Animated Storytellers

A Deep Dive Into the Working World of Animators, Where Imagination Rules

Fairleigh Dickinson University alumna Kelly Gayara, BA’05 (Flor), works in experiential marketing, creating interactive experiences for brands and consumers alike — using graphic design and animation skills. (Photo by Karsten Moran)
By Sara Campione

Count Dracula in “Hotel Transylvania 2,” Red and Chuck in “The Angry Birds Movie,” Batman in “Batman: The Enemy Within,” “Minecraft: Story Mode,” Reebok, M&M’s, Stearns & Foster and Serta Mattresses — all recognizable characters, games and brands, and all have connections to FDU, through their animators.

A career in animation can have as many plot twists and turns as a video game or feature film. “Animation allows creators to go beyond the limitations of reality, creating visuals that once only existed in their minds. The feeling of mastering a new technique or seeing a design come to life is endlessly fulfilling,” says Robin Barkley, professor of animation and director of the animation program at the Florham Campus.

FDU Magazine features three alumni from the film and animation program who have left the computer labs of FDU to contribute to animation projects including movies, video games, virtual reality experiences, education, commercials and marketing campaigns. So, what’s it like to work in these fantasy worlds?

Roman Kobryn, BA’04 (Flor)
Familiar Feature Favorites

Peek into a day of the life of a freelance animator with alumnus Roman Kobryn, BA’04 (Flor), at his home office in Sparkill, N.Y. As a freelancer, Kobryn often travels for his job, working on a project-by-project basis for various studios (left). (Photos by: Karsten Moran)

“FDU is where I found my path,” says Roman Kobryn, BA’04 (Flor), a freelance character animator. “I took advantage of every art, animation and film course that was offered, from learning about graphic design and posing characters to editing live-action actors in a student film. These are all pieces of the puzzle that I use in my art career. It was mind-blowing to create characters and then breathe life into them with some carefully planned posing and storytelling.”

He works with studios on a project-by-project contract basis. Some characters he has helped bring to life include Dracula and his gang from “Hotel Transylvania 2,” Red and Chuck from “The Angry Birds Movie,” Manny and Scrat from “Ice Age 5” and Muccie the Mucinex mascot. “There is nothing better than seeing your work when you’re out and about.”

Animator Roman Kobryn. (Photo by: Karsten Moran)

Commercials and films are two completely separate kinds of jobs. The differences are time, budget, animation style, the client and the director. “Commercials are shorter projects with smaller budgets that accommodate only a handful of talented artists with a couple of months of prep time before it gets to animation.” Since it’s a smaller team, commercial animators tend to have more say in conceptualizing the animation performance. “Smaller teams mean your work is showcased a bit more.”

Films are very long projects with bigger budgets to accommodate hundreds of artists. “Most films usually have a prep time of around two to four years before animation starts. By that time, the characters’ animation styles have been set and defined by the supervisors, and your role as an animator is to give the supervisors an entertaining performance that matches that style of the project,” says Kobryn.

“The need for animators is growing because of the demands of [video] games, virtual reality and film,” he adds. “It’s a job where the only limit is your creativity. Animation is hard work. You have to absolutely love the process to dedicate yourself to the craft. Show your style to the world.”

Tracey Landau, BA’11 (Flor)
Bringing Characters and Fantasy to Life

Tracey Landau, BA’11 (Flor), works in an open office alongside co-workers to bring video games to life (right). To get into a good flow on assignments, Landau listens to tutorials, how-to videos and music. “Since we’re in a tight space and sit close to each other, music is a good way to drown out other sounds and get into the groove of work.” (Photos by: Steve Utaski)

“The video-game industry is hard,” says Tracey Landau, BA’11 (Flor). “It’s very exciting and fun to be a part of, and you get to work with a lot of great people, but it’s still a very new industry trying to find its footing.” Landau says people looking to work in video games or film need to be prepared to move around a lot. “The next job could be anywhere and for an indeterminate amount of time.” Currently working as a visual effects (VFX) artist at Harebrained Schemes, Landau has previously worked on the “Tales from the Borderlands,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Batman: The Enemy Within” games.

For the “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “Batman” games, Landau worked with a team of approximately 90 people.

“Everyone was given a small and manageable slice. No one person was taking on all of Batman or even all of just a single character.”

Alumna Tracey Landau. (Photo by: Steve Utaski)

As a VFX artist, Landau creates particle systems and fluid simulations to create all the fun stuff — explosions, fire, smoke, blood, sparks, rain, gunfire, etc. “With a multitude of parameters, artists can create a wide variety of things, such as blinking fireflies, rolling fog, a dying campfire, alien laser beams or a magical explosion. It’s a cross between an art role and a more technical position, so often VFX artists are found in the tech art division of a company,” says Landau.

She might be tasked with creating a plume of smoke, for example. “I create or utilize a smoke texture and pull it into the game, where I add it to a particle system. I can tell it how much smoke to emit, how long each smoke particle should live, how fast each particle should move, if particles are affected by wind or gravity, what color they are, and whether particles change such as growing, slowing down, changing color or fading away.” In games, a VFX artist also has to balance visuals with performance. There are limitations to how much information can be on a screen at one time.

The animation industry is exploding on many fronts, adds FDU’s Robin Barkley. Each year, she says, games are becoming more and more in demand, while their playability continues to exceed the last release as technology gets faster and faster. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are now penetrating all industries. Corporations are selling merchandise by providing VR and AR experiences with their products.

Kelly Gayara, BA’05 (Flor)
Crafting a Memorable Experience

Alumna Kelly Gayara, BA’05 (Flor), directs event set up for the Huffington Post’s inaugural parenting conference, “How to Raise a Kid,” at The William Vale hotel in Brooklyn, N.Y., in November 2018. (Photos by: Karsten Moran)

For nearly eight years Kelly Gayara, BA’05 (Flor), has worked in the experiential marketing industry, creating interactive brand experiences for both consumers and the media.

“Working in the experiential industry has allowed my imagination to come to life like I never dreamed possible. From a world-record-breaking 60-foot piñata for M&M’s … to creating engaging mobile tours for companies like Reebok, I’ve been able to dream up all kinds of ideas and see them actually come to life,” says Gayara.

Most of the time Gayara is given the freedom to design the look and feel of an event, taking into consideration budget, expectations and consumer flow. Occasionally, clients come to her with a clear vision of what they are looking for and that serves as a basic concept for Gayara.

“A project will usually start with a 3D render, to sell a concept, move on to overhead layouts, and then to designing event signage. On event days, I manage set up and set design, while photographing all of the visual elements and capturing the events in motion. Plus a lot of brainstorming in between!”

Alumna Kelly Gayara. (Photo by: Karsten Moran)

Two of her favorite design projects are the pop-up bedrooms she did for Stearns & Foster and Serta Mattress companies. “They are extremely design-heavy projects, and I loved the amount of detail I was able to add. I also had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Scott, of ‘Property Brothers’ fame, with Stearns & Foster and it was a really cool collaboration in both graphic design and set design.”

Gayara says food brands also tend to be a lot of fun and allow her to add whimsy to a project. (Plus, the samples don’t hurt either!)

“For Pizza Hut, we did a three-city tour to help launch their new menu, and I got to design a ton of fun environments and visuals. For one of the stops, we went to Boring, Md., (yes, that’s a real town!), where we surprised the residents with a pizza and prize-filled ‘Boring Bingo’ evening at their local bingo hall, complete with a celebrity caller.”

FDU provided Gayara with a well-rounded knowledge of different graphic-design platforms.

“When starting out it might seem like you only need to know 3D software to become an animator, but realistically you need to know everything! Graphic design and sketching have both been invaluable skills for me. The more you know, the more valuable a designer you will be.”

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 edition of FDU Magazine.