What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Alan Lau. I am co-owner of Ghostbot Inc., an animation studio based in the San Francisco area.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Ha! There is a little “crazy” in all the jobs I’ve done. I was a “moon cake” packer for a day. Yes I understand that sounds like a weird euphemism.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m very proud of my work on: Esurance: I did direction, design and animation on a series of animated commercials for Esurance. It was great to be ground zero at such a successful campaign and I had such great fun telling these exciting little stories in the span of a 30 second commercial. Buddhist Monkey: I always enjoy working with Mondomedia. One of my very best friends is Kenn Navarro: co-creator of Happy Tree Friends. When we got the chance to do an “action” version of Happy Tree Friends we couldn’t say no! I directed and boarded 3 episodes of the show. Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time: I directed the cutscenes and 2D animation for Sly Cooper : Thieves In Time. It was fantastic to work with the amazing game developer Sanzaru games and fine folks at Sony. They really trusted us to bring ideas to the table and left us to be creative and do our thing. That is the type of dream collaboration that you really have to enjoy when it comes along. Anniversary: This was a real special project as I feel like this is the direction my company Ghostbot wants to go into. We want to create our own films and own stories so this feels in someways the beginning of that journey.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, California. My parents were immigrants from Hong Kong so I think I inherited their crazy work ethic; something that certainly helps in the animation business! I studied animation at San Francisco State University. I was recommended by an amazingly talented animator by the name of Steve Lee. My first job in animation was as an assistant animator at (Colossal) Pictures. I have been working in the business ever since.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
It’s a freaking tornado of meetings, emails, communication, and managing. As an owner of Ghostbot, a lot of my brain power is dedicated to steering the studio in the right direction. When the dust settles, I take great joy creating and directing. I also love rolling up my sleeves and animating whenever I get the chance.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love creating great work! Ghostbot has always stood for quality in the animation world. I think after 8+ years in the business, it’s very satisfying that we’re creating a legacy of quality in design and animation.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I miss my family, my friends and free time! Animation already is a pretty intense discipline in itself, but running a studio on top of that is pretty life consuming.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
We try to use everything. Currently a lot of our production focus is in Flash and After Effects and Maya. The great thing about being near silicon valley is we have access to a lot of cool new technology and toys. You’ve probably heard this before, but in the end, programs and equipment are all just tools like a pencil. The three founders of the company Brad Rau and Roque Ballesteros and I come from a traditional 2D background. We put those classic sensibilities in our work whatever we are using.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Over the decades, I’ve seen comic books and video games evolved to cater to fans of all ages. As a medium, I think animation has a huge potential to explode into different genres and audiences as well, but it is more boxed in due to it’s own success and failures. I hope animation evolves further.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve met lots of great folks in the animation industry. If I had to name them all, I would need a second interview. A few years back we met Möbius. That was pretty awesome.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ve found that most times in my life that things were difficult either personal or professional that I would focus on my art. I’ve found that “rush” of doing great art work and having people enjoy it always got me through tough times.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
As an animator and a director, I often had “side projects” cooking. It’s very healthy to make sure you nurture that creative spark in a business that is often service based. Right now, Ghostbot occupies all my time at the moment. There are a lot of big things stirring in the studio and we are looking forward to sharing some big news in the near future.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can beat the Atari 2600 game Adventure at record speed. Not quite as cool as tying a cherry stem with my tongue.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Where to begin? My career has given me a unique perspective as the employee and employer. Here’s my advice to aspiring students in easy to read bullet points: Surprise! It’s not easy. The reality is you are competing with a very high caliber of artistic talent gunning for a small pool of work. It’s always been like that. So first and foremost, make sure your skills are sharp and your artistic foundation is rock solid. Research schools. Make sure your school has what it needs to get you the proper skill set and opportunity. Just because you pay big bucks for a degree doesn’t mean you’ll come out of that school solid enough to get work. Be honest. If you want to be a feature animator, put your work up against an animated film you love. Does your work hold up? What can you improve on? Take the punch. Taking critiques is often the toughest part of working in the business. If you can take critiques constructively and create something even better, that attitude will take you far. Network! In this day and age, it’s important to network with other creative types. You start with your peers in school and also spread out to events like ASIFA or CTN. It is extremely important to get on social networking sites as well. It’s an easy way to meet like-minded artists, employees, and make a great impression. Create a web portfolio. Put your work on the web, so employers can check it out easily. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but does need to show your best work. Don’t put up anything half baked. Get an internship. It’s the easiest way to show that you have a great work ethic and good attitude to employers. It also gives you a taste of a real work environment. Research the company. Remember to research where you are applying. Different companies have different needs, so you may need to juggle your portfolio around to match their job description or style. Be a team player. As an artist, it’s easy to isolate and work alone. However, most animation projects means working with a lot of different people relying on each other. Make sure you develop the work and social skills to deal with that environment. Communicate. Being able to create something artistically is one thing, but often times you’ll have to explain your artistic thought process or intent to your superiors. Be reliable. Turn things in on time. Producers and Directors need assurance that you’re going to be able to get it done; especially if you’re new and un-established. Evolve. Be flexible in terms of learning new techniques. Technology changes all the time, and you need to evolve with it as an artist. Work hard. Work at every animation job as if it’s your last. Put as much dedication and focus as you can to succeed. Even if you stumble, employers will take notice that you are a dedicated professional. Keep learning. School is just the beginning of learning, but shouldn’t be the end. The more you can improve, the more you can move up the artistic ladder. Love it! Animation is a labor of love. Don’t do it unless you absolutely are committed.