Whether it is explaining new/complex technologies to a layman or communicating product/service offerings to customers or producing jaw-dropping and immersive visuals for a diverse audience, nothing gets it done better than Animation !
Soumya ‘Sujé’ Iyer, our next pathbreaker, Motion Graphics Artist & Head of Animation Projects at LMB Productions, works on all aspects of animation, right from ideation to asset creation to animation, to rendering and compositing.
Soumya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how technologies such as 3D Animation and VR are opening up more and more avenues for creative people to be a part of delivering animated experiences.
For students, you have to really love animation to pursue it. India’s animation landscape is currently not where we would like it to be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Young and creative minds will always be able to make a difference.
Soumya, can you tell us a bit about your background?
My background is a strange and wonderful mix that pans across India. While my dad Kumar, is a Gujarati speaking Iyer, my mom Manisha, is a Gujarati speaking Maharashtrian. I was born in Vadodara and brought up in Pune. I am also an older sister to two wonderful people, Srushti and Shrey.
Growing up in the beautiful amalgam of traditions, languages and with siblings to raise, has given me a unique outlook on life which I will always be thankful for. My mom is also really artistic, she runs her own quilting company Baani, so I was always encouraged to pursue my talents. The one that always called out to me was art.
If you want to know when I knew I was art bound for life… I have no clear answer. I feel like I always knew that I wasn’t ever going to do anything else. However, there is one moment that stands out. When I was in 2nd standard, my mother had put me in a Bharatanatyam class. I was super disinterested in the class though the part I LOVED was that we had to draw all the poses in our notebooks. I spent most of my time in class drawing in everyone’s note book instead of dancing!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I decided to study Architecture after my 12th boards. Once I completed my graduation from Bhartiya Kala Prasarini Sabha’s College of Architecture (Abhinav Kala) Pune, I decided to do my post-graduation (Masters in Fine Arts – Animation and Special Effects) from the Savannah College of Art and Design, USA also known as SCAD.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Growing up, my parents were always supportive of my talents. They were and still are my motivators, supporters and influencers. But another particular influence was my mom’s sister. She is an architect, and I got to see her work with drawing boards, those instruments and fancy pens, which left a deep impact on me as a child.
My uncle is also an archeologist and he always drew my attention to the details in structures and showed me how even buildings that we pass by everyday can have a profound impact on us. They all encouraged my passion for drawing since a very early age. My birthday gifts often included colors, brushes, sketch books and more. My uncle was one of the first people to encourage me to make art digitally.
Before I joined BKPS to pursue Architecture, I attended the MIT School of Design for a brief period. It was my safety school before the Architecture exam results were released. While I was sure I wanted to study Architecture, I noticed that I really and truly got along with the people in my batch that were studying animation. It felt like I was among my peers.
After I found out that I had got into BKPS, I threw myself into the course. It kept me really busy and I enjoyed it too. But once it was over and I started working in the field, first through an internship and then also full time, it wasn’t ideal. Any architecture graduate in India will tell you that the only way to create your own designs here is either if you are very high up the chain or if you have your own practice. Otherwise the work is not very inspiring. I worked for about 2 and half years and after that I had decided to do a Master’s. Thanks to my experience at MIT, I knew that the next step for me had to be animation and visual design. I wanted to study and work with people who think like me.
Tell us, how did you get to where you are today?
Though the transition for me was clear, the fact is, as anyone trying to study something “offbeat” will tell you, getting information is tough. At the age of 18-19 we often have to rely on our parents to find out about the prospects in any field and the information is always scattered. But after my graduation I was in a better position to make informed decisions. I narrowed down where and what I wanted to do.
Honestly, the best place to study commercial animation is the United States of America. It is the birthplace of animation and it is also the place where the industry is not only thriving, but is also the most advanced. So the decision to study animation there seemed undeniably easy. I chose the following schools to apply to:
- California Institute of Arts (AKA CalArts): It is easily the best school to join if one wants to enter the industry, but unfortunately, they didn’t have a post graduate course in animation or visual design. So I would either have to redo a graduation course or choose an experimental animation course. I decided to try for the experimental course, but since I hadn’t studied design in my graduation, having the skills for experimentation was not something I was even hopeful about. I didn’t get in.
- Ringling School of Design: They also have a good animation course- and their 3D Courses are far more advanced.
- SCAD: This is where I finally decided to do my Master of Arts, which is a one year course. I later decided to make this a Fine Arts degree. This meant that I needed to put in another year of studies, but would instead receive a masters in Fine Arts. This degree not only allowed me to diversify my portfolio but also gave me a lot more options in terms of electives. Since I had joined this degree with NO animation skills, I realized that to build a job worthy portfolio, I would need more time.
My time in SCAD was spectacular. It was a LOT of hard work as I felt like I needed to catch up with my peers in terms of my skills as an artist. But instead of feeling out of place for leaving home for the first time, it actually felt like homecoming. I was finally working with like-minded people and we worked together to create some amazing work and even better memories.
Animation is a grueling course. I would actually say that it is a grueling way of life, especially since I didn’t come from an animation background. Luckily I wasn’t the only one like that. SCAD had a lot of people from different backgrounds. In fact, I feel for people like me who may have done something else for graduation and decided to move to animation. I would suggest they pick SCAD over any other college.
I really like how SCAD’s course is structured. I think that SCAD produces some really good workers for the industry. If CalArts produces show runners, SCAD makes great people who work on the shows. They prepare you to do whatever you want to do. You like rigging? Ok! there are classes to make you really good at that. I liked that aspect of structural learning.
TIP: To get into the industry a bachelors from CalArts is probably the best way forward. It is a very tough school to get into, but people from the industry just walk in and pick up graduates. It is also in the right place geographically which could give any enthusiastic student the BEST professional experience possible, not to mention the great exposure.
Personally, as far as finance was concerned, I decided to take a student loan. Thanks to the good credit my parents had, their bank was willing to finance it. I later had to top up this loan when I extended my course. But I feel it was well worth it because what I learnt in 2 years finally resulted in me being able to get a job in the US the moment I graduated. I used that time to pay up as much of my loan as I could so that now, when I am back in India, the monthly loan payment isn’t something that is causing me too much stress.
There are three things I did in SCAD that I am very glad I did. One, I worked on as many films as I could in various capacities. Yes! they were student films, but working on more and more films made me realize how much effort each aspect of filmmaking requires and the kind of work that goes into different styles and genres. Each time I did something different- like if I’m modeling for one film I did animation for another. This made me understand how each department was connected and what it meant to make animated films from scratch.
The other thing that really helped me a lot is that I produced a lot of films when I was at SCAD. I think that that taught me a lot of what I know today about the animation process in general and project management, all of which is so important to know when entering this industry.
Finally, I spent time teaching high school students a course in animation. It was the first time I taught something in an official capacity and it made me confident of my skills. Additionally, it kept me in touch with my basics. I had to constantly revise my 2D & 3D skills for the kids. Besides, it is always fun to watch young talent blossom.
I am so glad that I made the friends and connections that I did at SCAD. Animation is a very collaborative process, it is intensive and you need help from a bunch of different people depending on what they are good at. We made a lot of good connections in the process. So one of my friends actually referred me to her boss at Disney Imagineering. I worked there for a year in the Visual Effects Department.
After Imagineering, I was approached by a SCAD Alumni to work at their firm-Slothique. They are an animation firm that does a variety of work, ranging from corporate videos, to ad films to theatre work. I helped Slothique on a very interesting project!
I got to animate some backgrounds and buildings to be projected on three screens as the backdrop of a very intense theatre production by the Thorn theatre company in Colorado. Here’s an image:
Afterwards I got busy with working on my own personal freelance projects. I was approached by QFix, a company that makes medical equipment to make a 3D explainer video for one of their (patent pending) products that is used in an MRI machine. This involved 3D modelling a product from a prototype they sent me, and then finding creative ways to explain how it worked. This process was long and tedious but at the end, the company had a good explainer to explain their product!
My freelance works continue even today. I got to work on some character animation for music videos for some popular American brands, and am currently working on the VR Assets for a 3-floor interactive experience where visitors will be able to walk through an entire story from beginning to end, making decisions that affect the story and experience a whole new world in Virtual Reality. As an asset builder, I get to design, model, texture and render assets for the environment using Maya, Substance Painter and Unreal Engine. 3D animation is a very vast field and there’s plenty to do in it, provided you find your calling! With evolving technology, there’s more and more avenues for people with no art background to be a part of animated experiences too, which is what is actually cool about it. You ultimately get to work with a very diverse group of people.
How did you get your first break?
Maya, a classmate of mine, had participated in a competition that is floated every year where you had to design an amusement park attraction based on a theme. So different colleges in the US get to participate in that and she was part of the SCAD team. This competition was actually hosted by Walt Disney Imagineering. She ended up winning that competition along with her team. As a winner of the competition, she had interviews with various departments resulting in a job in the visual effects department, as a result of being the best suited for the job considering her specialty at SCAD was 3D. Around December 2018, she suddenly reached out to me saying, ‘hey my department is looking for a 3D generalist and I was wondering if you want me to send across your resume and portfolio to my boss.’
Of course I got on top of it and in a matter of three days of having a phone interview, I had that job. So I graduated from SCAD in November and in December, I had this job. Sometimes I still can’t believe how quickly it all happened.
At Disney, my responsibilities were vast. I worked in the Imagineering department- which is Disney’s Research and Themed Entertainment Sector. There’s a large variety of people who work here- right from painters and model makers to software and mechanical engineers. Everyone works towards telling a story through an experience or an amusement park ride. Here, I got to work on two major projects- one – the newly opening Zootopia ride in Zootopia Land in Shanghai Disneyland, and two – the Avengers ride in Marvel Land in Disneyland, California. On the Zootopia ride, I got to work on blocking the animation for all the main characters in the media for the ride. This includes animating in Maya, projecting on screens through TouchDesigner, and using Unreal Engine as an in between for this projection. I was responsible for the resolution and scale of the media, and colours- to see if they looked right in the tests we did. Most of this work happened on actual sets that were built to test this media in a “close to reality” space where it would actually be set up.
The Avengers ride was to initially go into the Avengers building in Disneyland, and was a plane flight experience where the visitors would be able to experience a simulation of flying from Disneyland to Wakanda and then to another dimension, all the while fighting aliens and helping the Avengers defeat a new villain. On this ride I was responsible for previsualizing a lot of the fight sequences, doing flight animation, and trying to come up with ride movements that would not make visitors motion sick. For this, we did regular check-ins on a makeshift ride simulator to gauge our visuals and our movements.
Disney Imagineering opened my eyes to the actual extents to which animation experience and knowledge can be pushed, as they keep trying different things through a mixture of science, art and technology to further the dimensions of physical experience day by day.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Extending my course was definitely a tough decision for me because I knew what it meant financially. I genuinely considered just completing my one year course and going home. But here is where I have to give all the credit to my dad and my family for their support. He told me not to worry and to focus on what I needed to do academically. I got a top up on my loan and then started to pay back once I started working.
Challenge 2: I feel like my biggest challenge is something that anyone from India or other Asian countries will face or should at least anticipate in the US – VISA issues. Getting my OPT (Optional Practical Training) extended turned out to be a huge hurdle for me which was compounded by the pandemic. Working one year after my graduation was not a problem because when you study in the US you get a one year work permit. But you need to get an extension on it, called an OPT (offered to STEM Courses). Getting a work visa is tough for anyone working in the Arts.
In my case, Disney Imagineering didn’t enroll in a program to support Foreign Students known as an E-verification which is required for companies that need to sponsor visas. Many other Disney workplaces have this in place but Imagineering didn’t.
Even so, I would like to point out that the team I was working with and all the senior employees were very supportive of me. They signed a petition to get Imagineering e-verified. They helped me with feedback on my portfolio and also connected me to a lot of other people and studios to aid my job hunt. I know people in DreamWorks, Schell Games and many more places simply because my team was so supportive.
But unfortunately, while looking for a new full-time job, the pandemic struck. Companies had stopped hiring due to the uncertainty. So when I got an opportunity back home I decided to take it.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work as Animator
I work at LMB Productions, Pune. I head their animation projects as a Sr. 2D Animator and Motion Graphics Artist. Currently in my role, I work on all aspects of animation, right from ideation to asset creation to animation, to rendering and compositing.
We have produced animated commercials for Youtube and Instagram, and have a constant turnaround of corporate videos for brands like HCL and UBS to name two. Most corporate offices prefer to use Motion Graphics to explain what they do to their clients and their employees, since it makes the information both less boring as well as endearing.
LMB is a small company that offers all video services. Considering we are a small company, all of us here wear many hats. I myself contribute to concept meetings, storyboarding, art direction, animation, visual effects and post-production. Additionally, we run a small podcast called Padhaku Panda in which I am a regular host.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
Drawing, digital illustration, animation, motion graphics, composition, colour, script writing, storyboarding and previsualization, visual effects basics and many more are some of the skills that apply to my current position.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. Everyone can draw and paint, you only get better if you keep at it. Same goes with animation, the more you practice, the better you get.
What’s a typical day like?
We usually start the day with a meeting called ‘Dailies’ where we either get all the information we need about new clients etc or we discuss what we are doing for the day. In the case of the former, we have the concept discussions for the projects in this meeting. After this we break to go to our respective workplaces and continue our allotted work. We often also shoot live action commercials in which case I am responsible for the colour schemes and items we require in the shots.
What is it you love about this job?
There is a lot of freedom in the work at LMB. You are free to have your own artistic pursuits and everyone is very helpful in case of doubt. We are also developing our own personal show ideas to pitch to various OTT platforms which is an interesting break from client work and it keeps our minds on the go.
How does your work benefit society?
In my opinion, one of the strongest ways to communicate a message is through the visual medium of animation. Even without the bells and whistles, art will always be important to society, be it through a message or as a way to express ourselves. And setting that art to motion can be very powerful. Honestly, India is deeply lacking in the sphere of animation and motion graphics. We as a country can inspire our own culture of animation for ourselves (and not outsourced work as we usually do) and have and develop our own art form- which is an intense missed opportunity currently.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Monarcade! An animated short film I made while in SCAD actually went on to be screened at several festivals and won a special mention in the kids’ category in the New York Cartoon Film Festival.
It was a film that I got to work very closely on with my fellow grads. There was this class in the graduate program at the end of which (within 10 weeks) we had to have our film ready. The idea was that you had to make a film with whoever was in that class, you can’t pick and choose your collaborators.
I will be honest though, my entire friends’ circle decided to take this class together so that we could work together. It was an amazing experience to work so closely with everyone. However, going the friends route meant that in a group of 14, there were only 5 production people and I was one of them – the pressure was intense. But I guess that is why I am so attached to this film. We made a really good final product against all odds.
Another memorable project that I worked on is the Zootopia experience that’s being constructed in Disneyland Shanghai as we speak! It’s a great ride and I’m sure everyone will enjoy it.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
In animation, if you want to get hired you have to make very specific portfolios that highlight your strengths. I learnt this over time and by applying to many many places. People are usually looking to hire on a project basis and you need to mold your portfolio to their requirements as far as you can.
Secondly, you need to network and make good connections. I would suggest working on as many projects as you can (it certainly worked for me) as it makes you more versatile and also helps you meet and interact with a lot of talented people.
Thirdly, animation is a particularly collaborative and tough field. To survive it you need to be a very passionate worker and to thrive in it you will need to learn how to work with others.
Finally, you have to really love animation to pursue it. India’s animation landscape is currently not where we would like it to be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Young and creative minds will always be able to make a difference.
Honestly, I see myself leaning towards game design in the future. I feel like i have always had multiple interests and game design is a space that will be able to accommodate the kind of things I want to work on- involving various aspects of storytelling, animation production, and cinema- game design is constantly evolving with technology and I think that is a good future goal for me to keep evolving as an artist, animator and 3D Generalist.
The full potato experiment
Some fun videos I did as experiments:
My work can be found at: