I first met Jordan Blit several years ago - he's a kick-ass pool player in APA League (American Poolplayers Association). Those of you who know me probably know that I enjoy playing pool and have played APA for over a decade (although I took a few years off for the somewhat important job of having kids). While I'm sure Jordan would love to be a professional pool player (wouldn't we all?), he has a pretty cool day job, too. He works in animation.
Almost everything has CG these days. Just turn on the TV and you'll see numerous commercials with walking, talking creatures and people doing crazy, physically impossible stunts. Or go to the movies and step into a spaceship. Or go to an amusement park and get immersed in a virtual ride. All of these are projects that Jordan has worked on - in fact, if you've watched anything recently, you've probably seen a commercial he's done or maybe a movie or amusement ride he's had a hand in. He has his own animation company, Jabimation, and he takes on all sorts of projects. But that's just the tip of the iceberg - he has multiple hats he wears. In his own words:
I'm an animator and an educator. I've worked at various vfx and animation studios on both the east and west coasts of the United States. I teach animation at the School of Visual Arts and I make a point to contribute to the community with the thoughts and techniques I've gathered over the years.
So, without further ado, here's Jordan Blit.
Thank you for joining me, Jordan! I've always been amazed by the skill of animation artists ever since I watched my first Disney movie when I was still in the single digits. Have you always wanted to be an animator? If not, what did you do before getting into animation, and how did it lead to your career?
Thank you for taking the time, Alison. I didn't necessarily always want to be an animator but I did grow up a doodler for sure. I started my working life a plumber in a family owned business. I always felt during that time that I was meant for something more creative. I immediately gravitated towards CG as soon as I realized it wasn't as unattainable a goal as I would have thought. Back then it was much less prevalent then it is now. The tools were cumbersome and training was limited, but still it could be learned if you were serious enough about it.
You mention cumbersome tools - how long have you been working in the field, and how has the industry changed from when you first began to today? Is there a project you worked on when you first started out that took you ages to do, and that would now be done in a snap?
I starting working professionally in 2004 but I starting learning the craft about 20 years ago now. The industry has changed immensely since I began. It was very niche field. There wasn't a lot of different software to choose from. What was available was very expensive. You had to really be passionate about it to get in. Nowadays it's almost a requirement for any visual artist to have some kind of digital experience. It's great because it allows anyone with an interest to get in start creating content. On the other side of that coin it doesn't mean everyone that is creating content should be.
I wouldn't say a past project would be a snap today. What I have found is that as the tools get better, the expectations grow just as fast. We would find details to add to a past project to make them just as difficult to produce them today as they were when we originally created them.
What's a typical day like for you?
Not very interesting unfortunately. When you have bills to pay and you are trying to get something off the ground on the side you very quickly find yourself in limited supply of your most valuable asset, time.
I take on various commercial projects as my day job, which usually runs about 8-10 hours a day. I'll do dinner with my girlfriend and try to unwind a bit before putting another 2-4 hours into Jazzy Toons before hitting the sack. During the weekend I might be putting in a few full workdays on Jazzy Toons where I can. I also have to fit in my 1 day a week class at SVA (The School of Visual Arts) including prep and grading.
You mention juggling three different jobs at the same time (something I know a tiny bit about, being a mom, writer and editor, LOL). What challenges you the most in each of the three aspect of your career? What do you enjoy the most?
Well each of these three aspects hit a different point.
The day job has the benefit being integrated into a team in which I can lean on others. Assuming everyone on the team is gelling, the drawback is that it is hard to take ownership of your work on those bigger projects you take on contract.
When you are doing your own thing it's the exact inverse. It's all yours without question but you don't have the benefit of an experienced team at your back.
Teaching fulfills the need to give back. Let's be honest, I'm not saving the world creating commercial cg animation (usually) so if I want to scratch that itch I have to find another way.
Which do I enjoy most? Depends on the day, my mood and maybe even the moons gravitation pull upon the earth a bit. As I write this I'm trying to see what that looks like as a mathematical formula.
Ha ha, I feel the same way - my favorite part of the job one day can be a real pain in the butt the next day. You mentioned working on a side animation project on your own time, called Jazzy Toons. What is it and how did you get involved in it?
About a year ago an old buddy reached out to me. He had the license to three albums of children's songs created by a family friend in the 1990s, and he wanted to create an animated music video channel to bring a love of jazz to a new generation of kids. The problem? He didn't have the production or technical experience to make this dream a reality on his own.
The opportunity to partner up and build something special with an old friend was too perfect to pass up, and the balance of skills has been seamless: he manages the business end and builds concepts with another friend in the editing business, while I produce all the visual content for our already-established library of music.
Our goal is to create high-quality animated characters and visual styles that are better than what is currently in the market and appeal not just to children, but to the adults who are along for the ride. Despite facing budget and time constraints that accompany small, independent projects, we believe we have created video that does justice to the high caliber of music. We went live with our first video on January 4th and anticipate releasing the next one by mid-February.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process behind creating the characters for Jazzy Toons videos, and also about doing animation set to kids' music?
Our target audience is toddlers. We have an advantage in that this content will be among the first video experiences a child consumes. Since there is essentially no basis for comparison the child doesn't really know quality from a cheap cash grab. Any adult can look at what's out there and see dozens of content creators exploiting this fact. Most parents today believe in feeding high quality organic ingredients to their children nutritionally. We believe in feeding them quality content as well so it is important to find the right balance of keeping it cheap and good. There's a saying in content creation: "Cheap. Good. Fast. You only get to pick two of the three." I spent quite a bit of time up front putting a system in place to get the fast to come with the cheap and good, to a point of course.
It helps to have partners as well. Matt Paul, who has put this project together, is doing a great job at putting the concepts together in the form or rough sketches. Brad Marxer has been brilliantly editing those concepts into animatics, which are the sketches/storyboards timed out against the music. This gives me a solid road map to producing each video. I'll start by sketching rough designs on paper. Next I'll clean them up and do a color study on the computer. Lastly they'll be animated and shipped to the platforms we're on.
Can you do a walk-through for us of the process you just described, from storyboards to animation?
Let me walk you through the character design process for one of the first characters put together, Miles on trumpet.
Image 0 represents the rough concept sketches I receive from Matt. I love the feeling and it's very clear to me but I want to make the characters a bit more palatable for children so I move away from fully anthropomorphized–animal head on human body–to something in between. I want to hint that there are scale differences between the animal types and have their bodies keep some features of their full animal counterparts.
Image 1 is a set of initial thumbnail sketches. I quickly jot down something very small to get a sense of shape and proportion without worrying too much about the details. At this point I already know I need a full jazz-band of rats so I am already thinking about how I can differentiate them. Miles is the baseline. Sonny on the saxophone becomes a little taller and lankier. Slide on the trombone becomes a bit shorter and stubbier.
Subtle changes in size will not be enough so Image 2,3 and 4 are my full color studies where I'm starting to play with the different costume changes I could make between characters. I'm not sure yet at this point which character is wearing what so I make sure the outfits are easily interchangeable between them all by focusing all my effort on Miles at first.
Image 5 is my final cleaned up version of Miles, each animateable part broken out into pieces so I can rig it up for the cut-out puppet style animation we are going for. From here I can manipulate the proportions, change the outfits and finally, come up with new color schemes for the rest of the rats. So I end with shape, color, instrument and outfit variation working to help make each rat instantly recognizable as their own character.
Lastly in image 6 we have the final treatment for Miles. Some of the seams between different parts of the puppet are removed (like the line that breaks up the upper and lower leg). The art is quite vector looking and the lines are very hard so I want to soften it up a bit and give the color a certain translucent quality. I don't want it to feel like Southpark's construction paper aesthetic. I want it to feel like light is coming through, almost like a painted cell on acetate. A bit of edge is given to it and a shadow so it feels a bit raised off the background.
That's really cool. I love seeing the character of Miles being built from the ground up - a peek behind the curtain, as it were. There's so much work that goes on to create a music video that plays for just a few minutes. Speaking of all that work, do you have any advice for someone looking to break into the field?
Only pursue it if you have a real passion for it. Work hard and grow a thick skin.
Advice that I think would work well in any creative field – especially true in writing, too. Jordan, I want to thank you so much for chatting with me, and I'll be sure to look out for the new Jazzy Toons video "Peanut Butter Cookies" live today. My kids loved the first video, and have been really looking forward to it.
Who the heck is Alison McBain?
I am a freelance writer and poet with over a hundred short pieces published in magazines and anthologies. If the Walking Dead isn't on, I draw pictures and do origami meditation in Connecticut, where I live with my family. If the Walking Dead is on... shhhh! The Walking Dead is on! For more info, please check out my "About Me" page.
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