For this issue of interFACE, Animation Department Head Sean Ridgway had the pleasure to interview Chris Butikofer, a very successful 3D Animation alumni and overall great guy who’s just bought his first condo (wow, time flies).
Chris Butikofer is a 2014 graduate of the ‘Animation for Games, Film and Visual Effects’ program. He was hired immediately upon graduation by Bardel Entertainment (at their Kelowna studio) to animate on the new Dreamwork’s Netflix series ‘Dinotrux’. Chris quickly moved up the ranks into a lead position and now supervises his own team of animators on the latest season of ‘Gen:LOCK’, a Rooster Teeth production for Adult Swim and HBO Max. Chris has also proudly contributed to the highly touted award-winning animated series ‘44 Cats’ and ‘Dragon Prince’, as well as recently wrapping on several, soon to be announced Disney + features.
In addition to loving animation, he is an avid gamer, Trekkie and D&D Dungeon Master. He was kind enough to take some time from his busy schedule to discuss his journey and impart some advice to anyone interested in this career avenue.
SR: Which show are you most proud of and had the most fun with?
CB: ‘Dinotrux’ was my first show, and it was the first chance to kind of see what I was capable of.
There were a lot of opportunities on that show to try new and weird things. It was a new enough show, in which it wasn’t really based on anything people were aware of, so I think Dreamworks was okay with giving us a bit more freedom on it and allowing a bit more animator input. So, because of that, I got to have some influence in aspects of it and those decisions influenced the rest of the show.
One of the most notable examples was this racetrack episode and I wanted to make it very dynamic and get the camera moving with this handheld action style movement and Dreamworks liked it so much they wanted the rest of the show to continue with that style. Combined with getting to move up to lead during that show, just made it something that was a lot of fun.
‘Dragon Prince’ is a show I’m very proud of because of the subject matter and the quality of the animation. Just getting to be a part of something that a lot of people are aware of and people still talk about is also really cool. Getting to see people posting fan art and really connecting to the show. It’s really neat knowing that’s something I got to contribute to.
SR: What aspect of your role is the most rewarding?
CB: I really like having, again, that kind of input and getting to guide an episode or show on the whole a little bit more, similar to my Dinotrux experience. Little moments that you don’t necessarily get without being in a more managerial position.
Getting to shape an episode and show from beginning to end and having that input is really rewarding. There is a satisfaction as an animator to bury yourself in a shot and not worry about the bigger picture, but for me the reward is being responsible for the bigger picture.
SR: Is there any downside to being in that supervisor position?
CB: The higher up you go the more flexible you need to be with the work that’s required of you. There’s going to be times when you’re waiting for an episode to get done. You’ve just got to be willing to stick around until the episode’s delivered and that can make for a very long day. That just comes with the territory to make sure it’s as good as it can be.
In addition, something that can be difficult is giving every animator what they want. Everyone’s different and needs different things. There’s a desire to treat everyone the same, but sometimes someone needs a more direct approach versus a softer approach.
SR: What employability skills have contributed the most to your success?
CB: Sure, a lot of it comes down to the basic work ethic and time management, but it’s also understanding what your abilities are and what can be expected of yourself.
School helped a lot with that when it came to juggling and prioritizing different projects. In addition, working with a team and receiving and implementing feedback is a crucial skill and not to be overlooked when animating a shot.
Communication skills go without saying. Email is still very much the standard. I get over 30 work related emails a day easily.
SR: Have things changed working from home?
CB: Yes, well it was always nice in person when you could just walk over to someone’s desk and clarify what you were asking for. It was easier to just pause what you were doing and speak to them directly, especially anything technical. Video calls help, but definitely not the same.
Also, it’s a totally different mindset working from home. For some people, getting dressed, walking to the studio, taking the bus, interacting with other people, etc… is necessary for them to flip that mental switch into work mode.
That can be tougher working from home, especially with certain distractions that arise that you normally wouldn’t have to deal with.
SR: What are some fond memories about your time in school?
I’ll answer my own question first. Personally, my memories of you, Chris, were playing your Nintendo DS during any break you had – LOL – but most of all how dedicated you were to be learning and improving. You took the bus and often had some new drawing or idea to share with me. You really stood out from that cohort.
CB: Boy, that was a while ago. I remember the long hours I sometimes had to put in, waiting for something to render or dealing with a technical issue but there was a bit of fun in that when you were with some classmates, grabbing pizza and such.
I really enjoyed the creative freedom school afforded me, especially with certain design projects and my grad reel.
Getting to learn all of these different aspects of CG, playing games in my downtime. It was nice how much simpler life seemed back then.
SR: What advice would you pass along to help someone succeed in the CAT animation program?
CB: It’s kind of rough advice and not the kind of thing students like to hear. Get used to the idea that you may not be working on your dream project or your own idea right away. At first you might be put on a show that you don’t care too much about. You have to remember it’s about taking direction and making the client happy. That’s harsh advice, but you should come to terms with that during your time in education when making certain project choices.
Don’t be too precious when it comes to personal work. Learn to separate your personal work from your professional work. Keep working on your show ideas and pursue those dreams but be prepared to work on someone else’s dream for a while, and afford them the same kindness and effort you’d want others to give on yours.
Beyond that, good work ethic, showing up to work on time. A good attitude goes so much further than you might think. More than skills in some ways.
If you have that good attitude, demonstrate a willingness to learn and improve, you’ll stay employed. Demonstrating you care, get along well with others, can trump overall skill deficiencies.
SR: Tell us something about yourself that would surprise others?
CB: I have been to Switzerland a fair bit. My dad is Swiss, so I have Swiss citizenship. Otherwise, nothing else too surprising.
Words: Sean Ridgway