What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Jack Cusumano. I’m currently working at Titmouse painting backgrounds for a show called Randy Cunningham, 9th Grade Ninja.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Probably the weirdest job I’ve had was working in the immunizations department of my university’s health center. I had to answer angry phone calls from incoming students who didn’t have proof of their MMR immunizations. At the same time I was also doing graphic design for the campus health center, which occasionally involved designing posters about sexually transmitted diseases.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Randy’s my favorite show to have worked on, and I’m really excited for people to see it once it’s released. Beyond that, I love working on RAD RAZ, my weekly webcomic for Dumm Comics. I’ve been reading the site and following the other Dumm artists since 2008, so by the time I was asked to come on board in 2010 I was honored to join the team. Tiny Jackie Talk Show, a short I created recently, was another highlight to me. It allowed me to work with some of my favorite voice actors and animation artists: Thurop Van Orman, Penn Ward, Jackie Buscarino, Eric Bauza and Justin Roiland. It was also a treat working with Abed Gheith. People might not be as familiar with him, but I’m a fan of his countless contributions to Channel 101 over the years, and don’t think Tiny Jackie would have worked without his hilarious performance.
How did you become interested in animation?
I’ve always loved animation, but I spent some of my younger childhood in Italy, where we only got a handful of American cartoons on TV. When we came back to the states to visit my grandparents in the summer of ’92 I saw cable television for the first time. My grandparents lived in Florida, so I was surrounded by beaches and great summer weather, but all I wanted to do was sit in the living room and watch Rocko’s Modern Life, Ren and Stimpy, Doug, and Rugrats as long as I could. I had never seen anything like those shows, and I think the visual aesthetics and warped humor from those early ’90s toons has stuck with me since then.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up all over the place. I was born in Japan, spent my life in various US states and Italy. I was in Florida longest of any one place, and wound up studying animation at the University of Central Florida. Although Orlando used to be home to animation studios for Disney and Nickelodeon, by the time I graduated those were long gone. One of the only real options in town was to work for EA, but I wasn’t interested in working on games. I tried my hand at motion graphics for an advertising agency, but coming home each night to watch Flapjack and Superjail gave me the push to head west and give animation a real shot. I swallowed my pride and moved in with my parents in Tucson where I worked a couple years to save up money and network with artists out in LA. I had some setbacks and obstacles, but eventually I got my foot in the door and was able to move to LA myself.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My day consists largely of staring at a Cintiq screen and scribbling on it with a stylus to paint backgrounds. Luckily I absolutely love painting, so it doesn’t really feel like work. Other than that, I just have to keep on my toes incase a spontaneous nerf battle or slow dance breaks out in the design room.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love being a part of bringing a show like this to life. It’s really surreal to be behind the curtain and creating cartoons instead of just watching them. It still blows my mind that I’m able to make a living by drawing fun stuff every day, and I’m really thankful for that.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
A lot of our show takes place in a few regular locations that we revisit over and over. Painting different angles of those same locations isn’t as exciting as painting really crazy, brand new environments, so if anything that’s my least favorite part. Luckily there are plenty of really wild backgrounds that turn up in the episodes, so it all balances out.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
We work in Photoshop to paint the backgrounds for the show, which is a nice change of pace from designing backgrounds in Flash. It gives us the freedom to get a much more detailed, painterly feel. I use a Cintiq to draw. Outside of my day job I use Illustrator to ink my comics, Photoshop to color and finalize them, and After Effects to animate my shorts. I also operate a Bunn-O-Matic coffee machine in the breakroom.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
To me the hardest part was getting in. It can be really confusing, discouraging and frustrating when you’re trying to make a name for yourself and find work after college. I can’t count how many rejected portfolios I’ve gone through, how many design tests I’ve taken and how many times I thought that it might never happen. Once you get in and work in a couple places, the world really opens up a lot more and you sort of get the hang of it, but those first steps are the absolute hardest thing.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Living in Los Angeles and working in this industry tears down a lot of walls. The people that I run into just during the course of working or going to events and galleries around town are people that have been heroes of mine for years, whose art shaped my worldview and aesthetic and motivated me to follow the path that I took. Working with people like Thurop and Penn on Tiny Jackie Talk Show was one of those surreal moments that I couldn’t have imagined happening even just a year ago. It’s a small world and a smaller industry, so you really never know who you’re going to run into next.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
The time between graduating college and finally getting into the animation industry was a trying time for me. The advertising agency work I did back in Orlando was more stressful and grueling than anything I’ve had to do in the animation industry. When I wasn’t at agencies, the freelance design gigs could be even crazier. While living with my parents I had one nightmare client that ran up outrageous phone bills calling me at all hours of the night then stiffed me for thousands of dollars at the end of a project, leaving me with nothing to show for months of hard work. That was definitely the lowest point, and it took me a while to pick myself back up again and convince myself that I had something to offer and could really make it in animation.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’m always trying to do something on the side. I largely stay away from freelance, but instead try to focus on my own personal projects. I have a weekly webcomic called RAD RAZ that runs on Dumm Comics every Saturday. I also make web shorts, like my recent Tiny Jackie Talk Show and my previous RAD RAZ animated shorts. In addition to that, I do digital paintings, including a series where I’ve been doing one new painting for every episode of the third season of Adventure Time. I share my artwork on tumblr and participate in the occasional gallery show.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I don’t know about unusual, but I love cooking. It’s really tough to avoid a take-out food diet as an animator, but I try to clear time almost every day to cook something fresh and healthy in the kitchen. I cook things from scratch, avoiding processed and pre-mixed ingredients. I feel better having eaten a home cooked meal, and I feel better for taking the time to step away from artwork for a minute to prepare the food.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
If studios won’t hire you because of lack of experience, make your own experience. When no one was hiring me, I would write and draw my own comics, voice and animate my own cartoons. I co-created a digital magazine with friends from college and did the layout and illustration and drew comics in the back. No one was paying me to do any of these things, but I was slowly building a body of work experience and honing skills that were valuable to studios. Don’t sit around and wait for someone to give you experience or you’ll stagnate and get left behind. Do what you want to be doing and know you can do, and make people take notice.