What is your name and your current occupation?
Dan Schier, working at Nickelodeon as a character designer.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
The earliest jobs I had as a kid were the craziest. My best friend and I waded through crayfish infested lakes, retrieved and resold golf balls in stealthy, makeshift wholesale locations. We did alright for kids, and it was tax free! My first official job was a paper boy. The crazy part is that I was loosing money because customers hid from me when I attempted to collect, or didn’t pay me on time. So I had to cover them adults at age 16. Bye, bye golf ball money. First artistic job was at Disneyland doing caricatures and portraits in New Orleans Square spring/summer of ’97. It was fun to have a license to stare at pretty girls.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I guess I’m proud of and enjoyed each project on different levels. Working on Dora makes me feel good because it’s a very well intentioned show that aims to teach kids instead of the opposite. My first job on Disney’s “Atlantis” is probably a favorite. I was still idealistic at that point. It’s also when I first met my wife who worked in Backgrounds. Our crew was a lot of fun and we were working on the main character, Milo. I remember when I first started and was looking at development art and inspirational art from things like 101 Dalmatians I felt like I had arrived, and was so excited about the prospects I had fantasized about.
How did you become interested in animation?
I always drew and loved watching cartoons-particulary Looney Toons and Disney, and some Hanna Barbera…actually, I liked anything that was good and entertaining. I basically gravitated toward animation because it encompasses all the things I love, like: character, acting, storytelling, design, etc. I also loved cars and looked into Art Center for that, but animation seemed more natural for me. I loved school and learning, but hated tests and homework. So, I’m a smart guy with terrible grades-passing grades.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up a couple miles from the beach in N. Orange County, Ca. Nobody was kind enough to tell me about animation schools until I was at Orange Coast College taking a cartooning class (Mike Beanan’s) when a friend who also liked animation mentioned CalArts. I visited and loved the school. I didn’t think I was prepared enough though. I first took animation classes at Roland Heights ROP where they had a popular animation program; then took drawing and animation classes at the Animation Union (Glen Villpu, Carl Gnass, etc); and at Associates in Arts (Steve Huston, Dave Brain). Then, I got in to CalArts which I loved. After two years at CalArts my golf ball fortune quickly ran out, and I was lucky enough to get into Disney Feature on Atlantis thanks to Alex Topete. Alex was head of Clean-Up on Fantasia 2000. He gave a clean-up workshop which many people shunned, but I did my best and apparently made an impression. They really should have taught cleanup to freshman, because I learned how to flip properly and do careful inbetweens in that workshop. Two of us got hired at a time when they had just let go of many artists. We felt fortunate to be paid to learn and get a taste of what Disney was during that period. Very few of my peers had that experience.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
As a character designer I usually deal with my coordinator who provides a daily list of to-dos. I read scripts for descriptions and context; I refer to “storybooks” they created to test stories with pre-schoolers; search the web for references; then get to work of creating characters or redressing existing ones. I’m usually working on several episodes on any given day. My work is shown to my leads (creative producer, head of story, and show creators) for approval. I have to clean-up my designs also. It’s nice to switch modes from rough designing to methodical clean-ups. If I had to do either all day long 24/7, that would be mentally exhausting. I’m always plugged in to the radio or web, and get to listen to interesting or entertaining stuff everyday, all day. It satisfies my urge to learn.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Lunch! I never know what I’m going to eat, and that excites me. Other than that I love being creative and offering my own ideas for approval.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Sometimes we have too many ‘cooks’ that I have to get the approval of, and at times they contradict each other. It works best when there is a clear direction to take. But, I’ve learned not to let it negatively affect me. I do my pass, and if they love it, great! If they don’t I have to switch modes and try to tap in to what they want, which is another sort of challenge.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Cintiq, Photoshop, Illustrator, Google, headphones.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Most difficult part for me is being subservient when I disagree. No matter what job you have, it’s most enjoyable when you don’t feel like a cog. I’d rather be an engine than a cog any day. Playing politics with people you don’t admire is never fun either (I’m talking about pompous political people in general-in any company I have ever worked for.). On the flip side, I think it’s a good exercise in humility. Luckily, studio politics doesn’t affect me much on Dora. Simply, kiss-asses, snobby, or two faced people repel me. And, you find them in any business. The other thing that has been difficult is finding people who are willing to mentor. As I get older the pressures of providing for a family while younger and cheaper blood enters the fray is beginning to become more apparent. I think I understand why people aren’t so eager to mentor nowadays. There are many aspiring artist trying to get in. The only real solutions seem to be diversify, save, and run fast enough to stay ahead of the curve; or ideally, create your own enterprise and lead it. Lastly, it would be nice to have a fraction of the billions our show generates.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Many! At CalArts, and Disney I had many opportunities to rub elbows with legends and modern masters. Just walking around Nickelodeon and knowing how huge shows like: Spongebob, Dora, Fairly Odd Parents, Avatar, etc are, I sometimes think about the people I interact with everyday who create it all and how somebody outside the building idolizes them.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I don’t think I’ve had it especially tough. I have a great family who’s supportive. Being a parent of two and supporting a family can be tough, but I’m not alone there. Recently, our crew lost a great talent and exceptional person, Jose Silverio. He was one of the most inspiring artists I’ve worked with and he passed away one Monday morning unexpectedly. His drawings were loose and charming, and he had a very calm, friendly nature. He was in his forties and his passing has made me conscious of my own mortality.
Any side projects or you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I’ve been developing characters and shows on the side for a while now. I wish I could share those characters and get feedback, but they’re too valuable to me. My latest partnership has been the most exciting. We have a show that we’re pitching around which is a lot of fun. My partners are very talented and have 31 Broadway shows amongst themselves. It’s inspiring to work with people who are so talented and accomplished.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nothing unusual…I can stay up all night long (it’s 3:41am right now on a Thurs.)!…I love to surf!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Stop. Try to become a professional surfer instead! Otherwise, I’d say follow your passion and don’t let jaded people dissuade you. But, you should be realistic also. A principle I devised working in clean-up at Disney which is now engrained is: if you aren’t plussing or at the very least preserving the vitality or essence of your own or someone else’s best efforts, you should stop, and figure out how to improve what you’re doing. Those are good opportunities to grow. You should learn to discern good from bad by educating yourself and constantly trying to improve. Animation is a collaborative form and each job is vital. Everyone should be trying to improve the product down the line. I think the reason we have so much crap to look at is because people aren’t improving on what came before them. That might sound pompous, but I realize everyone is at a different level. I’m just saying people should keep trying to get better, otherwise move on to something you’re more passionate about: ”Stay hungry, stay foolish” as Steve Jobs put it.
I also wanted to note that on most of my attached designs that are nicely textured and colored, I have to give that credit to my talented wife, Nancy. She worked in bgs at Disney Feature which is where we met. She’s much better with color than I.