February 24th, 2015

The Mill runner program plays a vital role in discovering and developing talent, giving up-and-coming artists the opportunity to explore career paths and build life-long connections. Many Mill folk began as runners who applied their talent, passion and will to identify and pursue the roles they wanted. We hear from some of those talented artists and producers on their journey from running at The Mill.  

Carl Norton

2D Artist, London
Runner at London studio
3+ years at The Mill 

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What led you to becoming a runner at The Mill?

I had been a follower of the industry for a while, so I was well aware of The Mill long before getting the opportunity to start training. I'd moved up to London with a few friends working at agencies and they put me in contact with people in the industry to find out more.

I had a very varied background and had done a fair amount of exploring different paths before deciding what I really wanted to do. I studied product design at uni, and had worked as a designer and artworker, as well as doing a bit of freelance graphic design. Knowing that none of these were really for me, I started to look at how I could apply these experiences in a new environment and gravitated towards post production.

What were your plans for your career at the time?

When I joined The Mill, I knew it was the industry that I wanted to work in but certainly didn't have an exact plan as to how. The great thing about coming into such a big company at ground level is that you can carve a career in anything.

I felt the best way to approach the opportunity would be to immerse myself in a few areas and take things from there. I spent the first six months exploring different departments and started to forge an idea of where I wanted to take my career. I'd definitely recommend this approach to people starting now. No matter what department you end up in, having a broad understanding of the company is really helpful.

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What was your experience like as a runner?

Working as a runner was a really great way to start at the company. You are instantly put in contact with different departments, so really there is no area that you don't work in. I now feel much more a part of the company than if I had just stepped into a department and not been given this opportunity.

I always made sure to take the time to speak to the teams I came into contact with. It's key, when starting a career in a company like this, that you take the time to let people know what you would like to do, as everyone is really helpful and supportive in your development.

The Mill always seems to have a great running team and it's nice to grow with the other runners. I now have people that I ran with working right across the company, some in direct collaboration. You get to form some good bonds within the team, which definitely carries on into your career.

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How did you transition into 2D?

At the time that I joined, I was still working a fair amount in product design, in which we worked mainly in 3D modelling. This was the first area that I explored. I started to use the training resources at The Mill and stayed behind in the evenings to explore. Despite being completely different in application, my 3D knowledge definitely helped, although it didn't take long for me to start exploring other areas.

Some interest came around at the time for a Matte painter with product design experience, so I jumped at the opportunity. The idea was that a product design background could bring some good technical realism to matte painting, but my drawing ability was just not up to scratch. Throughout these very early stages as a runner, I made sure that no matter what I thought I'd like to be doing, I'd keep my mind open to anything.

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By making sure that I talked to artists when going into suites, as well as the peers I was working with in artwork support, I started to gravitate towards 2D. I was lucky that a few of the guys in the artwork department were all training at the time, so I could dip into training with them. We also developed a little team of three or four of us that were trying to break into the department and worked together to share what we knew and help each other to develop.

Artwork support was a great way to move towards the 2D department. Since you are in daily contact with the artists and producers, you can really start to build important relationships, as well as get constant support as you start training. You can also ask producers for opportunities to help out in your spare time.

After jumping into a few shots and running through a course of tutorials, I knew I'd found my area. I found it was a perfect way to combine work that I'd done before with a love of photography. I had never done any compositing, so I knew I was choosing a tough route but I was definitely up for the challenge.

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What piece of work are you most proud of?

I am probably most proud of the work that I did on Ikea 'Forest'. I've been lucky enough to work on some really big and exciting jobs since, but this one really stands out to me, mainly due to the impact it had at the time and the pace it set from there on out.

The job was early on in my move to Flame and I was trusted with a shot that was a step on from what I'd been doing up to that point. It really stretched me at the time, but I got there and began to trust my instincts and ability. A bit of a challenge and confidence boost is really important so early in a new role and I felt that I started to settle into the role a bit more from there.

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It's hard to pick a particular job working at The Mill, as the turnover of great projects is astonishing. I have always tried to maintain a body of work alongside the day job, which I think is also really important. I've managed to work with some really great promo and short directors on projects and that is massively important in learning to manage your own job. Some other stand out projects have been Jaguar's 'The Lab', British Airways 'To Fly To Serve', and Miss Dior 'It's Miss Actually'. Working with the likes of Tom Hooper and Anton Corbijn is something I never dreamt would be possible.

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What advice do you have for runners and jr. artists?

I've learnt so much since I've been here. Apart from a background that had a bit of a very vague relationship to what I do now - I knew absolutely nothing! That's the beauty of what's possible when you enter as a runner, everything is there for you to reach out and grab.

The overall advice I would give to those just starting out, especially those who are still unsure of what they want to do, is to try absolutely everything! There's nothing to loose in going down to any department and spending a week or so working out how they operate. As I mentioned before, having a broader knowledge across the company is always an asset.

After that comes the harder, but more exciting, part which is to really get stuck in. It takes a lot of late nights and hard work to get to where you want to be but it's definitely worth it. It's also important to maintain contact with all the people in the department and let them know what you're doing. I was lucky that everyone in Flame was so approachable and willing to spend time showing me how to do things but I know it's the same right across the company.

Kevin Ives

3D Supervisor, New York
Runner at NY studio
9+ years at The Mill

What led you to becoming a runner at The Mill?

In my past life, I studied painting at Carnegie Mellon and got a BFA from SUNY Purchase's Acting Conservatory. In late 2005, I was managing a restaurant and doing the odd stage acting gigs. I had taken some night classes for Maya and After Effects, but didn't know enough to start doing jobs or go freelance. I didn't even have enough computer skills for grad school.

As fate would have it, a hostess' husband at the restaurant got a job as a runner and told me I should go for it. Boom. The running situation was perfect for me. I was already good at getting coffee, so that wasn't a problem.

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Tell us about your experience as a runner. How did you move into 3D?

I wanted to join CG because they could make cool shit out of thin air. I wanted to meet the man behind the curtain. It was hard balancing my time and trying to learn software at night, but after a year, they hired me on as a junior CG op. So basically, a year's worth of being a runner was the equivalent of going to grad school, career wise. Pretty great deal!

Don't get me wrong, I worked my ptookus off the first few years. I felt like I knew less than anyone around me. The culture here has always been great though. There is a spirit of sharing that has fueled this office and made it great. I've learned so much from the fine folks here.

I've tried to stay multidisciplinary as possible. I've seen it help in many unexpected ways. Having a good sense of composition will make you a better animator. Tracking cameras or rotoscoping moving objects will make you better at finessing and finishing animations. Lighting a scene will make you a more efficient modeller. Knowing the rhythm of the edit will make you a more expressive lighter. On and on.

Of course, almost all of us were generalists back then. I quickly started leading jobs. After a while, the software felt less important and I started to remember what I had learned as a painter and an actor. Everything I've ever learned has been useful.

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How has your previous life in painting and acting helped your career?

When I look at an animated character, I can see them as an actor and I try to infuse them with engaging truthful grounded performances. Painting and photography have taught me so much about making beautiful images in a cinematic style (which is mostly, what we do).

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What has been your favourite project?

I haven't worked on my favourite spot yet, but I've enjoyed many of them. I love the character work I've done. There is always so much to get right. I like the challenge and the payoff if it works. They usually have a little more drama than the average spot. There is a lot to be proud of.

What have you learned as you've progressed in your career ?

I've learned I can not make beautiful pictures without spending a lot of time observing the natural world. You never know what may be useful later, so stock up as much as you can when you see it. Take lots of pictures. Try to make the photos look as good as the experience. If I don't spend the time looking and studying the real world, the computer generated images I produce will look like just that, synthetic and soulless, and unholy.

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What advice do you have for runners and jr. artists?

To junior artists, be humble. You're not expected to know anything yet, so take this time to really learn. I see so many artists straight out of school pretending they know everything and not looking for feedback or help.  They continue to make silly decisions for years.

Take it easy on yourself. Use that energy to get good. Find a mentor. The person that teaches you the most, will most likely become a life long friend. They may even give you that juicy opportunity you've been itching for. That's how we do it here!


Antonio Hardy

Colour Producer, LA
Runner at LA studio
4+ years at The Mill

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What led you to becoming a runner at The Mill?

I became a runner at The Mill because I wanted to see what it was like to be behind the camera. I scored a Production Weekly and I would email my resume every morning to all the companies. The Mill contacted me for a runner interview and the rest is history. I had no idea that I was being accepted into a top VFX company. To this day, I still carry a sense of awe with me as I walk through the halls.

What were your plans for your career at the time? 

I had no idea I’d be in visual effects. I was an advertising major that worked at a mortgage company to save up enough to move to LA as an actor. I found The Mill eight months into my LA timeline and the adventure began. What really drew me in was that everyone that’s a part of The Mill is actively pursuing their dreams and firing on all cylinders. To be surrounded by that is inspiring and powerful.

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What was your experience like as a runner? 

I actually enjoyed running a lot. I was in great shape. I think the whole idea of a runner is valuable to no end. You get perspective. Your job is not to clean or run errands, your job is to get things done. If you can notice a chair out of place or finger print on the wall, then you can notice a matte that is off or super placement error.

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How did you decide on your next step?

I joined dispatch four months after running to help fill a void in the company. It was there that I discovered my path. From dispatch to 2D scheduling to VFX coordinator to colour producer, I would take what I learned from each role and carry it into the current world I was involved in. It made it so that each transition “fit” while still allowing us all to learn from each other.

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What have you learned as you've progressed in your career?

My first big job was Call of Duty 'Epic Night Out' and it was the first job I coordinated on that was very CG heavy. I learned so much on that job and have my “mentors” Chris Knight, Robert Sethi, Leighton Greer to thank. Two months locked away with a huge team became a crash course in all things VFX.

I’ve learned that every position has it’s place and has the ability to either bring something to the table or take something away. I think we all forget how powerful we can be. When strength is used for the greater good, amazing things are forged.

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My advice to the next generation would be to attack your problems through its foundation. A problem is a lot easier to stand up to when you break down into smaller tangible tasks.


Melissa Graff

Flame Artist, Chicago
Runner at NY studio
8+ years at The Mill

What led you to becoming a runner at The Mill?

I was working for a smaller company as a producer and was learning Flame at night and on weekends. There were no junior Flame positions available there so I was looking around for a place that would support my growth in that direction. A coworker was looking for similar opportunities and through him, I learned of The Mill's runner program.

I knew I wanted to be a Flame artist before I became a runner. It seemed like a great way to get in with a top visual effects company and to learn from some of the best.

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What was your experience like as a runner? 

It was a very busy time at the Mill NY when I was a runner. Lunches for the staff were catered, so we had to gather dishes and silverware from all three floors, set up chafing dishes for the caterers, and then break down and clean everything afterwards. I think the most valuable lesson was managing multiple requests and expectations while remaining positive and helpful at all times.

How did you decide on your next step and move into 2D? 

When my first three months of running were up, I spoke with Angus (ECD, The Mill in NY) and showed him my reel (such as it was). He liked that I had a background in CG. I was fortunate to start running just before the opening of the LA studio, which opened up several positions when people relocated. I was able to skip art support and start working with the 2D team right away.

What piece of work are you most proud? 

I'm probably most proud of Wrigley's 5 Gum 'Accuracy'. I had always admired the Wrigley's 5 Gum spots and was thrilled to finally not just work on one, but to lead the project and compositing. I still enjoy watching it.

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What advice do you have for runners and jr. artists?

The best advice I can give to juniors is to be humble and appreciative of the artists giving their time to help you progress and to just keep going. There's a lot to be learned but everyone who is now a well-respected artist was once a junior. Ask for help and advice, and be open to constructive criticism.

Follow @MillTalent on Twitter for the latest updates from our Talent team and find out more about becoming a runner in The Mill's careers section.