What is your name and your current occupation?
Christian Roman, and I’m a story artist at Pixar.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
When I first moved to Los Angeles I did temp work at a medical supply rental company where I was put in charge of filing. Being a compulsive doodler, I couldn’t help but redraw all of their labeling on the file cabinets. One file was for “Dead Files”, clients that were no longer active. The sign I drew for this file cabinet was of tombstones and such, not making the connection that it was a medical supply company and that the files were probably for literally dead clients. I was let go a few days after drawing that.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m probably the most proud of being a part of Toy Story 3, which was the most collaborative and creative project I’ve ever worked on. It was thrilling to be involved in not only drawing the story, but helping to collaboratively craft the story as well. The second would be Disney’s Fillmore!, which was also very collaborative and creative, and probably the most indicative of what I personally can do cinematically and artistically. Third, when I was on the Simpsons I put together a handout called ‘Storyboarding the Simpsons Way’ which has taken on a life of it’s own outside the studio, and I’m pretty proud of that. In fact, I once went to a lecture on storyboarding and the lecturer gave everyone a copy of it!
How did you become interested in animation?
As a kid, I always loved watching all kinds of animation, but I typically would draw superheroes rather than cartoony characters. It never occurred to me that animation was drawn by anyone, it just existed. Not until college did I even consider animation as a career, and then not until my senior year. I originally planned to be an illustrator, but while studying art I was also taking classes in music and acting. I realized that animation incorporated all of those interests, but my school didn’t offer animation classes, so I got an internship at a local commercial animation company.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m originally from Pembroke, MA, just south of Boston. I went to Boston University, graduated in ’91 with a degree in oil painting. After my internship my senior year at Olive Jar animation, I knew the best place to get into animation was Los Angeles, so I packed my car and drove across the country. When I got to LA I stayed with friends while I searched for a job. I went to the Animation Guild and got their list of studios, cold called each studio and would apply for jobs, but never got anywhere because I really didn’t have a portfolio geared toward animation. I had no idea what they were looking for! I didn’t know what I was doing, and my portfolio reflected that. But fate stepped in for me: a friend of mine met a guy in a bar who said his company was looking for people to teach animation to high school and middle school students for his company, AnimAction. I set up an interview, which was at a local middle school where they were running a workshop. When I got there, they told me one of their instructors didn’t show up, so instead of interviewing, they threw me in and told me to teach. All I knew about animation at that moment was what I had read in The Illusion of Life and in the Preston Blair books. Luckily for me the workshop was geared to very basic animation and the materials were very clear. I got the job. I discovered that many of AnimAction’s other ‘facilitators’ in the workshops were Simpsons artists on their hiatus. They helped me get a layout test for the Simpsons, and with their guidance I was hired as a layout artist on the Simpsons in 1994.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My day can typically go one of three different ways: The first may be filled with brainstorming meetings. Typically this is in the early part of the process with the most pie in the sky thinking. The whole story team will sit in a room, discussing sequences, plot points, characters arcs, etc. Another day, later on in the process, will be me sitting at my Cintiq boarding out one of those brainstormed sequences, combining what was discussed in the story room with my own take on the scene. The third type of day will be me frantically trying to do fixes called out by editorial, clean-ups, or extra poses before a looming screening. There truly is an ebb and flow to the story process, where one day it’s low stress and high creativity and then suddenly it’s high stress and deadlines and pressure to get it done as fast as you can.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The brainstorming is the part I enjoy the most, because it’s the part where there are no wrong answers, everyone is working together, and every idea is explored and debated. It’s the most creative moment. Working out a story is like creating a puzzle and putting it together at the same time. Even when there’s a block, when everyone in the room is stuck on one plot point, that’s still exciting to me because of the anticipation of getting to that solution. I know it will come, and I get to see it when it happens, or if I’m lucky come up with the solution where everyone goes “Ah! That’s it!”
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The part I like least is the part often the most difficult for story artists, heck, any artists doing commercial work, to swallow: getting notes. You work on a sequence, give it all your thought and time and believe you’ve done everything to make it sing. You present it to the director and they change everything. It’s hard not to get defensive, but you have to accept that you are working for them. You can only hope to bring enough to your sequence that it inspires the director. It’s taken me years to learn how to accept this part of the process. Luckily at Pixar I feel like the notes are always in service to making the story better and not for frivolous or mercenary reasons. In fact, at Pixar it’s often better to get a lot of notes, because that means your sequence has inspired everyone in the room! If I pitch a sequence and the whole room is silent, I get worried.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
For me personally, it’s been learning to balance the hours given to work with hours spent with my family. When I was single, it was very easy for me to pour all of my focus and passion into a storyboard, and justify staying at work until midnight because I wanted to make my storyboard ‘perfect’. I had no problem devoting a lot of time and effort into it because it was what I love to do. But now I also love being with my wife and daughter, so I’ve had to adjust how I pace myself when I draw a sequence to accommodate leaving work at a normal time.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I use a 21” Cintiq, Photoshop CS4 and Pixar’s proprietary storyboard software, Pitch Docter. I’ve actually been using Photoshop for work since around 2000, so I’ve very comfortable with it. I find that a lot of older board artists, when forced to use a computer to do storyboards, try and force it to mimic drawing on paper. To me that’s like riding a bicycle for years and then being given a Ferrari and driving it 10 miles an hour. But on the other hand, I find that I ‘noodle’ with my drawings a lot more in Photoshop than I would if I drew them on paper, because the technology allows me to fix anything. It’s a constant struggle, especially if I’ve got a deadline, to draw fast and let the drawing be what it is.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’m currently working with animation greatness! I’m constantly amazed that I get to work alongside such great story artists as Ronnie Del Carmen, Mark Andrews, and Jeff Pidgeon, just to name a few here. Even on the Simpsons, working with David Silverman was an honor. Meeting Phil Roman and having him jokingly consider me his long lost son was a great honor (honestly, we’re not related at all!). But the one brush I remember most was so random and fleeting it’s almost embarrassing to mention since I was just dumbstruck with awe: when I first moved to Los Angeles around 1991, I took my car to a local mechanic to get it fixed after a collision. As I went to pick up my keys and pay for the repair, the guy in front of me in line was Fritz Freleng! He only looked a little familiar to me, and it wasn’t until saw his name on the check he’d paid with that I realized who he was. Being so new to Los Angeles and so star struck I didn’t want to bother him. I wish I had said something, introduced myself, told him how his work inspired me, but I didn’t.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
When I was a kid between 5 to 10 years old, the older kids who lived across the street from me would regularly beat me up, tease me, vandalize our house, and many other pretty horrible things. We lived there for five years before my parents could afford to move us. As horrible as it was, I often wonder if I would have pushed myself to be successful if I had not had a difficult childhood. So in a way I’m grateful for it.
Any side projects you’re working on you’d like to share details of?
As my family time grew more important to me, my art side projects dwindled into obscurity. I have many boxes of half-finished projects languishing in my garage. It’s especially embarrassing given how much the Pixar story artists do for side projects. I’m trying to finish a short piece for the next Afterworks anthology, but my deadline is looming and I’m not sure I’ll finish in time. As far as non-art side projects go, I am very proud to have started Pixar’s first improv group, The IMPROVibles. It’s made up of Pixar employees, and we perform at work about once a month. I’ve always felt that improvisation is a key ingredient to story work, and even to the Pixar atmosphere of ‘yes, and…’, where everyone is being positive and working to make everyone else look good.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student orartist trying to break into the business?
Most important: Draw a lot. Seriously, if you don’t already have a sketchbook, get one, and draw every day. Fill at least a page a day with your drawings. Draw anything. Draw everything. Second: if you’re interested in story or storyboarding, watch a lot of movies. Watch good movies, and try to figure out what makes them good. Then watch bad movies, and try to figure out why they’re bad and how you would fix them; it’s not enough to see a movie and say, “That stunk!”, you have to be able to back that up with not only why it was broken, but what elements were missing that would make it better. There are lots of great books out there about movie storytelling, like McKee’s Story or MacKendrick’s On Filmmaking. Third: Network with people in animation. Go to animation events, like the CTN expo, and talk to the people who have jobs in animation. Take classes taught by people in the business. Stay in touch with friends you went to animation school with, because someday they might hear about a job opening at work and think of you. Make your own film in your spare time, show you desire and drive in your own personal work and put it out there. There really is no direct way into the business; every path is different and none are guaranteed.