CCAD animators help launch Space Jam 2
Who gives LeBron James his tattoos? It might not be who you think.
Andy Friz is an associate professor of Animation at Columbus College of Art & Design who maintains an active creative practice, including special effects work for the long-awaited Space Jam sequel, officially titled Space Jam: A New Legacy, which will be released Friday, July 16, 2021.
Friz was a fan of the original 1996 Space Jam and actually worked for the central Ohio studio Character Builders shortly after it had finished production on that particular flick. “There was artwork and big character standees all over the studio, which was awesome,” Friz recalls. “Getting to pore over the rough animation from the movie was illuminating, as was seeing storyboards, talking to the people who made it.”
With the sequel, Friz had the opportunity to work on a project with established, well-known and well-loved characters, and a built-in fan base. “It is always nice for work to be seen, for sure, and it was a lot of fun working with these characters I've loved forever,” he says.
CCAD Animation alumni assist in Space Jam: A New Legacy
CCAD was well-represented in the Space Jam 2 production. Friz connected CCAD Animation students with jobs on the project. Several were hired to perform cleanup animation as well as ink and paint on SJ2 promotional pieces airing on ESPN (such as this one). They included: Joey Anderson (Animation, 2021), Kara Aquila (Animation, 2021), Brian Durnil (Animation, 2021), Michelle Ellerman (Animation, 2020), and Animation Adjunct Faculty Allie Vanaman (Animation, 2017).
“This came about, as so many jobs in animation do, from someone asking someone else, ‘Do you know anyone good? We need people right now!’” Friz says, “In this instance, it was my friend and former co-worker at Character Builders (also long ago CCAD'er), Todd Cronin (Fine Arts, Associate Alumni, 1992), asking me if there were any good students who could help out.”
One of those students, Durnil, worked as a 2D EFX animator, doing EFX work, as well as some ink and paint work. Before taking on the Space Jam assignment, he’d never been part of an undertaking like this, he says. “This was my very first gig and it was a wonderful learning experience.”
And it was one Durnil was ready for. “CCAD prepared me for this by teaching me proper workflow, time management skills, proper animation techniques, and how to work together with a team of people,” he says.
Another alum-artist, Aquila, did clean-up lines/in-betweens on some character scenes and colored some others. This was her first time doing cleanup work on someone else’s animation. “It was weird going from doing a whole scene on your own, from sketch to final effects, to only doing a small portion of the whole thing. It kind of felt like an unfinished finish, but more rewarding than that because that’s the only part you are supposed to be doing,” she says.
Time zones presented another challenge: work came in late in the day from the West Coast, and Aquila, working on the East Coast, had to work into the night completing assignments. The experience she says, was “a bit harrowing at times,” but rewarding to work on something as familiar as Looney Tunes.
Aquila’s time at CCAD gave her familiarity with the animation software and knowledge of just how to animate, but she says she “learned so much from the first couple hours (working on SJ2) about how professionals talk about a project and what lingo they use while talking about projects.” CCAD, she says, gave her “the skills to do good work, keep up, and know the basics of animation so I had time to adapt to how the professional world works.”
Anderson says credit is due to his professors for helping him build the skills necessary to quickly create quality work. “(Associate) Professor Friz's courses on 2D Animation Techniques and 2D Character animation gave me an excellent amount of training in the ToonBoom Harmony program, as well as planning work on a deadline. Additionally, classes like Layout & Timing and Character Design for Animation--both taught by (Associate) Professor Gavrilo "Mr. G" Gnatovich--helped me learn how to maintain quality in large quantities, which is really important when dealing with hundreds of different frames of animation.” In addition, he says, CORE classes provided “priceless experience working in collaborative groups on projects, allowing me to build my communication skills--a must-have if you're working remotely!”
Animation industry connections pay off for students
This was Ellerman’s first freelance animation job since graduating. “Connections are probably the biggest thing that CCAD provided me for a professional experience like this one,” she says. “I wouldn’t have worked on this project if Andy hadn’t emailed me asking if I was up for some work.”
Vanaman says she learned to work quickly and efficiently under tight deadlines at CCAD--extremely helpful, since she was juggling two part-time jobs alongside the freelance project “Having good time management skills paired with clear, professional communication was necessary to pull it off,” she says, adding, “Also, CCAD's Animation instructors taught me everything I know about 2D animation, including the ins and outs of the software we used for the project, Toon Boom Harmony.”
Animation Professor and Chair Charlotte Belland says having instructors like Friz who are active in their industries helps students build the skills and network they need for professional success.
“Along with learning new skills, school provides a way for students to engage in a long-form interview process,” she says. “Our professors are working on all types of external projects. If a professor has a project that needs talent, they are keen to promote their reliable, hard-working students and alumni to the hiring team. The professors are a direct link to the industry.”
Below, Friz discusses his work on Space Jam: A New Legacy and how experiences such as these are reflected back in the classroom.
So what, exactly, does an EFX animator do?
EFX, or effects, animation is everything that animates in a movie that is not a character. That includes props, tornadoes, leaves, laser beams, explosions, smoke, dust, etc. In this instance, I was part of the Tones, Highlights, and Shadows team that produces the lighting effects on the characters themselves, and the cast shadows on the ground. We also handled drawing the tattoos on cartoon LeBron James.
What kind of technology did you work with on the film?
We worked in Toon Boom Harmony, same as I use at home and what we teach here at CCAD. For the tones and shadows, they were also using a nice variation on techniques I'd been teaching for “free” tones and highlights and shadows from the finished character art. We also had to make use of video meetings and instant messaging (in Microsoft Teams), VPN tools, and a production management tracker called Flux. Getting used to jumping into new software is definitely part of the modern work experience.
How do projects like this enrich your teaching?
Experience like this reaffirms that what we're teaching, doing, and experiencing in class is what goes on in the “real world.” You do learn some new things at work from each other, which is great, and I ended up teaching a lot of the other pros, too. You're never done learning!
Students get frustrated when they can't get something right, or struggle with a new piece of software, or have trouble with a deadline, but it is 100% exactly the same at work! Animation pros were all once animation students and newbies, and we're all there for each other to help, grow, and succeed.
When did you work on this? What did a typical workday look like?
I started working on the feature in late January/early February 2020. It was a slow-ish start at first, so scenes were far between at first, which was fine. Everyone was getting accustomed to the pipeline, and working remotely, which at this scale was new to everyone.
A typical workday would be for me to go upstairs to my studio room, log on to the studio’s VPN and check messages for urgent fires and announcements, then roll on to whatever shot I had assigned. The EFX team at Deluxe Animation Studios had a Microsoft Teams “life-drawing” video session in the morning, for artists to practice life drawing together, followed by a department video meeting. The rest of the day was finishing the shot you had, rendering and uploading the video of the Quicktime movie test, then getting a new shot, or starting on another one you'd been assigned earlier. As it got further into production, we started working weekends as well, at 60 hours a week. Well, I kinda always had to, as I had Tuesdays and Thursdays always taken up by CCAD teaching.
It did start to feel very Groundhog Day after a while.
What was most satisfying about this work experience?
It was satisfying to see the final results come together, with all the characters colored and backgrounds and other visual EFX. Working with renowned EFX artist Michél Gagné was also amazing, so that's probably No. 1. I've been a fan of his work for a very long time, and show much of his work to students in 2D Animation Techniques when we get to the EFX assignments.
How did you balance your work on this with your obligations as a member of CCAD’s faculty?
I was upfront with the studio from first contact that I was actively teaching, and they were great about letting me work around the in-class (virtual) days, which were all day Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since COVID lockdowns were still in effect, there really wasn't much else to do in the world, and I'd always rather be drawing something than watching TV, so there wasn't much else to balance :)
What advice would you give to an animation student or young artist trying to break into animation?
DRAW!!! Draw a LOT!!! Draw the things you're NOT good at more than the things you can do easily and like. Learn how to learn the new skills and abilities you will need.
Be adaptable, able to train your eye to draw many different styles, as that is what you'll be called on to do professionally in a studio. There are a lot of exceptions, of course, but I've found those people who DO have a distinctive style can also mimic others if they want/need to.
What’s up next for you?
Hopefully, a little rest … It's been a very busy year, and I've had to turn down more work than ever, which is extremely hard for me to do, out of principle.
I did some work on the aforementioned Space Jam 2 promo pieces, and am just getting started on a series of commercials now, which should run through early August 2021. After that, I don't know. Possibly more EFX work with the same studio as SJ2, but I get bored doing the same thing for very long.
All photos from WarnerBros.com