- University of Johannesburg, Bachelor of Arts in Art
“It’s often a very emotional thing working in the animation industry,” says Professor Leigh Rens. “We’ve all grown up watching animated films and we all want to work as animators or directors for companies like Pixar or Disney. The reality is we may have to work at two or three small studios before we get a chance to work for these companies, which is why it’s so important for us to manage our expectations and our careers.”
Rens speaks from experience. In 1990, he started working for a small film company operating out of a house in South Africa. Starting off as a camera grip, Rens moved into post-production at a time when animated flying logos for commercials and broadcast were big business for any company with an SGI computer. “A lot of what I know about the industry,” he says, “I learned while working there. Whether it’s time management, workflow, dealing with clients, or storyboarding, those principles still apply.”
In 1996, Rens moved to Los Angeles where he began working on effects and character animation for MetroLight Studios. Three years into his career there, the company asked him to work on Poseidon’s Fury: Escape from the Lost City, an interactive film experience projected onto five water screens at Universal Studios Florida. “I was still doing effects animation at the time,” he says, “and having to animate across five screens taught me a lot about attention to detail. The big finale at the end where the whole city explodes, that was all done by me.”
In 2000, Rens got his first chance to do character animation for the DVD movie Dragonheart: A New Beginning. From there, he went on to animate characters for several feature films, including Scooby Doo, Garfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Later, he used his experience to help Blockade Entertainment find new ways to make storytelling in video games more dynamic and more cost efficient.
Despite his success over the years, Rens is still humble about his expectations. “When I first started at Digital Domain,” he says, “I thought I was going to work on some amazing movie, like Titanic. However, when I arrived, they put me on a commercial first. That just goes to show you that no matter how talented you are, you’re not going to get the big movie until they can figure out whether what’s on your reel is you.”
Rens began teaching online classes for Animation Mentor in 2007. Five years later, Professor Bill Kroyer (Fern Gully), a longtime mentor and friend who met Rens while they were both working at MetroLight Studios, invited him to teach at Chapman University.
“A lot of teaching is helping students understand that animation is a very cerebral experience. Most people think it’s simple, like a performance done by an actor,” he says. “What they don’t realize is that every movement, gesture, and expression is carefully planned and thought through. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of breaking things down into their basic elements, then combining all of those elements back together so that it all looks fluid, natural, and complex, even though it’s very simple. If you can coach a student into understanding that, it becomes easier for them to achieve what they’re after.” That process is pretty much like building a career in animation, as Rens has –one step at a time.