Animation Collaboration: Why One Successful KCAD Grad Sees Mentorship as Vital
Animation is one of the most intensely competitive industries out there. So you have to wonder why James Suhr, KCAD alum (’99, Illustration) and storyboard revisionist at Walt Disney Television Animation, has been going out of his way to help aspiring animators make the journey to success.
For the past two years, Suhr has been mentoring KCAD Digital Media student Ed Kindsvater, critiquing his work and schooling him on the realities of a field that Suhr believes is ultimately driven more by collective knowledge than individual achievement. During a recent visit to KCAD, in which he treated students to a series of presentations and workshops as well as an open portfolio review session, Suhr talked about the importance of adopting a lifelong learner's mindset when it comes to succeeding in animation.
“I just love learning the field,” Suhr said. “There are so many talented people already in animation, and so many more people wanting to get into the field, that if you don’t keep pushing yourself, you can kind of get sidetracked in your progression, eventually falling off the map and becoming forgotten. You have to keep moving to where you want to go, and you have to do that while also staying close as possible to the center of where things are happening.”
That mindset has opened some big time opportunities for Suhr, including work on the Universal Studios film, Despicable Me; the Nickelodeon television series, Kung-Fu Panda, Legend of Awesomeness; and hit Disney television shows Gravity Falls and Wander Over Yonder. But despite a growing reputation and a hectic work schedule, he remains committed to his role as a mentor.
“When we band together as artists and work with one another, we all succeed,” said Suhr. “We’ll personally succeed, and the field will also succeed, because we have a voice and we push that voice forward.”
Suhr gets down to business during an open portfolio review session at KCAD back in October
Fittingly, Suhr and Kindsvater first crossed paths on a collaborative blog, started by 2014 Digital Media grad Evie Stormzand, where KCAD students and alumni gather, pushing each other to draw every day and share their work with the group. Suhr was struck by Kindsvater’s drive and talent, and asked him to start sending work along regularly. But he made it clear that for the relationship to work, Kindsvater would have to match his level of commitment.
“There’s a little leeway that I give when I talk to students, but I try to hold them to the same standard I was held to when I first started in the industry,” said Suhr. “That’s my honesty level.”
For Suhr, that standard is all about dedication. Without it, he’d have never made it out of Grand Rapids. After graduating from KCAD, Suhr entered UCLA’s Animation Workshop graduate program – not for the degree, but to have a better chance of getting plugged into the industry. He then earned his first industry job at Nickelodeon Animation Studios, where his work, while not artistically challenging, put his motivation and time-management skills to the test. As his career developed, Suhr continued to draw relentlessly and act as a sponge, soaking up experience and knowledge wherever he could. Kindsvater has been quick to emulate that mindset.
Honest feedback was the name of the game during Suhr's visit to KCAD, as were open portfolio reviews, which allowed every student in the audience to benefit from the individual feedbakc Suhr was giving
“Ever since I stated working with James, I’ve been taking the initiative to get more work on my plate,” said Kindsvater. “He’s committed 1000 percent to the process, and that’s the height I want to get to.”
The pair describe their process as a “critique sandwich” – brutally honesty feedback in between praise and positive reinforcement. Suhr will start by pointing out the elements of Kindsvater’s storyboards that are working well, and then proceed to lay out every single problem he sees, no matter how small.
The end objective though, is always to give students something to build on. Suhr doesn’t believe in spoon-feeding solutions – he wants his mentees to think for themselves and learn to quickly understand what a specific job or drawing requires of them. That means giving keen suggestions that enable students to discover their larger creative potential.
Suhr's feedback on one of Kindsvater's storyboards; here, Suhr is helping Kindsvater think cinematically about his process
“The thing is, I don’t want to tear you down; I want to give you hope,” said Suhr. “I have to let students know that this is the kind of scrutiny your work will be under as a professional, but I always want it to be hopeful and positive. I want people to believe that they can get there and achieve their dream.”
Another one of Kindsvater's storybpoard panels with feedback from Suhr; encouraging suggestions for improvement that build off existing strengths are a cornerstone of the "critique sandwich"
Working with Suhr has helped Kindsvater, who wants to become a storyboard artist himself, do just that. It’s also inspired him to work as a tutor in KCAD’s Digital Media Center, and to someday be the kind of professional animator who lifts others up in order to move the medium forward.
“James really genuinely enjoys helping people that he sees in a position that he used to be in,” said Kindsvater. “If you see somebody and you see potential in their work, you want to help them make the journey. Working in the Digital Learning Center, I really enjoy being able to help people out and give them 100% honesty and attention.”
Suhr's dedication to mentorship has inspired Kindsvater's passion for helping his fellow KCAD students succeed
The animation industry may be competitive, but consider this: an average animated production requires a creator, a head of story, an art director, and a whole host of executives, voice actors, character designers, storyboard artists, revisionists, color stylists, production managers, and cleanup artists, among many others. Most importantly, animation requires people like Suhr who understand how to converge their talents and perspectives with others.
“You can’t make great art in a vacuum,” he said. “Maybe you can for a while, but you need that constant pull of great ideas coming from other people looking at things. That’s what’s so great about working in animation - the more we stick together, the stronger we are as artists.”