(cont’d) How did you discover your artistic talent?  Did the bug bite during childhood?  Early or later?

Susanna:  I’ve always been making something.  I think my earliest memory of getting some positive feedback about it was when I was about six or seven years old and I made a ballet dancer out of clay in school.  Later on I had a wonderful art teacher in our equivalent of high school named Mr. Lee who was very supportive at a time when I think my parents didn’t have much confidence that I could make a living with my art.  He encouraged me to follow what made me happy and I will always be grateful to him for that.

VFX/PDX:  You began university over in the UK, pursuing a graphic design degree. What attracted you to change things up and attend the Academy of Art in San Francisco?

Susanna:  I was not having a good experience on that course at Exeter.  Mostly I think that was due to the quality of the teaching staff.  As I remember it now, they were all really bitter about the fact that they ‘had’ to teach.  I remember someone telling the class “I’ll teach you this but you won’t find a job out there.”  It was really demoralizing. 

VFX/PDX:  Yikes!  That must have been difficult.  But you were able to change things up and get back on track? 

Susanna:  Part way through my first year there I visited SF and someone suggested that I go and visit the Academy of Art…   and it was love at first sight!   It was a completely different experience.  They were so positive, all the teachers were professionals who were actually working in their fields and teaching because they really wanted to.  They had strong ties to the movie industry and graduates were actually getting hired there.  I knew I had to go there.  So I went home and somehow talked my parents and teachers into letting me do a semester in SF…   and never went back.  The education I wanted was in San Francisco.

VFX/PDX:  And that played out nicely in the end.  I think that’s important to note, too – that the college or university you end up at is very much your choice.  It’s sometimes hard to not think in the same terms as high school, where you’re stuck with the cards you draw.  A lot of times you can’t really tell from an initial visit what a university program is really like until you get in and take a couple of classes.  If you’re not getting what you want, it’s not worth wasting any time – abort, abort…  abandon ship!  Those years are valuable!  Sounds like you made the right choice after all was said and done.

Later on when you came to Portland, you did some teaching at the university level at the Art Institute here. What was it like stepping into the classroom environment for the first time and being the teacher instead of the student?

Susanna:  Utterly terrifying! I really had no training in teaching at all.  I learned on the job and getting up in front of all those teens and young adults was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.  But I really wanted to give back somehow and I found teaching to be both the hardest job I’ve ever had and one of the most rewarding.

VFX/PDX:  I’m with you on that.  So, what advice would you give a student or someone who’s entering the freelance market as far as secrets to survival?

Susanna:  Network.  Show up at as many networking groups as you can find, even if it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable for you (it still is for me). 

Make friends.  Make friends of your (perceived) competitors – it may well turn out that you can help one another.

Be persistent with jobs you’re after – make that follow-up call…   and the second follow-up call.

Always do what you’ve said you’d do. Better yet, do more and faster than you said you’d do. Never miss a deadline.

Have a good attitude and don’t bitch too much (or at all) about life, your jobs, other people you know – it’s a small industry and people really want to work with other people who are not a pain in the ass to be around.  I like Wil Wheaton’s advice on life: “Don’t be a dick.”wheaton

Keep going, even when it seems impossible.  It’s not and eventually you’ll be well connected.

VFX/PDX:   Great advice.  That would all make a great one of those ‘inspirational posters,’ that’s for sure!  Ah, especially “Wheaton’s Law.”   I totally agree…  life’s too short!  When in doubt, refer to this handy chart.

Film work can certainly be an interesting petri dish of collaboration, egos, and personalities.  Without fail, every problem I’ve ever witnessed or come across have all come down to communication issues.  And yes, at the root, someone is most likely being a dick on one side or the other.   🙂

Well, while you’re in the advice giving mood – how did you get your first job?  When you graduated university, you probably had quite a portfolio built up and all the senior shows and connections associated with that.  Were you recruited or did you have to search out the work?

Susanna:   I was really lucky.  When I was graduating, the big studios (Disney, Warner Bros., and this new company called DreamWorks Animation) were still going to some of the major schools around the country, recruiting people.  I was pursuing a degree in Illustration at that point, but I went to the presentation they gave and it really resonated with me.  So I changed my portfolio somewhat and interviewed with the studio reps when they came around.  I thought I wanted to be a background painter.  The DreamWorks reps included an FX animator and while they didn’t think my skills were appropriate to their background department, she saw something she liked in the design work in my portfolio and offered me a test, which arrived in the mail. 

I still don’t know how I did it.  I knew literally nothing about animation, or how it worked.  I grasped that I was supposed to make the images move smoothly and somehow did an okay job with this really complex cloud scene. 

A few weeks later, they offered me a contract as a trainee, I flew to LA and picked up my contract and toured the studio, which at that time was still on the Universal back lot.  I have a vivid memory of sitting in the sun in a park in Beverly Hills, where we’d driven after the meeting at the studio and looking at this contract, which was huge.  Anyway, I moved to LA and they taught me how to animate. I think I was training for about three weeks before they threw me in at the deep end, inbetweening on The Prince of Egypt.  It was terrifying!  And wonderful.

VFX/PDX:  Wow, DreamWorks back in the day!  And I had a hunch you were recruited.  I’m not sure if the days of recruiting are done and gone, but that speaks volumes about your university choice at the time.  Well played.  It certainly takes the sting out of having to compete with a truckload of other entry level demo reels to score that all-important foot in the door.

Present-day DreamWorks is considered by many to be the best job in the industry, from an employee satisfaction standpoint.  Endless slate of films, the catered meals, the bonuses, etc.  They’ve got a few things figured out over there.  What was a day at DreamWorks like for you back then?

Susanna:  I would drive in very heavy traffic for about an hour, arrive on the lot, grab breakfast and a coffee from the commissary, head up to my office, which for a while was on the third floor, was a corner office and had a view of the lagoon.

Lagoon at Dreamworks

The Lagoon at the DreamWorks Campus

I had a huge, oak animation table with a light wheel in it and the day would be mostly about drawing in pencil on paper, trying to avoid paper cuts, keeping track of sections of the scene I had passed off to in-betweeners and a few times a week, meeting with the directors in our screening room, which was a sort of open lounge in the middle of the department.  Lunch in the commissary, coffee break in the sun in the afternoon and then another hour long commute back home.  Tough life!

VFX/PDX:   Pretty smooth, other than the traffic – but I suppose that comes with the territory.