In this feature we get to know some of the women in the animation industry in Ireland. Today, we interview Sandra Ní Chonaola, a character animator and host of the Toon Talks Podcast.
What is your current job description?
At the moment, I’m patiently waiting for a work permit to come through from Canada, to work on the upcoming Seth Rogen feature ‘Sausage Party’. While I waited, I applied for and was fortunate enough to be awarded funding from Screen Training Ireland. They agreed I could use the money to pay for a personal Mentor. So I got hold of Mark Oftedal and asked if he would be interested in helping me. He said yes and created a personalized program to combat my weaknesses in animation. We meet once a day or every two days over Skype and essentially rebuild my reel.
What does your job entail / What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job? Since I’m currently studying, I’ll talk about to one of my previous jobs… lets go with Supervising at JAM Media: I am in by 8am often the first in and open up. Have a coffee and check emails.
8.30 Review shots up for approval (in house as well as outsourced shots). This is why I get in early, to get so much more done without the other distractions of the job. And since we outsourced to Canada, they would upload all their shots, at the end of their day, which worked nicely as we would receive it all first thing our morning. 10am Everyone is in by now and I would stop by the in-house animators’ desks to see how they’re doing.11am It’s back to reviewing shots up for approval.
1pm Lunch 2pm If there is a meeting with the project manager it’s generally in around this time. Otherwise for the rest of the day (5.30-6pm), I’m open for animators to ask questions and get help and I’m back to reviewing shots up for approval. With what little spare time I have I’m fitting in my own animation quota. Of course within that there are many times where I would have meetings with the directors and other Heads of Departments.
How long have you worked in the animation industry? Since 2006, I was doing animation on some side projects for a Multi Media company called One Productions. At the very end of that year, I got working with a studio in Belfast, called Banjax (Now called Strandlooper)
How did you get your start in animation? I guess my first real animation job, was with Banjax. I applied and one of the animators there replied to me shortly after saying he felt I had promise. His name is Michael Bass. I don’t think the heads of the studio knew what he was doing, but he offered advise each step of the way and really pushed for me to get hired. If I remember right, it was his way of paying it forward as someone had done the same for him. He left the studio before I arrived, but we’ve kept in touch.
What drew you to the field? When I was kid I got American Tail, Land Before Time and Lady and the Tramp all on VHS from my Mom. I remember her telling me that Land Before Time was done in Ireland and I thought ‘what do you mean ‘’done’’…people do this for a living!?’ It never really accrued to me before then that someone actually created these images and stories. So that was it, my path was laid out. My family grew more and more disgruntled about it as I got older; they wanted me to ‘get a real job’. I Caved and took a job as an accountant, but at twenty-one, returned to college and studied animation. Even then, my family weren’t too happy, but all’s well that ends well and they’re very proud of me now!
Where did you study? As my website states I’m a ‘Life long student of animation’… so this might be a longer answer than most. I first studied at the Irish School of Animation (Formerly Ballyfermot College). After a few years, I got work in the industry and was satisfied for a while. Until I saw Doug Sweetland’s Presto and I thought ‘I have to do that!’. So I went back to study at Animation Mentor for a further year and a half (2010-2011). It really upped my skills, but to nowhere near the level of Doug though! … so onwards I went asking advise where I could. In 2013 I again became frustrated with the shots I was doing, too much TV work that I couldn’t show on my reel to get work in features. Animator’s where generous with their time, but they hadn’t all the time I needed to really progress as fast as I wanted. So I took a couple of classes at iAnimate (another online school, founded by Jason Ryan, an Irish guy currently at Disney). My first teacher there was also Irish, Mícheál Kiely (Blur), incredible animator who worked on Land Before Time! I worked so hard, that I ended up burning out and had to take some time off. It was on a LOA from iA at the end of ’13 that I found the ASSET Program through Screen Training Ireland.
Of course, I have to mention that at more or less all times in my animation life I had to some degree or other a Mentor, or a friend in the industry I looked up to, asked advise from and received critiques. Wayne Gilbert (Dean of Faculty at Van Arts) played a huge role in my education when I lived in Vancouver. I would go to his office once every few weeks, which soon turned into once a week and then a couple of times a week to get advise on my shots – even though I was not a student of the College.
Keith Sintay (ILM) would often take a look at my work as well as Mark Oftedal, numerous times over the years. Another Irish Animator who would give me reel feedback was Rob Fox (Reel FX). Hyrum Osmond was always on the other end of an email (Disney). So with that caliber of people offering you their time, you can’t give up. Their generosity kept me pushing forward.
What roles have you performed during your career in animation? Hmm… I’ve kinda done everything. A few times, I played the Character Designer role, which I loved. It’s so much fun to literally just draw characters for a living. I say ‘played’, because my skill level was nowhere near that of a true artist in this field
I was also a Layout Artist; drawing backgrounds, not animation layout – But I done that a few times too, I was a Character Layout Artist for a number of projects and a Key Pose Animator. Asset Builder (Flash Builds). Ink and Paint. I done some Clean Up work… Lead Animator and Supervising Animator. I have also been a Teacher a couple of times in my Career too.
Is there a project you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? It would have to be Tilly and Friends, with JAM Media. The team was so amazing, creative and hard working. It was a great challenge for me, as the studio had taken a chance and allowed me to supervise. I never worked so hard or learnt so much so fast – I had to! The show later won a IFTA for best animation. I’m very proud of the crew for achieving that.
Of all the shots, I done in that series my favorite is the one where Tip Toe is playing with his refection in the mirror (It’s the last shot on my reel)
What has been your favourite animated series or movie of the past few years? Surfs Up, is my personal favourite animated film of all time. It just fires on all cylinders for me. I’ve watched it more times than I can remember and still, I get a lump in my throat when Cody swims and dives after the Talent Scout ‘Mikey’ who is speeding away on the Wale.
I need to say I love, hugely, the Spotlight Stories; Windy Day, Buggy Night and most recently Duet. Incredible, mind-blowing work coming out of those teams.
Do you have any suggestions or tips on how young animators can get their work seen? Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business? Get a LinkedIn profile and connect with recruiters, generally it’s part of their job to connect with potential employees and they will be happy to accept you. Get a Twitter account and follow who inspires you – it’s a great way to connect on a friendly level with Artists and Studios/Recruiters. Above all, the best thing to do for yourself is create a website (or Blog). You can create a website through WordPress for free – so there’s no excuse.
Advise for breaking into the industry:
Be professional and polite and respect people’s time, but don’t hold back on approaching someone and asking them questions – get to know people. Ask advise from people in the field you are interested in. Don’t be disheartened by negative responses or lack of any response at all. Even the most amazing artists go through the same thing. If you can, find yourself a Mentor. And go to as many related events as you can – but make the most of them, talk to people! Carry business cards.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of? Yes! I’ve recently started an Animation Podcast called Toon Talks Podcast. It came about due to my Mentors and people in the industry who had been so generous with their time and knowledge. I felt like it was my time to Pay it Forward. The whole show is basically recorded conversations with animation professionals and asking their advise on animation and the industry. Current guests include Irish animators Jason Ryan (Disney) and Mícheál Kiely (Blur) as well as Mark Henn (Disney), Tal Shwarzman (Pixar) Sergio Pablos (well known for his work on Doppler from Treasure Planet) to name a few! I’m trying to keep up with one show a month… but sometimes work/studies etc get in the way. I am a huge fan of The Animation Podcast and Speaking of Animation as well as Splinedoctor’s Splinecast all big inspirations for me.
Check out Sandra’s podcast Toon Talks here.