Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn

With over two decades of experience in the animation industry, Jasmine Katatikarn has established herself as one of the top lighting artists in the field. She spent 10 years at Blue Sky Studios, lending her talents to acclaimed films like Ice Age, Rio, and Ferdinand. Jasmine has also worked extensively in visual effects at leading studios like Framestore and The Mill. 

Driven by a passion for education, Jasmine co-founded the Academy of Animated Art alongside fellow industry veteran Michael Tenzillo. Through targeted training programs, the Academy aims to equip aspiring 3D artists with the exact skills needed to thrive in their animation careers. 

In this in-depth post, we'll provide a window into Jasmine's inspiring journey and glean insights on lighting, 3D animation, and the future of the industry from her decades of hands-on experience.

If you're eager to dive into the full conversation, feel free to tune in to our podcast episode featuring Jasmine right here.

Discovering a passion for 3D animation

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine's creative instincts trace back to her childhood days spent drawing, crafting stories, and experimenting with different forms of art. However, she faced discouragement from pursuing art as a serious career path. The impractical stigma around creative fields led Jasmine to divert to other areas of study and work initially.

It was only later in life that Jasmine discovered animation as a viable option. After working in architecture and design, she decided to pursue a certificate program in computer animation. This proved to be a pivotal moment, revealing 3D art and animation as her true calling. 

Jasmine reflects on those early days of exploration - learning programs like Maya, testing character rigs, and crafting her first 3D scenes. The diverse array of roles across the animation pipeline appealed to her varied interests, from the technical to the artistic. She was hooked and never looked back.

Learning on the Job: The Making of an expert lighter

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn

Fresh out of school, Jasmine landed a position at Blue Sky Studios, an animation studio known for films like Ice Age and Rio, among many others. She had the opportunity to work on lighting teams for major feature projects, learning on the job from incredibly talented mentors. 

At most large studios, lighting specialists make up their own department. They are tasked with bringing the scenes to life through the prudent use of lighting elements like key, fill, and accent lights. Adjustments are made shot-by-shot under the guidance of lighting directors and supervisors. 

Jasmine confesses that the bulk of her lighting education happened in those day-to-day production experiences. Collaborating with other master artists, receiving critiques in daily reviews, and iterating scenes afforded her a level of learning no school could provide.

This hands-on approach to learning on real-world projects is a trademark of how skills are honed in the animation industry. Formal programs can provide the fundamentals, but much of the magic happens through the in-studio apprenticeship model.

The nuances of lighting in 3D scenes

When asked about the core principles of lighting, Jasmine insists it is equal parts technical and artistic. The technical knowledge of how to manipulate lights, surfaces, shadows, and other variables is mandatory. But real mastery goes deeper into the art of visual storytelling.

For Jasmine, the pillars of great lighting include:

  • Shaping - using light and shadow to create definition, focus, and depth in the scene and subjects.
  • Leading the viewer’s eye - controlling contrast, saturation, and other elements to guide the audience’s attention towards key narrative moments. 
  • Setting the mood - lighting can elicit a spectrum of emotions based on tone, color, and intensity. Lighting artists help set the emotional tone of each scene.

Rather than mechanically following a formula, Jasmine believes lighting is about enhancing the story’s ambiance and point of view. She asserts that you could have the most spectacularly lit environment, but it means nothing if the audience’s eye is not drawn to the right place at the right time.

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn
Snip from Jasmine’s Demo Reel, 2021

The impact of real-world lighting study 

In addition to on-set experience, Jasmine cites real-world lighting observation as a key to growth. She encourages lighting artists to train their eyes through nature walks, museum visits, or even analyzing mood and lighting in films. 

Noticing the interplay between outdoor lighting, weather, environment colors, and more builds strong intuitive skills. These insights translate directly to crafting convincing and dramatic lighting setups for CGI and 3D environments.

Jasmine also urges new lighting artists to study photography and cinematic lighting techniques. Many established practices around set lighting, three-point lighting, and using "kickers" trace directly to the foundations of traditional film and photography. The language between live-action and CGI lighting has significant overlap.

Setting the stage: The challenges of environments and animation

When asked what the most challenging 3D lighting situations entail, Jasmine points to animated environments and characters. Unlike product design or architectural visualizations with fixed still scenes, animation requires thinking about lighting in 4D - shaping the mood and story across time and motion. 

For example, a character may start a scene in darkness, emerge into a pool of light, and end in a color-shifted setting - all to underscore the emotional arc happening in the story. Lighting artists choreograph this visual experience shot-by-shot while ensuring consistency and fluidity between scenes.

Lighting also proves exponentially more complex for organic subjects like animated humans and creatures. The interaction between skin, hair, clothing, and environmental lighting introduces many variables. Jasmine cites subtle techniques like edge lighting and soft fill lights as indispensable for making organic models feel plausibly real.

The rise of the academy of animated art

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn

A passion for education and closing skill gaps led Jasmine and her co-founder Michael Tanzillo to start the Academy of Animated Art. While on recruiting trips for Blue Sky Studios, Jasmine was disheartened seeing student portfolios severely lacking in the areas needed for studio success. 

She reflected on her own costly academic programs, realizing she gained relatively little real-world preparation from them. It became evident that a curriculum tailored specifically to studio needs could make a huge difference.

The Academy of Animated Art was born from this goal of developing focused training that cost-effectively teaches students the actual skills required for 3D production roles. Courses like their flagship lighting program aim to balance software competency with underlying artistic foundations.

Staying nimble: Adapting to a changing industry

Illuminating a career in 3D animation: A deep dive conversation with Jasmine Katatikarn
A demonstration render from the Academy of Animated Art

For almost 10 years now, the Academy has refined its approach based on evolving industry demands. Early on, Jasmine noticed deficits in student portfolios around advanced creatures, textures, and environments. This led them to expand offerings to fill those gaps.

Most recently, Jasmine cites Substance Painter as an in-demand skillset that now underpins their environments and textures curriculum. They also aim to blend guided projects with a library of flexible learning materials students can leverage as needed. 

Rather than prescribing set courses, the Academy looks to build enduring, adaptable foundations while keeping pace with technology shifts. Jasmine sees this agility and alignment with studio needs as central to their student success.

Broadening access to animation career paths

Increasing diversity and opening access to animation careers remains an urgent focus for Jasmine and the Academy. She observes how financial barriers, software complexity, hardware limitations, and lack of exposure have long made animation inaccessible for many communities.

The Academy’s diversity initiatives include grant programs, outreach to underserved schools, and developing an early education pipeline. Their recently launched DAP (Diversity Action Program) brings a foundational animation curriculum to middle schoolers in New York City. This exposure can spark passion in future generations before they limit themselves based on assumptions around careers.

Jasmine also makes herself available to mentor future animators from diverse backgrounds. She knows first-hand how pivotal guidance and visibility can be in seeing oneself in this industry.

Leveraging AI: Boon or bust for animators?

As AI tools like ChatGPT explode in popularity, there is a mixture of excitement and apprehension around how they may transform creative fields like animation. Jasmine acknowledges pros and cons exist, but remains mostly optimistic about AI’s potential as an enhancing force.

She sees today's AI capabilities as limited, but rapidly improving. For example, text-to-image generators so far cannot produce production-ready 3D models. The quality is insufficient for professional use. However, everyday creators now have access to quick prototypes and mood boards that aid their early ideation process.

For lighting specifically, Jasmine envisions AI being able to quickly generate a base scene lit from a text description. This could drastically accelerate initial setup and exploration, while still needing refinement from the artist’s trained eye. Rather than fully automating roles, humans remain very much in the loop.

However, Jasmine cautions against over-reliance on AI tools without building underlying craft. Those who shortcut the artistic foundation risk reaching dead ends when basic prompts fail to capture nuanced lighting challenges. The most skilled individuals will combine software fluency, human creativity, and big-picture vision - things AI cannot yet provide.

Jasmine Katatikarn's journey illustrates the winding roads that can lead to a dream career in animation. Her proven success as an acclaimed lighting artist stems from a tireless commitment to her craft. By generously sharing her experiences and wisdom, Jasmine hopes to light the way for future generations of diverse young creatives.

As technologies continue to evolve, the role of human imagination, problem-solving and storytelling skills will remain timeless. For those inspired by the intersection of art and technology, there are infinite worlds left to illuminate. With people like Jasmine guiding the way, the future of animation looks brighter than ever.

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