What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Pete Michels and I am the Supervising Director on the upcoming hit show “Rick and Morty” for Adult Swim. I work at Starburns Industries in Burbank.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I never really had any crazy jobs. I once parked cars and did phone surveys. Both of those jobs lasted less than a weekend.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
The Simpsons and Family Guy are probably the top projects. It’s an honor to be part of animation history.
How did you become interested in animation?
I think I’ve always been drawing cartoons, since I got the “Charlie Brown Dictionary” for Christmas one year. I was always watching “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo”. But I think it was Ralph Bakshi’s version of “Lord of the Rings” that made me want to do that for a living.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from Little Ferry, New Jersey… a suburb of New York City that’s located just south of Hackensack. After graduating from Jersey City State College, I took an animation class. The book we were assigned was Kit Laybourne’s “The Animation Book”. In the back of the book was a list of colleges with animation programs. I applied to UCLA and got into the graduate animation program there. Just before completing my degree I got a job as a Background Layout Artist on “The Simpsons” and never looked back.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
It starts with coffee. On Tuesdays we have donuts at Rick and Morty. I usually have design meetings or storyboard launch meetings in the mornings with Justin Roiland and the production crew. In the afternoons I go over storyboards and make notes or changes on the boards. Our schedule is pretty tight, so I have to go through them pretty quick, and get the notes to the directors ASAP. Then I’ll get some more coffee. Later on I have designs to approve with our Art Director, James McDermott. At some point, I’ll get on the 5 and sit in some construction traffic.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I actually enjoy seeing what other artists come up with. I’ve been fortunate to work with some talented people who always inspire me. The collaboration process can be a lot of fun –especially when everything is coming together. I do enjoy retakes also, although we are not at that point yet on Rick and Morty. It’s kind of satisfying to be able to see what’s not working in a scene and fix it. Doing retakes, I think, also polishes your animation and boarding skills, in a way that helps you foresee future problems and know how to avoid them next time.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Working on computers. There is nothing more frustrating than a computer program that won’t do today what it did yesterday. I know why we use them, I know how to use them, but I still don’t like them. I miss the pencil. I didn’t have to think about how the pencil worked. It always worked the same every day and I could just focus and concentrate on the drawing. I never forgot to save pencil drawings.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I’d have to say worrying about the next job. I’ve been lucky to be on some long lasting shows, but you always think each season is the last, and that you’ll get cancelled.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
ToonBoom Storyboard Pro and Photoshop. I actually like Storyboard Pro as a drawing program. I use it for a lot of other applications, too, like designs and birthday cards. I’ve even animated with it. And pencils.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I got to work with some big names like Matt Groening, Brad Bird and Seth MacFarlane, and I once took a drawing class with Corny Cole. Some of the perks of working in animation is getting to meet some greats in other fields as well. I got know the great cartoonist Mell Lazarus though The Simpsons, and I worked on an unpublished children’s book with Ray Bradbury.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
My Dad died from cancer when I was in High School. That was a tough situation to be in at 17. He never got to see me go to college, or visit me in California, or meet my wife and see his grandsons. My Dad loved to watch Road Runner cartoons with me when I was a kid. He would have enjoyed my career choice.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Yes, I am always pitching show ideas and writing. I’ve got a library of bad cartoon ideas I’m hoping to sell (and some pretty good ones too–for those network execs reading this). If I don’t get them off the ground, I’m going to publish them all in a book about failed cartoon pitches someday. I’m also a painter of watercolor landscapes (I have 2 paintings in the US Coast Guard’s permanent collection), and recently got back into oil painting. I’ll put those in a book about bad oil paintings.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metalurgy?
Actually, I CAN tie a cherry stem with my tongue! When I’m not doing that, I dabble in carpentry and grow vegetables in my yard. I don’ t think those are unusual, but I have grown some oversized mutant carrots.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Yes. Know the technology–find a way to learn Photoshop and Storyboard Pro. Know the art of animation. Study it. Look at the staging, the posing, the shot selection. Watch movies with the sound off– it will help you with storyboarding (you won’t get caught up in the movie that way). Take tests–storyboard tests, design tests, color tests. Ask for feedback if possible. Then be persistent.