One of the huge perks for working in recruitment is that we are constantly talking to interesting, creative and talented people who are are at the forefront of change in the games industry. Whether that's with groundbreaking games, inspiring talks or just the smile on their face - it's the part of the job I love the most. As our way of returning the favor, we want to introduce you to some of these wonderful people and the incredible things that they do!
Harvey Newman is now a Senior Animator at EA DICE in Sweden but I had the privilege of working with him back in 2014 when he was doing a contract with Axis Animation animating Horizon Zero Dawn.
Since then Harvey has gone on to work on some incredible projects and has decided to use his experience to start up a YouTube Channel where he breaks down the work behind animation in the most simplistic and comprehensive way possible with tutorials, reviews and top advice to those in the industry.
In our chat we talked about everything from career stages and project choices to technology and Snow White. His openness and honesty was incredibly refreshing and, on a personal level, a lot of what he said resonated with me more than I ever imagined it would.
Catrin: In the industry you hear a lot about people getting bogged down and focusing on surviving rather than looking at how they can really thrive. How do you think animators in the industry can make sure they’re happy through the different stages of their careers?
Harvey: That depends highly on what stage of your career you are. When you start as a junior animator you just want to find somewhere to work and are so hype about anything that comes your way. At that point it doesn't matter how much stress you have or how many things plow into you. You feel like you can power through overtime because you get to learn and you are doing what you love. It can be that you don't move up to be a mid-tier animator until a few years later but is easy to enjoy just discovering things and working hard.
Now it can become a problem when you get to the mid-tier - you have the skills but not always enough experience to know how to look after yourself. It happened to me and it happens to a lot of animators. The company needs to take care of you because sometimes it's very difficult for you to take care of yourself when it comes to managing the workload given. Once you’ve gone through maybe three or four games then it's easier but if it’s your first or second game you can definitely feel the heat from the project and be overwhelmed by either not being able to keep pace or working too hard and burnout.
C: I guess mid level is where you don't always feel like you have enough of a voice to tell the company what you think. You would hope that as you move up you can start to go ‘I think we need to change how things are’ but maybe mid-level is the time where you feel you still have to be quite grateful that you’re there so can't be going ‘you’re giving me too much work’ or ‘this isn't enough time’.
H: That's exactly right. It's really complicated because animation is really work intensive, a lot of companies have very strict deadlines to get the most content they can into the game in the shortest amount of time which is understandable, but we are all different. Some people animate faster than others, some people take a bit longer to learn, so we can’t all be treated the same. We're maturing as an industry so companies are now taking individuals into account instead of just putting everyone in the same boat and expecting the same output.
When you get to be more of a senior animator you (hopefully) have been through a few projects, maybe even a few companies, so you know a bit better what works for you and what doesn’t, and most importantly you’re in a place where your voice is heard. You know what it is that you need from a company to feel rewarded and look for the places that give you these things, which means the relationship between you and the company stops being just one way.
It means that when you find an interesting company that is also interested in you, instead of just jumping in head first due to excitement, you start questioning what exactly does working at that company entail? You’ve got to make sure you’re asking the right questions like…
How many people work on this project? What's your technical pipeline? How are your deadlines? etc
But also, do you have freedom? Do you have independence? I worked in a place that I had to knock out 10 animations a week, two animations a day, every week, constantly. I find this incredibly restrictive, but some people love the structure!
C: It sounds like this is the point in most careers you stop feeling that you're just a cog in the machine and have a two way relationship as you said. Like companies get work done from you and at a base level, you get respect from them. Which ties back into the problem with mid-level is where the company gets everything. I work long hours doing this stuff like what am I getting back.
H: Yeah that’s a fair statement - seniors, leads and directors often but not all always get more respect from companies even just at a basic level which can leave the juniors, the interns, the mid-level animators feeling more disposable which is a horrible feeling.
C: Feeling like you’re disposable is going to be such difficult thing!
H: It definitely takes a mental toll. Things may not be said outright but the feeling is there. At times it makes you feel like you need to be thankful for the work the company is giving you, when in reality it should be the other way around. Companies need to create a culture of mutual respect, only then you’ll be able to create your best work. You need to be there because you chose to be, not because you are forced to be. You're happy working for the company even though that door is open for you to leave should you want to. It is your choice to stay and work hard because you believe in the project you are working on.
C: Yeah I think it’s about focusing on what gets people out of bed in the morning. It needs to be a bit more than ‘I'll get told off if I don't go’. You want people to be thinking ‘I have that project I want to finish’ or ‘I'm really looking forward to seeing how that is going’. It’s a better way to be.
H: Exactly. And I think most companies are catching up especially with all the talent that’s out there. Frequently the most talented people are the first to leave when a company is not run so well so if you want to keep the talent, companies need to put extra effort.
C: But with all this talk about company, do you think the company is more important than the project you’re working on? The company of course helps but do you think it’s more about personal achievement in the long run?
H: Most people want to make it into their dream company as their first job. And I do think the company can be very important at first but once you work on a few projects you start to find out what pleases you as an individual artist. I know people that love to do first person animation only, some only HandKey or motion capture only. We are all different and there are all kinds of different niches that you can get into in animation and only by you trying a little bit of everything can you figure out what projects you are passionate for.
When you find something that you’re happy with, it stops being about the biggest studio and much more about which kind of studio focuses on the type of animation/work that you want to do the most.
C: But with change being something that's so ingrained in technology I always wonder about how people can be prepared for the next stage of technology, when whatever platform you’re using is such a huge part of your day to day life. So do you think that people should look forward more rather than just choosing one thing they enjoy and focus on that? Or do you think that sticking what you’re best at is actually better in the long run?
H: Once again it depends on what you want as an individual. One thing is certain though - if you don't constantly keep learning or improving your craft in your spare time you'll become stagnant.
Spend time working on your craft and learn the things you actually want from animation so you don’t box yourself in and get lost in technology. Just like a good lawyer or a good athlete if you continuously hit the books, push yourself and make sure that you study the greats. Then you will start edging out everyone else that is focusing on what’s in front of them.
C: Yeah because in our lifetimes we've taken the leap from Disney Snow White/Aladdin to sort of where we are now. People need to be able to survive in the industry over changes like these. Maybe you were an incredible stop motion animator but then suddenly it’s not what most companies need anymore. So right now if you want to be at the cutting edge then you’re probably looking at 3D at VR/AR but when your daughter's out looking for work - after following in her dads footsteps and becoming an animator – what’s she going to be doing? Something we can’t even imagine!
H: That is the beauty of art in general, maybe I'm romanticizing things but there's a source to all this. I think the bigger question should always just be ‘how much better can I be as an animator’. The people that were doing Snow White were doing exactly what we're doing right now just in a different medium at a different time. People don’t always want to learn from animation history because the only thing they see is that it’s not going to teach them how to animate in games. But if you asked an animator behind classics like Snow White to animate Nathan Drake, they most likely would have no problem. The animation principles are the same is just the tools and the implementation that changes. Animation is animation no matter the medium.
This is why I think it's so important to just keep on bettering yourself without forgetting that animation is an art form. The more you learn from past mistakes made by the greats and how they solved them, the better of an animator you will be.
C: I guess what the old school Disney people had to do is break it down frame by frame from the get-go. Nowadays you can say ‘I want him to be here and then I want him to be there’ and the computer can do some of the middle bit for you but you’ve still got to make sure you’ve examined it right down to the basics.
H: What Maya or Max or animation animator editor can do for you is just bonus features. They are tools, a means to an end. And as an artist you just need to see it as that, rather than the be all end all. All tools are just something you must master in order to get your art to be better.
C: I think it's nice that you can talk so specifically about animation and it can be so true for everyone and everything. Making sure that you don't just want to go to work every day and go ‘Well my office says that we do it like this. So I'm going to do it like that’ and then if there are any changes you're kind of stuck. It’s good to be thinking about what you actually want to do.
H: Here's something that struck me strongly from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the movie. Freddie Mercury at this point in the movie has everything at his disposal but he refused it all to go back to the band that made him famous. The band then asks him what went wrong he said everyone around him did exactly what he asked them to do.
When you first start working in the industry, you don’t want to disrupt the peace so you do what your company asks you to do, and stay in your corner. But I think the bigger question should be - How can I excel and be better than expected?
Even if you are in the hottest company right now, if you come in and show them something a bit different that helps the game be better than it was, then guaranteed that they’ll want you to carry on working for them. Now you are that person that thinks outside the box and showed them something they didn’t know they needed. So doing what everyone else is asking you to do is not always the best answer. Believe in yourself, create epic stuff and people will naturally gravitate towards you.
C: It’s so true in any industry – figuring out how to be yourself rather than a cookie cutter of your boss is when you really show your worth.
H: Exactly, you excel. And you also become a little more essential to the company, because now they know they have a person that pushes themselves and the company - anything is possible and that is exciting.
C: Now I can’t let you go without mentioning your YouTube videos – as that’s what got us back in touch! I’m always watching your videos when they pop up on Linkedin. They’re so good and you’ve not been making them for long now have you? Are you enjoying it?
H: I am loving it, it's been about four months now, it's hard work a lot goes on behind the scenes but with all the positivity and with comments like yours it’s definitely worth it.
I have to admit at first I felt like no one's going to really give a crap about what I had to say. And then after the comments you get from people saying things like ‘you inspire me’ and ‘you give me strength to keep on animating’ that’s when you go, ‘wow people really care for the content I am creating!’
C: Exactly and I personally always want to hear from someone slightly like me or even someone that I would (sometimes optimistically) like to be similar to in a couple of years. Rather than the CEO of Amazon and such telling me how to live my life.
H: I am the same. Some people do like to watch the one lucky guy who got a break like no one else. But the magic of YouTube is that it connects you directly with people, whoever, wherever they are, so it feels like people know you and if they pressed play on your video instead of someone else’s is because they are interested in what you have to say. People have told me that they put my videos in the background while they work, it’s great to become that voice for people.
C: Almost like when people listen to tapes while they’re sleeping to soak up knowledge. So that'll be the next step - finding out that other people listen to you while they sleep!
H: Ha yes - I don't know exactly where this is going. I'm just getting started but I think it’s cool, somehow you're in a video somewhere and anyone can check it out.
C: And all of those video views are people that have found you and want to hear what you say! But maybe for counting views you need to minus the size of your immediate family off what YouTube tells you. That'll be your true viewing numbers.
H: Completely agree! Yeah it's really cool. I'm enjoying it a lot.
All that's left to say from me is a huge thank you to Harvey for taking the time to talk to me and also let you know that if there's something you want to talk about within the industry, get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org as I'd love to help out if I can.
You can visit Harvey's Youtube Channel to see his full list of videos but here is my personal favourite - 10 Animation Tips to My Younger Self