From electrical engineer to 3D animation. Artist Derek Annan discusses his craft, childhood influences, and the importance of storytelling.
Kotey “Derek” Annan moved the US from Ghana, West Africa, when he was 17. His plan was to study electrical engineering at Penn State and get a good job in a related field. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, he left Penn State early and, although he worked as an electrical engineer for a time, he eventually transitioned to become a full-time 3D artist and animator.
“My areas of expertise are in 3D character modeling and 3D character animation,” he says, “but I’m also skilled at script writing, 3D character rigging, and other aspects of packaging and publishing 3D animated content.”
Although Annan sometimes misses Ghana, and visits his family there from time to time, he has come to love rural Pennsylvania.
“It’s so peaceful here,” he says, “and, at this point, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, so it really does feel like a second home.”
Shutterstock: Where did your interest in art and 3D animation come from?
Kotey “Derek” Annan: I loved playing video games as a child and I was enamored of the expansive worlds of the Final Fantasy franchise. That was the first turn-based RPG game I ever played and I have a lot of great memories of playing Final Fantasy 7 with my little brothers.
Metal Gear Solid was another game that introduced me to great storytelling in games and an immersive world with memorable characters like Liquid Snake.
I was also inspired by anime and more adult 3D animated content. Naruto was the first anime that really caught my interest, followed by Samurai Champloo and My Hero Academia.
I guess I’ve always enjoyed stories where characters are enrolled in school and improving their skills throughout the series.
SSTK: Is your family supportive of your work as an artist?
Annan: I come from a large family of successful business, technology, and medical professionals, but they have always been supportive of my artistic endeavors—helping me with whatever finances I need to educate myself and buy equipment and software.
SSTK: Do you have any formal training in 3D animation?
Annan: I’m mostly self-taught. But when I started animating, I didn’t know enough to produce professional-quality work, so I attended an online animation school called Animation Mentor, in my early 30s, where I focused on character animation for films.
It was a real eye-opener for me and filled in a huge void for me as an animator. The instructors at Animation Mentor taught me to simplify my ideas and helped me improve the quality of my work.
They really were like mentors and I still sometimes watch live streams and critiques from them.
SSTK: Whose work do you find especially inspiring?
Annan: I’ve always been inspired by 3D artwork from Square Enix, Blur, and Blizzard, 2D artwork from Capcom, and, of course, the storytelling from the Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Naruto franchises.
SSTK: Which of your projects are you most proud of?
Annan: There are four recent projects I’m especially proud of, actually! The first is Last Semester In Secondary School—an animated project I released on Amazon Prime and Vimeo On Demand in 2020.
The second is a series of hi-poly digital wildcat sculptures showcasing the varying anatomies of small, medium, and large wildcats. That project really challenged me and improved my knowledge of feline anatomy and behavioral differences.
And the third is a series of customizable cartoon soldiers that I created for the Shutterstock Create Fund. They are the most asset-rich 3D character models I have ever created.
Even though they utilize a simplified cartoon style, they are extremely detailed models with a lot of modular parts, which allows them to be customized extensively for a client’s use.
SSTK: And the fourth?
Annan: A fully-rigged, stylized character called Kiwa Boogie that I am creating for my 2023/2024 character modeling and animation demo reel.
I like to think that she is the best character I have modeled and textured, and the culmination of all my years of work and study up to this point.
SSTK: How did you get involved with The Create Fund?
Annan: I found out about The Create Fund by email and applied almost immediately. I’ve been a TurboSquid artist for over 10 years and I’m so glad Shutterstock bought the company and is investing in new 3D stock content.
SSTK: What’s next for you?
Annan: For the past six years, I have been working on releasing my own animated web series called Ion Kni. It’s a sci-fi action adventure series about students in an engineering military academy built to defend the earth from an invading alien species.
In 2021, I took a break from animating it and learned new skills in order to streamline production, improve visual style and animation quality. For now, I’m really working on improving the script for the pilot episode.
Once that is done, I’ll start focusing on raising the capital necessary to fund the project.
SSTK: What advice do you have for people starting out who want to do what you do?
Annan: In the 3D art and animation field, the primary way to improve your expertise is by understanding foundational design principles and putting in the mileage. If you are interested in being an animator, start with the 12 principles of animation.
If you want to be a character artist, ground yourself in basic design principles and human anatomy.
Try to log as many hours as possible practicing the discipline you are interested in. All that mileage will reflect in your comfort level with projects and your ability to consistently produce quality work.