needed to get a high score in League of Legends. I’d always get the, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I understood the logic of it. But it gave me an in. It gave me an opportunity to sit down and play with the people I was recruiting. It was such a strange cultural difference. There are people who love games. When a movie is over, you go away. A game is never over. It’s the first time I experienced a breathing, living product. I remember toward the end of my run, I was on a call with a candidate for a leadership role and I asked her if she was playing League of Legends. She said, “No, I have a special needs child”. I started explaining why it was important. And she said to me, “Robin, if you can explain to me why playing that game would be more important than reading to my son — I’ll play the game.” I told her her priority was more important. Working in film for so long, I didn’t think I had ethics. It was a challenge! It’s just interesting subcultures I’ve been able to stick my fingers into. 

[1:01:40] Allan: If you wanted to talk more about Blizzard in terms of what you find different. What kind of artists / requirements are you looking for?

Robin: I don’t really have an in-depth understanding of the culture there. To be honest with you, I’m challenged in how I approach things. I have respect for the brand, but I haven’t developed my pitch. My role has also changed. I’m now on an executive team which means I hire VP’s and above. I hired a VP of Marketing recently. I asked how the interview went. This candidate had a 6-panel door behind her. She was refurbishing her old home, so I knew how to approach her. That’s it! Riot was so good at hiring Blizzard artists. I have respect for the brand but I need to understand better what they’re looking for. I just need to sit down and talk to these people about their passions and what gets them up every morning. In film, we often forget there is an audience watching these projects — and Directors will be making their film. If the audience likes it — fantastic! In game space, it’s all about what the players want.

[1:06:02] Allan: That’s one thing with Riot that has stuck with me. I still think about it. They had Korean computer cafes and they’d emulate those in their office. 

Robin: BlizzCon exists solely to bring Blizzard players together so they can meet. I love that kind of camaraderie! Film doesn’t really have that. It has its own special magic, but there isn’t the same kind of appreciation for its audience.

[1:06:47] Allan: I love that! This has been so great! Where can people go if they feel they can rock it at Blizzard?

Robin: LinkedIn is probably the best. I love to write and there is a blog that’s coming at some point. But when that happens, they can go there. People who think they’re really good at it, just apply! I think there are people who think they’re almost there. The people who are struggling are the ones I’m more drawn to. I want someone who has a challenge. I’ll work my ass off to get someone on that path. I’m in this industry because someone saw something in me I didn’t. It gave me a different life I saw for myself. It’s almost the cause to fire a karma. If I don’t give my everything to get people jobs — after the luck that I’ve had — something horrible is going to happen! I need to keep those scales tipped, or at least balanced. And these Podcasts are fun!

[1:09:37] Allan: I did this because Delcio Gomes put this idea in my head, “You should do a Podcast”. Hearing what you have to say, Robin, they need that to course correct!

Robin: All of this stuff is available online. Most people want to talk about their craft. If you reach out and ask them nicely, they will. If you can reach out to a recruiter and say, “Can you help me?” And it’s so much easier these days with LinkedIn and IMDb. You can find anyone anywhere. If you’re persistent and polite, you can open a lot of doors!

[1:11:08] Allan: I appreciate your time, Robin! This has been so great!

Robin: My pleasure!

 

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Robin for coming on the Podcast. 

Please take a few minutes to share this Episode with others.

I will be back next week with the VFX Supervisor at DNEG for The Matrix: Resurrections. Until then –

Rock on!

 

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