What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Sam Agro, and right now I’m working primarily as a storyboard artist and illustrator for live-action film and TV. I also sometimes write and draw for the comic book industry. My writing partner Jerry Schaefer and I are currently pitching live-action and animation shows to various networks and production companies. No takers yet, but we live in hope.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I grew up in Canada, in southwestern Ontario, where tobacco growing used to be big business. When I was in high school, I worked a few summers as a kiln-hanger during the tobacco harvest. I also spent some time as a sign-writer’s assistant. This was during the seventies when signs were still painted by hand. You used special brushes, and taped off the letters with this thin green tape. You really needed a steady hand to eyeball the curvy bits of the letters. I treasure that experience, because it’s all done with computers now, and the craft of signwriting is becoming a lost art.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
In terms of the animation business, I’m afraid I can’t claim any projects of which I’m truly proud. I mostly worked on a lot of “toy shows” like Strawberry Shortcake, Ninja Turtles, Care Bears, that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with those shows, certainly, but they don’t aim terribly high. Working on Ewoks and Droids was somewhat better, but they ultimately fell short of their true potential. I did have a few ‘close calls’ with quality. I worked for one week on The Land Before Time at Bluth-Sullivan in Ireland. Unfortunately, I left for all the wrong reasons. (Mostly for a girlfriend, that later dumped me.) I ALMOST worked on the original Bruce Timm designed Batman show. I was all set to supervise storyboards for the Toronto unit at Lightbox studios. Sadly, Lightbox and Warner Bros. weren’t able to work out a deal. I might have had a very different career if that had panned out. On the live action side, I am very proud to have storyboarded on the film Fly Away Home, and five installments of the SAW horror franchise. Even though the SAW movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I got to work with some great producers, directors and crews during that time. As a writer, I was fortunate enough to work on the Looney Tunes comic at DC for about 5 years. It was amazing working on Bugs and Daffy and all the classic WB characters, and I’m very proud of some of the stories I did for that comic. As a comedy writer and performer, some of the work I’ve done with various improv and sketch troupes has been great. Terrific groups like Dangerous Poultry, Big City Improv, The Wrecking Crew and The Canadian Space Opera Company. The Canadian Space Opera Company does staged parodies of old science fiction movie serials and 1930’s style horror radio shows. I am extremely proud of those shows.
How did you become interested in animation?
Like most kids I loved all kinds of cartoons. Later, when I was a teenager, I was really into two things: Drawing and acting. One night I took a date to see Disney’s The Rescuers. At some point I worked up the courage to put my arm around the girl’s shoulder, and was able to concentrate on the film for a few minutes. It slowly dawned on me that I was watching drawings that acted. I had long ago decided I wanted to draw for a living, but this seemed to be a great way to fold my love of acting into my love of drawing. It would allow me to take out two creative birds with one stone, so to speak.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada. I heard about Sheridan College in Oakville after I got interested in animation. As the 80’s gave way to the 90’s, I attended Sheridan and graduated with a certificate after three years. The very summer I graduated, I got my first job in-betweening, (Remember when that was still done here?) at Atkinson Film Arts in Ottawa. From there I worked in animation pretty steadily for about 18 years, mostly in layout and storyboard.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Since I freelance as a storyboard guy, comic book guy, comedy guy, writer guy and illustrator type-person, there is nothing in my life resembling a “typical day”. Whatever I’m working on, I work on that. I’m pretty disciplined when I have a job, or I’m when working on something of my own. Once I get going I pretty much burn away on it until I’m done.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The creativity, the variety, the possibility of maybe working on something truly great. I love all my arts for different reasons. Drawing is fun and challenging and very satisfying on a visceral level. Writing is more cerebral, and pushes completely different mental buttons. However, getting a laugh from a live audience is probably my favourite thing. It’s the epitome of instant gratification. You say something funny, they laugh. It’s especially great when you’re improvising and it goes really well. Improv, at it’s best, is co-operative in a completely unique way. You trust and depend on the other performers totally, and if you build something great, it’s because everyone was nailing it. You’re creating a humorous scene, out of whole cloth, right in the heat of the moment. There’s nothing much like it anywhere, except maybe improvised Jazz. Since I play no instruments and sound like a strangling duck when I sing, I stick with the comedy.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Dealing with money, and sometimes dealing with clients. Most clients are great, don’t meddle too much, and pay within a reasonable time-frame. However, in the minority, there are some who are so cheap, petty, revision happy and deeply misinformed about the creative process that you want to kick them hard in their happy place, chuck it all, and go raise chickens in rural Schenectady. Also, seeing to it that you don’t get hosed on money, and collecting the dough, can be truly onerous at times.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
So far not much. I still mostly draw by hand and scan stuff. I have a nice Mac and I use Photoshop, primarily. I have also done some coloring for comic book work in Photoshop. However, things are changing a bit now. A few weeks ago, I bought my first Cintiq tablet. Right now drawing on it makes me feel like I’ve lost about 30 years of experience and ability, but hopefully I’ll get the hang of it soon. I’m currently using the tablet to color some illustrations for a TV pilot.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
FInding spiritually satisfying work. I’m lucky, I’ve worked professionally for a long time, and for the most part made a good living at it. But, regretably, the number of professional projects I’m really proud of are relatively few and far between. I’ve sought out my spiritual and emotional satisfaction in other areas, primarily comedy and writing. I’d like to have more work that pays well and makes me happy at the same time.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When Frank and Ollie were touring to promote The Illusion of Life, I was able to meet them and get their autograph. It was also quite something to work with John Kricfalusi on The Ripping Friends. An almost surreal experience, great in some ways, frustrating in others. The man is certainly one of a kind.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
About 15 years ago I developed ulcerative colitis, a form of intestinal disease. It’s been very tough dealing with that, and learning how to live with a chronic condition. Luckily for me, my incredible wife Beth and my great friends and family have really helped me cope.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
My current comedy troupe, Tha Canadian Space Opera Company, is working on a radio show for a local university broadcaster.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I CAN tie a cherry stem with my tongue! Other than that, there’s the improv comedy thing.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Good training is the best thing you can do for yourself before entering the business. Once you decide you want to work in animation, find good teachers and mentors and start learning how to draw. Draw constantly, draw everything, and draw from life as much as possible. Work with pencil, paint and paper, as well as with the computer. Learn the relevant painting and animation programs. Then, find a great animation school and knuckle down.