August 3, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Elliot Grossman

Alumnus/animator gives advice to aspiring animators

Elliot Grossman: ’07 is part of a new generation of graduates from the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts who are leaving their mark on the world of animation. His thesis film Breaking the Ice won several awards on the festival circuit and helped him transition into the world of commercial animation with the company Heavy Iron Studios.

He recently talked to SCA Family stories about what he learned as a student, his advice to aspiring animators and how finding your own voice is just as important as technical skill.

Elliot Grossman '07
-Tell us a little bit about your journey before coming to Hench-Dada. My fascination with animation began with a stop motion film I created at the age of seven depicting an epic battle between a GI Joe and a Godzilla action figure. Later I explored creating flip books using Post-it notes, and, in middle school, I got an after school job to save up enough money to buy computer animation software which I used to make many of my early short films. During the summers of 2001 and 2002, I applied to study at the California State Summer School for the Arts, a rigorous pre-college program where I created short films in collaboration with other students under the guidance of animation professionals who exposed me to traditional and experimental animation techniques. Several of the faculty members from CSSSA taught at USC as well, and continued to mentor me throughout my college experience.

-How did the experience of going through the animation division differ from your expectations? At the time I attended USC, the undergraduate animation major curriculum had not yet been established, so my educational journey was less straightforward than I initially anticipated. I pursued a degree in fine arts, and simultaneously enrolled as an animation minor. Eager to expand on what I was learning in class, I pieced together my own independent curriculum through an eclectic mix of audited classes and internships, as well as self-directed projects I pursued on my own time. Fortunately, the animation faculty was exceedingly supportive, and even allowed me the opportunity to sit in on some graduate level classes to supplement what I was learning through my animation minor. They had a very inclusive attitude, and met with me one on one so I could voice my thoughts on the need to create an undergraduate major program. Though I graduated before I could enroll, USC followed through on its commitment to create an undergraduate animation major, furthering my belief that the school takes student input seriously in designing its curriculum.

-If you had to pinpoint one, what’s the lesson that you use day in and day out from your time at Hench-Dada? I would say that the most valuable abilities I developed during my time at USC were strategic problem solving skills and a sharp sense of creative judgment. USC provided an opportunity to create films in a creative community of peers, and to engage in critiques with other students. Creating student films posed many challenges including developing story ideas, managing a production schedule and learning the artistic principles of animation. On top of that, I often faced technical obstacles such as a software glitch which nearly destroyed my computer animated character several days before the deadline. Developing an animated film from concept to completion helped me build an outside-the-box problem solving mindset that continues to aid me when facing tough challenges on the job.

-Your thesis film Breaking the Ice did well in the festival world. Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to navigate that world? Breaking the Ice was geared towards young audiences, so I spent some time researching film festivals showcasing similar works. The first venue that accepted my film was the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, the nation's largest film festival showcasing media aimed at children. Following that screening, there was a snowball effect where other film festivals started contacting me directly including BamKids, a children's film festival in New York, as well as Little Big Shots, a festival that begins in Sydney Australia and then tours throughout twenty other nations.
Nothing is more rewarding than seeing an audience connect with your film. My favorite experience was watching a toddler run up to the front of the theater so she could physically interact with my character on screen.

-Many prospective students have questions about transitioning from SCA to the real world. How did you make the leap to Heavy Iron Studios? The key to landing a job was the training I received through animation internships at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Heavy Iron Studios. Following my experience at Sony, I was selected as an intern by one of my USC instructors, Scott Easley, who at the time worked as a principal animator at Heavy Iron. The studio was not hiring when I graduated school, so I persuaded Scott to extend my internship in hopes that I might later get promoted. As an intern I got to know the whole animation team and volunteered for as much responsibility as I could take on, animating at work and then continuing to sharpen my skills by animating my own characters at home on nights and weekends. This was a stressful time, since it seemed like I was never going to find a paying job. I sent my demo reel out to numerous studios but faced consistent rejection. Months later, as production was gearing up for a video game based on Pixar's WALL-E, one of Heavy Iron's animators resigned and I was able to convince my director to bring me on as a permanent member of the team.

-Do you have any advice for students trying to have the same success you’ve had? When it comes to preparing an animation demo reel, students should strive to convey strong acting, timing and physicality as well as a unique character personality. Rather than animating a generic walk cycle, consider something more specific like a disgruntled middle aged sea captain hobbling down the deck of his ship while rocking out to his favorite Motown mix. Above all else, allow your individual personality to shine through your work.
There is a strong trend in the animation industry to specialize on only one skill set-- to be an animator and only an animator or a modeler and only a modeler. While it is certainly important to develop a portfolio that demonstrates a professional emphasis, I also encourage students to set aside some time for exploration of related skills while in school. Many students fail to pursue that opportunity because they fear falling behind the professional curve. However, while it is good to be motivated, do not forget that you have the rest of your life to be an animator, a storyboard artist or whatever you aspire to be. Your time to enjoy the life of an unencumbered filmmaker, to take risks and try on different roles is precious so take advantage of that. Few animation schools exist within the context of a major research university like USC, so I recommend taking some classes in other academic departments that may have nothing to do with animation at all. I love my current job, but after a number of years of animating every single day, the opportunity to enroll in a comparative literature class sounds a lot more appealing than it used to.

-What’s next for you? In addition to continuing my work with Heavy Iron, I have been developing a computer animated character loosely inspired by Jim Henson's Muppets. I am also brainstorming a host of other projects ranging from writing a children's book to developing concepts for an independent video game. Finding time for personal work is always a struggle, but with some luck I will see at least some of these projects through to completion.