Jonathan Skifs on choosing a specialism, work-life balance, and the importance of embracing notes

What is your job title, and what does this role entail?

I am a Senior Animator at Goodbye Kansas, so I basically get to play with virtual dolls all day. It can be anything from adding monsters in front of actors to making cartoony characters do goofy stuff in a commercial. I mainly work with cinematics and have been the lead keyframe on several of them which allows me to flex my creative and technical muscles a bit more.

What is it like working at your company?

It’s a great place with very positive and helpful people, otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around for almost 7 years now! It’s a very flat organisation, which means that the hierarchy structure isn’t as set in stone. Yes, we have a bit of a chain of command when it comes to the actual tasks, but socially everyone is equal and treated as such, it doesn’t matter if you are taking a coffee break with the animator next to you, or a fresh out of school junior talking to the CEO during one of the themed after work parties.

What’s the best thing about working there?

A lot of stuff, but if I have to boil it down to just a few points I’d say that the end result always ends up looking great so you can always be proud of sharing your work, which is a testament to the talent in all the various departments. That overtime is a pretty rare thing and actively worked against, it allows me to live a life outside of work. And that there is more stuff going on besides work. Fun little events like movie nights, pumpkin carving competitions, yoga sessions and so on, depending a bit on the time of the year.

What have you been working on recently?

Besides helping out a little bit here and there, projects I’ve been most involved in recently have mainly been cinematics, such as the trailers for the games “Dune: Awakening” and “PUBG – Battlegrounds”. The giant worm in Dune was challenging but fun to work on!

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

Like most of us in the industry, movies seem to have impacted us a bit more than people with other jobs, and I’m no exception. Because of that, my brother and I enjoyed building physical props when we were younger, such as prosthetics. But those materials can be quite expensive for a kid in school with no income, so I figured that I could do the same thing, but on my computer. In the digital world, you have an unlimited supply of modeling clay and you could make stuff as big as you wanted. Granted, the software can be expensive too, but with the help of student discounts and open source, it was a cheaper alternative. I’ve been stuck ever since.

What’s your educational background?

I managed to survive high school, then went on to spend two years at Nackademin studying digital graphics, which was basically a little bit of everything within VFX. While studying there, I felt that animation appealed to me the most, so after graduating, I moved on to study character animation at Animation Mentor to get a more solid foundation and showreel.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

As I mentioned before, it started when I was young and couldn’t afford the materials to build physical props and prosthetics. That led me into doing it digitally where the amount of material is only limited by the power of the computer. Then after high school, I just went for it by continuing to study, but this time around it was VFX from real-world professionals. Some of my classmates started working at Goodbye Kansas while I went on a deep dive into animation at Animation Mentor. During my time there, a classmate recommended I help out with some small projects for a month or two, which is how I got my foot in the door. After that (and graduating) I was in, and I’ve stayed ever since. Gradually climbing the ladder and getting more and more responsibility.

What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?

At first, I wanted to be a generalist. I enjoyed every part of VFX and I liked the idea that I could be modeling a sword one day, and compositing muzzle flashes the next,  However, being stuck in just one area felt like it could quickly become monotone. But it was also my understanding that it would be harder to get hired as a generalist as studios, especially bigger ones, tend to look for more specific roles, people who are really good at fewer things. And I needed to get hired someday, so I had to pick an area. If I can only do one thing, I want to do the thing that I enjoy the most, and in my case it was animation. Unfortunately, I needed to become better at it first. Like, way better. So back to school it was. While doing that, I also realized that it wasn’t so bad to focus on just one thing, and I could see day-to-day improvements which spurred me on even more.

Do you strive to learn lots of disciplines, or are you more focused on a particular specialism? What would you say are the pros and cons of being a specialist vs a generalist?

I know some people who are laser-focused on animation, and animation alone, and those people are better at it than me, there’s no way around it. But I prefer to have a slightly broader spectrum of knowledge for a couple of reasons. First, it allows me to have some variation in my day-to-day work, and I enjoy learning new things and improving. Secondly, I feel like it makes me a better team player. For example, I’m not smart enough to be a rigger and I can’t be tasked with any of that. However, I still know a little bit about it, enough to better convey what we need or changes that need to be done, or rig basic stuff when I’m doing previz. My point is, either you do the same thing day in and day out and become the best of the best at that, or you learn more things and get to jump around doing different things, both types of people are needed.

What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?

Tech-wise I think it would have to be the rise of USD. Finally, the industry is starting to agree on a more standard way of working instead of trying to get all the different workflows and file types to work together. Compatibility has always been an issue, even outside of VFX. I mean just think about all the different cables there are that do basically the same thing. While USD is still in its infancy,  I think it’s headed in the right direction.

Who or what has most influenced your career and why?

The most typical answer would just be movies and TV shows. Not necessarily VFX-heavy ones, but the ones that tell a story that’s good enough to spend the next two hours absorbing. I’ve always been a very imaginative person, and the fact that I someday might be able to tell the stories that are in my head just like that is what drew me into the industry from the start. Besides that, I would have to say the teachers at Animation Mentor. If they weren’t as passionate and engaging as they were, I might have just dropped the whole thing and gone into a different field.

What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?

Love, Death + Robots. I just love to see the creative people behind it go all in, to almost extreme measures in both style and story. It’s a great platform for visionaries to be more free compared to what we otherwise normally see. It is like they added a pop of color onto a painting that has turned gray over time.

What project are you most proud of?

Out of the more recent projects, it would have to be the “PUBG – Battlegrounds” trailer. I worked alongside a great team, where I was the lead keyframe artist. Despite the very tight deadline, we delivered on time and at a higher quality than what was budgeted for, and not just in animation. Besides that it has to be a commercial we did for Purina and their dog treats many years ago. A very simple little project, where I got to animate a squirrel, but it was one of the first ones for me out of school. I felt good about my work even before the first daily. Got a solid pat on the back and not many notes. It was a real confidence booster that made me think I could actually do this.

What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?

Within animation, it’s definitely just having that eye for what looks good, what doesn’t work, and when you can break the rules and cheat. Unfortunately, I have no idea how one really learns that! I guess after being exposed to it for long enough something just kind of clicks. As for the future, I cannot say accurately, but I wouldn’t be surprised if AI starts sneaking into VFX more and more. I don’t think it will ever take over completely, but it will probably be AI-based tools popping up, and when they do, a good skill to probably have is to not fight the inevitable change.

What sort of core skills are valuable in VFX?

Embrace notes and don’t take them personally. It can be a hard one. It’s not too fun to spend hours and hours on something until you are happy with it, show it to someone else and they just rip it apart and point out every flaw. But those are also very rare, most of the time it’s done in a kind and respectful way. Just focus on the fact that notes help you become better!

What resources would you recommend to aspiring VFX artists?

Schools are great and all, but in this day and age you can learn a lot by yourself on the internet. If you are on a budget, you can still basically learn everything you need to know by just scouring through YouTube, googling how to do X or what is Y, being active on forums and so on. If you have some money to spend, online courses like Pluralsight, Skillshare or similar are probably the best bang for your buck. Real books can also be helpful, plus it’s nice to take your eyes off the screen every now and then.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Remember that you are important too. On a smaller scale, it can be about using a drawing tablet instead of a mouse to prevent carpal tunnel, or remembering to take short breaks to stretch a bit to avoid back problems. On a larger scale, it’s about not letting companies take advantage of you. I don’t have much experience with that many studios, but every now and then I hear stories from other people. Don’t make 12-hour days for 6 days a week the standard. There is a life outside of work to live too, and if you can’t live it, then don’t be scared to change workplaces.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.