Graduate Interview: Sarah Crombie

Sarah Crombie graduated from the Animation and Visual Effects course at Falmouth in 2012 and is now working as a prop maker at Factory Transmedia on the outskirts of Manchester. Coincidentally, Sarah works at the very same site that was once occupied by another stop-motion company, Hot Animation, where this interviewer worked many years ago as a stop-motion animator on Bob the Builder, so it was great to chat to Sarah about how her career is progressing.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you are working on at the moment?

I’m working in Manchester for a company called Factory Transmedia. They’ve got a lot of stop-motion projects going on, there seems to be quite a stop-motion boom in Manchester. I’ve just finished working on Club Penguin, which was a show for the Disney Channel. It was originally a flash game and then Disney bought it and is re-launching it as a stop-motion show. Disney is contracting out the animation to us; they come and visit us from time to time. I was working as an on-set model maker, so dealing with broken props or things that have been forgotten or are needed in an emergency, or anything that the director wants to change or add. The pre-production prop making was done elsewhere, so I was the only model maker working on set while they were filming.

Are you making things to other people’s designs or do you get to have some design input yourself?

The designs for Club Penguin come in from Disney so we have to work to them, but what I really love about this job is that I get my satisfaction out of making something that is exactly the way that it was designed. I’ve also done a bit of set dressing, which has a lot more to do with your own opinions and judging the best way that something looks. I actually found that quite hard, getting back into using my own opinions. I was looking at things and thinking, ‘I have no idea whether that looks good’, because normally that part of my brain is switched off. But on the whole I get my satisfaction from being given very specific designs and instructions and making it exactly to those designs.

It sounds like you really enjoy the work?

Yes I do. It’s fun. It’s exciting. I do sometimes pinch myself and say “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this; this is so cool.”

I have to ask you this, do you get to see anything of The Clangers.

I know the teams that are making it, it’s all part of the same organization up here, but of course I can’t say anything about it [grins]. Of course it’s really exciting. I really hope that stop-motion in kid’s animation is going to make a comeback. What’s exciting about our project is that it’s the only stop-motion project that Disney has at the moment and it’s being made in the UK.

What were did you do before you went to work for Factory Transmedia?

Well there was a group animation graduates, people from Birmingham, Staffordshire, Southampton, students from all over the country who met via networking and became an animation collective called Yanimation, and we made a few things together. I worked on a lot of other people’s short films; a couple of shorts that haven’t been released yet. One of them was called The Tissue. It’s a product of the Skylarks Fund; they give you money to come up with an idea. I was working with the director on that film when I first started venturing into model-making. We also worked on a Cravendale advert. Most of it was done in London, but they didn’t have the space to do the whole thing there so a bit of it was sub-contracted out to Birmingham where we built the kitchen set and the house. That was all done in two weeks; it was really intense but a lot of fun. We also did a small portion of a Coca Cola advert, building big houses for sets.

Did you go straight from University into working with Yanimation?

No I didn’t. I kind of wasted my time after I graduated and spent a year working in retail. I think that had a lot to do with not being confident enough. I wouldn’t recommend that other people do what I did. I got offered a managerial promotion and thought, ‘No! I don’t want to do this!’ So I moved to Birmingham and that’s where I got involved with the Yanimation group and started the model making. I’m angry with myself that I lost that year, so I’d say to people try not to do that, or rather don’t get distracted by other jobs. We all have to make a living somehow but try not to fall into that pit. What it did do though is that it made me realise that I still wanted to work in animation, and it enabled me to earn a bit of money and save a bit, which bought me some time. I did a lot of free work and the money from the job enabled me to do that. That’s an inevitable thing in stop-motion. There are a lot of graduates wanting to do it, so you need to be in a position where you can work for free for a while to get a foot in the door. You may also need to leave home to be in the right area. So it helped to have the money from the job. I think I would have done it anyway, but the money made things a bit easier. I also found that moving away from London made things a lot easier. The competition is very fierce in London and people are very protective of their jobs, but once you move a bit further north people are a lot more willing to help you and give you the opportunities. Birmingham has a really small creative community, but everyone knows each other and everyone helps each other out, which really helps you to get a foot on the ladder.

How do you find freelance working? Do you prefer it to a permanent contract?
There’s obvious pros. to freelancing. You get to move around. You get to see the country. And because of that you meet way more people than you would on a permanent contract and from my experience pretty much all of my work has come through recommendations from people that I have worked with. So that’s one good thing. With a permanent contract you don’t get that. I like freelancing because it means that you know that what you’re doing isn’t how your life is going to be forever. If you’re not totally enjoying that job you know there’s an end point and you can move on to something else. It also gives you the opportunities to be regularly moving up to do better things. You can make more progress. I actually get quite scared about getting stuck in one place because I want to have better projects in my future so I prefer it if the contracts aren’t actually too long. Model making is so broad and I still have so much more to learn, and I want to learn how to do other things that I might not have the opportunity to do in this job. I’d love to learn to do poly carving at some point; in my last job I did a lot of mold making and got really good at that, so you collect new skills in each job.

Do you have ambitions to one day be in charge of your own model-making workshop?

I’m not really sure yet what my long-term aims are. I do have ambitions, but at the moment it’s just to be much better at my job. I love learning new things but the minute I stop learning I want to move on. I also think it’s still quite hard as a woman, to get to run a model-making department. Our department is run by a lady called Barbara and when I mention this to people they tend to say ‘oh a woman!’ It’s quite an unusual thing. I sometimes find people taking tools out of my hand because I’ a girl; it’s something that you do have to fight for, especially if you want to use the bigger machines. There is still a lot of prejudice around about women and things involving construction. My boss at the moment, the production designer, was a model maker before he was a production designer and I’ve started to think that might be something that I’d like to do. It’s the production designer that gives the designs to the model making department, so if you start as a model maker you have a better understanding of the process, so that ‘s something I might think about doing in the future.

Has it been as you expected, or have you had some surprises?

After a year of retail I think I lost most of my expectations, but that was a good thing because then I was just grateful for the opportunities that I did get. I think probably the main difference between university and work is the teamwork. Students are so focused on their own degree and what they are going to get out of it, so even though teamwork is a really big part of the course at Falmouth you’re always focused on your own ideas and your own creativity. But working in the industry means that you are focused on realizing other people’s ideas, while working as part of a big team.

What’s the best thing about the work that you do?

The most gratifying thing is making something to the best of my ability, and making it exactly to someone else’s designs. Also I love learning new skills, and I love being a part of a team and the team morale that you get with stop-motion. Making a stop-motion production is a bit like climbing mountain; its hugely rewarding but there are some horrible parts to it and you get to a point where everyone’s moaning and everyone hates their job and they’re all saying ‘I’m never doing this again’. Then you get the inspirational speech from the producer at the end and suddenly you forget the bad points and sign up for the next one. Our producer said to me when he asked me to do the next Club Penguin, ‘has there been enough time since the last one for you to have forgotten all the bad points and want to come back for more?’ I’m probably giving the impression that it’s a bit of a nightmare, but that’s the point; it can be really hard but it’s also really great and really satisfying, and particularly because you’re all doing it together.

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

Well, aside from all the practical animation things that you learn there like the principles of animation, Falmouth was a really safe environment in which to try everything out and to be able to make mistakes and find out exactly what it is that you want to do, and also what you don’t want to do. Animation is such a broad subject and there are so many different elements to it and different stages of the production process. At university you get a little bit of exposure to all of these and you find the elements that you like and you start experimenting. You learn the principles of animation that apply across the board, which is great, and getting exposure to the main bits of software is also great, although there is so much software out there what I have realized since leaving is that no course can be expected to teach all of it. You get a bit of exposure to it and then you take that and become expert in the things that you like. You think, ‘Well now I’ve tried it I know that I don’t want to do that, but this is kind of cool, and this is kind of cool’.

Another thing that was really important for me about leaving Falmouth was having a really good network of animation friends. I think that making firm friends within animation, and sticking with the people that you meet at university, is a really good thing to do and a great thing to come out of the course with.

Have you any advice for students who are contemplating starting an animation degree?

Do what you love. If you have a very strong idea about which area of animation you want to go into choose a course that is strong in that area or specializes in that area. For me I didn’t know at that stage which part of the industry I wanted to go into so I chose Falmouth because it introduces you to a bit of everything and that’s really benefited me. I found it was really hard to know what I wanted to specialize in until I’d been immersed in that animation environment, so for me going to a course that gave me that broad introduction was perfect. I think that’s what worked for me about it.

What are your hopes for where your career might take you? What would you like to be doing in maybe 5 or 10 years time?

I don’t actually have any specific idea of where I want to be, but I think that’s a good thing. Having such a specific aim can be a real driving force for some people, but it can be detrimental if it means that you turn down opportunities that you think aren’t going to get you to where you visualize yourself. In life you get opportunities and you sometimes fall into areas that you never thought you’d be in and you end up loving it.

Thank you Sarah. It was really great taking to you again, and it’s really good to see you thriving up there.

For more information on what Factory Create do please see their website here:

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