Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Women In Animation: Janice Schulman

Although a member of the Toronto Animated Image Society for six years, I hadn't had the pleasure of meeting independent animator Janice Schulman until she recently replaced the previous Administrator Coordinator. Part of the problem when you live five hours away from an organization is that you can only show up for major events like the yearly AniJam and the occasional workshop. Unfortunately, it limits the people you meet to a select few individuals. Since then, however, it's been a real joy to get to know Janice and discover another person in this digital age who still has a passion for producing hand-drawn animation. As we sat down for this interview over Skype, what I expected would be a fifteen to twenty minute interview quickly became a discussion lasting over an hour as we expressed many of the same frustrations with digital technology and (limited) nostalgia about analog filmmaking. But rather than paraphrase our conversation, the following is Janice in her own words.

Janice Schulman
Q: What is your current job description?

A: I'm an independent animator. I specialize in 2d animation. I'm kind of like a one-stop shop, if someone needs something done from start to finish, from concept to completion, I can do it. But they have to want my style, right? So I do that on a freelance basis. I do 2d, I use Flash some of the time. I use a combination of digital and traditional inks—hand-drawn, digital and collage. I'm [also] working part time for the Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS) as Administrator Coordinator, so I help plan events and do member outreach and whatever else they want me to do around the studio.

Q: How long have you worked in the animation industry?

A: On and off since about '95. I wouldn't say twenty years, because there were some years I wasn't working as an animator. You could say I have fifteen years experience.

Q: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

A: In the early days, my first job was working on interactive CD-ROMs. I started doing multimedia; doing animation for "edutainment" or educational CD-ROMs for kids. Then I did animation work for pixelboards--for jumbotrons--in Montreal. That was a fun job, I worked within a marketing department, I had to come up with little ads and animate them and then get them in the right format and export them so they could be on display on the electronic signs. And then I was also in charge of changing the copy and scheduling the signs. But I was the only artist working at the place so it was kind of a little odd. There was nowhere to go, I was the "in-house" artist, right? Anyways, I left that job after two years.

After that, eventually I managed to do some work in television. Working as an independent, I did some work for Discovery Channel. That was almost full time, but I was working from home. I had to officially register a company name at that point, so I registered "Janimations". I did a bunch of stuff for this show called "The Sex Files". It ran for five years, I think, and I animated for them for three years. I also animated some title sequences for a couple of different specials that they had.

Q: What made you choose animation as a major course of study?

A: I kind of fell in to it, truthfully. I started in film production, but my films were very cartoony, I didn't get accepted back into year two of the program. So I needed to find something else to do. I always liked to draw and a teacher recommended I try out for the animation program—that was at Concordia. I guess it was a better fit for me.

Q: Have you have worked for studios and as an independent? If so, which do you prefer and why?

A: I worked very briefly at Cuppa Coffee, but for the most part I’ve worked from home. Whatever animation work I've managed to get has been on a freelance basis. That’s just sort of the way it worked out. I guess there are advantages and disadvantages. It was kind of tough working alone at home and actually having to produce quite a bit of animation as one person. You need to figure out your capacity. You have to figure out your own creative rhythms, when you’re going to be most productive. I haven’t really had a traditional career.

"Nice Jewish Boys" by Janice Schulman

Q: Your previous work spans short narrative animations (Great Canadian Inventions, Nice Jewish Boys) and commercial animation (CallBack and The Sex Files). Which story format do you prefer to work with—short vignettes where you control the content or commercial work where you’re handed the story?

A: They have both have advantages and disadvantages, like when it's someone else's idea that they want you to illustrate, you're given certain parameters and usually you're given a tighter deadline so you're forced to work. It can be an interesting challenge to kind of work within a story that someone else has given you, I do enjoy that. It's like you're figuring out the pieces of the puzzle and how are you going to get their message across in a clear way, and in a way that they usually find amusing--because that’s usually why they're bringing me in--to create something entertaining for them.

And then working on my own stuff, I mean that's more of a labor of love. I'm the one doing it so, of course that's satisfying if I’ve had an idea in my head for a while and I finally start to make the thing. But it's a different kind of satisfaction.

Q: Given that we've seen the NFB closing their Mediatheque location in Toronto and funding for the arts is being reduced all across Canada, what do you see as the future for independent, non-commercial animation in Ontario?

A: First of all, I still think that the technology has become so much more accessible than it was even twenty years ago that if someone wants to make animation today as an independent, it's easier for them to do it than it ever was before. You don’t need that much technology. You don't have to shoot on film anymore--the way it was when I got out of school and I was trying to budget to make a short film. Well, I wasn't thinking about using a digital camera, right? So that was way more complicated. And now even, say, TAIS is a great resource in the city, at least in Toronto, and it's affordable and it’s accessible.

Q: You’re currently involved in the Toronto Animated Image Society, what role do you see societies like TAIS and QAS (1) fulfilling within the animation community? And with the greater accessibility to animation tools (cheaper computers, animation software with more affordable options: Adobe’s Creative Cloud), do you see a future where younger animators continue to take advantage of animation societies like TAIS?

A: Yeah, I think if they're smart, they’ll come to TAIS. [Laughs] It's amazing that people now have the choice that they don't have to work from home. We can provide them with affordable access to studio space and equipment and we also provide community. It's a chance to work with other people working on their projects within the same space so that there can be an exchange of ideas, an exchange of energy, and knowledge. I mean, really, it was through meeting people at TAIS over the years, they filled in some information for me that I hadn't received in university. Some knowledge--how to improve my timing in animation, squash and stretch, anticipation--I've met some people along the way who have been mentors to me and I met those people through TAIS. Coming out to an event is a great way to start to meet people and also by committing to actually joining the group. We do try to connect people. If there's somebody who comes along and they're interested in a specific form of animation and there's another person who's more experienced in the group, we do try to connect those people. And it doesn't have to happen in a very formal way. Even if it's just to introduce them at a certain event, if I know that someone is interested in doing puppet animation and we’ve got someone who is experienced in it, I'll try to put those people in touch with each other

"Great Canadian Inventions"
Storyboard & animation by Janice Schulman
Written & created by Allan Kane

Q: How have opportunities changed for women pursuing a career in animation today as opposed to when you started your career?

A: I think it's probably easier today to make connections with people through social media, for example, that didn't exist when I graduated. When I graduated if you were going to network you had to actually pick up the phone. I had to do a lot of cold calling to get anywhere. I don't know if it’s changed so much to actually get into any of the larger studios, I really think you have to have the specific skills they’re looking for either today--probably like some high end knowledge of 3d animation or if you want to do 2d animation you really have to have a knock-out looking portfolio. There are some houses that are doing some of the more boutique style animation, like producing commercials, who are open to people who work in different mediums. I had better luck with them, but yeah, there was no LinkedIn. There was no Facebook when I got out of school, so it was tough to break in. But I'm certainly seeing a lot of animation still being produced. There's still a lot of it on T.V. The main thing is the commercial studios still want versatile artists who are able to copy character designs and who have classical training. So I don't know if it's changed for women, I think if you are a good enough artist, you’ll get your foot in the door whether you are a woman or a man, I really don't think it makes a difference.

Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?

A: I really think it comes down to getting the right skills, and you really need the appetite to do it. It has been an ongoing challenge that the technology keeps changing so fast. That's something I've found where I would finally master a new program, like Flash or whatever it was, then Flash wasn't hot anymore. You know what I mean? It has been a struggle feeling like you're always one step behind of "the" software that's in demand. Like for a while it was Flash and then they wanted you to learn ActionScripting. Now I'm seeing... I don't really see people asking for Flash anymore. So it's just sort of like 'where do you put your time in?' And unless you’re already working within a studio where you’re going to get trained on the job or you're going to learn on the job because you’re working on a specific project, then you're going to have to really be driven and committed to learning it on your own time. And it just sort of feels like a bit of a gamble, like, which direction do I go in? How long is this particular software going to be popular for? That's been a frustration of mine. It's been a challenge. But I guess the nice thing though is that if you know how to animate, you're not going to lose that skill. If you know how to animate and/or you know how to draw, those skills are still valuable. You’re just going to have to find out how to fit them in and make your skills work with the latest software.

Composer Maria Molinari and Janice Schulman (2)
Q: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

A: Pick a different career! [Laughs] No, I would tell her you better work on your drawing and you better talk to people who work in the industry. Find out what their hours are like. And try to visit some studios and really go and see if the work appeals to you. A piece of advice that someone gave me years ago was 'make sure that you are always doing some of your own work.' It doesn’t have to be animation but just continue doing your own side art projects, however small they may be. Otherwise things can get boring or you can get burned out. It's good to just play and try working in a different medium, because it refreshes you.

Q: What is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

A: Take them seriously and pay attention when they want to show you their work in progress or their ideas. Y'know? Encourage them, find some sort of extracurricular art class or maybe find a way to connect them to a group like TAIS. But I think it would be to try to point them in the direction of someone who could be some kind of mentor where they could go and sit down for an informational interview with someone who works in the industry--someone who would take a look at their portfolio before they considered applying to art school and give them some feedback. I think it’s definitely helpful to connect them with another artist who’s more experienced--if you’re not an artist, if you know little to nothing about the industry, try to use your connections. Take the girl’s ambition seriously and interest seriously and maybe get her to check out some of the different colleges.

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Janice's work can be viewed on her company website "Janimations" at www.janimations.com and she has uploaded several of her completed films on her YouTube channel.

1. QAS - The Quickdraw Animation Society located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
2. Photograph copyright Grayden Laing and the Canadian Animation Blog and used with permission.