26-07-2016 Freelance Animation - An Interview with Josh Burton

Freelance Animation - An Interview with Josh Burton

Meet Josh Burton, animator and storyteller, who's been creating things for as long as he can remember. After graduating from SCAD with a BFA in animation in 2005, he started at Midway Games in Chicago and Austin, where he would work on games during the day and personal projects at night. Since fall of 2008 he's been working as a freelance animator while starting a new life with his lovely wife in Houston, Texas. Josh is the creator of the Squirrely and Morpheus rigs for Maya, and in this interview he shares some of his experiences with us.

Hi Josh, first off can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what brought you into the field of art and animation initially?

Well, I'm a guy from a small suburb of big city Oklahoma City who loves good books, mocha coconut iced coffee, his wife, family and friends and making and sharing CG stuff. I've lived all over the states, traveled the world a bit and am trying to make a life where I am and not where I might be some day. I've been passionate about art, animation in particular, since I was a kid. In junior high and high school I took all the art classes I could.

I got a bit of a start in high school with Truespace 3D and then spent a tour in the Marine Corps doodling in log books. Towards the end of my tour I got a hold of a copy of Lightwave.

After finishing up in the Corps, I spent a year at the Art Institute of Washington. At this time I also started freelancing as an artist before I transferred down to Savannah College of Art and Design. There I learned how to make films and got a firm foundation in animation, as well as made some great friends to grow with.

Do you feel going to school helped you get started and what are the advantages of education in a field where no formal degree is required on the job market in your opinion?

Yes, as the son of two educators I think an education is pretty important. That being said, nowadays I could easily see an animator "making it" with one of the animation only non-degree programs. I'm not sure that there are that many huge advantages in our particular field for having a paper degree - it's really a sink or swim field once you get your foot in the door.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed my school experience, the biggest perpetual blessing I have from that is the friends I made - many of whom I still have the pleasure of working with on projects today.

How did you get started in the industry - can you tell us a bit about the early job experiences?

My first experiences were as a freelancer taking jobs as they came - I will say that freelancing can be pretty trying at times. Especially bidding, I loathe bidding.

In terms of a company experience, my first was with Midway Games (now no more). It was an odd first year but for personal reasons. However, in the end I had a lot of fun working on a lot of game projects. I even got to share an office with one of my good friends from college, Scott Englert.

Some of my best memories are of he and I sitting in our office hashing out ideas on the white board. We spearheaded a facial animation/rigging push for several projects and I learned a great deal about making tools and coding from him. I spent much of that time doing facial poses for our rigs and painting weights, and towards the end I was doing a lot of reviewing as the acting facial lead on several projects.

26-07-2016 Freelance Animation - An Interview with Josh Burton

What's the most memorable project you've worked on?

My favorite project I've done so far was the Nintendo E3 3DS stage demo this year. I was the project lead and co-directed it with one of my best friends, David Bokser. I can't talk in detail about all the who's of the project but I'll share a little of what I can.

It started in early May when I met with the appropriate folks and had about four days to put together all of the concepts for the segments. We went through a week or so of iteration on that and then it was off to the races. Bokser and I pulled in some trusted friends to work on it as there was a high pressure NDA on the whole thing.

My portion of it was as the main point of contact for the client with almost daily conversations, as well as animation and rigging for the Icarus segment, art/animation co-directing and some other TD stuff. It was a project with a crazy deadline and scope and I can't believe we pulled it off - I tip my hat to the team.

Would you say in your opinion that the industry has changed a lot from the early days up until now and if so in what way? Has it become easier to find work or more difficult?

I think it depends. I know, definitively stated, no? As a freelancer, it hasn't changed that much - going from one gig to the next and working on my own stuff in between projects.

My impression is that the talent pool has gotten more saturated so I think it might be harder to get your foot in the door nowadays. Especially with the economy tanking and so many game studios seeming to be shuttering their doors.

However, really talented folks always seem to find a way. Once the ball gets rolling on someone's career it seems to be somewhat easier - so long as they keep growing and improving (and aren't a jerk to people....no one likes working with jerks. Do try not be one.).

What makes a good animation in your opinion and do you have some tips for aspiring animators to work towards?

The spark of life we all work towards. Once you have the basics down, it comes down to making good acting choices, listening to feedback and keeping that spark alive. In terms of more specifics, there are much more accomplished animators than I who could provide that advice - "The Illusion of Life" would be a great place to start and the amount of great animation blogs now is overwhelming some days on my Google Reader morning read.

What do you enjoy most about being an animator?

The blocking and breakdown process. I love getting the feel of the animation there and seeing my thoughts translated to that visual form. The actual polishing portion I really struggle with, by the time I'm at being 90% there I'm ready for the next thing. That's probably why I'll never be a great animator. And that's okay, because at this point in my life I like rigging and making tools more than I like doing the actual animation and my experience as an animator has made me a better rigger. Also, I just get more fulfillment in seeing a great animation someone has done using one of my rigs than I do from doing my own.

26-07-2016 Freelance Animation - An Interview with Josh Burton

How do you approach a project and can you tell us a bit about in general about a typical project pipeline from concept to final animation?

I like to try and be methodical in my workflow to avoid rework as much as I can. Projects can vary wildly in terms of scope and work type - animating a shot is much different than leading a short film.

Right now I'm making a lot of tools so for that kind of project I write down what I want the tool to do. From there I go through and figure out the process that need to happen to get to that point. From that derive what information each of those steps need and begin writing all of the various functions for each of those steps (first of course seeing if I already have written or can find it on the internets).

For an animation, I ask the questions I need to know about who the character is, where were they before this shot, where are they going and most importantly what does the director (or client) want from this. It never matters how cool an animation you might conceive of might be, if the director doesn't want that particular take (especially when you're working by the second).

How important is the planning process before creating a 3D animation for you and is there any specific software you would you recommend for a beginner?

It's vital. Just from experience, anytime I've just jumped into a shot or project without taking the time to think through it I've always had to rework it much more than when I've planned it out.

For software, it depends on what you want. For a beginning animator it seems like Maya has the most free tools and rigs out there to use. That's not to say there's not great tools and assets to use in the others - I may just not know them. The software itself isn't nearly as important as getting the basics down. Once you have a good feel for the basics and a good workflow, the software doesn't matter as much.

For myself, I still have a sweet spot for Lightwave but haven't used it in in some time. Most of my modeling I do in Silo and for the rest I use Maya. I'd really like to get into Zbrush once I finish my current big project.

26-07-2016 Freelance Animation - An Interview with Josh Burton

You've created some popular rigs for Maya. Is it important for an animator to have good rigging skills and does it make you more competitive on the job market?

I think it makes you a better asset at a lot of types of studios - games and commercial work in particular. However, film still seems to be much more specialized. As a freelancer, having a wide variety of skill sets is certainly a boon. I also believe that at least having a foundation in a few areas will make you better in your particular areas of passion - if for no other reason of having some semblance of what goes into a request you might make of a rigger or a modeler in a studio setting.

Regardless of all of that I think it's more important to do the kind of work that you are passionate about. If you prefer modeling to animation, then model. If you like both, do both. If rigging isn't your thing, just doing it because you can isn't going to work in the long run - you'll get bored or complacent (or both).

What do you find most challenging about being an animator?

As I said before, the polishing phase. It's the same way in my other art. Maybe there's a good style for an impressionist animator, I've just not found it yet :)

Finally, for the people who are starting out in this field do you have some advice you'd like to give and some tips on good animation resources?

There are so many more resources available now than there were ten years ago. I envy the guys and gals just getting into it. Consume great work - read blogs, watch films, observe (and live) life.

If you wanna be an animator, animate. You have a lot of bad frames to get through till things click. You're not gonna get good at things just studying the theory, you have to practice, practice, practice.

Another thing is to get involved in the community (11 Second Club, CGTalk or the like), give feedback, try competitions and always treat others the way you would like to be treated. It's still a relatively small community and people remember the jerks :)

Thank you Josh for taking the the time to talk to us here at SimplyMaya.

You can download Josh's Morpheus rig here, and his Squirrely rig here.

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