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Finding Yourself with Vladimir Stanishevky

Vladimir Stanishevsky, 3D character animator at NEIGHBOR, talks about his journey from Russia to Minneapolis and the importance of finding yourself in everything you do.

Vimeo | Watch Perfect Fit

Reading Time | 13 minutes

We wanted to interview you specifically because there aren’t a lot of 3d character animators in town. Let’s start with why you came to Minneapolis.

I had a dream to go to Sony and I did all my best to match their standards. I pushed my animation far enough so when they were hiring, I actually got an internship there. But since I’m international, I didn’t get the visa to Canada. I had to look somewhere locally; it was urgent. The first thing that came up was Hybrid Medical Animation. From what research I’ve done, and it’s so true, Minneapolis is a very good community. A lot of things to do. It’s not one of the giant cities but it’s not small either. Working at Hybrid wasn’t exactly a character animation job; I had to be more generalist.

Let’s pause for one second because we didn’t cover this… you’re from Russia. People might not be familiar with that process of coming from a different county, getting a visa, working. You were at Ringling; you got a student visa to go there. It sounds like Sony is based in Canada and you couldn’t get a Canadian visa, but you were able to get a work visa in the US?

No, I am actually still on student visa. And the way it works, for example, when you graduate in the States as an American, or many other countries, there are supporting programs for you to go to Canada. But Russia doesn’t have one with Canada. Since I graduated from an American school, they want me to work here as well. For the first year, it’s kind of basic; everyone that applies gets it. But for an extension, it’s the STEM OPT extension, you have to be specific. You have to be qualified. That qualification is based on if something you studied or what you do is useful for the country by their criteria. Computer animation happened to get in that category. From our college I think only motion designers and computer animators are the ones that can apply for extension.

Wow, that’s weird.

Illustrators, fine artists, nobody. Because they seem to be computer oriented, anything you do with computers the States are kind of support it.

That’s kind of how I convinced my parents to let me study art.
So, I interrupted you. You were talking about Hybrid.

I didn’t stay there long probably because my direction was still kind of specific. Medical animation wasn’t the best fit. A few people told me about NEIGHBOR and I applied the same day. Next day I had an interview, and after the weekend I had an offer. When I started working there, the team are super nice people, the environment, the space is great. And there is much more character animation than I am used to.

It’s an amazing part of animation: creating life.

What draws you to specifically character animation?

I love character animation, because it’s so cool. I mean I love all the 3d processes, but when you have basically a puppet and you breathe life into—whatever you do with it people will watch and believe it’s a real thing. They will watch it and either care for it or they laugh at it or they’re angry at it. All the emotions they’re created basically by you. That’s so beautiful. It’s an amazing part of animation: creating life.

You like how the audience can connect to your work pretty readily because it is a moving character?

I do really like see how people watch what I’ve done, that really helps. Just for my own standpoint, when I bring something to life and I see it moving and alive, I start caring for it. It’s like my little creation, it comes to life. I don’t want to compare to God, but it’s almost like that. You create a little creature and see what happens. Whatever kind of characteristic you give it, it already kind of lives on its own.

It has a personality of its own even though you directly put all that in there. So, it sounds like you really are working with what you’re animating.

Correct, yes. The big part of, I feel like, any art process is looking for reference. The good thing for animation is I look for who potentially can be playing that character if you hire an actor. For example, I like movie characters so I’m like, “Jack black would do a really great job, what would he do?” So you give the personality to the character. Of course you have your own opinion there a lot, but you try to make it different so people can relate.

Do you watch a lot of tv shows and movies and look at the acting, or do you have something very specific in mind and you’re like “I need a dancing scene” and you just google dancing scenes.

It’s both. Sometimes you look for it in the movie and you find the perfect scene and—let’s say for my character, for my student film, the reference I looked at a lot—have you watched Hotel Transylvania? There’s a character, Mummy. He’s kind of a chubby guy and he’s very cocky, very confident. I was like that animation, the way he moves, and his character, very close to what my character is. And, in animation you don’t tell character through just his actions and what he says, but how he does that action: how he moves, how fast he does it, how slow he is at some point. That reference for movement, going frame by frame see what they’ve done for it to look that way is really helpful.

Perfect Fit – Vlad’s senior thesis project from 2016

Do you ever use live action reference? You mentioned Jack Black, do you seek out Jack Black movies or movies where people act pretty animated?

It’s quite often I’ll shoot or record myself or ask people to pose and play for me. That’s good for more like starting point or if you’re doing more realistic kind of animation. If you’re looking for exaggerated, I almost recommend always do it yourself and push as far as you can unless you have already animated reference. If you start with realistic, from the internet or somewhere you find, it’s really hard to push it there because sometimes you get stuck so much to those frames. It’s easier to start exaggerated and bring it back than keep on pushing it.

So you don’t want to depend too much on reference because it might become too stiff.

It’s great starting point and it’s definitely very helpful. It doesn’t matter how professional you are, to have some sort of reference, just take it farther.

We kind of talked about your origin story in terms of location, but how did you initially get interested in animation?

I always liked art since I was a baby. Whenever people asked me what I want to be, it was hard. “I want to draw, I want to be an artist”, but that never seems fine to anybody especially my dad. He was like, “that’s not going to make you money.” So, for that purpose, I came up with the word architect. I didn’t know what that means. I knew it was something good with art and it makes money so people stop asking me. So basically since 5 years old up to 16, I’ve been saying architect; never searching what they really do. But I’ve been drawing all the time. I’ve been drawing for myself. I went to extra art classes. I had a good traditional foundation. Towards the end of high school, I did apply for architect and I got accepted in Russia. But then I got this chance to go to Italy and Europe and I was like, “I’m going to Europe.” No question with that. And after that I applied to States and I applied as well to architecture just because I kinda promised many people, especially my family. And I applied for computer animation, motion graphics, all these fun jobs that I was really much more excited. Then I got a better scholarship for computer animation than architecture. I was like, “I guess I’ll take it”, because I never had this specific goal. But I always loved animation since—I mean we all grew up watching many cartoons.

So when you applied for computer animation did you really understand what that meant?

You know, not as much as what I understand now. I did understand that I’m going to make cartoons, but how? I had no idea. Ringling has a very strong portfolio of students’ work and that very much inspired me for doing this kind of stuff. I was like that’s awesome. I wish I could do that stuff. I was really happy I got into computers, because as a kid, I also loved computers. It was a perfect balance art and computers.

She was like, “you need to love your life, you need to love what you do, you need to be passionate about art”; that’s me!

Was there a reason you chose Ringling?

When I was in Italy, we had recruiters come from different colleges all over the globe. There were like Stanford, Princeton, and there was Ringling! The only person who was smiling was from Ringling and the only person who had technology besides cellphone was from Ringling. She was smiling, she had an iPad, she’s cool, I wanted to talk to her! I went to talk to Princeton—so boring. I knew right away where I belong. I felt connected.

You’re a very energetic, upbeat guy so you were just drawn to the next person in the room that had the energy that you could vibe with.

Basically. Her smiling and having that arts/tech; she wasn’t anything about like, “you must study hard and be the best”. She was like, “you need to love your life, you need to love what you do, you need to be passionate about art”; that’s me!

Let’s go into that balance of life and art because that sounds like that is part of what made you really excited to get into animation. Have you found that you can balance life and art pretty easily?

It definitely can be hard, but to be honest, with a Ringling background, nothing is that hard. At Ringling, it was taught to be normal because everyone was so committed. Not to sleep two three days in a row, forget to eat. We had a psychology office you could go to, and there would be a line of computer animation students. Not any other major but us because people go crazy working so much. We had some alumni come over and they would say “Hey, you don’t actually have to work that much in the industry and you get sleep and you actually get paid for it.” We were like “No way.” So that sounds like dream come true.

Even if I have to stay longer, it doesn’t seem like a big issue. Plus, I always like I try to excite myself about the project even if I’m not as excited; try to find something I love about it and focus on that part. That helps me to get through it quicker and more passionate.

Focus on what you love.

Yeah. I have great people to help me and support me. Like my wife, here with me and she’s always very supportive of everything I do and that helps a ton. I mean we went to same art school, that’s kind of how we got connected in the beginning. When you come home and you see somebody not mad at you for staying at work but, “Oh what did you do today? Show me!” You want to go there and do your best.

Has there been any challenges that you encountered and overcame? Is there advice you want to pass on to the next person who might encounter that same problem?

I think the big thing I learned through all this, NEIGHBOR and overall in the industry, is communication. Because at the end of the day, it’s really important to understand what the other person needs from you, and at the same time, let him understand what you’re doing or what your planning to do. Most times, if there is a problem, it’s usually because of miscommunication. Also respecting the space of each other because we are all different and we all have our different talents and strengths and weaknesses. You’re not here to show how good you are. You’re here to help each other to get good because you work on the same thing; you have the same goal.

As far as respecting their space, how do you manage that? Is it about just putting headphones on when you need to?

I’m very blessed to have the person that sits next to me. We have very similar taste in music, and things that make us laugh are pretty similar. He’s very respectful of my space as much as I am of his. I have a great team so I don’t think I cross into their space as much. I heard things about others so I’ve been really lucky with the people who are at work.

As soon as I got along with my grandma, I felt like could get along with so many more people.

A common theme seems to be finding the people that have a similar energy to you, whether it’s in school or now at NEIGHBOR. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you thought you would really get along with a team and you just didn’t?

Often enough, things go differently from the way we plan them. Even through there’s a person, let’s say I don’t connect as much or we butt our heads, my first reaction like “oh that’s annoying I don’t like this guy.” Inside I’m discovering I actually really love that guy because now I have a new skill to learn. Everybody’s different, it’s not like anybody’s wrong or right in my mind, we’re just different. So for me, I always see it as a good challenge.

Sometimes it doesn’t really work, but it’s something I never want to give up on. If there’s somebody you don’t get along with, it might be somebody else who is similar to that person who has the same characteristics, and you’re not going to get along with that person too. As soon as I got along with my grandma, I felt like could get along with so many more people. But now I love her with all my heart. The same thing with coworkers. Find something about them as much as you do about your work—something that you like and want to learn from them.

So you’re not just always finding your similar thing. You’re always opening yourself up to what’s slightly different, what’s going to challenge you. When you’re really getting into your animation work, you need to make a connection with that and it is a challenge when you just have a blank rig that’s not moving…I’m trying to tie it back…I might be trying too hard.

Maybe I can help. The whole thing is like, the whole animation process and life, it’s all very exciting.The way I animate, you put your soul, you put yourself into that. That’s really important doing everything you do. Being an artist doesn’t limit just to when you’re working on a machine, but when you work with other people and when you meet your wife, people outside, everybody. That’s still being an artist—trying to stay creative about your life because if you’re not being creative now and you’re not having fun, when else are you going to do it? So have fun. Animate your life; make it the way you want it to be.

What are your plans for the future?

That’s a really hard question because I honestly don’t have any idea. The big reason why is my documents. They expire next year. My hopes are that things are going to be fine—I’m going to get a work visa, etc. You know, I always dreamed to go work in a big studio. But now I have many friends who did that and they are looking for work in studios that I work at now. I get work I can put effort—I didn’t do just one shot, I did the whole thing. I actually did a whole project myself. So it seems like the grass is greener on the other side. Now, just from watching myself and my friends, I figured out I’m very happy where I am. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to grow or learn. But I just love the community, the team we have, the chemistry of our work. And I already feel like i’m growing a lot and I’m looking forward to growing more.

Locally, I found such a good church. I really connected as a family, because it’s really hard for internationals to not have family around. That’s a Slavic church—most of the people are very similar culture to how I grew up. They treat me as their son, brother. Having that community, having great work, my wife, that’s just all I could possibly ask for. I feel it would be very stupid just to leave it for some other dream somewhere else. I think I want something, and I go for it blindly. I end up in a totally different spot, but I realize that’s exactly what I wanted actually. And this place where I’m at right now seems to be the perfect one for me.

Having that community, having great work, my wife, that’s just all I could possibly ask for.

There’s this idea of what an animation career is supposed to look like. You think, “I have to go to a big studio, I have to move to LA or Vancouver”, but you can find that happiness in animation in ways you don’t expect.

Moments – A character-heavy piece from NEIGHBOR, one of Vlad’s early projects at the studio

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