What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Dave Thomas, and I am a Producer and Director on Nickelodeon’s TUFF Puppy and The Fairly Oddparents.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I always had fun jobs. I worked in a comic book store, and a baseball card shop. But my best non animation job was as a waiter at Farrell’s Old Timey Ice Cream Parlor. We’d bang drums, sound sirens and run sundaes around the place. I was even there when a car smashed through the front of the building and into the candy shop. Some mother left her kid in the car with the engine running while she ran inside. The kid put the car in gear and WHAM! The crazy part is this happened all the time – twice while I worked there. And again after I left!
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
There was a web cartoon Tod Polson and I collaborated on in the early days of the internet called “Mantelope.”Art: Tod Polson. We were working on a TV series for Wildbrain, who were also making internet cartoons for CartoonNetwork.Com. They more or less demanded we pitch something as a condition of continued employment. Since we were overwhelmed with the series, we intentionally pitched the stupidest thing we could think of, hoping they’d hate it and we wouldn’t have to do it. (“Half Man, Half Antelope – MANTELOPE!”)But Cartoon Network did like it, and Wildbrain gave us three weeks to ram the whole thing out! We had to move quick, but I have really fond memories of making it. And in the end we made something we’re all pretty proud of.I’m also really proud of El Tigre, (a show I was Supervising Producer/Director on.)We had an amazing collection of super talented artists and writers who all worked really hard to try to make something good. I’ve never seen so many talented people so happy to be working so hard.That’s all due to the creators, Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, who were absolutely the best. They created not only a great show, but a creative environment that inspired everyone to do their best work. And it paid off:In 2007 the crew of El Tigre brought home 4 Emmy awards – the most of any Nickelodeon show ever.
How did you become interested in animation?
It began with watching Warner Bros. cartoons on Saturday morning with my older sister. I idolized her, and loved anything she did. Since she loved cartoons, I loved cartoons. It was that simple.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from San Diego, and grew up surrounded by animation and comic books. The Spike and Mike Festival is based there, and then there’s Comic Con, which was enormous even then. I also lived near an animation gallery and got to meet Chuck Jones and a number of the Nine Old Men. All of that made me feel like this was a very real and attainable thing to do. My lucky break came when Joe Ranft came to speak at my school. He pitched us boards from the Brave Little Toaster. And that was that – I became obsessed with storyboarding. After class I approached him and we got into a long conversation. My enthusiasm was such that he offered me an internship at a new studio a friend of his had started called Pixar. I showed up to Point Richmond, California, and got a front row seat to the making of Toy Story. The work ethic and devotion to quality there made huge impression on me, and I’ve tried to live up to it ever since.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I’m really lucky in that every day is different. I go to writer’s meetings, hand out storyboards, edit dialogue tracks, review thumbnails, go to pitches, do storyboards of my own, and if there’s time, go to records. So there’s no real routine, which is terrific.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Storyboarding. I really love learning, and with storyboarding there are so many hats to wear that there is no way you will ever be done learning. Everyday there’s different problems to solve – a new challenge or a different part of your art you can improve on.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Storyboarding. It’s so goddamn hard!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The balancing act of being a good artist and a good father is something I think about a lot. I have two sons now, and it’s really important to me to be a part of their lives. But so many of the people I admire professionally have kids: Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Mark Andrews, Genndy Tartakovsky, Butch Hartman – all fathers. So I know it can be done.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
The Cintiq. Nickelodeon asked me to try one out back in 2005 – to see if we should go paperless. I had kind of made my mind up before it arrived. What was wrong with pencil and paper? Artists have used them for over a thousand years! They work great! Ten seconds after I plugged it in I was on the phone trying to buy one for myself. They’re amazing! I can’t imagine life without them.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I was briefly wanted for the kidnapping of Maurice Noble. He had seen a film I made and invited me to his home. We kind of hit it off and wound up losing track of time. The next thing we knew it was 10:30 P.M. and we had missed dinner – so we went out to the IHOP, forgetting to tell his wife. Well, the next thing we knew it was 2 AM. We went back to his house, where we learned from a very angry Mrs. Noble that she had panicked and called the police. I was lucky we weren’t pulled over!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Eight months after my first son was born I had to undergo a life saving procedure. I knew there was a chance I would die, but that didn’t scare me. What scared me was the thought that my son would grow up without a father. It was a tough moment, but it was also a tremendous gift. It profoundly changed the way I look at life.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
My wife and I are restoring our Mid Century Modern, “Eichler” home. It’s a historical property, so the City of Los Angeles requires that the property be maintained in a historical manner, meaning everything has to look exactly the way it did in 1964. It’s like living on the set of Mad Men!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
1) Do not believe in the myth of talent. If someone is better than you it is because they have worked harder. The only way to change that is to put the hours in. It takes on average 10,000 hours of doing something to become good at it. (Google “10,000 hour rule”) The only thing that separates you from any artist you admire is the number of hours they have worked at it.2) Be humble. Arrogance will end your career before incompetence.3) Copy copy copy. Practice drawing new poses with other people’s characters. It’s a skill you’ll be using every day as a professional.4) Don’t get discouraged. You’re in this for the long run. You may suck now, but if you apply yourself in earnest, you will not suck forever.5) Ask for help. If you have a good attitude and are sincere about improving, people will bend over backwards for you. Everyone had help getting to where they are, and most of them are happy to return the favor.