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School of Illustration Alum’s Journey from Navy Veteran to Career in Animation

School of Illustration alumnus David Markowitz’s journey from navy veteran, with no formal art and design training, to professional animator can teach us a lot about hard work and the importance of gaining the right skills.

Currently, Dave is Lead Animator at Jam City, an award-winning mobile games company behind some of the highest-grossing titles ever. At Jam City, he leads the team that works on Disney games like the very popular Disney Frozen Adventures, and Disney Emoji Blitz—a dream job for any animator.

Markowitz, Dave, in the navy
Before he had heard of Academy of Art University, and before he considered animation as a career, Dave served in the US Navy. Photo courtesy of Dave Markowitz

It’s not every day that you meet a person who really loves what they do for a living. Professional animator and Academy of Art University graduate Dave Markowitz is one of those people.

When you get him talking about his animation career he lights up, and his enthusiasm is justifiable.

An Impressive Career

Before Jam City, Dave enjoyed an impressive run of animation successes, including lead animator on Cartoon Network’s HiHi Puffy Ami Yumi Show and working with Bruce Smith on the spinoff web series The Proud Family Shorties. He spent ten years at The Walt Disney Company, where he helped build the Disney Emoji Blitz game—currently in its 4th year on the market, and going strong—and he is responsible for animating a robot that ran autonomously at Disneyland Resort. He also received a Disney Inventor Award.

Emoji Blitz
Dave’s was lead animator for the Disney Emoji Blitz game, Image courtesy of Dave Markowitz

A Winning Formula

So how did this Navy veteran with no formal art and design training end up with his dream job as lead animator at Jam City? It’s a combination of things that include Dave’s passion for drawing, his work ethic, and the skills he gained at Academy of Art University.

A Passion for Drawing

Dave started drawing characters for Dungeons & Dragons in middle school. He drew a lot, heavily influenced by Frazetta, Heavy Metal, Cartoons, and Disney.

In high school, Dave continued to draw. He copied everything he saw, including nearly every page of The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, a 500+ page book showcasing the history of Disney’s animations (by Johnston and Thomas).

Navy Service “Drawing Calmed Me Down”

After high school, Dave tried to figure out what to do with his life. “I was spinning my wheels in college,” said Dave. Acting on his father’s recommendation, Dave joined the Navy, and found himself stationed in Asia where he worked as a Quartermaster (Navigation). He loved being at sea, traveling to Japan, Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Russia.

David Markowitz
Photo courtesy of Dave Markowitz

While in the Navy, Dave kept his creative chops by sketching tattoo designs for fellow sailors. “I was always drawing,” he said. “I had no official training. But I knew how to work. I kept practicing. At that point, I still did not know that I would be going to art school. I just knew that drawing was a nice thing to do, and it calmed me down.”

No Art Portfolio, No Problem

When Dave finished his service with the Navy, he knew he wanted to do something with his passion for drawing. He never imagined a career in animation was even an option, and had never even heard of Academy of Art University.

“I knew I wanted to go to art school,” remembers Dave. “But I didn’t know, at that point, that I wanted to be an animator. Academy of Art University was the only school that did not require a proper portfolio, and was in California close to my folks.”

Academy of Art University espouses an inclusive admissions policy, which means that previous experience with art and design is not required for admission, and students of all skill levels are encouraged to apply. The Academy believes that any student willing to commit to the course and put in the hard work should have the opportunity to learn professional-level skills.

A Work Ethic that Pays

When he got to the Academy, Dave used his military experience to his advantage. “I was remarkably focused and driven. I knew what hard work was, and was determined to do the best I could,” said Markowitz.

Dave approached his schoolwork as he would a job. “Get there early, do your work, and do the best you can. In fact I think this work ethic helped me achieve what I have today. I knew that the harder I worked, the better I would get. It was my job to master this discipline.”

The Pros Know: Taught by the Best

Dave is quick to acknowledge the positive impact his Academy instructors had on his success. Here are four of his favorite instructors, and why:

  • Bill Sanchez: His saying was, “Wrap it around, wrap it around…” He was speaking about ellipses and how without drawing them your subject matter would be flat and have no volume. He also planted the idea that you have to think about your drawings in numbers. If you draw 100 drawings, you might have 1 – 2 good ones. The next time you draw 100 drawings, you might get 3 – 4 good ones. The power of ratio and thinking about drawing like this got me on the right track.
  • Carol Nunnely: Awesome foundations teacher. Always had a smile and loved what she did. Just always encouraging, even when you knew your drawing was not the best.
  • Cameron Wasson: She was tough in Design and Color… and she let you know when you screwed up. I loved it!
  • Sung Moon: He was tough. He was very traditional and he always knew if you were trying short cuts. He pushed you to be your best and not to shy away from challenge.

The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get

After graduation, Dave and some of his classmates started working at Wild Brain, thanks in part to a recommendation from one of his instructors at the Academy. It was his first real job outside of school, and he loved it.

“I was in hog heaven,” says Markowitz. “I was so happy. They were paying me to draw! I was certainly at the bottom of the totem pole, but I was happy nonetheless.”

During the dot-com boom, Dave worked with studios like Mondo Media, where he applied the traditional animation training he received at the Academy, to a (then) new software called Flash.

Some of the Classic Flash games Dave worked on, Video courtesy of Dave Markowitz

Always Learning

After the dot-com crash, he took his young family to LA, where he pounded the pavement looking for a new start. Not knowing anyone in the city, he would cold call or go to studios and drop off his demo reel and portfolio.

Hyperion Studios, who did Brave Little Toaster, responded. “I learned a ton,” says Dave. “I got to work with Bruce Smith on the spinoff web series The Proud Family Shorties. Bruce is the famed animator/director of The Proud Family, Bébé’s Kids, and was also the lead animator for Dr. Facilier in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.”

After two years, Dave got a call from Comedy Central to work on a cartoon about Robert Evans. And from there he got a call to do a show for Cartoon Network, called the Hihi Puffy Ami Yumi Show. After that he got a “boring, but stable” gig at Evite, producing animated cards.

Put Your Heart and Soul Into the Work

One day, an old friend called and asked Dave if he wanted to make games for The Walt Disney Company. “It was a dream come true,” he said. “Even though it was only a nine-month contract gig, I was going to put my heart and soul into it.”

Nine months turned into ten amazing years before his team joined Jam City to work on Disney games. He loves the current set up. “Now, I get to work on Disney games while also looking to the future for Jam City’s next big game!” 

David Markowitz's Elsa for the Disney Frozen Adventures mobile game
Elsa from Disney’s Frozen for the Disney Frozen Adventures mobile game that David had worked on.

Disney’s Frozen for the Disney Frozen Adventures mobile game, Video courtesy of Dave Markowitz

In His Own Words: Tips from Animator Dave Markowitz

Work Hard.

“There are many really talented people in the world. If you want to stand out you have to work your ass off. Animation is a tough discipline, but if you love it, you can make it a career.”

Work Smart.

“I always wanted to animate for a feature. That would mean that I had made it; I was at the top. But the feature animators I talked to told me it was rare to stay on the team when the feature is over. Once they finish the feature, studios layoff their staff.

With a wife, 3 kids, and a mortgage, feature animation lost its romance, and I pushed it aside. It was an easy choice to focus in on game animation and even more specifically, mobile animation. I thought, about 85% of the world’s population has a mobile device in their hand. The odds were clear–more people would see my animations on a mobile device than on another platform or in a feature.”

Always try to better yourself.

“Being pigeon holed as a 2D animator is the most difficult obstacle I have overcome in my career. I was good at 2D animation, and I liked it. But, I wanted the chance to animate 3D characters. I finally got my chance at Disney on an augmented reality project, Star WarsTM: Jedi Challenges. Then, I volunteered to help out another team and created some of the Stormtrooper attacks and strikes needed to complete the initial play loop.

I also had the opportunity to work on some Imagineering Projects for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Resort. More recently, I have had the opportunity to animate Kristoff and other characters from Disney’s Frozen for the Disney Frozen Adventures mobile game.”

David Markowitz animated Kristoff from Disney’s Frozen
Kristoff from Disney’s Frozen for the Disney Frozen Adventures mobile game that David animated

Listen and be humble.

“If you don’t get any bites on your portfolio and demo reel, then you should try something different. See if there is any type of position that you could do for a game studio, like Production Assistant or something of the like. If you can get in there, then do your best to impress and be responsible.

Listen to all that happens in a studio game production. Understand the lingo, learn what they look for. Then, when the time is right, ask someone to take a look at your portfolio or demo reel. You may get a mentor or at least some direction. Again, if they do not have a position right for you, chances are, they know someone who does.”

Be someone that others want to work with.

“Collaboration and People Skills goes hand in hand. Animators are always working with Designers, Engineers, and Artists, so collaboration is integral. As my career progressed, I learned different communication, presentation, and timing techniques.

Because the animation world is very small, word gets around if you are not cool to work with. On the other hand, if you bring a great energy and perspective to a team, you will have further influence.”

Finally, make sure to bring your ‘A’ game, every time.

“Your journey is just beginning. The hard work does not stop now that you have graduated. To stand out in a crowd of talented peers and wise veterans, you need to bring your A game every time.”

The appearance of Military Service marks and military persons in uniform does not imply endorsement of Academy of Art University by a Military Service or the Department of Defense.

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