Going through the Animation Mentor program has been a really rewarding experience. Along the way though I've been told that I seemed to "get it" easier than others, something I still don't completely understand, but thought I'd share my view on some of the topics on how to get the most out of AM and shed light on certain areas. Keep in mind that this comes from my own personal experiences and viewpoints, that it might not work for everyone, and I'm just a student like everyone else. But hopefully at least some part of this helps someone.
1. Collective Learning
Any kind of success I've had thus far I attribute mostly to the study group I've been lucky enough to be a part of. These people have been my friends, my teachers, and my partners in crime. Surround yourself with people you feel are better than you and have that unending drive for new input. Needless to say, you have to inhabit that same drive as well to make this successful. Having multiple brains to bounce ideas off of is something I feel holds so much importance to improving as an animator. When people of different backgrounds, trades, and skill levels are looking at your work you are reminded of so many fundamentals as well as exposed to many new ones. Because this art form is so vast, having this circle reels in a lot more information and serves as a great filter for new input to be easily digested. Another huge advantage of the study group I'm a part of is that we showed our work every week. It gave me a mini-deadline that I felt I needed to hit and it made me less shy about putting my work out there for people to critique. On top of that, you learn how to critique work, which improves your animation eye constantly.
2. Most Education is Self Education
One of the earliest realizations of my time at AM is that though they provide you an amazing platform for you to learn from, much of the effort is on you as the student to dig through the information as well as seek new information from outside sources. This is also why Collective Learning is so important because many times when someone stumbles upon new information - it gets shared! Further more, discussion on the topic solidifies understanding, which is the goal. It does take a lot of time and I empathize with those who don't have the luxury of just scrounging the web for notes, but try your best to make SOME time for it. There are critiques littered through the AM program that you can watch for tips. Split up some critiques with a few friends, take notes and share. There are tons of free tutorials and articles online, just to name a few of the goldmines I've stumbled upon:
Kevin Koch's Synchrolux
Keith Lango's Youtube Channel
Aaron Koressel's Maya Tools
Jonah Sidhom's Animation Article Database
Brendan Body's Tutorials
Michael Amos' Action Analysis
And there is sooo much more out there to be digested. Don't rely on the school to give you all the answers, the reality is that they are there to help - you have to do the legwork.
3. Be Scared, Not Lazy
It's alright to question if you're good enough to do something, or believe that you aren't ready to tackle a challenge. But it's another story to talk yourself out of something for the sake of not having to do it. A lot of the time, I've found that the obstacles I thought were too complicated turned out to be much easier than I thought. If you have a hard time figuring out what the graph editor does, go back to the basics with a bouncing ball and really dig into how the graphs work, how they work with each other, and how the tangents behave. If a ball is slowing down, how does that look in the graph editor? If someone runs into a wall, how does that look? Do you feel constraints are scary? Find someone who knows how to set it up and ask them to run through it with you (it honestly doesn't take that long) and take notes. A big one for me personally was (and still is) video reference. I find myself just sucking pretty badly when I shoot acting reference of myself, it's one of the biggest obstacles for my animation process - but I'm still chipping away at it. I really want to point out that failure IS an option. Especially now while you're in school - it's a perfect time for you to make mistakes. The key is to learn from them. In the end if you tackle something head on and honestly gave it your best shot, the worst case scenario is that you've learned a lot. You will run into people who make excuses and you'll find yourself making excuses as well. Don't be lazy.
This is stressed in so many places on so many levels and yet it's still worth repeating. Know the rules, know the basics. One of the major pitfalls I see people trapped in is to move ahead of certain principles before really grasping them. If you don't understand the basics of something like gravity, or transfer of weight, tackle it immediately! It's true that we are always improving in all of these areas, but don't allow yourself to be put in a position where you're delivering two-person dialogue shots when you're unsure about how to correctly swing a pendulum. If you get that far, you completely stunt your education because you simply will be lost. The goal is to present our ideas to it's maximum capacity and in my personal case I'm trying to do that with acting. But I can't represent my acting well if I didn't know my mechanics. And I can't show my mechanics if I don't understand the fundamentals.
Take a step back sometimes and evaluate yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses. Pick a weakness and design your next assignment to improve that way. A good tip that helped me through some problems was to do very short mini-tests on the side in order to tackle some of my weaknesses.
5. People Like People
I am a pretty shy person and I know there are many out there who feel the same way. But a friend recently reminded me that people like people. Animation Mentor has one of the strongest communities out there. And the truth is a lot of these folks are extremely open and willing to help you out. Be reasonable and respectful of people's time, but if you're in deep doo doo don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to reach out and help others. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there! More often than not, you'll be pleasantly surprised. This also gets you away from the danger that is corner-animating. The opposite of collective learning, where you go into a corner and animate by yourself - uploading your assignments five minutes before the deadline. Go the other way! Use your Public Reviews early and often. Put whatever you have up in the middle of the week. Your peers are a huge resource, use it well.
6. Be Curious
I feel like it's important to open your mind to allow yourself to be objective and have the ability to think outside the box. Discovering more provides more solutions, and if you break animation down to it's core it's really just problem solving. Plus it's just damn interesting. As I was getting into the acting courses I started reading all of these books on the human body and the human mind. I started learning things about myself I didn't even know about and that totally blew my mind. Fight, flight, or freeze. Micro-expressions. Anatomy and just how amazingly built the human body is. Heck I discovered how my hips actually move in Class 1 (up until then I had no idea the side with the foot in the air drops down in Z). It's just fascinating! So get out there and read some books, experience new things, play an instrument, pick up hobbies, travel, and be forever curious.
7. The Art of Feedback
It's imperative that you give and receive feedback. Giving feedback has been an essential tool for me to improve. Many times I've noticed an issue with someone's work only to go back to my shot and find myself making the exact same mistakes. Now there is an art to giving feedback on two levels - what your notes are and how your notes are delivered. When I approach someone's work I personally try to figure out the core ideas / fundamentals. It's very easy to get caught up in details at any stage and I try not to go there until the main building blocks are cleared up. While you're at it, study their work. I sometimes go look at the shots that really inspire me and pick THAT apart as a way to dissect their successes. It's important to be willing to give feedback completely void of expectation. Use feedback as a study tool and know that giving feedback is never a waste (even if it gets completely ignored). Feedback is animation eye-training. How you deliver your feedback can be pretty complicated in itself. My take on it is to approach with sincerity. I'm honest not to be blunt, but to be passionate. I try to be nice in the way of compassion, not to blow smoke. I feel like one of the biggest cheats it to run around and tell everyone they are awesome... and then that's it. I believe that anyone who takes the time to dissect someone's work is a person who actually cares. The goal is to plus the shot. Find bits you think could use some work, then offer a reason and a solution.
Realize that the people you're studying with and from will likely be your colleagues at some point. I wasn't sure how to take it when I was constantly told that this is a tiny industry. But it couldn't be more true. This line of work requires a lot of collaboration, and nobody wants to work with a jerk. There is a fine line between being passionate and being mean and high-brow. You gotta stay humble. Not just for the sake of being easier to work with (which is huge), but to gain a wider perspective. People from all sorts of backgrounds and levels will teach you things that you can't see from your single vantage point. If you're willing to allow that to happen, you'll learn more! In the end, the field we've chosen is a team sport. The reason why a good attitude is treasured is because it improves everyone's work and is no longer just about the individual, yet individually everyone is better off.
9. Take Care of Yourself
Pretty self explanatory. Sickness and pain will completely put you out. The torture comes from sitting on the sidelines trying to heal when you want to be animating.
10. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
I'll leave it with Steve Jobs' famous quote. This is a personal subject that I've been putting more stock in as time goes by. I was lucky enough to meet Glen Keane during my time at Reel FX and listen to him talk about his work. I immediately realized that when it came to animation we were looking at it from different sides. I saw animation as visual art. (I'm not claiming this is his view but this is how I came to interpret his talk) He saw animation as an extension of his soul. Think about how profound that difference is. As it should be, I'm new and right now I'm learning the craft. But I'm reminded that there is much more beyond mechanics, how many frames it takes for someone to blink, how a foot peels off the ground. There is character, there is connection, there is meaning, there is soul. There is you and all that you have to say.
There's so much more to talk about, but for now I think that covers a few major points.
Damn Good Advice by George Lois
Similar to Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Coming from the perspective of an advertisement man but has a lot of good tidbits on creativity and work ethic in general.
Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators by Mike Mattesi
Anyone who is interested in drawing should probably own this book. I loved reading this as a newbie to drawing.
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
I'm only half way through this book but it is so fascinating. He deconstructs some of the most creative people / companies out there to see how and why they are so successfully creative. I think there is a lot of golden information in this book for any artist.