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Comparing the Careers of Two Local Animation Alumni

One of the largest misconceptions about becoming a successful artist is that you must relocate to large cities to grow your career. To debunk this myth, we spoke with two exceptional RMCAD alumni, AJ Blair, and Jocelyn Smialek, who have made fantastic strides in animation, all while staying in the beautiful state of Colorado. AJ graduated from RMCAD in 2015 and is now the Lead Pipeline Technical Artist at Deck Nine Games in Boulder. Jocelyn graduated in 2012 and is now the Creative Director at N-Compass TV in Lakewood. We asked them what advice they had for RMCAD students looking to stay in Colorado after graduation.

How did your experience at RMCAD prepare you for your position?

Jocelyn: At RMCAD, I was able to take so many classes surrounding different topics that I had never thought about before. Specifically learning Adobe After Effects, which helped me get my foot in the door of the animation industry early on. I also think RMCAD helped me learn how to teach myself things outside of the classroom and to always be improving. That skillset and mindset helped me a lot.

AJ: When I was at RMCAD, I remember taking a rigging course and having the opportunity to puppet an animated character that someone else had created. The final result on the screen made me proud, even though it was not a character I had designed. It was a moment that inspired me to be a team player, and that has been important for working in the industry.

How have you been able to hone your craft in your current position?

Jocelyn: I have pivoted since graduating. I now tend to work more in graphic design than animation, but I still feel comfortable with everything I was exposed to at RMCAD. I have had a lot of great experiences and opportunities that I wasn’t expecting in my current position. I get a lot of creative input even beyond graphics and animation, including hiring and marketing.

AJ: When I began my career, there were not a lot of companies creating the types of video games that myself or my employer wanted to create. Therefore, we essentially had to create the wheel. We quickly realized that we had to get the ball rolling before we could even find the correct process. The important lesson I learned from that experience was being ok with wanting something to work immediately and also understanding that I need it to be better later on. 

Was staying in Colorado after you graduated important when you were in school? 

Jocelyn: I had lived in Colorado my entire life, but in the animation field, everyone believes the jobs are in LA. Therefore, I went to California right after graduating and I realized the culture was not what I was looking for. When I came back to Colorado, it was mentally a much better fit, and I knew it was where I wanted to lay down my roots.

AJ: I wasn’t necessarily looking to stay in Colorado, I was just looking for someone to hire me, and the company that ended up hiring me was two and a half miles down the road -which is about as local as it gets. I was applying all over the country and it was just happenstance that I got a job here, but it was encouraging to know that I didn’t have to relocate to get the kind of job that I wanted.

How has staying in Colorado affected your career positively? 

Jocelyn: I am very lucky that the first job I applied for right out of college was with the company I am still with. I have now been there for over ten years. Seeing my work reflected in this company and its growth has been very rewarding! During my time, I have grown into new positions with the company as it has continued to grow exponentially.

AJ: Staying local, I know that I have helped foster the game design industry here in Colorado. As the studio I work for has grown and gained more of a name for itself, it has been great to see how that has attracted more people in the gaming industry to move to such a beautiful area like Colorado. It is fascinating to think that I had a tiny little piece in making that happen. 

What would you say to other RMCAD students looking to find their creative niche locally?

Jocelyn: I think the pandemic pushed so many careers online, so you no longer have to relocate to get a job with a specific company. You can stay where you want to be, which is a great silver lining. I think it’s important to be flexible and creative when you’re looking for jobs. When I graduated, I wouldn’t have even realized that the position I have now is something that existed. With local businesses and small businesses, there are so many unique opportunities. The skills that I learned at RMCAD have led me to so many more opportunities than I ever expected. 

AJ: When you are working somewhere smaller, your work has a greater impact on the organization and that impact is easier to see. I think in animation everyone wants to work somewhere like Pixar or DreamWorks, but those larger organizations have already created a lot of those processes. You sit down, you work on something and then you hand it off to the next person. It’s almost like a conveyor belt. There is still creative input, but you’re not the one inventing the process, the process has already been invented. However, at a smaller organization, you have more say in how those processes get built in the first place. Therefore, you feel more attached to the growth of a project when it’s something you helped build.

As you can see, Colorado is a creative hub filled with endless opportunities in the art field. Between local businesses and online work environments, there are countless opportunities for artists looking to begin or continue their careers. A very special thanks to both Jocelyn Smialek and AJ Blair for speaking with us and sharing their insight about working locally in the animation industry. Click here to learn more about Alumni Success Stories.


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