Sherm Cohen

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What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Sherm Cohen and I’m currently the storyboard supervisor for Disney’s Fish Hooks.

 

What are some of the crazier jobs you had  before getting into animation?
The craziest job I ever had before getting into the animation business was working as a psychiatric aide at a mental hospital. When I first got hired, I thought it picked me because I was a promising student in my psychology classes — but it turns out they hired me because I’m a pretty big dude, and one of the key job responsibilities was being able to tackle and restrain mental patients! I got a really grim view of the inner workings of the mental health insurance schemes, but I didn’t end up quitting that job until after I received a concussion from one of the patients in the isolation tank.

 

What are some of your favorite projects you’re  proud to have been a part of?
Of all the projects I’ve worked on in my cartooning career, I’m most proud of the work I was able to take part in when I was on SpongeBob SquarePants. It just makes me so happy when I can see that the cartoons that I wrote and drew have become favorites and bright spots in the lives of so many people all over the world. A few years ago, I was standing in line at the DMV when I noticed one of the office workers cubicles in the deep background; it was completely decked out with SpongeBob posters and cards and drawings and toys… and I decide it was really neat that somebody who was working in a dreary government bureaucracy, we have brightened our day by surrounding themselves with a cartoon that I worked on. I’m also enjoying the heck out of my current job on Fish Hooks. The show is pure cartoon fun and the crew is wonderful to work with. And it’s extra-special experience because I actually appear on-screen in every episode as Bud, the pet store owner.

 

How did you become interested in animation?
The cartoons that had a huge impact on me when I was growing up were an odd mix of styles: the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie, the Filmation superhero cartoons of the 1960s, the first few Charlie Brown specials, Cap’n Crunch and Quisp and Freakies cereal commercials, Bugs Bunny and Hanna Barbera cartoons… but I never wanted to go into animation when I was a kid. I always saw myself as being a comic book artist, and that’s what I continued to work on until I stumbled into the animation business.

 

Where are you from and how did you get into the  animation business?
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles — just a few miles away from all the major animation studios — but it literally never occurred to me to try to get work in animation. The misconception I grew up with was that the people who work in animation are forced to draw the same character pose over and over and over again with just microscopic differences between the drawings. That sounded like the worst fate that could befall any artist, so I guess I just put up a mental block about the whole animation field and concentrated on being a comic book artist. I studied at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover New Jersey, and that was a fantastic experience that laid the foundation for everything I’ve done since then. In the early to mid 80s, the guys that were teaching at the Joe Kubert school were guys that had been in the business for 40 or more years. They had no romantic notions about “art” — it was all about solidly communicating your story, and meeting all the technical requirements and most importantly your deadlines. I got my start in animation when I set the San Diego comic convention in 1994. I had a table there in the little independent comics ghetto that was in the back corner of the hall (and that sort of setup was light years away from anything like the show-biz comic cons from the last decade or so). I was selling my self published black-and-white comics, and a guy who likes my stuff started chatting me up about working as a storyboard artist. I took a look at his name badge and saw that it was Bill Wray from the Ren & Stimpy show!  Bill offered to meet with me when we both got back to LA… he gave me the brief lowdown on what it was like to work in storyboards, and he looked at my portfolio to help me focus on how to make the best samples to get my foot into the door. Over the next six weeks or so, I worked up a bunch of samples, showed them to Bill, got some heavy-duty critiques, worked up new batches of samples, more critiques, until finally I had something that he thought was good enough to bring in  to show to the Ren & Stimpy crew. Fortunately for me, I got an entry-level position as a trainee — which was something in between being an intern and art assistant. After a couple months of doing technical layouts and assorted revisions, I finally got to do some work designing props, cleaning up models and drawing character layouts. My main education in storyboarding came from my three seasons working on Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold.” I started on that show is a storyboard revision artist, and I learned a ton of stuff by talking to the directors about the revisions that they were having me work on. I wanted to find out why I was fixing things… I figured that if there were things that needed to be fixed on the storyboards, I’d like to learn how to draw boards that didn’t need to be fixed. Of course, it doesn’t quite work that way but I learned an awful lot about storyboarding by asking the right questions.  After a year in revisions, I had an opportunity to storyboard and direct my first show because (as often happens in the latter part of the season) the production was getting behind and they needed some help catching up. I ended up getting bumped up to a full storyboarding position, and after another year spent drawing boards with Dan Povenmire, I got the chance to direct my own shows for the season after that. I finally left the “Hey Arnold” show when I got the invite from Steve Hillenburg to join the inaugural crew of the SpongeBob SquarePants. I had never really met Steve Hillenburg before that point, so how did he even know about my work? Well, it turns out that I had given one of my self published comic books to my pal Derek Drymon, and Derek had left one of these comics in the backseat of his car, and when he went out to lunch with Steve Hillenburg one day, Steve read the comic and he liked it! When I think about how that one little black-and-white comic book changed the course of my life…sheesh!

 

What’s a typical day like for you with regards  to your job?
Currently — working as a storyboard supervisor — my days are a very fast-paced hopscotch game from one episode to another. During any given week, I worked on three different episodes, preparing them for three different production deadlines. The first task is to do a staging pass on the storyboard that’s going to be headed into animatic for next week. That basically means that I go through the storyboards that have just been finished, and I look for ways to pump up the staging, and to find ways to plus the acting and make everything as clear as possible before the storyboard gets turned into animatic. The second storyboard that I work on during the week is the one that has just gone through the animatic process, and will be used the following Monday in the designer’s meeting. During this time, I’m working on the changes that were needed after the animatic was screened the previous week. It’s important to point out that all of our shows go through a lot of revision and tightening and punching up between the time the first storyboard is turned in and when it finally gets shipped off to get animated.  The third storyboard I’ll be working on is the “final pass” before the whole package goes to the animation checker. This is the last chance that we have to make sure that all the drawings work well with the voice acting, and make sure that every last detail of continuity and clarity is totally spelled out before it goes out of the country to get the final animation done. The bottom line is that the more we can nail things down in the early phases of production, the fewer mistakes and revisions will have to do on the back end. I imagine that reading the last few paragraphs makes everything seem kind of like a factory — and in many ways it is — but there’s plenty of love and sweat pouring over every one of those pages before it gets turned in to a TV show.

 

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
My favorite part of this process is when we can take a story problem (or a gag problem or a drawing problem or a staging problem) that’s been really tough to tackle, and then chipping away at it until we can find a solution that works better than we had ever dreamed of. It’s like this ecstatic moment when you’ve been grappling in the ring with a worthy opponent, and you finally knock him over and pin him to the mat.

 

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The worst part is dealing with some of the soul-crushing and seemingly arbitrary network standards and practices notes. It’s really tough when you have to throw out a gag that got a ton of laughs — all because somebody on the corporate track thinks that there’s a possibility that somebody somewhere might feel uncomfortable or may want to sue.

 

What is the most difficult part for you about  being in the business?
See above. But, come on — I’ve got it pretty good, y’know?

 

What kind of technology do you work with on a  daily basis?
Like most artists these days in the TV animation business, I do all my drawing on a Wacom Cintiq tablet, and we use Toon Boom Storyboard Pro as the program with which we draw all of our storyboards. A couple of years ago, I found it pretty difficult to make the transition to drawing digitally, but once you get over the initial learning curve it all feels normal again.

 

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I don’t recall any encounters with the old-school cartooning greats, but many of the people I’ve worked with are examples of true animation greatness. I’m hesitant to single out names, but what the heck: Bill Wray, Bob Camp, Steve Hillenburg, Derek Drymon and Dan Povenmire have all been great mentors and friends, and the cartoon landscape would be a vastly different place without these tremendously talented cartoonists.

 

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
When I first got out of the Kubert school and got rejected when looking for work, I pretty much lost confidence in completely lost my way for about three years. I was doing very little drawing, and I was going back to college because I figured that I’d never make it as a cartoonist so I better figure out something else to do with my life. It took a few years (and getting my head beaten in by a patient at the mental hospital) before I realized that I HAD to move forward with my cartooning career or I would be miserable for the rest of my life. I started getting some freelance comic book gigs, but then I got burned by the company I was working for — who apparently had quite a reputation for not paying the artists who worked for them. Discouraged once again, I floundered for another few years before I got back on the horse and started grabbing at any cartooning opportunity I could get my hands on. Once I had set my sights on really doing this for a living, and once I had made the commitment to keep moving forward in my work, things gradually began to fall into place, opportunities presented themselves, and I was in a place where I was ready to take on those opportunities.

 

Any side projects or you’re working on or  hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I created the CartoonSnap blog as a way to share my overflowing love of cartoons and comics, and a  few years ago I started teaching cartooning classes, too. I’ve made a bunch of video tutorials about how to create cartoon art with software like Adobe Illustrator, ArtRage and Toon Boom Storyboard Pro. More recently I’ve been teaching storyboarding classes through my website and via my 10-DVD course called Storyboard Secrets.

 

Is there any advice you can give for an  aspiring animation student or artist trying to  break into the business?
Based on my own personal experience in getting into this field, and based on my experience as someone who makes hiring decisions within the studio system, my biggest recommendation is for artists to make sure that they get their work out there where everybody can see it. It used to mean spending a lot of money to self publish your work, but now it’s easy to post all of your artwork online ensure that artwork with literally millions of people through places like Facebook and Twitter. It’s not as many like-minded cartoonists as you can — there’s plenty of us online like to chat with other cartoonists. I’ve seen plenty of talented people get work because of their online portfolios, and because they were willing to reach out and be friendly with other cartoonists in person and online.  Now, everything is said in the previous paragraph assumes that your work is already of a professional caliber. If you’re not quite there yet, get there. There’s no secret to getting better at drawing; just keep drawing every day and keep getting better every day. Find other artists so you can encourage and challenge and critique each other. Stay focused on what you want to do is a cartoonist, but broaden your range of influences to include many styles of cartoon art, different art styles in general, film and other storytelling arts, and anything else that’s going to fuel your creativity. Finds the artwork that inspires you and emulate it; take it apart and put back together again. If you do all this fueled by a love of the medium, you’re bound to come out better on the other side. And it never ends anyway, so you might as well learn to love it.
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3 Comments

  1. Great interview!….Revealing. I don’t know why…but it’s comforting to hear that a supertalent like Sherm has had his struggles in the business as we all have – and he’s comfortable enough to be open and candid about revealing those tough times. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sherm has come along way from tackling Mental Patients, that’s for sure!!!
    This gives me inspiration, Sherm!

  3. Pingback: News: The Don Bluth Collection of Animation | Animation Insider – "Interviews about Animators by Animators"

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