Tell us about yourself!
Greetings and salutations! My name is McKinney and I’m one of the Grad students here in the animation department. I’ll be working on my MFA at least until this coming summer, as I’m finishing up my thesis now. I came to SCAD about three years ago with a bachelor’s degree in illustration from the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design (PCAD, no affiliation). After a 16 hour one-way car ride with everything I owned in the backseat, I became a resident here in Savannah. When I’m not working on homework or my thesis, I’m also a student ambassador, a student aid to the animation department, and I take freelance commissions on the side. If you see me in the halls or up on the 4th floor, say hi! I love to meet new people and talk animation.
What area of animation do you enjoy the most and why?
For me, the best part of an animated project is the pre-production phases, which I suppose is a big part of why I’m a concept artist. I’ve always found projects at this phase to be at their most dynamic, their most malleable, and most innovative when you’re just sorting through the foundations. It may be that all you have to start a film with is a three sentence plot summary and a few sketches on the back of a napkin, but if you get the right people behind it, that story spark can explode into something far greater than any one of the team members could come up with on their own. Of course, things get torn down and it can be frustrating to change course when you’ve gotten attached to an idea or piece of art, but that’s just part of the fun. Ideally, pre-production can embrace creation and destruction in an equally chaotic balance. I also like the part where you’re watching animation on the big screen with a large tub of popcorn at your side. That’s undeniably a great area.
What is a challenge that you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome is just to be OK with imperfection. It used to be a major hang-up of mine that I would get so detail oriented, or so fixated on my ideal end result that I would slave away on a project to an unhealthy amount just trying to push it a bit further. In the case of my concept work, sometimes it came down to just wanting to provide more variations of an idea for the director’s consideration, even if I’d already done a dozen or so sketches already. This sort of mentality is what caused so many all-nighters and panic attacks as deadlines loomed closer. The reality is that sometimes through sheer dumb luck, or through blood, sweat, and tears, a project turns out exactly the way you imagined it in your head and everyone who sees it loves it. Most of the time, this doesn’t happen, and that’s alright. There’s a quote that gets thrown around sometimes, and it gets credited to different artists, but it says that ‘artwork is never finished, only abandoned’, and there is truth in that. You’ve just got to do the best work you can with the time and resources you’ve got, celebrate your successes, learn from your failures, and move on. Just keep creating and don’t get hung up on what might have been.
What advice would you give yourself as a freshman?
You are more than the work you’re capable of making. You’re a person first, and an artist second. It’s easy for anyone, especially in a discipline as intense as animation, to get lost in their work, but it’s something to avoid. Your work should be just a part of your life, not the all-encompassing feature. Loosing yourself in the work shuts you off to unexpected sources of inspiration, and limits your experiences as a human being. It can also have a major impact on your health, both physical and mental. You’ve got to make taking care of yourself a priority. As artists, we’re constantly pulling ideas out of what we know and what we like, so it pays to invest in yourself as a person and discover new stuff. The world is full of amazing places to go, and things to see, and there are so many people worth your time and attention. Getting absorbed by your work can be a downward spiral: isolating yourself from others, and potentially missing out on a lot of opportunities.
What inspires you during a difficult project?
Most of my projects are collaborative to some extent, and when I’m fighting through a particularly difficult part, I take inspirations from the rest of the team. Sometimes this means turning to my peers for additional critique, or talking with them and hashing through an idea, or just taking a quick break and grabbing a muffin with someone. I feed off of the energy and enthusiasm that others have for their work, and I love it when everyone is so gung-ho about seeing the project get to the best it can possibly be. The best teams that I’ve been a part of are self-sustaining and self-supporting, with fresh ideas and energy circulating constantly within the group. This inspiration is a two way street though. It’s important to give that same energy and inspiration back to the rest of the team, and help support others when they hit their own difficulties. This means being bold: speaking up with new ideas and championing the successes and innovations of other people. Be the type of person you’d want to work with!
What experiences have stood out to you?
I think the biggest single experience that I’ve had while here at SCAD was when I got to get my portfolio reviewed by Dreamworks. Like most applications, I sent out my submission and forgot about it, assuming that it would get lost in the shuffle and I’d only know I didn’t get the chance after a few weeks had passed and it occurs to me that it’s over. Low and behold, an email did come my way when I least expected it. I just about fell over when I got the notice that I had been selected, and I think I needed almost a full day to let the shock wear off, because it was my first chance to talk with a company like this. I spent the rest of that week with my stomach in knots, counting down the days. Finally, it was time, and I decided to show up an hour early for my spot, which meant sitting alone in a large waiting room while my anxieties festered. After all that, I’m pleased to say that the review itself went pretty well. In retrospect, I think I may have talked a bit too much, and perhaps I could have asked more questions, but I still got some solid feedback and advice on how to move forward with my career. The best part was when the recruiter said she could easily see some of my work in some of the shows they were working on right now, it was fantastic.
Aside from that, the experiences that have meant the most to me have simply been about meeting the incredible people here. I remember talking to professor Schindler on my first day of the rigging class and we got on such a tangent about the Iron Giant, which we picked up again after ‘Ready Player One’ came out in theaters. I’ll always remember the fascinating discussions I would have in Professor Betancourt’s class, especially the one about how the ‘Telletubbies’ represent one of the few positive examples in science fiction of a post-apocalyptic utopian society. I’ve loved meeting the alumni who come back and share their experiences too. Kate Kirby O’Connel’s talk was very insightful, and she encouraged me to keep pushing myself in classes; not just settling for doing exactly what the project outline is but looking for ways to make each assignment count. And of course, I can’t forget my friends. I never thought I’d meet such a wonderfully diverse group of people, let alone have the chance to be close with them. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that it’s been years since I had a best friend, but thanks to this place and this program that streak has been broken and it was absolutely worth the wait. The people here alone have made the entire SCAD experience absolutely wonderful.
What are some things you are looking forward to this year?
This year I’m all about the employer visits. Of course I’m curious to see who will be showing up at the annual career fair, but I’m especially interested in the lectures, presentations, and portfolio reviews we’ll get from companies and studios seeking us out beyond that. The school year has only just started and already we’ve got heavy hitters like Disney Imagineering, Hasbro, and Dreamworks visiting Savannah, and who knows what other groups we might get to see later on… My fingers are crossed for Hi-Rez and Pixar to make an appearance at some point.
What inspires you?
My core inspiration comes from stories, and it doesn’t really matter what type they are or what form they come in. Back before my undergrad studies, my first love was theater. I was a part of every production my high school put on, I fell in love with the work of Shakespeare, and I even got a part time job as one of Queen Elizabeth’s royal guards at the local PA Renn Faire. I actually got paid to walk around all day shouting at ‘peasants’ and wielding a spear, but I digress. Stories are always a fantastic source of inspiration for me, and every person, place and object has one. Sometimes you just have to dig a little to find it. True, most aren’t exactly blockbuster movie material, but even the little ones help you to understand more about the other stories that connect them. Stories connect you to the rest of the world, and makes completely foreign experiences relatable. I’ve always found acting to be a great way to connect with these stories, regardless of whether I’m the one performing or I’m just enjoying someone else.
What classes have you enjoyed, and why?
I think my favorite class has been the graduate collab class, where an assortment of students from different specialties are thrown together and told to make a film in ten weeks. I won’t lie, it was a crazy mix of personalities with tight deadlines and our fair share of challenges, both technical and personal, but it was absolutely worth it. While I certainly wouldn’t want to make a working pace like that permanent, I really learned a lot about what I could achieve under pressure, how my abilities stacked up with my peers, and I even picked up a few new skills when the project needed some extra help in areas I didn’t know much about. That film allowed me to get my first taste of being an art director, and it was all the more meaningful because my classmates nominated me for it. As challenging as the project was, it certainly helped that we had an awesome crew, and I give Professor Garcia so much credit for helping to keep us on task. If you get the chance, check out ‘A Guide to Camping’ sometime!
Drawing in Motion was also a breath of fresh air. Up until that particular class, every course I had taken here at SCAD had heavily emphasized art and animation on a technical, digital front. For those of you who might not be familiar with it, Drawing in Motion is all about traditional mediums. Working in that class with Professor Silva gave me the chance to reconnect with my love of pencil and paper, and forget about pixels for a while. I will admit that because of how accustomed I had become to digital work at the time, there were multiple times during the first week or two of class when I found myself looking for the ‘undo’ button out of habit. There really is something remarkably enjoyable about just taking a field trip downtown and spend a class just sketching whatever and whoever comes into view.
Have you worked on any projects outside of class?
I’ve never been the kind of person to sleep the day away, or put hours into a video game or something like that. I’ve always got to be active, and I love to get my hands on some sort of side project. Of the 10 student films I’ve worked on here at SCAD, eight of them had nothing to do with a class, and I just took them on because I wanted to help. You might have seen my name in the credits of ‘Woman on the Rock’ (where I created color scripts), ‘Masterpiece’ (where I rigged props and characters), and ‘Sandcastles’ (where I was a story contributor and the lead character concept artist). I’ve also had the chance to help out with the upcoming student films ‘Bombshell’, directed by Maggie Kisor, and ‘Cambrian Explosion’, directed by Devon Palmer, acting as a concept artist for each. I’ve also designed props for the annual ‘Humans vs. Humans’ game, and I try and help out my friends with their projects and thesis work whenever I can.
I really can’t recommend getting involved with student films outside of classwork enough. You’ll learn a lot about time management, it gets you more experience early on (which recruiters love), and you can usually walk away with the good portfolio pieces. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a film that gets national attention, it can even do wonders for your brand as an artist, to say nothing of your ego.
Is there anything you want to see SCAD offer in the future?
I think I’d like to see SCAD offer more variety in the courses offered to the grad students, especially at the beginning of our studies. While many of us start our degree work with a bachelors in animation, others, like myself, came in fresh, and needed to be brought up to speed in the 500 level classes before we’re allowed to dig into our particular focus. While these courses did give me a solid foundation in the principals of animation itself, the basics of rigging, and a comprehensive knowledge of animation history, I feel like I could have used more in the way of learning about the different roles and specialties available in the industry, ideally getting the chance to try things out too. As is, I’ve only just started looking into texturing and rendering, areas that I never would have known I had an interest in if I hadn’t volunteered to help with some student films. I really think other students could benefit from the chance to experiment and explore with different aspects of animation before locking themselves on a portfolio path.
What made you decide to go to SCAD, and when did you choose to go to SCAD?
About two years after I earned my bachelors degree, I felt stuck. I was working as a freelancer, but I didn’t have enough clients to do it full time, so I had to work customer service at Best Buy to make ends meet. On top of that, most of the commission work I was asked to do was more along the lines of graphic design, with clients asking me for advertising posters and logos. I wasn’t getting to do the projects that I wanted, and I felt like I needed some new skills to help, so I thought about going back to school. I searched around for art schools that offered masters degrees, found an unexpectedly short list, but recognized one of the names. Back in high school, I remember visiting SCAD for an open house and being impresses by what I saw. I decided to pay Savannah another visit to see if things were still good after five years. To make a long story short, I enrolled right after I returned home and later that year I officially joined the student body.
What type of studio would you like to work in when you graduate?
I think my goal is to end up in a feature film studio. I’ve always felt that of all the different types, feature film studios have the best chance to tell more complex, varied stories, and they can fit in a lot of nuance and detail if fits with the target audience. I don’t have a specific studio in mind, as they’re always changing, and there’s a new major project every other year or so. In all truthfulness though, I would be just as content working in TV shows or video games as long as they have great stories and have the same dedication to quality results.
What has been the best thing about SCAD?
I think the best thing SCAD offers is the chance to collaborate. My undergrad college was a very different experience; with one building, four flours, four majors, and students were on their own for everything outside of classes. I love that being here at SCAD means there are so many things to get involved with, and so many projects underway at any given time. From senior films and thesis work, to clubs, competitions, and SCAD Pro, there’s always an outlet for the person willing to look for it. Even if you can’t find the opportunity you wanted, it’s pretty easy to start something yourself with the resources around here.
What are your goals after graduation and what goals do you have for your career?
My goal for after graduation… employment. Specifically, I’d like to find myself at a studio helping to create the next great story. I think it would be a lot of fun to work as a production assistant, but the ultimate goal is to find myself in concept development. I’ll probably always work freelance on the side, but I don’t want that to be my main creative outlet or source of income. It can be hard to feel like part of the team, and working remotely means that you almost never get to see someone’s first reactions to your work. So the studio life’s for me. As for location, I’ll go where I’m needed and not complain about the weather, whatever and wherever it is.
Do you have any advice for working as part of a team?
There are two things that I would say are the most important factors when working with a team: flexibility and empathy. It doesn’t matter what your role is in the group, or how far up the chain of command you are: flexibility will make you easier to work with and allow you to better support the rest of your teammates. You should never limit yourself to your job description, and look for ways to go outside your comfort zone whenever you’re needed. Empathy goes a long way too. Few teams are ever completely in harmony with everything running like greased clockwork for long, and things will get tough. Always try to think about how others are feeling, and do your best to never be the one to add to the stress of their day. Even something as simple as trying to tell a joke to lighten someone’s mood can do wonders in the right situation. People are important, and no project’s success should come at the cost of those who work on it.
What has your favorite project been during your time at SCAD?
Without a doubt, my favorite project has been last year’s SDGM 560 film, ‘Under Your Skin’. I was one of the few who got to see it through the entire three quarter process. In the first quarter, we hashed through story ideas, came up with a mountain or research, and established the concepts. In the second quarter I got to finalize the cast’s designs, work with the modelers to get the characters looking great, and even give some feedback to the animating team. I didn’t officially take the class in the third quarter, but I still showed up as often as I could, helping to give critique, provide illustrations, texture props, and make the end credit slides. I haven’t yet been lucky enough to get an internship out in the industry, but working in this class made me feel like I was at a studio. If a career in animation is anything like the work we were doing here, then I know I’m on the right path.
Do you look up to anyone in the industry?
Of course I look up to other artists in the industry. I think my top two would have to be Celine Kim and Shiyoon Kim (no relation). Celine is a newcomer to the industry, having only broken in back in 2016, but she’s already quite the accomplished concept artist, and her portfolio includes an amazing set of work for an animated adaptation of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I really admire how she handles texture and lighting, and there’s always fascinating color pallets in her work. On the other hand, Shiyoon Kim is something of a veteran, and he’s helped to create characters for films like ‘Zootopia’, ‘Big Hero 6’, and ‘Spiderman: into the Spider Verse’. If you’ve seen the ‘art of’ books for those movies, then you’ve seen his work. He has an amazing knack for getting the personality of his characters down using only black and white drawings, and I’m especially of fan of his expression sheets. If anyone isn’t familiar with these two artists, I highly recommend giving them a Google.
Do you have a favorite animated movie?
There are so very many I could list as favorites… If I had to just pick one though, I think I’d have to give it to Studio Ghibli’s ‘Whisper of the Heart. It’s such an engaging story for me, with a plot line that you don’t see much, and of course I have the highest respect for the craftsmanship that comes from Ghibli. Close runners up include Pixar’s ‘Up’, Reel FX’s ‘The Book of Life’, and Disney’s original ‘Fantasia’.
When in your life did you decide to choose animation as a career?
While I’ve been fascinated with animation for most of my life, or at least most of the life I can remember, it wasn’t until a year or two after I completed my bachelor’s degree that I decided to give animation a try as a real career option. That’s not to say that I hadn’t toyed with the idea before then. I had actually been accepted into the School of Visual Arts as an animation student, but circumstances dictated that I not attend. I chose to study illustration at first because it was more convenient at the time. The love of the animated story was always there though, so when it was time for me to reinvent myself and redefine my future, I knew I wanted to give animation the chance I had always wanted. After all, it’s the perfect chance to merge my love of acting with my passion for the visual arts.
What are some things you enjoy doing in your free time?
Well as a grad student free time is precious… and rare. On those elusive occasions when I do find myself with the ability to do as I please, I enjoy reading, going for long walks, working out, visiting museums, zoos, or aquariums, and either writing or sketching through my own story ideas.
Thank you McKinney for taking the time to answer these questions for us! Check out more of his work on his Website!