Since the first entirely computer-animated film, Pixar’s Toy Story, was released in 1995, the industry has taken off, captivating children and adults alike. In fact, a chance viewing of the film Cars had a life-changing impact on Laura Han ’10. “I don’t remember why I put the movie on, but the first three minutes of that movie kind of brought me back to life. Just seeing the cars going around the track and the music—the way it was done was so riveting to me. It sparked an interest.”
Han, whose MIT degree is in management, was in the midst of figuring out her next career move. Over the next six months, she continued with her job at a marketing startup in New York City while exploring the possibility of switching to the field of computer-animated films. She took a course on the 3D computer-graphics application Maya and started attending industry talks.
“I was learning a new skill that I wasn’t good at initially—it kind of felt like I was writing with my left hand. What spurred me to keep going was that I was just so fascinated by it. That’s the part you just have to get through, and in the back of my mind that’s how I treated it. I told myself I would get better at it, and once I did it would be worth it.”
Han says it has, indeed, been worth it—in fact, it has changed her life. She left her job and enrolled in a year-and-a-half-long online degree program at Animation Mentor. A subsequent internship at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver saw her working on Hotel Transylvania 3 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before moving to Los Angeles to work for DreamWorks Animation on such movies as Abominable and The Croods 2. In March, she took a job with Walt Disney Animation Studios, where she is working on the forthcoming film Raya and the Last Dragon.
We say that we’re like the actors because we’re the ones who breathe life into the characters.
The nature of the work is something most people find surprising and hard even to imagine, Han says. The making of most films requires hundreds of people (anywhere from 300 to 500) assigned to such tasks as storyboarding, lighting, visual development, modeling, and character animation. That last one is where Han comes in.
“We say that we’re like the actors because we’re the ones who breathe life into the characters,” she explains. “I can be working on one shot for two to three months, depending on the complexity of it. And when I say ‘shot,’ it’s whenever the camera cuts, and each one can be as short as one second long. Every eye lash that moves or finger that twitches is something that the animators put in. I think a lot of people assume it’s mostly computer generated, but for the most part an animator physically put it in there.”
In order to make the characters come to life, it’s important to be able to connect with them, says Han, something she especially did in her work on Abominable with the protagonist, Yi. “In many ways I related heavily to her, and it allowed me to really understand her feelings and mindset as I worked with her through specific moments of the film. In animation, I’ve found it’s really important to be able to find these connections to the characters you will be ultimately animating, because we are essentially thinking, feeling, and acting on behalf on them.”
The work can be tedious, she admits, but for her the small details are what make it so rewarding. “My mom always tells me that she’s just thankful I have the patience to do it, because she never would,” she laughs. And as she sits down with the hundreds of others involved in making the movies for the final screening, she says, she still can’t believe she gets to be a part of the process. “Everyone who animated these movies always felt so far away to me,” she says. “Now being a part of it and able to sit down and watch the film with them is amazing.”
Animation “is something that I just never thought I would be doing,” Han says. She acknowledges that making a total career pivot was scary, but she highly recommends it to others who might be hesitant to do the same. “I just really want to encourage people to try to find their passion,” she says. “If there is something they’re already thinking about: Make the jump.”
Laura Han ’10 is an active MIT volunteer, including as an educational counselor and the chair of her 10th reunion. Keep an eye on the Tech Reunions page for updates on how important class milestones will be celebrated virtually in 2020.