What is your name and your current occupation?
Sam Ellis, Creative Director at Never Say Die Studios LLC. I also teach Animation, Story Art, and Concept Design to college students, 2 days a week at the Art Institute of Washington.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I was a supervisor at a quick service chicken restaurant, a Mormon missionary in Arizona, a house framer in historic Williamsburg, a pizza delivery driver, a burger cashier, I built curbs all over Virginia Beach, an off-ice hockey linesman, as well as quite a few more freelance art jobs.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Well, the one project that really helped launch my career and that is going into its 5th season is Archer. I was Lead Designer on Archer Season one and left at the end to go work on personal projects, but we were wrapping up an episode of the short lived Xtacles on adult swim and Adam Reed was getting ready to pitch a new show around called Duchess, Neal Holman was too busy with his other duties so Matt Thompson passed off the majority of the work over to me and Chad Hurd. I was to draw Duchess (later to be known as Archer), his mother, and his father, while Chad drew Archer’s love interest, his foil, and his car. After his pitch was successful and a pilot was green-lit, I got to do quite a bit more designing, Chad and I were pretty delighted to start making some changes to the designs when we got hold of them, there was some great stuff already done by Neal Holman and Eric Simms, but with Neal working on creating backgrounds before we found Trinity Animation and Eric taking some heavy animation duties, Chad and I were like kids in a candy shoppe. We had a blast on that first episode, it came together real fast and we came up with some interesting solutions. Even though I left Archer I still love the crew and am tickled when I see some of the art I did show up all the time, also I get a kick out of seeing my son every time I see young Archer as he was the model for it, Although he has never seen or probably will see Archer. Outside of Archer I have been able to work on Cory Edward’s Krogzilla with the fine folks at GreenShoe Animation, Jason Shwartz’s company–man totally forgot, working with those guys let me work with Disney and Marvel I am heck’a proud of that I also got to foray into gaming and got to do some designs for that Avengers ultimate alliance game–that was fun.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I currently live in Spotsylvania VA, and I grew up on the east coast, most of my life was spent in Virginia Beach, VA. I always wanted to be an animator and a comic artist, I love telling stories and find that using pictures and being able to draw was another great skill set in being able to convey my ideas to others as well as tell more stories. When I graduated college I wanted to go and work with the guys who did SeaLab 2021 and when I saw they were looking for people I applied. When I sent in my email with electronic portfolio it was rejected time and time again by the server, so I looked at the job ad and saw a phone number listed with Matt Thompson’s name and the following statement, “Do Not Call”. It was the last day for submissions and I really wanted to work with them and thought to myself–“if they didn’t want me to call they wouldn’t have put their number.” So I called. After a short odd phone call, Matt told me someone would call me back, Christian Danley one of the illustrators on Frisky Dingo and writers on the Xtacles–a fantastic creator in every way, called me and asked if I could come in for a visit, I told him sure that I only lived right down the road. What I didn’t tell him is that it was over 600 miles down the road was and that road was I 95. He asked me to come in on a WED and I had to make plans with work and told them I couldn’t come in, told my wife and the next day hopped in my car and drove 10 hours to meet the crew. I got there, (there was the outside of a house, they had set up the studio in a foreclosed house) knocked on the door and there was Christian he introduced me to the Crew. Mack and Eric the Animators, Casey, Caicedo, and Christian were the illustrators, and Neal Holman the Art Director. They also introduced me to Matt Thompson and after about 5 minutes they asked if I could start next week. I told them that wouldn’t be a problem and then they said alright and saw me outside and I got in the car and drove 10 hours back to Virginia from Atlanta. I moved out (still a 110 miles away though) interned with them for a few months, got to do some VO work, and then was asked to be part of the 7030 crew, those are still some of my favorite days.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Nowadays, if I am teaching, I leave early and drive a 100 miles to Washington DC to teach the kids, but on the other days– I get up have some oatmeal a tsp of brown sugar, a 2 tsp of peanut butter, sliced banana and my water. (I spend an hour for breakfast checking the facebook and email–oatmeal takes awhile to eat when it has peanut butter in it) Turn on the computer and see what my daily agenda is. I usually do a story boarding exercise where I watch a movie and pause it every time they change the scene and do a quick 30 sec sharpie sketch of the composition and then throw those away (I do that for about 5 minutes every day). I make lists or plans of attack on how I am going to tackle my work for the day (5 minutes) Start drawing what ever assets need to be drawn for what ever project I am doing at the time, (2 hours) Play in Harmony for a bit (an hour) Take a walk down stairs and then a walk outside before I take lunch (1.5 – 2 hours) I like to eat with my family and hang with my kids, so thats what usually happens. Back to the drawing board after a quick review of the days progress, dinner by 6 and back to work until 9 at least if not later, the thing about working on personal projects is that if you don’t do them they wont get done. Then when I am done drawing, I will draw things for fun, right now I am obsessed with the BRAVEST WARRIORS–dang what a fun show.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
11:50PM time to go to bed, but I need to get more stuff done, but I need to get up early twice a week to make the crummy commute to teach my wonderful students–tomorrows creators!
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?
I have and use a few Macs, a Cintiq 21ux, Adobe CS6 (mostly illustrator to create my assets), Toonboom Storyboard Pro 3D, Harmony, among others I switch between programs a lot pending on what I am doing. OH yeah! The Internet, if I didn’t have access to it I would probably be dead in the water I live in the country, the affordability and access to these programs and services really keep me connected to the people I want to work with and at the same time live where I want to for the most part, I live in the country and have chickens–fresh eggs when I want something other than oatmeal…
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Location, I live in the middle of nowhere–which is nice, but I liken my situation to the old lima bean experiment in grade school. If you have have a lima bean and put in on a wet napkin and in a ziplock bag and give it some light–boom you have life, but if you transplant it to a dixie cup with some soil it will grow stronger and become more recognizable. If you can move that plant into a garden where it can propagate with other lima beans it can reach its full potential… The internet helps with this but I love being in the organic environment of a studio bouncing ideas off my peers.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
In my travels I have met the Great Ralph Bakshi and the Incomparable Story Man Sherm Cohen, we didn’t trade brushes, but we shared some nice “one on one” time.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Where do I start, the Buddhist say, “life is suffering” and I think that suffering means experience. I have had shows canceled during the Christmas season when I had just bought all the presents, I have been homeless and not have family take me and mine in, I have lost a child, I have been ostracized and unfairly treated at times. Despite all that ,I ask myself, “do I curse my situation and die in it or do I live?” Live through it, dig my way out, climb from it, and get passed the walls of sorrow, doubt, and despair. People have told me know after pitching shows I have worked hard on, people have told me to redraw something I have put my sole into, and pending on the project I have to tell myself if it is for a production, “Hey Sam, this isn’t your darling, you are making cheese. The customers are expecting something–it has a certain look, color, shape. It has a certain smell taste and texture, quite making art and just make the cheese.” I then tell my self that I never am just making cheese, I am an artisan, a craftsman in that regard and I don’t just make cheese I make the best darn cheese I can make. So the long short of it is, life has hard times–it is how we act or react through those times that define who we really are. Every situation is tough, but the things in life that we persist in doing become easier, not that the nature of the thing its self has changed, but our power to do it has become increased.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
For the last little while I have been working on Robot Cowboy Samurai, currently a card game on kickstarter, soon to be a comic, and afterwards an animated short. You can check out the kickstarter and People can usually see what I am up to at my website.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
O.T.D. Old Time’y’ Dance, Actually, I do practice aikido. I also Like to draw my kids in their favorite animated scenes.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Draw Draw Draw, Be a good person, Be kind to others, Talk to people, Observe things, Put yourself out there, Make cool stuff everyday, Remember your first try wont be good enough, Draw big if you draw small, Draw small if you draw big, Learn some music, Act it out, You don’t know what you don’t know–Sometimes what you first had in mind isn’t the only or best solution.