What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Aaron Sowd. I’m currently the president and art director at Aaron Sowd Productions, Inc. We specialize in storyboards and animatics for feature films. We also do some 3-D and previs work. Right now, we work exclusively for Will Smith and Overbrook Entertainment, doing development work. It’s a dream job, and they keep us very busy.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I’ve worked as a professional artist more or less full time since I was 18. I spent about six years in comics before working on the Anastasia and Titan A.E. style guides for Fox. I was the art director at Stan Lee Media. I’ve been freelancing in just about every media since: film, TV, advertising and video games.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
After Earth comes out this summer, and that was a blast to work on. I got to storyboard some of the additional scenes and meet M. Night. My favorite project is the one I’m working on right now — which is top secret, of course. Working on the first Transformers film, Solaris, the Transformers and The Simpsons rides at Universal, and the God of War and Rage video games were all career highlights for me.
How did you become interested in animation?
As a kid I grew up with no TV, so I got interested in comic books first, then animation. Our local library used to carry the Tintin and Asterix collections, and later I got into Marvel and DC. The first animation I can remember seeing was probably The Tom and Jerry Show. I would watch it at a friend’s house whenever possible. All the Saturday-morning cartoon shows.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m originally from Canton, Ohio. I grew up in Northern California and moved to Los Angeles about 20 years ago to work in comics at Top Cow, one of the Image Comics studios. I spent about three years there and trasitioned into advertising, then into animation and now film.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
These days, I’m usually up by 7 a.m., get a quick run or workout in, and off to my office by 9 or 10. I work until 7 p.m. or later, depending on the deadline. And then I get up and do it again!
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The drawing and the art-directing. The creative side of starting your own company is immensely rewarding. I’ve tried to hire only artists whom I admire or I think are better than me (so that’s pretty much everyone)! I love going over the boards as they come in and offering suggestions or making revisions. Being in a big studio fosters positive competition and constant inspiration. And, of course, working with Will is the best part. He has more energy and ideas than anyone I’ve ever met, and when he works, he works nonstop! From sunup to sundown. It’s a challenge just keeping up with him some days.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The administrative side of starting you own company can be tedious. I’ve hired people to take care of the most of the day-to-day business side of things. But I hate having to fire or lay off an artist, whatever the reason.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
It depends on what job I’m doing at the moment, but for storyboards I’m all digital. I work on a Cintiq, primarily in Photoshop, but sometimes in Painter. For animation, I work in Flash and After Effects. I’m learning Z Brush and Adobe Premiere in my spare time. (I know, what spare time?)
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The long hours. I love what I do, and I feel lucky to get paid to do it, so as a result, I tend to go above and beyond what’s required. But that’s why I love storyboarding, because it forces me to focus on the storytelling and what’s important all in a quick sketch, versus a finished illustration where I can over-render or over-think the drawing or painting to death.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I worked for Stan Lee at Stan Lee Media for almost two years. It was during the dot-com boom, and we were doing online animated webisodes in Flash. This was back in the day when most people still had dial-up modems, so they might have to wait as long as five minutes to watch a three-minute webisode! What can I say, we were ahead of the times! Working with Stan was a dream come true, and he taught me a lot. I also got to meet Don Bluth when I worked on the style guides for Anastatia and Titan A.E., and later I met animation legend Chuck Jones before he died.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ve been really lucky with adversity — or rather, the lack of it — in my life. I would say the toughest situation I deal with on a regular basis is to balance my work and personal life. Life is all about balance, and in our industry you can lose yourself in your work. One deadline after another, and the months turn into years. It’s especially true now that I’ve formed my own production company. There is always something that needs doing or a question that needs answered, and I feel like a doctor, on call 24/7. You have to schedule downtime, or else you’ll go crazy.
Any side projects or you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I’ve done a few creator-owned projects. The one that got the farthest was a short story called “Masterminds.” We optioned it first as a feature and then as an online animated show, but it never made it out of development. Development Hell is a real place — I can show it to you on a map! I own a timeshare there!
Any unusual talents or hobbies, like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
If I could tie a cherry stem with my tongue, Masterminds would have been a feature film by now! My hobbies include beach volleyball and pretty much anything that gets me outside. The sun burns, my precious, it burns!!!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
No, go home, we’re full! I’m joking, of course, but that’s another pet peeve of mine: people who think that there is a limited amount of success to go around, and they have to horde all the work for themselves. Part of building relationships is recommending your friends and peers when you can’t do the job yourself. Network. Your peers are not your competition; they might be your next job! When I taught at Art Center, I always told my students that the Three Keys to Success (or the Three T’s) are: 1. Talent — you have to have a certain level of talent and quality to your work before you can work professionally. 2. Timeliness — you have to be able to make deadlines and prove yourself dependable, or else you will not get more work from the same client. 3. ‘Tude (short for attitude) — you have to have a good attitude and be pleasant to work with through it all! Again, it goes back to relationships. People like working with people they like. So if you have two out of the three, you can get work, but if you have all three, you’re golden. You will never look for work; work will come looking for you. You will develop a reputation, and clients will seek you out if that reputation is good. At least that’s how it’s worked for me so far.