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The student becomes a teacher – Lessons in Harmony from Melissa Graziano-Humphrey

Tags: Storyboard Pro Animation Education Harmony

Melissa is a Filmmaker, Animator and Storyboard Artist whose skills include traditional animation (hand-drawn), tradigital animation (hand-drawn on computer), 3D, stop-motion, puppeteering and hybrid animation. Originally from Connecticut, she moved to L.A. in 2006 to pursue an MFA in Film. Since then she’s carved out a niche teaching [Toon Boom Harmony] to everyone from college students to working professionals. We asked her about what it’s like to teach Harmony.

When did you first become interested in being an animator?

I first became interested in becoming an animator at age 10, just after I saw The Lion King in the theater. I had always enjoyed writing stories and illustrating them, and up until I saw that movie, I thought I was going to be an author/illustrator when I grew up. The Lion King was the first time I thought of animation as a career choice; here were all these people making a living from drawing Simba all day! But at that age, I was also entertaining the possibilities of becoming a marine biologist or a Supreme Court Justice. It wasn’t until several years later when I was in high school that I decided to forego other possible career plans and focus on animation.

You have experience in many forms of animation.  What is it about 2D animation that makes it your favorite?  

I actually love hybrid animation best: combining 2D and stop-motion. There’s something magical about seamlessly combining different animation styles to create something that couldn’t have existed any other way. I love animating with paper and fabricated puppets because I can more intuitively feel what the character is doing, how they’re moving, than with drawn animation. But I also appreciate the fluidity and unlimited possibilities of hand-drawn lines. I think that’s why I fell in love with rigged Harmony animation: it’s the best of both worlds!

What was your first exposure to Harmony?  

I was first introduced to Toon Boom Studio back in 2004 while studying animation at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England. One of the other students was using it for traditional paperless animation. It was my first exposure to vector art but Toon Boom was easy to pick up. I used it on a few small personal projects before being hired a few years later as a cleanup animator on a pilot that used Toon Boom.  That was my first professional animation job. At the time, not many people in Los Angeles knew how to use Toon Boom, so they were eager to have someone who knew how the software worked and how to best utilize it.MGH_art01_Tsani-899621-edited.jpg

When do you first begin teaching Harmony?

Fast forward to about three years ago, when I was hired to teach Toon Boom through Studio Arts, an organization in Los Angeles that trains industry artists how to use different software. I had just started teaching at Loyola Marymount University when one of the professors there remembered my earlier work in Toon Boom and recommended me to Studio Arts, who were looking for a Harmony teacher. “No problem!” I thought. I contacted Toon Boom to update my knowledge since I hadn’t used the software in a while…and I’m glad I did! The software had grown by leaps and bounds so I refreshed my knowledge through Toon Boom’s training program.

Where are you currently teaching Harmony?

I still teach through Studio Arts, where I’m often hired to visit various Los Angeles area studios and train the artists how to use Harmony.  I’ve also taught [Storyboard Pro] through them, too. I also teach Harmony through The Animation Guild, where I train artists in the animation industry how to use the software over a series of weekend classes. I also still teach at LMU and occasional workshops at USC.

How does Harmony accommodate different learning styles / teaching methods?

Harmony scales well with different groups. I can keep things simple for those who are not terribly computer or animation-savvy, or dive deep into the nitty-gritty technical stuff, and both approaches will have great results. The nice thing about Harmony is that I can teach someone who knows how to animate traditionally to animate with Harmony within a few hours. I can also teach someone who doesn’t know how to animate how to animate a bouncing ball within the same amount of time as I would if they were animating on paper.

What are some of the differences in teaching Harmony in an academic vs. a workplace setting?   

Generally speaking, when you’re teaching at the college level, everyone has the same amount of experience. And I don’t just mean experience in animating; most of the kids in college now have used computers for nearly their entire lives, so they’re used to using software and hardware including Cintiqs.

On the other hand, when I’m teaching professionals there’s usually a much wider skill range. One of the first classes I taught through the Guild included an older student with decades of traditional animation industry experience but who didn’t know the difference between right click and left click. Meanwhile, in the very same class, I had another student who had previously watched all the online tutorials and had started animating in the program before my class even started. In those situations, my job becomes more difficult, as I have to balance between people with different learning needs. Because of this experience, I’ve initiated my own “No Student Left Behind” policy; I encourage my students to stop me whenever they have questions because so much of what I’m teaching builds upon previously taught concepts.

The other difference is, when I’m training artists at a studio they usually don’t need to know all of the different aspects of the program in order to do their job. For instance, background painters don’t really need to know how to rig, but they do need to know how to separate their drawing layers, add pegs to those layers, and export their BGs as templates. So they don’t need to be taught the entire curriculum, just what their job calls for. However, I do like to give an overview of the entire production pipeline for all artists so they understand where their work fits into the overall project.

When it comes to cut-out animation, how do you get students past a fear of the technical aspects of rigging?  

I start my classes with the foundations of traditional animation and build off that. First, I teach them how to animate traditionally in the program so they understand the concept of Drawing Elements and Drawing Substitutions. Then we put animated Drawing Elements on Pegs (usually a run cycle) so they know the difference between animating with Drawing Substitutions and animating with Pegs. I do all that before even touching rigged characters. Once the foundations are there, I show them a very simple rigged puppet and have them play with it for a while. After they understand how to animate the puppet we go into how the puppet was rigged.

Whenever I show students the Node View of a rigged puppet for the first time, there’s usually an audible, visceral reaction. Initially, it appears to be a confusing mess of boxes and wires that can scare away even the heartiest of artists. I tell my students, “Don’t panic. I promise by the time the class is over, you will all understand what everything here is, and how it works, and may even come to love the Node View.” I emphasize how the Node View is a more visual representation of the Timeline View, how it allows one to see the hierarchy of nodes better. Then we start creating and rigging a simple character from scratch.

I’m always surprised how deep into rigging some students get; sometimes it’s the students who were most afraid of it at first who are the most curious about learning more at the end. Of course, some people still prefer hand-drawn animation, but they’re still determined to make their puppet animation look good.

Having worked with so many students, what factors increase the odds of success when learning how to animate?  

I advise perseverance and practice over anything else. I have one foot in the Millennial generation, so I understand how failure seems to not be an option for students just learning how to animate in their late teens/early 20s. They want their stuff to be perfect the first time, and that’s just not going to happen. I try to encourage them to just do it – make their mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Don’t obsess. I tell them, one of the nice things about working on computers is that you can always go back and change it later. Learn from it, move on. It’ll be better next time. The more you practice, the more stuff you’ll make, the faster you’ll get to the good stuff.

Do you think we are at the point where people can learn all of the skills needed to be an animator online?  

Maybe, if one is an incessantly stubborn self-starter who can find a really good mentor. Or if you’re more into the experimental side of animation and not so fussed with character stuff, or finding a job. The problem with learning anything online is the lack of immediate feedback.  When you’re learning software for the first time and you don’t have someone readily available to help you when things go wrong, it’s easy to become frustrated and want to quit. When I was first learning Maya, I initially tried to learn from books and online tutorials. It was a mess, and it was hard to keep up with along with all the other studying I was doing at the time.

What is your response when a student asks you “how long will it take me to learn to animate”?  

I tell them, “That depends. I can teach you how to make crappy computer animation in about five minutes. But to animate well, you have to be willing to put the time in. It’s just like learning anything else.” There’s the old adage about putting in 10,000 hours before one masters any skill and I think that holds true. A few years ago I heard Richard Williams say something like, “I think I’m finally getting the hang of this animation thing!” Then he showed us a sneak peek of Prologue, which is an absolute masterpiece. And he wasn’t humble-bragging, either; he truly feels that it’s only been recently that he’s truly mastered the art he’s been practicing his entire life. And he animated all those crazy contortions and perspective-shifting camera moves on Who Framed Roger Rabbit 30 years ago!

It’s useful to share with students how great animators and artists like Chuck Jones, Richard Williams, and Maurice Noble would struggle with their artwork, drawing the same thing over and over, sometimes for days at a time, filling up their wastepaper baskets with imperfect drawings until they found the one that worked. Art is a struggle, even for the masters. The sooner you come to peace with that—the sooner you allow yourself to fail—the happier you’ll be. And your drawing will improve.