Jen Hurler Warmth thesis film Animation Complex

Finishing an Animated Short

While I wrapped up my schooling, this site took an unofficial hiatus. A year ago, I left my job at Blue Sky and returned to SVA in NYC, where I’d started on my MFA in computer animation in 2012. Overwhelmed, I switched to attending part time in my second year, before dropping out completely shortly after. That I’d gotten a job offer from Blue Sky was amazing timing for me, as it gave me an out that frankly, didn’t feel like a failure. SVA’s MFA Computer Arts program is an intensive one, teaching what normally takes four years jammed into two (or four, if you attend part time, but it’s structured and advertised as a 2-year intensive). Having only the most basic understanding of Maya prior to the program, I knew I was in trouble by week two of the program. Though when I dropped out, I only had two classes left, plus the final project, which seemed like an impossible thing for me. Even now, literally just finishing an animated short a couple weeks ago, making an animated short film still feels impossible. Even being handed my degree did not make it feel real.

Grad School Dropout

It always bothered me that I hadn’t finished my MFA. Even though I had a stable enough job, in a department and team I loved, I wasn’t sure if it was something I could keep doing. When you’re at a company where a lot of the upper management don’t leave, it makes it incredibly hard to move up. I also was learning that the things I was interested in–being a creative executive, a producer, a writer–were not going to happen on the path I was on. I was setting myself up for many more years of crawling up a ladder that maybe some day would have gotten me to those places, but did not suit the skills and experiences I wanted and needed in order to grow. Knowing I was pushing my luck with SVA ever letting me back in (they could only hold out on me for so long) it once again felt like the right time. And just because it was right does not mean it was easy. It felt insane. I questioned myself for weeks after, those negative thought spirals only quelling once school started picking up.

Having worked at Blue Sky for a couple years caused me to put an additional pressure on myself. I worried that, because I’d been at a big studio, people would have huge expectations. I tried to keep it a secret from my classmates. Inevitably, I’d have to explain that, yes, I had worked on feature films, but that didn’t mean I’d opened Maya in like six years. Seriously though, the first version of this film was made on Maya 2013! I hadn’t opened Maya once in the years after I’d dropped out. And even then I’d been barely scraping by in my cg animation classes. The Maya classes I did excel in were when I’d done independent studies (so one-on-one) in specific areas of the pipeline, like lighting and shading.

I’m not being entirely fair to past-Jen though. A big factor in my struggles was simply time. It didn’t matter how much extra studying and time I put into my projects when there was a finite amount of time in a week before we moved on to a new topic. It didn’t matter how much slower I was at understanding and grasping concepts when most of the other students had been at four-year animation programs in their undergrad. I’m someone who definitely needs time for more technical things to sink in. It’s not that I can’t learn complicated things, I just learn them at a slower rate. That’s how I’ve always been, whether it was fractions in elementary, calculus in high school, or Java in undergrad. But if it doesn’t absorb fast enough for me to produce good results on tests, then what can ya do? 🤷‍♀️

So You Really Made a Movie?

Yeah. With a lot of help. As they say, it takes a village. From last summer through April, I was attending classes twice a week while working on a film. The classes were thesis-specific; one was basically a weekly check-in of our film’s progress while the second was a thesis writing class. That class had a few components, such as an academic research paper, and smaller bits of writing to help us with our career prospects, such as an artist statement, press release for our film, and updated resume.

The story in my film existed as a rough idea since the first time I attended SVA–a boy and a tiger in the snowy forest. Back then it was a slapstick comedy of them trying to hunt each other–the boy seeking out the tiger’s pelt for warmth and the tiger trying to steal the boy’s food, as it had never tasted cooked meat before. I’d still like to make that version one day without the intense deadline. Again, an accelerated program meant I was learning and doing things for the first time as I needed them in the film. I need structure, but I also need time to digest things.

I think when you’re a student, there’s a pressure to throw every idea out there. For many, a student film is sadly often the one and only time you have complete creative control over a project of such a scale, so they want everything and more in it. But in my experience, it’s about reduction–parameters and limits to help maximize creativity.

Before I made the film, I had a few parameters I knew I had to keep:
  • 2 characters, 1 set, 1 time of day
  • no dialog
  • non-photo-real rendering
    • simple style to ensure fast renders
    • not relying on school’s overcrowded render farm of CPUs
  • minimal to no effects (i.e. water, wind, hair or cloth sim)

These served as a way to keep the scope of the project in check, and to make sure I didn’t bite off more than I could chew. I also knew there were certain roles that I was not skilled enough (or at all) to handle on my own:

  • modeling
  • rigging
  • music and sound
  • animation

I knew I needed to give myself time to do the things that I was most excited about, and if that meant offloading other things to other people to give myself more time (and I could find people), great

  • writing and storyboards
  • previs and layout
  • textures/materials
  • lighting
  • rendering/any compositing or post-processing work

Lastly, there were other factors that helped make this easier–not easy–easier:

  • I moved back home with my parents, saving on rent and other financial and labor costs (i.e. cooking way less)
    • this helped me save up $ to pay for some services like music
  • my partner is a pipeline TD and wrote many custom scripts that helped facilitate me working across multiple computers at my home, his place, and computers at school
  • SVA provided unlimited storage on Google Drive, allowing us to create a pipeline that was always synced across the multiple computers
  • because of savings and support, I didn’t have to get a job while I worked (not even part-time) so I was able to dedicate all my time to this
  • because I’d finished most of my classes in this program in 2014, I only had the two core thesis classes, allowing me to attend school part-time
    • I didn’t have to worry about homework assignments from other classes
    • I only had to spend time/money commuting into NYC twice a week

The most important part for me though, in all honesty, was keeping my wits about me. When I first decided to drop out of SVA, it had been after I’d called two of my best friends, who were on the other side of world (the differing time-zones meant my 3am call was actually reasonable). I was literally laying under a desk at school, in absolute hysterics. I’d been trying to troubleshoot something in Maya and Nuke for hours and a classmate came to check in on me and figured it out in twenty minutes. At no fault of her own, I properly lost my shit. After my call with my friends, who gently reminded me that, some times, it is okay to quit, I cried for hours in a sound-booth. A lot of other things in my life that year had compounded–several unexpected deaths in the family, a break-up, and Superstorm Sandy damaging my house and destroying my bedroom. Maybe if I’d been ready for a program like that, I’d have been fine. But I just wasn’t ready for a program like that.

So it’s with all of that baggage that I stress that I never thought this would actually happen.

Can I See Your Film?

Not quite yet. There’s a lot of debate with putting your film online right away or not. There’s arguments that it could negatively impact its ability to succeed in the festival circuit (i.e. why would someone pay to attend a screening if it’s free online), or festivals want to say that it’s the film’s world premiere or that country’s premiere. On the other hand, if it’s good it’s good and people will see it.

For now, I’ve decided to hold off on publishing it online just yet. I may throw it behind a password on Vimeo (for friends, family, and you, dear reader!), and then eventually just throw it on the YouTube channel publicly.

WordPress is having some issues with me uploading pictures, so I will update this with some film stills soon. In the mean time, enjoy this tweet I embedded as a temp fix!

So What’s Next For You?

HA. I hate this question. It’s naturally the one I get the most nowadays and despite plenty of chances to practice my spiel and perfect my pitch, I sputter out every time. So much of this year boils down to one idea for me:

Giving Yourself Permission

I think this is a very tough thing to do. There are so many things I took myself out of the running for because I just couldn’t picture me in that situation. I wasn’t that type of person. And I mean things like writing and directing. I’m not cool enough to do that or I don’t have enough experience to even try to pursue that. I didn’t even let myself try.

Impostor syndrome is something we talk about and something that has been proven to affect women more than men (for further reading, check out the book Lean In, its accompanying site, and the entirety of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media site.

It’s not like I tried and failed–I didn’t even let myself try. I was waiting for an invitation, and it took my a long time to learn that that isn’t how the world works. I feel like I should be so much farther than where I am. But I hadn’t thought I was good enough. And I might not be good enough, but at least now I am trying.

This leads us to the other important phrase, one I first saw used in an NYC subway ad for SVA (we call this a full-circle moment):

It’s never too late to get where you’re going.

It’s definitely inspired by the George Elliot quote (or, allegedly her quote): “It’s never to late to be what you might have been.”

It took the long and winding road I’ve been on to learn what I needed and to gain the experience needed to change gears. This film was the first step towards the creative autonomy I’m seeking, and I’m forever indebted to it, the people who helped with it, and the people who had the patience to help me along the way, be it co-workers, classmates, peers, etc. Every pit stop was important, and as much as during my lowest lows I feel like I made so many missteps and wrong choices, I also just have to accept that one way or another they got me here. And with that I can hopefully navigate the future, which will also be absurdly winding. C’est la vie!

Cool Cool, But What’s Actually Next For You?

Writing. I’m in a very privileged position to have the support of my parents and partner while I take some time off. My plan was to submit to try to get an agent, as most studios won’t staff their writers rooms with artists that aren’t rep’d. There’s currently a whole thing going on with the agencies and the Writer’s Guild I’ve been following, so the logistics of that may shift. But regardless, I am generating work so that I have more to show. I’ve always focused on original work, but I’m focusing on spec scripts for existing TV shows now. Looks like years of writing cringey fanfiction are finally paying off!

In addition to screenplays, feature writing is something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve written two articles for Cartoon Brew and I’m excited to do more and expand my editorial chops. I’m also back to researching animation topics to write about for this site, as well as for the YouTube channel, which became a hub for my thesis vlogs this past year. I’d like to shift it back to my original intention.

And for the record, I’m not not looking for a job. I still search, and I apply for the right ones. I still enjoy management, I enjoy development and story. There’s still a lot to learn from other places and people. I’m just not doing the mass-apply a typical grad does, I’m trying to mostly apply to NYC-based jobs. Ideally some temp management work would be nice while I improve my writing and other artistic skills. But I do think I’d be able to handle the balance of a full-time job much better now after going through this.

So Then What’s Next for AniCom?

So in the time I first posted about the film (last July), to now, I only wrote two posts.

When I first started this website and accompanying YouTube channel, I wasn’t planning on having it be as much about me as it became. Specifically the YouTube channel, which became an actual vlog documenting my thesis journey. Originally I was going to keep the two (being myself and the animation industry overall) separate and only talk about the latter on here in some attempt to “be professional.” A friend and former co-worker Donnie convinced me to re-frame that thinking–that I was literally taking myself out of that larger industry narrative when I was a part of it and had something to add to it. However, this new frame of mind was not protected from the avalanche of work that was making the film. Hence just putting it on hiatus.

But now I do need to take some time and find my voice on this site, find the style of the videos and podcasts, figure out that balance…even figure out the relationship between this site and my personal “portfolio” site.

Everything I want to do starts with writing, starts with story. There are other things in there…producing videos for YouTube, making art, storyboarding my next film. There’s so much I want to do, and can do now. And “can” is relative. I could suck at everything I try, new or not. I could find I hate things I used to love or thought I’d like, but at least now I’ll know that I’ve spent enough time with things to know for sure. In my efforts to squash self-doubt, there’s a vulnerability I have to accept, especially since so much of what I want to do will be seen by other people. I have nothing to hide behind–no job, no school. I’m going to take the time I’d be spending right now trying to find another PA job and throwing my all into this shift. Try to do something with the clarity I’ve attained while on this seven-year journey to getting my MFA and making my first film.

Making an animated short was a painful process with the compressed timeline I had. Knowing my next film can be made on my own time is a blessing. Now that I know I can make one in nine months, while knowing the danger of open-ended projects, I know I have the self-discipline to set realistic goals with film #2. And it might take way longer too, because there were loads of things on this first one other people did that I’d love to do. I’d love to learn how to model characters and build my own worlds! It’s not a priority right now though, so maybe that’s film #3! Making an animated short film is difficult under any circumstances, but carrying the knowledge and experience from this first one makes future ones so much less daunting.

There’s so much I want to do. When I say these things to people, I usually get shut down, but there were always people like Donnie, Warren, Miko, and more who encourage me to pursue everything. You just can’t go in wildly is all. You need a gameplan. So while this very long post may seem a bit wild, I assure you there is a gameplan. I don’t want to bog you/the site down with the backend details mostly because that kind of talk doesn’t mean much. Stealing one of the big rules of storyboarding: show, don’t tell.

That being said, there are still a few videos left for my 40-part thesis vlog series to look forward to on YouTube. The latest one up is week 35, which was the first week of March! So feel free to check that out, sign up for the newsletter, and see what shows up next.

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