Animation is crazy fun. The process is fun, the results are fun, and showing it off is fun. Naturally, crazy action pieces and slow, subtle acting are the hardest things to do and the most impressive things to look at, so that’s what we want to do most! From the second that we open up Maya for the first time, all we want to do is create the next masterpiece that will blow all the studios away and send our demo reel right to the top. Bouncing balls are great and all, but that 20-second hardcore parkour sequence will be our ticket to the big time!

That enthusiasm is great, but it has to be held in check. The number one mistake that I see students make over and over again is biting off more than they can chew. Before I get too far in, let me caveat that I’ve been guilty of this many times. It’s perfectly normal to want to push yourself and create something big, but unless you’re ready for it, you’d better be good at learning from failure. I’ve started many shots that just never get done because I got overwhelmed, and if I did “finish” them, they weren’t any good. And while it’s commendable to stick with a long piece through completion, that usually means that a certain number of frames are moving, not that the quality is high.

When studios review animators’ reels, they’re not impressed with the length of the shots, the ambitiousness of the choreography, the lighting, cloth sim, or anything like that. All they want to see is the quality of the animation. It doesn’t matter if the first shot is three seconds long with one character and a static camera. If the performance and polish level make them say “wow,” then it’s already in consideration. That is way more beneficial than the massive chase scene that’s fun, but just didn’t nail the body mechanics.

It’s great when I see a current student’s reel full of the basic exercises done well. It shows me that they’re doing what they need to be doing: practicing the fundamentals. I love looking at this and giving them ideas where to go next, but it breaks my heart to have to tell them to backtrack because they skipped the basics. Now, when a big studio looks at reels, they don’t want to see a bunch of bouncing balls, pendulums and walk cycles, but they do want to see the result of all that study. You simply cannot animate a compelling acting shot or physically accurate mechanics piece without first having done those basic studies and engraving them into your brain! Spending your time doing lots and lots of tiny exercises is the best and most efficient way to learn the components that you’ll use for those bigger tasks. In eight weeks you can do one ten-second thing that turns out “okay,” or you could do fifty throwaway practice exercises. By the twentieth or thirtieth day, I promise you’ll have made progress. I recommend picking up a copy of Richard Williams’ “Animator’s Survival Kit” and just doing all the exercises in order, preferably more than once. He does a great job of breaking down and building on the very basics, so you’d do well to follow along and do them yourself.

It’s awesome that you’re fired up to do something huge, but I hope that reading this will remind you to stay reasonably within your capabilities for now. It’s important to push beyond, but you wouldn’t want to get in a Formula 1 car when you just got your learner’s permit. Pick something manageable, find good reference and study it to death, and don’t be too precious with it. Not everything you do will go into a demo reel, so be willing to do things solely for practice. It is not a waste of time, trust me.