From CBBC series to films about poo, animator Anne Wilkins has done it all. She tells us all about the long hours, why computers aren't that important and the excitement of winning prizes at film festivals...
Please give us an overview of your average day.
I work on CBBC series Muddle Earth and my days are quite regimented. I’m allotted a batch of shots with storyboard images and dialogue, and I work through them using Flash. I select which character kits I need (the kits have some positions and shapes already drawn), drop them into place according to the storyboard, and then start animating. I usually start with lip sync, facial expressions, arm gestures and end with body movement. I then gather together everyone's work, and check for continuity.
I often start my own personal work after dinner. My short film, A Film About Poo, is currently showing in various film festivals, so I check if there is anything I need to send out, or new festivals to apply to. I've just finished short film Spin Spun Span, commissioned by Bolton Museum & Archives. Now production is complete I can get to bed earlier, but in the next few months I'll start the festival process again. At the moment I'm working on possible promotional materials, and talking with Bolton Museum about an exhibition. I tend to go to bed quite late!
What is the most common misconception about your job?
"It's just all done by computers nowadays, isn't it?" No, it's not! I use computers every day, but I didn’t learn the programs overnight, and they don't do everything. Strong drawing skills are fundamental to animation. Toy Story is a masterpiece because of the story and characters, and also because the animation is so beautiful and detailed. The computer is a tool, but those characters were all drawn by incredible artists.
What is the hardest thing about your role?
The long hours – this is mostly self-inflicted. I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I really care, so staying up til 3am to tweak isn’t unusual. I worry that I seem very unsociable, as I sometimes refuse party invitations because I've got a film to do. This makes me sound like a loser, and I probably am, but I love animating, and I do still see my friends, just not as much as I'd like to. I'm hoping that as I get more established I'll have less to prove, and can sort out my work-life balance a bit more.
When did you decide what you wanted to do with your life and how did you set out to achieve it?
I was very young; I remember watching children’s programmes and trying to draw the characters. Knowing from the start was a big help, because I kept it in the back of my mind and took all opportunities to achieve my goal. I took private art lessons, which helped develop my drawing skills quickly, and GCSE and A-level subjects I thought would help with my career. I did a BA in Illustration & Animation and took every life drawing class I could. When I graduated, I worked as a runner and continued to animate on unpaid projects to build up my showreel and create contacts.
About 18 months later, my friend Emily and I made A Film about Poo for a competition run by London International Animation Awards and Poop Creative, called the Golden Poo Awards. Amazingly, we won, and a year later the film is still showing monthly at film festivals worldwide. It’s won seven awards to date, including one last week!
I think it helped me to get the job I have now. I was working as a runner at CBBC with Muddle Earth’s executive producer. She knew I animated in my spare time, and that I had just finished A Film about Poo, so she suggested me to the production company. I showed them A Film about Poo, did a test, and got the job. I was in the right place at the right time, but I had also made sure I was more than ‘just’ a runner.
What can you do to get a head start?
Developing your drawing skills early on is a good move. Learning computer programs is useful, but you won’t know which computer programs you need and which are obsolete until you start working.
Could you describe the creative element to your job?
If it's my own work, my job is almost wholly creative because I design and animate everything. On Muddle Earth, the shots are given to me, and I animate them with already designed characters. I create their performance, drawing in hand gestures, expressions, reactions, etc. You make the scene your own in the way you bring the characters to life.
What one thing do you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now?
I did quite a bit of unpaid "collaborative" work in the first two years after graduating, mixed with paid work as a runner. Some of this was useful, but I think in some cases I sold myself short. I was very keen to work – I sometimes overlooked and undersold myself and consequently got taken advantage of by a couple of companies who kept me hanging on, promising to put me on payroll "next month". It is hard to find a balance when you're a graduate, but it's really the only bad experience I've had since graduating, and the only thing I'd do differently.
Which organisations/websites/resources do you think would be useful for people entering your industry?
Motionographer is a really good selection of cutting edge animation work. On Radar Music Videos, you pay a small subscription and you then get access to briefs direct from record companies to make paid music videos. It’s good for learning how to pitch and make money when you are without a big production company's backing.
MOFILM is similar, but it's for commercials and the reward for your ad, if chosen, is as filmmaking prizes rather than actual money. Shooting People is good for all filmmakers. They have a daily email newsletter with discussions about kit, calls for entry, jobs and work experience. The animation newsletter is a little less full, but it's all good. Brit Films maintain a massive list of worldwide film festivals and submission fee information. Finally, The Animators Survival Kit book by Richard Williams tells you everything you need to know.