Graduate Interview: Olly Skillman-Wilson

Olly Skillman-Wilson graduated from the Falmouth Animation & Visual Effects course in 2012 with a first class honors degree, and was the winner of the course's first Le Skull D'Or student award for excellence in the same year.  During his third year he wrote and directed a 3D computer-animated film, Kernel, which remains a favorite of staff and students on the course. Olly now works in the commercials department at Aardman Animations. We caught up with him a few weeks ago to talk about life since graduation.

How are you finding life working for Aardman?

I love it, yeah I love it there. The people are amazing and it’s just a good place. It’s a good atmosphere to work in and they have some interesting directors that we work with who have a nice visual style and that just makes things more interesting to work on. 

What are you doing up there? What’s your role or job title?

I’m a lighting artist in the commercials department. I’m kind of the penultimate step before the final commercial is made, before compositing. When all the animation has been done and all the assets have been built I take all of that stuff and put the lights in and render out the actual images.  But everyone has a back-up skill so depending on who’s busy and what’s required I’ll do modelling and texturing as well.  It’s fairly balanced between those things. 

Do you have to work in a darkened room to do that? I know the lighting people at Dreamworks have to work in low lighting to be able to see the screens properly. 

I think the compositors are especially keen on darkness because they’ve got to get all the colours right and all that fiddly stuff that the client will be really specific about. It helps to be able to see what you are doing really clearly but it’s not as vital for me to be able to see completely accurate colour values. But all the lighters work in the compositing room so they’re working in similar conditions.

Sainsburys Commercial.
Image by kind permission of Aardman Animations.

Can you tell me any of the commercials you’ve worked on? 

Recently we’ve been working on Sainsbury’s commercials. We did a Vimto commercial, and there was a big thing we did a few months ago - the BBC world cup trails - where there are lots of subbuteo characters.  It was a really big thing in terms of the amount of work that there was to do. There were weekly episodes in the build up to the world cup that we worked on. 

Is working in the industry as you expected it to be, or have there been some surprises? 

I think I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Probably the biggest surprise was when I first started and I just didn’t really have any concept of what a studio’s workflow would be because at university it was just us and the machines that we had, and trying to figure all of that out. It’s obviously going to be a little bit messy in comparison to here.  Here at the moment we have a Linux based workflow but we also have windows machines that we use when we need to work with Adobe packages like Photoshop. Aardman have their own proprietary asset management system and then there’s a render farm and all that connects together. That was just stuff I’d never dealt with before. Using Linux and things like that was a bit of a shock. But they’re all really helpful so you pick it up really quickly. We’re about to totally rework a number of things in the pipeline so it’s always evolving. 

What is the best thing about working in animation? 

Sometimes you are working on a project, and maybe it’s with people you have worked with before, but there’s just a certain amount of trust that they have in you. You're given a bit of creative licence and have ownership over the thing that you’re making. It’s just so much more rewarding than following instructions and having to tweak something endlessly. 

World Cup 2014 BBC Trails. 
Image by kind permission of Aardman Animations.

Did you get that job pretty much straight away or did you work elsewhere first? 

Pretty much straight away, at the end of August. I had done some work experience at Hello Charlie a few years before and met a freelance animator there who I kept in touch with. I heard about a work experience opportunity at Aardman through him and did that after I graduated, and I sort of just stayed. They approached me whilst I was doing the work experience to offer me the job. 

Have your ambitions for your career changed since graduating? Or is this pretty much where you thought you’d be? 

I wasn’t sure what I’d end up doing. I always had ambitions to be in the games industry, which this is not, although Aardman do have a digital department who do a lot of app based web based game based stuff. They do a variety of things, and occasionally the CG department and the digital department collaborate on projects together. We did an app for NatWest and RBS, which was like a village fair. It was a game that tries to teach kids to save their money when get a bank account, so you’d set up a little stall and there were characters that we created and things like that. 

What are the most valuable things that you learned at Falmouth that have helped you with your career? 

Just having a really good work ethic and commitment to your work. I don’t think I’ve worked as hard since leaving university as I did at university - it was just nuts - I think that served me really well. Also having it mandatory as part of the coursework to have business cards and a blog, a portfolio and a show-reel, which you just need to be able to show people what your work looks like. It’s really useful. Five or six of us went to a Skillset event and having something to show and something to give out made talking to people much easier, and I’m still trying to keep my blog going because I love having a record of that stuff. 

World Cup 2014 BBC Trails.
Image by kind permission of Aardman Animations.

Have you any advice for new students who are studying animation of visual effects? 

Well once they’re at university I think trying as much different stuff as possible but then also specialising in one of the things that you enjoyed as early as possible. If you end up with a bunch of skills, none of which are at a professional level by the end, you don’t really know what to aim for when you’re applying for a job. If you’ve developed something to an extent where you can actually compete with other graduates and other professionals, that’s a massive advantage. 

Have you ever thought about going it alone or forming your own company? 

Yeah we definitely thought about it - me and a group of people - and there’s always opportunities that Falmouth and other places that have, schemes to incubate small businesses. We definitely thought about it. But I think in the end we all wanted slightly different things and I was really nervous about doing that without any other experience.

What are you hopes for where you career might take you next? 

I think games still. When I left university we had exit interviews and we were asked to pick a role that we wanted to aim for. I think I had a couple - I couldn’t narrow it down - and those aims have become more realistic since leaving. I wanted to be a narrative designer in games but I have done no writing and no programming, so that kind of ruled that out, but I could work in modelling and texturing in games. 

Do you have any advice for the students who are just graduating now? 

I think getting as much work experience as you can, which is really difficult when you don’t know anyone. And you might have to go and do work experience in a place where you have to pay for accommodation which is really awkward. But what got me my job at Aardman was having had work experience at Hello Charlie in the summer holidays when I was at university.  So yeah, do any work experience that you can get and make the connections with other people.

Still from Kernel (2012)


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