Interview with Dragana Mandic


What was your entrance into the world of animation?

I wanted to study costume and theater design since I loved theater and acting so much. I thought actors live one of the most exciting lives out there, and I wanted to be as close to them as possible. As it turned out, life had other plans for me. I didn’t pass the entrance exam for costume design, and I ended up in animation by accident. I had no clue the field of 3D animation existed and how far it reached. In my first year of studies, one of my colleagues was already working in a local gaming studio, Mad Head Games. He suggested I try applying for an internship, as a concept artist, since I had some interest in drawing as well. Mad Head Games was kind enough to give me an opportunity to dip my toes in that world and I am deeply grateful for that.

What was your first project on film and how did you feel about it? 

The first movie I worked on was the Polish movie Afterimage (Powidoki), where I did some matchmove work. At the time I was afraid that’s what an animator’s job on film is.

You worked on feature films and games. Where is the more demanding work and is there any difference in the approach to solving the task?

Each area has its own challenges. The film has an insane amount of polish and typically you have the luxury of time to dive deeper into the nuances of creature and character motion. In the gaming industry, you have different challenges. In-game animation has to work from every angle while game cinematics allow greater creativity and exploration in character performance.

There is a belief in our industry that animators are just animators. Are you just an animator or do you know other areas of production?

Prior to focusing solely on animation, I spent five, out of eight years, working as a generalist and as a rigger. Having an understanding of other departments definitely boosts your technical knowledge as well as your understanding of those around you.

In your opinion, what skills and predispositions must an animator have? Does he/she have to have knowledge of classical animation or some other field of art?

Animators come from all walks of life. Some of them are driven by the motion itself, some by the excitement of solving problems, some really enjoy the quiet meditative part of animation while others enjoy the collaboration. The only skill they have to have is to be humble and respectful of others.  Technical skills and understanding of design principles in animation will come with time and experience.

How important are social skills in business and what are your experiences about that?

For the longest time, I considered the work we do for our clients more important than the relationships we create. Today I‘m standing on the other side. How we treat our colleagues and our clients comes first. The work we do is secondary. If there is no good faith, the work becomes purely transactional. Negative energy and toxic work cultures impact the work at every level. So does the good energy. That’s why I see healthy relationships as a foundation and a prerequisite for good quality work.

You worked for Serbian VFX companies for many years, and now you work for a studio in Florida. Is there a difference in the business relationship between domestic and foreign companies?

It is very company-specific. There are Serbian companies that nurture good culture and open communications, and vice versa – foreign companies that don’t. I can only speak from personal experience when I say that on average – foreign companies have better work cultures. It’s easier to own up to your mistakes and take responsibility for them.  Specifically, in my current company, Steamroller Animation, people are free to express their concerns and someone will listen. Annual reviews are things of the past. We check up on our artists on a weekly and monthly basis and give them the opportunity to grow and teach others as well. This shows the company cares and is willing to listen and adapt.

You work for a studio in Florida from Serbia. Do you miss working in the studio and what are the advantages and disadvantages of working from home?

Hell yes, I miss working in the office a lot! The advantage of working remotely is that you get to organize your time a bit more to your will. Of course, this freedom carries its own challenges and responsibilities. You have to learn how to be disciplined with your time.

We were able to see on your Instagram profile some personal video references you use. How important are references and do you always use them in your work?

References are crucial. I use them whenever possible. They are essential in understanding poses, anatomy, and range of motions as well as discovering your own creativity and interests in acting. Some supervisors prefer references more than others. When the situation allows, I find it easier to communicate initial ideas with reference, than with a quick blocking pass.

We could see that you are collaborating with the Iervolino studio on the education of animators. What are your experiences as a lecturer and what can students expect from the lecture?

This is my first experience teaching so many people at once. It’s incredibly rewarding to give something back to the animation community. I love seeing the fire young students carry and the hunger for knowledge some more experienced animators still nourish.  In collaboration with IES, we organized a weekend animation workshop that sparked enormous interest, followed by three months, in-depth animation course. During the course, students will focus on their own animation projects. I’ll be guiding them on the road to becoming better animators, by showcasing some Maya demos, workflows and analyzing references.

Can you tell us what projects you are currently working on?

Currently, I am working on a new Disney production, Peter and Wendy, via Steamroller Animation, who is partnering with Framestore.

What are your plans for the future and what do you have to say to your younger colleagues?

I plan to devote more time to animating personal projects and giving back to the animation community.

To my younger colleagues, I would say – learn how to negotiate and communicate effectively. Apart from your work, how you communicate with people will be the single biggest contributor to your career and overall life quality.

Second advice would be – to learn how to save and invest money. This is a topic that often gets overlooked. If you learn how to manage money effectively, it will bring you a huge advantage in negotiating animation work as well. You will have leverage over the projects you want to work on, people you want to work with, how much time you want to devote, where you want to be located, etc.

If you want to learn more and dive deeper into this rabbit hole, these are the people who helped me navigate financial adventures and to become a better communicator:

Chris Do

Chris Voss

Jordan Peterson 

Dave Ramsey

Serbian channel – personal finances


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