Thomas Starnes

What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Thomas, and at the moment I am teaching online classes for the Academy of Art University (AAU). I also do freelance illustration and animation (and by animation, I mean 2D animation, as in the old fashioned hand drawn type of animation. I am strictly a novice when it comes to 3D animation).  My specialty is animation layout (basically, I design/draw backgrounds) and most of my screen credits read “Background Layout Artist”.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I can’t really say I had any crazy jobs. I worked in a number of different restaurants. The craziest thing in that regard might have been the prank calls into the pizza restaurant. Typical example: “Hello, Luigi’s Pizza, may I take your order?” “Yes, is your oven running?”“Uhmmm…Yes” “Well, why don’t you go chase it?” (Actually there were far worse prank calls than this, but assume we are trying to maintain a G rating here).

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I never know how to answer this question, because I have thoroughly enjoyed so many of the projects I worked on and the great crews with which I had the honor and opportunity to work. Of all the films I have been involved with, Disney’s Mulan is probably the most successful film in terms art direction, story, character animation, and just all around great production values. It was a really solid film on so many levels. Dreamworks’ Spirit was perhaps somewhat less successful in terms of art direction and story (not to mention box office reception), but it had some fantastic character animation. It was also my first time doing layout on a feature film (I had been a Clean-up “inbetweener” on previous films). The Simpsons Movie was a great project, just a lot of fun to work on. And I had the honor of working with some really great people at Rough Draft Studios. But perhaps my all time favorite project will always be episode of Futurama: “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”. I have always loved science fiction, especially Star Trek. Futurama brought together many things I love: comedy, science fiction, animation… The production schedule was quite demanding, but the show was great fun to work on.
How did you become interested in animation?
I actually had my heart set on being an illustrator (I graduated from AAU with a degree in Illustration). But I often found myself looking at Disney animation for inspiration. When representatives from Disney came to my school to make a presentation about working in animation, I was fascinated, especially by the examples of background drawings and paintings. But I didn’t think I had a chance to work for Disney. I wasn’t an animation student. I hadn’t taken any classes in animation. The students who were studying animation seemed so much more knowledgeable on the subject. I knew next to nothing about animation, having spent most of my time studying art from the Italian Renaissance to 20th American Illustration (which in retrospect might have been more applicable to a career in animation than I imagined).
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I graduated from San Francisco’s Academy of Art College (now Academy of Art University) in 1997. This was a time when animation studios were heavily recruiting artists. Disney sent people to my school to look at portfolios. As luck would have it, I made it into the Disney Animation training program in Disney’s (now defunct) Florida Studio. (Funny anecdote: At the time, I was led to believe that if I accepted the job at Disney I would become a layout artist. Instead I was made a clean-up “inbetweener”. I did animation clean-up for a while, and eventually I became a layout artist at Dreamworks. I ended up doing layout work for a number of animation studios, but never for Disney.)
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My last in-house animation job was drawing backgrounds for Fox TV’s King of the Hill at Film Roman. A typical day might go something like this: I would get to work early, get coffee (usually accompanied by some high-sugar pastry). I would go over the storyboards, making notes and thumbnail sketches of backgrounds needing to be done. I would make some decisions about which backgrounds needed to be done first. I would look for possible reuses (backgrounds that might be used for more than one scene) or backgrounds that needed to hook up properly with backgrounds in other scenes. Then I set to work with pencil and paper (King of the Hill may have been one of the last shows to use primarily pencil and paper. Now, so many shows are drawn directly in digital).  Currently, I work at home in a studio set up for working both in digital as well as traditional media. My computer desk is aligned with my drafting table so I can switch from traditional to digital simply by rotating my chair. Everything I need is within arms reach.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love to design and draw things, especially strange, exotic things. On a show like Futurama, the setting was often some strange alien world. I got to draw all sorts of fun weird stuff: futuristic cityscapes, spacecraft, robots, ray guns, exotic alien worlds, etc.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Animation budgets and production schedules are getting tighter and tighter. It is getting harder to make a living. The situation is the same for illustration work. People expect you to do professional quality work for ridiculously low rates, with ridiculously tight deadlines.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Staying in the business… finding another gig as soon as the current gig comes to and end, that’s definitely the hardest part. Also, when you work with a great group of talented people for months to a year, you make some wonderful friends, and then the show ends and it is time to move on. It’s a bit like splitting up a family. You come to love these people, and you can only hope you get the chance to work with them again.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I really love traditional media. I love the feel of pencil on paper. But I also see the practical benefits of digital methods. You can make changes to digital work which could never be done in traditional media (at least no without a major reworking of the drawing). Primarily I use Photoshop for digital work. I have experimented with Painter and other software, but almost anything I need to do can be done with Photoshop.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
While working at Stan Lee Media, I had the opportunity to work with the legendary Louis Scarborough. He became a dear friend and a mentor to me. From Lou, I learned much about film and story as well as animation history. Also while at Stan Lee Media, I had the distinct honor of having drawings critiqued by the legendary comic book artist, Russ Heath (…only these weren’t my drawings, these were my director’s drawings… Actually I was looking for my director to ask a question about the scene… but the director was away from his desk. Russ saw me standing there and grabbed my scene folder and started going over the drawings, making changes and telling me everything that was wrong with those drawings. All I could think was “OMG! He’s changing the director’s drawings!” But hey, who’s going to argue with a legend). While working on the Simpsons Movie at Rough Draft Studios, I met animation legend John Pomeroy. I even had the privilege to draw backgrounds on a couple scenes which John animated. This was quite an honor for me.  I have always been a fan of John’s work, especially on Secret of N.I.M.H. and the original coin up laser disc game, Dragon’s Lair. And finally… not too long ago I was at a charity event for City of Hope. Many professional cartoonists and animation artists volunteered to draw cartoons for that event. At one point, I had the distinct honor of sitting at a table with animation royalty: Floyd Norman. I also had the distinct honor of meeting Mell Lazarus (creator of Mama comic strip).
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Around 2002, the traditional animation business got really weird. Whereas there were plenty of jobs in the late 1990’s; after 2002 there were few jobs and way too many artists unemployed. I found myself out of work for a frustratingly long time. In retrospect, I understand the animation business has always had ups and downs, and you don’t get into this field if you want job stability. But actually going through a long period without animation work and facing the reality that you may need to give up your dream of making a living as an artist… that’s tough. At the same time, I know artists who have been more or less steadily employed in animation studios for years without significant layoff. These fortunate few are frequently not acutely aware of what it is really like to be out of work for an extended period of time. The reality of paying bills, staying afloat financially after loosing your comfortable animation paycheck… this can be extremely depressing. If you haven’t gone through it yourself, you can’t really understand it.


Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I love drawing and painting from life, especially portraits. I have studied under many great painters, including Zhaoming Wu, Huihan Liu, Craig Nelson, andBill Maughan.  I have taken workshops with Daniel Greene and Burt Silverman. More recently I have continued my studies with Bill Perkins,Nathan Fowkes, Ron Lemen, and Glen Orbik. [See attached samples]


Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
In this business, who has time for hobbies? (LOL) But I do love to listen to audio books (I have listened to the whole unabridged audio readings of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion each in their entirety, multiple times). I have seen every episode of the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone multiple times each (forgive me as I wallow in my “geekier than thou”, über-sci/fi-fan attitude). I think Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore have been some of the greatest writers of the age (and anyone who disagrees should be banished from civilized society… just kidding!!!).
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Young people are sometimes inclined to mistake modernist approaches to art or animation as license to draw badly. Bad drawing is not style. Learn your craft. Draw all the time, constantly practice to hone your skills. There is too much mediocrity in the world, and the excuse “It’s only a kids’ cartoon” is the lamest imaginable excuse for mediocrity. Also… read widely. Watch a lot of films. Look deeply and carefully at a lot of artwork. Learn from the past. Become a student of human nature.  And finally… read William Goldman’s book: Adventures in the Screen Trade. What does this have to do with animation? Maybe not much… but it has sage advice about the arts of filmmaking and storytelling, which are absolutely essential ingredients in any animation that is really worth watching. The book also gives you insights into the realities of the entertainment business, which just might help keep you sane as you ride the wildly unpredictable roller coaster known as “your career in art”.


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One Comment

  1. Is this the Thomas that was painting in the art studio in Sacramento last Thursday in which I modeled for? If so, is it possible to view your drawings of me again? Thank you, April Lind

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