23/02/22 • News & Happenings

How to be an Animator: Part Five

With Grace McDonnell

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Grace McDonnell, Animation Director

In our latest instalment of How to be an Animator, Animation Director Grace McDonnell shares with us how she transitioned from musician to animator without ever missing a beat.  

Take it away, Grace! 

From as early as I can remember I have always loved animation. When I was young, my family owned and ran a video library and I remember sitting on a stool behind the counter after being collected from kindergarten and being allowed to watch cartoons. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of watching The Black Cauldron. It always amazed me how anything could be brought to life. Dinosaurs, mice, cats, rabbits, ducks, dogs, wizards – the list is endless. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, An American Tale, Looney Tunes, The Fox and the Hound, Bambi, you name it, I watched it. I just couldn’t get enough.  

From School to University 

I really loved drawing growing up and art class was always my favourite subject in school. I’m dyslexic and really struggled in school. I had to take extra classes for several years to help me with my studies and I always found academic subjects difficult, favouring the more creative ones. Back then there wasn’t much, if any, help for students with learning difficulties. Yet my mother always went above and beyond and managed to get me help through the Dyslexia Association of Ireland.  

It was also my mother who insisted that me and my siblings all learn a musical instrument. She loved music, but never learned to play an instrument. So, my five siblings and I all learned to play two instruments each. I ended up learning to play classical violin and saxophone as well as taking music theory lessons. I attended the Royal Irish Academy of Music for several years and played with the Royal Irish Wind Ensemble, while also being involved in local orchestras and choirs with my siblings.   

I really feel that having a background in music really helped me with my animation later. With music it’s all about timing, rhythm and the beats or breaks in the music. The combination of these results in the telling of a story, whether a nursery rhyme, a symphony or an opera. Animation is much the same. The beats and rhythm of the movement give life to the character. Everything tells a story and has a reason behind it. Fantasia and Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies are both great examples of this, and I especially love What’s Opera Doc. Chuck Jones is a legend and my all-time favourite animator. 

My childhood love of animation never went away and when it came to the end of secondary school, I applied to study animation in college. With my dyslexia and mid-level grades I didn’t think I’d get into any of the bigger art schools in Ireland. The points were so high, and they usually insisted students did an extra portfolio year before applying for the courses. In the end, I went to a smaller college which ran a 3-year course in animation with a 1-year add on for a degree with a university in the UK. After my interview, all I had to do was pass my exams. I was a nervous wreck for months, worried I’d fail my exams, but luckily, I didn’t. So, off I went to get my BA Hons degree in Animation! 

Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells

Getting my First Job in the Industry 

After university It was tough trying to find work. The likes of Sullivan Bluth (An American Tail) and Murakami-Wolf (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) were no longer operating in Ireland. I couldn’t get a job in animation for about a year. My first ever job in the industry was in 2006 with Cartoon Saloon. I ended up working on a show of theirs called Skunk Fu as a layout/background artist. During this time, Cartoon Saloon were also working on a feature called Brendan and the Secret of Kells – later shortened to The Secret of Kells. We used to sneak down on our coffee break to see the artists working away. The room was always so dark as they were working on paper and using lightboxes. I’d never seen artists working on a feature before, I was in awe. Learning and seeing the differences between feature and broadcast animation was very eye-opening. 

A Decade of Dedication and Learning 

After Cartoon Saloon I started working as an animator and pretty much stayed as a character animator working in broadcast. I did at times briefly work in rigging, prep animation, FX, and character designs. This really gave me a great understanding of all the different departments and how instrumental they are to the overall process, as well as a better understanding of the pipeline and how each department work together. 

Over the years I ended up working on shows for Cartoon Network, Disney, BBC, and Amazon. One of my favourites – and a challenge for me personally as it was my first job as an animator – was on the first season of The Amazing world of Gumball with Boulder Media. I wasn’t used to the extreme attention to detail that was needed when I started and really had to put in a lot of work on my end to improve. I attended as many courses as I could afford money and time wise through Animation Skillnet Ireland, and I was always in the studio early and stayed late. Not really to work but to study. I would back up copies of my favourite scenes and break them down technically in the program and creatively with the timing, spacing, poses etc. This really improved not just my animation but also my workflow. If I was unsure about something, I would just go and ask the person who animated the scene. I learned so much doing this and made so many friends at the same time. I’ve also had to learn a lot of programs throughout my career. I can now animate in four different programs, Toon Boom Harmony, Animate, Moho and Celaction.  

Netflix’s The Cuphead Show!

From 2017 – Today 

I moved back to Kilkenny to work with Cartoon Saloon again in 2017.I worked on a show with them called Pete the Cat. I had several titles on that show and once I finished on that project, I moved to work with Lighthouse Studios, also based in Kilkenny. I started as a senior animator working in the retakes department and quickly became an animation supervisor. I worked as an animation supervisor on two shows, Season 2 of If you give a Mouse a Cookie for Amazon and The Cuphead Show for Netflix. I’ll never forget the week we started animation on The Cuphead Show, the entire country went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We left work on a Friday and by the Monday we all had to work from home. Everyone really pulled together to create a stunningly beautiful looking show, and all through a pandemic, from start to finish.  

In the middle of this, In December 2020, I was promoted to the role of Animation Director for a project called Little Ellen with Warner Bros. Animation. It’s my first credit with the title and I can’t believe it’s been over year now. It was difficult as I was still, like everyone else, working from home when I started. Taking on the extra responsibility and challenges that came with it has been beyond enlightening. I love learning and always strive to improve wherever I can, both artistically and with my creative thinking. Luckily things have been opening up and we’ve slowly and safely been able to go back in-house. I am extremely proud of the work the whole crew has done from every department. Working with such a big studio Like WBA has been great. As I said, Chuck Jones is a hero of mine and being able to work with the studio that he made such amazing animation with has been amazing.  

Throughout my career I never really had any set goals, I just really wanted to work on great shows with amazing people, and I always loved learning new things and teaching or helping others. I suppose my main ‘goal’ was to never let my dyslexia be an issue, I didn’t want it to hold me back, and I don’t think it ever has.  

Huge thanks to Grace for sharing her journey with us! Want to hear more from our artists? Then stay ‘tooned’ for the next instalment in our How to be an Animator series! 

Missed the last instalment? Find Part Four here! 

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