“I do a lot of technical work, but generally animators are more on the artistic side, because it’s primarily art,” says Nathan Dunlap (’12). For the last 11 years, Mr. Dunlap has pitched his professional tent at the curious crossroads of art and technology, working as a video-game animator for Respawn Entertainment, a studio of industry giant Electronic Arts.
His career fulfills an old dream. “I was always a movie nerd, and the behind-the-scenes of movies always intrigued me,” he says. That fascination with the inner working of film led him to animation as a childhood hobby: “I found some software that allowed me to do very simple animations with stick figures.”
This hobby, however, gradually grew into something more substantial. “I was able to get some equipment to do stop-motion with Lego characters and, eventually, to get into computer animation, which is the standard for the industry,” says Mr. Dunlap. “I started wondering if it was something I could do for a living.”
But by the time he was thinking about college, Mr. Dunlap was in a bind. While seriously considering animation school, he could not ignore his older brothers’ glowing recommendations of Thomas Aquinas College. When he met a professional animation director through a family friend, he gained some needed clarity.
“This director told me, ‘You want to be more than just an animator,’” Mr. Dunlap recalls. “That made sense to me. An easy trap is to focus too much on animation. Fundamentally, animators create performances and personalities. If your life has only consisted of animation, if your experience is extraordinarily narrow, you won’t have the breadth or the depth to bring something new to it.”
“For me, knowing how to have conversations about things and how to receive other people’s disagreements has been immensely beneficial.”
Reassured, Mr. Dunlap committed himself to diving into the Great Books at the College — and during that time, he continued to cultivate his passion for animation in whatever ways he could. “Between my junior and senior years, I was able to get a summer internship with an animation director,” he says. Thanks to that experience, he began plying his craft immediately after graduating in 2012 and marrying his wife and classmate, Kellie (Schramm ’12).
Mr. Dunlap’s specific area of expertise is 3D computer-generated character animation. “It isn’t visual effects, like splashes or explosions,” he laughs. “Generally speaking, most of the time I’m animating a human, or something that looks like a human, though sometimes it’s inanimate objects that have personalities, like the furniture in Beauty and the Beast.” In a way, Mr. Dunlap is doing digitally what he used to do as a boy when he created stop-motion animation with Lego characters. “I still do that, but my puppets are encased in a computer.”
Encased though his puppets be in the world of binary and code, character animation is irreducibly artistic. “A script can say, ‘the character sits down’ or ‘throws a punch,’ but there are so many different ways to do those things, depending on the character,” reflects Mr. Dunlap. “And if you do it right, people believe that the character actually exists and forget that they’re watching something that’s been made and built.”
In this work as a digital artist, Mr. Dunlap continues to draw from his background at the College, sometimes in surprising ways. “One of the biggest things I’ve carried with me from TAC into work is the Discussion Method itself,” he says. “Everyone has the experience Freshman Year when people don’t know how to talk about things. But by the end of the four years, you can get really good at it.”
For artists in particular, taking criticism without taking it personally is a habit crucial to lasting success — and a habit that the Discussion Method engenders uncannily well. “I’ve been in meetings at various jobs that felt like that freshman classroom,” Mr. Dunlap laughs. “People very much associate anything they create with their own identity; if someone disagrees with it, it’s easy for people to take that as a hit against who they are. For me, knowing how to have conversations about things and how to receive other people’s disagreements has been immensely beneficial.”
Mr. Dunlap continues to refine his art by integrating both the criticism of fellow animators, as well as his wealth of life as a husband and father of four (with another on the way). In some ways, his life at that crossroads of art and technology is only beginning. “The older I get and the more I’ve lived,” he says, “I find myself becoming a better animator.”