25 June, 2012

Ten Mistakes ~Travis Howe

I've decided to try something new for this post and am hoping to continue it on a fairly regular basis.  I'm going to round up some inspiring and amazing Animators who are the bees' knees to stop by and drop some knowledge, experiences, insights or tips they've found useful over their years while working in the animation industry. 

For those of you who don't already know, let me introduce Mr. Travis Howe. I was lucky enough to meet Travis at Animation Mentor's Graduation Ceremony back in early 2010 (after stalking him for some time on the AM school site)... He's an absolute phenomenal animator with brilliant timing, weight and body mechanics and superb acting shots.  He has been nice enough to come by and share some of his personal experiences with us on this crazy industry in the world of animation.  He's a fellow Animation Mentor Alumnus, an excellent artist, a fellow Blogger and just an overall awesome dude!  Currently Travis is working on Sly Cooper: Thieves of Time @ Sanzaru Games in California. Check out his demo reel below!  Thanks again Travis for all of your insights and sharing your personal experiences in the animation industry.


My name is Travis Howe.  I’m an animator for Sanzaru Games, where I’ve done a large portion of the playable character animations for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.  When Jason asked me to contribute to his wonderful blog, I spent a long time thinking of advice and interesting stories from my experiences in the animation and game industries.  The more I dug through my experiences in an attempt to find something valuable to share, the more I realized: I’ve screwed up a LOT!  I’m very grateful to say that my stupidities have not prevailed, and that I have found mercy and help along the way to save me from myself.  However, I do feel that many of my mistakes can serve as cautionary tales to others heading down the same path and into this incredible, exhilarating career.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others.  You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”  With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of ten mistakes I’ve made, and what you might learn from them.  

1). Work Regular, Reasonable Hours!

The Mistake:  When I was attending Ex'pression College from 2004-2006, I had a reputation for being at the school more than any other student.  I wasn't known as the hardest worker, or the best animator, or the most serious student.  I was just the guy that never left his desk. I'd work for 16 hours straight, sleep for 4, work 18 more, sleep 6 more.  I was not on any sort of cycle. Some weeks I'd never see daylight, some weeks I'd never see night fall.  It completely messed up my psychosis.  I think I lost my mind a bit while I was in school, honestly.  I was burned out, which resulted in many other mistakes (namely, #2 on this list), and did some of the lousiest, most discombobulated work that school has probably ever seen.  This sleep deprivation I put myself through remains the single biggest regret of my professional life.

The Lesson:  Rest up!  Don't overdo it!  Take the time to go home and fall asleep to your favorite movie, or read a book, or go out with your friends.  You'll have your crunch periods and 24 hour binge animation marathons, but do not get yourself into a routine of working more than 12 hours a day.  That is the single best piece of advice I can give to animation students.

2). Relax.  Don't panic!

The Mistake:  While attending Ex'pression, I had a mentor at Pixar.  He always seemed to be so worn when I saw him, as though I was the obnoxious nephew he promised his sister he'd watch while she was in traffic court.  It wasn't until years later, when I was working full time at Sega, that I finally understood why.  I went to have lunch with him on a day I had off. I was relaxed, level-headed, and was thinking of my former mentor as an old friend rather than as a "Pixar god".  During our lunch, he said something I'll never forget.  He said, "Well, Travis, it seems like you're over your crisis."  My crisis? I hadn't realized that while I was panicking about being a professional animator, I was actually giving off the impression that I was losing my mind.  Instead of calmly learning to swim, I was tensing up and clinging desperately to those who already knew how.

The Lesson:  When a child is learning to swim, the biggest mistake they can make (besides flat-out inhaling underwater) is to tense up. Why?  Because they'll sink!  It's the same in animation: when you're first learning this tremendously difficult trade, it's so easy to feel that gut wrenching panic!  "Why am I not improving?" "How am I ever going to do this with people expecting good work from me on a daily basis?"  These questions used to haunt me.  During my college years, I woke up in a cold sweat on a regular basis.  It’s natural to feel this panic, but talk to someone about it – a mentor or a trusted friend who can relate to your situation.  Don’t do as I did and keep it inside, always showing your “brave face,” because it might not be as convincing as you think. 

3).  Don't Just Accept Criticism; Seek It Out!

The Mistake:  Recently, I was working on a shot for Sly Cooper, a sort of hyper-shortened IGC (in-game cinematic) for Carmelita Fox.  I had gotten rather far with it before seeking any feedback, and in fact, when I did so, it was more of an attempt to show the shot off, rather than to garner useful critique.  Well, the co-worker to whom I showed it responded rather negatively.  I snapped at them – in person, then via IM when they tried to apologize – and then continued on with my shot.  A while later, I realized they were right, made the alterations, and very sheepishly apologized. [For the full account, read this:

The Lesson:  Animation is a very tough field, because it is both technical, which makes it hard to execute, and artistic, which makes it subjective.  Because of this, you can put a TON of hard work into something people won't "get", but will likely be markedly difficult to change.  When that happens, the immediate, gut reaction is to feel defensive.  Instead, think of it this way: when someone gives an instant, perhaps unsolicited opinion of your shot, it's really a blessing in disguise!  That person may be saving you from shipping that animation in a form to which a million people will respond the same way.  Therefore, seek out criticism, as early as possible.  Find people whose opinions you trust (not people who always give you favorable responses -- in fact those people are no help at all), and get their eyes on your shot.  Trust me, you'll not only be a better animator this way, but a more respected one as well.

4). Don't Be Married to Your Work

The Mistake:  Recently, I had a full set of animations on Sly almost completely axed.  My initial impulse was to defend these animations; after all, they're some of my favorites I've done on the project.  I told my lead I felt these animations had a lot of personality and added a lot to the aesthetic of the area to which they were applied.  He responded, first, that it's a gameplay issue (these animations were relatively long for what they were, and therefore slowed gameplay a bit). Secondly, he said that, as my role on Sly has been player-character centric, 80% of the time the player is looking at my work, so stop whining.  Thirdly, and most applicably to this lesson, the IGC animators have been working just as hard (or harder), and have had work cut, changed, and re-recorded far more than I have, but that's "the nature of the beast".

The Lesson:  Once you have feedback, it's very easy to feel so attached to your work that you only half-apply the notes that are given.  I have definitely been guilty of this.  Don't be afraid to remove full sections, return to blocking, whatever you need to do to get the shot working.  Additionally, remember that, at least in the professional world, it's not your project.  Be ready – as a professional, your favorite work WILL be cut from time to time.  Try to show some dignity when the time comes!

5). Don’t Talk Trash!

The Mistake:  About five years ago, I started my first game-studio animation gig at what was then called Secret Level, before its name was changed to Sega Studios, SF, before it went under.  I was the “young gun,” the rookie animator on a team full of experienced, extremely talented animators.  It was daunting, to say the least.  Not wanting to seem “out of my element,” I put on a lot of bravado when I was around them.  One day, we decided to go to lunch with the other animation team (Secret Level had two projects at the time: Golden Axe and
Iron Man.  Fun Fact: both were put on Virgin Media’s Top 10 Worst Games of 2008 list).  While we waited for our food, I decided to tell an amusing anecdote about “the worst reel I’ve ever seen.”  It had come in to the cell phone media studio I’d worked for prior to Secret Level, and had become something of a joke between the artists – the kind of joke only an insecure person would find amusing.  In any case, I described this reel in full detail, laughing the whole time, and not understanding why my coworkers didn’t find it as hysterical as I did.  Instead, an awkward silence hovered around the table.  As we walked back to the studio, one of the animators took me aside.  It turns out, the reel I was describing was the reel of one of the animators with whom I was sharing this story.  

The Lesson:  The lesson here is not “don’t talk trash because you might be sitting with the person of whom you are talking.”  The odds on such an occurrence are pretty extreme.  Rather, it’s simply unprofessional – not to mention flat-out bad manners – to talk negatively about other professionals.  I was eventually able to smooth things over with the animator in question, and in fact we worked quite well together when eventually placed on the same team.  However, such arrogance and rudeness can seriously harm your career.  You want to maintain a good reputation and be well respected.  And if “being a good human being” is not enough incentive for you, consider this:  the next time you’re searching for work, if the email goes out around the studio, "Hey, we're hiring. Anyone got a recommendation?" you should be the guy (or gal) that pops into their greedy little referral-bonus-seeking brain.

6).  Prepare to Pay Your Dues

The Mistake: I am of the mindset that “things happen for a reason.”  When I came out of Ex’pression college, I was... well, pretty full of myself.  I genuinely felt that every rejection letter I received was a failure on their part to see my potential.  I mentioned in a previous note that it took me over a year and a half to finally land a decent animation gig.  I think, perhaps, I had to go through that eighteen months of stagnancy in order to see that I was not God’s gift to the animation industry.  I think I grew more during that time than any other time in my life, because I realized that I wasn’t “owed” a job at [insert favorite major film studio here].  I was forced to spend my time “in the trenches.” 

The Lesson: You might not end up at Pixar right away, but use that time to learn everything you can, and to grow not only as an artist but as a human being.  I have met countless artists in my relatively short time in the industry.  I've discussed with many of them the topic of "paying your dues," and every one of them looks back on the rough years, the patchy gigs at shady studios and short term contracts on projects no one would ever see, with a sense of pride in how far they've come.  I'll talk more about that in my final point. Let's just let that simmer a bit, shall we? Smashing!

7). Don't Make Animation Your Every Thought

The Mistake:  So you've got a poster of My Neighbor Totoro hanging in your living room? A desk covered in cool Japanese toys?  Every book on the subject of animation that's ever been written?  Good for you, but that does not make you an animator.  When I was at Ex'pression, I felt that if I wasn't living, eating, and breathing this stuff, then I wasn't serious about it.  I started wearing Hawaiian shirts on a regular basis, trying to fit that John Lasseter mold.  However, instead of going out and seeing the world around me, spending time observing human behaviors, I spent most of my time geeking out about the subject of animation itself.  I think this greatly hindered my early animation education, because I spent more time informing my brain with Pixar behind-the-scenes videos than actually getting out there and taking in the thing animation is meant to reflect: real life experience!

The Lesson:  It's so awesome to be enthusiastic about animation, and animators, and animation studios.  It's what got you motivated to start educating yourself on the subject.  That enthusiasm will be the driving force that powers you through the many sleepless nights it will take to master this complex craft.  I encourage you, however, to live your life, and to celebrate your other interests.  For some, it might be a sport; for others, maybe it's a road trip with friends.  For me, it's time with my family.  Animation is meant to reflect life, our thoughts, our experiences.  It isn't supposed to envelop them.

8). Don't Be Overly Ambitious

The Mistake:  I have many faults, but as an animator, biting off more than I can chew is definitely my biggest one.  Case in point: for my first ever dialogue piece, I was required to animate a minimum of one character doing a minimum of 10 seconds of dialogue.  I chose a 30 second piece that required four characters.  Fast forward six years to when I was doing my final dialogue piece at Animation Mentor. I'd learned by this point that being overly ambitious will get me into trouble.  But knowing a bad idea and avoiding a bad idea are two very different things.  I chose this musical bit with two people drunkenly singing "Benny and the Jets" while she's laying against him and he's got his arm around her and she's toying with his fingers and WHAT WAS I THINKING???  It's the biggest regret of my time at Animation Mentor, that I didn't do something mindlessly simple and knock it out of the park. No, instead I had to show off, never complete this ridiculous piece of complex messiness, and not have a useable bit of dialogue for my demo reel.  It still pains me to think about.

The Lesson: Don't be like me: old and full of regrets at the student reel I could have had if only I'd practiced what I preached and "Kept It Simple, Stupid."  Okay, well I’m not “old,” and I wouldn’t say I’m “full of regrets,” as my current job is exactly what I never knew I always wanted, but I certainly do wish I’d done a simpler piece.  Take every piece you attempt in stride.  It’s so tempting when you get a great idea in your head to just go gung-ho on it, trying to impress people with the complexity of your work.  Instead, the next time you’re working on a shot, consider the idea that the simplest form of it may actually be the most appealing, and it will certainly be the form most likely to get completed.

9). Ideas are EVERYTHING (or, Finish What You Started):

The Mistake:  After a few missteps in pre-production on my Ex’pression demo reel, I was forced to start from scratch.  The new idea was simple, yet unfortunately not a “complete” idea.  I’d determined that, as an animator, what I really needed was a reel chock full of animation tests.  I came up with a “short” that didn’t really have an ending, and wasn’t particularly cohesive as a narrative at all.  It essentially found my character navigating an obstacle course – a great opportunity for some body mechanics exercises.  I never finished it, but rather polished up the “most useful bits,” and started sending it around.  Meanwhile, a friend of mine (an “unofficial mentor” is perhaps a better term) was working hard at a major studio, on a project he was extremely excited about, but couldn’t talk about.  He contacted me and asked me to send him my work.  I did so, and it turns out they quite liked it, but unfortunately, because this was for the pre-viz department, they were looking for more complete narratives.  I didn’t find out until a while later that the project I had missed out on due to my neglect to finish what I started was a little film called Avatar. 

The Lesson:  This one really pained me for a long time.  I retrace my steps and wonder what I would do differently, and the answer is quite simple – I would complete what I’d begun.  It might not have been the best narrative, but at the very least it would have been a finished piece, which as far as I can gather, was the main reason I missed this opportunity. 

10). Love the Ride!

The Mistake:  Writing all of this down has forced me to really dig into my memories, and I’ve become quite nostalgic in the process.  Nearly 12 years ago, I was dry-heaving on the side of I-5.  It was about 10 at night, drizzling rain, and I was on my way back from a family trip to Los Angeles.  Along the way, we had stopped at Cal Arts, a school that I had been told was the only means of achieving my dream of working at Pixar.  At the time, this was mostly true.  Pixar was rather picky about who they hired, and where they came from.  They have since opened their doors much wider, but around the turn of the century, a student from Cal Arts was certainly more likely to get Lasseter’s eye.  I was dry-heaving on the side of the freeway because it had become transparently clear that Cal Arts was not going to be an option for me.  I feel like from that horrendous moment, I can fast-forward through 12 years full of schools and studios, let-downs and triumphs, to the moment I’m writing this.  If I could go back to that 17 year old kid trembling on the side of the highway, I would tell him, “Pixar, Cal Arts, none of that matters.  You are going to have a rough road, but you’re going to love it!”  I look back at all of these experiences with so much pride, and even more so, excitement for what the future holds. 

The Lesson:  Don’t have tunnel vision toward your end goal; look around at where you are at now, even if it’s working at Target, or living in your parents’ basement while you chip away at your demo reel.  When you get to be 100 years old, do you really think you’ll look back only on the years in which you were at your dream studio?  Love the ride, because when you do get to where you’re headed, this will all be the fuel that inspires you.  

I heard someone say once that they had no regrets.  Personally, I think they haven’t dared to live.   


  1. These are the best lessons you can learn. What a great inspiration to just go for it. No matter how hard and bumpy the road is only you can smooth it out. I really like this and after reading this I definitely try working on a 6 character animation. Just kidding. But thanks for this article it was great.

    Lord Ryan

  2. Trav I love you man! Hope to see ya soon! Great article, was a marvelous read!