How I Changed Career From Mechanic to DreamWorks Animator

  • Ryan Vicik, 36, works at DreamWorks Animation and was previously a body technician.
  • To break into the field, he says it’s important to attend conventions and focus on your demo.
  • That’s how he got his start, as writer Robin Madell recounted.

This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Ryan Vicik, a 36-year-old animator at DreamWorks Animation who lives in Burbank, California. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m currently an animator at DreamWorks Animation, where my work has been seen in popular movies like “Boss Baby 2”, “Croods 2”, “Abominable” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series.

My animation journey started in a rather unexpected place: I spent 10 years working in a workshop as a bodybuilder

Ryan Vicik

Vicik working on a car.

Courtesy of Ryan Vicik

I really liked doing body work. My job was to fix all kinds of car accidents, from minor dents and knocks to major collisions. A seasoned technician can expect to earn between $60,000 and $120,000 per year depending on location and skills.

But I have always had a passion for the arts, inspired by my father. He is self-employed as a sign maker and also does fine art.

After graduating, I got a scholarship to an art school. But for several, shall we say, “immature” reasons, I decided not to go and get into bodywork. My parents even bought me a nice laptop for art school, but I sold it for rims for my car.

Later, I regretted this decision. I came to realize that auto bodywork, while a solid profession, was not using my natural talents, and I just didn’t feel satisfied.

After doing a lot of research and seeing a “Student Showcase” video put out by the school’s animation mentor, I decided to sign up. I completed my training there 18 months later and about a year later landed my first job in the industry.

My education at Animation Mentor played a huge role in career transition, as the school was founded by Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic animators and was the first educational platform to offer comprehensive animation training online. . It was important because it meant I didn’t have to move to a new city or stop working to achieve my dreams.

The thing about Animation Mentor is that all the instructors work in big studios. So it wasn’t just the inner workings of animation software and design – they taught me how to think like an animator and actively preparing a reel that studios would respond to. And that’s exactly what happened.

To make my debut in Hollywood, I had connections in the industry who gave me opportunities

The phrase “Standing on the shoulders of giants” definitely applies here.

I think most people who come into this industry, or any industry, have established relationships with others who are already working inside.

In my case, it was one of the founders of Animation Mentor and one of my instructors at school who really made a difference for me – several times in my career, in fact. I am eternally grateful. One of them even joked in an interview that if they hired me, I could fix their cars too.

That being said, I think it’s important for budding animators to understand that connections are only useful if you can actually do the job. And the connections themselves are earned, not given. You have to be a friend to have friends, and it takes effort. It takes more than sending LinkedIn connection requests. You must be authentic.

After completing the program and spending time refining my reel, I landed an entry-level position at Blue Sky Studios, where I worked on films in the “Ice Age” series as well as the film “Peanuts”.

That first position, although temporary, was my foot in the door to professional work. From there, I worked my way up in the industry.

I went to MPC, where I worked on JK Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and the X-Men series. Then I worked with Industrial Light & Magic on Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and the “Transformers” movies before joining DreamWorks Animation.

As an animator, you are essentially the actor behind the animated character

So many times we’ll be shooting video references of ourselves playing certain scenes, trying to feel certain acting choices, and getting a rough idea of ​​what will and won’t work on screen.

I once had a fight scene to animate where a character gets punched so hard that they fly up, spin around and then crash to the ground. I staged it with a little too much haste. My shoulder was sore for two weeks. All video footage of this reference has mysteriously been deleted.

A strategy that won’t work to break into the industry: upload a demo reel to Vimeo, then wait by your phone for the studios to call

It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. You have to put yourself forward, be willing to take risks and, as Harvey Dent said in “The Dark Knight”, “make your own luck”.

That means going to animation conventions like Lightbox, Annecy, and FMX, staying active in the animation community, and staying in touch with friends, mentors, and recruiters. Everything does not happen all at once.

In my case, I went to an animation convention in Burbank — the CTN Animation Fair — for which, at the time, I could barely afford tickets for

While this isn’t a direct route into the industry, it’s a great way to meet other artists and recruiters, show off your work, and get feedback. It’s more of a conversation starter, and in that way it’s a good place to network.

It was amazing. Once there, I met several of my animation heroes: one of the founders of Animation Mentor and one of my mentors. I was invited for a tour at DreamWorks and received incredible words of encouragement from one of my instructors.

Months later, all of this gave me the opportunity to work on a small side project, which I did. Then one day, I opened my email and – bam! — I was recommended to work at BlueSky Studios.

The thing is, if I had never been to that convention, none of the other things that followed would have happened.

Getting into animation takes a bit of luck and timing. So you have to put yourself forward and be ready when the opportunity arises.

It’s equally important to never stop working on new work for your demo tape – ever. Even after finishing Animation Mentor, working at BlueSky, MPC and ILM, I continued to work on my reel in the evenings. Looking back, I think that was instrumental in my landing at DreamWorks.

To prove my credibility in this industry initially, I moved – a lot

Exterior of DreamWorks

The exterior of DreamWorks Animation.

Courtesy of Ryan Vicik

During my many years in animation, we moved from my hometown to New York, Montreal, San Francisco and the Los Angeles area, where we now live.

Most animators start with temporary contract jobs. So unless you get lucky with an employee position early on, you need to keep working until your skill level and demo catches the eye of a company that’s willing to keep you permanently. We lived in a hotel for over a year at one point.

Humility also plays a huge role. Not every project you’re assigned to work on will appeal to you, and not every one you love will be easy. Ultimately, having worked in a variety of styles will become an asset to you as an animator. The chance to reach your audience, to make someone feel something, even if it’s just a laugh, is incredibly rewarding.

Animation studios don’t care what school you went to. They care about working on your demo.

Also, I think it’s important to look at animation from a holistic perspective.

What does an animator do that makes him desirable for a studio? Animate? No, it’s just the medium they use. You have to learn how to entertain and captivate an audience.

Studios are looking for people who can elicit a reaction from the audience and make them feel something. That’s what sells tickets. Work towards it and you’ll understand the ins and outs of animation along the way.

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