Algonquin College’s Neil Hunter on fostering animation talent in Ottawa


Algonquin College’s Neil Hunter on fostering animation talent in Ottawa

Ottawa is a major Canadian animation hub, home to large 2D production studios. The studio list includes Atomic Cartoons, Big Jump Entertainment, Jam Filled Entertainment, and Kratt Brothers and Mercury Filmworks. One common thread between these studios is the strong pool of talent that they draw from, thanks to Algonquin College.

Neil Hunter is an animation professor and the co-coordinator of Algonquin College’s animation department. When he’s not teaching, Neil has been involved in every aspect of the field from running his own small commercial studio to working on feature films. 

Neil participated in a livestream conversation with Toon Boom Animation to discuss how Algonquin College’s program has adapted over the years, how curriculums adapt to prepare students for an ever-changing industry, and his advice for students who apply to animation school. The following article is an excerpt from our livestream interview.

This video originally aired on November 3rd 2022, on Toon Boom Animation’s Twitch channel.

How would you describe your roles at Algonquin College? What does a typical day look like for you?

Neil: Well, I primarily think of myself as a teacher. The coordinating part is mostly administrative, but it’s also the part where we get to work on the curriculum. 

We usually have a staff meeting where we work out what direction we want to take. One of the first questions we ask ourselves is what worked and what didn’t about the semester before. I find that part the most enjoyable from the administrative side of things. 

The teaching part depends if I have classes. We’re in a hybrid model right now, so some classes are face to face, and some are online. I start a class at eight o’clock on Monday morning that runs for four hours and then I stick around and do paperwork. Other days, I’ll have online classes, but I still end up doing paperwork! 

Prepping for classes, marking, going over students work, very one-on-one and hands-on with students — as much as we can be. It’s just that kind of process where people will send us whatever they’re working on. As a teacher, we will draw overtop of it or discuss it with them. Add a couple meetings thrown in from the administrative side, and before you know what the week is over, and it’s time to start again.

As someone who’s worked in the animation industry for about 35 years, how has the industry changed over the course of your career?

Neil: I started drawing on paper, with colored pencils and things like that. It’s changed quite a bit! I’ve seen many changes. I was lucky enough to come to Ottawa, in Toronto, where I worked on commercials, where I really learned a lot about animation from some of the great artists at the animation house. We were still working on paper for inbetweening, which was putting the drawings between the key drawings that the animators did. 

I came to Ottawa to work on The Raccoons, which was great because it was solid, year-round work, which there wasn’t a lot of at the time. I was drawing all the time, so I went from being an animator to senior animator to storyboard artist, which is what I really wanted to do — I really like telling stories. Then afterwards, a lot of the animation work really dried up, and was going to Korea and the Philippines. People who had been working in studios were now overseas supervisors. So I ended up going the storyboard route and doing that kind of thing, which later on served me well as I got into directing. 

Because of tools like Toon Boom Animation, the industry as a whole was able to bring things back to Canada. In the early 2000s, with places like Mercury and Jam Filled and others, we saw, in Ottawa, work for animators coming back. And now it’s gone full circle. So as it was everything from script to finished product on The Raccoons in the 80s being done under one roof, now you have animation studios where that’s being done again. During COVID, we were still teaching on paper at the college. It’s still an important part, being able to flip and train the eye.

There’s still a lot of drawing and animation even on the technical side, and Harmony and Storyboard Pro both have great drawing tools in them. So we had to train for that. We moved everything online, and we were able to do that and keep going during the pandemic because of the software. We were able to make minimal changes to our curriculum, the objectives and the requirements. Because we were able to do everything online with digital drawing tools. That’s where we’ve stayed — we haven’t gone back to paper, except for life drawing, of course. 

Mike [interviewer]: It strikes me how much tools, like Toon Boom Harmony, borrow from traditional animation. Given that there are a lot of artists who use the software now who maybe never touched an animation disc with a peg bar on it.

Neil: Yeah, that was one of the nice things when I started. I think it was Toon Boom Opus or something when I started using it. Toon Boom Symphony, maybe? It still had a drawing table on it, with the disc and everything. It made sense. I think it was good for people who were making the transition from paper to digital tools.

The process, the principles, the storytelling; all that stuff is the same. The tools have changed getting there. I can see things in color. I can have immediate feedback, all that stuff that we didn’t get on paper. We had to go shoot our pencil tests and then look at the grainy videotapes of them. There’s great advances in being able to see that kind of feedback immediately, and change miniscule things in the quality of animation. Compared with the stuff that was done in the 80s, on the whole, it’s much better these days.

There have been significant technological and industrial changes throughout animation over the years. How does that inform your approach to Algonquin’s Animation program?

Neil: Things changed. We started off as a two year animation program, really to give people enough skills to be inbetweeners. Then it would be up to them in the studio to continue on with their careers. 

A lot of that changed, because those jobs don’t exist anymore. Really, now, you have to have a certain proficiency, but I think the standard has become higher. So we run a three year program now. We’re in talks with studios and they’re happy with our graduates. I’ve never been a big fan of keeping people in school and having them pay tuition when they could be out there earning money instead. So that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart is trying to get people into the industry in a meaningful way as quickly as possible so that they can start their careers. 

At the moment we’re finding we can still do that in three years, but it’s hard. The animation principles are there. I think it took a lot longer when we were drawing on paper to get that feedback and to go through the whole process. It takes a lot of time to switch between right-brain left-brain, between using a computer and being creative. 

I think you’ve got to know the software. I mean, there wasn’t a lot to just picking up a pencil and a piece of paper and drawing. You weren’t switching brain hemispheres that often. But with software you are, so there is a longer period of time before you’re comfortable. I think it even goes well into the studios. It may take a year or two before you’re comfortable with that, and be able to stay in the creative zone. 

But I think there’s a lot of advantages to working digitally, as far as learning and getting feedback and trying things. If you try something on paper, you might not know where it’s gonna go. But in digital software, you can put a key somewhere and put a quick inbetween on it, and play it. Back in the 80s it took a lot more effort to get the same result. There were a lot of great people who were animating in that era and everything. But I think it’s a little easier to have that feedback, and you can do more with that feedback quicker. I think that allows you to raise the bar a little bit more for the whole team. 

Drawing is still a skill. If you can’t draw, you’re never going to get to a certain level. You’re never going to be a character designer. You’re never going to be a storyboard artist. And you’re never going to reach those pinnacles. Or, if you have a show where you have to draw a lot, then that’s going to be problematic. I think that’s ending your career a little earlier than it needs to be.

Mike: Even if you have a rig, sometimes you still need to draw a pose.

Neil: Oh, for sure. And not every studio works the same. Not every show is the same. There are shows that are quite simple — that may not be that challenging. But there may be other shows where they’re terribly challenging, and require a very high level of animation. I always thought it was best to try and train students for that, so that they can decide where they want to be. 

Mike: I recently spoke with Shane Plante and Collin Tsandilis at Mercury Filmworks, as well as other artists from the studio. Staff that had been there for about a decade frequently told me that Mercury was their very first studio, that they were hired after they graduated… and they never left. That’s unusual in the animation industry. 

Algonquin College alumni discuss the experience of working on an Emmy Award winning series.

What kind of relationship does Algonquin have with Ottawa’s animation industry? And what’s your read on the state of the industry right now in Ottawa?

Neil: I’ll be bold, and say that I think one of the successes of the animation industry in Ottawa is this relationship that we have with the studios. Mercury Filmworks in particular. In fact, Jefferson [Allen, VP of Studio Operations] was one of the first people that said that it wasn’t about students just coming out of the college — and having a one way relationship — but being able to close that circle and give something back to the program. The other studios have done that as well, but I think he was the first one to really voice it in that way. 

A lot of the people who are in Jam Filled, including two of the owners, are Algonquin graduates, and one of the owners at Mercury used to be an Algonquin graduate. There’s other relationships we have with Atomic Cartoons and other studios here. We’ve all had a shared experience of being in Ottawa at some point in time in the animation industry. So we have the ability to be fairly frank with each other and speak our minds. 

I think we’re working towards the same goals as well. We just want to have a strong industry. That includes the school and the program. I think that that is part of it. Allowing us to have part time teachers means that we’re pulling someone, from a fairly high level, from a studio who may not be able to spend as much time doing their job. Any studio that allows us to have those teachers is giving back to the college. They’re giving this experience and they’re passing that on to the students. 

We have eight full time teachers, but we have about ten or eleven part-time teachers, and some of them are teaching 12-hours a week. That’s a pretty hefty load. So allowing the teachers to come back helps, and a lot of them have been former students too, giving back to the program. Which I think is a good thing, and a nice way of closing that circle. Being able to exchange information like we were talking before — not everybody can teach, right? But once you can teach, once you have figured out how to teach, then that brings you up a level. That gets you that one step closer to being a good supervisor, where you can give constructive critiques. That makes you, I think, more valuable to the studio that you’re coming from, as well. It’s a second tier of education. 

We get these layers to how the studios and the college interact. I think that’s pretty unique. I think that’s the reason for success, because now we’ve got this rich alumni that we can draw on, that are working on great shows, like The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse, and like the Loud House and all this other stuff. They’re working on top-notch shows coming out of school. They’re going there and working with people who have come from the same place who might have been their teachers, or they’re going to come back and be teachers. 

It just feels nice and solid, it feels like an accomplishment. I’ve been teaching for 20 years and it feels like this is something that’s going to outlast me once I retire. It feels like a real contribution from the school and the studios and to something that’s bigger than all of us together.

Do you have any advice for how studios in local schools can foster that type of relationship, where they’re contributing to the talent development and mentorship in the community?

Neil: It’s a lot of trust. I think it’s beneficial to the students in whatever education system they’re in, that it’s not just one studio pulling people out and to the benefit of one studio. That model can work too, mind. Disney started CalArts when they specifically needed something like that. But I think it’s nicer if you’ve got a range of studios. I read an article once about how the Kratt Brothers came to Ottawa, because of the college, and there was a pool of people. And all that kind of stuff. That was the first inkling I’d had, where I realized that it was something that really made a difference. 

Not to get philosophical about it, but that changes somebody’s life. That’s somebody who wanted to be in animation and got a chance to be in animation and to have a career. because there were more opportunities here, where they lived, or where they had come to school. It’s kind of a big deal for me. It’s not something I take very lightly, because you are dealing with people’s livelihoods. I think that it’s good to have that trust within the studios, to be open and honest about what they need.

We were told one time that our students needed more work on posing, that their posing was a little weak. So we sat down, and we thought; we will add a gesture drawing class and we do nothing but gesture drawing. That way we can maybe get the posing to be better. We discussed this with the studios and we talked about different ways that we could do this. This is something that we agreed upon, and we were able to implement it. And the students posing got better. So if the studio had just been happy to take whatever was coming, then our students would probably still not be as strong at posing as they needed to be. 

We’re not doing this to make any particular studio better. We’re doing this to make students better prepared for their careers. 

Animation samples from Algonquin College’s 2019 graduating class.

As someone who goes between working on productions and co-running a school’s animation department, how do you balance all that?

Neil: Well, I try to mostly work on productions during my time off. So I’ll be doing it during the summer or something like that. If there’s something that comes up that I really want to be a part of, I will. 

I was learning compositing and that was a very difficult thing. I had a day a week where I had no classes. And I had a backlog of vacation days that the college wanted me to use up, so I took that one day a week to do that. That was a lot of fun. but it was very hard to try and learn something just one day a week, rather than by immersing yourself in it full-time. 

I’m careful that I’m a teacher first, and of my responsibilities to the college. I don’t want anything to take away from that time. But on my time when I would otherwise be sitting with my feet up somewhere — or not renovating my basement — then I’d like to do a bit of animation, or learn something new. 

I’ve often gone into different studios and worked on different shows and every studio does something different. It’s nice for me to work with a lot of people who I had the privilege of teaching, who now get to tell me my scene isn’t good enough! But I just learn so much, there’s things that just hone my skill, and I can then bring that back to the college. It’s just something else that I feel very grateful to the studios for giving me that opportunity to do that. Hopefully I’m bringing something with that to whatever show I’m working on too. 

Is it strange to work on productions alongside students that used to teach?

Neil: No, it’s great, actually. But the first day is always hard. My very first day I worked at Jam Filled, I was very, very nervous. Because I walked in and it was like 95% of the people I had taught. My supervisors were people I had taught. 

It was the whole thing when you’re in a studio, you don’t know your password, you don’t know where to get coffee from. Is the milk in the fridge for everybody or is it just for one person? All this kind of stuff. I was just thinking, if I don’t knock my scene out of the ballpark, they’re all gonna know I’m a fraud or something, so I was terrified. I just sat down and started writing stuff down, because every student is going to go through this. And I just wanted to remember the thoughts going through my head and that helped calm me down. 

At the time, Jam Filled had a lot of NERF guns, and everybody was armed with a NERF gun. At 4:30, I just hear this little thing that hits beside my head, and there’s this NERF Dart, and I look behind me, and then there’s everybody I had ever taught just getting me in the back! So after that, it went smoothly. And I didn’t wreck my first scene too badly, so it was okay.

When students apply to Algonquin College, do you look for in a portfolio? Can you give advice for students who want to make a good impression?

Neil: We’re always looking for a drawing portfolio, and we have a drawing test. We see very good skills, generally. We have a couple of tricks. So we ask people to do a self-portrait, and it’s kind of a tricky thing to do. You kind of know what you look like, but you don’t really, so we get people who have drawn things and their nose is maybe down so they can’t see their nostrils, but they’ll draw nostrils. That tells us right away that they’re drawing icons, they’re looking at a picture of themselves. They knew there were nostrils even though they couldn’t see them, so they put them in. This means they need a bit more time learning to see things a bit better. 

We see a lot of people who come through with what looks like really bad perspective. They have a high school art teacher who has an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, and they’ve just put vanishing points on the edges of the paper and this horizon line in the middle and you get some kind of really warped looking street. That’s not the students fault. If we’re looking at that, and we see that all the lines are going to the vanishing points and everything has been set up properly, that’s an easy fix — teaching them to move vanishing points around or lower the horizon line. But even if they have that setup, and they still have lines going to different places than the vanishing points, that tells us that they still need a bit more time to understand those principles. 

It’s not that we’re trying to be mean. It’s quite the opposite! We’re trying to get people to a certain level of draftsmanship and understanding with static drawings, so that when we start throwing movement at them, they’re gonna have enough drawing problems to solve. They’ve also got animation problems to solve and we want them to have fun doing that. If they’re not there yet, they’re going to get frustrated, and they’re going to quit. And they’re gonna go become accountants or lawyers or something like that (sorry, accountants and lawyers). They’re not going to be in the arts, which is what they wanted to do. 

We even have people who come through who aren’t animators — maybe they’re better illustrators. We try to get those people into the right courses as well, so that they can enjoy what they want to do. So we’re trying to figure out where people are with their abilities and trying to assess how successful they would be in the program. If they need a bit more time, then there are courses. Just about every college has one, where they’ve got a drawing fundamentals course. There, they can spend a year really honing their drawing skills, because they may have the drive and they may have the raw talent, but they just need a little bit more draftsmanship and ability. 

So we’re looking. We have tricks that are in there. We’re looking for really problem-solving skills. To me animation is problem-solving. It’s not pixie dust or magic. It’s solving the problem of the arc or the perspective, or the timing and a bunch of other things. Then you’ve got a good scene. 

If someone has a portfolio, and it’s got really great flashy finishing on the artwork, but it’s the structure underneath it that’s weak, then maybe they’re going to be great painters, maybe they’re going to get into layout or be background painters, but they still need to maybe spend a bit more time on perspective. That’s always what you’re trying to assess. 

  • Interested in applying to Algonquin College’s animation program? Be sure to visit the school’s website for more details.
  • Already a student? Toon Boom Animation offers student licenses of Harmony and Storyboard Pro, with discounts up to 84% off.

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